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‘EduCon,’ an ed-tech conference without vendors, set to begin

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s been called "the best bake sale in education."

Friday marks the opening of EduCon 2.7, an unorthodox ed-tech conference that stands apart from other such gatherings because of its approach (a strident commitment to progressive, inquiry-driven teaching), its location (a high school, Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy), and especially for the way it is funded (no vendor sponsorships, product exhibition spaces, or sales pitches allowed, in stark contrast to other large events in the sector).

"We want this conversation to be about pedagogy and what that can look like in a modern environment," said Christopher Lehmann, who founded and leads both EduCon and SLA.

What Lehmann doesn’t want to see at EduCon are educators who think vendors can solve their problems with products. What he does want are "schools, teachers, parents, and students coming together to define a vision and figure out what tools are needed to get us there."

Now in its eighth year, the call-us-a-conversation-not-just-a-conference is expected to attract about 500 attendees. In addition to site visits at SLA, a panel with "visionaries from across a wide spectrum of our world," a "cross-pollination lunch," and loads of informal, enthusiastic shop-talk, EduCon features dozens of call-them-conversations-don’t-call-them-sessions, mostly led by educators.

Potential highlights include:

"The Privileged Voices in Education," a discussion led by popular teacher-blogger Jose Vilson and popular blogger Audrey Watters.
"How Teachers Can Redesign Their Schools," a conversation led by Philadelphia high school teachers Andrew Biros and Joshua Kleiman, whom I featured in Education Week’s "Innovation Gamble" series last year.
"Reinventing Your PLN," led in part by Edutopia contributor Andy Marcinek.
"Breaking the Grit Hammer," an attempt by Albemarle County, Va., Superintendent Pamela Moran and one of her colleagues to challenge the increasingly popular notion that "grit" and "resiliency" are what students — especially those from circumstances of poverty — need to succeed in school and in life. (I’ll be in attendance, covering this session for Ed Week, come holler at me.)
Lehmann, who is widely recognized in the ed-tech world and who was the main subject of our Innovation Gamble series, said he’s seen a "huge deepening of the conversation" during EduCon’s evolution.

"Eight years ago, it was, ‘Hey, look at these ideas!’" he said. "Now, it’s moved to, ‘What does it look like, how do we nuance it, what are the challenges?’"

As the education-policy pendulum has started to swing back in favor of project-based learning, and as educational technologies have become cheaper and more ubiquitous, the circle of people interested in EduCon has also expanded, Lehmann said.

Take, for example, the team from the Henry County, Ga., public schools that will be making its first trip to the conference this weekend. The district recently became one of six school systems across the country to win a Next Generations Systems Initiative grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With consulting help from Inquiry Schools, a new nonprofit organization whose board is chaired by Lehmann and whose sole staffer is close Lehmann ally Diana Laufenberg, educators in Henry County are looking to merge new technology systems with a competency-based course progression for students and hands-on projects in middle school classrooms.

"We’re at the beginning of our journey," said Karen Perry, a project manager for the district. "Our purpose is to learn more from Science Leadership Academy. A lot of the things we’re aspiring to do, they’re already doing really well."

Henry County Assistant Superintendent Aaryn Schmuhl said he was looking forward to EduCon’s sales-pitch-free environment.

"Often, [ed-tech conferences] become more about what a vendor is able to provide than about what a school really needs," Schmuhl said. "I think there’s a lot of value in teachers being able to learn from other teachers, then go out and search for products in a more informed way."

For the record, company representatives are allowed at EduCon — but only as participants, not as sponsors, presenters, or ware-hawkers.

Also for the record, Lehmann said he is a fan of, and regular attendee at, the more vendor-driven ed-tech events, including the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (which will also be held in Philly this year.)

"Stuff is good, and people are talking about big ideas at ISTE, too," Lehmann said. "There is space for both of these things."

That was also the take of the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based industry trade group.

"SIIA believes that important partnerships and professional learning arise from discussions, informal and formal, between educators and education technology developers," wrote Mark Schneiderman, the group’s senior director of education policy, in an email. "At the same time, educators as well as developers certainly benefit from opportunities to interact alone with just their peers."

Registration for EduCon is still open.

The event is expected to raise about $50,000. The money left over after expenses—usually around $20,000, Lehmann said—goes directly to the operating budget of SLA, which, like other Philadelphia public schools, is laboring under the district’s ongoing budget crisis.

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at Education Week.