…..and all those mega-conferences don’t know how to act.
There’s a movement afoot in the Ed Tech world. It started with Ed Camps and has evolved into something even bigger.
It’s the “boutique” conference.
A couple of years ago I was chatting with good friend and fellow “boutiquer” Felix Jacomino (head cheese of Miami Device). We were chatting about iPadpalooza and his (then) upcoming first event. We were talking about ISTE, the preeminent Ed Tech conference in the United States when he said something both profound and prophetic.
“ISTE is like the Walmart of Ed Tech conferences.”
That phrase resonated in my brain like a Taylor Swift ear worm. I couldn’t escape it or put my finger on it but Felix was dead on.
At ISTE you have thousands upon thousands of people attending for any variety of reasons and from any variety of places. Some come to learn about interactive white boards (still). Others come to learn about Microsoft Office. Others iPads. Others Chromebooks. Windows. Mac. Apps. GAFE. CCSS. PDFs. Gifs. Etc.
If you are an event like ISTE you have no choice but to go the “Walmart route” when it comes to sessions to ensure your customers have access to everything even if it might taste a little bland. While I think there will always be a time and a place for that, districts are also looking for something more meaningful. They are looking for something more tailored for their staff and their Ed tech goals. In the past, like Walmart, the attendee was forced to sort through the hundreds of isles of products (sessions) looking for that one specific item (learning) and try not to get lost or end up on stage at EdTech Karaoke (guilty as charged).
As we formerly launch the registration for our 5th annual iPadpalooza, there is a growing abundance of options available to educators and leaders. iPadpalooza started as a learning festival to share and grow in the realm of iPads but it’s now grown into something more than that (we welcome all devices!). While at its heart it’s meant to inspire and make learning fun, it’s also meant to be an experience. No not some sort of Burning Man in the desert experience (do they have wifi out there?), but more like you are a part of the learning experience and not just an attendee.
This year’s theme is “Summer Blockbuster” and is centered around the explosive potential of mobile learning but also the movie stars we have in and around education. Because this is a “boutique” event, we can offer flexibility in terms of when you can come (we have single-day passes this year) and a little extra for those wanting to dive even deeper (this year we have added some “Pre-Palooza” workshops in addition to our iLead Academy).
While my heart belongs to the mothership event here in Austin, I love the fact that these are now starting to spread into other states (not unlike TEDx events) including Indiana, Minnesota and now Louisiana. Each one is unique in that it brings in local talent and flavor into the festival-like atmosphere. At iPadpaloozaSouthTX they even created their own theme of “Day of the Tech” based on the “Dia de los muertos” holiday.
What I love most about these spin-off events is the ownership taken by districts and educators as part of the mobile learning movement. It’s not just seeing someone experience the stress and joy of hosting an event that MUST have a level of fun and local spirit, but also seeing them experience the smiles on the faces of attendees. It’s about the tweets of minds being blown and passion being ignited. It’s about discovering something they haven’t seen or thought of before and rethinking how learning can change in their classroom.
Ultimately, that is why you go to a boutique conference. Not necessarily to look for a specific thing, but to have a specific thing find you.
Who’s ready to go shopping?
There are very few moments in life when you know you are a part of greatness. I recently returned from a trip to the Youth Education & Technology Integration (Y.E.T.I.) conference and let me tell you, this was true greatness manifest in a conference. The event itself is kind of like burning man for educational technology (only with out all the fire and naked people). To keep mass-media and the twitteratti on their toes, event organizers actually keep the location secret until mere days before the event. Both the speakers and attendees are selected completely at random using a complex algorithm of Twitter followers multiplied by latest eBook ISBN number downloaded. I was lucky enough to be picked as both an attendee and panelist for this year’s event. An while I signed an agreement not to share what I saw (they have a Vegas-like motto of “what happens at YETI doesn’t get tweeted”) I can’t help myself. This event is too powerful not to share with others. So here goes my recap, I’ll leave it posted as long as I can:
This year’s event took place at the gorgeous [omitted] over a mild, partly cloudy weekend. Due to the natural terrain and the landscape of the area, no rooms were needed. Many of the natural grottoes acted as small meeting rooms and the larger caves served as auditoriums. The acoustics were incredible and because of the location being near the equator, cell carriers signals were amplified along the walls giving attendees incredible 5G WiFi connections.
Speakers & Sessions
One of the most incredible parts of this event are the absolutely ridiculous variety of speakers and educators they have on hand. I attended a session that was an actual a hologram of Bill Gates speaking to Jaime Escalante. Some sessions lasted only for only a few minutes and others, like Bill Nye’s lengthy monologue, lasted several hours.
There were no start or stop times for sessions too which was a little disconcerting at first. Sessions were declared over when an organizer or attendee elected to bang a giant ceremonial gong. To announce the beginning of a new session, a giant alphorn (you know, like the ones from those Ricola commercials?) would blow signifying a new session and new gathering of folks.
Another thing that sets this conference apart are the sponsors. With the terrain being what it was at YETI, sponsors got creative. Most of their “booths” were actually giant floating platforms, controlled by drones. I was excited to see that both Google and Apple were working in partnership with Facebook as sponsors for the event, even handing out free “Privacy Jackets” (a jacket that apparently blocks all outward internet traffic and data tracking from your devices).
