ISTE 2014: A Tale of Two Paradigms

A veteran attendee to edtech’s big show provides an in-depth analysis.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT ISTE 2014 imageNow that the dust has settled on the massive ISTE event in Atlanta, part conference and part all around edtech rave, I’ve gotten down to the serious work of making sense out of this year’s installment of what always proves to be a field-defining information storm. I’ve attended every ISTE Conference since 1997 and rely on this annual event to provide me with the very most important ‘ah-ha’s’ about what’s actually going on and what it all means. For me, the biggest clue this go-‘round, was not what was shown or demonstrated or said — it’s who showed up.

While dazzled by the screen glow of elegantly designed functionality, let’s be sure to ask ourselves what goals it’s directed at…

Between the sessions I host or attend, the poster sessions I rely on for quick access to actionable info, the folks I rub elbows with while in line for over-priced coffee, the shoulders I look over at the book sales area, and the myriad other opportunities to interact with colleagues, friends, and total strangers — I usually manage to exchange views with a few hundred really smart people. I also read their registration badges, not just for names and home towns, but what sorts of jobs they hold.

At previous conferences, this invariably showed them to be tech teachers, tech coaches, edtech professional development and curriculum specialists, and the like. Not this year though. This year, I found myself talking to a great many non-tech specialists. Over and over, I found myself sharing the conference with generalist subject area teachers, instructional supervisors, and school and district administrators; far more of them than I would have expected. These folks were there to get themselves up to speed on the ways technology will impact their professional lives.

It seemed to me, too, that while they’ve known for a long time this is something they should do, they were doing it at this year’s conference with urgency and conviction. It was as if the great, non-techie rank and file ‘out there’ had finally taken to heart that the long-forewarned edtech tsunami had already crested and was poised directly overhead. They were now declaring themselves to be part of a movement that has been slowly, but steadily and strongly, making itself known over the past quarter century.

I’ve been part of this phenomenon for the past 22 years and to tell the truth, it was not truly a brand-new field even when I entered it. I was delighted to see this shift, though, and this year I’ll try to digest all I saw and experienced from the point of view of these new partners. It’s got to be an overwhelming challenge to enter our field at this particular point in its history — and I particularly sympathize with their efforts to navigate and comprehend the dizzying overload of information and opportunity represented by the massive ISTE 2014 Expo sales floor.

The other understanding that this year’s conference reinforced strongly for me is that edtech has become such a broad field that, to navigate it now, one really has to distinguish between types and purposes of resources and practices — and to create categories with which to sort out the various trends and approaches.

A great many of the rank and file newcomers I chatted with have come to understand that schools are in the process of being transformed into digital work environments. Consequently, they were investigating and being shown by vendors and colleagues how to make things more efficient and effective digitally.

From my perspective, a good portion of the technology being produced and consumed currently does this, while preserving an overall vision of what school is and what its goals are. I saw a great deal at this year’s conference that I feel can be effectively contextualized as part of a paradigm we can call The Digitized (Traditional) School. And consequently — at both a good number of the displays on the sales expo floor and some of the sessions — I saw student information systems, online testing, content management systems, and a host of other things directed at gaining advantage in controlling perennial school concerns like student compliance in remaining on-task, record keeping, and student achievement assessment.

One-hundred and eighty degrees away from this in meaning and significance, colleagues with a different vision about the type of education today’s kids need — one that embraces the ways technology has changed how people research information, manipulate and apply it, and communicate their discoveries and understandings — were wrapping their heads around transforming education through such approaches as student content creation and publication, games-based learning, programming, global collaboration, robotics, etc., things that not only motivate students, but that re-contextualize learning and re-define the goals of curriculum and instruction.

And, of course, in a field as rich as edtech, there are areas of gray that bridge both paradigms. While many conceive these two takes on the state of education, today’s and tomorrow’s versions, to be paradigms in conflict, that’s not necessarily the only way to understand it.

Clearly, it’s inevitable, that like all other types of work environments, school is bound to be digitized. True, in the short run that digitization in many respects amounts to ringing more mileage out of the 19th-century paradigm of worker preparation-oriented learning that defines traditional schooling. It’s also true that digitization also represents basic preparation for the true revolution in education that is bound to follow; a revolution in which technology will enable and empower the long overdue re-conceptualization of what it is that today’s students need to learn and how they may best learn it in order to take their place among tomorrow’s movers, shakers, and informed and adept global citizens.

