Cynthia Sistek-Chandler: Driven to Discover

The EdTech Leadership Award Winner for Higher Education shares her long (and interesting!) path forward.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

A Professor of Educational Technology and current Program Lead for the new Master of Arts in Social and Emotional Learning at National University, College of Education, Cynthia Sistek-Chandler, Ed D, has been “driven to discover” throughout an entire career’s worth of notable highlights.

She is most recently the winner of The EdTech Leadership Award for Higher Education, part of The EdTech Awards 2020. As a Professor in the Sanford College of Education at National University, she teaches Educational Technology and is currently the Academic Program Director for Advanced Teacher Practices. Dr. Sistek-Chandler became a leader in Educational Technology through her 35-year affiliation with Computer Using Educators (CUE) working at the affiliate level in San Diego holding every board position including President.

“For three decades now, my driving question has been, ‘How can technology be integrated into the curriculum beyond just a tool and as a meaningful learning medium?’”

Cynthia has been a contributing member of the CUE and ISTE Conference Planning Committees and has organized many local edtech focused conferences. In 2018, Dr. Sistek-Chandler co-chaired a STEM conference with National University and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Over 600 local high school students and STEM leaders participated in this one of a kind conference. Her leadership with organizations includes: Classroom of the Future Foundation, iVIE Film Festival, the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN), contributing advisor to the Horizon Report, a State and Federal Grant Reviewer, and content writer and professional developer for over 500 school administrators through the AB 75/430 Professional Development.

As an award-winning educator, in 2019 she has earned the prestigious ISTE and CUE Award for *Making IT Happen* as well as earning a Gold and Platinum Disk from (CUE) for her lifetime achievements and service to the educational technology community. In 2014, she received the President’s Professoriate Award from National University and for two years served as a faculty fellow for Teaching and Learning. Dr. Sistek-Chandler is a pioneer in the area of online learning where she has designed and taught online courses since 1999. Her ongoing research focuses on the efficacy of online learning in higher education.

What prompted you to originally get involved with education and technology? 

My first introduction to educational technology began when I was working on my teaching credential at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Educational software was just “coming on the scene” as viable teaching tools. As a first-grade teacher at Marie Bauer Elementary in the Paso Robles School District, my one-computer classroom was the hub of the school. I wrote newsletters and created colorful posters and banners that decorated our classroom. The Apple 2e along with the ImageWriter II printer was “magic” for my students as they reveled in the power of publishing their writing with programs like: The Print Shop, Children’s Writing and Publishing Center, and Appleworks (programs were stored on a 5.25-inch floppy disk back then). I started to attend workshops, district-in-services, and conferences to learn everything I could about technology and how it could benefit the kids in my classroom.

After receiving my master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I left the classroom to work for software publishers and became a Software and Curriculum Specialist (Sales and Marketing too), this was a time in history when software, and the later CD-ROM, became “the way” to deliver curriculum. (I was actually recruited at a conference because of my curriculum knowledge.) As a sales representative, consultant, and trainer I began to notice the promise of technology as a powerful tool for teaching and learning. I worked in the educational software industry until the mid 90’s working with the top educational software companies like Brøderbund (Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Print Shop Deluxe, Kid Pix), Davidson & Associates (Speed Reader, Math Blaster, Reading Blaster), Hyperstudio (by Roger Wagner), MECC (Number Munchers, Word Munchers, The Oregon Trail), Discus Books, Inspiration Software and many, many more.

Then there was the Internet. Over a one-year period, I helped launch a Canadian Company into the U.S. market. Career Explorer’s content all live on the Internet and CE was one of the first Internet delivered, site licensed product in North America (until that time only boxed product and local area networks delivered the software). I also worked as a representative for Prodigy, an online service provider that connected educators through dial-up with Internet based content. A worldwide group of us helped to deliver MayaQuest to 40,000 schools. Dan Buettner connected with kids while on his bicycle journey through the Mayan ruins. This was an exciting time in education when the Internet was starting to develop into a delivery tool that expanded the traditional print-based knowledge base. The Internet was unstoppable!

What mission or purpose has driven you forward in the development of your career? 

As an educator with a degree in curriculum, I have always been so driven to discover and to demonstrate how technology can truly be a catalyst for purposeful learning. For three decades now, my driving question has been, “How can technology be integrated into the curriculum beyond just a tool and as a meaningful learning medium?” These discoveries along the way have driven me to share “how to’s” and “best practices” for integration across grade levels and across disciplines. I was driven to help solve learning gaps and other problems with technology solutions.

What went into the development of your path forward—could you provide a highlight or two?

Joining Computer Using Educators as a classroom teacher in 1985 changed the entire trajectory of my life. Not only did I take a hiatus from teaching but working in the software industry I traveled throughout North America and Europe to learn and teach the promise of technology integration. I attended numerous educational technology conferences and learned from others worldwide.

In the mid-90’s I started writing about educational software and for 5 years served as the Software Review Editor for the OnCUE Magazine, a publication by Computer Using Educators. I enlisted dozens of California educators and their students to review software programs and rate them for usability and functionality as well as provide practical application and examples of inclusion into the classroom.

Another pivotal highlight was when I applied to attend an institute offered by the San Diego Area Writing Project. As recipient of this fellowship and as a writing project fellow, I was passionate about learning the craft of writing and further dove into writing various tech related publications: teacher’s guides, handbooks, marketing plans, and other genres beyond the software review. Then in 1998, while representing NECC (now ISTE) at the Florida Educational Technology Conference, I met the publisher of a new magazine called, Converge and was hired to write and publish my work to share with a national audience. A year later, I applied to the San Diego State/University of San Diego Joint Doctoral program and began another journey as a researcher and writer of academic focused work. I was curious about how using digital tools such as graphic organizers and “electronic” concept-mapping software could help learners of all ages.

