Best Buy's ad space at ISTE2015

Best Buy’s ad space at ISTE2015

In the day- and-a-half I have spent at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference in Philadelphia, I have come to a troubling, but inescapable, conclusion:

Money Is An Issue.

This is not news to anyone in education. In fact, it is such an obvious conclusion that any reader who has spent a day in a classroom might be saying, “Yeah? And?” Fair enough. But there is education money, and there is the amount of money that is at stake at ISTE 2015.

Every space, surface, consumable, and activity at ISTE’s conference is branded. Best Buy’s education arm purchased the foot-wide space between the up and down escalators in the Pennsylvania Convention Center; one need only look down to find their booth number. Banner ads scroll constantly on the conference app’s main page. Push notifications, breakfasts, happy hours, keynotes, signage, free water ice, charging stations, bloggers’ lounges, video feeds, the program guide…they’re all brought to you by someone selling something. When a speaker mentions a new product from a particular tech giant, you might wonder if there’s a genuine affinity between speaker and gadget, or if there’s more to the story. Swag is everywhere and free for the taking. On Monday, I passed a line of at least 20 people waiting patiently at a booth, the most people I had seen at any expo space. What was all the fuss about? Free t-shirts in three styles, plus bonus tote bags. The hapless sales rep in the next booth eyed the queue wistfully. He must have known that his company missed the Boat of Commerce.

Meanwhile, 25 aisles over, a slight woman named Estella welcomed all comers onto her bus. She answered questions in measured tones, with great detail and greater patience – she probably answered many of the same questions all day. She admitted that she had just arrived in town at five a.m., and was leaving straight from ISTE to get to New Orleans for another conference. She was, she said, a little tired.

Estella spent more than 50 years in the classroom and in the guidance office, working with all grades. She said that after she retired from teaching, she felt like she had more to give to kids, and wasn’t ready to stop giving. With her husband’s and children’s blessings, she sold many of her assets, took a chunk of her pension money, bought a bus, and had it refurbished as a computer lab on wheels. Seventeen computers. Flat panel TV screens. Adjustable seats. Carpeting. Headphones that enabled easily-distracted kids to better hear audio files. Storage areas and a refrigerator for snacks. Estella drives the bus from community to community in Palm Beach County, FL, wherever underserved children needed access to technology. Everything kids needed to log on was on that first bus; until, of course, she found that her students needed more and she bought a second bus.

Bus Two is a fully-wireless affair with 31 learning stations, which can accommodate up to 100 users on its wifi connection. Estella said that she designed the bus to better utilize her resources and expand services to cater to students’ technological needs. Bus Three is in the works; she imagines interactive centers for small group work, robotics lab equipment, and utilities for app development, all for Palm Beach County’s most tech-deprived kids. She realizes that need is not limited to her area: “I want to see a bus in every city in the country,” she declared. Estella estimates that her buses have reached some 61,000 students between 2012 and 2014. Expanding the Brilliant Bus program according to Estella’s vision could provide tech access to hundreds of thousands more.

However, it would appear that Money Is An Issue.

Estella’s website lists partnerships with organizations that range from the city of Belle Glade, FL, to Microsoft.  However, she and her Board of Directors still maintain a Network for Good online donation site for individual contributions to the tax-exempt, non-profit organization. The informational materials handed out by the Brilliant Bus team were not slick: a brochure possibly created on MS Publisher, and a business card that could easily have come from an online printer. All the relevant information was provided; the packaging, however, was distinctly humble next to the flashing LED lanyards, printed totebags, and enormous banners brandished by other exhibitors at ISTE.

To see Estella’s Brilliant Bus situated near $50,000 3D printers, cutting-edge interactive whiteboards, and the latest in Learning Management System software, you may notice, as I did, that Estella and her kids are at a distinct disadvantage. As fantastic an idea as the rolling computer lab is, cash-strapped districts can’t park one outside permanently. After a day or two, the bus leaves and the kids who need it most have to wait their turn while equally needy kids in other towns get to use the bus for a day or two. Technological progress doesn’t wait…but learning must. Sorry, kids.

Are we willing to allow children to wait for the next bus? For all the talk about using technology to close the Achievement Gap, are teachers and administrators ready to demand that resources be moved to the areas of greatest need? What would happen, I wonder, if the ISTE conference was a smaller affair? If the ad budgets shrank a bit? If there was less selling, and more investing? Perhaps it is naïve to wonder about this; such a grandly-scaled affair is not likely to fall victim to austerity if so much money can be made from its growth. But isn’t this a metaphor for education in America, where shiny, fancy, valuable resources are often squandered in the name of “achievement” (whatever that means), while the kids who need access the most have to depend on strangers’ largesse and the vagaries of the economy to (maybe) compete?

This is not an ISTE problem, nor is it Estella’s problem. This is an educator problem. As long as we teachers agree to pay the registration fees, eat the free food, stand in line for the t-shirts, and allow ourselves to be razzle-dazzled by the slickness of it all, the money will flow freely, high above the quarters where it is most needed. Next year, another vendor will purchase the space between the escalators in a Denver convention center, and perhaps Rocky Mountain-themed treats will fall into the tote bags of eager educators. This will continue until we refuse to participate, until we demand that corporate money flows toward equity in technological education and away from distractions.

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