Category Archives: Technology

Five edtech trends from the ISTE 2019 exhibit hall

BrainPOP’s beloved mascot Moby and some other guy.

If there’s a place for conspicuous tech consumption in education, it’s ISTE. The annual event– named for the association that runs it, the International Society for Technology in Education — is the world’s second-largest edtech conference and trade show, behind Bett in London.

This year’s ISTE was in Philadelphia, drawing more than 20,000 participants. If you’re in or interested in K-12 edtech and didn’t get a chance to walk the ISTE exhibit hall, here are five easily digestible observations. In, of course, tweet form.

Yes, ISTE 2020 will be in Anaheim, specifically June 28 through July 1. Expect more tweets. And mascots.

An industry insider’s edtech conference guide

The sign outside 2019’s ASU GSV conference in San Diego, with X marking ten years.

ASU GSV. SIIA. SXSW EDU.

No, these are not scattered arrangements of alphabet blocks from an especially precocious early learning classroom. They’re abbreviations for major conferences for companies in the education industry.

I’ve been attending, and occasionally speaking at, these events and their predecessors for more than two decades. What sets them apart from purely teacher-focused conferences is that industry players aren’t viewed mainly as vendors who pony up for a sponsorship or exhibit booth. Instead, in nearly every case, they’re primary conference attendees.

The last time I took a detailed look at the industry conference landscape for EdSurge was in 2014. That was early in the days of low-cost cloud computing enabling a multitude of new edtech startups, really fast internet beginning its spread to schools, and Chromebooks starting their climb to ascendance in U.S. K-12 classrooms as a 1:1 mobile device.

Five years later, these developments didn’t just upend the classroom. They have upended the industry and how it’s reflected in the events that cater to industry companies, investors, and executives at every level from preschool to workforce learning.

If you work inside, or are deeply interested in, the industry, here’s a new assessment of a handful of the most prominent U.S. events. Yes, ISTE, EDUCAUSE, CoSN and other educator-focused conferences remain vitally important to the industry, too, and have gone through some of their own changes (for example, the “F” in FETC no longer means “Florida” but “Future of” Education Technology Conference). There are also other highly specialized and invitation-only industry conferences. But the general, high-profile events that follow are where more industry deals are done and difficult business decisions are discussed.

Here’s how the alphabet blocks are currently stacked: who’s on top, who’s fallen off the pile, and why you might want to play. Or at least go to watch the players.

ASU GSV Summit

If there was any doubt, this year’s event put it to rest: ASU GSV Summit is the must-attend conference for education technology investment, with business deals and policy issues buttressing the financial focus. Held in early April, ASU GSV’s 10th annual event in 2019 drew an estimated 4,900 people to San Diego with celebrity and political headliners providing a star-studded umbrella under which rainmakers prospered.

Its growth has been stunning. From 240 attendees a decade ago when first held by Arizona State University and the investment firm GSV (Global Silicon Valley) Advisors, ASU GSV Summit blew past the 2,000 attendees figure in 2014, outgrew its Scottsdale home, and now is bursting at the seams in San Diego. The event tweeted that it was “sold out” a week before it began this year and started a waiting list. And it’s not exactly the lowest-priced conference option: Last-minute walk up registration was a few bucks under $3,200.

Even if you didn’t attend keynotes featuring Tony Blair, Common, and—yes—Sesame Street, the programming provided measured insights on the state of the industry, ranging from “preK to Gray.” Everyone from large company CEOs and major investors to startups and nonprofit institutions attend. I found that if you simply stood in a hallway, it was virtually impossible to not see someone you knew (or wanted to know) pass by within five minutes. It’s sessile serendipity.

Deborah Quazzo, co-founder and managing partner of the Summit and managing partner of the GSV AcceleraTE Fund, credits much of the event’s popularity to how it covers learning at every level, from early childhood up. “I do think the overall market has moved to a position of seeing the critical integration of education and talent/workforce innovation,” Quazzo said. “I believe ASU GSV was ahead of the curve on that position and we are thrilled with its embrace.”

Draw: Raw financial horsepower and speaker star power.

Difference: GSV’s deep understanding of the financial end of “preK-Gray” learning.

Go: If you want to do a deal, raise money, or simply understand the current investment-and-education landscape, this is the one conference to attend.

Next: ASU GSV Summit, San Diego, March 30 – April 1, 2020.

SXSW EDU

As part of a 30 year history of SXSW conferences, SXSW EDU is one of the younger siblings in the South by Southwest family. But it’s grown from its birth in 2011, and gotten a little, well, more festive, as befits its family ties.

Like longer-running SXSW conferences and festivals, SXSW EDU’s home is Austin, Texas and it’s held in March. It precedes the more famous interactive and music events and is a bit more sane, at least in terms of size and late-night public behavior. (In the past, the city didn’t start shrink-wrapping parking meters and telephone poles to protect them until EDU was well underway.)

Yet SXSW EDU has tilted more toward a global teaching and learning festival as it has grown, even though it still attracts a healthy number of industry and government attendees from K-12 up through higher ed: about half educators, based on a breakdown of 2018 stats, and a third business and industry. In 2019, there were 8,300 registered for the conference, slightly up from 2018 but significantly up from the 6,000 who attended in 2014.

