The good stuff was easy. Much more challenging to document the stuff I think we need to learn from. Before I go any farther, let me just say that these are my own personal observations and thoughts. While I may sound critical of some people or behaviors, I don’t begrudge anybody because I don’t think anyone I refer to here had any sort of bad intentions and to be honest, I do understand why many of these things occurred. I’m not saying that I have any solutions, but I think discussing the problems (whether real or just perceived) is important.
Let’s start off at EduBloggerCon. As I’ve told Steve Hargadon on multiple occasions now, I think he did an amazing job of getting that pre-conference day organized, supported by NECC, and managed. It’s no easy task and he truly put in a Herculean effort. Regardless of my other thoughts on the day, he did a job that few others could do (and nobody else did), and he did it with grace and a smile on his face. That being said, I think there are lessons to be learned from this second year. First of all, I called it a pre-conference day, because I feel that’s what it was. Last year it was closer to an unconference, this year it was more like a precon where the agenda was set very very very very late (as in when people got there). What’s the difference? There were essentially about 12 presentations/workshops/discussions throughout the day, all rigidly timed. It would have been a challenge at best to from a splinter group that people could actually know about and choose to participate in. A few small groups broke off and went off on their own, but that was based on direct conversations. There would have been no way for others to know it was happening or what the subject was so people could choose to participate if it was something they were interested in. Additionally, several of the sessions were just getting rolling when the time allotted for was expiring. That’s really too bad. The unconference format is ideal for actually trying to ACCOMPLISH something. Rather than just discussing policies, we could have been trying to create a collaborative policy. Rather than discussing leadership, we could have been creating a program to help leaders build their own Kool Aid stands. As much of a challenge as it would be in a very large group, I really think that next year it needs to get back to its roots and move closer to the Open Space unconference format. If you want to read more about what a true Open Space looks like, check out and listen to this post.
And then there was the Pearson’s issue. There’s been plenty said about Pearson’s presence at EduBloggerCon. I’ve done a lot of soul searching on this one to try to pin down my exact feelings on the subject. Let me start by saying that I think Steve Hargadon was completely innocent in this one. He saw it as a way to promote the good work we’re doing as a community and was as surprised as anyone by what occurred. Best of intentions, too bad how it turned out. See here’s the thing, I really don’t think I would have minded them being there. I don’t think it would have bothered me that they were using us for commercial purposes. However, it was the WAY they did it that upset me so much.
They said that they would ask permission before recording people. Maybe they did for interviews, but they did not ask permission before recording individual sessions, nor did they ask permission before recording personal conversations around the area. There were several occasions where I would see a good friend or meet someone for the first time, be engaged in a conversation and then look up to see a boom mic floating above me. Then I look to the side and see a giant video camera in my face. Think about how hard it would be to have a casual conversation with a friend, knowing that every word was being recorded. Yes, I could tell them to stop it, but at that point the conversation has been completely waylaid. Very disturbing.
Almost as disturbing as getting settled in for a session and then looking up to find that while you were getting out your laptop, a camera crew of three people had set up right in front of you in the aisle, completely blocking your view. No “please”, no “do you mind?” They just set up camp wherever they wanted and made it pretty clear that the audience in attendance was secondary to their little documentary. I actually left the first session because I was so disgusted. I returned the main room for the discussion on leadership and was appalled by how intrusive their crew was. I can’t count how many times people took the microphone and then glanced up to see a boom mic over their heads. While Ewan McIntosh was the only one to ask them to turn the cameras off, several people seemed to lose their train of thought when they say the cameras shuffling around them.
While we could argue their right to be there, and their rights regarding the footage and ideas shared at EBC, I truly feel that the reason I was so disturbed by them was the way that they went about it. If they had put a single microphone at the front of the room and kept the cameras in the back, out of the way, I don’t think it would have bothered me much at all. Out of sight, out of mind. Wes Fryer was recording every session he attended, but didn’t disturb anyone when doing so. That’s why it didn’t bother me. ISTE recorded every session in the Lila auditorium. I couldn’t even find the camera in the audience, so it didn’t bother me. Pearson made themselves the center of the show. The rest of the conference had to work around them. It felt as though they thought we had arranged this entire day just for their benefit. Truly bothersome. But enough about that, when we have so much more to discuss.
Next up is the issue that Scott Mcleod summed up so eloquently with his FB meets NYFB post. There are several bloggers who have been around for quite a long time and have become close friends. They look forward to conferences like NECC when they have an opportunity to see each other face to face and just hang out. However, for one reason or another, many of these people have rather large networks. People in this network look forward to meeting these long time bloggers face to face and chatting with them. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it can make it hard to just hang out with some old friends you don’t see very often. So what’s a blogger to do?
Well, what they did do was establish a satellite bloggers cafe and keep it relatively quiet. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why they did it. There were some people that couldn’t walk more than a few feet without attracting a small crowd. However, at the same time, I can truly see how other people on the outside looking in could see that as elitist. In fact, that act alone did more to contribute to the idea of there being a ‘cocktail party’ than anything else. As I said, while I understand why it was being done, I can also see other people seeing it and thinking that those people must just be too big to hang out with the ‘d-list’ bloggers. Truly a shame because I know that’s not the way things actually are. But unfortunately it came be pretty difficult to distinguish perceived reality from actual reality at times.
