The Value of Paper at a Digital Conference

This is a guest post by Elizabeth McDowell.  You can find her on Twitter @ateachintime.


I have a hard time saying no.

Chalk it up to years of experience in retail, but I can’t walk past someone soliciting my attention to talk about their product. For nine years, part of my responsibility was to stand at the door of my store with a stuffed animal – usually a puppy on roller skates pulling off tricks with a leash – doing every family friendly thing I could to get people to come inside. I know what it feels like to try and shout the loudest into the crowd. So when a vendor or presenter catches my eye at a conference, they have me hooked. I have to listen to their spiel, whether it’s relevant to me or not.

I come away with a LOT of paper.

There’s a good argument that we’re in the 21st Century. The ISTE conference is a gathering of people who love to nerd out over tech. We all have at least two, usually more, devices on us at any point in time. I personally carried, my laptop, my phone, and my iPad mini just to make sure I could participate in anything. Surely we could collect, collate, and share all our resources digitally? Why waste trees? Certainly the QR code was a ubiquitous feature in every hall, from the Expo, to the Posters, to the Playgrounds. But I can tell you now, I’ve lost them all. What I’m taking home with me is the paper.

This was my first ISTE conference. It moved FAST. There was so much to see and do. Processing it all on the spot was not something in the cards for me. When I sat in sessions, I took copious notes. I was able to type quickly and record any URLs or presentations I wanted to access again later. However, with new posters going up every two hours, over 1000 vendors, and people crowding every table to hear on the fly presentations and demonstrations, I couldn’t record and remember everything I wanted. Sure. Those QR codes were available, but they required a) I could get close enough for a good shot b) I was getting all the information (some tables had more than 5 QR codes) c) the internet was good enough at that moment to load the information (not happening in the expo hall in particular), and d) that I would remember that information was stored somewhere in one of the now 90+ windows I have open in Safari.

This is where paper comes into play.

Bag in hand, I set out into the conference. Sometimes I intentionally collected paper. The poster sessions in particular, if there was a business card (gotta grow that PLN!) or sheet explaining the program, tool, or strategy, I took it. Sometimes, I stopped at a booth that seemed relevant to a topic I was trying to broaden my understanding of – or if, as noted above, they managed to catch my eye. If I listen to someone, I feel compelled to grab literature. For me, it’s a sign that I took what they had to say seriously and that I will at least give some personal time later to reflect on what they offered. Others, it was a product an educator just can’t refuse. You can pretty much always identify an educator by how excited they get over a new pack of Sharpies or dry erase markers. How did I NOT know about friction erasing Pilot pens and markers until now? Of COURSE I want a flyer telling me about all the varieties! Often, paper was shoved into my hand as I passed. Honestly, many times I was dropping off a raffle ticket and felt compelled to take information as a thank you for offering a nice prize that garnered my attention.

Into the bag it went.

Tomorrow is the last day of the conference. I have at least walked the entirety of the Expo hall. I have attended several Poster and Playground sessions. Now I am processing.

Yes, a lot of this is going in the trash. Maybe it’s not relevant, or it was time sensitive (schedules, raffles, etc). This is the argument against paper; clutter, trash and waste. But a lot of it is NOT. Aside from the trash pile, I have several other piles.

What I decided to keep and why.

I am wearing multiple hats at this conference. I am currently a classroom teacher. I teach high school social studies. I am also working on transitioning into a School Based Technology Specialist (SBTS). In this role, I would not only be shifting from a focused classroom scale, but also very likely be working with elementary or middle school teacher populations; something for which I need to grow experience and awareness. While the STRATEGIES I am familiar with are adjustable, the technology, programs used, and permission structures are very different.

I don’t know where I’ll be in September. Or the year after that. Maybe I’ll still be in a classroom. Perhaps I’ll be at a new school working with an entirely different demographic of students and teachers. Who knows? I could be in a position I don’t yet envision. The point is, I want to grow in as many directions as possible.

I now have multiple resources for my classroom and for coaching; secondary and primary. I have the names and contact information for people whose work I admired. I have tools for professional learning – both my own and how to create that learning for others. I have information on technology I’m personally inspired by (VR), concepts my district has been focusing on for the past few years (flexible seating) that I want to bring to my own room but could just as easily use to support colleagues, and school level programs my current school and pyramid are just beginning to implement (makerspaces). I have a new interest in sessions I want to attend on the last day, and a few people I want to go back to and talk to in more depth. I also have a handful of things I want to keep and reflect on at home.

Each of the piles I kept also support the sessions I chose to attend. They expand on these ideas, giving me a physical reminder of what I have stored digitally. The sessions are wonderful, and I’ve learned a lot, but they are an in-depth look at much broader concepts. My first session was on being mindful about setting up makerspaces, thinking about what kind of products you want students to produce and the workspace setup that will work within your school’s footprint and needs. But now that I had that information, and the concept of a blueprint, what was out there to put IN it? Handouts gave me an idea of the array choices and let me quickly organize them in one place without having to search through a ton of URLs, hoping I didn’t miss one. There’s still comfort in tactile.

Some of these tools and resources will never be adopted in my district, are too expensive to be reasonably incorporated, or are simply not big enough to support our population. I’m glad I have the information anyway. It’s encouraging to know the breadth of resources out there. It’s gratifying to know education is a huge industry and that some of my crazy ideas aren’t so crazy after all and there are people and tools to help support it. It’s reassuring to know that if I look hard enough, even if one tool doesn’t fit, I don’t need to force it, I can find something that does. It’s nice to know there’s POSSIBILITY. And now I know exactly where to find it.

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