That transition might have been a blessing in disguise, but this experience was truly a roller-coaster ride. I will start with a short version of the story.
At the beginning of May, it seemed clear that FlipTech New England would not get enough registrations and income to cover its own costs: site rental, amenities for the guests like food and coffee, etc. Perhaps there would have been a flood of registrations in June, and FTNE would cover its costs after all. However, I was also struggling to get outside sponsorships, because most edtech-related companies had their eyes and their budgets set for the gargantuan ISTE conference being held that same week. (more on that in the "extended version" below) The possibility of losing money on this event -- and having more presenters than paid attendees -- was terrifying.
We could have just canceled the event completely, but that seemed terribly unfair to the core group of eager attendees. I got an idea for a compromise: downsize the FlipTech conference into a smaller workshop/retreat, attended by as many previously-approved session presenters as possible. There would be no admission fee, since most of these people were already paying airfare and accommodation to travel from afar.
On May 14, the FLN Board met via videoconference and fortunately agreed to try this idea. I cancelled the $2000 rental with Waltham Schools, and refunded the ticket cost for everyone who had registered. (One of them ended up joining us anyway!) A few scheduled presenters declined the invitation, and a couple others originally said yes but had to cancel later. Nevertheless, we ended up with a dedicated group of flippers from a total of five different countries.
However, I needed to find a free site for this event. Ironically, we ended up back in Newton: at my middle school library. For this smaller event, I didn’t need the same level of administrator permission. The only problem is that we had to conclude our meetings at the end of the custodians’ day: usually 3PM in the summer.
Even this smaller event still needed funds for coffee, lunch food, and some amenities. That’s where Screencast-o-Matic came in. Dave Walsh was already arranging for the Flipped Learning Network to partner with the company on a video tutorial project, but how and when would those videos get made? Who would agree to record them?! (Helaine Marshall's article gives a full report how that project worked out.)
The financial arrangements for this project was just about enough to fund the remaining expenses for FTNE19. Those costs included the rental fee for the space we had to use on Saturday June 29, when my middle school was completely unavailable.
Now, the extended version of the story: At the heart of it, this story is about money, so let me start with this fact: conferences are expensive. I already knew that on some level, but I didn’t really know it until starting to plan FlipTech last fall. The biggest conference expenses fit in one of these two categories:
- renting the site
- paying the keynote speaker(s)
When it became clear in October that Newton would not be a reliable host, I applied to rent a space at my daughter’s middle school in my hometown of Waltham -- just a few hundred yards from my house. I got a much better reception here, earning full approval in less than a week! However, the rental fee was steep: more than $2000 for two days’ use of a cafeteria, auditorium, and several classrooms. That was a hefty overhead cost, in addition to the reasonable sponsorship fee that the FLN was expecting. (“Non-profit” doesn’t mean “non-funded”! The Network’s also gotta get paid to survive.)
I solved the second problem by choosing four keynote panelists who would have shared the stage on Day 1 of the conference.
That decision diffused and reduced the keynote cost, and I believed it would be an interesting way to kick off the event -- a two-for-one deal! I was also quite happy to schedule two female and two male speakers, each with varied experience and different subjects. Problem solved. Now on to the marketing. Let’s sell some tickets!
Looking back, I can clearly see that I made at least 3 fatal mistakes:
- I think I picked the wrong weekend. Scheduling this event immediately after ISTE19 in Philadelphia was a huge error. It was the same time of year as last year’s FlipTech, but in 2018 the ISTE conference was farther west in Chicago. I know for sure that many tech-savvy and connected educators from the Boston area flew south for the week. That’s a sizable segment of potential attendees and advertisers. If you live near Philly, you probably figured that you could get your flip on much closer to home. Solutions? I could not host this any earlier in June, because around here you just don’t know how many snow days we’ll get. Would this have been better to schedule for late-July instead? Or on a weekend during the school year?
