Saturday, July 04, 2009

Whose Conference is it Anyway?



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

25 comments:

Theresa said...

Lee,
Excellent post. You not only explain the purpose of the vendors, but also provide essential information about the roles they play in funding the conference and support attendees.

Your photos and personal stories about connections to these folks make your post even more powerful.

When I attend large conferences like these, I like to seek out the vendors with a list of questions I have about materials or a product I am looking for. As you shared, these representatives are eager support and coach us about their products.

I was not able to attend NECC09 but have learned a great deal via twitter and blogs such as yours. Thank you for growing those of us who could not attend!

Theresa

Anonymous said...

Lee,

As an educator that likes to think outside of the box, I appreciate vendors that do the same. I personally have to take vendor halls in chunks because they are overwhelming. However, I gain much more when I accidentally run into vendors in sessions, sit by them at lunch, or find them in a common area. I get frustrated when I attend a workshop, and the vendors only try to sell a product. Vendors, if you have the honor to have a room full of educators, please use it to your advantage! Interact with them, create dialog, have other educators talk about how they use the product/service in the classroom. I appreciate the role vendors and companies serve in the world of education. I challenge them to consider these innovative examples and think outside of the box!!!

Thanks for the great post!
@krista_scott (Twitter)

Lee Kolbert said...

@Theresa,
Thanks for you nice words. It's great to be able to participate in conferences via social networks now. What did we do before Twitter and blogs?

@Krista
I agree that there's nothing more frustrating when you go to a session that bills itself as an instructional session and turns into a sales presentation. I'm not shy about walking out of those. Thanks for commenting.

Andrea Hernandez said...

I am a teacher who has wanted to attend NECC for many years. My school will not pay for any of it. I was extremely fortunate this year to have been "sponsored" by a Tech4Learning. They are a fantastic company, and I was proud to be associated with them. They want teacher feedback, care about education, and show tremendous respect for educators and students in everything they do.
Tech4Learning had 2 theaters in their booth in the exhibit hall with a constant schedule of EXCELLENT presentations by teachers. Yes, they featured Tech4Learning products, but they were mostly about engaging learners, creativity, etc.
Some of my favorite presentations were in the Tech4Learning booth.

So, obviously, I don't have any problem at all with vendors as part of the conference. That said, aside from the Tech4Learning booth, I didn't spend too much time in the exhibit hall. I just find it too overwhelming.

PNaugle said...

Lee,
I love the angle you chose to blog about from your NECC experience. I personally didn't spend too much time in the vendors' hall because I am not in a position to make any decisions on how my district spends money for technolgy. The one vendor I visited several different times was Promethean to watch their demonstation lessons (done by teachers who use the boards). My Promethean board is being installed this summer and I wanted to see it used up close and personal. There was no sales pitch going on, just great examples of how to use the boards and voting systems.

I also attended two parties. One was sponsored by Wikispaces and the other one was sponsored by Google. I didn't get pitched by anyone in attendance. Just enjoyed mixing and mingling with people in my PLN.

I think VoiceThread and Common Craft were very smart with how they chose to make their presence at NECC. They didn't get stuck in a booth away from the great conservations that were happening, they got right in the middle of those conversations.

The thing I will take away from your post is "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". I will follow your sage advice at the next conference I attend.

Sharon Elin said...

Lee, thanks for helping see the exhibit hall and the vendors' presence in a more positive way. Frankly, I was put off by what I considered a circus atmosphere of high-pitched sales and promotions.

My impression when looking out over the glitzy vendor area was that education was becoming commercialized, and it seemed misguided to allow companies to profit in such extravagant levels from our attempts to improve teaching.

I wondered about the economic inequity, as well, knowing that only those teachers/districts who can afford such products will be able to benefit from them.

It was good to hear your perspective from "the back end" of these companies and to learn that most of them do truly want to improve and offer their support and help. I'm not totally convinced that their motives are purely altruistic; I still believe their goal is to make profits, so I remain cynical and guarded. But your post helped me open my mind to consider that these vendors -- especially the individual employees representing them in the booths -- may truly care about education and believe that their products will help.

