A Report from ISTELive 23, Where GAEP* Scores Are Off the Charts

After the big edtech conference, more human, more inquisitive—and left with a clearer roadmap toward loftier destinations.


*GAEP = Global Assessment of Educational Possibilities

Just a few days before the opening of ISTELive 23, this year’s ‘back and ready to rock’ installment of the event most emblematic of the state of edtech, the general news was filled with the depressing release of NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test scores. The New York Times’ headline bellowed, “What the New, Low Test Scores for 13-Year-Olds Say About U.S. Education Now.”

This, I filed away somewhere between my ears as I moved on to attend this year’s ISTE conference; always a noisy, spirited, celebration of educational positivity. I’ve attended it for decades and was primed to find out what this other side of the coin would say about Education. To me this conference has always stood as the GAEP (Global Assessment of Educational Possibilities).

‘…a noisy, spirited, celebration of educational positivity. I’ve attended it for decades…’

Some Questions, And An Opening 

Energized and ready to take in this year’s dose of trend detecting and direction finding, a few questions were grinding away in my anticipation filled mind:

Q: In view of the recent emergence of AI-mania, how would AI show up at the conference and would it dominate the experience?

Q: Would the past year’s merger of ISTE with ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) color the proceedings? After all, at its beginnings ISTE was home base for tech-provoked revolutionary change in Education – while ASCD has been the much admired go-to space for responsible, gradual improvement.  

Q: And, of course, what would I take away in terms of understanding what’s happening and what the field will be addressing moving forward? 

More than just an observer, I delivered a talk for teachers, coaches, and curriculum specialists on the first day of the conference. But fast forward for now… 

There’s nothing like the opening keynote session to get you up to speed on the vibe, spirit, and direction of the conference to come!

Greeting the audience, Crystal M. Edwards, Ed.D, a Philadelphia principal, framed it so well saying to the large audience, “you represent what is possible… for learning, for the future of education… what is possible for humanity!” 

Tone set, time to look for takeaway content. ISTE CEO Richard Culatta’s presentation following provided much of what I took home of high importance.

I was heartened to hear him stress the importance at this moment in time of valuing and understanding what it means to be human. Not a message I’d usually expect at ISTE but I guess, further evidence of how the organization has broadened its vision and mission beyond edtech to the fullness of Education itself. 

Since the Artificial Intelligence bomb hit us a relatively short time back, I’ve been thinking that while AI brings a lessening of dependence on human effort, we are also faced now with a need for a serious revisit to Humanism. And just like that, this year’s conference came into focus.

The merger of ISTE with ASCD? As explained, the goal is to ensure increased focus on accelerating innovation in education—by syncing the world’s premier tech and innovation in education organization, with the world’s premier organization for curriculum and instruction. 

Mere rhetoric or verifiable reality? Hmmmm. As the conference got itself into full swing, the popular publication Education Week ran a story by Assistant Editor Alyson Klein with the headline, “Meet ‘Stretch,’ a New Chatbot Just for Schools,” announcing the development of a chatbot intended for use by K-12 educators. The idea being that this new resource will only learn from vetted materials provided by ISTE and ASCD, ensuring reliable information.

ISTE Verse, Discovery Museum, Hybrid Approaches

There were a number of impressive announcements about new offerings at the conference itself. One, the “ISTE Verse” a virtual reality area set up so attendees could personally experience learning in VR signaled an increased acceptance of VR as something that will increasingly be important in education. Also, the Discovery Museum, an experience of how tech can support the creative side of learning, student creativity being an important goal, as well. 

To support the accelerating need for digital citizenship understandings across the entirety of education, ISTE is releasing a new children’s book series titled, “Sonia’s Digital World.” 

Let that sink in: ISTE is participating in the publishing of print picture books that teachers can read with young students informing them about living in a digitally connected world. To me, this is strong evidence that the field is finding ways to be increasingly comfortable with technology, establishing hybrid approaches that teachers can live with more easily.

Great-Great Grandparents and AI 

Down to the most serious business, Richard shared thoughts about what schools and districts really should be doing in response to the emergence and continuing acceptance of Artificial Intelligence. In short, focusing on the positive and acknowledging potential to improve learning in areas of importance. 

One of several really good examples he gave of how AI may make life richer blows me away when I reflect on its significance: an AI service that allows children to have a conversation with their great-great grandparents after they are no longer alive. Can tech deepen our experience of knowing ourselves as we mindfully create our lives? Seeing this, I feel that technology put at the service of learning and growing is limited now only by our own imaginations. 

Essential Questions for Educators 

On to some essential questions for educators.

The Big Three: 

 – How can schools use AI to support student learning? 

  How can AI support educators both with teaching and by freeing up time to allow them to focus on students? And,

  How can we prepare students with the skills to thrive in an AI-infused world?

To this last point, Richard proposed five skills that we need to be teaching to ensure today’s kids will be successful.

5 Skills That We Need to Be Teaching to Ensure Today’s Kids Will Be Successful:

1. Teach How AI Really Works – and it turns out that ISTE has run online PD so that teachers could learn this. 

2. Teach How to Use AI to Support Brainstorming – pulling from multiple sources is an AI ‘superpower and a great enabler

3. Teach How to Work on Hybrid Teams – we need to prepare kids to work alongside AI as co-members of a team. Future Shock? I think we better get used to this sort of change. 

