Design A New Landscape for Learning? CHECK!

Next: The ISTE 21 LIVE conference—and beyond.


Having attended every ISTE conference for over 20 years, I think I’m as big a fan as anyone. But frankly, I found myself surprised at how much I liked this year’s installment, a virtual conference.

No doubt everyone who attended came away with his own understanding of what the principal message was. Here’s my take. By the way, I was involved in planning and delivering a couple of conference sessions and I’ll share that experience along with the rest.

This year’s ISTE seems to me to have intentionally leapfrogged over what I’m sure so many were expecting to be something of a victory lap. Yes, educational technology provided what in the case of most of our schools was the only practical way to provide education at all during the pandemic. But while the field’s status rose immeasurably because of that, to its credit, the conference focused on things far beyond, as well.

‘…there were a great many sessions and presentations discussing dimensions of remote instruction. But there was also a far loftier and more forward thinking message to be heard.’

True; there were a great many sessions and presentations discussing dimensions of remote instruction. But there was also a far loftier and more forward thinking message to be heard. Overwhelmingly, a positive vision of progressive educational practices supported and fueled by an awesome array of proven, reliable technologies was delivered by a highly diverse group of young leaders committed to improving the world we live in.

Format and Platform

If anyone should provide the world a model of how to do a virtual conference, it’s ISTE. And ISTE absolutely came through and delivered a dizzyingly impressive amount and variety of professional content and inspiration. This killer experience proved to be something far more than a mere virtual facsimile of the decades-established, face-to-face conference, something that historically has drawn and thrilled 20,000 participants and more.

The conference took place in a robust, multifunctional virtual venue that provided a wide variety of on-screen experiences. The integration of all of it seemed near seamless to me as I returned to my screen over and over again during the five days of the conference.

Over a thousand presenters delivered hundreds and hundreds of lectures, workshops, poster sessions and other format presentations. As Beth Miranda, Senior Manager of Event Logistics explained to me, the event platform was custom-built for ISTE, utilizing an embedded Kaltura video streaming service to host all of the individual sessions.

Further, ISTE didn’t miss a trick in adding a variety of search functions to support participants in finding sessions just right for them. We were positively pampered with the way the platform gave a highly (and, appropriately) personalized experience.

All this was married beautifully with the social media side of the conference experience. Participants were offered the opportunity to attend as an individual or to connect with others through a host of intelligent functions that both suggested contacts—and facilitated them. Participants were enabled to form and join groups; to play crowd-based games; and to contribute to crowd-sourced creative challenges like creating memes that were shared with the entire conference. We were encouraged to play crowd sourced games, as well; I was a member of the Dolphin Team, for instance.

Virtual, But Satisfying

A quick recap: Due to the COVID pandemic lockdown starting in late winter of 2020, the annual ISTE Conference, always scheduled for late June, was reconceived and rescheduled as a virtual event for the following late November of 2020 — see my coverage of it for this publication.

The important point is that: this year’s, planned as totally virtual, conference — was not ISTE’s first virtual conference rodeo. And building on previous experience, this year’s event was confident, visionary, and frankly, excellent!

Going back to pre-COVID days, I remember that attending ISTE conferences in person amounted to knowingly jumping into the deep end of a pool of overwhelming professional richness. I was often reminded of that old saying, “Too much ain’t enough!” This virtual conference replicated that satisfying sense faithfully.

Further, I think the shape and character of this conference points toward something we’re likely to see next time that will absolutely re-define the future of both the field of Education and the massive professional conferences that so many of us have come to love and depend on. More about that at the end of this piece.

From the Main Stage

The conference has always been punctuated by powerful and well-planned keynote presentations. These have always set the tone and context of the conference, giving an opportunity for ISTE leaders and invited speakers to interface with the whole conference before everyone drills down to individual sessions and events of narrower focus.

This year’s installment cleverly replaced this with a series of virtual experience it called Mainstage events. This turned out to be a serendipitous experiment.

The live keynotes always quickened my pulse because I was surrounded closely by a mass of like-minded colleagues, all of us hyper-energized by one another’s presence—and too much coffee.

But the intimacy of this year’s virtual event engaged us in a different, although seemingly equal way. Seeing not only the speakers, but their personal spaces, seeing what’s on their bookshelves, reading the mottoes on their coffee mugs, that type of authentic intimacy created an equally seductive level of engagement

At one point Priscilla Chan, of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, was interrupted briefly during her presentation on supporting the whole student by the accidental intrusion of her three-year-old child. This grabbed my heart, contributing to the sense of close up, authentic intimacy that I felt.