What highlights from your past inform your current approach?

Over the years, my involvement with the educational technology community has grown exponentially. Since the mid-80’s I’ve been engaged with an organization called CUE, formerly Computer Using Educators. For 23 years, I was a board member for my local affiliate, President for 3 years, and before that I was a member holding every office. For over 35 years now, I have been a member of this forward thinking and cutting-edge professional organization and it’s kind of funny that I am considered a “pioneer”. For my lifetime contributions to the edtech community, I received two distinctions from CUE: in 2001, a Gold Disk, and then later in 2014 a Platinum Disk. Then in 2019, I was again honored with the “Making IT Happen Award” from CUE and from the International Society for Technology and Education (ISTE) for my contributions to the edtech field.

Another shining highlight has been obtaining my doctoral degree; this brought my writing to a new level. Not that my writing wasn’t credible before, but as a Doctor of Education I was achieved a new level of credibility. At this juncture in my life, it was important that I be recognized for my work and publishing scholarly writing gave me that self-satisfaction. When your mindset changes to an “academic mindset” suddenly the whole world is a research study and you really look at the world differently, through an academic lens. My academic experience launched me into a whole new playing field, one that I have enjoyed ever since.

What does it mean to be honored in The EdTech Awards with Winner status for your work? 

As EdTech Digest’s 2020 Higher Education Technology Leader of the Year, this further launches me into yet another playing field. I now have an obligation to live up to this distinction since so many educators in higher education are also doing spectacular things with their master’s candidates and students. This is such an honor to be acknowledged for my contributions to the educational technology community and particularly for my lifetime achievements in higher education. I have come a long way since teaching my first on site Computers for Educator’s class in 1993, migrating to teaching almost exclusively online since 1999, and now teaching and learning in the global educational technology community helps me to know that I am making a difference locally and globally.

What’s tech’s role in education, generally speaking? And specifically, Higher Education?

I believe it is the role of technology to inspire students to heights they have never dreamed of. Tech tools are fun, intriguing, alluring, and sometime “sexy”. But as one of my mentors, the great Ian Jukes always says, you can’t be swayed by “techno lust” or “shiny objects”. I translate these words into a question I always ask my graduate students, “Identify the technology but what is the implication for teaching and learning”. It’s not about the tool, it’s about how the tool helps the learner achieve an outcome that is transformative. Technology allows information access to all through distance education, and universities that offer open enrollment without barriers for adults continue to inspire and motivate the adult learner in their own time and space.

From your perspective, what is the state of education today—and specifically, Higher Education—in light of technological changes and current times?

We are in such tumultuous times. Educational systems of all kinds have had to switch to remote learning, abandoning the academy and the brick and mortar experience of campus life. This is a whole new paradigm of teaching and learning, one that most were not prepared to address, yet forced to adopt. This new paradigm has caused great dissonance for many. We have been forced to embrace this new medium without training, without preparedness, without any prior experience in using digital curriculum or using web-based conferencing tools to communicate with students and in T-K 12 education, with parents, guardians, and caregivers.

At my institution, in teacher education, we have become creative in how we work with state mandates for teacher candidates to fulfill their practicum or face-to-face requirement for practice teaching and field experience by offering candidates simulated experiences (virtual environments). We have also harnessed the power of the “webinar” for continuing to communicate with our students. Many of my colleagues and I hold open office hours (virtually through Zoom) just to allow our adult students a safe space for sharing feelings, successes, obstacles, and to provide a venue to tap into the Social and Emotional “affect” of being in an educational community.

What advice do you have for others who are interested in using tech or working in technology, looking to improve learning and the education sector?

I have three pieces of advice:

My first piece of advice is to pick “one” tool and run with it. Use it, apply it, go deep with it, embrace it. One place to start is with either the Google Educational Suite or Microsoft 365’s (MS Office online). Ask an expert to mentor you. The power of team-teaching and expert co-teaching allows you to ask for coaching in a just-in-time environment.

Secondly, take advantage of the many Open Educational Resources (OER’s) and video tutorials to learn how to use tools and how to integrate these tools into your personal educational setting.

Third, join a professional learning community (organizations, meet-ups, social groups, book clubs) or other ways to connect with affinity groups and then after you feel comfortable, create your own learning circle with colleagues.

What do you see just ahead in the near or short term future regarding education, learning and technologies? 

In the past, I have always pointed to the Horizon Report, now published by Educause, but these are extraordinary times and predicting the future now is unpredictable. No algorithm or data projection can label how we are going to approach teaching and learning in 2020-2021. We are all grappling with the question of “how to do school” when rather we should be focusing on connecting, inspiring, motivating, helping our learners explore their wonderings and passions much like “Genius Hour” in traditional K-12 settings provides a venue for learners to do projects on something they are interested in. Now, more than ever we need to promote passion-based learning. I truly believe this technique will help heal the world and right the wrong.

“…We need to get back to developing the human spirit and inspiring our learners to love learning, in their own time and space.” 

Anything else you care to add or emphasize? 

I’d like to emphasize how important it is to humanize the online learning experience. Give your learners a voice to express themselves in the learning environment (either orally or in writing). And most of all, we need to get back to developing the human spirit and inspiring our learners to love learning, in their own time and space. Remember that above all, practicing self-care and mental well-being is necessary to cut through the noise and disruption of the pandemic.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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