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LearnFestATX – A Learning Event From The Future

Let me paint a picture for you.

You spend a lot of money to attend a conference for professional learning. You get flights lined up, hotel, transportation, etc. Then you go to the event. You spend the first hour trying to find the registration desk.  You wait in line for a half-hour to get your badge. Then you plop down on the floor and start looking over the schedule guide to see what sessions you’ll attend.

There’s so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s like walking into Costco without a shopping list. You go in wanting one thing, and you come out owning a 3-lb lobster claw that you didn’t know you needed. Once you do decide on a session, you stand in line for 15 minutes hoping to get in. Others are over capacity and you can’t get in, which causes you to speed walk 1.2 miles down the convention hall only to walk in late to a session and find the dreaded seat in the very middle of everyone.

After several hours of this, you are ready for an early happy hour. You see people laughing and having fun, but you’re not sure what they are laughing about and if they are in fact having fun. At about 2pm, you find a local watering hole with fellow attendees trying to hide their badge of shame around their necks as you are all clearly failures.

Or are you?

I would argue that you are not the failure, but instead that the conference event failed you. In its desire to pack the house with thousands of people, the large conference has lost focus on what’s most important: the attendee experience. Sure there are amazing speakers from all over and great content, but the UX (user experience) is severely lacking. Why go stand in line for a movie you might not want to watch?

On day 2, you wake up with a headache both from the early happy hour and the brain fog that comes from being overwhelmed. You go to the keynote, hoping for some inspiration. However, you are now “cattled” in and out of a 5000-seat arena where you end up skipping sitting down because you forgot to charge your laptop. So, you find a spot on the floor next to one of the 4 plugs in the 30,000 sq. ft. room. The keynote speaker is good (they usually are, to be fair) but now what? Do you engage in conversation with someone? Do you rush out the door before the closing remarks in the hopes of not being a part of the herd?

All of these above scenarios have been part of my experiences attending large conferences in the past. I feel like I spend much of my time being shepherded around or looking for the next session, but rarely walk away with my money’s worth in terms of knowledge and experiences. In fact, the best learning usually happens in conversations and dialogues with colleagues or things posted on the conference hashtag.

With all this in mind, in 2012, we created an event called iPadpalooza. We didn’t want to call it an “iConference” because we really wanted it to be something quite different. We wanted it to be a learning festival. A place to experience something different as an attendee. A place where the things that matter the most, the interactions, discussions, and collaboration are the focal point of the event.

Flash forward to present day.

Taking all past experiences, both good and bad, when it comes to professional learning, we are attempting something, well…different. The event formerly known as iPadpalooza is now LearnFestATX (after all, it’s about the learning, not a device). Last year, rather than just changing the name and moving on, we decided to beta test some new concepts in professional learning with a much smaller audience. Following that beta test, we discovered what worked and what didn’t. Taking just the parts that worked and adding in some of our own magic, we have created what we feel will be an event from the future, for the future.

Our motto this year is “Ready Learner One” along with a retro video game theme (sometimes the past can best prepare us for the future, right?). Many of the things we are trying are still top-secret, but here’s just a few highlights of things you could experience as an attendee this summer:

Three Different Perspectives to Learning:

As someone attending, you’ll experience learning in three different ways.  The first way is the most traditional in terms of learning as part of a large group (during opening and closing events) or a medium-sized group (during interactive and make-n-take sessions). The second way is learning as part of a collaborative team either with our Teacher Shark Tank or the APPmazing Race. The third way is learning as an individual by reflecting in our Mindfulness Lounge, participating in our digital petting zoo, lunchtime interactions, or attempting to win our massive easter egg hunt (details revealed at event).

Featured Speakers:

While the traditional conference puts featured speakers in certain rooms and only for certain times, we want our featured speakers to be much more part of the event. They should be learners too. As an attendee, you should have multiple opportunities to interact with them as well. Sure, there will be some scheduled sessions, but now with our new Mindfulness Lounge and Expert’s Lounge, you’ll have opportunities to sit, relax and reflect with some of the top educational experts around. Our featured speakers will also be playing multiple roles in some of the experiences that are taking place, from Impractical EdTechsters to the Ed Tech Family Feud to a Poetry Slam, you’ll see these folks in roles that stretch their thinking and yours.

A Different Kind of Keynote:

I can’t give away too much here, but for those that attended our beta-test last year with the “Silent Disco” presentation style, we’ll be doing that on a much larger scale during our opening session on June 12. Also, we’ll be bringing back our “What’s HOT in Ed Tech” challenge for the closing ceremonies. Let’s just say it involves some new ways to “spice” up a talk to a large crowd. We’re also super-pumped to have Manoush Zomorodi as our day 2 Keynote speaker. These large groups events will have tons of audience engagement as well as boat-loads of door prizes.

Dive Deeper Before the Madness:

While the main LearnFestATX runs on June 12th & 13th, we will also be having our 3-hour deep dive PreFest LearnShops on June 11th. No more fighting for a spot or a seat. Just buy your ticket, select your sessions, and you are guaranteed a seat.

In summary, I’ve always been of the belief that learning is an active sport. Sometimes that’s a team sport, sometimes it’s an individual sport. But the bottom line is, you get out of it what you put into it. This is true of either a traditional conference or our event. The biggest difference is, at our event, you don’t have to try to seek out those learning opportunities. At our event, they seek you out.

I hope that you’ll join us this summer at LearnFestATX. We do believe that learning as a team can be powerful too, so we offer great group discounts if you want to come hang out with colleagues or meet new ones. With our event, you have the ultimate level of voice & choice. Something we want our students to have as well, so why not model it in a professional learning environment?

Come see what all the fuss is about this summer in Austin:

LearnFestATX Registration

Hint for those of you that read all the way to the bottom of this page. Try and reach out to a featured speaker to get a 20% off discount!

Editor’s note: LearnFestATX was recently listed as one of EdSurge’s top Ed Tech events to attend in 2019!

 

The Dream That Was….iPadpalooza

During his mini-keynote, Derrick Brown (@DAB427) claimed that we were all “just living in a Hooker’s dream.”  While I’m honored by his statement, I can tell you this entire experience has far exceeded any dream I could have dreamt. I can also tell you that this dream wasn’t just mine, but a shared dream amongst teams of dedicated educators that I’ve had the pleasure of working with because of this event.

This past week at the ending of our 6th annual learning festival, I announced that it would be the last iPadpalooza main event. This decision was not made in haste and has involved countless of hours of discussion, counseling, and, in my case, even some tears. But, before we dive into what comes next, I decided to write this post as part explanation, part reflection, part appreciation, part therapy (for me), and part teaser (for what’s next).

First…a little history 

In 2011, we had launched our iPad 1:1 and wanted to hold an event that would bring teachers together to share and learn from each other. Since other districts in the area were doing it, we decided we could open it up to outside educators as well. The thought of holding an “iConference” was kicked around but sounded boring and overdone. One of my amazing iVengers (Marianna Ricketson) said at a meeting in early 2012 that we should name it iPadpalooza as a way of making it sound more fun. So we bought the domain and set a date without any clue as to what we were going to actually do. (Hey, sometimes, you just have to take a risk and put it out there)

Also at that point, I added the tagline that “It’s not a conference…it’s a learning festival” to make attendees aware of what they were attending would not be a normal educational conference. So, on June 19, 2012, we partnered with TCEA to host our single-day event and even had some film students create this promotional video (below). As a fun side note, I had to reach out and chat with Norman Greenbaum to get his permission to use his song in the video. He’s a groovy dude.

 

 

The truth behind the lie

Sir Ken on the big stage

Following a successful first year, we wanted to make the next year even bigger and expand it to two days. So I hopped on the phone with Sir Ken Robinson’s people to try and convince him that he needed to come to our learning festival. When he said he’d never heard of it, I lied. I told him that it’s a global event that is attended by 1000 educators from all over the country and the world. He and his people agreed to do the keynote, and even though in the first year we only had 400 attendees, when he showed up, so did 1000 people from all over the country and the world. So….it wasn’t necessarily a lie, it just wasn’t true…yet.

The “Learning Festival” ideology

Getting educators to attend professional learning during their off-time can be extremely tricky. While ideally, people would just come to improve their craft, there is also some pressure on those providing the learning to make sure it’s worth their time. When I was a classroom teacher, I always thought the best trainings I attended gave me some choice and allowed time to collaborate and be hands-on with activities rather than sitting in a room for several hours being talked at. When I attended conferences, I took notes of the parts I liked, and the ones I didn’t. Cramming sessions in with 5 minute breaks left no time for reflection and collaborating. Also, as I attended events like TEDx, SXSW, and even ACLFest (a music festival), the idea to create a festival atmosphere kept creeping into my head and those on my team.

The learning festival ideology is centered around the concept that learning can be fun (even for adults) and that learning should be an event…an experience if you will. From the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, you should be a part of the experience. Taking the traditional conference concept and shaking it up with live music, food trucks, t-shirts, contests, film festivals, and unique session types helps make the learning more festival-like.

It’s more than just a name

We knew when we named the event “iPadpalooza” that the name immediately excluded certain groups of educators (those without iPads). While we began the event as a way for teachers to share iPad resources, education, devices and technology integration has evolved. Indeed, our session titles in the early days were also centered around the device rather than learning. Sessions like “50 apps in 50 minutes” were popular when we began, but as the festival evolved, we noticed a stronger push to focus deeper on learning strategies with and without technology.  Whatever our next iteration will be, we want to make sure that all adults (and students) have an opportunity to experience the Learning Festival-feel regardless of what device their district may have purchased.

6 years – by the numbers

Here’s a look at a few numbers of iPadpalooza over the the last 6 years:

Eric Whitacre

Major Keynotes

Before Sir Ken, Tony Vincent took a chance and decided to open up our inaugural event in 2012. (I was actually the closer for that event). Without Tony, our event wouldn’t have had the initial credibility to get off the ground. I’m forever grateful to him and the work he brings to education. Other featured keynotes included Sugata Mitra, Guy Kawasaki, Adam Bellow, “iPad Magician” Simon Pierro, Cathy Hunt, Eric Whitacre, Kevin Honeycutt , Austin Kleon and Jason Silva.  Also, in 2014, just to be a little different (and to make @techchef4u happy), we had the band Blue October close out our event.

 

This year’s mini-keynoters (credit Yau-Jau Ku)

Edu-Celebrities

Besides the above, we’ve hosted nearly a hundred “celebrities” from the education world, many of whom have been roped into doing a mini-keynote over the years. Here’s just a few names that have generously given us some of their educational expertise over the years:  Tom Murray, Christian Long, David Jakes, George Couros, Kerry Gallagher, Dan Ryder, Amy Burvall, Dean Shareski (and his daughter this year!), Audrey O’Clair, Wes Fryer & Shelly Fryer, Felix & Judy Jacomino, Adam Phyall, Amy Mayer, Greg Kulowiec, Andrew Wallace, Cathy Yenca & Tim Yenca,  Lisa Johnson, Greg Garner, Don Goble, Kyle Pace, Phil Hintz, Kyle Pierce, Leo Brehm, Chris ParkerMichelle Cordy, Jennie Magiera, Scott Meech, Tracy Clark, Cori Coburn, Rafranz Davis, Kathy Schrock, Monica Burns, Derrick Brown, Todd Nesloney, Jon Samuelson, Matt Gomez, Reshan Richards, Julie Willcott, Richard Wells, Rabbi Michael Cohen, Brianna Hodges, Carolyn Foote, Brett Salakas, Jona Nalder, Matt Miller, Holly Moore,  Joan Gore, Janet Corder, Kacy Mitchell, Steve Dembo, Lucas Loughmiller, and Chris Coleman just to name a few. (Apologies if I left anyone off this list!) So much talent has graced the halls of Westlake High School over the years and I can honestly say you would be lucky to have any of the above as keynote speakers at your event. There were also countless other rock-star teachers that have been a part of the 509 presenters that have shared their wisdom at our events.  Check out the last couple of mini-keynotathons and other featured speakers on the iPadpalooza YouTube channel .

