Reflections on ISTE 2017

All grown up, edtech is ready to show ‘vanilla ed’ how to get the job done!


CREDIT ISTE 2017 conf and expo.jpgI’m back home a few days now from San Antonio where I attended ISTE 2017 — the ever bigger, ever more energetic and optimistic annual edtech mega conference. This year even more than previously, the blend of high enthusiasm, collective insight, and first looks at next-level developments and offerings leaves me appreciatively well informed and thoroughly inspired.

Attempting to accurately summarize this cross between a Burning Man gathering of the tribe, and serious professional development for educators — would be impossible. What I’ll share here, though, is my own takeaway from four high-energy days of interfacing with the very best in technology-supported education. I’m beyond bursting with ah-ha’s that reinforce my confidence in the future of teaching and learning. What a great time it is to be involved in education—assuming one’s mind is open to the possibilities presenting themselves just now!

It’s a fluid and fertile field to be involved in, and there is so much growth on the near horizon.

Let me mention up front that I’ve been in the edtech field for well over two decades and in the general field of education longer than that. This was the 20th consecutive ISTE conference I’ve attended. I want to state emphatically that it seems to me that this year’s conference marked the field actually having achieved the deep shift many of us have been awaiting for a long time. I saw evidence throughout the conference that edtech is no longer a niche area of the field of education, it is education; it is the most important thing going on in education.

I’m an ex-teacher, ex-instructional supervisor, and ex big-city school system director of Instructional Technology. Looking through those lenses, truly I can hardly see any best instructional practices that don’t use technology to present students with the very best learning experience possible! In short, edtech is the most impactful, and most important facet of contemporary teaching, learning, and school administration—and it is about to show what I’ll call “Vanilla Ed” (education that’s still going on its uninformed, oblivious, paper-driven way) how to get the job done, how to finally realize its own goals and reforms that, despite much discussion, have been elusive until now — through the application of technology. I found it abundantly evident throughout the ISTE 2017 experience, that while no formal announcement has been made, that shift has finally and thoroughly happened!

Okay, having gotten that off my chest—here’s some of what I saw and experienced that I’d really like to share.

Telling the Story

I ran into Richard Culatta a number of times, once almost literally as he whizzed past me while cruising around one of the conference poster session areas on a Segway. Mr. Culatta is the new CEO of ISTE and he brings great enthusiasm and youthful style to the job, something that added to the optimism one couldn’t help but feel at the conference. He spoke at the opening keynote and again to the smaller group assembled in the annual ISTE Board Member’s lunch where a number of kindred spirit ISTE members received the much coveted “Making IT Happen Jacket” award for outstanding work in the field (both Richard and I are former recipients). At the breakfast he hosted for media the next morning, he revealed his thinking about ISTE and its future. He spoke about increasing ISTE’s reach, how we need to impact and engage many more educators as we move forward. Among other points he made, three resonated particularly strongly for me: 1) that much needs to be done by ISTE in the area of Higher Education, in its role in teacher preparation, especially; 2) that the field needs to stress educator leadership, through things like ISTE’s PLNs (Professional Learning Networks), and 3) he expressed admiration for ISTE’s publications and stressed how that what’s needed is ‘telling the story’ of educational change through technology, something that I believe Thomas Friedman alluded to in his ground breaking book The World is Flat, opining that one of the new, crucial roles people must play in the emerging world is that of ‘Explainer’ and to that end, I’ll do my best with this article, Richard.


Speaking of Inspiration, I received a massive hit of it from Apple, a company that I don’t recall seeing at an ISTE Conference for years. Yes, they continued to be an important part of edtech all that time, no doubt, but it was so good to see them at the conference again—and with such sparkle! Perhaps the best part of this for me was that I didn’t see them releasing any new, paradigm setting devices, but rather, deepening our planetary body of best instructional practice with other sorts of refinements. As a longtime advocate of LEGO Education’s Student Robotics resources, I was pleased to see Apple’s Swift programming language applied to program them, something that I expect will strongly enrich efforts to teach coding and applications of it. I also got to see this approach to coding applied to a Parrot drone, making my alter ego (a dormant, twelve-year-old science nerd who hides inside of me), stand up and cheer.

