At ISTE20 LIVE—Virtually

Attending, presenting, and reinventing education.


The recent ISTE20 LIVE conference (Nov 29-Dec 5) was more than just a virtual happening. It was an imperative, a must-do, failure-is-not-an-option, stand-and-deliver event. The conference was a successful demonstration of what so many have pushed for, for so long. And while some may have experienced it as less than an absolute slam-dunk, I found it to be of high quality and very much just what we need now. In a number of ways, it was defining of the state of Education and predictive of important things to come. What follows is one edtech veteran’s conference experiences, reflections, and musings about significant ‘nexts’.

A Bit of Important Background

ISTE 2020 was originally scheduled for late June, as the conference always is. Postponed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, after much guessing, waiting, and hoping by many of us, it was re-scheduled as a virtual event (Nov 29-Dec 5).

Virtual? Yes, but I found it to be such a vivid experience that I felt like I was actually there physically attending as I have for over 20 years.

On my second day “at” the conference, I joined CEO Richard Cullata in his Media Roundtable. Richard (pictured, talking) and members of his staff offered an informational toe-hold to help us understand not just the conference, but also where they see ISTE headed as it continues to support and influence Education in many ways.

The skinny I took away is that ISTE, understanding the importance of not failing to host this year’s installment of its signature conference—an annual portal through which the state of the field presents itself—rose to the challenge with extensive preparation, even establishing its own virtual platform to serve the event.

And, additionally, as I recall Richard putting it, the conference took place at an important moment, with the recently- and vastly-improved and expanded technology infrastructure and capacity to use remote communications. Education must also look beyond ‘Emergency Mode’ and consider how new possibilities and capabilities may be integrated into its future, establishing something far beyond a return-to-the-previous.

The emailed post-conference attendee survey included the question, “Will you attend ISTE21 virtually?” and so, I guess, one of the silver linings is that the reach of this annual conference may be on track to increase exponentially. And why not; so many more colleagues and supporters would like attend—including those at great distance—if a virtual side to the conference were offered. I think that this too, is something of an imperative with positive results highly likely.

And speaking about conference attendance, I clearly recall that in recent years the hearts of The True Faithful (and I’m one of them) attendees gathered from around the country and beyond, soared as it was announced that the number of peers registered climbed up into to the low 20,000s and beyond.

This go-around, the ISTE LIVE virtual platform had tabs at the top that showed that this conference pulled close to 11,000 registrants, roughly 2,000 of whom were in attendance during the times I was there. If there was any desire for confirmation of the need and the longing for ISTE to provide a conference this year, those numbers, at least in part, made it clear.

It seems to me that, at ISTE LIVE, just about all of the standard annual ISTE conference elements were replicated digitally and in place: workshops, posters, demo-playgrounds, an exhibit hall for providers of resources to show their wares, a startup pavilion, and—while there were no keynotes, per se—there were numerous ways that promising ‘Voices’ were given platforms to reach minds in search of fresh ideas and inspiration.

And advantages showed themselves and gremlins crept in, as well.

Most impressively, what I’ll call the ISTE Spirit was present in abundance. Despite tech and presenter challenges in a good number of the sessions I attended, the spirit of collegial good humor and fellowship was present along with the ‘Can do! Yes, let’s reinvent education together!’ sense of joy in mission and purpose that I’ve always experienced at the conference. It felt good to get my yearly dose of renewed determination for the work ahead.

‘…the ISTE Spirit was present in abundance…the spirit of collegial good humor and fellowship was present along with the ‘Can do! Yes, let’s reinvent education together!’ sense of joy in mission and purpose…’

By the way, as I experienced in delivering my own session, ISTE’s conference support for both presenters and attendees was its usual top-notch, something I’m sure many of us appreciated in this first venture into the new virtual version of conference.

My session, Literacy Resources and Practices with Special Promise, something I’ve been hosting for the ISTE Literacy Network for a good number of years, I feel offers good insight into the conference. This year the network highlighted resources and practices from the following resource providers: Kinderlab (early childhood literacy through robotics), BirdBrain Technologies (poetry and other literature connections through robotics), CodeJoy (Shakespeare and more through remote interactive technology), and PITSCO Education (STREAM missions, collaborative STEAM discovery with a sharp focus on Reading, adding the ‘R’ in STREAM).