Armed with these powerful ah-ha’s, I cruised through this powerful conference’s vast sales floor. The following are some highlights of things I found being sold, promoted, offered, highlighted — or whatever. I think it is crucial to understand these not only on face value, but by mulling over which paradigm they are emblematic or at the service of. In some cases I’ve given my take, but for many, I leave it to the reader to make the determination him- or herself:

Microsoft. I had lunch with the very astute Margo Day, a VP with Microsoft, who shared with me three of the very interesting inspiring things they are focusing on: Skype Translator, Office Mix, and one that I had the opportunity to follow up on later that day at the Microsoft exhibit on the floor, teaching and learning practices supported by the technique of Digital Inking that is implemented using the software, OneNote. The demo of this that I attended was given by a teacher, Robert Baker. The application of this approach to establishing and obtaining easy and high value teacher to student/student to teacher. I’ve rarely witnessed an approach to non-verbal communication between teachers and students that was more casual, seemingly effortless, and with potential to truly flip the ‘On’ switch to those light bulbs that float over the heads of students as they ‘get it.’ Very impressive. But, then again, while there is value in improving the quality of communication between teacher and student, in the end, what matters most is the what of the communication, not the how! Further, I personally think that there are more ways for teachers and students to use One Note-based digital inking than I saw there, the fine art of virtual pen and ink drawing, and the casual diagram creation needed for robotics and other Engineering and STEM activities, for instance. I was so impressed by the freeform line functionality that I saw though, that I vow to explore those possibilities on my own over the next year.

Penveu. Every once in a while I actually get excited by a hardware item that comes out in the edtech marketplace (yes, I’m one of those instructional practice; instructional software/APP geeks who usually doesn’t care what device resources run on). Penveu, though, is a potential game changer. I teach graduate courses in Education, both for EdTech majors and for non-techie, generalist and subject area teachers. I often start a course for the latter group by asking them what technology they are familiar with and often the only tech they’ve actually observed is the now near ubiquitous Interactive White Board . And, truly, if you had to pick a single item type that had the most potential to turn a traditional classroom into a digital learning environment, this would be the prime candidate. But Interactive Whiteboards have their problems, both in their high cost and their technical difficulties. Penveu has come out with a truly low-cost, easy-to-set-up-anywhere, little-calibration or -maintenance-required device. It’s an alternative to the classic interactive whiteboard that appears to me to perform better than what’s out there dominating the market currently. Penveu, by the way, is portable — something that is not true of interactive whiteboards. If you are contemplating acquiring an interactive whiteboard, I highly recommend that you take a look at what Penveu has to offer first.

One of the ways that technology is making an impact in instruction is through the use of digital content. Years ago, print textbook providers began to experiment with providing digital ancillary materials for the classic textbook, the single resource that, by far, has literally defined the institution of school more than any other. Those resources over the years have spawned fully digital bodies of content that now in many instances replace the classic print textbook series.

And then there are newer and even more visionary approaches to providing content area materials for students. One that stands out prominently that I saw at ISTE is Filament Games.

Filament Games. Currently, this group offers a suite of game-based experiences that address (among others) the Next Generation Science Standards (in the area of Life Science). These are sophisticated learning games, not the disappointingly simple right/wrong “plug in the correct short answer, kids!” variety that many teachers may have seen. In short, these games require real thinking and provide meaningful learning. Most encouraging is that Filament is providing a full package and not just the games, which appropriately represent the core of the experience. There are also curricular extensions and assessments to round out what teachers and students have to work with. I chatted with Marshall Berringer at the Filament Games booth and was heartened to learn that as wonderful as it is, this Life Science suite of games and materials will hopefully be just a beginning. It is their approach to harnessing technology as a learning resource resonated for me even more strongly than their current product. I expect to see even greater things from these folks down the line.

Intel and Kno. I was greeted with a great deal of hardware to be inspected at the Intel area. All well and good. However, I’ve always been an instructional practice guy, so what caught my attention at this exhibitor’s area was the resource Kno (Intel acquired this rich digital content provider back in 2013). Apparently, Kno provides a uniform interface that allows students, even those with different types of devices, to uniformly take advantage 
of the benefits of digital textbooks of a variety of types. This company appears to make digital texts easily and efficiently searchable, to facilitate annotation, highlighting, and book marking effective and shareable; also providing analytics. The group’s website states: ‘Kno is an education software company on a mission to “Change The Way Students Learn.” We believe engagement is a leading indicator of success and grades are a lagging indicator. So we have partnered with over 80 leading publishers to offer more than 200,000 interactive titles that make learning more engaging, efficient and social for students.’ Truly, comparing the experience of reading traditional, hard copy textbooks with the sort of experience to be had by accessing texts through Kno calls to mind the image of a school attended by the Flintstones’ kids vs. one attended by those of the Jetsons. There’s simply only the scantest common denominator between the two. YouTube videos of classes using Kno are truly inspiring, painting a picture of a very highly improved way to have students consume and learn from text content. However, keeping in mind the Educational Paradigm that I’ve observed evolving over the past few decades, I’m left wondering. I have no doubt that accessing interactive texts via Kno absolutely changes the way students access, process, and respond to the content set before them, but does it really change the way students learn? Perhaps, but only in a very limited sense, I think. Kno, it seems to me, is currently tied to texts, which (more engaging in their digital versions, or not) are directed at having students absorb bodies of fact and basic skills routines; things that are more aligned, in my mind, with the traditional 19th-century paradigm of educating workers than releasing, empowering, and guiding the curiosity and self-directed discovery that will be the hallmarks of preparing the innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs of the 21st Century.

