Monday, July 06, 2009

Grading NECC 2009

Over the past four years NECC has become an increasingly significant event for me and one where I have felt and greatly appreciated the opportunity for the "community" to contribute to increasingly significant aspects of the conference. What started for me four years ago in Philadelphia as a relatively modest opportunity to provide used computer equipment for demonstrating the use of Open Source Software has become a fascinatingly broad range of involvement in user-created aspects of the conference, very much to ISTE's credit.

For my own sake, and to also keep the "audience" discussion going, I want to grade those aspects of the conference where I had involvement.

EduBloggerCon: "A"
I feel comfortable giving our third annual EduBloggerCon a solid "A" this year. Not that the event could not be improved, but we were able to recover the feel from two years ago that made the original EduBloggerCon such a significant event, and we were able to get past some of the "ghosts" from last year that worried me a little. We also have to recognize that EduBloggerCon can't be, ever again, what it was that first year: the first time most of the edublogger community had met face-to-face. Some of the really "heady" discussions of that first year have of necessity moved to other venues like EduCon where they can be nurtured amongst a more self-selected audience over more than one day; whereas EduBloggerCon is really about the the chance to meet and talk in an environment not only more open to the beginner, but intentionally welcoming to him or her. Which makes me wonder if we need a name change that recognizes that there are a lot of ways in which educators are becoming involved in social media that often aren't directly related to blogging. On the other hand, keeping the name probably helps with recognition and continuity. Feedback and suggestions welcome--I've been playing with the name "sharecamp" which potentially has the added benefit of being more universally usable by many in other venues.

One area of EduBloggerCon in which I'd like to see improvement would be the ability for at least the major sessions of the day to be well-streamed to those not in physical attendance. We tried this year, but what we really needed to do was to pipe the mic system directly into the Elluminate session that was running live--otherwise, it's just too darn hard to hear the sound clearly. The point of EduBloggerCon is the physical being together, but I do think it would be nice to make some of it available to those who can't attend.

Bloggers' Cafe: "B"
This brilliant idea three years ago (or more?) from David Warlick to have a place for the bloggers to gather and talk has become an institution. I honestly don't think many of us could imagine NECC now without it. I can remember when, in talking about EduBloggerCon and the Bloggers' cafe originally, people would say to me: "NECC really isn't relevant for me anymore." I don't think I've heard anything even remotely close to that lately, and in fact, I think ISTE's done such a good job supporting this kind of casual conversation at NECC that 1) NECC has become a must-attend event when there are funds to do so, and 2) the Bloggers' Cafe is such a significant part of the experience that being in there is often seen as more valuable than attending a formal session.

So, why a "B" grade from me? We still haven't figured out how to make this a more inviting experience. I still feels exclusive and can be very intimidating for someone walking by to just come in to a group of people who all seem to know each other and are already very engaged in conversation. Maybe that's just an inherent dilemma, but I'm with those who think that a name change here might also be valuable--this isn't just about blogging anymore. (I think I saw a suggestion to call it the "Personal Learning Plaza.") I'd also argue that we need signage which basically says "Welcome and come on in!" Last year we tried t-shirts that "mentors" could wear and walk around to invite participation, but I'm not sure it there was a really concerted effort to do so. This year Sue Waters made up cool buttons, but somehow I think more is needed. Like EduBloggerCon as well, the potential cost to this openness to beginners is a possible intrusion on our existing conversations, but what are we about if not being inclusive?

