Today's schedule was a bit different. Instead of loading myself up with 15 different tables, presentations and session,s I set aside some time to visit the expo hall and learn about what is out there that I have to buy if I want to stay up to date in the education world. But first, this.
I guess if you have been reading this you get the idea that I am some sort of arrogant, unappreciative jerk who believes that he is right and that the rest of the world is wrong. Well, that's not a fair assessment of me. I am, sometimes, moderately appreciative. I went to this conference because my school and its administration made the opportunity available, and even encouraged me to go and be a non-adopter. They wanted me to balance out the rah-rah voices and give the cynics impression of all this stuff. So I am deeply indebted to my school, my principal, the APs and the tech people, along with the other teachers who went and who put up with me. I did learn some stuff; I did find products and services and methods which appeal to me and which I might want to pursue so I gained from this and am happy that I went. I also want to thank my wife for being OK with my abandoning her to go to this thing. It is her birthday today so I have come back so I can type this from home on her birthday.
And one other note of appreciation. There were over 15,000 teachers there. That's over 15,000 people who care about kids and education and who took their own time (and often, their own money) to learn about how to be better and how to increase the skill level and professionalism of an oft ignored or taken for granted job. I walked through the (long) halls and I had to remind myself that all the people here made a choice to go in to education and are still trying to do right by kids -- they aren't giving up, so kudos to all them, to the attendees, to the presenters who had something they needed to share, and to the organizers who put this massive undertaking together. Also, it was nice to hear that others shared some measure of my cynicism about technology and the state of education, so I'm proud of all those teachers not yet drinking the Kool-Aid.
That having been said...
Up and six, just in time to wait 3.5 hours until the expo doors open. 9:30? Really? So I joined the rush as soon as they let us in to the expo hall and I started walking around and looking at what was there. I am going to combine my notes from both blocks of time that I spent inside so that I can deal with the other 2 sessions I attended separately. I saw some truly interesting tables -- Infobase provides a set of research libraries (they used to "Facts on File") and treatments of current events to support student investigation and discussion. My only concern was that they might have too much. They have prepackaged "pro" and "con" statements for cutting edge controversies and I think that students should be generating those based on the research. But the material was quality and the write ups were sincere and accurate.
I went to another table and had someone say to me that his product will "change the way I look at classroom management software." I didn't have the heart to tell him that, since I don't look at classroom management software, he was going to have an uphill climb. Then a woman approached me and asked (in all earnestness), "Do you love data?" I asked her if that was a Star Trek reference and quickly walked away. She now thinks I'm a pervert AND a geek. At another booth for some software, the woman asked those of us assembled "What gradebook do you use?" I was a bit befuddled because I don't know its exact name, so I said, "You know, the red one with the lines and the fake vinyl cover." She was shocked that I still use a paper gradebook. Truth is, I don't -- I lied because I was annoyed at her question. My "gradebook" for the last 15 or so years has been an Excel spreadsheet and early on, the numbers were copied out of the red gradebook. Before that I just sat with a calculator and did the math. It isn't that tough.
On my first pass, I saw that very little had to do with "learning" and even less with "teaching." There was a lot of data management, resource management, infrastructure management and management management. There was a plethora of services which help deliver content via computers, organize material and save it via computers but all of that was about replacing the teacher as the source of content. I felt bad about taking all the little give-aways, like an exploiter and a user. I know I'm not going to buy stuff so I feel like I am wasting their time and money. I'm not going to keep their card or materials but, man, do I want that stress ball, fanny pack and t-shirt. There were a lot of vendors giving away pens, and even more giving candy. So I left with 50 pens of various sorts but with my diet intact. Yay will power and free pens (which were delicious). I listened to a bunch of sales pitches to earn the swag and I signed up to receive the emails and be contacted by pretty much everyone I met.
STE(A)M and IT seemed to be served really well by the various vendors. English teachers were not as served; there were two kiosks focusing on vocabulary (I took info from one and it does look interesting) and I thought one about Shakespeare but they were just using a sonnet to show how material can be shared by students and projected onto a wall. There were some great e-book purveyors (some who make the books, some which allow teachers to customize them and some which take teacher materials and warehouse them to be available for other teachers. These cards I will save and maybe even talk over with my department. Digital portfolios seemed neat and the sale women was so sincere. Also, I really wanted the cell phone stand and the mints she was giving away, so I listened. The thing is, most every skill-building, service or resource is actually addressed by 17 different vendors (there were over 2500 vendor spots) and I don't know w2hat the difference is between them. And since I'm not actually in the market to buy anything, I intend to avoid the work required to research the competing companies. There was even a cottage industry of companies whose service was making sense of all the other stuff being offered. It was recursively delicious.