The idea of web 2.0 developers like the VoiceThread creators and the CommonCraft publishers mingling with participants in sessions and workshops appeals to me because it demonstrates a collaborative spirit. By becoming participants rather than vendors, they level the playing field and reveal a sincere professional interest in education and educators. Even better, they are not asking us to purchase an expensive product.

Thank you for raising my awareness to a more open-minded level. I was snarling at the vendors in my mind but you reminded me that there are well-meaning individuals behind every product and application. Communication at NECC and other venues opens doors both ways.

Dean Shareski said...

An important post. You clearly distinguish between vendors who truly want to make a difference and provide meaningful products and those just interested in a sale.

Kinda reminds of the divide we currently see in education between those really wanting to make a difference, recognizing there has to be a different/better way and those who just want to collect a check.

Ultimately those companies who aren't paying attention will lose out. See the Cluetrain Manifesto for more insight.

Mrs. V said...

Lee,

Excellent post and a "new" way to view the vendor exhbit hall. Thanks for your "view" from NECC.

Ideally it would be great if all the vendors could have a similar approach to the one by Voice Thread and Common Craft. But, if all the vendors did that, there would not be the infux of advertising dollars to off set the registration fees for the educators, right?

So, vendors need to be told about what conference participants liked about the way Common Craft and Voice Thread did things.

Then those vendors with more advertising $$, can spend their money in several ways (exhibition hall, smaller teachable moments workshops(even if they add a small fee), and sponsoring "get-togethers" for participants where educators can voice their opinons and needs directly to those who can effect changes.

Just trying to get all the advantages and few of the disadvantages.

Is there any feedback that goes to those exhibiting in the hall? Does NECC consider feedback when planning the next convention?

From a non-physical attending conference voyeur.

andrewbwatt said...

Great post. The CAIS professional development commission I'm on has a hard time attracting vendors to conferences. First, we represent such a small market; second, there's very few single schools represented — so a vendor has to convince 95 schools one by one; third, the schools we represent want vendors to come to them, rather than see products in an exhibitors hall.

I also feel some tension with the vendors' hall. Many companies seemed to be engaged in cynical sales pitches. I saw a company using Raphael's painting THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS as an advertisement for their blocking/filtering solutions. Yet none of the philosophers in the painting would have liked the idea of a safe or secure education; The whole point of education was to break down safe and secure ideas in favor of some higher awareness of real truth. More, the degree to which our edtech people spend their hours massaging our digital filters means that they have almost no time for training our teachers, and the tech we do buy sits unused.

Money for educational tech in many private schools is limited, and as a teacher I have almost no input into what we spend money on. The failures have been costly, and once something broke it was usually difficult to repair or replace.

So in this context, I see the Vendors Hall as being rather like Alladin's Cave of Wonders - I can't expect that I'll ever be able to use any toy or tool in that room except the ones that I can pay for myself. I have to be able to demonstrate its usefulness first to me, then to my colleagues, then to the purchasers at my school, before I can see my students use it. And that's a lot of hard work. A Promethean classroom, then, is way down the list of my priorities — because my school doesn't know about it, doesn't know how to use it, and fears the start-up costs and the risk of breaking it.

Finally, I was shown a lot of poor-quality stuff when it came to content: one online history textbook contained one photo for its entire unit on ancient Greece; no primary sources; and no examination of the art, philosophy, math or science of that place-time. All of that and more is available online, where it's often creativecommons, free, and mashable. VoiceThread and similar tools are going to make the mashup possible, but only if teachers know how to use those tools.

In those contexts, I suspect, many teachers without purchasing authority see the vendors' hall as a place that will rob them and their schools of needed resources — time and money — without providing any real returns.

Lee Kolbert said...

@sharon_elin,
Don't get me wrong, the company's bottom line (including VT and CommonCraft) IS to make money and we can't fault them for that. But in my opinion, the companies will make money when their products truly serve their customers and they won't know that until they listen to them.

@andrea,
I did hear very positive feedback from those booths that featured real educators demonstrating how their products were being used in the classrooms. I think that's another positive move in the right direction.

@mrs v,
I'm not so sure that having a booth is the only way a conference can generate funds from vendors. I still think there is a definite place for the vendor hall and I would not want to see it taken away, but after speaking with some execs from one particular company on how we might pull in more revenue to OUR conference, they suggested offering some opportunities to meet with some grass-roots users in the style of focus-groups, for example. They are not seeing booths nor ads in the programs as cost effective. They are interested in getting in front of the decision makers and getting feedback.