NECC Unplugged: "C"
There was never an idea more near and dear to my heart than NECC Unplugged, but an honest assessment of year two of this program is solidly in the "not what it could have been category." I know, we're breaking amazing ground with this program, and those who presented and helped did an EXCELLENT job (my own daughter included--love ya Kate!)--but we need to crank this thing up a little. Roadblocks this year:
  1. Lack of signage that made finding the space very hard on the first day.
  2. Lack of formal A/V support by ISTE. When my own home-grown mic/speaker solution didn't work it meant that the sound experience online was often better than in person (we did to a really good job piping sound directly into the Elluminate session, unlike at EduBloggerCon). If we are going to have a presentation area in the hallway, we've got to have sound amplification...
  3. Lack of planning planning time by a largely absentee coordinator: me. It's OK, we can say it, I just shouldn't have been in charge of one more activity if I couldn't actually be there to oversee it. If it hadn't been for Kate, Peggy George and Meredith Melragon there would not have been an NECC Unplugged this year. Kate allowed me to fly her out last minute and discovered how hard it is that adults actually work at events like these, and TOTAL CHAMPS Peggy and Meredith gave up their own precious NECC time to pitch in and fill in the gaps.
Even with these deficiencies, which I take responsibility for, NECC Unplugged is an amazing concept that I still can't believe we get permission to do. Anyone who wants to can present at NECC, and those who aren't at the show are able to have things to watch directly from the event. I also think that the hybrid physical/virtual conference combination is an amazing model, and Kim Caise deserves a HUGE round of applause for overseeing the EduBloggerCon "remotely" and three days of virtual presentations that took place in Elluminate concurrent with the physical ones. I think I'm also right in sending major "props" to Derrall Garrission who voluntarily supported both for EduBloggerCon's virtual side and NECC Unplugged.

Open Source Pavilion, Playground, and Speaker Series: "A+"
As we've moved over the last four years from an off-the-beaten track demo area to a full room with our own speaking track, the Open Source activities at NECC keep getting better and better. This year, with amazing help from a variety of sponsors, I think people were blown away by the 60-computer "lab"/classroom running Linux thin clients. Especially helpful to me was an amazing volunteer crew, led by Randy Orwin and Benoit St-Andre who got the lab set up in less time and with less of my help than ever before. (Someday we'll look back fondly on all those shows where we trucked in used computers and stayed up until the wee hours of the night patching them together into a usable lab... but for now I'm SO glad those days are passed!) Asus provided the thin clients, Kevin McGuire of Michigan City Area Schools loaned us the flat panel monitors, and Revolution Linux provided the server and the printed brochures and flyers. It's so fun for me to see Open Source move into the realm of the tangible for schools, especially since I make the claim that we will not see computing transform education without Linux and Open Source. With similar Open Source programs we are running at CUE, NSBA's T+L, and now (we think) at FETC, I think we are actually making a difference and increasingly helping schools to see tangible examples of how Open Source can be implemented.

Best idea to come out of the post-show cleanup time: holding a free pre-NECC OpenSourceCon unconference, like EduBloggerCon, but for those interested in Open Source. Wow.

Panels on Open Source and Web 2.0: "A+"
This year I led two panel discussions, one at the very beginning of NECC and one at the end! The first was on the state of Open Source in Education, and it was, in a word, brilliant. The panelists were great, I performed well enough to not interfere with the learning, but it was the audience that amazed me. In a larger meeting room than I would have thought we could fill with people interested in Open Source (and that was completely full), it became clear early on by the questions that were being asked that there are a substantial number of people seriously implementing Linux and Open Source their schools. This was the most surprising moment for me at NECC, and it was enormously satisfying to think of how far this dialog has come. I remember the first NECC talk I gave on Open Source, and how disbelieving I remember the audience being. The Web 2.0 panel, with equally stellar panelists, while it engendered some controversy was still solidly an "A+" for me. First, I made a conscious effort to make the session interactive as a reflection of the participative nature of Web 2.0, and instead of sitting with the panelists I walked the floor with a portable mic. Second, as the last question of the session, I think I asked the best question I've ever asked of a panel: "What did you learn from being on this panel today?" If the bringing together of active minds around a significant topic doesn't produce enough synergy to have the panelists learn along with the audience, then we're just getting the same old "talking heads" kind of stuff. In my mind there's no greater crime at a conference than a panel of experts giving us the worst of both worlds: being asked to each speak individually for 10 minutes when we'd love to hear hours from any one of them them, and then not even getting to hear them argue or interact with each other. Which brings me to the argument side: we got some major push-back from some members of the audience in this session, and it largely had to do with how a back-channel chat was being handled. And I think they were largely valid criticisms. Wahoo--actual learning!