- The entry price was probably too darned high. I started with exactly the same ticket prices as the 2018 FlipTech … but while the flipping OG was surely a big draw for EastCoast, we did not have anyone named Aaron Sams coming to New England. Sure, we had a couple promotional prices, and in late-spring I added a 1-day ticket and group discounts. There is no way to know all this for sure, and FTNE was certainly much cheaper than most other PD offerings [ahem-ISTE-cough], and maybe if we low-balled the ticket price then people would not take the event seriously. However, I can’t help thinking that something closer to ILFABN's $50 admission fee might have been a better plan to attract a wide audience.
- We were unaffiliated with a school district or institution. Originally, I imagined FTNE as an event “presented by the Flipped Learning Network and Newton Public Schools”. That district still has some name recognition and clout in this region, which could have helped a lot. At the bare minimum, FlipTech would have benefited from the support of at least 1 school administrator to spread the word and rally other educators to sign up. But nope, we were all alone. I also waited too late to try enticing local colleges and universities; again, this links back to the timing of FlipTech New England: late-June is a rare period of downtime for most higher-education institutions. Most professors are at the beach!
- I had expected the IT Specialist at my middle school to help me co-plan the event, to troubleshoot technology problems during the conference, and (quite importantly) to advocate with district administration to make it happen. Just before the school year, though, her husband contracted severe meningitis which partially paralyzed him. Of course, her effort and attention were distracted and in the middle of the year she retired early. That’s nobody’s fault of course, but losing her assistance really hurt.
- A couple other people also helped me a lot less than I had expected -- one for medical reasons, and one who mostly just disappeared. Instead of captaining a team, I was usually a one-man squad. Not something to get resentful or bitter about. Life happens.
- When I scheduled the conference in Waltham, I thought it would be a perfect fit. The district has had 1:1 devices since 2015, and I expected a good number of teachers would jump on board to an international tech conference in their neighborhood. What a great way to use the Chromebooks! …. However, as I found out from a Waltham IT Specialist after we’d downsized FTNE, it turns out that the culture of the district’s teachers is moving away from ed-tech. Apparently many of them feel edtech-PD fatigue. The new popular initiative is Social-Emotional Learning! Oops. Bummer.
- Also, while I didn’t get resistance from Waltham administration, I never received any actual support either. The director of IT was an interim head, so she didn’t have any real power, and the asst. superintendent for curriculum left for maternity leave in December (and never came back). Swan gets snakebitten again!
- As I mentioned in the short version of this story, it was tough to get corporate sponsors -- even local ones like Eduporium, which is just a couple miles away. That was a really frustrating part of the process, because I expected the Boston region to be flush with edtech companies that would support FlipTech. Nope, guess not!
- After all this ... 8 days before FlipTech, I thought it would actually get canceled completely: my principal's secretary called to tell me the free site I had reserved (my middle school's library) was being taken by the assistant superintendent's office -- remember her?? -- for a teacher training. Fortunately this was only for Thursday: the Screencast-o-Matic recording day. I was able to reserve the computer lab rooms instead, so the project was able to continue. However, there were some funny moments of teacher trainees getting a look of panic as they walked near our 'studio' in the hallway!
- Then there's the story of poor Kate Baker: her car decided to overheat in New Jersey, so she never made it to Massachusetts at all! She felt terrible, and of course I was disappointed for her not to join us. Again, it’s not the kind of situation where I can get mad at anybody. It’s just another weird thing that happened.
- On Friday, the main day of FlipTech, the custodians whom I expected to end the day at 3:00 suddenly announced they would be locking the building at 2:30. That was a really important half-hour that we could have used to end the workshop more clearly and meaningfully.
If you are disappointed in FlipTech New England, then I’m not going to argue with you. The 2019 event was a practical compromise. Will there be a 2020 edition? At this point I have no idea, but I’ve learned a lot of lessons and I think the Flipped Learning Network has also gained some clues about what does and doesn’t work. All I know is that, for better and worse, this event and experience will never be duplicated. We shall learn from the mistakes, build upon the successes, and keep improving …. just like any teacher!