As EDU has aligned itself more closely with other South-by events over the past few years, conference keynotes, panels and workshops have been joined by new programming such as a hands-on Playground, and a free one-day education expo that’s open to the public and adds thousands more beyond the conference total.

For the industry, it’s less a setting for business and more to see what educators are excited about without the us-them distinctions of an exhibit hall, mingling in an atmosphere that encourages different types of attendees to mix. Much networking gets done at the many meetups, receptions, and parties.

“SXSW EDU’s mission is to advance teaching and learning and we work to assemble as broad an array of stakeholders as possible, believing the more diverse the community the more impactful the conversations,” said Ron Reed, SXSW EDU’s founder and executive producer, and director of emerging events for South by Southwest. When EDU was launched, Reed told me, it was one of the few education events not tied to a specific association or membership group. He sees the event landscape continuing to evolve. “We believe it is a reflection of education becoming an increasingly interdisciplinary conversation,” he said.

Draw: Festival! And the SXSW reputation for informative and interesting events.

Difference: Educators, industry, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and wonks attend as equals in large number.

Go: To see what’s exciting educators without the restrictions of an exhibit hall, or feeling as though industry types are intruding into a sacred educator-reserved space.

Next: SXSW EDU, Austin, March 9-12, 2020.

SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference

If anyone is playing the long game in edtech industry conferences, it’s the Software and Information Industry Association. The SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference may be part of a larger “code and content” trade association, but it’s an organization in which the education division—technically, its Education Technology Industry Network—has traditionally been very strong.

SIIA’s long-running annual conference was once the only industry education conference with a technology emphasis. It’s undergone a few modest identity changes. The last time I wrote about it, the name had changed to “Education Industry Summit” from “Ed Tech Industry Summit.” But it’s generally been held in San Francisco, most recently every June. Attendance numbers more in the hundreds than the thousands, owing to SIIA’s tight focus on edtech industry companies.

What’s remained consistent—and is being emphasized even more this year—is that SIIA is a place where the industry, from K-12 through higher education, discusses the hard issues of building and maintaining an education technology business. It also has an established innovation showcase for startups, popular one-to-one business connection meetings, and the annual education CODiE Awards which are now in their 34th year.

Jill Abbott, the new senior vice president and managing director for SIIA’s ETIN, says she’s seen “a larger focus on start-ups in the event landscape” over the past five years, as well as a more thoughtful approach to programming. “Questions such as, ‘What are the educational trends?’ (and) ‘How can we help companies evolve their business model?’ are now being addressed,” she said.

As to where SIIA fits in, Abbott said: “SIIA views its role to focus on essential problems or questions that we need to address as an industry.” That includes making sure there’s a “call to action” in its conference programming, beyond exchanging ideas and networking. “Providing a call to action—whether it’s for diversity, equity, and inclusion, new marketing approaches, or how AI is impacting your business—brings the conversation outside of the event and into the organization,” she said.

Draw: Peer-to-peer conversations about the business of edtech, plus the CODiE Awards celebration marking the edtech industry’s highest honors.

Difference: Long-standing association event with a tight focus on industry and company needs.

Go: To discuss hard business issues, learn from what other companies have done, and connect.

Next: SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference and CODiE Awards, San Francisco, June 10-12, 2019.
[UPDATE 6/17/19: The dates for the 2020 SIIA Ed Tech Industry Conference have been set, May 18-20, 2020, in San Francisco.]

EdNET, Content in Context and others

No industry-focused conference I highlighted five years ago survived completely unchanged. Some didn’t survive at all.

In 2014, Content in Context was a thriving conference for educational content publishers going digital, drawing hundreds to D.C. each June. Formerly called the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) Summit, the event name changed to CiC and AEP was acquired by the Association of American Publishers. But its 2017 event, after a move to Philadelphia, was CiC’s last gasp.

I reached out to an AAP spokesperson who said the organization had recently hired a new leader for education, and anticipates future events that might be open to members and nonmembers alike.

Aging was somewhat kinder to EdNET: at least the event name survived. But both emphasis and length morphed. What had been the longest-running and broadest-based standalone K-12 industry conference—a fixture for three days each September that drew hundreds—also wrapped up in 2017. MDR, the marketing data and services company which ran it, moved to a new format in 2018. EdNET now is a set of three, smaller one-day regional events across the country, with a more narrow education marketing focus and fewer than 100 attendees each.

That cellular division and regeneration appears to have worked for MDR. Kristina James, who’s responsible for the EdNET events, said two of its three 2018 events had waitlists. Part of that success, she said, was in “minimizing the time and financial commitment necessary to attend and presenting content that was localized for attendees.” This year, EdNET plans to host similar one-day events in Boston, New York City and San Diego.

Industry reflected in a not-so-funhouse mirror

So you may now be thinking: What was it about 2017?

Here’s where it becomes clearer that the traditional edtech industry reached a Titanic tipping point of sorts: maybe not exactly in 2017 when certain high-profile events ended, but during the past five years. The conferences reflect that upending in three different ways (and it’s not simply that ASU GSV has sucked all the money people out of the industry conference room).

Consolidation. Not only is “edtech” no longer separate from “education,” but K-12, higher education, and workforce learning are less distinct and moving to more of a seamless continuum. (I keep returning to Deborah Quazzo’s delightful term “preK-Gray.”) Some individual industry-focused conferences may no longer make sense when companies are trying to cross boundaries and business models.

