A Tale of Two Conferences

Posted by Debby on 25th July and posted in Cultivating Communities, It's the Process

There are as many ways to approach education as there are children in school I suppose. Everyone has their opinion on what is best for the kids. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to experience an extreme contrast in philosophy first hand. I attended a very large, international education conference in San Diego and I organized a much smaller alumni conference in Malibu. The differences between the two were quite distinct.

I probably should make a disclaimer here. I have been a member of school site councils, am a current vice-president of a small charter school board, and have worked closely with teachers and students from kindergarden to university levels. I’ve worked with, and against, the system in place, sometimes with more success than other times. We have pulled our own six children out of public education and are homeschooling them because of many of the things I have seen over the years. It’s possible that I’m a little jaded by what I’ve seen in a lifetime of being immersed in education.

International Society for Technology in Education


Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to drop into the International Society for Technology in Education 2012 conference for a couple of days. ISTE bills itself as one of the largest gatherings of educators on the globe, and they might be right. I’ve heard attendance numbers ranging from 10,000 to 40,000. The ISTE demographics page states 13,000 attendees. I’ve been three times now (Philadelphia 2005, San Antonio 2008, San Diego 2012) and my own experience is that it’s almost elbow to elbow crowds, regardless of the venue. Whatever the bottom line is, it’s a lot of educators in one place.

The conference program, a neatly spiral bound, 200+ page directory, highlights three major keynote sessions, over 700 concurrent sessions, and dozens of “ticketed” workshops that attendees can choose from. Select sessions are professionally broadcast to those who can’t attend in person. There is a web-based conference planner, an interactive app, and lots of ISTE helpers on the conference floor there to help you find just what it is that you’d like to find. It was all neatly orchestrated, as I presume it must be when you are hosting that many people in one location.

I took some time to stroll the exhibition floor. Actually, I should say it took some time to stroll the exhibition floor. With over 500 booths, there was quite a bit to look at. As I walked up and down the aisles, I made sure to pick up lots of schwag (I do have 6 kids at home after all!). I took a minute to tweet about my impressions:

My overall take-away from ISTE was a confirmation of everything that is wrong in education today. The sessions all talked about being innovative, about reforming education, about disruptive change… but I didn’t see anything different than what I’ve seen for over a decade and a half of going to education conferences. This new tool or that new tool, or some new use of an old tool was all set to change the way we do things. Best of all, we can scale it to be successful in all schools for all kids. The exhibition hall was filled with “solutions” that were all available for a price and demonstrations of the amazing learning that can take place with electronic “smart” boards and other gizmos and gadgets. The current buzzword was “mobile”. One session I slipped in to, mostly to find a place to sit for a few minutes, was held in a very large room and had a panel of education experts showcasing their favorite apps. Really? It was very disheartening, to say the least.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. I did enjoy hearing Yong Zhao‘s keynote because he seems like one of the voices that actually “gets it” [PDF of keynote slides]. I had a chance to visit with the California 4-H Technology Team and finally met in person someone who was a 4-H member a couple of decades ago when I created the first comprehensive online directory of 4-H clubs in the United States. He now coordinates the tech team, so that was pretty cool. I really enjoyed the poster sessions where I had a chance to talk to a teacher from a forward-thinking, STEM based charter school in Colorado and watch kids doing their thing with robotics. I’ve learned over the years that coming away from a conference with one or two good ideas makes it worth your time to attend, and I certainly did that. Most of it felt so orchestrated, large and impersonal. I guess that’s what happens when you have a mass of humanity all under one roof. It felt like an appropriate metaphor for the current state of conveyor belt public education.

Pepperdine MA Learning Technologies Alumni Conference


This summer, the 15th cadre of graduate students started their learning journey in a program that will be transformative for them, if they are open to the experience. I graduated in cadre 5 and helped facilitate the face-to-face orientation known as “virtcamp” (now “cadre camp”) for the next 4 years. Bill Moseley, a cadre 3 alum and program organizer/facilitator/mentor since then, thought this would be a great opportunity to gather the alumni in a conference format. He asked me to organize the project and see what we could come up with. I believe that was March. We only had a few months to pull it off, so the planning began! I put up a website and created an announcement that we blasted across the social networks far and wide.