The aggregation of the offerings of these astute resource providers gelled into a one-time-only gestalt of rich learning opportunities across the full band of grade levels and the majority of the curriculum offered in our schools.

If I do say so myself, I feel inspired, and for a change this year, so very hopeful about what the future holds for Education. The ISTE Literacy Network acknowledges these resource providers and their presenters who shared their exciting practices.

Workshops, Posters, Sessions

ISTE20 LIVE was a much needed confirmation that virtual offers important fresh opportunities and will continue to grow in importance as part of the spectrum of ways the Education expresses itself in our world, especially post pandemic!

I find that simply browsing the list of workshop and poster session offerings quickens my pulse. This year, knowing that they would all be recorded and I had the opportunity to return to see them after the fact made making choices between sessions to catch less stressful.

Still, with so many compelling titles listed, sharing the gist of this motherlode of professional richness is all I can manage. Here, then, are sessions that caught my attention in particular:

Who Cares? Empowering Students to be Agents of Change

Virtual Reality in Every Classroom — No Headset Required

Hiding in Plain Sight — Finding Computational Thinking Opportunities in Children’s Books

Using Technology to Create Access to the World of Work

YouTube Tutorials: The New PD in the Era of Distance Learning

The Pandemic Forced Educators to Experiment. What Changes Should Stick?

The Virtual Expo Hall, a Motherlode of Cool Tools and Hot Trends

Yes, a Virtual Expo and Demo Hall

Trend-watching, it’s what some of us go to conferences for. Other than expected trend of resources to address the now acute need for remote and hybrid, I didn’t see much in the way of new trends using the conference as an opportunity to debut. The conference rather seemed to function as a vehicle to further validate and acknowledge the significance of trends already under way.

Below my notes here are 21 virtual booths I visited and virtually walked away from inspired and with my interest and appreciation highly stimulated. This impressive group of offerings is personal and not comprehensive, but I feel confident that it’s as good as any that might have been put together for an article like this.

I ordered them in categories that I see as important trends and themes in edtech:

Advancing Remote Learning, Advancing and Transforming The Learning Experience, For Today’s Pandemic-Stressed Parents, Media Sophistication and Creative Communication, Social Emotional Learning, Student Robotics, Coding & Digital Literacy, Fabrication Resources, Applying Technology to Perennial Instructional Items, and ISTE Books & Resources.

Some Final Thoughts

In essence, ISTE20 LIVE was a much-needed confirmation that virtual instruction offers important fresh opportunities and will continue to grow in importance as part of the spectrum of ways that Education expresses itself in our world.

It seems to me that this virtual conference provided a perfect microcosmic example of what the entire field is experiencing at the moment – the shift to an approximation of face to face activates through remote means – massive challenges and a steep learning curve to achieve that will attendant missteps, and serendipitous discoveries along the way – and a byproduct of silver lining fresh opportunities for the road ahead.

What’s been established is a rich remote approach that can double to produce a hybrid, third option to enrich future conferences immensely. How cool would it be to The International Society of Technology in Education’s future conferences be truly international, with significant numbers of colleagues from around the globe, alongside greatly expanded numbers of locals, in attendance all together? Inspiring, I think…

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. 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. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Technology

Expo Hall Highlights: Cool Tools for Hot Trends

WHILE NOT NEARLY as dizzyingly extensive as the traditional, in-person ISTE exhibit hall, the virtual exhibit and demo section was still quite respectably overwhelming. Although there is absolutely no way this article can comprehensively catalog the dazzling array of appealing resources that showed up, I’ll give a short list of those that caught my attention and got my motor running. By the way, for me, a criteria for a resource that puts things into context well is to wrap my mind around what need the provider is addressing – if the way of addressing it is fresh and dynamic, I’m onboard and if the need is one that is newly perceived or deemed important or one that hasn’t been well addressed previously, then I’m impressed and perhaps a bit intoxicated with the buzz of new possibility.  

