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!


  1. Steve, it was an absolute pleasure meeting you, your daughter Kate and Peggy George. I really enjoyed NECC unplugged and my session on the last day was my most fun.

    That last session for me is the most memorable as I walked up to your daughter and said when am I presenting (thinking I had an hour to go) and she said right now. Laughing about it as I had nothing planned as such I suddenly did this spontaneous session on blogging and grabbed other bloggers to join me e.g. Richard Bryne, Donelle O'Brien, Cathy Nelson and yourself. Working closely with the chat in Elluminate and the f2f audience we engage in conversation on blogging and hopefully answered most their questions. I'm hoping that you have it as a separate recording as I would love to blog about it (as would Richard and Donelle).

    I would have to say it was the most fun I've ever had presenting.

    Being loud enough at NECC unplugged was challenging however fortunately I'm noisy so it worked okay for me. Not sure of a good solution though.

    This was my first time at Bloggers Cafe. I'm not sure that I agree with your assessment. Probably the biggest problem was there wasn't enough space and maybe the word Bloggers makes people think they mightn't belong? Perhaps if it had more room it would be more welcoming.

  2. Steve,
    I am looking forward to attending the wrap up session on Saturday. There were some discussions going on during the last couple hours of the conference and I would like to briefly share what was said.

    First, the Internet coverage in the Bloggers' Cafe was terrible. I knew that might be a problem so I tried to connect using my Blackberry as a modem. This did not work because I could not get a strong signal. It seemed like we were in a hole in that particular area. Joe Corbett (@isteconnects) was kind enough to provide a modem for me so the bloggers could get a connection in the cafe, but it was removed by one of the major sponsors as soon as it was discovered that it was connected to their equipment and it was never returned. Forgive me if my tech terms are not correct, but why can't ISTE provide several clouds specifically for the Bloggers'Cafe? It is essential to have reliable coverage in the cafe so it needs to be physically be located in an area where incoming signals are not obstructed.

    I liked how EBC and NECC Unplugged were separated yet adjacent to one another. The one thing that was absent this year were the group discussions that took place last year. I led one on internet safety, but it was a little difficult to arrange everyone so we could talk. I would agree with Sue. It needed to be a little larger and it needed more seating. The physical arrangement of the seating is important as well. (Also need to figure out how to run in more outlets. This was not a problem in San Antonio, but it was in DC.)In a perfect world we would have yet a third area which would need to be the size of a conference room where discussions could be scheduled much like demonstrations are scheduled for NECC Unplugged. I announced my session and ended up getting an insane number of RT's which told me people were interested. A separate "Bloggers' Cafe" Twitter account could be created for to keep people informed of what is going on. (I would LOVE to volunteer to do this!)

    I looked forward to attending my first Edubloggercon all year and I was not disappointed. It seemed like it was one of the top highlights of the conference for nearly everyone who attended. Literally the last conversation that took place in the Bloggers' Cafe as the crews were taking down all of the equipment was focused on how to continue the conversations that start on Saturday. Someone mentioned possibly making EBC and overnight event. I preferred the suggestion that EBC reserve a block of rooms just like the state affiliates do. Staying in one location would allow those conversations to continue all week. It would also allow like-minded people to find others to room with to help cut down on expenses.

  3. I'm glad the Ubuntu DC LoCo and Sugar Labs DC were able to participate. We met a lot of good people and, hopefully, were able to guide them on their journeys into Open Source. Due to a fluke in shipping, Benoit's CD's never made it to the conference, but fortunately, the DC LoCo team had a good supply. All told, I think about 200 CD's were distributed.

  4. From the outside -- looking in:

    I was able to attend Edublogger Con, NECC Unplugged, and NECC virtually this year -- and would almost 100% agree with your grades.

    Edublogger Con opened was opened to me via TinyChat/Skype via Mark Wagner (who I owe a BIG thanks too!)

    I was disappointed that the only ustream available that first hour was the smackdown -- and highly recommend that that become the last (and only final session) of Edublogger Con -- a wrap up per se?) Anyway -- just an idea.

    I would suggest for next year's blogger con that you get SKYPE & TINY CHAT buddies who are physically at the conference and will make the effort to bring others in virtually.

    Mark was willing -- and so for the first session on Prof Dev, I think we had up to 12 in the chat.
    He also brought me in for the "Lets create a tool" and I believe for school reform.

    I also attended several NECC UNplugged. Kim Caise deserves a medal of honor!!

    The only thing I did not like was for one entire session we only heard music and not the speaker. I don't know if it was her websites or background music....but all in all, I truly enjoyed Necc Unplugged.

    Now on to my agrees and disagrees.

    The Web 2.0 Panel really needed to have been streamed. The backchannel became distorted, off topic, and then trying to summarize quickly what was going on. I am wondering the true benefits of a backchannel without a front channel as well.

    And for the blogger's cafe. I was not there, I cannot say without second hand information.....but I do agree with you. It needs to open more -- and changing the name might just do that.