Google. I expect a good deal from a highly active giant like Google, and the high energy group of people manning this company’s large piece of real estate on the Expo floor had much to share with those who paused there for a while. By now, only those who’ve been in a dormant state in a parallel universe somewhere are unaware of Chrome, Chrome Books, instructional APPs that run on them, and the ever expanding portfolio of free goodies that Google provides to educators who, more and more happily, take advantage of them. One item that thoroughly caught my attention, though, is Google Classroom.
As the teachers featured in one of the Google Classroom videos on YouTube point out “Google Classroom is one location for all of their worksheets and handouts; a way for teachers to distribute projects to students … a way for students to turn in their work. “Everything that we need for the class is in one place”, “Classroom really helps organize everything and it shows me when an assignment was submitted, (and) what was submitted, “With Google Classroom I am able to maximize time in the classroom to bring students to that next level”. Google Classroom, which I believe will be offered free when fully rolled out (I was informed by the nice woman at the Google exhibit that it is in beta currently, with an anticipated general release date this coming September) seems to me to have many of the features of a quality content management system. And I would fully expect that as the teachers in the video mentioned above abundantly, it will save time and make the job of traditional teaching more efficient and manageable. It’s my very strong hope though, that teachers who are attracted by the Google brand will also make good use of Google resources like Blogger, Picasa, Sites, and YouTube, all of which encourage, support, and guide students in creating original content, presenting it to authentic audiences, and learning from the feedback those audiences provide. When I hear teachers speak of handouts, worksheets, and quizzes, I generally take those as evidence of instruction directed at teaching those things that were considered important in a world that is increasingly bygone.

Expo Start Up Pavilion

The Start Up Pavilion is a niche area within the main exhibit area. This is set aside for new-ish, small-ish companies, who have something original-ish to offer for sale. If you want to feed off a generous abundance of youthful, entrepreneurial spirit, this is the place to go. As predictable and staid as much of sales floor can be, the Start Up Pavilion offers some true, high interest excitement from groups that are often indicative of where edtech is heading. There were far too many groups there (20+) for me to cover them all here, but here’s a sampling I saw that impressed me:

TYNKER Programming has made a strong comeback as a worthwhile, computer-based activity for students. In the early days of edtech, we discouraged it as a “too obvious” answer to tech enthusiast teachers’ question of what computers could possibly be used for in school. However, the day of having students memorize the rules and routines of challenging programming languages like BASIC and “C” are gone. A number of user friendly, engaging approaches to making programming appropriate for kids have emerged. These activities are highly engaging and foster thinking and problem solving. TYNKER is a notable, relatively new, resource in that category. Their website states that TYNKER is “Designed to motivate and inspire kids to bring their creative ideas to life. Kids create their own games, animated stories, and projects, and publish their apps for the web.” To glimpse an example of the type of learning activity that is truly relevant for our time, I highly recommend you check out this site
By the way, another of the programming-centric activities that offer an important window into the future of 21st Century relevant education is student robotics. Thankfully, robotics materials were very much in evidence on the Expo floor and I covered them in a lengthy blog post on the Classroom Robotics Blog.)

An easy to use, web-based resource that enables students (or teachers) to create original multi-media rich presentations; ones that are published, accessed, and shared online? Now you’re talking! Self-directed, personalized learning – authentic activities – student as content creator/student publishing– maker-oriented assignments – Project-based Learning, and on and on: so many of those high minded, but difficult to implement, dimensions of the ‘new education’ are made possible and given a shot in the arm by this resource! BTW, BUNCEE offers a FREE level for teachers and students.

As we move to adopt a more student-centered, thinking oriented variety of learning as the appropriate goal of Education, thinking tools will increasingly take center stage in student activities. Ideaphora appears to me to be a likely candidate to become a highly favored one. Sure, we can still do flow charts, semantic webs, and ‘mind maps’ on our desktops with workhorse, general purpose software varieties like MS Word, but Ideaphora takes the general idea and slingshots it into a contemporary approach, providing a handsome and useful application that also has such features as: browser-based accessibility, increased ease of use, functionality that guides and supports student discovery of links between key words and images, personalization by the learner to conform to one’s own learning style and personal view of a topic, interactivity in which student created mind maps are automatically linked to source material, sharing and collaboration features, formative assessment features, and more.