Delivery. The double-edged sword of better internet bandwidth enabling more education technology uptake is that people can now get the equivalent of live conference panels and keynotes in high-def, streamed remotely and sometimes in real time. As MDR’s Kristina James noted, “The education industry event landscape has really evolved over the past few years with more people connecting via webinars.” So the better conferences are evolving: fewer rote presentations and more face-to-face time, rapid-fire discussions, and unique experiences.

Generations. As an Exec of a Certain Age, this might ring more true to me than to others. But many startups that have flooded the industry over the past few years may prefer real-time remote over in-person interaction. That means attending fewer events, while making sure the ones they do attend have the most bang for the buck. In addition, the driving forces behind the longest-running edtech industry events are getting older; the analysts and organizers that put on the original-format EdNET for many years, for example, have retired. Newer blood has new approaches.

When you make plans to attend education technology industry events, remember that the conferences themselves can change as much as the industry does. As they say in the finance world—and perhaps more frequently at ASU GSV—past performance is no guarantee of future results. Or of edtech success.

This post originally appeared on EdSurge as, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? An Opinionated Guide to Changing Edtech Industry Conferences.” 

Today’s high school student in 2022: College technology expectations

Screen 53 of 57 presented at CAMEX 2019 in San Antonio at a thought leader session.

Three years from now, 15-year-old high school sophomores are going to be college freshmen. And their expectations about the tech that surrounds them in 2022 will have been shaped by both what they experienced in school as K-12 students and outside of school as teenaged consumers.

At CAMEX 2019 in San Antonio, held by the National Association of College Stores, I explored what that combined expectation of edtech and consumer tech exposure might mean. While the slides of my thought leadership session by themselves aren’t that useful without narration or detailed notes (I favor lots of images with any vivid words coming from me, not crowded bullet points), I did summarize my trends take in a series of a dozen tweets. Of course.

You can read more about three of these trends in a think piece I wrote for EdSurge afterwards, “Analysis: Is higher ed ready for the tech expectations of the teens of 2022?

In the talk itself, there were five K-12 tech trends and seven consumer tech trends with teen takeaways. Across 57 slides. And yes, I did cover it in one energetic hour, with time left for Q&A.

Observations of a gentleman journalist

Many people don’t have a clue how journalism works. Journalists may have less access to events and their newsmakers than the general public. All this for a career choice that has limited job options.

Those are the headlines from my recent temporary return to full-time journalism after a several-decade hiatus. The full story I lived through as a fact-chasing Rip Van Winkle is more nuanced. Yet dramatic cuts in journalists’ ranks and an apparent increase in attempts to control what’s produced not only makes doing the work more challenging, it may combine to undermine what the public gets in good journalism, especially at the local level.

In 2018, I decided to step up my journalism game. After leaving an executive position in education technology at the end of 2017 following a corporate ownership change, I took the next year to rediscover my reporting chops. I shifted from long-time contributor to the tech news site GeekWire to the role of regular columnist and then, for an intense four-month period at the end of the year, filling in as GeekWire’s interim deputy editor. All on a freelance basis.

It was eye opening.

It wasn’t that I was taking a financial risk. Much like “gentlemen farmers” of an earlier era who made their living elsewhere, I was a “gentleman journalist.” I expected to be paid — this was a profession, after all — but I didn’t expect to have to live only off of that income.

I discovered much has changed since I left full-time journalism 30 years ago, back then as part of a good-sized, all-news radio station newsroom in Seattle. The rise of digital was the least of it. It was the apparently changed public understanding, even appreciation, of journalism, coupled with a precipitous decline in the number of professionals in the craft since the turn of the century.

As earlier in my career, I thought I could do some good. At the very least, I knew I could explain the inside workings of tech to those outside, or give those in the industry a different perspective.

But I wound up getting that revised perspective, too. My top three takeaways:

Credentials limit access as much as they grant it.

Generally, an event issues credentials to members of the press to spur coverage. The implicit bargain is that the event will waive admittance fees or criteria in exchange for exposure — good, bad, or neutral — as long as those being credentialed really do represent the news media.

Yes, there’s an element of control here: the event gets to decide who to credential. But reporters get access usually at least on par with regular attendees.

That was my experience for many years as a freelance columnist. But I witnessed a shift more to control than access when I dove in deeply in 2018.

There was the Amazon Web Services booth at a major education technology conference where staff were freely talking with anyone who walked up, including me, until one marketing employee glanced at my badge and immediately clammed up.

When I asked why, she said, “I don’t know if I should be talking to you.” I mentioned I was just looking for information she’d share with any attendee (and which she had just shared with the person who had been in the booth before me). She inverted the Amazon smile into a frown, and walked away.

International Society for Technology in Education 2018 exhibit hall. (Frank Catalano Photo)

At other technology trade shows, where a few years ago exhibitors would have pulled someone wearing a media badge into their booth to pitch their product, company representatives shied away. At one, I finally flipped my badge over so the “media” wasn’t visible; at another, I replaced my press badge with a regular attendee badge. Both approaches worked better to get, again, public information.

Then there was that instance at an otherwise-excellent and well-run major edtech conference where I was barred from a keynote simply for wearing the press badge it had issued.

Control has always been part of credentialing press. But the negative aspects seem more pronounced now. News media badges prevent conversations and observations that normally would occur with no problem — even when anyone with any attendee badge could quickly “cover” an event on social media or a blog.

