The building blocks of a meaningful ISTELive conference

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Sunday, June 11, 2023

The building blocks of a meaningful ISTELive conference

The ISTELive Conference is one of my very favorite professional learning events. 

In a word, it's an experience.

ISTELive  (International Society for Technology in Education) is a multi-day professional learning event every June.

  • More than 14,000 educators participate on-site -- with thousands more attending virtually.  
  • More than 1,000 sessions ("learning opportunities") are offered by more than 1,600 presenters.
  • Hundreds of exhibitors pack a vendor hall bigger than a football field.

I've been attending ISTELive for more than 10 years -- the first two by following the conference hashtag from home, then almost every in-person conference since.

It can be overwhelming, and it can feel like you’re missing out. Any conference can feel like that.

Here’s a way to rethink conferences so you don’t get swept away:

Conferences are kind of like a big box of LEGO:

  • You have tons of different bricks that can be used for a variety of reasons.
  • Not every brick is a perfect fit for every job.
  • You don’t have to use every brick in the box to get the job done.
  • Some people will use different bricks than you, and that’s OK.

Really, you make your own conference experience — whether it’s a huge conference like ISTELive or a smaller one.

You choose the bricks. You make what you want.

After having attended dozens and dozens and dozens of conferences — and all of those ISTELive conferences — here are some of the building blocks I see to crafting a great experience. Pick and choose the LEGO in this “set” as you wish.

If there’s a “brick” that isn’t on this list, please add it in the comments below!


1. Pick a session outside your comfort zone.

At any conference, ISTELive or otherwise, you’ll find sessions that are packed because they’re expected topics — stuff that has “Google Classroom,” “Office 365,” “Kahoot!”, etc. in the title. People know what they’re getting, and many times, they don’t get a ton out of those sessions. Be brave. Stretch your comfort zone and try something you don’t know anything about. Or something that makes you uncomfortable. You may open a door to a whole new instructional strategy or method you wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

2. Don’t be afraid to leave sessions.

Your time is valuable at a conference — especially at the ISTE conference, where many educators attend at great personal or school district expense. If a session isn’t all you hoped it would be and there’s another you’d like to go to, get up and leave. It’s OK. The presenter’s feelings won’t be hurt (or they will get over it). You have to do what’s best for you.

3. Seek out goodies in the vendor hall.

I have an unhealthy addiction to free pens. For my wife, it’s sticky notes. I get all stocked up by walking up and down the aisles of vendor halls. If there are products you LOVE (or at least like), grab some freebies there. (And it’s OK to grab freebies at the ones you don’t know. I got a really cool notebook from an energy management company!)

Pro tip: Get a bag from a vendor while you’re there to stash your goodies in. Then you can leave that bag in your hotel room so your backpack isn’t loaded down!

4. Go deep with 1-3 vendors (if you want).

Let’s be honest. Vendors are in the vendor hall because they want to make money. They need to sell stuff. But they’re also there to help, and many of them want to help as much as (or more than) they want to sell. If you use a product and the vendor’s there, you have one-on-one access to some of the smartest people when it comes to that product. Use that access for your benefit and really learn from them.

5. Find mini sessions in the vendor hall.

At bigger conferences, the vendor booths aren’t just for selling products and distributing mini Snickers. Many vendors offer very useful presentation sessions for educators — sometimes as good or better than the official ISTE sessions. For example, I have presented several times in the Samsung booth, doing 20-minute sessions on whatever I think educators really want to know. Some vendors have small (or large!) presentation theaters to host presentations in their booths. There’s no pressure to buy, and I’ve had people tell me that these little sessions were better than other presentations they went to that day.

6. Share to the #ISTELive hashtag.

At many conferences — and definitely at the ISTE conference — there’s a TON of dialogue going on via social media. Twitter is my go-to social media platform for many conferences. Checking the conference hashtag (#ISTELive) lets you sit in virtually on sessions you couldn’t go to. Be sure to tweet the key points and new ideas from sessions so others can benefit as well. Those tweets will be seen the world over, so you can help out someone who can't be at that session in person!

7. Google Doc (that’s a verb) your notes.

Taking notes at a session? Consider taking them in a Google Doc (or a Word doc online or a shared Wakelet collection). Then share a link to those notes on Twitter. In Google Docs, you can use an “anyone with the link can view” link so others can find YOUR notes. However, you could share an "anyone with the link can EDIT" link where they edit it to add their own notes!) This way, others at the conference — and anywhere in the world — can learn what you’re learning. You’ll be able to refer back to your own notes later, and others will truly benefit from your work as well. Don’t just keep it to yourself!

8. Don’t lunch alone (exception: introverts).

Lunch is a great time to catch up with others. You can share what you’ve been learning, but you can also develop great relationships over a Subway sandwich and chips. (Although I’m sure you can do better than Subway for lunch at a conference …) I’ve had great success planning lunches with others as well as finding someone on the fly. Pretty much everyone breaks for lunch at some point, and no one likes to eat alone. (Note: If you’re an introvert and all of the people and noise and crowded spaces are overwhelming, there’s no shame in finding a quiet place to be alone and recharge.)

9. Check out the poster sessions.

Not all of the sessions at ISTE are those where you crowd into a room and listen to a presenter! Lots of amazing educators doing great things in their classroom offer poster sessions. In these poster sessions, they display a poster of their work and they stand next to it, waiting for YOU to hear about their project or ask questions. This is a great way to meet some new people face to face and get some great ideas.

