There is something missing from my first ISTE experience. Something of such profound importance that I feel a responsibility as an educator to try and start the conversation. A crucial, and a critical conversation.
Overwhelmingly, the attitude I hear from teachers in attendance is unflinchingly positive, effusive even, with nary a critical comment to be heard. This event is it for I.T. - the Woodstock of education technology. If you're not here, or tweeting about how much you wish you were here, you aren't anywhere.
To a certain extent, I understand the enthusiasm. Teachers are generally positive and optimistic by nature - they need to be to survive.
Beyond that, this conference does offer exciting opportunities. There are lots of people here I admire and respect, whom I've never had the chance to meet in person. I've had interesting chats and seen great presentations from working educators I would never had encountered anywhere else. Ideas are exchanged, teachers are energized. With luck, education progresses. There is, without question, good stuff happening here.
But I can't be the only one who feels a great sense of discomfort with the extent of the corporate presence here. Or with herds of educators with their bags overflowing with sales material and swag, cheerleading for their favourite products with buttons and shirts and pens and sunglasses.
I'm uncomfortable with the massive amounts of money being spent to convince teachers to use one product or another. The buffets, drink tickets, and raffles. I don't like pitches by paid consultants pushing a particular product, masquerading as professional development and teacher training. Free Surface tablets for everyone!
In my opinion, the goals of educators and our corporate "partners" are not necessarily aligned. Sometimes they are totally at odds.
Technology companies, like all other private businesses, have one essential, all-consuming goal - making money. Selling stuff - whether or not we need it, or want it, or can afford it. This isn't a problem - it is their basic nature. They have their own sets of responsibilities - to their bottom line, their employees, their shareholders.
I'm no radical leftist. It is good and right that businesses should protect these interests, sell their products, and try to turn a profit. It is the basis of the comfortable lifestyle we all enjoy. I recognize, also, that these companies often employ honest and well-meaning people, who try to produce products with real merit for teaching and learning. After all, quality products are usually easier to sell. But make no mistake about it - education isn't their primary goal, their raison d'être. Nor should we expect it to be.
Education is our responsibility. We are the gatekeepers who ultimately decide what makes it into the classroom. We need to take that responsibility seriously, and teach our students to apply similar critical thinking skills towards their own use of technology.
We can't merely teach technology - how to use this gadget, or that piece of software - how to code, or build robots, or curate content. Those things are "cool", interesting and even important. But we must also teach our students about technology, including the trade-offs and possible negative consequences.
We must model how to approach technology critically, and how to look past the marketing to choose the best tool for the job. When is it appropriate to put away the technology? What are the implications of signing up for a "free" Google account, let alone signing up your whole school or district? How is our personal information is collected, and bought, and sold? What are the conditions in the sweatshops and factories that produce our gadgets, and what are the environmental consequences of mining the necessary materials and disposing of the waste? Where should technology funding fit in the grander scheme of education budgets?
So where are these critical conversations at ISTE? They are surely happening, somewhere. There are too many intelligent, progressive people here for it not to be occuring.
Likely, you could hear them in hushed tones over beers, perhaps in an isolated Ignite session, or a Tweet or two. But in the 21st century they ought to be front and center, on the main stage.
When compared to the thousands and thousands of square feet devoted to sales, and the countless millions spent on various sorts of marketing, the priorities of this conference couldn't be more clear. And education, sadly, doesn't seem to be at the top of the list.
We wax poetic about teaching our students digital citizenship, but what are our responsibilities as educator-citizens? And more to the point, can we live up to those responsibilities while accepting the swag, buffets, and cheerleading for profit-driven interests.
The private sector has an essential role in education. Educators can't be expected to manufacture their own computers or write their own software, or run the cafeteria, or drive the buses.
But education is too important to hold ourselves to anything but the highest standards as critical consumers. I look around San Antonio, and I'm not certain that it is happening. You're entitled to disagree. I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.
We can start by having critical conversations.