Advancing Remote Learning

Not at all surprising that this theme stood out throughout the conference, nor that it should comprise a category of resource in the Expo area.

REMOTE K12: The Connected Teacher Summit – hosted by ASU, is a free, one-day virtual event to be held on January 9, 2021 to help K-12 teachers in U.S.-based district public, charter and private schools. Attendees can learn and network with educators from across the country who will share effective and efficient virtual learning techniques and offer insights on pedagogy, course design, equity, wellness, accessibility, assessment, collaboration, engagement and more. Learn more.

Storillo – created to bring process and structure to group writing projects, so whether in-person or teaching virtually, educators can ensure every student is participating. With customizable collaborative structures, controlled editing, formative feedback tools, and participation statistics, teachers can better guide and support students during the group writing process. Learn more

Advancing and Transforming The Learning Experience

Pinna offers the first ad-free, audio on-demand streaming service that delivers original audio programming curated and created for students Pre-K – 6th grade that includes podcasts, music and audiobooks with the goal of activating kids’ imaginations. Learn more.

Kritik – is a peer-to-peer learning solution designed to enhance students’ higher order and critical thinking skills in online or in-person classes. By creating activities in Kritik, professors save time and enable their students to see different perspectives of their peers on course concepts and assessments. Kritik offers peer assessment whereby students are rewarded depending on the strength, quality and accuracy of evaluations. Learn more.

For Today’s Pandemic-Stressed Parents

Montessori Preschool offers a subscription-based app offering tons of educational content covering colors, shapes, phonics, reading, counting, addition, subtraction, logic, coding, foreign languages, drawing, music and much more! Designed by certified Montessori teachers with years of classroom experience, it offers a fun, child-centered experience allowing children to enjoy the same daily activities as in regular preschools. Learn more

Media Sophistication & Creative Communication

Wakelet allows students to simply copy and paste any content on the web into a collection, and that can be embedded – allowing educators and students to experience multiple pieces of mixed media all in one place; videos, social media posts, podcasts, music, articles, quizzes, presentations also – online documents, your own content like text, PDFs, images, and even Flipgrid videos. Learn more.   

WeVideo for Schools is an easy-to-use, safe video creation app for both teachers and students. It drives collaboration, communication, critical thinking and engagement on any device, in any location. Learn more

Social Emotional Learning

Ever more popular a focus for schools concerned with the well being and social development of the whole child, some very thought provoking and fresh approaches to supporting this educational objective showed up as available resources.

GiveThx is a digital program that strengthens student wellbeing and social-emotional skills using gratitude science. Students and staff use digital thank you notes to recognize and reinforce positive behaviors that nurture relationships and build self-esteem. This research-backed program keeps student voice at the center as it builds essential belonging and connection in in-person, hybrid, and distance learning. Learn more.  

KlickEngage helps foster psychologically safe and supportive environments for ALL kids. 60% of all U.S. youth face at least one trauma by age 16. Students carry heavy emotional backpacks into the classroom everyday. KlickEngage takes a two step approach to alleviating this burden on student engagement and academic achievement: 1) identify those students that are carrying the heaviest load; Step 2) help teachers support students in unpacking their emotions, amplifying student voice through a virtual check-in system, targeted coping mechanisms, and delivering real-time data to teachers. Learn more.   

Purpose Project: is a digital platform that develops social emotional skills through immersive activities and experiences which can be done anywhere, anytime, helping learners build the skills to thrive in the face of a changing world—from hope to advocacy, and everything in between.” Learn more.  

