Reflecting on NECC09 has apparently taken me a little longer than many others. There are so many blogposts out there about NECC09 that there hardly seems anything left to blog about. Although there were many F2F and online conversations regarding this, I've not yet seen a blogpost addressing this issue. That is; the role of companies at educational conferences, particulary NECC.
It used to be very clear what a company's role would be at a conference. They'd be in the exhibit or vendor hall and teachers would walk through to pick up as many goodies as possible. But things are changing. Companies are re-thinking their participatory roles in conferences and therefore our experiences are taking on a new shape:
- Companies in The Vendor Hall
In my job I deal with vendors almost on a daily basis. I don't find them nearly as annoying as others, apparently, do; maybe because my team at work puts on a great (if I don't mind saying so myself) conference every year and we depend on the sponsors and vendors to finance the entire event. We don' t charge for our conference but knowing what it cost for our small event; I can confidently say, that NECC could not succeed by simply charging what they do for participant registration. The vendor hall is not just a place where vultures are dying to scan you. We can and should use the hall to OUR advantage!
The vendor hall is the perfect place to take a peek at what's new and to talk with the people who make the products we use or would like to use. I'm not sure most teachers are aware, but if (for example) you were to visit the Discovery Education booth, you would have seen (in addition to the sales folks) a few of the people from the back end of Discovery who truly want your feedback. There were product developers, customer support managers and professional development directors. All willing to answer questions and listen to your concerns. Now, this is not to promote Discovery Education. The reason I use them as an example is because of my close ties with them as part of my job and as part of being one of their DEN Stars. I know who these people are and I know their roles. Most people walking by see everyone at the booths "merely" as sales people who will tell you anything to make a sale. Not true.
I believe we should seek out the people at these booths who can make a difference in the products we use, the way we use them and then modify their product accordingly. They are typically there at these conferences and they do listen.
- Companies not in the vendor hall:
There were a few companies, of which I was a aware, that did not take a booth or sponsorship but instead had a presence at NECC anyway. VoiceThread was one of them: A few months ago, Ben and Steve (co-founders of VoiceThread) were tossing around ideas for how they wanted to participate in NECC; if at all. They were toying with the idea of taking a booth, or instead perhaps sponsoring some teachers to attend. They were kind enough to run some ideas by me (again.... companies DO listen and I was thrilled to be in on the conversation) and I loved the idea of sponsorships. Beth Still started a campaign to bring a conference newbie (Richard Byrne) to NECC and after Twittering, blogging about it and promoting it on other social networks, Beth collected approximately $600 in donations from individuals in her personal learning network. This seemed like the perfect sponsorship to suggest to Ben and Steve and they jumped on it quickly. VoiceThread chipped in the remainder and Richard attended NECC09! Kudos to Beth and online pals!
Ben and Steve attended as well and were there to have conversations with the folks who helped make VoiceThread so popular. They attended some sessions and actively sought out those folks who are passionate about using VoiceThread. Ben also took a few of us out to dinner. Ben was thrilled to meet everyone and the conversation focused mostly on teaching, learning, online safety and the future of our students. No sales pitch, no promos, just good intelligent conversation from all around. This was one of the highlights of my trip because I got to be a part of some great discussions with some of the most widely respected educators without the hubbub of the conference madness. (In photo - top left- from left to right: Steve Muth, Me and Ben Papell / In photo - top right - from left to right: David Cassinelli, Ben Papell, Collette Cassinelli, Wes Fryer, Me, Richard Byrne and Beth Still.)
CommonCraft was there as well.When Lee and Sachi Lefever were "spotted" in the Blogger's Cafe, the tweets started flying. Such superstars they are with the edu-community. They were posing for pics and shaking hands and having real conversations. They also sponsored a meetup at a local bar. I enjoyed chatting with Lee about how they make their videos. Lee explained to me how the most important part of their production comes in writing the script. A good lesson for those of us engaging our students in digital storytelling.
What a great opportunity to learn from the experts! (In photo - above - from left to right: Lee Lefever, Me and Sachi Lefever.) (Photo - right - Lee Lefever)
- Private Workshops such as Constructivist Celebration:
I had the pleasure of attending Gary Stager's Constructivist Celebration on Sunday and enjoyed it thoroughly. The cost was minimal (can't remember, but approx. $35.00) and included lunch and a handful of various full versions of software products. Gary had representatives from FableVision, Inspiration, LCSI, and Tech4Learning, SchooKiT and Generation YES in attendance to assist us with our projects. They handed out their software along with some flyers. I thought it was perfect. Who better to assist us with technical or How-To issues than folks from the companies themselves? Everyone seemed ok with it and I didn't hear any griping that there were vendors in attendance. Was that because we were getting so much "free" stuff? Was it because that we were all aware that without their sponsorship, Gary couldn't have pulled off the event without charging us all an arm and a leg? Or was it because it was a truly engaging opportunity to learn something new and simply create as if we were kids ourselves? (Scott Mcleod did a great job of summing up the key speaking points of the day.) Or were people put off by their presence and I was just not aware? (In photo-above-from left to right: Cheryl Woolwine, Me and Peter Reynolds. Photo credit: Gary Stager's Flickr stream.)
So above are some examples of companies who approached the whole NECC-thing from a different model. As more companies find it's not cost effective to spend their money on vendor booths, is this a glimpse of things to come? What are your thoughts about companies attending as "regular people" and mingling and conversing or having a presence at a private workshop? or is it just a stealth move on their part that "shouldn't be allowed?" Should they be required to wear signs that say, "I represent XYZ company?"
Are there benefits to us? Are we able to adequately represent the hundreds of thousands of other educators who aren't in attendance while speaking to these companies with our shopping list of Do's and Don'ts for their products?
What are your feelings about companies at conferences? I'm interested to hear what are your thoughts on all of this. ccdc09