If online learning is education’s new frontier, iNACOL’s Virtual School Symposium is a massive rodeo of vendors and educators each trying to come to grips with the surging growth in online learning. It is without doubt the most influential online learning conference in the world. Each year the event seems to grow in scope and extravagance, and this year’s 2010 conference, held in Glendale, Arizona, continued that trend. This was my second trip to the conference, and I thought I’d offer up some observations.
Compared to last year, the vendor influence at this year’s conference was stronger and more pervasive. One of the questions that program directors in the online world face is to what degree you create your own course content and to what degree you buy vendor-created content. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, it’s clear which side of the fence has the money. The Twitter stream was flooded with vendors exhorting participants to visit their booths and sign up to win one of a bazillion iPads, iPods, and Kindles given away at the event. (Not that I ever won one, mind you.) Many vendor booths are staffed with not one or two, but whole teams of company representatives. One vendor, K12/Aventa, rented out the entire Arizona Cardinals’ stadium and treated all the participants, easily numbering over 1,000, to free dinner and drinks. The vendors exhale money, and as an facilitator on a teacher’s salary and $35 a day per deim, I felt I was in a land of unusual extravagance.
Perhaps as a result of this, the conference felt more like a business conference than it did an educational conference. Educators share a common fashion style, and this year I felt in the minority as I watched polished dressers with nice watches and groomed hair flitting about the conference. At one booth, a vendor asked me a series of screening questions, and when I apparently passed the test, exclaimed, “Okay, you are the one I need to talk to…” and only then started to explain his product. I wonder what would have happened if I had said I was a teacher instead of an online learning facilitator in charge of program content.
In many ways this trend towards the business side of online learning is unfortunate, because it’s very clear that vendors have gained extraordinary influence in the content of the conference. K12/Aventa, the company that sponsored the stadium event, received five coveted presentation slots over the two days of the conference. A “panel discussion” at the whole group luncheon on the first day was more a series of product demonstrations than it was engaging discussion.
This sort of overwhelming vendor influence creates an impression of online learning that could easily lead a newcomer to think that the question is not whether you build or buy content, but rather which vendor should you buy it from. This isn’t to say that vendors aren’t providing an excellent service; we use some vendor-content from most of the major providers in our program’s courses and value the quality content that they provide. However, open source learning management systems like Moodle and grassroots strategies to build quality content were an afterthought in the vendor-dominated atmosphere. And this is a shame, because iNACOL leadership could be invaluable in developing the opportunities inherent in open educational resources and open source content. By siding with vendors so heavily, iNACOL appears to have conceded the field to business interests.
Having said all this, I do applaud iNACOL for providing more information on particular breakout sessions in the conference guide. It was easier this year to identify and avoid presentations that were product demonstrations, and much easier to find some outstanding breakout sessions. Each time slot had one or two worthwhile sessions on various aspects of online learning. I was also able to meet a dozen or so like-minded organizations and individuals, and the connections that came about through those meetings will likely improve the work our District is doing. From a value perspective, I was glad I attended the Virtual School Symposium.
In the end, though, I’m not sure I’ll be going next year, as I’d like to attend an online conference where there is less of a vendor-dominated atmosphere. I had to work hard to make this year’s Virtual School Symposium a worthwhile experience. I’d much prefer to go to a conference where I’m not hunting through a list of 20 breakout sessions to find the two or three that focus on something other than a vendor-driven agenda, and not scrolling through ten “visit-our-booth-and-win-a-free-iPod” Twitter posts to find an insightful comment on online learning.