@andrew
I'm sorry things look so bleak at this point in time. I agree with you that Web 2.0 affords us the opportunity to create and engage when the current products given to us by our schools does not. It's a shame we have to work so hard, to fill in the gaps.

Lee Kolbert said...

@Dean
You're right that those not paying attention are going to lose out. We have very different expectations of vendors today than we did even last year. In our district, if a textbook publisher isn't willing to discuss putting their ancillary items in digital form behind our password protected websites for student access, we don't enter into talks with them. Same user rights; just digital.

There are vendors who have lost contracts with us because they are too rigid. They were not listening and I'm sure they wish they had listened and are trying to listen now.

The point being that we can have a say in how our instructional tools are created. By nature, we tend to accept our products as is; out of the box. We are vocal to each other but not too many of us contact the people who can make a real difference.

Just as teachers need to pay attention, so do vendors. Those who aren't will be left behind.

Thanks for your comment.

TJ Shay said...

Lee,

NECC 2007 in Atlanta was my first time and I went as a teacher to represent a company. I watched the company I went with in a very simple homemade looking booth, have conversation after heart felt conversation, with people and caring about the state of education. Looking out on the excess of NECC with some people acting like scavengers going booth to booth seeking free stuff. Some with roller suitcases full. I learned while I was there that it was a non-selling conference and that the company couldn't take orders.

When I returned home, I read on several blogs about the evils of the vendors and how they try to suck people in. That was clearly not my experience. ..In fact, in some ways, it was the opposite. I watched people running around taking from companies that they would never do business with. Not my style, but clearly a common occurrence. Knowing a little about how much everything costs for the vendor, it was obvious that the vendor area defrayed a great deal of the cost for participants. So, free stuff + lower registration, where did someone get off being angry?

Before NECC San Antonio, I learned a very important lesson about the sponsoring organization... In order for products to be 'aligned' to the standards, a company must pay thousands of dollars. I felt somehow duped.

In my three years of working on the vendor floor, I have found the place to be almost everything that has been mentioned above. It is sort of like a circus, with Elvis and pink cars. It is a viper pit at some places with salespeople who will bash other companies (whiteboards come to mind). However, I have met DOZENS of companies who have wonderful people or who engage educators to speak of what their products can do for children. I have been amazed by the friendships I have made with like-minded educators.

So, if you look for something reptilian on the vendor floor, you will find it. But, you can also find every day teachers like me (and Andrea :-) ), supporting something we believe in very much. The only person guaranteed to make money is the sponsoring organization.

Thanks for your excellent post! The thoughts expressed here are my own and don't represent anyone else. I greatly enjoyed meeting you at the Constructivist Celebration which, to me, represents the hope of what can be. Peaceful coexistence of educators and companies with the founding principle of improving education.

Marie Rush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie Rush said...

(Too many typos in the first comment!)

Lee,
Thanks again for your thought provoking post. I was #notatnecc09 but engaged through the network of blogs and Tweets and streams. I have been to other ed tech conferences and the vendor hall was always the place of wonder and wishing. Dreaming of this and that, and being burdened with pamphlets and flyers and keychains and pens. As a classroom teacher (not a decision maker)I would come home energized and disturbed---there was so much available, but never for "me". I would arrive home and look at the collection of dreamy things, and then they would eventually end up in the trash can.

Voicethread has the right idea (well, we know that if we have used their product!). We are now connecting via people, but in a different way. As a virtual attendee, I was happy to be able to not lug around paper, but to bookmark and digg and converse via twitter throughout the conference. Here's to a shift in the vendor hall! We need you, vendors...just a bit differently now!

Sharon said...

Lee,
Great post - I also noticed some differences in the vendors that seemed to really make a difference. I also think that the attitude of the attendees has changed with the economy and web 2.0.
See http://sharonsshare.blogspot.com/2009/07/where-buzz.html

Sharon

stacykasse said...

I wasn't at NECC this year, but I have been to many conferences. I know there are great vendors and teachers who support the product. They make me excited to see what is going to be part of the future, and then also make me a bit sad as I am "only a teacher" and don't have the means or authority to purchase many of the great things. BUT..I do like the vendors' hall and always go because it's fun as long as you know they are out to sell things...that is there job. As an educator we are there to look at things with a critical eye...and to have fun as well.
stacy

mshertz said...