So what can be done about something like that? While it seems silly to compare these people to actors or athletes, the reality is that when they’re in a public setting they really are in a similar situation. They have their audiences, and in some sense I think they owe it to their audiences to be available and social, as time allows of course. And if they want to get away, they should really get away entirely. Would anyone begrudge people a private lunch or dinner? Of course not. I think evenings and meals are the perfect time to get a private table or room and just hang out with the people you’ve been itching to spend time with. But while on the conference grounds, disappearing like that just feels icky for lack of a more scientific term. Especially when they’re the people that helped make the Bloggers Cafe and EduBlogging Community what it is today. My two cents, you can take it or leave it.
Moving right along, I think there’s a few things that need to be said about live streaming, backchanneling and the like. As many events were broadcast this year or had collaborative elements, let’s face the facts… I’d say about 1% of the conference had these sorts of elements. Should we be surprised though? How old is podcasting? Ballpark, about 4 or 5 years old. And yet we still had about 1800 people in our Podcasting for the Absolute Beginner panel discussion. Blogging continues to be a hot topic, with thousands of educators still interested in Blogging 101 sessions and getting started for the first time. So why on earth are we surprised that there weren’t more people doing Live Streams or backchannels when those technologies are just barely one year old (in the edtech community that is). Think about it, backchannels first came into the prime time during NECC last year! uStream became a hit in the Fall of 2007. So why would we be surprised, or even disappointed, that there wasn’t more of it going on at NECC? We need to be more aggressive about training people how to do these things and take a leadership role ourselves. Just demonstrating that it can be done is far different than helping others to do it themselves. Jen Wagner asks why more sessions from outside our little community weren’t broadcast. The easy answer is, because most of us attended sessions by people that we know, on topics that we’re familiar with.
Let’s face it, go to enough conferences and you get sick of being disappointed at sessions. So you find a presenter that you like and you go see them again. Why? Because you like what they have to say. Because they vibe with you. Because they put into words things that you’ve struggled to verbalize yourself. It’s natural, I understand it and do it myself. But if we really wanted to make a difference and HELP the education community, we’d be hunting for people we’ve never heard of that deserve to be broadcast to a larger audience. We’d be attending sessions from people who are completely unknown and doing our part to share their message with the world. We’d be taking more chances, and quite possibly be disappointed on occasion, because it’s the new voices and diversity that are going to lead to innovation. I’m as guilty as anybody on this front and I realized it when I had a conversation one night with Chris Champion. He said that for the last day of NECC, his mission was to spend the day talking to people that he doesn’t already know. To meet the people in his network that he hasn’t encountered face to face and to chat with them. To see some new presenters and look for new voices. I can’t tell you how much that impressed me. We spend all year looking forward to seeing each other that we lose site of the opportunity we have at a conference like NECC. As nice as it is to be re-acquainted with people, this is a prime opportunity to expand our circles, to challenge our own thinking and to get in touch with different perspectives from around the world. It’s clearly something I need to make a priority.
My last comment about the darker side of the conference lies in expectations. I’ve heard from many people that they were largely disappointed with the conference and that the best part about it was simply the conversations outside of sessions. I can’t argue with the conversations part, because I think networking is a major reason to attend a conference. But as far as being disappointed, I think we all need to re-examine our own expectations. Did you have concrete objectives for San Antonio? If so, what did you do to accomplish those? If you just wanted to talk to people and have a good time, well then that’s easy. If you actually wanted to learn something, did you identify what you wanted to learn ahead of time? Did you go to sessions that addressed those issues? And then take it one step further, did you FOLLOW UP and take the next steps, either by networking with other people in those sessions and arranging a ‘next steps’ meeting, or seek out other people that were interested in addressing the same topics?
I’ll give you a concrete example. One of my goals for NECC was to begin establishing a framework for what may become a Web 2.0 related graduate course. So, amongst other things I deliberately sought out people that had some experience teaching those ideas in a formal way, made contact, established timeframes to follow up, and so on. There were certain people that I’ve never met before that I went out of my way to be introduced to, and a few vendors that I sought out to explore possibilities. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, and made sure that I went after it.
I think many people go to NECC just expecting to be dazzled and that magic things will just happen to them by being in the vicinity. I think many of those people were disappointed. I think others wanted to be stretched and hear some new ideas, and yet they didn’t attend sessions presented by names they didn’t know. Others wanted to see the community stretch itself and evolve faster, but instead spent most of their time hanging out with people who were already on the cutting edge. The more time I spend working with teachers at conferences, the more reasons I have for continuing to offer ‘the basics’ and hope that others do the same. Let’s face it, who has more perspective on the fine art of blogging than someone who’s been doing it for 4+ years? While it may seem boring to you, it’s important for the attendees to learn from the perceived leaders of this community. I’ve heard it said so many times, “Why should I bother? Other people can do it just as easily.” Because others don’t. Because they won’t draw a crowd like you will. Because you have experience, and because you have an audience. Because you’re an expert. That’s why.
With that in mind, one of my own personal goals is to get back to the basics. To talk about social bookmarking, share why I continue to think Flickr is significant, and to communicate why I believe blogs should be an integral part of most school communities. I’m going to redefine what the Teach42 podcast is and begin broadcasting again, in a new format that fits the way I work and communicate now. But most of all, I’m going to continue to try to find new ways to reach the thirsty masses that are dying for a drink of Kool Aid and don’t even know that it’s already within their grasp.
While some of the things I’ve written about here may not be positive things about the conference, they’re realities and can be learning experiences… if we choose to treat them as such.