The Conference DNA

Baked into the very DNA of this conference was the message that despite the rough past year plus of remote and hybrid instruction, the field of Education will regain its sea legs, must shake itself off and get on with the business of refining teaching and learning through the appropriate use of our powerful, new, tech-enabled tools.

And, assuming that pandemic established remote instruction will cease before too long, we must focus on the sort of education we want to provide as opposed to getting lost in the minutia of how to provide it.

‘…we must focus on the sort of education we want to provide as opposed to getting lost in the minutia…’

What should we support kids in focusing on? How can we best support that? These are the concerns I heard voiced most strongly at the conference.

Welcome, Secretary

The tone setting and contextualizing powerhouse element of this annual gathering is always the opening handful of presentations made to the whole conference. And I think that a measure of the confidence and audacity ISTE showed in putting this one together is that the U.S. Secretary of Education accepted its invitation to speak.

Relaxed and off the cuff, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education, told us:
“This past year was like no other that we’ve experienced…Take care of yourself. Being here at ISTE, being around folks who understand the potential we have moving forward is one way to do that!

“For far too long we’ve seen almost a normalization of divides… Students across the country have uneven access to broadband and to a laptop or device, which we all know is the new pencil… We have so much work to do in education!

“Let’s not go back… when the masks come off let’s not have the bar be what it was prior to March, 2020… we can do better, our kids deserve better! I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, the folks who go to ISTE…”

Another mainstage speaker, Cornelius Minor (pictured), a former middle school teacher, staff developer, and author (We Got This) had me from, “I’m from Brooklyn…” when he shared:

“I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and the last day of school was yesterday – I’m not even 24 hours into my summer vacation… I just said goodbye to the most resilient cohort of kids I have ever met… and I had to do so from a distance, no hugs, no high fives…”

That something very genuine would be present throughout the conference was made clear to me by his statement:

“Testing companies want us to believe in the myth of ‘Learning Loss’… Cross the Brooklyn Bridge! Watch the fierce ingenuity of these kids and tell me that we lost… I dare you! What we lost in math worksheets and science quizzes, we gained in critical thinking, and innovation, and problem solving!”

Some Great Take Aways

There were many more mainstage speakers over the five days but I’ll skip to ISTE CEO Richard Culatta’s talk and share what I feel was some truly important take-away.

After a little seemingly unavoidable, playful tech show-and-tell, including directing our attention to conference sessions which one could experience through VR headsets and a brief highlight of the conference awarding NFTs—this, accompanied by the teaser statement, “What the heck are they? Non Fungible Tokens!” (You can google that if you like, reader; I did), Richard got down to serious business talking about something Education truly needs in abundance: change.

He made the very good point that, “Innovation shows up after a period of disruption…” — like right now, for instance. And, yes, kudos for his pointing out that, “We haven’t done enough to prepare our kids to thrive in this virtual world….” And more kudos for adding, “kids want to use technology to make the world a better place. We are not preparing them well enough…”

He announced the release of his own new book, Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World pointing out that our conversations with kids about life online are too negative and too narrow. Basically, he’s calling for stock taking and reflective acknowledgement that our field’s collective vision has missed some simple, but crucial ways to understand the world we are preparing today’s students to enter—as well the ways we should be preparing them for it.

He offered things like tips on how to teach effective digital citizenship, and counseled us to be positive in establishing rules for today’s kids in navigating their digital world, including being sure to focus on positive Do’s as well as on the familiar negative Don’ts, And to maintain balance in teaching, for instance looking at the value of activity and not the screen time associated with it. He pointed out that we should work on expanding kids’ digital palate, for instance, to recommend apps as we would recommend books.

I personally found all of this disarmingly on-target, despite (or perhaps especially because of) the very simple nature of what he points out and recommends. I look forward to reviewing the book.

A Peek Behind the Curtains

I and colleague, Michele Haiken, organized and hosted the annual sessions from the ISTE Literacy Network. We offered the Literacy Loves Robots “Playground”, a virtual venue in which participants visit with a good number of presenters and we delivered the session titled ‘Tech-Based Literacy Resources and Practices With Special Promise 2021’. In preparing for both, we reached out to the field, identifying colleagues with worthwhile resources and practices and inviting and preparing them as our guest co-presenters.