My takeaway: If you want the real experience and full access, register as an attendee, unless it’s truly a limited-access event that you can only get into with press credentials.

Journalism as a career is in trouble.

Briefly in 2018, I considered returning permanently to writing and journalism. Sure, I’d heard that pursuing a “traditional” news or writing career was hard now, but I wasn’t aware of how bad the situation was.

It’s really, really bad.

First, there’s the number of jobs. While specialty digital news organizations like GeekWire are growing, overall, reporting positions are in decline. In mid-2018, Pew Research Center released its analysis of federal job stats.

(Pew Research Center Image)

The analysis finds that from 2008 to 2017, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped from 114,000 to 88,000, for a loss of 27,000 jobs. Newspapers were hit the hardest. The only significant increase in employment was seen in “digital-native” news organizations, nowhere near enough in number to make up for the decline.

A separate Pew analysis found about a third of large U.S. newspapers and digital-native news outlets have seen layoffs between 2017 and 2018.

(Pew Research Center Image)

These cuts and outright news organization failures have led some observers to fear a growing number of “local news deserts,” where there are no daily local news outlets at all.

Then there’s pay. Despite some politicians’ claims, no one gets rich in journalism unless you’re one of those rarified celebrity news figures. That was true in the 1980s, and seems more true today.

And freelance? Never mind. A recent Authors Guild survey, the largest U.S. survey of published authors ever, found the median income of published writers in 2018 was $6,080, down from $10,500 in 2009. This includes book authors.

Part of the blame lies in how digital platforms like Google and Facebook have upended advertising that news organizations used to rely on to pay staff and other bills. Another lies in the lure of “free” news pulled together from various sources by aggregators, giving those who don’t want to pay for a subscription a no-cost alternative.

Together, the takeaway is that it’s harder than the last time I worked in a newsroom to make a living as a full-time journalist or writer — if you can find a job.

People don’t understand how journalists work.

Perhaps the most troubling of the three takeaways is that much of the general public doesn’t seem to understand what journalists do and how they do it. That’s anathema to the role of independent journalism in a democracy to provide good information and check accountability.

I’m not the only one to observe this recently. But now I’ve directly experienced it:

  • I was asked for a list of my specific questions before interviews, as though it were a rehearsed corporate event. (I declined.)
  • I was repeatedly sent material “on embargo” without having agreed in advance to hold the news until a later date. (I lectured.)
  • I was offered free product if I mentioned companies in stories, as though columns were another advertising medium. (I recoiled.)
  • I received politely haranguing calls from public relations people asking me to “re-frame” an already published story — not because any facts were wrong, but because it didn’t match the company’s preferred slant. (I smiled.)

Yes, there are still many good public relations practitioners who realize where their jobs end and the journalists’ begin. Still, even wearing a marketer’s hat, I was surprised by the barrage. It must work with some writers, because it happened frequently. (To be clear: It didn’t work at GeekWire.)

All of this appears far more blatant and — dare I say it — clueless than it was three decades ago.

Plus, there’s the issue of trust in the news media by the general public, which Gallup shows is lower than it was 30 years ago.

Maybe it’s because three decades ago, memories of Watergate and journalists’ key role in exposing a presidential coverup were still fresh. Reporters were celebrated in popular culture in films like Broadcast News, All the President’s Men, and The Killing Fields. When we had more local journalists, we more likely knew someone who was a reporter and better understood what they did.

Or, perhaps, maybe today some journalists are so overworked, underpaid, and fearful for their jobs it’s considered easier to push them and see what happens.

Whatever the reason, the lack of public understanding is a bad thing. Directly being on the receiving end of it didn’t make it better. Even if I’m just a sample of one.

The upshot?

After a year of increased intensity, I have a better appreciation for those who choose to be journalists in the current news environment. It’s more of a gutsy choice than when I practiced journalism full-time until the late 1980s, and very different than what I’ve experienced as an external columnist and contributor to various news outlets over the past 25 years.

Sometimes, you have to be inside to realize how much the view from outside diverges from reality.

I’ll keep writing — I can’t not write — and submit that writing to GeekWire and other outlets as I do other work. I’ll continue to support credible for-profit and nonprofit news organizations with my subscription and donation dollars. I’ll proudly stay a supporting member of the Society of Professional Journalists (anyone can join).

At the same time, I’m more aware that getting the occasional benefits from a farm are far different than planting and working the fields every day. To be more than a gentleman farmer, you have to be willing to regularly rake the muck. The same is true of being a real journalist.

(My personal thanks to the professional team at GeekWire, which has allowed me to work with them and contribute since the site’s 2011 start.)

Popcast recap: From 2001 to yodeling pickles

MoPOP Marvel curator Ben Saunders and Frank Catalano. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

It informally began with the Seattle Public Library and ended with the New York Public Library. In between, there were official moments with Marvel superheroes, a tree octopus, moldy mainframes and a yodeling pickle.

That was the 14-episode run of the GeekWire pop culture, science fiction and arts podcast that I hosted from August 2017 to November 2018, with the outlier library pieces before and after acting as, well, bookends. Dubbed for shorthand as the “popcast,” it was a mix of in-studio interviews with field trips for on-site audio walkthroughs, also spawning a dozen-and-a-half stories.

