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A beginner’s guide to ISTE

ISTE is a conference like no other. It will inspire you, motivate you, energize you, and refresh your practice, but it can also be quite daunting. As someone who has attended five of these in the last 10 years, I have learned a few tricks to make the experience a bit easier.
A Beginner’s Guide to ISTE
Using technology for deep learning

ISTE is a conference like no other. It will inspire you, motivate you, energize you, and refresh your practice, but it can also be quite daunting. As someone who has attended five of these in the last 10 years (although I have never been to the conference at this venue), I have learned a few tricks to make the experience a bit easier.

ISTE crowd

The crowd of educators entering ISTE 2016. Picture by Kelli Lane.

Take the Time to Plan

To fully maximize the conference, it takes some planning. This year, even though ISTE is in my backyard, I still rented a hotel room so that I could have the evenings to be social, decompress, and prepare for the next day.

As this is a tech conference, the ISTE 2018 app is a must. It is through the app that updates, changes, and other necessary information is communicated.  There are also contests, announcements and reminders throughout the conference so make sure you allow notifications and do app updates.

Tip : Though general sessions start on June 25th, you can go to the conference center as early as Saturday to pick up your registration materials. This helps you start Monday without the stress of lines. I suggest going Sunday, walking the conference center to figure out the layout, and then staying for the opening keynote Sunday evening.

I am a planner so I begin preparing before the conference by visiting ISTE’s website. There you can explore sessions using a variety of filters such as presenters, days, or session types and favorite them. I like doing this on a computer so that I have the screen real estate to really read descriptions, check out speakers, or compare similar sounding topics.

Sessions favorited will sync with your app when you sign in using the same login information. My first time on the site, I favorite all sessions that interest me. Then, closer to the event, I narrow those to no more than 3 for each block of time. This gives me some flexibility while keeping me from getting overwhelmed.

ISTE also offers a digital tote. This was created to save the links given by presenters and other resource materials. While I keep links to the sessions I actually attend in a Google Doc with my notes, I find the tote is a great way to store links to sessions I was interested in but did not make it to. Then, usually during the summer,  I go back and look through my tote, reaching out via social media to the presenters if I have questions.

Tip: It is good to have more than one choice per time slot as sessions fill up. The conference is pretty good about putting big names in the biggest rooms or streaming popular sessions live in hallway watch areas, but some spaces simply cannot accommodate everyone. Make sure you have an alternative (or two) in case you can’t attend your first choice.

ISTE Session Formats

An ISTE 2016 session

An ISTE 2016 session. Picture by Kelli Lane.

There are many types of sessions listed on the schedule: concurrent sessions, premium content, poster sessions, playgrounds and BYOD’s to start. With so many choices in each category, understanding their format may help you decide what to attend. For the full list of formats check out this information sheet from ISTE.

  • Concurrent sessions are the general conference sessions. They are included with your conference fee and are limited only by the space in the room.
  • Premium content sessions occur before the official conference start. This year these can only be attended by purchasing a $150 upgrade to your registration. Unfortunately this is sold out, and they are not even accepting people for the waiting list. But there are still a lot of pre-conference things to do. Many vendors and organizations such as Seesaw, EdTechTeam, and ICE, among others, have networking events Saturday and Sunday.
  • Poster Sessions are showcases of projects. Think Science Fair. I admit I snubbed this area for the first several ISTE’s I attended, but when I finally visited, I found this invaluable. Teachers are sharing projects they actually did (often with students on site) so you can ask questions, hear the challenges, and see the success. I find this to be a great place to get concrete project ideas.
  • Playgrounds are exactly what they sound like — a chance to get hands-on with tools and really play with them.
  • BYOD are hands-on workshops. They are included in the conference registration, but you have to pre-register to attend. You are allowed one per day. When you pick up your conference packet, you will have tickets for these. Be sure to be there at the time listed as they release the seats not claimed.

