The first K-12 Open Minds Conference was ginned up on short notice, with poor promotion, little sponsor support, dreadful early pre-registration numbers, scheduled into a time of year that makes it difficult for many teachers to leave school for several days, in a nondescript hotel in the generic suburbs of an unremarkable midwestern city, with a lousy online registration system, and on-site internet access that was sporadic at best.
And it was a big success, at least to the 350 or so people who made there way to the Sheraton Indianapolis, one way or another.
There will be another one next year, same time, same place, and you need to start figuring out how you're going to get there.
Mike Huffman managed to pull together a core of about 35 people from the US and Europe who have serious, long-term, ongoing projects and deployments of free and open source software in K-12 schools. Realistically, it was probably about a quarter of the key players in US K-12 open source, but it was still a higher concentration than we've had in a small space for an extended period of time. The bulk of the attendees, about 200, were Hoosiers, mostly tech coordinator types involved in the inACCESS program, so while there was a lot of big idea strategizing flying around the folks I spent most of my time with, the conference as a whole was grounded in the practical and immediate.
The tone of the conference as a whole reminded me of a Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum: very teacher to teacher, with lots of practical, if workmanlike, presentations by people actively grappling with the same problems their audience is. A high ratio of concurrent talks to attendees (like, 10 talks at a time) made for small sessions that easily flowed into small group discussions.
The conference was noteworthy for a lack of annoying people. Even the guy from IBM was quite affable. Indiana University was a key sponsor, but we didn't have to deal with any pushy, annoying academics who don't understand K-12. There were a dozen or so vendor booths, but they were small and low-key. Nobody knows how to deal with this phenomenon as a market in K-12 yet. It is a welcome respite, kind of like that brief pre-Nirvana window where nobody knew how to aim a commercial at my demographic. I don't remember anyone in attendance from the world of philanthropy, who seem stalwartly determined to sit out this particular revolution. It was Indiana Department of Ed that made this happen; K-12 teachers and administrators are just going to have to do this for themselves.
Mike's secret weapon was his clutch of international guests. He paid to bring over about a dozen veterans of some of the big, successful free software in schools projects, including Skolelinux and Extremadura. This was particularly nice because our European peers have much tighter bonds to the free software community. They are more hard core than we are; if you invite Europeans to the party, you're going to get much more strident free software advocacy, which I, of course, welcome. But ideology aside, I think everyone was energized by hearing about what our friends in Europe have achieved. I do think it is fair to say this was not just the most significant national open source in K-12 conference, but also the most important global one yet, although there is certainly room for even more improvement in that regard.
Overall, what motivated the people at this conference, including me, is the prospect that we've got in our grasp the tools to finally vastly increase access to computers in schools in a fiscally responsible, sustainable way, as evidenced by the first hand experiences of the 200 or so Hoosiers in attendance.
The Open Minds Conference is the one we've been waiting for as a community. See you next year, in Indianapolis.