This year’s ISTE 2010 (the conference formerly known as NECC) was a pretty different experience for me due to one decidedly different fact: I went as a (wait for it…) VENDOR more than as a speaker/learner. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn some good stuff on the vendor floor in our PLP booth. But it does mean that my lens for this year’s conference comes not so much from my conversations in the Blogger’s Cafe (which, unfortunately, were mostly brief catching ups) or in the session halls (I only saw one) but from the evil dungeon (or in this case, attic) where ISTE shows its dark side.

I’m only half kidding.

I’ve reflected on the vendor floor at past ISTEs (NECCs) before, lamenting the oversized Best Buy bags and the gobs of swag people would carry around in them (99.87% of which is now in a landfill this year) and just trying to figure out how many meals for homeless folks you could buy with the money that’s represented there. In short, it’s not my favorite place during the conference. But Sheryl and I made the decision to have a presence this year, and I’m glad we did. We had more of an opportunity to talk to a wider cross section of educators from literally around the world and get some very different perspectives than I’ve ever had in the Cafe. The short story is that pretty much everyone is hurting right now, and there is a lot of frustration in general, but that people still want to do well by kids. It’s not all bad.

Yet, you can’t help but be taken in a bit by all the shiny new stuff that all the folks in the bright neon orange and green and blue shirts were hawking. (Thank goodness we nixed my idea for a tie-dyed PLP booth shirt pretty much as soon as I brought it up.) There were more SMART, black, IQ, vision, Promethean and insertyourtechynamehere boards than I thought possible. (There was also the lonely guy in a faded white button-down shirt spending most of the conference flipping through a magazine in front of a “cutting edge” dry erase board a couple booths up from us. Remember when?) There were clickers and booger-proof keyboards and video conferencing systems and security systems (oh, the security!) and all sorts of other stuff that probably won’t be on the vendor floor in five years. As one friend who stopped by the booth lamented, it was a sea of “buggy whips.” And it once again just felt like it was mostly all about teaching and very little about learning.

But here’s what struck me most during my 45 minutes of so of wanderings around the exhibit floor: Education. Is. Easy. Did you know this? Almost every toolsy vendor that I saw was pushing the “we can make it easy on you” button, as if students will simply be mesmerized (and, therefore compliant) if only we had the tools. When I was talking to Sylvia Martinez (who, thankfully, was a VENDOR with Generation Yes! as well), she said it felt like one of those Geico commercials…”So easy, even a teacher could do it.” Case in point, this poster flaunted by a software company that will remain nameless. I mean, seriously, look at that list. Online safety is easy. Differentiation is easy. STEM? Easy. And my personal favorite: “Teaching 21st Century Skills-Making it Fit in the School Day.” The irony is, dare I say it, oh, so easy. And the best part? If that easy thing isn’t enough to draw them in, well then, hell…let’s give ‘em some swag.

The good news? I bet at least 50 percent of the conference attendees didn’t even make it to the floor. At least I hope not.

From all accounts from folks who actually got to see some sessions this year, ISTE 2010 was as good if not better than the NECCs of yore. I’ve read a lot of great blog posts coming from sessions, heard of many being inspired by the great work that teachers are doing in their classrooms, and I know that on a very real level, I missed the best of the conference. It actually sounds like things moved a bit more this year as well in the grand scheme of things. Thanks to all of you who have worked so hard to capture it for us all. (And thanks to all of you who didn’t throw me under the bus for my VENDOR status this year.)

But my not so secret love/hate with this annual gathering continues unabated. When people ask me what yearly conference they should attend, there’s only one answer. We love EduCon not just because we get to spend a few days with friends new and old in a pretty special place. We love it, or at least I love it, because everyone who attends knows that the good stuff that happens in classrooms very rarely ends up on an exhibit floor, and because we know the problems and challenges of education and schooling aren’t going to be solved with free t-shirts and iPad raffles. We love it because our voices as educators (and students) in this conversation matter, and we get to use those voices in every session, for every idea.

We love it, in short, ’cause it isn’t easy at all.