I was asked to be on a panel discussing the legitimacy behind this new wearable idea called a “thoughtband.” The concept is simple. Wearing a piece of technology on their foreheads like a Bill Walton headband, students’ thoughts are displayed in scrolling LED fashion. Before we were even able to get into the discussion about data-mining or mind-mining for that matter, someone (who looked like a famous politician) got up and banged the gong, thus ending our session. I wish I knew what he was thinking…
Nothing is normal at YETI, including the keynote. This year’s closing keynote session started at midnight and lasted until the sun began to rise. The closing keynote was delivered by noted scholar and thespian Jon Lovitz. His message of prosperity, educational equality and the need for more 80’s rap music in education rang true with the crowd of thousands. Following his talk, he asked the crowd to initiate in an awkward flash-mob edu-rave of sorts. With the 80’s band Baltimora playing their one-hit wonder “Tarzan Boy” in the background, the attendees went into a sort of strange crowd-surfing/internet-surfing mosh pit of sorts. Culminating in one of the strangest multi-tasking activities I’ve ever witnessed as attendees danced and texted on their smartphones, responding digitally to YETI’s essential question for 2015: Will the wearable flip-flop change the foot of education?
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately, my violation of one of YETI’s 7 tenets of attendance (though shalt not video-record) caused my immediate removal before the end of the event. Organizers wiped the video off my phone, but I was able to sneak back over a hill and capture about 11 seconds of the closing coronation where they named one attendee the Patron Saint of YETI15.
While I may risk prosecution or worse yet, not be invited back, I’m making this video public in the hopes that the rest of the world will have a chance to experience just a little taste of what I got to experience. Enjoy:
Happy April 1st everybody.
Having just wrapped up a successful iPadpalooza and seeing all the chatter around ISTE 2014 online, I wondered: what makes a memorable and meaningful conference experience?
At iPadpalooza, we had 98.4% of people tell us they would come back to our event next year. Rather than being happy about that number, I focused on what the 1.6% didn’t like. Was the live music too loud? Were the speakers or presentations not what the attendee expected?
I used to be guilty of attending conferences and passively waiting for information or presentations to amaze me. I’d leave disappointed and wonder what attending these conferences would mean for me in the future. However, all of that changed when I started taking a more proactive approach to my conference experience. Here are a few steps to help anyone attending either their 1st or 50th event.
Prior to the Event
Laying a good foundation of prep work prior to attending a conference on the scale of ISTE or the variety of something like iPadpalooza can make huge a difference.
1. Find Some People to Follow – This doesn’t mean cyber-stalk or physically tail someone during the event. Rather, look at the big name speakers or presenters and start to follow their work on social media. This will give you a flavor of their presentation-style and may indicate what kind of content they might offer during their sessions.
2. Identify sessions ahead of time – Looking at the program guide for the first time at the registration booth puts you at a disadvantage. Most events (especially Ed Tech ones) post their session titles and descriptions well in advance. Take that opportunity to do some early research on topics that interest you and areas that you want to improve upon professionally. Additionally as popular sessions can fill up quickly, always have a back-up plan.
3. Plan on giving yourself time between sessions – George Couros blogged about a conference in Australia that left 30 minutes in between sessions. While that’s a great way to have time in your schedule, most events only allow for 15 minutes or so. When planning out your days, be sure to leave a couple of longer breaks throughout the day. This extra time will allow you to reflect on a session or connect with colleagues and maybe actually have a professional lunch that is longer than 30 minutes.
During The Event
4. Don’t sit in sessions you don’t want to be in – EdCamps have mastered this strategy by the “voting with your feet” way that they run their events. If you are “stuck” in a 2-hour workshop on the theory of how Disney’s Frozen can be applied to advanced Physics, you either didn’t research the workshop well enough or the description was completely off (First clue – it was called “Let it Go: Why Liquid Nitrogen is the Bomb”) Don’t be afraid to walk out to your back-up session. If that one is full, find a quiet place where you can observe and follow the conference hashtag. At least that way you might pick up on some great things shared at other sessions.
5. Meet somebody new and connect – The easy way to do this is to have some virtual introductions via social media before-hand and then approach them when you see them in person (assuming their social media avatar looks like them). The more challenging, and sometimes more interesting way to do this, would be to find an attendee sitting by themselves and just introduce yourself. You never know how their story may help inspire you in the long run and vice-versa.
6. Capture your thoughts and reflect daily – I like to blog about the things that I have learned at conferences. This isn’t so much to share with others as it is for me to identify the things that I found valuable in my learning each day. Not a blogger? Use a tool like Storify to capture bits and pieces of a hashtag and make your own recap with others’ social media posts.
After The Event
7. Go back and share what you learned – As teachers, we know that our students learn by doing. Therefore, take what you learned and teach someone else. The blog that I mentioned in step #6 is a great way to share what you learned. For the slightly more daring, ask to have some time at an upcoming faculty meeting to give your 5-minute Ignite-type talk about highlights of your learning to the whole staff.
8. Follow-up with attendees and presenters online – Now that you’ve made some connections with new people from the event, be sure to send a message in the weeks afterwards to strengthen that connection.
9. Blackmail yourself – Learning new and inspiring ideas at an event can be great momentum going into the beginning of the school year. However, often weeks or months pass before you even get the motivation to apply something you’ve learned and by then you are too tired with the day-to-day of school life. Rather than blow it off, blackmail yourself. Outwardly tell colleagues (online or in person) that you are going to try a new concept that you learned. Then, set a time when you are actually going to try it and publicize this as well. I like to send myself an email in the future using futureme.org or the like. Setting up that email immediately after the event ends and can immediately reignite you months later.
These steps or tips are not fool-proof, and they do require a bit of heavy lifting on the part of the normally passive conference attendee. But, if you apply some – or all of these steps – you’ll find yourself not only enjoying conferences more but also sharing that joy with other colleagues and students down the road.