Student Robotics

Robotics, one of the absolute most engaging, challenging, and effective modes of STEM instruction to emerge began to explode in popularity a short while back. As this has happened the mass of varieties of resource and practice in the area, as well as the number of providers involved has grown greatly, in turn, enriching this approach. I’ve been following all of this for years and years and was delighted to see some items that are new to me in the virtual Expo area. Here’s a sampling:

RoboRisen offering the PingPong Robot consisting of a cube, a basic module and various types of links that connect to other elements. Students can learn simple coding with this open-platform robot that allows students to experience IoT education with various sensors and create their own robot by 3D printing. Learn more

GeniRobot Co., Ltd. – all-in-one coding robots that provide interactive training based on the world’s first Bluetooth5.0 Star network. Learn more

Wildcards robotics! Using Scratch, Wildcards makes it easy for students to add: motors, lights, vibration, sounds, buttons, light detection, sound sensing, turning ordinary objects (and people!) into buttons. Free online visual project cards allow students to learn and explore independently. Learn more.   

Coding & Digital Literacy

Popfizz Computer Science provides a comprehensive online curriculum for students in grades 6-12, and online professional development courses for new and experienced CS teachers. Learn more.  

C3D is an innovative tool that makes it easy for teachers to teach coding as it engages students in coding process by having VR as an outcome of their coding. Designed by veteran computer science educators, it teaches the most important principles of programming to K-12 students. Learn more

Searchitup! is a new search engine designed for teachers to deliver curriculum-aligned topics safely from the Internet in an engaging manner. Used in the classroom, searchitup! offers teachers create curated “mini” search engines, Activities that have students respond with drawings or text. Searchlaborate: learning in groups via a collaborative search interface, Objectivity & Citation Wizard: teaches students to think about the source of information in their research. Learn more.  

Fabrication Resources

The Matter and Form V2 3D scanner is the gateway to a world of cool (and lucrative) career options. Guided by standards-aligned STEAM projects, students learn how to combine 3D scanning, 3D design and 3D printing to form the powerful toolset of inspiration, discovery and creativity that lies at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Learn more

Teaching our next generation workforce to design and fabricate in 3D is the key to high-paying, creative jobs in every industry. And with so many ways to align these skills with CORE curriculum and NGSS standards, anytime is a great time to start.

Applying Technology to Perennial Instructional Items

Scoutlier is a digital lesson tool intended to ensure equitable and effective learning outcomes for all students. Designed by MIT scientists and classroom educators it provides structure to build scaffolded lessons, deliver and assess (multi-modal) learning and student performance in the areas of STEM, Foreign Languages, Art, Music, SEL and Special Education. Scoutlier integrates into any LMS on any device. Learn more

ideamapper offers a learning and writing tool for K-12 and Higher Education that helps students learn information faster and retain it for longer by using pictures, words, colors and mapping techniques. Students can easily brain dump their ideas into a mind map to plan out and structure their document and can view and restructure their mind maps whilst writing it. Learn more

Follett – I have a special appreciation for resource providers who apply technology to traditional learning needs, not to give them just a digital age freshening or to get more mileage out of practices that really should be replaced, but that bring them fully into the digital age, lending them expanded relevance and efficacy, no small accomplishment. Follett has long grabbed my attention in this way.

As the pandemic mandated shift to remote learning moved districts to acquire extensive numbers of connected devices to loan students as a way to ensure access to online instruction, a good many districts have relied on Follett’s Destiny Resource Manager as a way to keep track of these devices and the multitude of issues that that come along with these efforts.

Interesting that Follett not only is the source of this management resource but also of a high value, high energy program that takes advantage of the capability that the connection between schools and students at a distance makes possible. Book fairs have long been an extension of school literacy and library programs. Simply stated that among other practices, encouraging students to acquire books of their own deepens interest and personal investment in books.

Follett’s eFair program seems to be a well thought out pandemic adaptation, allowing students to browse and make decisions about books to purchase and relieving schools of the expected step of having to receive and then distribute books acquired through their book fairs. eFairs gets the books directly to eager students at their home. Inclusive titles, new releases and popular characters. Learn more

And Finally, the ISTE ‘Books & Resources’ Booth

The purpose of ISTE’s book publishing program is to promote revolutionary ideas and innovative practices that empower and continually transform learning and teaching in a connected world. ISTE books are the answer to effective individual through districtwide PD. The booth was absolutely crowded with professional development goodness. Not only books but videos, podcasts, free guides, and more… absolutely exhilarating!



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