 

Kids on stage for the Youth Film Festival (credit: Richard Johnson)

Events around the event

One of the things that really makes our festival different is the thought, time, and energy put into events happening during and around the main event. The APPMazing Race and Youth Film Festival both kicked off in 2013. In 2014 we added the iLead Academy and in 2015 the Prepalooza Learnshops. This final year, we also added our first ever Ed Tech Poetry Slam at the Spider House in Austin (Shout-out to Lisa Johnson for the idea!)  These events around the event really make it a nearly 24/7 experience in learning, connection, fun, and collaboration.

Other ‘paloozas and the Learning Festival Network

In 2014 I was approached by Kari Gerhart and Caroline Little about the possibility of bringing iPadpalooza to Minnesota. And thus, the iPadpalooza spin-off events were born. A little bonus history here, it was around this time that someone, either Caroline or possibly Reshan Richards coined the term “Godfather” for me – owing to my Sicilian background.

All told there have been over a dozen spin-off events with Minnesota, East Texas, and South Texas being the longest running. In 2016, we went international and became the first iPadpalooza in Australia.  While the main event is over, we still support our spin-off events and hope many more will pop up over the years.

Speaking of spin-offs, there were several events created that were “inspired by” the spirit of iPadpalooza. Events like iEngage-Berwyn, Miami Device and others took pieces and parts of iPadpalooza to spice up their own event. In the coming years, we hope to fold these and other spin-off events, into our Learning Festival Network to support them in any way we can.

Making sponsor “thank you’s” fun

In 2014, I decided that instead of doing the traditional sponsor thank you speech at the beginning and end of the event, that I would turn it into a rap song. I also tried to set the Guinness World Record of “most synchronized light show” in history by turning off the lights and controlling everyone’s iPads with Nearpod as I sang my version of LMFAO’s “Party Rock”.  While it worked, Guinness sadly failed to show to recognize the achievement.

The following year, I tried my hand at a parody of Eminem with “iPadpalooza Yourself” (sang to “Lose Yourself”) but realized that this was becoming a one-trick pony and I needed to push myself.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, a lot of my inspiration comes from talking and collaborating with others.

Enter Felix and Judy Jacomino.  With their input, we starting working on a different way to thank the sponsors….via a “Slow Jam”. Experience it below –

This year I attempted to follow it up with my version of Car pool karaoke, which was fun…but the slow jam will always be my favorite.  And their ending of this year’s event with the “Ed Tech Musical Review” will go down in history as an epically funny way to look at trends in Ed Tech.

 

iVengers & Volunteers

These events can’t happen without dedicated staff willing to do the dirty work from running around fixing projectors to handling prima dona keynote speakers. I’ve been blessed with an amazing team here at Eanes ISD. They work their tail off year after year for this event and always with a smile on their face. Without my amazing team of Ed Techs, a.k.a. iVengers, none of this would be even remotely possible. The ideas for this event come from the collective brain power of this group, not just me. I’m excited to have them on board for what comes next….

So…What’s Next?

While iPadpalooza sails off into the sunset, I can promise you there will be something else coming. We are already cooking up ideas for a prototype event next summer with our internal staff that will keep some of the same features of iPadpalooza but also open up some other thoughts and ideas. But why stop at just one event? There are also plans for a SUPER SECRET idea (my BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal) that I can promise you will be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Thank you all for being on board this voyage for learning over the past six years.

Here’s to the next dream!

Our last volunteer and VIP wrap-up boat cruise – Lake Austin 2017

The infamous “jump” to wrap up each year’s event

Two people without whom none of this is possible. Felix and my better-half, Renee

We’re Bringing Boutique Back…

…..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.

This year's theme: "Summer Blockbuster"

This year’s theme: “Summer Blockbuster”

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.

Pic courtesy ‏@LaChinaAndrea

Pic courtesy ‏@LaChinaAndrea

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?