    Or how about assigning a MEET AND GREET time. Like, if people are dying to meet Will, Dave, David, Vicki, etc -- have them sign up for assigned times to mingle. Though I think the unknowns are just as important as the knowns, some people really want to brush up with people they have respected for so long. But again, just a thought.

    Anyway -- you did well.....and I honestly have to say -- without your vision and your openness -- I doubt I would have been able to virtually attend as much as I was able.

    Thank you
    Jen W

  5. Thanks for your assessment of all the different aspects of the conference. It helped me better understand what was going on in the larger context. I attended some sessions virtually, and some were more satisfying than others. Making sure the audio is clear on the stream would be helpful. Still, it was exciting to feel like I was a participant even though I was sitting in front of my laptop at home. Thanks again for all the hard work.

  6. Ok, that was a long post, but I am compelled to make a couple of comments from the perspective of a veteran conference-goer who was new to NECC.

    1) On the comments about trying to make EduBlogger and Blogger’s cafĂ© attract more newcomers – remember that NECC is hugely overwhelming to a first- (and I suspect even a second-) timer. You mentioned that some people now get the most out of the networking opportunities at the conference, but as I first-timer, I just needed to get my feet wet and figure out the lay of the land. I noticed all of those events, and did not feel excluded from them at all, but there was too much else to do and I had to start at the beginning. (and… I like the names they have now better than the more-encompassing, and therefore less-snazzy alternatives)

    2) I think LearnCentral did a bang up job, but I wish I had won the raffle.

    3) I’m excited to hear that you used the Pedi-Cab. They operate out of my alley – Blagden Alley, which is adjacent to the convention center. As I walked by on my way to the conference each day, I scolded them for not being more visible at the doors to the convention center to take folks to restaurants or out for tours. Glad you had a chance to enjoy the monuments by night!

  7. Steve, although I am the push-backer from the Web 2.0 Panel (Yes, the girl in the blue shirt and white sweater) I have to give the session an 'A' also. I learned new technologies in most of the sessions I attended (I also attended your session), but none of them, other than the Web 2.0 Panel, really made me think from so many different perspectives. I am a huge Web 2.0 user. My fear is the push for everything is overwhelming to me, the learner, not the adult. I wonder how much learning our students really get when overloaded by all the technology available. This session was the most thought provoking session I had attended at NECC.

    I drifted to your blog after participating in your webinar about the EducBloggerCon. I just happened to stay in the webinar after attending the Math 2.0 webinar. I would agree with you that a name change might be needed. I was invited to attend the EduBlogerCon, by someone I had met on the way to DC, but declined the invitation, because I don't blog (in fact, this is my first post to a blog). Had I known about the Web 2.0 aspect of the event, I would have accepted the invitation.

  8. @Sue: it was great to meet you, and the story of your ad-hoc presentation is moving to the realm of legend... :)

    @Beth: Internet connectivity is key, and is increasingly a nightmare issue for conference organizers. Besides being expensive, when it goes down it's a disaster now. It's a good point to have a backup system for the Bloggers' Cafe that is approved by ISTE. I love the idea of a Bloggers Cafe Twitter account. There was one for NECC Unplugged, but we didn't utilize it well... So many things to organize without an organizational body--not sure if we formalize or leave informal... which goes the the question of reserving a block of hotel rooms. I'm not sure we'd want the trade-offs that would come from being that organized and needing funding... ?

    @Kevin: thanks for the appropriate shout-outs!

    @Jen: all of your suggestions are great, but they get to one of the real dilemmas of these events. In the weeks/months running up to NECC, I held organizing events and solicited help for running them, and the truth is that people are really busy and it's hard to get their bandwidth or attention. And volunteer committees for free events end up having a very hard time actually having stuff get done. So I'm personally trying to figure out how there could be a broader organizational effort on what we are doing that would be effective. A full-time organizer would be great but I think I'd almost prefer the inadequacies of our existing methods to the financial and/or sponsorship requirements involved in paying someone...

    @CStanley: Thanks, and yes, the audio is key!

    @Linda: good perspective, both on the experience of a newbie and the names. Thanks!

    @Lillian: Hurrah! Glad to "meet" you again. And I'm glad you felt the panel discussion was a good session for you. Your story about not attending EduBloggerCon confirms one of my fears. I spent some time last night after our meeting thinking about some kind of name or branding that would tie all these events together, and maybe even asking ISTE for a page in the program that told about them. After considering all kinds of names, I actually came back to "Classroom 2.0" and wondered if we co-branded each event as a "Classsroom 2.0 Event" would they tie together better and feel more open. Thoughts?

  9. Thanks for all of your effort Steve. I attended EduBloggerCon and NECC for the first time and was not disappointed. Another suggestion: maybe volunteers who like to hang out at the Bloggers Cafe can have one of those big signs (like the Ask Me ones) that say "Welcome" and introduce folks in the cafe or direct folks to NECC Unplugged. These greeters would make newbies feel welcomed and included. I'm glad I made the effort to introduce myself around the cafe - it certainly enhanced my whole experience. We could sign up for shifts on a wiki.


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