Lee, I couldn't fit all of my thoughts into one post, so I reflected on my blog in response to your entry: Philly Teacher

Lee said...

Hi Lee!
Thanks so much for including Common Craft in the post. We had so much fun at NECC meeting folks like you. As you know, it was our first edu conference and I think, especially having visited the exhibit floor, that a Tweetup was the best option. We were so flattered that so many people showed up. Yaay!

loonyhiker said...

Great post! I think like in every aspect of life, concerning vendors, you will have good ones and you will have some yucky ones. But that is why we need to look closely at products and determine if they fit our needs. I attend the Council for Exceptional Children national conference each year and the exhibit hall with the vendors is one of the highlights for many attendees. There are many give aways and demonstrations. For me, it is a way to see what new products are out there for students and get a better understanding about some products that I'm not sure of. Some of the vendors sponsor many events that wouldn't happen without their sponsorship. I have gotten to know some of them over the years and actually use some of them as a resource when I encounter a problem in my class. I think vendors are an important part of a conference.

Kim Cavanaugh said...

HI Lee--

Very well written posting. Thanks for taking the time.

I've had the good fortune to work with a number of vendors--from some of the largest to small startups--and when I find a company that employs people who are as passionate about education as I am I appreciate the opportunity to engage with them. In some cases I've even made lasting friendships with some of these folks. Many of them care about what we're trying to accomplish and want to find the best way to impact instruction just like I do. It's understood that they also need to make a profit in order for their company to remain viable. But if they're willing to listen and take back to the company educator's ideas for how things should function, how to make them easier, how to set a price that a school can live with--well, I'm all for that.

On the other hand, there are vendors who employ roving carnival barkers at these conventions--good, professional presenters who've never taught a day in their lives. And typically at those booths you'll find salespeople schmoozing with the "decision makers". They don't want to talk to practitioners--they want to get to the people who make decisions.

I like to walk the vendor floor at conferences and I've made some important contacts that started there. But I avoid those vendors who are all about the sale and don't care how they make it.

Kim

Amy said...

Hi Lee,

This is a great post NECC reflection. While I am all about checking out the vendors at any conference to see the latest gadgets and gleam new information and ideas, it speaks volumes when the creators of these tech resources take a more personal approach in making connections with the people who use their resources.

I love that VoiceThread, Common Craft, Glogster and Sue from Edublogs, to name a few, were approachable outside the exhibit hall, As many online conversations as I have had with Ben and Steve, my only regret is that I didn't get a chance to introduce myself to them in person!

Amy

Phil said...

Great post Lee! You provide an important perspective on the role of vendors in the ed-tech market. It's great to see companies that are using innovative strategies to engage & serve their customers.

And I especially appreciate that you don't think sales guy = bad guy. As a former teacher turned ed-tech sales professional, it is always interesting to see the bias that some educators/people have towards vendors.

Lee Kolbert said...

@TJ
It was great meeting you and spending time with you over the course of the few days surrounding NECC. Your presence in the Fablevision booth was successful because you are not only a true educator but because you are passionate about what you do. Many vendors should take notes.

@Marie & @StacyKasse
It's unfortunate that teachers feel frustrated that they have no decision making power. Wouldn't it be nice if there were an area that was marketed more directly at the classroom teacher? I wonder what that would look like?

@mshertz
Thanks for your comment and inviting me to your blog. I left a comment there. Good luck with your DEN Star endeavor. Let me know if you need any assistance.

@Lee (CommonCraft)
Thanks for commenting... you rock! "Yaaaay"

@Loonyhiker
It is true that ultimately, regardless of the vendors' personalities, it is the product that is most important. The product does not exist in a vacuum though, so if the vendor is not willing to listen or coexist with the customer, then the product will fail. Just my 2 cents. :)

@Kim
How hard is it to tell which is the Carnival Barker, who just wants to make the sale, and which is the sincere sales rep who really wants to see his product succeed? Um.. give me 2 minutes with the guy! Done. As you and I know, it is the Carnival Barkers who jump from booth to booth each year at these conferences too.

Thanks for commenting!

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