Birds of a Feather Sessions on Open Source and Web 2.0: "B+"
I'm interested in how popular these BOF sessions are, and how the combination of the large number of people who attend with the more general reticence of the "audience" to participate create the temptation turn what I think should be discussion sessions into presentations. In years past when the BOF sessions I was a part of didn't draw so many people, I actually felt like you could go around the group, have people introduce themselves to each other, and then have a conversation. Now I've had to try and find questions and activities that help to engage the crowd in as participative way as possible. There was an "aha" moment for me in this regard in the Web 2.0 BOF. I did a modified version of the "speed demo" program we do at the Classroom 2.0 workshops, combining people being able to quickly demo a Web 2.0 tool with being able to ask the others in the room a question about Web 2.0. It felt a little to me like I was pulling teeth to keep things going, and I would have given the session a true "C" based on how I felt at the end. But after we were done I had a couple of people come up to me and say, essentially, "this was the best session I've had at NECC." I was taken aback by this, and after thinking about it for a while, came to the conclusion that my NECC experiences, which are all so highly interactive, keep me in a little bit of a bubble--and that for many who attend NECC their experiences are still highly passive. That's a good reminder to me that the learning experiences that educators have must parallel their sense of the learning experiences that should take place in the classroom, and the more we can exemplify engaged learning at conferences the more we're encouraging that kind of learning environment in the classroom.

My Individual Presentations on Open Source and Social Networking: "A" / "B-"
I've got a new presentation on Open Source in K-12 that I think is greatly improved over my previous general survey of the landscape, mainly because I have gotten bold enough to say what I really feel: that we will not have ubiquitous or transformative computing in schools without Open Source and Linux. I'm definitely giving with both barrels with this new presentation, so my "A" there reflects my feeling like I am making a difference. My presentation on social networking was disappointing to me, I think partly because I didn't feel I could devote the whole time to talking about my current passion: the combination of the asynchronous networking in social networks with the synchronous capability of Elluminate built into LearnCentral (full disclosure--my paid employment is with Elluminate). Because I'd promised to do a tour of setting up a Ning network as a part of this session, I didn't feel like I had time to do either justice. When you're presenting you don't always hit them out of the park, and that was the case for me here...

The Launch of "A"
Again, making sure that it's clear that I'm an Elluminate employee, and that my role is to serve as community manager of LearnCentral--and making it clear that LearnCentral is still in beta form and very much a work-in-progress that we hope the community will help us steer toward great things--I had a great time talking about LearnCentral with the media, a role I've never really played before. I'm really excited about what Elluminate is committing to with this project, especially the ability for anyone to hold free, public Elluminate sessions, and I found that the discussions with the media about the project were a greater opportunity for me to be enthusiastic and passionate than I expected them to be. Instead of the interview schedule being a burden, I began to look forward to them as a chance to talk about what a significant moment this is in education right now, and how I think Elluminate can help. Plus, having flown solo now for so many shows, organizing volunteers with varying degrees of success, it's fun to watch a well-oiled machine get things done. I'm learning!

A Moonlit-Tour with My Daughter of National Monuments by Pedi-Cab Late Wednesday Night: "Priceless."
I would have felt like a really pathetic parent if, after spending several days with my daughter in Washington, DC, we flew home without actually seeing anything historical. After helping Kate get an autograph and a hug from the charming Erin Gruwell, cleaning up the Open Source Pavilion, and having a late dinner, at 9:00pm we negotiated with a "bike-taxi" driver while it was raining for a 90-minute tour. The rain stopped, the moon came out, and he actually gave us a good two hours. We stopped and spent time with a surprising number of other night-tourists with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. We saw the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans memorials. And we stopped at the White House for good measure. A lifetime memory.

Overall Grade for NECC: "A"
Great job, ISTE. Thanks for allowing such creativity and balancing so many demands and expectations so well. Special thanks to Anita McAnear, who's gentle shepherding of my activities has made such a difference. You are appreciated!