But what truly got my pulse racing was the Apple group session I attended titled “The Power of Music for Learning: GarageBand and Tuniversity” in which, after not having worked with Garage Band for far too long (my bad, my bad, my most unfortunate bad!), I got a fresh look at this resource for making and recording your own music through a very engaging and easy to use graphic interface. This was part of an introduction to some of the magic of Tuniversity, a new education company co-founded by Pharrell Williams, dedicated to reinvigorating music education using iPad.

As everyone on the planet knows, Pharrell Williams is the composer, singer, and music video star of the Grammy Award winning song, ”Happy” — which coincidentally is the basis of Tuniversity’s first book, “Learn Pharrell Williams’ Happy A Modern Method for Writing, Recording, and Producing Music” — an instructional resource that uses audio, video, and technology tools (including Garage Band) to analyze the song “Happy” — helping students learn creative skills of music making and production.

What come across impactfully, is that this is an effort to re-establish Music (and by extension, Arts) Education as a vibrant, high-engagement, tech-driven phenomenon to recapture the hearts and minds of young people everywhere. It certainly captured mine! I actually started out my career in education (please don’t ask me how long ago!) as an arts educator, and I could see from the get-go that this is the real deal, one of those rare chemistry blends of the right insight, personalities, and resources to actually bring something crucial back from the brink.

For me the centerpiece was a video recorded especially for this session, in which Pharrell speaks directly to educators, explaining his passion for music and commitment to what he feels is a new sort of education in which students are brought into the process of making music with digital resources. Afterward, I briefly chatted one-on-one with Brent, one of the book’s authors and Pharrell’s guitarist for many years. I was much impressed with the level of expertise and commitment that he and his partners bring to this effort. I pretty much floated out of the room.


Microsoft, too, had a great presence at the conference. Both upstairs in its designated area for giving demos and PD sessions, many of which were well attended with folks lining up and waiting to get a look at Microsoft’s ideas and offerings. Also, out on the exhibit floor, where some very exciting Microsoft Partners APPs were on view, a variety of ways to “Spark Creativity” — including different approaches to student robotics — vied for attention. One that caught mine was the Virtual Robotics Toolkit. Throughout the conference, Microsoft had a great deal to share with today’s forward thinking educators; a few session examples were: Minecraft Education Edition with Code Builder; Office 365 for Authentic Assessments; and Creating engaging projects and presentations with Sway (MS presentation resource).

Richard Langford, a Microsoft Senior Education and Solutions Specialist at the conference, graciously gave me a bit of a Microsoft education overview, sitting with me for a lengthy conversation in which he fully grabbed my attention.

Beyond any of the many things that MS does to contribute to the educational landscape and possibilities horizon, he gave me some great “ah ha’s” that I left the conference with. By that, I mean an understanding of how one of the really big providers sees things these days; how its posture and culture have been shaped by, and is shaping — the landscape of edtech. He explained that today’s company reflects a change in which MS has come to see education as an inseparable, major element in its vision and mission — and keeps it absolutely up front in all the things it does. Products are conceived with education in mind, not adapted for education later on. Further, many resources are developed with school needs paramount in consideration, so that resources like OneNote can interface with the Student Information Systems when schools use popular platforms like Schoology or Edmodo. The experience feels to local level educators as seamless and easy; no disincentives, like labor-intensive class setups.

Saving time for teachers, Richard related, is a very high priority for Microsoft and it’s a way that MS is making a difference: “We value teachers. We’re not focused on replacing teachers in any way. What we want to do is empower them to teach” —and from where I view it all, I think that’s a great position to take.