The series got its start with a 2017 interview that GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop had scheduled with Marcellus Turner, Seattle’s city librarian. I sat in, and it went well enough that later the same year I began hosting a “special interview series” focused on top names in science fiction, pop culture and the arts.

Grouped by subject, here are highlights of the 16-month, 14-episode, 18-story run of the GeekWire popcast. Audio links are inside each story.

Science fiction

If there was a single through line for the popcast, it was science fiction. Admittedly, there was a reason for it, beyond the natural affinity many in the GeekWire audience had for the genre: I was a one-time writer of short fiction and had served as an officer of what is now called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America when I was young, new pro.

Greg Bear was the first popcast guest. The multiple-award-winning author — and former SFWA president — was marking 50 years as a science-fiction writer.  “I don’t think any writer is ever happy with the attention we get, but I have very few complaints.” he said. “My books have been read by the people I read when I was a teenager, and that just knocked my socks off when I found that out.”  (“Science fiction has won the war: Best-selling author Greg Bear on the genre’s new ‘golden age’”)

Author Greg Bear. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Cat Rambo, the current SFWA president, was a subsequent guest. She proffered advice for those who want to write science fiction or fantasy. “I would suggest that they put their butt in their chair and start writing,” Rambo said. “That they read the magazines that they want to send stuff to in order to see what kind of stories are being published there. And that when they sit down to write, that they write the sort of story they want to read.” (“So you want to write sci-fi? Tips from the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,” “Game writers to be honored with Nebula Award in first for professional science fiction and fantasy org“)

More advice for would-be writers came during an interview with director Neile Graham and graduate Rachel Simmons of Seattle writers workshop Clarion West.  “Do it for yourself and don’t do it for other people,” Simmons said. “Write what you want to write because that is what pleases you, and that’s what makes you happy and that’s what resonates with you. Don’t do it to be commercially successful or because you want to impress other people.” (“How this workshop creates some of the world’s top sci-fi and fantasy writers, inside a Seattle house“)

Others interviewed included science-fiction writer and futurist Ramez Naam (“Scaling to optimism: Futurist, author and computer scientist Ramez Naam on the power of cheap tech,” “Dystopia or utopia? Author and futurist Ramez Naam revisits his 2015 predictions for the world“), and Berit Anderson, co-founder of the science-fiction and analysis online publication Scout (“How science fiction can predict the future and help tech innovators make better decisions“).

Performing and fine arts

Technology is no stranger to art institutions, and the popcast had a goal of highlighting where interesting tech may enhance what some call “fine art,” whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the guest.

Seattle Symphony imbues its performances with tech in a number of ways, and it was one of the first orchestras to incorporate movies into “multi-sensory” programs.  “Seattle audiences are so sophisticated and adventurous that it’s allowed us to do things and take risks that other orchestras might not have been able to do,” said Kelly Woodhouse Boston, director of operations, as she and Joseph Kaufman, assistant principal bass, discussed appealing to new audiences. (“From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech“)

Seattle Symphony’s Joe Kaufman and Kelly Woodhouse Boston. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Seattle Art Museum, too, is working with tech. Manish Engineer, its incoming chief technology officer, implied it could be tricky to find the proper balance of analog and digital. “I’ve been in some museums where people are holding up an iPad, they’re walking around, and all they’re doing is looking at the art on their iPad, and they’re not even looking at the painting itself,” said Engineer. “They’re talking about this retina display on their iPad, but I’m like, ‘Use your retinas!’” (“Seattle Art Museum’s first-ever CTO sculpts SAM’s technology future on a non-profit budget“)

Nerdy museums

Speciality museums — those focused on techy or geeky topics — were fun, especially for real-time interview field trips as we walked through exhibits.

Like the time we visited Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) for the debut of its “Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes” exhibit. “No major institution for many years, for most of the 20th century, invested in comic book art particularly,” said Ben Saunders, the exhibit’s chief curator. “So that means that nobody collected it, except for private collectors. You’re entirely dependent on the generosity of private individuals who own these objects, many of whom have never been asked to participate in an exhibition before.” (“Inside MoPOP’s world-premiere Marvel exhibit: The human sides of heroes and their creators“)

Black Panther in MoPOP’s Marvel exhibit. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Back in the studio, MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms shared some insights about both finding and preserving pop culture items. Many things made with plastic, for example, are a challenge. “The compounds and the chemical compositions of plastic have changed dramatically over the years and there just hasn’t been a significant amount of research that keeps up with the plastic degradation,” Simms said.

But it really helps that there are obsessed fans. “Part of what’s nice about all the collecting that happens in fandom is I can feel fairly confident that anything important will be saved by someone, even if it’s not us,” said Peck, “With luck we can track it down. Because people really do see the value of saving these things.” (“Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture,” “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want“)

Living Computers’ Lath Carlson, a mainframe, and GeekWire podcast producer Clare McGrane. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Another type of collecting takes place at Living Computers: Museum + Labs in Seattle. It both collects and then actually operates historic computers. “Something that’s becoming a frequent request for us is that somebody that has software on a format that’s no longer readable by machines that they have, including people like NASA, coming to us going, ‘Hey, we have these things on IBM tape. We have no way to read it. Can you read it?’” said Lath Carlson, its executive director. “Because in a lot of cases we’re the only people in the entire world that has the operating hardware to read those old media formats.” (“How this museum makes moldy machines work again, saving historic computers for the future,” “Tech fad or real trend? Seattle’s Living Computers Museum + Labs places bets in newest exhibits“)

Pop culture icons

Then there are locations that don’t just display popular culture, but are pop culture icons in and of themselves.