Each vendor also seemed to have his own wifi signal and there were so many (all protected so I couldn't use them) that my phone could no longer find the free wifi provided for the event. So my phone dropped out of wifi and started relying on 3G. At one point, all the internet went out so all the people didn't know what to do. It was fun to watch them all scramble to find a free pen and pad of paper so that they could sketch their products for the various teachers.
I lugged my bag of goodies to two sessions today, so I will now pontificate on them for your amusement.
The first session was entitled "Move over Mr. Guttenberg" and was about a school system that was using digital texts. At least I thought that that's what it was about. it was more about a new school that decided to rely on iTunes for everything, including their lunch program and how wildly successful they are. They actually banned backpacks (truth) because all students needed to carry was a single iPad. Everything, they insist, can be done on the iPad. They also said that all class content was curated (that's the buzzword of the moment) by the teachers. It seemed like they were saying that the teachers reinvent the wheel, create all the materials and post them along so that the whole world can take their classes, thus making actual teaching completely superfluous. They really didn't talk about text books (nor about books not available on a digital platform). They didn't talk about having conversations and interacting with other humans. I guess these aren't 21st century skills. They simply worshipped at the Apple iDol. The idea of relying on a web based everything is nice if you are starting fresh with lots of money and no interest in using material that exists, because why would we assume that anyone ever had a good idea in the past? They weren't really clear about what the teacher actually "creates"; is it work sheets? is it a video which replaces a lecture? Is it a graphical organizer or a rubric? When does the real learning happen?
One speaker focused on letting students "tell their stories" instead of relying on rote memorization. But who relies on rote memorization in this day and age? Is the only alternative embracing a digital experience? What about authentic teaching and learning? There was much talk about "personalized learning" with "content" being "delivered." Maybe someday, they will realize that they are a school and not a pizza parlor. If they force their students to live on the iBad, what happens when the students go out into the world and have to do something by hand? Will they be able to? And how is this any different from the system my school uses? We have "Haiku Learning." We can use any device because this is a web based service on which we can post homework or announcements, create assessments, have students take notes and share conversations. So why are they better than we are? They say that they are "heavily PBL" but that's not a solution which demands iPads. They "rethink learning" by having a project in which students get to choose the book they read. Um...that's not especially innovative. The fact that someone had to suggest this in 2014 is shocking to me. It means that they haven't sat down to quantify their learning goals and match them to appropriate methods and assessments. It smacks of stupidity. Sorry fancy new schoolo. You are way late to the party. I'm not impressed that 2000 people around the world want to take materials from your free online course; if your materials are so stuck in the 1920's then anyone who takes them is a bigger fool than you. I left happier than ever that we use textbooks and yet have modified our teaching to have innovative approaches without claiming that computers did it.
The other session was something about rubrics and blended learning. To be honest, I haven't the slightest idea what it was about. I tried -- I really did, but they didn't make their object clear so I got lost quickly. They were talking about their school system and something about something. They put slides up on a screen and made them all availale at bit.ly/ISTEPLRubric and their presentation seemed practical and real and probably really useful to someone who knew wat they were talking about, so look it up and let me know what I missed. They started out with a poll which required texting the answer but my phone was in the back of the room charging so I missed that. I was also surprised that in the projected slides, all the rubrics shown were actually just photographs of hand written rubrics! So much for technology. They seemed to be measures for self-assessment of the blended learning which were not technology dependent (the most jargoned sentence I have ever written). I left before they tried to get me to participate because I was sure I would say something inappropriate.
On the whole, I felt that so much of this was unnecessary (at least for me as an English teacher who already uses a few different teaching techniques and who works to get students to think and argue in person). Technology really should be the pencil which doesn't need its own conference. True, I do have to sit and write about whether learning has shifted in the computer age, or whether the printing press was a paradigm shifter in different curricular areas, but I'm just not convinced that the world of student learning has to be reinvented because I can look up Millard Filmore's birthday online instead of in a book.
January 7, 1800. Now you know, but whatever you do, don't memorize that fact. Authentically integrate it into your technologically cultivated experiential something something.