A Fly (teacher) on the Wall at the WCIT (World Congress on Information Technology)

In mid-October, I had the opportunity to experience a conference different to me than any other. Being a teacher, I typically stick to teacher-organized professional development, although, as a teacher of the arts, I have sometimes been seen at fine arts gatherings. At the 18th World Congress on Information Technology 2012 in Montreal, I was completely out of my element, and yet, the message that was being delivered was not.

The WCIT takes place every two years and, unlike the supposedly International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, which is woefully US-centric, to the extent that their annual conferences take place before the Canadian school year is even done), it convenes at a different location around the world every time (WCIT 2010 was in Singapore, and WCIT 2014 will be in Mexico). The Congress is meant to draw interested parties from the business, medical, government, education, and other spheres in the same location to talk about issues relating to IT. The reason why I say that it wasn’t a whole lot different than my usual fare is because the messages being delivered by many of the speakers were the same that are being delivered by presenters at teachers’ conventions.

A big theme was the way our lives have changed due to the prevalence of technology in our lives today. There were some pretty big names in attendance. His Excellency, the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General, marvelled at how every two days we upload and download more data than has been created in all of history. Dato’ Dan Khoo, Chairman of the WITSA, explained that, in today’s YouTube-driven world, anybody could be the next PSY. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke on the problems that we are solving today with digital tools that could not have been solved in the 20th Century. Taking into account his largely business-focussed audience, Shirky comforted us with the fact that every time you add a phone to the network, you not only add a consumer, you add a producer.

It was the first conference that I’ve been to where I’ve felt genuinely underdressed. Literally every person in attendance wore a dark suit and tie. In my Assistant Principal costume (dress pants, sport jacket, and tie), I was out of place to say the least; two days later, at the Fine Arts Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association conference, they would have looked at me funny dressed that way.

Another aspect that stood out was the calibre of the trade fair presenters. The Congress featured big name companies like Intel, Google, IBM (Dr. Eric Brown from IBM even presented on how Watson “thinks”), and Xerox. Their displays were gigantic and impressive. Google had created a projected Digital River that ran through the Trade Hall, changing from season to season, and responding to the people that walked across it. Intel’s booth was more like a store – not that they were actually selling any products on the floor – with the latest gadgets on display and a horde of representatives eager to tell you about them. As soon as I mentioned that I was an Assistant Principal, the reps generally steered clear from me. Somehow they could tell that I didn’t have any real money to spend on computers…

Overall, the message I took away was that the business world is just as concerned with getting our younger generation comfortable with IT as we teachers are. To industry, it’s a matter of being able to hire people educated locally, and to teachers, it’s to prepare students to be hired. It’s called the “talent mismatch,” according to Wim Elfrink, from Cisco. Kimberly Stevenson, VP and CIO from Intel, made a point of showing off the latest computers designed for classroom use, Margaret Stuart from SAP Americas impressed us with the fact that there are now more mobile devices than toothbrushes, and Karen Price, CEO from e-skills UK, lamented that children in there are taught computer appreciation, rather than coding. Dr. Kellie Lietch, secretary to the Canadian Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, explained that ICT should be a basic skill in school, on par with reading and math.

Another key word at the Congress was “big data.” As teachers, we manage a lot of data too, what with 30 students per class at different levels, several subject areas (especially for an elementary teacher), and the availability of new technologies. We, like industry, are trying to find ways to implement these new tools in a way that benefits and respects all stakeholders.

All in all, it’s a great idea to put yourself out of your comfort zone for a few days. I met people from Nigeria, South Africa, the United States, Ecuador, Canada, and Singapore. I shared my thoughts with people from who-knows-where in the Twitterverse. At times I was engaged, delighted, bored to tears, and provoked. Looking over my tweets from the days that I was at the conference, I see evidence of valuable learning and conversations with other thinkers – not just in the education world – but all with a common purpose, which is to make life just a little bit more manageable for us all.

Andreas Berko is an Assistant Principal and teacher of leftover subjects in Calgary, Alberta
Follow and share ideas with him @techmoberko.
For more information on WCIT 2012, see www.wcit2012.org

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