Thursday, June 27, 2013

Minding Our Business

Expo forklift
flickr photo shared by Scott McLeod

Who here likes unsolicited advertising?  Pushy sales people intercepting your natural flow to tell you about a product that will make your life amazing?  Flyers thrown at you while you are just making your way to your next destination?  Oh, you kind of hate that? Yeah, me too.

Education is a business.  A huge business, in fact.  Whether it is a new tech toy, an advanced degree, or just regular school supplies and text books, these companies are serious about the business of education.  At ISTE, this is always on full display in the Expo area.  Companies gathered to sell their products.  The Expo can be an amusing experience, traveling from booth to booth, getting hand-outs and trying new products.  Ok, I am fine with that.

But what happens when that moves outside that enclosed area and begins to intrude on the more intimate interactions taking place? This year, I had two experiences that really turned me off to the corporate companies at ISTE.  Both took place in the Blogger's Cafe, which is a space for conference attendees to meet-up, charge-up, and hang out.  It can be a relaxing space and a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the conference day.

As I sat on the floor with another teacher from Baltimore (this was our first in-person meeting after communicating throughout the year), we were engaged in a rich conversation of changing the geography of the classroom.  His school is getting rid of desks and replacing them with rolling, foldable tables.  He made a quick comment about Promethium boards not being as useful in that space any more, considering the learning did not take place at the front of the room, but instead, well, anywhere they wanted.

Like a vulture, a gentleman in a stiff suit swooped in, business card in hand.  Yup, you guess it.  He worked for Promethium.  He couldn't help but overhear our conversation and wanted to talk to us about some other tools the company had developed.  Seriously?  Yes.

The second instance was much less obtrusive but almost more insulting.  I was sitting with Chris Lehmann making plans to visit his school and a gentleman walks between us, drops some promotional flyers on the table, and walks away.  This within itself is not a huge intrusion, but the table had probably five or seven different product flyers scattered around, so I am assuming a number of conversations were disrupted this way.  Additionally, he couldn't even be bothered to know if this product was at all useful to us, as he clearly had no intention of actually engaging in a conversation.

Juxtaposed to the advertising and "big business" presence at ISTE are the start-up companies.  Many of these companies are comprised of young professionals that moved from the classroom into building a business with the purpose of improving the lives of teachers and students.  Most did not have booths in the Expo and they were not hulking people in the Blogger's Cafe.  They reached out on social media and met up with people voluntarily, they threw a couple parties, and most importantly, they had some very meaningful conversations with me and others.  I understand they have a product to sell too, but there was a human element involved, a more substantial connection.  They wanted to know me, what I did, and how I felt.  They take my feedback and they listen to my opinions.  In fact, a lot of their products are free (a four letter F word in the business world).

What does this mean for the future of education?  What could happen if these companies were successful enough to sustain themselves over time?  How does this change the educational landscape? Could we replace the business of education with companies that love learning rather than money?

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