Just before coming to NECC, I found a pointer to this recent post by Dave Winer reflecting on what conferences can and maybe should be. I actually attended the very first BloggerCon at Harvard in 2003. The “Blogging in Education” panel featured Pat Delaney, one of my earliest mentors, and there were a bunch of other smart people all around. But the real kick to the conference was the Day 2 unconference. The idea was to capture the best part of conferences, the conversations, and displace the presentations.

So, when I was designing my own conference in 2003, I decided to do something different — I moved the conference out of the hallway and into the meeting room. Or you can think of it the other way around. I tried to imagine what a conference would be like if you held it in the hallway.

It was, in a word, awesome. People engaged, interacting, debating, riffing on ideas and playing them out, all facilitated by “discussion leaders” that weren’t there to “present” but to guide. It was the hallway brought into the room.

I think that’s what we tried to do, with some pretty good success, last year in Atlanta with the first NECC related EduBloggerCon day. We had about 65 folks, and from what I remember, it was a lot of sitting around tables and on floors having some pretty wide ranging conversations about the state of education. It was like we all just wanted to get our brains stretched by the ideas, and have a chance as a group to get some deep, synchronous, back and forth with a whole bunch of folks who were passionate about figuring out what exactly was happening. It felt different. I wrote:

I’m not sure how far down the road we’re getting on answering any of the big questions. But we’ve started some conversations that I’m sure are going to continue. Steve, who has done such a great job of making this happen, said at the outset that he’ll be interested in seeing what transpires from this six months out. I’m feeling, at this moment at least, that we may have actually pushed further forward by that point.

In essence, as I read over the posts I wrote from NECC last year, we were part of a giant coming out party for these ideas that we’ve been kicking around here, some of us for years. It was like, finally, at last, people are listening. They’re getting it. We’re shifting.

Which is why yesterday’s EduBloggerCon II was, at least for me, a disappointment. I mean absolutely no disrepect to Steve who worked his tail off to organize it all and who I just simply admire as a good human. But right from the start, it was obvious that we hadn’t pushed further. In fact, if anything, it felt like we took a step backwards. Yep, there were more people, and that is a good thing. But the sessions I dropped in on and walked past didn’t have the same feel. They were being led, not facilitated. They were about tools. There were cameras and boom mics that totally interrupted the flow of the conversation, with clipboard laden vendors swooping down on those that talked with release forms needing signatures.

In short, it felt more like Monday than Saturday, in the room, not in the hallway.

It might be me. Others seemed to have gotten a lot out of the day. But it feels frustrating, on some level, that the week is shaping up once again to be more about tools and vendors than about the real work of getting our brains around how learning and networks and the very essence of how teaching and schools are being pushed by the shifts that are occurring. (And before anyone takes me to task, I’m fully aware that I’m doing a session on tools tomorrow, which, on some level I regret proposing.)

So I’m asking, what’s changing, really? How have we moved further down the road since Atlanta? I really want to know.