10. Check out the playgrounds.

If you love getting your hands dirty with new technology, playgrounds are for you! They have lots of new gadgets and apps you can try out yourself. Plus, there are facilitators who can guide you and answer questions -- or they'll just leave you alone while you learn on your own!

11. Sketch what you learn.

I’m a HUGE fan of sketchnoting (visual notetaking). The verbal/visual connection that happens is very brain friendly, and they’re lots of fun to create. You can post to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with the conference hashtag. Check out these examples sketchnotes by myself and other amazing sketchnoters!

12. Choose your equipment wisely.

Don’t feel like you have to schlep your laptop, Chromebook, iPad and smartphone all over the conference. They’ll be heavy and you won’t find that you’ll use them all. (Or you won’t use them all enough to justify lugging them all over the conference.) For me, I’ll probably either use my Microsoft Surface Pro because I can sketch visual notes digitally to share AND type notes to share … see #7 above). I’d advise to stick to one device and pick it based on what you want to do.

Pro tip: If you have a portable battery charger, bring it and keep it charged up! 

13. Choose your wardrobe wisely.

A few suggestions about what to wear:

  • Don’t get too formal. At most conferences — especially at ISTE — dress is very casual. Shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes are totally acceptable. (But, of course, it’s totally up to you!)
  • Comfortable shoes are a must. Bring whatever’s going to support your feet best. Take care of your feet, especially in a multi-day event like ISTELive.
  • Dress in layers or bring layers. Some presentation rooms will get blasted with air conditioning and will freeze you. In hot destinations, it’s gonna be scorching hot outside. Be prepared to shed or add layers.

Pro tip: Consider bringing a backpack. I’ve always had one at ISTE and other conferences. They’re easy to transport. You distribute weight between both shoulders. Plus, they’ve got plenty of storage space.

14. Talk to presenters.

Session presenters aren’t these inaccessible figureheads that don’t want to mingle with commoners. They’re educators just like you. They present because they want to help people. If you have questions or just want to introduce yourself, most of them welcome it! Feel free to go to the front of the room after your session to say hi. (Before the session, they may be busy getting ready to present, so you might wait until the end.)

15. Talk to people next to you.

Be brave and strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to you in a session, at the keynote or at lunch. Conferences are full of educators who want to improve and who are already doing amazing things in their schools. You may be surprised at how easy it is to start talking and trading ideas. (And if someone isn’t in the mood, that’s OK … smile, say “have a nice day” and move on!)

16. Be careful.

Whenever you get around lots of people, there are inherent dangers. I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe at an ISTE conference (or at any conference I can think of), but no matter where you go, there will be people who want to take advantage of others. Travel in groups when you can. Keep an eye on your valuables. Be aware of the behavior of others and try to avoid situations that put you at risk. ISTE continually revises its code of conduct and expected behavior in response to any reports from its participants. Those policies might not be there if there weren’t incidents in the past. Just be aware.

17. Eat.

Trust me … it’s easy to get wrapped up in the experience and forget. One time, I was so busy that I went until after 4:00pm without eating. Then, I started getting woozy. I don't recommend it! Take some snacks with you. Skip a session and take an hour for lunch. Don’t skip breakfast. Sustain yourself for the long haul of the conference.

18. Attend virtually!

You haven't always been able to attend ISTELive virtually, but now, there are some really, really great virtual offerings. You can attend virtually at a significant cost savings to attending in-person, and you get access to hundreds of sessions -- some virtual-only sessions, some sessions streamed live during the conference, and lots of recorded sessions to watch later. Go to the ISTELive Conference website to find registration options.

19. Get the ISTELive app.

If you're attending the conference in-person, the app is the best way to keep track of everything. It has all of the sessions in one place -- and they're searchable and sortable. You can mark the sessions you want to attend so you don't miss anything. The app also gives you push notifications to remind you of things that are happening in the moment. There are maps and all sorts of handy resources. It's a must-have to navigate the conference.

20. Understand that you can't do everything.

And that's OK! This conference is the size of a small city, and it's only around for less than a week. There is NO WAY you'll be able to do everything. Come to terms with it. Make peace with it. Then, start to make a prioritized plan. What are the most important things you want to do? Make room in your schedule for opportunities to explore and discover things you didn't plan. Sometimes, those are the best parts!

What other tips do you have for a meaningful ISTELive experience? Leave them in a comment below!

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  • Tiffani Keen says:

    Listening to sessions outside of presentations is a very good tip, what people expect to be the least important could end up being the most interesting and educational. I’m sure great connections can be made at these conferences as well through speaking to presenters or just people who happen to be at the conference.

  • Debbie says:

    Bring a refillable water bottle. Drink. Take notes and review them in the evening. Highlight any that you believe you can use right away to solve a problem you’re having. I totally agree about stepping out of your comfort zone! You can do it!

  • […] 15 building blocks to a meaningful #ISTE17 (or any conference) | Ditch That Textbook […]

  • Lance McClard says:

    Take time to reflect after each day at a conference. If you are with a team, come together and share as well. List your top two to three priorities to accomplish your goals following the conference. Then determine manageable steps. Too often educators leave a conference with tons of great ideas swirling in their head, but get back and conduct their class the same way. Or they try to do everything they learn and become overwhelmed.

  • Marti says:

    Go with questions or problems you want to solve. They become magnets to great answers.

  • […] 15 Building Blocks to a Meaningful #ISTE17 […]

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