Tip: If there is a BYOD you really want to attend, go 30 minutes early and wait in line. You can often get in if you are one of the first few waiting.

If you need help, head to ISTE Central where volunteers can help you find sessions, buy books and swag, sign up for college credits, or answer questions.

The ISTE Exhibit Hall

So your mind is getting full and you need a brain break. The exhibit hall is a high energy, bustling place full of vendors. There is a lot of great swag to collect, but also conversations to learn what products are on the market and how they impact learning. Certainly hit the “big names” (Google, Apple, EdTechTeam), but stop and listen to other vendors as well. Even if you are not responsible directly for purchasing decisions in your district, knowing what is out there can help you know what to advocate for or personally invest in.

There is usually a game where you visit certain vendors, and they sign your card. Once completed, you are entered in a raffle. I prioritize sessions over vendors so I am strategic about who I visit, but if you aren’t sure where to begin, take a couple of hours to simply wander.

Some vendors, like Hapara, will also host mini-sessions in which you can learn about the latest products and how to use them from other educators. You can stay up-to-date on everything that’s happening in the Hapara booth (#2452) at

Tip: You will also receive a book of tickets for individual vendor raffles. In order to participate, you need to fill out their ticket. Since they all ask roughly the same information, rather than handwrite everything, take pre-made stickers with the following information: First & Last Name, job title, Employer, school mailing address, phone number, and email. Many vendors also want to know your role in purchasing so I also add that.

Remember to Feed Your Soul

If you attend all content sessions (which I did the first two years) you can leave overwhelmed! I have learned to also attend sessions that fill me up as a person. Whether this is a keynote, a speaker known for being uplifting (ie #kidsdeserveit), or simply having a conversation with someone between sessions, make sure you leave with enough motivation to sustain you when you go to implement the new things you learn.

Networking is a must. This is an opportunity for you to find your tribe. This could be the social events on Saturday and Sunday or in the evenings (EdTech Karaoke, I am looking at you!) It could be a random conversation started in a session. It might be people you meet at your hotel waiting for the bus. Either way, make sure you connect. Hapara Champions should be on the lookout for an invitation to a Haparty, where they can meet educators from around the world who have also participated in Hapara cadres.

Tip: In order to keep track of all the people you meet, bring business cards if you have them. If you don’t, I keep a note on my phone with my name, job role, school, Twitter handle, and email. Then people can snap a picture. I also suggest writing your social media handle on your name tag.

Final Tips

  • Keep your notes organized. For example, I use a computer at ISTE, but snap pictures of slides with my phone (although thanks to my iPad Pro, this year I am going to try to use that exclusively). I make sure to include a quick caption in my notes that describes the picture so I can go back and add it later. For example, a caption might read pic of slide on open technology jobs. If I don’t do this, I end up with a million pictures and no idea where they connect.
  • In case the wifi goes down, have a backup plan. Maybe use your phone as a hotspot. If you use Google Drive, make sure you have offline mode ready to go. Limit how many devices you have on the network.
  • Everyone will need power during the day. Make sure you have your plug and share outlets. I bring a light extension cord so several people can use one outlet.
  • There are places to buy coffee, snacks, and meals onsite, but it doesn’t hurt to have something in your bag just in case.
  • The buses to/from the hotels are great. They are comfortable and run often. However, there are definitely prime times. If your hotel is not within walking distance, make sure you leave enough time to arrive and be patient.

There are many ways to approach ISTE. No matter your style, you will find such great learning opportunities, you cannot go wrong.

Kelli Lane is a Technology Integration Specialist for the Avoca School District in Wilmette, IL. She has a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology as well as Educational Theatre. Teaching in Kansas City, Dubai and now the suburbs of Chicago, Kelli has been a general ed and computer teacher, tech support, tech trainer, and coach. She has a deep love of “THE GOOGLE” and is obsessed with edtech badges!

Follow Kelli on Twitter or reach out with questions: @kelliupgraded

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