ISTE 2015: Highlights, Takeaways, Things to Use and Follow-Up On

A mega-surplus of resources for inspired kids to positively impact their world.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT ISTE imageIt’s been a few days now since the big event in Philly, and while I would have loved to have posted the following piece the minute my plane home from the conference landed, it does take a little while for the mountain of impressions and new ideas to settle enough for me to understand and write about them. Reporting on what took place is one thing; interpreting what it all means is another — something that requires time and reflection.


For a week or so before ISTE 2015, this year’s installment of the planet’s biggest and most comprehensive edtech conference, my mailbox was stuffed each morning with messages bearing titles like: How to Strategize Your ISTE Conference Experience, ISTE Conference Cheat Sheet, Invitation to a Special Preview of the Next Big Thing, Earth-Shattering Classroom Resource: Visit us at Booth #___, and the like.

What follows are some highlights, things that made my mind spin, my heart leap, and my spirit soar during a few very special days in Philadelphia.

By the way, this was ISTE Conference #17 for me. I’ve attended them happily every year since the late 90’s, and while overwhelm and overload do come with the territory, I’ve come to see the over-the-top nature of this annual pilgrimage to The Mecca of All Things Digital for Education to be a very good thing.

The ISTE conference offers us the positive side of there being more of a good thing than one could cope with, in any of the usual ways. To me, this event represents a massive wave on which the wise attendee and observer of progress in the field of education can catch a ride. It’s a wave made up of information, connections, and inspiration. So, I find it best to relax, hold on tight, and enjoy a ride unlike any other.

The Thrill of the Ride

Still, one needs some sort of a compass to steer by and, for me, edtech trends — especially those involving fascinating, out-of-the-box, new resources and practices — are the markers by which I navigate. I tend to leave things presented at the conference that represent mere Next-Step Refinements in The Realm of The Practical & The Tried and True to others to explore and map.

I’m out for ‘Ah-ha’s’ and thrills.

I got into this field to leave the staid and traditional behind, and if there’s no promise of adrenaline, exhilaration, and the particular type of satisfaction that revolutionary resources and practices bring to the world of education, then I’m not especially interested.

And, of course, even narrowing my ISTE meanderings down to that admittedly biased niche, there’s more than I could ever strategically absorb. Yet, I prefer to ride that edtech roller coaster wave, following the instincts that many years of hard work in the field have helped me hone.

In that spirit, what follows are some highlights, things that made my mind spin, my heart leap, and my spirit soar during a few very special days in Philadelphia.

Making a Better World

The most significant trend I witnessed this year has to do with answering the question, How does the ‘Realm of the Digital’ interface with the Realm of the Physical, of the Real World?  I saw a wide variety of resources and ways to use them that can enable students to explore that question, things guaranteed to engage kids deeply while demonstrating for them crucial ways that they can influence and better the world they live in. How’s that for a meaningful, relevant educational goal?

In many instances, the items I reviewed took the form of small, relatively inexpensive electronics that interface with digital devices. Expectedly, student robotics, one of the most important varieties of STEM resources and practice was much in evidence. However, some new, alternate varieties showed up as well.

One very impressive new item I came across in this space is Little Bits. A relatively new, kit-based resource, this one provides easy-to-use components (they snap together magnetically to form circuits and chains of electronic/machine elements that do things). Little Bits’ website uses the phrases “A Library of Modular Electronics” and “Invent Anything” — which to me sums up the kits intent, contents, and potential. This one sits squarely in the middle of the prominent space currently occupied by things STEM/STEAM, DIY, and Maker Culture. Small wonder there was much buzz continually around the extensive booth Little Bits occupied.

Another thing that made me stop and smile in wonder and appreciation was a poster session given by Roger Wagner. I found it most interesting that Roger, who was giving a great series of demos on his new offering, the HyperDuino, was largely unrecognized by his appreciative audience. In the history of Instructional Technology, there’s a special place for old standby resources that for years and years have served students well. One of these is HyperStudio, Roger’s creation from ‘back in the day’, which was probably the most important multi-media platform, one that has, no doubt, influenced many that have come since. The HyperDuino is a small interface device that allows kids to connect their computer to things in their world (toys, displays and art they’ve created, etc.) and have them communicate and interact, enabling the student to apply HyperStudio’s simple programming to their hand-made, real world ‘stuff’. Wow! Simple, easy for kids to use (and for teachers to support them) and world-changing in its implications.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the MOUSE Corps poster session in which high school students showed off the “Shoe Levator”, their invention that helps physically challenged individuals put on their shoes, a great example of the application of learning to address real world problems. Way to go, kids: Invent! Make! Impact your world positively!

Moving further through the convention center, I stopped to see a demo and chatted with Vieyra Software; actually a husband and wife as I recall (she’s a high school teacher) showing their ingenious suite of Apps called Physics Toolbox. The idea is brilliant: harness a variety of sensing resources already built-in to smartphones to make the phones work and repurpose them as tools to help students explore the physics of our world. Their site comes with free lessons and much more.

Domo Arigato

As stated above, Student Robotics were everywhere in evidence throughout the conference. While I am a long, long-term fan of the LEGO Education Student Robotics materials (EV3, NXT,WeDo, etc.), in fact I wrote a book for ISTE on the subject (Getting Started with LEGO Robotics), I fully appreciate that there are other providers who offer alternatives as well and who take this broad area in other directions. One heartwarming display that I visited at the ISTE StartUp Pavillion (booth space for smaller, newer companies trying to establish themselves) was that of Trobo the storytelling robot, a small, plush doll-like robot that partners with younger children to foster deep literacy learning as it supports them in writing their own stories. Great stuff. Not just a digital resource to learn from, but one kids will love!

I also wandered by the booth of OZOBot, a mini robot that I’m sure would be great for upper elementary kids and older. The fascinating thing for me is the way students communicate with it. Apparently, it comes preprogramed to read shapes and patterns and colors and students can use software or pre-printed 2D modular stickers, or draw their own to get the robot to follow their instructions. My take is that this item will teach and illustrate programming and robotics, keep kids engaged and wondering and discovering, and offer schools a relatively inexpensive and effective way to offer a small slice of Robotics, an important piece of STEM Education.

Picking Up STEAM

Another concentration of interest well represented at the conference was STEAM (emphasis on the “A” for Arts, the thing that distinguishes it from traditional STEM). I saw a good number of things that make this body of resource and practice viable and exciting. Actually, one of them, BirdBrain Technologies, straddles both the Robotics category and the STEAM (again, too much of a good thing sometimes seems just right). BirdBrain is a robotics system that uses some simple electronics and mechanical components; things like the Arduino processor and simple motors and sensors. These things are found in other robotics systems, but the wonderful difference here is that the robot body’s students produce with BirdBrain materials are very much the personal, expressive, hand-made, cut from cardboard variety of thing kids have always done and learned from. There’s a blend of real Robotics and crafts with a full blown artistic thrust to what kids do with this resource. Something I’ve long wanted to see, but have actually witnessed far too examples of, are student robots created by students for the purpose of creating art, art that requires learning programming and engineering thinking and STEM oriented problem solving; marriage of STEM and the Arts… STEAM!

I was also thrilled to see that everyone’s favorite cat, Garfield, was represented at the Professor Garfield booth. Professor Garfield is a free motherlode of learning resources available at the website that the foundation behind it created to share them with kids and teachers. Of particular note this year, through the efforts of its partner, New York Institute of Technology, Professor Garfield is expanding to offer resources in the area of STEAM. I’ll be looking forward to see how this develops further.

Really Digging Gaming

Gaming, too, was everywhere in evidence at ISTE. I arrived at the conference worrying about today’ kids reaching the saturation point with gaming in the classroom as well meaning teachers so intent on gamification, that even this exciting variety of learning experience would begin to bore them once the novelty wears off. However, based on what was shown at the conference, clearly there’s such inventive thinking behind so many vibrant and exciting new resources to be found of this type that this is not something to be concerned with.

For example, I came across some great game-based resources, things like ClassCraft, a subject-agnostic way for teachers to transform the classroom experience for their students positively by turning the class itself into a game.

Also, I witnessed NEXED’s Answerables, a unique game-like virtual environment for presenting content and engaging students.

But what truly captivated me is Dig-It Games. Wow! Behind many great digital learning resources there’s a fascinating origin story, and the one I got on this one from the creator herself is that her career as a field-based archaeologist eventually led to a job as a public school teacher and that, to the resolve to create her own resources for students. The result is a suite of game-based items, all with archaeology themes and metaphors that seem very exciting and done with passion and dedication. I like what this group has come up with and wish them much luck with this.

Trips and Pics

A couple of items of special note: Google’s new Expeditions program and Shutterfly’s new Photo Story resource. Expeditions is Google’s new program to provide teachers and classes with Virtual Field Trip experiences, an old idea getting a very powerful shot in the arm and renewed life from Google who is updating and (hopefully) popularizing it in a big way. Using Google’s Cardboard — a fun, folded phone holder and viewer — students can use their phones to provide a special viewing experience of the virtual excursion. This ‘50s, retro-looking item turns a smart phone (placed inside) into a state of the art, virtual-reality viewer and, I’m sure, adds a ‘Wow Factor’ that will make the learning experiences created to take advantage of it, truly memorable for today’s students.

Photo Story (I Pad app) is a free resource from Shutterfly that serves as a multi-media composing platform to support, guide, and engage kids in creating their own published books. It’s well planned and designed to give kids a kid-writer friendly user experience, enabling them to concentrate on the content they are creating without struggling with the means to produce it. This resource is carefully crafted so that the kids’ finished product is impressive and something they are proud of. Whether that finish follows the digital or the print option their work takes on the look of a professional book, one way that technology clearly raises the experience of learning and being part of the world several notches.

A Shout-Out for Passion

Before I forget, a big shout out to Chris Aviles, a teacher who blogs under the name of Teched up Teacher. Chris gave a poster session on making passion the guiding force in teaching and learning. This guy’s got fire in the belly, caffeine in his veins, and appropriate righteous indignation in abundance at the fact that the learning experience our kids still get in their classrooms isn’t inspiring and habit forming. He showed examples of his students using today’s resources to create and make things that meaningfully respond to and positively impact their world. For me, this poster session captured perfectly the spirit of the change that we want to see in education.

And as for the rest of the conference? Well, it strikes me as having showed the means to that end. All in all, it was great!

Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member, 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, where he assisted over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. Now retired, he currently teaches graduate courses to EdTech Masters students. 

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  • Mary Molinari


    This was such a great article, I feel like I was there myself ! Since I first heard about this conference I have wanted to go. What really peaks my interest, is the movement into robotics. My students are born creators and they would love to get their hands on something like the Little Bits kits to explore and create their own inventions. My students currently work mainly with the mine craft video game and legos which even though they are creative games, they do have their limitations. Great read, thanks again !

  • john edelson (@VSpellCityMayor)


    While my company exhibited, I stayed home this year. A highlight for us was an article in the ISTE SIG on Literacy Conference Edition. They analysed student learning outcomes using the Words Their Way supplemented by VocabularySpellingCity. Great article, spoiler alert. “Perfect Together” starts on page 32.

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