So here I am, sitting in the Blogger’s Cafe at the ISTE Conference, a place that until now has existed only in myth and legend. This is, depending on how you count it, either my first or my third ISTE. Two years ago, I attended NECC 2008, but only virtually, through the activities at ISTE Island in Second Life. I met many people there, and blogged about my experience. Last year, I did the same, again meeting new people, building my network of colleagues, and growing my interest in attending in person.

So this, year I’m at ISTE for the third year in a row, but this time in person. And as I tend to do, I didn’t do this halfway: not only am I attending my first ISTE, but I organized a Tweetup earlier this morning, I’m volunteering at the Information Booth in about an hour, and I’m presenting a model lesson on Tuesday.

I have attended professional conferences before, sometimes with other colleagues from my district and sometimes on my own. In some ways, this is much like the annual conference of any other large, international organization: there are thousands of attendees (I overheard one person estimate it at 20,000), a huge exhibitor floor of corporations wanting us to buy their products, a bookstore, keynotes, workshops, and so on.

But I think what defines ISTE for me, and what sets it way apart from the other conferences I’ve been to, is that this is all about connections. I walked into the Denver Convention Center this morning, and ran into Scott Merrick, someone I’ve known for two years online, but never met in person until today. Although I am a little intimidated by the enormity of the site and the number of people here, it was immediately comfortable, because I knew that I already know dozens of people. I’ve run into many of them, and I’m very likely to run into more as the week goes on.

This conference, then, isn’t a one-shot event where I will be immersed in individual learning for a few days and then go back to “reality” where I can only hope to apply a few things that may have been absorbed while the rest evaporate like the fading shreds of an interrupted dream. This conference feels to me much more like an intense concentration of the relationships and conversations that happen on a daily and weekly basis with the network of professional colleagues that I’ve been building over the last two years through Twitter, blogging, and Second Life.

Every moment of my time here so far has involved learning. Even at dinner last night, the conversation turned to some deep philosophical discussions about the nature of learning.

On its surface, ISTE is a technology conference. At its root, though, are not hardware and software and vendors and books. This conference is really about professional educators who care deeply about learning and students and maximizing potential.

Tomorrow I begin attending the formal sessions. I expect to learn more than I can process, and will be blogging about my experiences. I also expect to learn just as much from the informal gatherings, the hallway conversations, the dinner meetups, and the other amazing people I will meet. What I hope to bring back to my district is a renewed enthusiasm for creating an awesome environment in our schools for students to learn and thrive, and ideas about how to introduce my work colleagues to the power of this network I have discovered.