One of the things I took away from this conversation and others I had with representatives from the big providers is that they seem to be focused on maintaining their own vision of what the world of education needs. It’s not a situation of who will compete best in an already defined and limited field of possibilities. While a degree of competition is inevitable, what I’m seeing more of is each provider bringing its own special body of offerings to a malleable market. I particularly appreciate this because, where we’ve been headed, and where I think we’ve already landed, is a new world in which the universe of personalized resources and approaches to use them is ever changing. The world of standardized, hardcopy resources in which consumers had just a handful of viable choices is receding into the far distance. As was explained to me, if the focus is on what teachers want to do to provide students with a great learning experience, then there will be opportunities for providers who cater to that. As Richard put it to me, he and his colleagues frown on “Bake Offs” — in other words, situations in which everyone comes to the market with more or less the same cupcakes or cookies (my analogy), leaving the customer to compare price or size or minor flavor enhancements. We are looking at a market, I think, in which there are more and better choices, much more variety and personalization through response to district, school, teacher, and student needs. Further, astute providers seem to have come to the conclusion that today’s winner may be tomorrow’s partner; it’s a fluid and fertile field to be involved in, and there is so much growth on the near horizon.

Googling Along

At the very large and strategically placed Google exhibit, I decided to sit down among a group of teachers who finally had a chance to test drive Google Classroom and see for themselves what all the buzz is about this resource, described by GOOGLE as “mission control” for teachers, connecting the class and enabling them to track student progress. The effect on those next to me struggling to wrap their already overstuffed minds around this “digital learning platform” was impressive. I bore witness to their maiden voyage at the helm of a popular solution to that great problem for teachers to have: how to manage students, as they guide them through a plethora of assignments, content, tools and resources. Sparks were flying faster than fingers on keyboards as the realization that the overwhelm of herding digital cats could now be easily side stepped on the way to far better teaching and learning. It was another of the many glimpses I got into just how sophisticated edtech has become — how ready it is to transform education.

Surrounding the GOOGLE Classroom area were small tables at which various partners’ resources were highlighted. I stopped by the table manned by Piotr Sliwinski (my apologies, Piotr, for not having a Polish keyboard to do justice to your name). Like offerings at the other tables, this one featured an exciting resource titled, Explain Everything (offered through the Google Creative Bundle for Chromebooks), a versatile interactive whiteboard app that can be used for sharing knowledge, building understanding, personal productivity, and much more. As the author of a recent ISTE book on Student Creativity, I quickly recognized here a tool to facilitate and spark thinking and expression as well as to capture, communicate, and collaborate around it. I very much hope that today’s kids have a glimmer of understanding about how the possibilities of what one can do in school have been expanded by technology. Well, actually, as someone who was a classroom teacher for nearly two decades, I won’t get my hopes on that one up too far—just let them use all this, and make some magic with it!

Gamify the Classroom

I reconnected with Shawn and Devin (Young) of Classcraft, an increasingly popular “gamification” platform. Classcraft is one of a small group of absolutely paradigm-shifting resources that young educators are adopting passionately. Far beyond simply introducing gaming into one’s teaching practice, it enables teachers and students to literally “Gamify the Classroom,” and I love the audacity of deconstructing the structure of traditional school organization for instruction and recontextualizing it this way to render a highly relevant, re-conceived school experience that is easy to view as an improvement.

As I chatted with Devin, one of the two brothers who conceived and developed Classcraft, he explained to me that much of his attention these days is on further developing and refining those aspects of the resource that enable teachers to easily access Classcraft in concert with their standard LMS or digital learning platform; to have student performance information that it generates be part and parcel of a teacher’s overall student data use, and for all of this to work across platforms in a seamless, interoperable, and above all, highly user-friendly context and experience.

Today’s educators are well equipped to provide a compelling and effective learning experience to their students.

