If you support the concept of school technology as a team sport–involving governance and leadership as well as techies and teachers–and if you wonder how to give the concept a boost, now might be the moment you’ve been waiting for. This year’s paid attendance will determine the future of T+L2, the ed-tech conference presented by the National School Boards Association (NSBA). In fact, 2004 attendance reportedly will determine if T+L2 has a future.

The fate of even the biggest technology conferences is a precarious thing, and the suspension of one of the nation’s best-known general technology shows this summer has some educators and education advocates concerned about what will become of T+L2 after this year’s program in Denver, Oct. 27-29.

The organizer of Comdex, a technology conference and trade show that for nearly 25 years showcased the latest and greatest in high tech in Las Vegas every November and once was the industry’s biggest, most important event, is canceling this year’s show after years of declining attendance and interest.

Show organizer MediaLive International Inc. described the cancellation as a “postponement” and said it has formed an advisory board to reshape the troubled event. But the situation underscores the unstable nature of even the largest conventions.

In ed-tech circles, meeting watchers worry that NSBA’s T+L2 could meet a similar fate after this year’s program. The NSBA technology conference–at 18–is the oldest ed-tech event at the national level except for the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), which debuted in 1979, the same year as Comdex. NECC is sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

NECC attendance this year hit an all-time record, according to ISTE. (See NECC 2004: Heavy corporate hitters put their weight behind ed tech)

Reliable sources report that NSBA has resolved to kill future T+L2 conferences unless this year’s event attracts at least 1,800 paying attendees. In January of 2002, NSBA “suspended publication” of its venerable and highly respected technology magazine Electronic School. Insiders fear NSBA’s interest in ed tech in general will wane rapidly following any demise of T+L2.

Ann Flynn, director of education technology for NSBA, would say only that T+L2’s future is uncertain. If attendance doesn’t improve, she said, NSBA will weigh the cost of putting on the event with the overall needs of its constituency–only 12 percent of whom generally attend the show.

If T+L2 folds, it won’t be for lack of energy or preparation on the part of NSBA’s technology team. Organizers have assembled a compelling lineup of speakers and special events. At the top of the roster of impressive speakers is Michael Hawley, who will deliver the T+L2 keynote address. A long-time technology researcher at the MIT Media Lab, Hawley will speak about digital media and its social and business applications and implications.

Flynn said the conference will include workshops and hands-on activities designed to help administrators better prepare students for success in the digital workforce. Other important topics will include using technology to improve community outreach, continuing to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, and engaging students’ interest through the use of technology.

Last year, in Anaheim, Calif., T+L2 drew only about 1,300 paid registrants.

Flynn called the lackluster attendance “heart-breaking.” But several unusual problems plagued last year’s show, she noted. At the time, California education was suffering from a statewide budget crisis; education travel budgets in many areas of the country still were frozen; and the conference occurred amid an untimely outbreak of devastating wildfires. In addition, Anaheim itself is a venue few educators rank as a most-preferred destination.

This year, state finances around the nation are beginning to revive, and this frees up more travel and professional development funding for educators. The conference moves to the much more environmentally stable city of Denver, where it has been held twice before (1997 and 2000). By moving the show off the coast, NSBA hopes to draw more attendees from Midwestern states, which have always accounted for a strong portion of the organization’s constituency, Flynn said.

Despite the problems of a general technology conference like Comdex, the trend at this year’s ed-tech shows has been growth. Besides NECC’s record attendance, increases also were noted earlier this year at the Florida Education Technology Conference (See FETC 2004: Big turnout, practical solutions) and the Texas Computer Education Association conference, two other bellwether meetings.

Still, in general technology circles, the reaction to the news about Comdex was akin to what soft-drink buyers might feel upon hearing that Coke or Pepsi had decided to go dark.

Originally called the Computer Dealers Exposition when it started in a Las Vegas ballroom in 1979, Comdex grew exponentially over the years as companies flocked to the desert city to announce their latest software, hardware, and visions.

During the 1990s, Comdex could draw more than 200,000 people per show and fill more than 1.2 million square feet of convention space. Some say the sheer size of Comdex carried the seeds of its destruction.

Several major companies–including Dell Inc., IBM, and Intel Corp.–stopped leasing exhibit space, depriving Comdex organizers of revenue. Instead, many rented suites at nearby hotels and hosted gatherings there. (All three companies–Dell, IBM, and Intel–exhibited at this year’s NECC, and Dell chairman Michael Dell and Intel CEO Craig Barrett came in person. But of the three companies, only Intel exhibited at last year’s T+L2.)

When the tech bubble burst, Comdex attendance and exhibitors plunged, forcing the organizer–then Key3Media–into bankruptcy. The 2003 show was refocused to appeal to corporate buyers and sellers, not consumers and general gadgetry, but that adjustment apparently left something to be desired.

The 2003 show attracted about 40,000 technology buyers, 550 exhibitors, and 900 reporters, according to MediaLive. Though Dell returned last year, other companies focused more attention to the massive Consumer Electronics Show, which takes place in Las Vegas each January.

NSBA’s Technology + Learning Conference was originally conceived with the idea of encouraging the involvement of a representative cross-section of school district personnel, including board members and superintendents. Registration fees this year range from $450 for a single non-member attendee to $250 per person for a school district team of 10 or more.

Links:

T+L2

National Educational Computing Conference