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Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts on Vendor Areas at Conferences

http://www.flickr.com/photos/techxas/
{NOTE: After writing this last weekend I started putting in links and realized it was almost identical to my post from Feb.7 .  Guess the thoughts in that post resonated with me. }

Last week was the Texas Computer Educators Association (TCEA) annual conference and I was fortunate enough to have an understanding principal who let me off on Tuesday and on Thursday afternoon to go to the conference.  And, unlike other years, my district even paid the cost of my admittance: $180!

Like most teachers I don't get to too many great conferences because of the cost to attend.  For example I attended Educon Philadelphia and I, literally, used that as my Christmas and Birthday present.  The bottom line?  Over $1200 for 3 nights lodging, airfare, food, and admittance.  But I'm worth every penny.  Thank you to my wife, son, and daughter for such a thankful gift.

So, why was I willing to shell out $1200 to go to Educon?   The level of conversation, for one, is priceless.  The discussions, both in sessions and before and after the sessions, went from breakfast to midnight each day.  I learned a ton and got to meet people I had wanted to meet face to face for years.

Another, usually unmentioned, cost was the cost the school district had to pay for a substitute for my two days I missed to attend Educon.  And then there was the cost of me not being in class to be with my students.  Even PBL students with a set agenda and a project to work on become normal kids around a substitute.  If the substitute is going to sit and watch movies on his or her laptop my kids aren't going to be motivated to work.

So last week I ended up getting a substitute for Tuesday and I asked teachers, who were on their conference period, to watch my afternoon classes on Thursday.  Only one totally lost day of learning there.  And, since I was driving from home, no real cost for transportation or lodging.  Pretty reasonable.

Tuesday I immediately went to the Lone Star Edubloggercon (LSEBC12) in the Web2.0 area.  I could have gone to this without the full pass (and I did that last year) but it was nice to know that later in the week I could go to a few sessions and I could visit the vendor area with my pass.  But, again, I could have gotten into this area for free.   That's important.

If you notice the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is the schedule of sessions (free) to attend during the day at LSEBC12.  This schedule was put together by Scott Floyd and was done like an Edcamp.  As a matter of fact Scott knew I was coming and had put down a session for PBL (notice the 1:30 time slot) and as I walked into the room he, literally, asked if I wanted to do a session on PBL.  When I said yes he said good thing because he had already put me on the schedule.

The first session in LSEBC12 featured Kevin Honeycutt who I  have known through twitter for years but had never met in person.  He gave a wonderful presentation on encouraging music and got the whole group involved in making music (see my last post).  I learned about some apps that I didn't know about and I found out more about apps that I had heard about but had not played with.

The whole day was like that.  I got to meet people who are active in social media, true, but they are also passionate about many varied educational topics and we could engage in conversations (there's that word again) in a relaxed, open environment.

When I came back on Thursday I had physically missed a day and a half of the conference.  But, really, I had been able to follow the twitter stream and I knew the interesting (and the not so interesting) sessions that had occurred on Wednesday.  I had been involved in conversations with people at the conference and felt connected to the conference without having to be there.

The first place I went on Thursday was the Web2.0 area and I found many of the same faces from Tuesday along with some others who I hadn't been able to meet on Tuesday.  A bonus was that Ben Grey did a session on digital story telling that had a large audience and I could X off another twitter person who I'd always wanted to hear speak and, again, I saw it for free.

When that ended I decided to head to the Vendor area.  What a mistake.  The place was surreal.  People yelling and cheering.  People trying to "scan me."  Hundreds of people sitting in front of boards, looking like used car salesmen, hawking their wares.  It was very unnerving.  I knew of two places that I wanted to see, the Splashtop guys and the Smart IWB people.  The rest of the experience, as I wandered around looking for them, was awful.  And, as I looked at the names of the products there were few that I wasn't familiar with.  I could tell you what was good and what was bad about them just because I'm active on twitter.

In 2012, people don't need to go to vendors to hear their spiel.  I hear about products every day on twitter and I then look at the links of anything that sounds like I might use it and I read for myself.  If I think I might be interested I seek out people on twitter who have used or are currently using this product in their classroom.  Then I send out the information to my fellow teachers to see if any of them might be interested.  Then, depending on cost, I get the product and start using it so I can put out informative tweets so others can see what I think.

As I said earlier, I was looking for two vendors at this conference.  I wanted to see both of them about the same problem.  I was able to find the Splashtop guy but not the Smart people (even though Smart was a major sponsor of the conference.)  He wasn't able to help me, but he wants me to screen shot the problem and send it to him so they can look into it.  I could have gotten that same result by tweeting to @splashtop and telling them my problem but, hey I got to interact with a real human being!

I know that vendors allow us to have conferences in big fancy convention centers.  I know that it's important for people to compare products in one central area.  I know that this is the one chance, each year, for tech folks to get out and see what the latest products are.  I also know I shouldn't be so cynical about the whole experience.  But it is really hard to see all of these salesmen with the same outfits, the same haircuts, and the same sales pitches and not be dismissive of the whole process.  If more people could see the power of twitter and Google + to spread information about products then we wouldn't need these vendor areas.  And, maybe we could have smaller more intimate conferences built around the art of conversation and not the sale of technology.  Next time I'll make sure I pass on the Vendor area.