I went behind the scenes at Cinerama, restored to its mid-century glory and sporting one of the two largest screens in Seattle. “My top five movie-going experiences of all time,” said Ethan Caldwell, Cinerama manager, “have been watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in here on 70 millimeter.” (“Behind the scenes at Cinerama: Landmark movie house becomes an international pop culture draw“)

Archie McPhee’s rubber chicken museum. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Another pop culture icon lives in the land of retail, Archie McPhee. Yes, there are indeed yodeling pickles, and a rubber chicken museum. “We make the stuff that people don’t know that they want, but once they see it, they have to have it,” said David Wahl, Archie McPhee’s director of awesome. “None of it’s necessary, but it’s intrinsic to the life experience. It’s art.” (“3 weird things about Seattle’s Archie McPhee: It’s original, national, and some of its products flop“)

Libraries and media

There are also a few outliers that perhaps would have been better suited for my Media/Tech columns, but made great popcasts, too.

Take the Library of Congress and its Web Cultures Web Archive, which preserves everything from the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site to Equestria Daily. (“Library of Congress saves the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other online ‘web cultures’“)

Or the transition of public radio from broadcast to digital media, from NPR to local stations KNKX-FM and KING-FM. (“Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening“)

And while neither of these are technically part of the popcast series, they bookended its run and approach neatly: the future of libraries with Marcellus Turner, Seattle Public Library and Seattle’s city librarian (“The future of libraries: Talking tech with Seattle City Librarian Marcellus Turner“), and the role of digital in libraries with Tony Ageh, chief digital officer of New York Public Library (“Interview: NYPL’s chief digital officer says public is better off when libraries are ‘risk averse’ about tech,” “Privacy and the public library: NYPL’s chief digital officer looks to raise awareness in Seattle visit“)

As podcast hosts everywhere say: Listen up.

Media/Tech in review: All media are digital, now

Disneyland’s Star Tours, kept current thanks to digital “new magic.” (Frank Catalano Photo)

Media are plural. That may seem like an obvious grammatical observation. But when people talk about “the media,” odds are they are combining many applications and formats in their minds: news, entertainment, fine art, informational, video, audio, text, and other criss-crossing slices of the “media” pie.

Each individual medium format and application is increasingly digital. And that was a transition I explored throughout 2018 in the limited-run GeekWire column, Media/Tech.

As the summary on each installment put it, “This series … examines the evolution of digital content, from creation to consumption, and the technology transforming it.” Or as I liked to think of it in my author’s bio, the column covered, “the convergence of media & technology (as delivered by smart speaker, VR goggle, social media, AI algorithm or quaint airwaves).”

In 18 columns, I dug into everything from technologies to practice. It started in February with the founding of a lab to invent the future of media, and ended in September with election survival advice for online news consumers.

Five of my favorite topics, and highlights from each?

Original Amazon Echo, Amazon Tap, and Echo Dot. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Smart speaker sales soar, yet what people do clusters to the familiar in, “Smart speaker sales take off globally, but consumer appetite for novel uses is fickle.”

Futuresource, in addition to tracking smart speaker shipments, also tracks consumer behavior. As smart speaker purchasers move from experimental early adopters to mass everyday consumers, what we’re using the Talky Tinas for is shifting more to the tried-and-true from the new-and-novel…

“I think it’s fair to assume a high proportion of smart speaker demand is fueled by intrigue, novelty and certain gimmicky features which consumers tire of over time.”

Selection of audiobooks on the Seattle Public Library site. (SPL Image)

Digital audiobooks are increasing in volume as a success story in, “Listen up: Digital audiobooks now the ‘fastest growing format’ as tech and titles improve.

The e-audiobook category is so popular that the Association of American Publishers (AAP) cited it as “the fastest growing format” in its 2018 StatShot Annual Report….

Overall, digital audiobook use, whether that audio is bought or borrowed, appears to be hitting new heights. Pew Research Center earlier this year seemed to offer confirmation when it reported “a modest but statistically significant increase” in audiobook listening, rising from 14 percent of U.S. adults in 2016 to 18 percent in 2018. At the same time, Pew noted ebook reading was slightly down over the same time period.

Chicago MCA VR art installation. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Museums try AR/VR to enhance art, or as art, in, “More than paint on a wall: Hands-on with VR and AR in art museums from Chicago to Seattle.

All told, all three approaches to extending reality demonstrate there is no one right, or even accepted, way to apply AR and VR inside art museums…

There’s the matter of not messing with the artist’s vision. “We made sure to modify or abstract those paintings we were inspired by, so that we weren’t creating a collage of a painting or series of paintings … That would have been disrespectful of the artist and the curator’s intent.

“In many ways, AR/VR can make fine art more participatory, and museum collections more available to a larger audience,”

Anaheim’s Mr. Lincoln in 2018. (Frank Catalano Photo)

How physical attractions use digital to upgrade the experience in, “‘New magic’ at Disneyland: How the iconic theme park is enhancing its content with digital touches.

Perhaps the poster child for continuous improvement at Disneyland is Abraham Lincoln ….

