Alan Levine of Maricopa and cogdogblog posts (as he has before) about the general woorthlessness of the big edu-cons, just right at the moment when I happen to be at one of them.

He has some valid points about visiting the exhibit hall just to grab the schwag (OK, I’m guilty of that, sometimes, I admit it), and sitting in the keynote and checking email or blogging (I’m guilty of that right now, although if the damn wifi in this conference center were working, I wouldn’t have to be writing this on the Treo with Vagablog!).

But I think he’s a little over-jaded (no pun on his url) and over-curmudgeonly…probably as a result of over-exposure. He’s a lot more of a longer-established and more experienced edtech hotshot than I am, and I think there’s a whole big world of faculty/admins/ID folks who are even less-experienced with even more to learn than me.

There’s a danger, when you spend a lot of time in the circle where innovation happens, of forgetting just how much of what is already old hat to people like Alan (and, increasingly, me) is still decidedly new hat to huge numbers of people who really do learn new things from these conferences.

And beyond that, even for hotshots and moderately warm shots like me, there are still opportunities to glean some little gems even from generally commonplace blahblah keynotes. For example, Tracy Futhey’s keynote about “Technology Initiatives to Move the Campus Forward” at Duke and Carnegie Mellon this morning, in addition to some general principles about risks, benefits, and challenges of tech innovation with which I’m very familiar (and others probably are, too), made a very intriguing side point. In talking about Duke’s famous (or infamous) Ipod project, she mentioned the later, almost incidental, addition of voice recorders to the Ipods.

This goes to a much larger and more important point about technology helping students to create and publish content, instead of (as is too often the case) merely passively consuming it. That’s not a point I really needed reminding of, but it is a point that is good (and provocative) to see new examples of. A conference like this can sometimes plant these little seeds which get mulled about, discussed over lunch or on the bus to UCLA, and then brought back home for more thought, new ideas, and to be used as handy pullquotes and name-dropping when talking to senior administrators (“at Duke they’re doing such and such”).

There’s also (as Alan acknowledges) the benefit of meeting and talking to people. This morning (and it’s not yet 11 AM) I’ve already had some good conversation with colleagues from Virginia Beach, Pomona, Newark, and Egypt.

But none of this really negates what I see as Alan’s major criticism (and I heard the same criticism from a guest-wish I remembered her name-on Chris Pirillo’s podcast). At all these conferences, no matter how we talk about educational innovations (especially enabled by technology), we really only hear about those innovations. At the conference itself, we don’t really do anything except sit and listen to a 50-minute-with-a-powerpoint, with maybe (at most) a few minutes for questions. Nothing active, nothing participatory, nothing innovative. We sit in air-conditioned rooms and hear about tools and techniques which are exactly the opposite of what we’re experiencing at the conference.

That’s an excellent point, and I would love to see a conference which does things differently.