Such work makes resources like Classcraft suitable and appealing for big providers like Microsoft and Google, increasing the body of resources they can stand behind and offer to tech-consuming educators, without having to develop or acquire them directly. And from the perspective of those small developers, often young people who are passionate and astute about the ways technology-driven resources can transform education, this approach allows them independence while assuring much greater reach and access to the audience they want to address. Looks like edtech has entered another favorable period of win-win-win!

My Own Panel

Heading up ISTE’s Literacy Education PLN (Professional Learning Network), I, and my network colleagues, had the privilege of inviting some of the very most promising digital resource providers, currently, to join us in a panel presentation to explain their offerings to ISTE members. As always, this session was full and much appreciated. Small wonder as what we put together was truly a powerhouse group of resources. We fortunately managed to present the following groups in one setting in just one short hour of concentrated focus on how technology is positively transforming what we see as one of the very most important missions of edtech, Literacy Learning. With this small aggregation of resources, much of it free, today’s educators are well equipped to provide a compelling and effective learning experience to their students. The body of resources our group highlighted this year included (I’ll let quotes from their respective websites speak for them):

Newsela – “When textbooks dream, they dream of Newsela – Join our community of 1,300,000 Newsela educators and counting.” This resource provides relevant, up to date content for students.

Listenwise – “The Power of Listening – Listening comprehension advances literacy and learning for all students.”

Quizlet – “Simple tools for learning anything. Search millions of study sets or create your own. Improve your grades by studying with flashcards, games and more.”

Discovery Education – “Transforming Teaching & Learning. We ignite student curiosity and inspire educators to reimagine learning with award-winning digital content and powerful professional development.”

I managed to sit with Stephen Wakefield of Discovery Education later to discuss the powerful content that Discovery continues to provide through both its Techbook (think textbook reconceived as a digital resource for 21st Century learning) and Streaming video collection. Just as I appreciate Tuniversity coming from the world of entertainment to develop classroom resources, the same can be said about Discovery (is it Shark Week, yet?) being the origin of Discovery Education’s high motivation content for learners. We’ve fully arrived at a point in education’s evolution that reflects the new reality of the availability of highly motivating, “just right” content … in abundance. And it’s provided in ways that make distributing it to students easy and learner-friendly. Discovery offers both the digital send-up of the classic textbook, and a powerful collection of videos as it demonstrates to today’s learners just how interesting content can be.

Technology is About Reading Books

I stopped by the Follett booth to see what they were offering this year. Glad I did. Any notion that technology is doing anything other than encouraging and supporting kids to fully understand and commit to the richness of books needs (IMHO) to be tempered by a look at Follett’s Lightbox, a fully interactive, multidimensional, supplemental solution for pre K-12 educators looking to improve engagement and literacy skills. There’s a great deal here, including classic novels and interactive Lightbox titles, as well as activities and assessments.

Hey, I’m always one to boldly go looking for some excitement. And out there on one of the leading edges of edtech, I found some.

But while students using this resource are very likely to learn to understand and value books, they are doing so in a truly 21st-century way. The digital interface they are presented with offers them ways to work with books that allow them to focus on things that they need and appreciate as they do so; direct access to things like audio, video, web links, slideshows, maps, and on and on. This, I think, is a rich, up-to-date, relevant approach to literacy instruction.

The Leading Edge

Hey, I’m always one to boldly go looking for some excitement. And out there on one of the leading edges of edtech, I found some when I spoke with the folks from Voyager Sopris who gave me a view of what’s happening on the edtech event horizon, the already-here future of education. This is the realm of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning applied to teaching and learning.

Seriously, I enjoyed wrapping my mind around this group’s ‘Velocity’ solution, one of the more sophisticated applications of the power of technology to the eternal work and joy of teaching and learning I’ve seen.

Is edtech ready to redefine what’s possible in education? I don’t think that there’s any hyperbole in citing Velocity as proof that what was inconceivable a short while ago is already in implementation.

