ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, holds a massive conference every summer, bringing together teachers, administrators, and tech specialists to learn about the most effective and innovative ways to integrate technology in our classrooms. The 2015 ISTE Conference & Expo was held this week in Philadelphia. I attended for the first time and absolutely loved it. If you’ve never been—or if you’ve never even heard of ISTE—this overview will help you understand what all the fuss is about.
What Happens at ISTE?
The ISTE conference offers sessions on a wide range of topics, where presenters share ideas, strategies, and tools for using technology to enhance learning. Like most other conferences, ISTE offers loads of standard lecture-style presentations, poster sessions where smaller groups present projects and research, and an Expo Hall, where hundreds of tech companies demo their products.
But what makes ISTE truly outstanding is the wide variety of other formats attendees can choose from, including these:
- Ignite sessions, where presenters give fast-paced, five-minute talks using only 20 slides
- Playgrounds, which give attendees hands-on practice with tools that can enhance learning
- BYOD sessions that allow participants to practice skills on their own devices
- Birds of a Feather gatherings, where attendees can meet and socialize with others who share the same interests, such as game-based learning, Genius Hour, or STEM
- Workshops that go in depth and actually train participants on specific tools or skills
Apart from the scheduled sessions, the conference brings together people from all across the U.S. and dozens of other countries, which means you’ll be surrounded by all kinds of stimulating conversations and creative, passionate people—the opportunities for informal learning are endless.
But it’s not just about the tech. Sure, the Expo Hall is devoted to showcasing products, some of which carry hefty price tags that are well out of reach for the average school district. But the sessions themselves are far more focused on pedagogy: You can learn about digital storytelling, project-based learning, effective use of video content, and personalized instruction, among hundreds of other rich topics, without anyone trying to sell you a piece of software or equipment. Despite the ubiquity of tools, the focus really is on how technology—even the free stuff—can improve learning.
Why Teachers Should Go
You’ll find your tribe. If you’re someone who is always on the lookout for new things to try in your classroom, innovative strategies to use, and ways to keep improving, you may be kind of an oddball in your school. But going to a conference like ISTE puts you right smack in the middle of thousands of other people just like you. Connecting with other like-minded educators has a whole host of benefits:
- You’ll strengthen your own resolve to keep getting better, knowing you’re not the only one who approaches teaching the way you do.
- You’ll have more people to bounce ideas off of. Talking through your current challenges with someone who is interested and engaged will help you address them more effectively than you could on your own.
- You’ll establish connections that last well beyond the conference. If you need information or resources months after the conference is over, you’ll have people to call on outside of your immediate local circle. And these people know people. And so on. And so on.
You’ll stretch your teaching muscles. Because ISTE focuses so heavily on effective and exciting teaching practices, attending will expose you to new ideas and approaches, things you can take back to your own school and try with your students. And because you’re connected with the people who showed you how to do it, you can reconnect later to ask follow-up questions or seek additional resources.
You’ll discover new tools. Despite the fact that everyone at ISTE repeats the same mantra over and over again—”It’s not about the tools”—there are some frickin’ cool things on display in the Expo Hall. Even if your school can’t afford much, just knowing what new things have come along will build your awareness of what’s possible, push you to locate more affordable alternatives, or find ways—like raising funds through DonorsChoose—to pay for them.
In person is just different. Having so much information available online is wonderful, and the opportunities for self-directed, self-paced learning are abundant. Still, learning from real people in real time is just different. It helps us realize that none of this stuff is impossible, that the educators who are already doing innovative things are just regular, flawed people who are trying, failing, growing, then starting again. Sometimes the benefits of face-to-face are worth the travel and expense.
Tips for Attending
Because ISTE is so big and offers so many opportunities to learn, you’ll get more out of it if you follow these tips:
1. Prepare your connecting tools. You’ll have the opportunity to meet lots of new people, but you may have just a few seconds to get their contact information to connect with them later. One of the most common ways to do this is to just follow each other on Twitter. So before you go, make sure you have an active Twitter account ready to go and have the app loaded onto a smartphone or tablet that you’ll carry with you at the conference. While you’re at it, load up a QR code reader so you can scan all the QR codes that will link you to essential online information. (What is a QR Code?) Finally, be sure to bring your charging cord and maybe even an extra battery charger so you can charge up your device when the battery is low.
2. Set reasonable expectations. ISTE offers a ridiculous amount of things to do, see, and learn. There’s just no possible way you can get to even a quarter of it. So decide ahead of time what your biggest priorities are and set measurable goals based on those. Some example goals might be Meet 5 other librarians who are also creating makerspaces in their schools, Sample 3 different types of interactive whiteboards, or Find real solutions to our 1:1 implementation problems. With clear goals in mind, you can get yourself re-focused anytime you start to get a little overwhelmed.
3. Try something new. Although focusing on your goals will keep you from being overwhelmed, take advantage of this opportunity to try something completely different. Attend a session on a topic that’s not directly related to your subject area or sample a new tool you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Even though you may not see a direct correlation to your current work, you may be surprised at the insights you gain from this exercise.
4. Speak up. Because meeting new people is one of the greatest benefits of attending any professional conference, you have to make a concerted effort to introduce yourself to others. Similarly, when you’re in a session or talking with someone whose expertise or experience you can benefit from, don’t hold back: Ask the questions you’ve always wondered about. You won’t have another opportunity like this for a while, and if you’re too shy, you’ll miss it.
5. Take care of yourself. ISTE can be incredibly tiring and overwhelming. If you don’t take care of your physical well-being, you can burn out before your time at the conference is up. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes. Keep a water bottle and snacks on hand, since finding food can be inconvenient and time-consuming. And build in time for rest and quiet throughout the day to keep your head from spinning.
6. Reflect. The knowledge and insights you gain at the conference will be far more enduring if you plan time to reflect on what you learned and how you will apply it. If you’re at the conference for several days, try to do this several times during the conference itself. And be sure to spend some time writing and reflecting when the whole thing is over as well.
Want a few more tips? Check out this survival guide published by ISTE.
See You Next Year?
I’m definitely planning to attend ISTE 2016, which will be held in Denver. And this time, I want to present. How about you? Are you thinking about going? What questions do you have? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below. ♦
Update, September 30, 2015: Well, I just heard that proposals for presenters are due today. I must have unsubscribed from the ISTE mailing list, and of course I have nothing ready. So it looks like I won’t be presenting at the 2016 conference after all. I am still likely to attend; will update on this later! ~J.