Human audio-animatronics were considered so impressive that in 1987 an Imagineer told me Disney had a technology transfer agreement with the University of Utah. The university knew how to make prosthetics that moved like real human limbs, but Disney knew how to make realistic-looking skin and hair. It was a useful exchange, in service of both medicine and story.

The latest Lincoln, updated since my last visit, is based on electronics instead of hydraulics. It’s said to represent the first of a new generation of audio-animatronic figure, autonomatronics, which can incorporate sensors and cameras. This Mr. Lincoln showed more emotion and simply more fluid motion than its predecessors.

An Echo Dot and Sonos Play: 5 streaming music. (Frank Catalano Photo)

Streaming music’s boom leaves one early entrant trailing in, “From Rhapsody to Napster: How this pioneering music service coulda been Spotify — and why it isn’t.”

Yet the music service originally known as Rhapsody was the streaming pioneer. It had the early technology lead. It even has the name “Napster,” after acquiring and adopting one of the best-known brands in digital music. Under the corporate umbrella of Rhapsody International, the Seattle-based company seemed perfectly positioned to be where Spotify is today….

“This is really a brutal business, if you even want to assume it’s a business in the end … I think Napster/Rhapsody took a far more conservative approach, but there isn’t much room for that, I’m afraid.”

There’s plenty more worth reading, of course. That’s the problem with authors trying to choose favorites among their own works; it’s like parents being asked to choose a favorite child. (Hint: Good parents don’t choose just one, unless they have just one.)

So , for your browsing and reading pleasure, here are the rest of the Media/Tech columns not highlighted above. They’re roughly grouped by topic. You, of course, are allowed — even encouraged — to pick your favorite.

Extended reality

Digital audio

Ebooks

Digital journalism

Social media

Cleansing the mental palate with GeekWire

Today marks my final day as interim deputy editor at GeekWire, building on my contributing writer role. The past four months filling in helped me get a better understanding of my journalism skill set years after I’d last been in a newsroom full time, explore topics in tech I likely never would have otherwise pursued, and work with a very collaborative team of smart journalists of all ages and experience levels.

At the same time, I’ve neatly wrapped up my regular GeekWire Media/Tech column and arts/pop culture podcast. Both had satisfying runs.

But the most satisfying? Being honored once with a Sallie Award, an internal recognition that GeekWire provides one staff member each week. (I got it that week for my behind-the-scenes work.)

It’s been an intense four months. Mentally palate-cleansing. And I’m looking forward to what 2019 brings, whether in education, technology, consulting, or something completely new.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

A brief, personal, professional update

For those wondering: No, I haven’t completely abandoned working in education technology. But I have decided to jettison one kind of work I once was known for. I will no longer do edtech tactical marketing work without a  strategy or business component.

So I said a fond (truly) farewell to my last client that was solely for tactical marketing at the end of October, by mutual agreement. I won’t take any new clients for which all I’m being asked to do is advise on tactical marketing in isolation. Whether a consulting, interim or potentially full-time role, what I do needs to be broader.

Because marketing itself doesn’t operate in isolation. And, honestly, being a consultant telling people what they usually don’t want to hear — that they have to change what they’re doing to improve their outcomes, rather than just do more of it, or tweak it — is like rechewing decades-old bubble gum. I’ve lost my taste for that.

I’ve said as much about marketing’s need to connect more broadly, beyond sales, to a number of my clients. I said it to colleagues in my most recent executive position as vice president of marketing strategy for West’s SchoolMessenger business, a role that ended after a reorg a year ago this November.

I’ve said it so often, that I fully expect my epitaph to be, “He was candid.”

What I am doing, for now, is taking a mental break. While I discovered earlier this year that tilting my emphasis mostly toward fiction and other types of freelance writing is likely not in my career DNA (I believe I filed it under “magical thinking”), that doesn’t mean I don’t like writing.

So, in early September, I began a brief period of fill-in work at the newsdesk of GeekWire, my long-time column and podcast home. I’m providing overall coverage and editing support until the end of 2018.

It’s allowed me to research topics I don’t normally get to dig into, providing a greater perspective on both edtech and the rest of the technology sector. I’m able to draw on decades of journalism and tech industry experience. And I get to work with very smart reporters of different ages from a variety of backgrounds.

When 2019 rolls out, I may remain a consultant. I may find a more substantial full-time role. It may be in education, edtech, or a related industry. Or it may be something completely different.

But it will be interesting.

What I did on my summer vacation I didn’t take

It’s been a busy summer full of science fiction, digital media, and edtech trends. So busy, that I didn’t take a vacation. But I did manage a quick weekend trip to Disneyland for some tech ‘research.’ Really.

What did I learn over the last three months, and was fascinated enough to write about?

Seattle remains a quiet hotbed of science-fiction activity.

From the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which has graduated some of the best-known speculative fiction talents over more than three decades, to the new science-fiction and predictive analysis membership website Scout, Seattle remains at the top of its science-fiction game.

Seattle also mourns. Harlan Ellison, one great of the field who never lived here, but was inducted in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at MoPOP, died over the summer.

Cultural institutions are broadly trying tech that highlights the arts.

It’s tricky to apply digital technologies in a way that doesn’t mask or minimize underlying fine art. But museums from Seattle to Chicago are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality in their galleries. The Seattle Symphony is creating a new permanent performance space that supports shared virtual experiences centered on music.