In Velocity we see a literacy intervention resource that is ‘adaptive’ in a sense of that word that I feel is authentic and genuine. At the heart of Velocity is an engine that learns how the student learns best. One result of its work is the creation of the content needed by the student to learn, content created on the fly as the student uses it. However, built into the student experience is reward for productive struggle, something that rings true to me. Teachers are informed in real time where each student is at in the learning process.

Throughout the conference, I heard repeated the concept of personalized learning. And here, it seems to me, we have an item that has taken aim at offering the sort of personalized learning that our struggling learners need badly; in literacy learning, a very crucial area of the curriculum, at that.

Velocity appears to be an important step forward, adaptive learning that doesn’t call up items from fixed, predicted paths, but rather accounts for thousands of variables and that works with the student to produce the unique way forward through the learning experience that he or she needs. Scaffolds and supports, hints and multi sensory variations are provided to students who are engaged through their various dimensions as learners.

On the Exhibition Floor

My initial disappointment at the state of the exhibition floor soon mellowed into appreciation for what I take as a clear indication of growth of the field. By that I mean that as someone who came to edtech from being a classroom teacher, I always look for instructional resources when I venture out into the exhibit and this year the first thing that struck me was the amount of hardware and infrastructure oriented items on display. And while I don’t feel the need to investigate those much, the sheer number does show that there will be much more in our schools soon on which students and teachers will run all of the instructional stuff that accompanied the equipment I saw. By the way, I was fascinated to see Chinese companies in the house. I spoke with Mr. Chen, of Shenshen Yue Jiang Technology, provider of DOBOT education materials, which impressed me as combining good features of robotics, 3D printers, and maker resources—good stuff!

As I ricocheted from one booth to the next, I found some items that I’d like to share:

Pie TopPie Top was one bit of hardware that intoxicated me with that variety of EdTech Caffeine for the tired school that I’ve come to rely on ISTE for. Pie Top is a kit-oriented, build-your-own connected device item for kids that makes use of the now near ubiquitous Raspberry Pie processor at its core. The coolness factor on this one is undeniable.

TigglyTiggly is one of those hybrid items that cross over between educational toy and full-press instructional resource. Kids pick up real, palpable shapes (think instructional manipulates of the past) that, when pressed to the screen of an iPad (or a Chrome, Android, or Kindle device), activate the digital magic inside. Young learners become immersed in a rich learning environment in which the real world interacts with the digital world, both coalescing into a learning experience guaranteed to engage and provide stimulation and cognitive supports as they play, work, and learn their way to literacy and numeracy. In my mind, a good example of how technology-supported learning has got to offer something more and better than what came before.

FreshGradeFreshGrade is a digital portfolio and grade book resource guaranteed to make portfolio/authentic assessment easy. Kids share their work through a digital portfolio—one more example of how technology, the great enabler, has made a long-held goal of progressive educators, portfolio assessment, doable and within the grasp of the average teacher and class.

Parrot – So great to see Parrot drones join robotics and other related resources to provide a context and platform for coding and STEM efforts.

Start Up Pavilion

Always inspiring are the offerings at the Startup Pavilion where, at little mini booths, new hopefuls entering the field share their vision for how they are expanding the envelope of edtech possibilities. There were many there this year. I visited quickly with a few notables:

BITSBOX: coding projects for kids. With Bitsbox, children as young as six years old learn to program by creating fun apps that work on computers and gadgets like iPads and Android tablets. The website provides each child with a virtual tablet and a place to type their code. The experience starts with lots of guidance, first showing learners exactly what to type, then quickly encouraging them to modify and expand their apps by typing in new commands.

Video Collaboratory. Former dancer and choreographer Sybil Huskey was sitting there with her colleague Vikash Singh demoing the very interesting Video Collaboratory, a web-based application designed for group collaboration around video documents. Beyond simply viewing video, the Collaboratory is equipped to allow students to mark up, analyze and discuss videos. As the old saying goes, “Find a need and fill it!” and I think these folks have done just that. Online learning gets richer all the time.