“Once upon a time, there was a program called OMET (Online Masters of Educational Technology) that grew up into a program called MALT (Masters of Learning Technologies). Regardless of the name, it can only mean one thing (or several!) ~ Hard fun? It’s the process? ZPD? Learning theory? Tapped In? Communities of Practice? ARPs? Chiffonade? Any of that ring a bell?

Your OMET/MALT degree engaged you with some of the best, most creative minds in education. We know you’ve gone out in the world and made a difference. Now it’s time to come back and check in. Reunite with folks from your own cadre, connect with folks from other cadres, and meet up with some of the most interesting people on the planet!

OMET/MALT alumni are in a special group. You are innovators. You are creators. You are forward thinkers. You are leaders. You are passionate about making a difference in the world in which we live. Help us celebrate the 15th anniversary of this award winning program. Share what you’ve learned. Showcase your projects. Collaborate with like-minded people. Join the FUN!”

I pulled in a couple of other alumni who were ready and willing to jump in and help. Our goal was to make this conference different from the mainstream conferences where people talk at you for an hour and you move to the next session. We decided to use a “TED talk” format, giving people no more than 20 minutes to get their message across. The afternoon sessions would be loosely organized in an unconference and “What’s Got Your Attention” panel. There would be time built in for connecting with the new cadre and for networking with alumni across cadres. The initial interest survey response had about 100 people indicating interest in attending, which was pretty good out of about 600 alumni total. The planning and preparation commenced with calls to the alumni association, campus housing, and campus catering to set up the various details that come with putting on a conference. We posted a registration form and put out a call for participation… if you build it, they will come, right?

Wrong! We set the original CFP deadline at June 18th and the “early bird” registration for June 24th. By those dates, we only had a couple (like 2 or 3) people registered and we were seriously beginning to wonder if this was going to fly. What happened to those 100 who said they would come? We brainstormed some ideas to drum up registration and kicked up the social media campaign. The alumni association included a short article in their monthly email newsletter. We decided to make a decision after ISTE was over, which was only 3 weeks before the conference. Whatever we did worked, sort of. We were up to 15 registrations post-ISTE and decided to run with it. I’m so glad we did!

Over the course of four days, we had over 40 alumni drop in. Some stayed for the whole conference, others came for a day or two, and some dropped in for a few hours as they were able. We shared professional portraits, made personal and professional connections, mentored the newbies into the community, and made many new memories. I’m not even sure I can adequately explain just what happened last week… but I know that it was VERY different from what I took away from ISTE. Even though we came from 14 different cadres, we shared a common sense of community, a common core value system, even an inside vocabulary that we all understand (chiffonade anyone?). We had all experienced how community is created within a cadre as we struggled through a year of change and learning that built relationships that still endure, all these years later.

This conference gave us a chance to extend that community across cadres as we met others who shared our educational values. It was everything that ISTE was not – somewhat spontaneous, small, and intimate. It was a week of cheerleading and preaching to the choir, of new ideas and new friendships, of reconnecting and, for many, of renewal. I hope those that attended walked away with an energized sense of mission and purpose. For me, it was good to see that people were willing to make the journey, across distance and with their hearts, to remind us all that really, it is all about the process and that we have the ability to make a difference in our relational and educational world. I know that I can speak for many who were in attendance… I needed that. Thank you to everyone who made this such a great event! Let’s do it again!

Our little one-page program.

Conference t-shirt sums it up!

Cadre 1 Alumni – Deb Atchison

Unconference Session – Lots of good conversations happening!

What questions should we be asking about technology & culture?

Time to connect with cadre 15 over a good meal.

Too many great unconference topics, too little time!

Your time and attention are your most valuable resource.
Julia Fallon asked panelists “What’s got your attention” right now?

With the ink still wet on their diplomas, cadre 14 alumni
give some tips to the newbies (although not TOO many tips!)

Community Circle in the Heroes Garden –
a perfect way to end our conference.

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