Despite plentiful rhetoric over the past few years about the need to foster student creativity and innovation, the resources offered by SPARCIT are just about the only actual program I’ve encountered that specifically claims to accomplish that. The idea revolves around providing games for students to play that will develop their creativity. The SPARCIT website currently states “We are still at the start-up stage and are developing the games.  But we are actively looking for early-adopters and would love to hear from you…”   The 2 gentlemen manning this exhibit were quick to proudly inform me that they currently have a pilot project underway in a high school in Washington, D.C. I didn’t get to actually see the games at this exhibit, Web Access being very slow throughout the conference floor, but frankly, sight unseen, I love the idea here. This is the kind of gutsy thinking and curricular chutzpah that will be needed to nudge the institution of School out of a fading paradigm and firmly ensconce it in the emerging one. I’ll take a close look at this as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Samsung  I attended a classroom style demonstration set up at the Samsung exhibit. A presenter there, one with actual, extensive experience in the classroom conducted the demo. It was impressive to see how a classroom set of individual, tablet-style devices can effectively be connected so that the teacher can easily observe what all students are doing on their screens, offer them help, and ‘ensure’ that students remain on task by messaging them appropriately that their compliance in doing assignments is being observed. To those new to the field of education this may seem like an appropriate and innovative use of technology. I’ve been in the field for close to 4 decades now, having spent over 2 of them as a classroom teacher, and I can’t help but hold the opinion that better than a more effective arsenal of tools to force student compliance, teachers should address the issue of why students avoid participation in instructional activities in the first place. I was impressed with the design and functioning of the connected devices I saw at this exhibit, but for my money, until technology is implemented in our schools at the service of the emerging paradigm of individualized, relevant curriculum, instead of ensuring compliance with one that is old and outmoded, little true, lasting improvement in learning will be achieved. But of course, in the hands of enlightened educators, a classroom set of connected tablets would be a very useful resource to bring that about.

Booktrack Very cool; a free resource that enables teachers and students to create soundtracks to e-books! I see great potential for Literacy and other varieties of learning here. Booktrack’s website paints an enticing picture for teachers interested in bringing next level resources into their classroom:
“Booktrack offers a new content creation and distribution platform that turns reading into an immersive movie-like experience. Bookrack’s patented technology lets anyone add a synchronized movie-style soundtrack to an e-book or other digital text content, with the audio paced to each individual’s reading speed.”

1) Add Text; copy your existing work, type an original story, or use a royalty free text to get started,

2) Add sound; add music, ambient sounds, and effects from our free library of 1,000s of tracks to create an immersive soundtrack for your text,

3) Share; publish your story for our community of readers to enjoy and share. … New York University and The University of Auckland have conducted studies on Booktrack which showed that Booktrack increases reading comprehension scores and student engagement.”

“We’ve assembled a variety of free lesson plans catering for students at the elementary, middle and high school levels, covering a variety of subjects and learning outcomes. All lesson plans have been created by professional teachers and conform to CORE standards and best practice.”

While students can use Book Track to modify and personalize e-books of their choice, I think that potentially the most far reaching application of this resource involves writing, ‘tracking’, and publishing online their own, original work.

(Promethean) Classflow ClassFlow is another major company-provided resource that seems to be directed at enabling teachers and schools to establish uniform digital experiences for students — this, by providing a platform that will enable teachers to create media-rich lessons, pulling in and distributing a variety of content resources. It leverages a good number of the sexy technology functions and ideas that dominate the edtech landscape, or so it seems to me (e.g., log in anywhere, store everything in the cloud, connect multiple devices easily, collect student performance data, establish and work in an online community, etc.).

Where to Next

These are very compelling ideas that make a great deal of sense. However, in reviewing any digital resource offered to “improve education”— I feel it’s one thing to get everyone on the same page (even a page that’s replete with compelling bells and whistles) — but it’s quite another to get everyone on a page that offers experiences relevant to learning in the 21st Century.

While dazzled by the screen glow of elegantly designed functionality, let’s be sure to ask ourselves what goals it’s directed at: new paradigm learning or merely traditional paradigm activities wrapped up in a mantle of up-to-date technology features.

After we’ve kicked the tires and admired the wonderful new tools on the dashboard, we have to ponder where we want to drive this sexy new car. Hopefully, to a destination that makes sense for today’s learners and the world they are being prepared for.

Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member, is president
of the ISTE LITERACY Professional Learning Network (formerly, Literacy Special Interest Group). Mark taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. An edtech pioneer, he spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system.


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