Common Lit. CommonLit delivers high-quality, free instructional materials to support literacy development for students in grades 5-12. Resources are: flexible; research-based; aligned to the Common Core State Standards; created by teachers, for teachers. And oh, they are free!

Poster Sessions

While my head was wrapped firmly around the things mentioned above, my heart was warmed, as it always is, in the playgrounds and poster session areas where real educators and real students show what they do. A few items that took me by the heart and wouldn’t let go were:

Instituto Rosedal Lomas in Mexico City’s project. Student Renata Susunaga showed me how the Physics students there created a data analysis project in which they used Facebook as a data gathering engine, later analyzing and representing findings in large graphics. I thought appropriating a ubiquitous and data sensitive resource like Facebook was clever and effective, just the sort of thing today’s kids benefit from.

Guiding Reluctant Teachers Through the Shallow End of the Technology Pool. Presenter Melissa Henning showed those of us gathered around her presentation table a raft of simple ‘win over those reluctant teachers’ activities, all of which use free and hyper user-friendly, web-based resources. Just the right touch for the difficult, but essential, job this approach takes aim at.

One of the wonderful things about attending the conference is the near certainty that you will cross paths with respected colleagues and friends who’ve traveled this path with you over the years.

Misty Simpson and Wendy Boatright’s session, “Cross-Curricular Centers to promote Creativity and Engagement in which they explain why Learning centers are a great way to inspire and engage students to be creative with technology; all while meeting the standards and learning objectives. They showed how they integrate Social Studies and ELA centers with vocabulary, journals, digital stories, brochures and more, employing the powerful WIXIE resource from Tech4Learning.

And, of course, there was more—so much more!

Ubiquitous, Necessary, and Invisible

One of the wonderful things about attending the conference is the near certainty that you will cross paths with respected colleagues and friends who’ve traveled this path with you over the years. I was happy to spend a little time with Chris Lehman, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a nationally prominent school located in Philadelphia and a noted education innovator. I asked him for an impression of the conference and he explained that he was excited by how many people he heard were really talking about school reform and educational change, not just about specific technology items.

Reacting to my reflection that technology now dominates best practices in teaching and learning, Chris reminded me of the old truism that “school technology should be like oxygen; ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” Astute, as was his thought that we don’t need to be talking about technology so much; it just needs to be part of what we do.

This I take as more confirmation that the shift from the traditional classroom to digital learning environment is already well in effect. While far from complete, there is already much ubiquity in technology in our schools, and the presence of so many vendors in the exhibition hall indicates that this is increasing rapidly. And now, I agree, it’s time to stop talking about the digital platform for learning that’s been a quarter century plus in the making, and take further charge of it and further use it for the transformation in education that we now have the power to bring about.

Edtech is like the kid who’s all grown up, but still sees himself as ‘Junior.’ And, of course, there is much more growing and maturing to be done—but let’s take a good look in the mirror, shall we? Edtech is what’s happening in education. It’s education’s strongest suit, the only one that can truly transform ‘Vanilla Ed’ to better prepare today’s kids for the era they are learning to learn in, and in which they will live and prosper. This is such an important moment and I can’t think of any place more appropriate for it to have declared and revealed itself than at ISTE 2017. I’m proud to be a member!

In addition to being a member of ISTE, Mark Gura is an Advisory Board Member and Contributing Editor of EdTech Digest and the author of the recently released book, Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School published by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education). Mark will be serving as a judge for the 2018 EdTech Awards—recognizing edtech’s best and brightest innovators, leaders, and trendsetters (click here for an entry form).

  • Glen - Emile Education


    As an aspiring UK based Edtech company, this is a fantastic review and paints the image of an exhibition of which we want to be a part! We’ll hopefully see everyone at ISTE 18!

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