Making all of this work in the multi-faceted virtual presentation platform that we were given was challenging. However, it was made eminently do-able by the great support given by ISTE staff members.

The interface, although stable and nimble, proved to be complex with a good number of functions and ways to use them. In addition to the Zoom-like talking squares, there’s sharing of one’s slides and other presentation materials, chatting with attendees, uploading of handouts and giveaways, and a great deal more.

‘In addition to the Zoom-like talking squares, there’s sharing of one’s slides and other presentation materials, chatting with attendees, uploading of handouts and giveaways, and a great deal more.’

ISTE gave us, well in advance of the actual dates of our presentations, webinars on how to use all of the functions in the platform along with insights on how to plan and structure a presentation supported by it. I also received a great deal of one-on-one handholding as inevitably, one-off problems and questions presented themselves.

I wonder if attendees understand that from start to finish, from planning a session to applying to the conference committee to accept it, through all of the preparation in advance, the process can easily take 10 months or more.

At the tech and literacy playground, Tim Needles, one of the presenters, offered up a glimpse into how he and his students use augmented reality resources to create poetry and visual art.

Tim, the author of STEAM Power: Infusing Art Into Your STEM Curriculum (an ISTE book), shared: I always learn from presenting sessions both in the preparation stage and in the chat as the session is happening. I love interacting with the audience and seeing new suggestions of tools that can be used which teachers share. This year I worked with a number of co-presenters which is a great opportunity to learn and collaborate as well, I benefit from the varied perspectives each of us brings to the material we share.”

This speaks so well to the true collaborative dimension of the conference that comes through strongly whether the conference is delivered in person or virtually.

Our second session featuring ‘Literacy Resources and Practices’ was particularly challenging as each contributor had to present a bottom-line short piece of content so that I could squeeze all four perspectives into the 45 minutes allowed.

I want to thank the following presenters for contributing. In the aggregate, they presented a very rich snapshot of how Student Robotics intersects with literacy learning in powerful and, for many educators, unanticipated ways. The group was comprised of: Naomi Harm of Innovative Educator Consulting, Mark Resnick with Robo Wunderkind, Rusty Nye of UBTECH Education, and Jeremy Macdonald of Sphero. Again, thanks for helping reveal an important, if little-known aspect of literacy, coding, and robotics instruction.

Speaking of satisfaction, having successfully delivered those sessions is a good feeling as I contemplate future challenges to take on.

What’s Next?

So, now that the conference has come and gone, what’s next?

I think we are going to see something truly (and this will be the first time I’ve ever used the word in print) disruptive – by that I mean a hybrid conference, one that’s designed to serve a great, great many colleagues through both a live side and a remote side.

I asked Beth Miranda (pictured) about this and she shared some reflections:

The whole team at ISTE will agree that the thing that surprised us most about the conference (2020 and 2021) was how we were still able to make it feel like ISTE.”


“We certainly understand the value of both virtual and in-person meetings, but anyone will tell you that a hybrid event poses significant challenges logistically and financially for an organization. At ISTE, our plan moving forward is to survey our members to really dive into the value that they get from a virtual event. Then we can ensure that, to the best of our ability, we maintain that value as we move forward. We aren’t completely sure what ISTE 22 will look like, but we are excited for the possibilities! What really matters to ISTE is continuing to provide relevant, accessible PD to educators across the globe.”

But I think, why not? The title of this year’s conference was Designing a New Learning Landscape—and in a very real sense, the conference itself was both the embodiment and a model of what the title points to: a new hybrid of live and remote instruction that draws the best of each side of the coin and melds them together deftly and artfully into something that’s greater than either, something that is the Future of Education realized.

‘the conference itself was…a new hybrid of live and remote instruction that draws the best of each side of the coin and melds them together deftly and artfully into something that’s greater than either…’

And with this new landscape explored and now mapped, ISTE is free to continue turning its attention to taking the lead in improving and refining the State of Learning, itself. Education Technology has evolved over a long history from classroom novelty and support to now, Mainstream Education. The role that ISTE has continued to grow into is that of engine of change directed at the most core elements of the learning experience, things that every kid needs and deserves, and—inspired by events like this one—that every kid just may receive.


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 (EdTech Digest). He also authored Make, Learn Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School (ISTE). 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.



    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: