High on EdTech in the Mile High City

Listening, observing, and absorbing at ISTE 2016 in Denver.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT ISTE 2016 twitterISTE 2016 reveals the edtech field to now be significantly maturing, employing sophisticated technologies to provide crowdsourced instructional, assessment, and professional development items for teachers by teachers; rich, easy-to-use content, and dedicated to developing and supporting student creativity. Yeah!

Okay, unpack bag? Check! Wash dirty socks? Check! Sort out all business cards and session handouts? Check! Write my annual piece on what got my heart and mind racing at ISTE? Here we go:

Yes, as its previous incarnations did, ISTE 2016 came through big time on its promise: to deliver more brilliant edtech to understanding-hungry educators packed into a single venue, more next-level thoughts whizzing around one’s head, more wonderful new tech items to ponder and covet, and more reasons and hunches to make an educator feel good about being a teacher at this particular moment in time than any other program or event I can imagine!

It’s not enough just to jump into the digital pool, [solution providers] must be clear about which resources support and establish practices that truly reflect advances in pedagogical concept and theory, and that further offer practical, effective ways to put them into use with real kids in actual classrooms.

After returning from a previous incarnation of this conference in the not-too-distant past, I wrote about my having collided there with abundant evidence that the field of edtech had split into two realities, two distinct paradigms. One that fully supports the forward thinking, bleeding-edge of progressive teaching and learning as manifested in practices like Project-Based Learning, student online publishing, educational gaming, social media-based class exchanges, and the like. And the other, steeped in and misguidedly dedicated to preserving a 19th-century style, traditional, teacher-centered instruction. In my mind, this variety changes students’ school experience only superficially through the application of a veneer of digitization comprised of things like digital, but traditionally formatted digital textbooks; online summative assessments; and the same old, tired worksheets dressed up with a tad of digital animation.

I think this take on the state-of-the-field of just a year or two ago was pretty much on the money, considering that over the past few months the edtech literature has informed us that the industry dedicated to supporting schools in their digital transformation has reported a savvier customer base; school personnel who are now well aware that it’s not enough just to jump into the digital pool, that they must be clear about which resources support and establish practices that truly reflect advances in pedagogical concept and theory, and that further offer practical, effective ways to put them into to use with real kids in actual classrooms.

I wasn’t at the conference long this year before I began to realize that a still newer reality is now coalescing to redefine the field of Educational Technology, actually the entire field of Education. In the past, edtech was fully embraced primarily by that minority of teachers and schools who confidently understood the shifts in the goals of education that are reflected in progressive frameworks like the ISTE Standards and 21st Century Learning. These were forward thinkers, willing to take on the risks involved in leaving the comfort zone of the known, traditionally-run classrooms model.

At the other end of the spectrum, districts feeling pressure to “integrate technology” were willing to dabble in it, but only so far as they could keep a digitized version of teacher-centered control of traditional curriculum going, and adopting tech resources and practices that would help them accomplish that.

Hitting the Sweet Spot

This year, what I witnessed throughout the conference, is the emergence of a mature sweet spot, an area of informed and sophisticated technology-supported instruction, and importantly, a body of emerging resources to make being part of this phenomenon easy for so many educators out there who currently sense that they need to become part of this transformation. There seems to have evolved a wonderful middle ground comprised of resources and practices that bring the benefits of appropriate personalization, increased student engagement, and progressive pedagogy; things like constructivist-aligned social learning and authentic activities into a comfortably redefined classroom experience.

In this emerging learning environment, students once again (or perhaps more truly, for the first time ever) can see the relevance and feel the excitement of core learning activities that give them a sense of participating in the exciting world that is unfolding all around them. Teachers, too, now have opportunities to crowdsource and pool resources that bring this new variety of education to vibrant life, opportunities to collaborate around this new variety of practice in ways that they will, I’m sure, find irresistible.

So what did I see and experience in ISTE 2016 in Denver that got me so high on education once again?

A Little Bit of Inspiration

The look on the faces of the folks from Amazon who gave me a tour of their new resource, Amazon Inspire (launched at the conference) seemed to me to communicate pride and anticipation as much as the resource itself strongly sent out a strong ‘game changer’ alert! Imagine a somewhat traditional looking and feeling social media resource, something not unlike YouTube that allows (well, if we think about it a bit, encourages) teachers to upload their best lessons and resources, tag and label them, and offer them to the rest of the world’s teachers. Not only can teachers’ best instructional items be uploaded to be viewed and shared online, but users can aggregate them into folders, entities like YouTube’s channels and Spotify’s playlists. These can be shared through links compatible within other social networking and media resources, can be subscribed to, curated and re-curated, and on and on—making this new resource what appears to me to be a soon-to-be essential resource for teachers, coaches, school and district subject departments, graduate education classes—and just about any entity within the field that wants to aggregate, curate, archive and selectively retrieve, share and collaborate on resources and materials to support its efforts. The field has been looking for things of this nature for a very long time—but the sheer simplicity, powerful and stable functionality, and relative freedom from unnecessary involvement from its provider that might inhibit the viral, crowdsourcing potential of this resource—makes me think that something truly important has arrived at our doorsteps, inviting us to accept its challenge. I was impressed!

Further Enlightenment

Another resource that caught my attention was shown prominently on the exhibition hall floor by Follett, the venerable book and school library support company. LIGHTBOX  provides e-content titles and related, supporting content, in fact a wide variety of it, on strategically selected themes in well-coordinated, low-cost packages. According to its site, “Lightbox is a multimedia educational space that encourages students to see learning in a whole new light…students receives a true multimedia learning experience that incorporates audio, video, interactive activities, and much more across a variety of professionally developed curriculum.” I can see a teacher with little experience integrating technology, beginning with this one and if not hitting a home run, then getting on third without too much difficulty. This resource seems to give kids what they want and need in a highly engaging, interactive format that promises to work across platforms and devices. The time has come for those classrooms that have been slow to join the movement to make up lost ground. This resource and others like it, I think will get them caught up and looking for more!

Getting a Kick Out of Teaching

Another trend that presented itself strongly this year involves items designed to increase the way schools can cope with the affective dimensions of learning and student participation in school. One item of this sort that caught my eye is Kickboard, a tablet app that allows schools to establish criteria for observing behavior and tracking and analyzing it using mobile devices. Rather than waiting for misbehavior or behaviors that are counterproductive to learning to spiral out of control, or simply to go un-noticed by teachers and students (we really need to begin to put in an effort to develop student self-awareness and knowledge), with Kickboard, schools can get a handle on all of this and foster a much more informed and controlled environment for the benefit of students and their teachers.

Up to Speed

Pushing ever further, I sat with some really smart folks from Voyager Sopris and discussed their new resource, Velocity, something this group describes as the next generation in adaptive learning. Its site states that “Velocity incorporates the most advanced computer science to facilitate individual learning outcomes by breaking down the entire learning process to a new level of granularity. Velocity then optimizes student learning by continually monitoring understanding and instantly adjusting based on student performance. Students in grades K-5 gain proficiency in critical English Language Arts skills faster and with more 1:1 student-teacher interaction. Teachers get actionable data and resources for better engagement and improved learning.”

This kind of thing is what has me happily convinced that advanced technologies are available now that have the potential to provide significantly improved student outcomes without much struggle needed to take advantage of them. I walked away from the meeting contentedly feeling that we’ve arrived at the a next-level stage of development where teachers remain central to the processes of the most important aspects of education as they and their students benefit from advances in interactive resources that are applying remarkably sophisticated, truly adaptive technologies to their needs.

What Really Matters

I found myself also sitting with a group from Performance Matters which offers an integrated portfolio of online solutions, all supported with robust data analytics that connect student and educator growth together. Refining student assessment and using it to inform instruction highly effectively as well as ongoing teacher professional learning aligned with it is something that’s been on my mind lately. Not surprising, as I’ve been teaching a few graduate-level courses in it online. The items Performance Matters showed me seemed to be very well designed and ready to support schools in accomplishing these things. It made me think that one of the dilemmas we are up against at the moment is simply to get our plates and minds cleared enough so that we can take advantage of the truly well thought out resources that have been developed and brought to market.

Part of their portfolio of things that I was shown is PM Nation; free to participating Performance Matters customers, it’s an online collaborative that allows educators to author, review, and share items and assessments with other PM Nation members across the country. Its website points out that “Currently, PM Nation members have access to several thousand items that have been vetted by grade and subject, with new items being added and reviewed daily.PM Nation grows in value with every contribution. As new items are contributed, item statistics drive updates that continuously improve PM Nation assessment content.” There’s that trend again. This idea of finally establishing a powerful community of connected educators who take advantage of the cloud as the ultimate teachers’ lounge to expand their practice and capacity to benefit their students kept reasserting itself and for my part, I think in the very near future it will become absolutely undeniable by educators at all stages of technology adoption.

Sophisticated and Capable

With so much going on online, so much data collected and stored and ready to be used, so many places for teachers and students to go out on the web to explore, those schools who are onboard and who want to deepen and refine their technology experience need a state-of-the-art Learning Management System. For the experienced school, one that has already successfully begun its digital journey and is now ready to take advantage of technology’s potential for next-level teaching and learning, it’s good to know that smart people like those behind Edsby have developed a truly sophisticated and wonderfully capable LMS. Edsby’s site describes it as a cloud-based platform for K-12 that incorporates learning management, data aggregation, and real-time analytics. My half hour sit down with this company showed me that they know what they are doing, thoroughly understanding the needs of schools, including those who are already coming to see that they’ve outgrown simple systems and are ready to grow into something that will support them for a very long journey.

Mad About Learning

But, with head spinning and tail growing a bit numb, I just had to get up and away, had to touch base with my tribe: teachers! I had to run into one of the conference’s instructional playgrounds and get a dose of classroom-based, spirit-oxygenating inspiration. Quickly, I was put back in touch with my years of rubbing elbows with early adolescents as, thank heavens, I ran into Vicki Davis, a blogging teacher whose Cool Cat Teacher blog rarely fails to deliver. Vicki was giving a short presentation on her project in which students not only create their own apps, but as budding social entrepreneurs must sell their concept to emerge as the empowered front runner in a Shark Tank type “collabo-tition” program. Students collaborate, and collaboratively compete across class and school boundaries to learn and make an impact on their world. Very uplifting. Ms. Davis calls this program MAD-learn and kindred spirit, Alefiya Bhatia, from Crescerence, the producer of the APP creation resources that are used by the students was on site to answer questions, as well. Very inspiring! No really, I truly mean that I was flying on some sort of contact high from Vicki’s enthusiasm and the obvious, student creativity fostering grand slam home run that this program scores with the lucky students involved in it. I didn’t come down for a good few minutes as a walked the long corridors of the Colorado Convention Center looking for another hit.

Fueling Up

Fortified, I sat with the folks from FuelEd and had to agree that for many schools, offering courses that involve getting kids online with teachers (often of subjects not available in their school’s ‘brick and mortar’ incarnation) who connect with them from a distance may make a great difference. Hey, if edtech isn’t about providing powerful alternatives to the traditional, then after a quarter century of involvement, I guess I haven’t been paying close enough attention. This is powerful stuff and it’s good to know that we have come to a point in our field in which there are groups like FuelEd who are ready to provide schools with the know how they need, eliminating the sorts of painfully slow, trial and error that I witnessed in earlier days.

Fast Forward

As intoxicated on emerging possibilities for previously unimaginable approaches to Education as I may have been, I still have to confess, I do tend to be jaded about the claims of resource providers. I was very much taken, though, with Accelerate Learning, and when its President, Vernon Johnson, proudly asserted to me that its pre-K through 12 STEM curriculum offerings are disruptive, despite my ‘Seen it all, Heard it all, Sorry!” instincts, after listening for a few minutes I had to agree. This provider has too much going on for me to explain it all here, but I very much like the fact that it assures relevance by, at least in part, crowd sourcing ongoing curriculum, which is written by engaging a body of actual teachers who continue refining it in a continuous process of improvement. Want kits to offer kids hands on experiences as a way to foster their understanding and learning? Users can download updated shopping lists of easy to find items (think Walmart, Ace, Target, etc.) or order pre-assembled kits from Accelerate. PD? Accelerate’s model includes a coaching website and importantly, PD embedded right in the curriculum. At roughly $5 a kid per year, I don’t think ‘disruptive’ is hyperbole.

Help from Hardware

I don’t always gravitate toward established hardware providers’ offerings at ISTE; I tend to be attracted more to concept and digital content resources. However, I’m very happy that I had an opportunity to sit with a few of DELL’s top educator support folks, Jason Vossler, a senior product advisor, and colleagues in this case. I take special pleasure in hearing from the ‘hardware side’ language that to me smacks of deep understanding of the revolution, not just in the material reality of classrooms, but in how it can and should be part and parcel of a deep reconsideration of what’s worth doing with kids these days, and why, as well as what resources might support these powerful shifts away from the traditional to the sort of Education truly worthy of today’s kids.

When these good DELL folks spoke to me of their understanding of “Student Led Learning” the veteran teacher in me was truly heartened. Yes, that concept has everything to with encouraging kids to take charge of their own education, and to hone powerful thinking and communication skills as they engage one another in authentic inquiries and presentations that focus and relate their learning. And yes, I can see how items like the larger format, multi-touch point displays I was shown could easily help reconfigure the traditional classroom into a learning environment that is much more supportive of the sorts of 21st-century skills so many of us have come to see as appropriately updated goals for relevant learning. As a professor of Education courses I often speak about three modes of instruction: Whole Group, Small Group, and Individual learning—and, while it’s easy to see how 1-to-1, small-device implementations (Chrome Book or other) can satisfy the needs of individual learners, and easy to see how large displays, either touch screen or interactive whiteboard, or simply projector, supports whole group discussions, I think having a few medium-sized touch screen displays, good options for which apparently are now emerging, might be the perfect thing for small group learning, as well. These, to flesh out the full picture of an appropriately enabled, tech supported, modern learning environment that addresses and supports all modes of teaching and learning.

I ran off in search of lunch, although in the end, I never connected with anything to eat. I did, however, spend some time with school-based tech coordinator, Ashley Kemper, at her mobile learning playground table display on “Exceptional Assistive Mobile Learning Tools”. Ms. Kemper highlighted a number of resources and related practices that reaffirmed my take on the growth and teacher friendliness of an extended body of resources that continues to emerge. Ashley showed how she uses augmented reality as an assistive learning tool, tools that help keep kids organized, resources and their uses to help kids regulate their emotions (especially helpful for kids with sensory processing disorder and/or on the autistic spectrum), and finally, resources to help exceptional learners thrive.) A well-informed and insightful teacher-user of APPS is wonderful to sit with and learn from. Thanks, Ashley!

Capping It All Off

Another resource I came across that I found interesting and encouraging is Capstone’s new pivotEd, whose site states that it “harnesses the proven power of Capstone’s award-winning content and pairs it with innovative technologies so educators in 1-to-1 and blended learning environments can connect directly with students. Teachers leverage a rich ecosystem of readily available interactive lessons that foster creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.” When providers site those goals as things they’ve embraced, and when my probing conversations with them prove to me that they’ve got folks onboard who fully comprehend all of this, so much so that I can accept them as ready to lead others in those directions, I walk away very encouraged. Things really do seem to be changing for the better in our public schools, institutions, armed with such resources, I think can reinvent themselves from stodgy, stifling institutions to places where young minds can be appropriately nourished and above all excited.

Making Things Happen

And there’s so much young talent emerging in our field. I love to visit the conference’s Start Up Pavilion on the Exhibition floor to rub elbows with some of it. So many gutsy, insightful ‘edu-preneurs’ introducing new offerings. I had a great conversation with Andrew Miller of MakerSpaces.com, a company that provides expertise and support for schools interested in establishing a makerspace. I was gratified to swap views on how it isn’t just about kids putting lots of little pieces together, but that through the establishment of a well thought out makerspace program, student innovation and creativity can be fostered and nourished following an established body of instructional thought and practice.

Literally Literacy

At my own session, one I give every year as the President of the Literacy Professional Learning Network to highlight new and promising resources, my group acknowledged the following groups, all of who had members of their development team on stage with me to explain and interface with ISTE members about the things they have been developing for the field: Beeline Reader (a browser-based screen text reader very likely to revolutionize reading instruction), Participate Learning (Find.Connect.Collaborate – an online resource teachers use to collect and share items to make their teaching more effective) , Actively Learn (an exciting resource that enables teachers to personalize and customize content for their students, making it more engaging and accessible) , and Bookopolis (online social media resource through which kids share book recommendations, reviews, and more).

Hard Work Pays Off

I have to confess ISTE is not a lark for me. I work hard there, listening and observing, running around watching demos, interacting with teachers and students, reading materials at poster sessions and playgrounds, and generally doing my best imitation of a trend spotting, state-of-the-art knowledge sponge. But hey, don’t feel too sorry for me, I make the rounds of the evening parties, too (this year the conference opening reception, as well as the CUE party where I chatted with CEO Mike Lawrence about its very impressive Leading Edge Certification program, and at the NEARPOD party, where I took in a presentation about that resource, something that, judging by the crowd assembled, is well appreciated by its clients.

Trending Now

I finished up the conference at the Trending Now panel discussion. One of the panel members, Nicholas Provenzano, a former ISTE Teacher of the Year a high school English teacher (who makes great use of Project-Based Learning as he provokes student creativity through the use of technology) stated, “Find the tool that best fits your students’ projects, and you will see the most amazing projects and examples of learning you’ve ever come across. Technology is providing more opportunities for kids to express their understanding in creative ways.”

And yes, the theme of education supporting the development of student creativity as an emerging goal of high importance was in evidence throughout the conference. Professor Michio Kaku alluded to it strongly in his opening keynote presentation and it was echoed throughout the conference in the field-defining conversations and presentations that happened there.

But Wait, There’s More

PS – Before I forget: My apologies to the many, many other groups and resource developers and providers I saw and talked with and shared enthusiasm for working at this particular junction in the technology-fueled transformation of Education with and for whom I just couldn’t squeeze justice to their contributions into the article above. Some of them whose brilliant offers at this particular moment continue to roll out of my mind and conference bag include:

EXPLOR-eBook From Teacher Created Materials, a body of 500+ books packaged with lessons, tools for collaboration, media, and monitoring by teachers.
WALKABOUTS The active learning platform integrates physical activity with academic subjects in the K-2 program.
Couragion STEM career exploration resources.
Actimator Peer-Led Game Design for Computer Science Education.
TURN ON iste 8 Best Projects for Your Classroom Centro Escolar Los Altos.
­LAB4U Science APPs for students and teachers.
Lifelique Virtual Reality, interactive 3D Objects, 3D printable media, etc., as a classroom resource.
ClassTag Connect and collaborate more closely with parents.
Army Educational Outreach Program STEM enrichment activities / competitions.


Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member and editor-at-large, 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. Most recently, Mark is the author of Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School


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