And Paul Allen’s Seattle Art Fair had Rockwell and Hassam, but also fighting robots and animated neurons.

Our consumption of media keeps changing as more of it goes digital.

The fastest growing publishing format? It’s now digital audiobooks. The biggest uses of smart speakers? As they go mainstream, it’s clustering around music, news, traffic, and reminders.

But there’s a dark side, too. Ebook ‘book stuffing.’ And really stupid self-inflicted wounds that can give a stranger control of your social media account.

Tech giants are coming for education technology.

Yes, there have been companies that have specialized in edtech for decades, and many startups and their investors discovered the market this decade. But Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are now battling, with varying amounts of success, for the hearts and minds of classroom teachers. Microsoft, for example, is taking Minecraft: Education Edition to the iPad, and purchased the startup Flipgrid to give away its classroom video discussion product for free.

The discussion continues, though, on tech’s place in schools. Elementary students literally debated ‘tablets vs. textbooks’ in Seattle. Whatever digital media wins in classrooms remains a toss-up, due to obstacles to implementation.

You can ride 17 attractions at Disneyland in one day with time to spare.

Perhaps the happiest discovery of the summer came at the Happiest Place on Earth, where I found apps made it possible to fully experience Disneyland and Disney California Adventure with minimal lines and stress for maximum rides and fun. Plus, have time to spare to ponder how the parks have quietly updated classic attractions with digital ‘new magic’ over the years.

That’s a summer experience I may have to repeat.

On the road, on deadline, without a space bar

The Lenovo Flex 4 laptop and its ill-fated keyboard.

You never realize how much you depend on the smallest thing until it fails. Like a key on your laptop.

Last month, I traveled to San Diego to attend the ASU+GSV Summit, an investor- and company exec-focused education technology conference. I’d committed to writing about it for GeekWire. That meant lots of note taking during sessions, nighttime drafting of stories, and the usual stuff that goes with the practice of “writing.”

My laptop of choice was a Lenovo Flex 4, which had been primarily a personal laptop (purchased when I had a corporate exec position, so I had a job-issued Dell ultralight as my main machine). The 14″ Lenovo, with its lightweight keyboard and touch screen, wasn’t a standalone workhorse. I used it almost exclusively with a docking station in my home office. But it seemed to also suffice as a road companion on my infrequent trips.

I’ve always been a fast typist and probably a bit more of a keyboard-pounder than most (I’m told I’m noisy by others on conference calls). That’s what happens when you learned “keyboarding” on an old-school manual typewriter that required great force for the metal type lever to make an impression on the paper through the cloth inked ribbon.

Not the actual typewriter on which I learned, but you get the idea.

Still, the Flex worked fine through the first day of conference note-taking, and an evening of responding to email. The next morning, as I began to draft stories, I noticed spaces frequently weren’t appearing between my words.

Odd, I thought. I kept trying, and then found periods (so to speak) of no spaces were punctuated by occasional unending strings of repeating spaces.

Glancing down at the keyboard, I saw the space bar had gone flush with the laptop base.

Uh oh.

I turned the laptop over and tapped on the base. Yes, that popped the space bar up. For about ten words of typing. Stuck flush anew.

I realized I had a problem. Solutions considered, tried, and discarded:

  1. Type a hyphen (-) between each word instead of a space, then later do a global search-and-replace. That quickly got tedious as I had to consciously stop after-each-word-to-reach-up-to-press-the-hyphen-key.
  2. Race like a stereotypical ink-stained wretch on deadline and ignore the malfunctioning space bar, inserting spaces later. Thatquicklymadereviewingandeditingtextawful. And I felt like a bizarre hybrid of James Joyce and e.e. cummings.
  3. Use the on-screen touch keyboard to insert spaces, since I recalled the Flex was also a touch screen-enabled laptop. Same mental speed bump problem as the hyphen solution, not to mention rapid smearing of the screen I was trying to read.
  4. Find an existing space, copy it, and then just paste it between words. God. No.

After trying workarounds and failing, a quick phone call to Lenovo technical support from the hotel made it clear that this was not something I could repair myself.

So for the remainder of the conference, I took my notes on paper (also leading to the realization that if one doesn’t do handwritten note-taking often, the printing becomes indecipherable and one’s hand cramps quickly), as well as in Evernote on my smartphone (hoping that auto-correct would fix any thumb-inspired typographical mess).

A manual, portable, typewriter that I still own, in perfect shape.

Once home I filed several stories for GeekWire, including a general wrap-up of ASU+GSV Summit (“For investors, the future of education technology is now the workplace“), the launch of a new interoperability effort (“Project Unicorn signs first companies to help schools handle the hairball of edtech data“), and a forthcoming Media/Tech column, all with an external docking station and keyboard plugged into the Flex.

Then the Flex 4 went back to Lenovo for replacement of the keyboard under its one-year warranty . Which was good timing, as I discovered while on the phone in the hotel room to Lenovo tech support that I was calling on exactly the one-year anniversary of my purchase. (Whew.)

I’ll be finding a new home for the now-fully refurbished Flex with its virgin keyboard. I’ve purchased a more industrial-strength primary work laptop, a Lenovo X1 Carbon on which I’m writing this.

And I hope never again will space threaten to be my final frontier.