4. Teach Curation Over Creation – In introducing this one he stated, “We need to re-think the purpose of school!” And to me that’s a wow – it’s concerned me that as tech has become more mainstream, that ISTE might find itself defending the traditional side of school. I attended ISTE’s early conferences and there was the intoxicating fragrance of educational revolution in the air, something I’d hate to see become just a memory. But with this statement I am reassured and inspired, afresh. And, back to the point, as a lifelong Creative it’s clear to me that Curation is an aspect of Creativity; we need to teach both and there are ways to use AI for both. But hey, granted, these are early days.

And finally,

5. Teach How to Be Better at Being Human — What’s the value of being human in an AI world? It’s critical that we know our unique human skills – empathy, honesty, creativity, love. 

Source: Richard Culatta at ISTELive23 with commentary from Mark Gura

I’m thrilled that this last idea emerged to help frame this year’s conference. Years ago we happily pondered AI, considering it something that might happen in the future. I remember reading Issac Asimov’s book, “I Robot”, one of many on the Man vs. Machine theme. But those imaginings of the future are here now and it was heartening to see ISTE is leading the charge for Education to face this head on!

Beyond the main stage presentations, there was much directly focused on the realization of these lofty goals. 

Doing Things Better vs. Doing Better Things 

I tend to experience this conference through my own personal filter; a preference for doing new things for student learning that were unachievable, even unimaginable before the advent of technology, things intended to liberate learning and make the spirit of learners soar. This, over resources and practices intended to improve what’s already in place, in other words, doing traditional things but better. 

And with that spirit in place, I looked forward to the conference sessions – the workshops, talks, and presentations.

But first, (drum roll)

The Exhibit Hall

For many of us, visiting this other side of the conference is something of a blend between mission critical information gathering and guilty pleasure. This is where resource and service providers show what they feel are their most undeniably appealing offerings. Perusing this ‘too much ain’t enough’ cornucopia of all things edtech—for me—is an inspiring but overwhelming prospect.


While I attempt to take in the whole of it with a reconnaissance fly over, following instincts developed through decades long experience works best for me in finding new items that truly make my pulse race.

Here’s a small sampling of what resonated in my quest for resources that cross the boundary between best current instructional practice and future-worthy vehicles to better learning. 

Find Your Grind, Booth 1337 www.findyourgrind.com

If we are to satisfy the crucial need to upgrade the educational experience we offer students, then doing a far better job of school to career is  a crucial  starting point.  In my mind individuals who thrive will move beyond traditional employment and establish work lives that satisfy personal needs, strengths, and interests profitably.  

Find Your Grind, designed for middle school and high school students is a self-discovery and career curriculum that changes the conversation for students from career first to lifestyle first. https://youtu.be/KpCYC9lOTdk

Canva for Education, Booth 332 https://www.canva.com/education/ 

It seems to me that Canva for Education will make providing a visually rich learning experience something easy and enticing for teachers to do and that for many, this will be a key component in achieving better student engagement and understanding. This platform aspires to make it easy to create, collaborate, and communicate visually in the classroom and beyond. Using this platform teachers can invite students, and manage lessons, and activities all in one place – thousands of templates for a wide variety of subjects, grades, and abilities. It’s 100% free for K12 districts, teachers and their students.

In the Footsteps of History, Booth 1466 www.inthefootsteps.org

I find this carefully developed and designed resource truly exciting. Among the library of curriculum resources curated to inform and inspire today’s and tomorrow’s media-jaded kids, this one seems to hit a tone that should captivate and firmly engage many students along the way to deep learning. Complete History/Social Studies units that align with commonly taught and required themes are presented through VR headsets (or without them) through multimedia, video, interactive elements, and collaborative games. These next level learning experiences meaningfully involves teachers, hands on. 

TinyTap, Booth 210 www.tinytap.com 

If attractive, easy to understand learning games is part of what you want to offer students, particularly across elementary grades, this should be of interest. But beyond even what this provider sees itself doing, I see a most significant model here in the way it has established a platform for those who teach students to create learning content and the way it’s distributed. TinyTap describes itself as “the ,world’s largest library of games made by teachers”, an open, decentralized education system on blockchain. This code-free platform empowers educators to create and share interactive educational content and to receive a revenue share when learners use that content.”

By all means check this resource out for games and a platform on which to create and earn revenue from them. But, also, reflect on how this creation and distribution model promises impactful change in Education. 

Ellipsis Education ellipsiseducation.com

Now more than ever, teaching Computer Science is going to be a high priority item for schools. Providing it, though, will likely be difficult for a while to come. Ellipsis addresses this need insightfully from the viewpoint that  there aren’t enough experienced CS teachers. Ellipsis promises to “Help teachers of all experience levels get started and be effective with computer science instruction. And beyond that, the following from their website resonates for me– “Computer science is more than just coding. It’s also equipping students with the attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to thrive…To that end, every Ellipsis Education course includes four lesson types: unplugged, coding, digital citizenship, and STEM Careers.”

Novel Effect, Booth 1860 noveleffect.com/

This solution strikes me as a very out of the box answer to the constellation of instructional needs we find ourselves facing just now: students who are media-jaded and continually immersed in effects-drenched story-based entertainment; teachers who, in spite of this, want to ensure that students learn to read and to love reading good books; and traditional books competing with digital equivalents that may overshadow them. 

The Novel Effect app offers a library of interactive music, sound effects, and character voices that follow along as teachers read aloud from a library of physical books. The perfectly timed sound effects enrich regular story time to bring awe and magical delight to little learners.

I like the way Novel Effect mirrors the hybrid life that is evolving, technology not just to replace the traditional but also to enhance and update those things we humans want to keep as part of our lives.  

WeVideo, Inc., Booth 2350 www.wevideo.com/education

By now, those educators who’ve been paying attention know that moving students from being Content Consumers to being Content Creators is an article of faith supporting the value of technology in Education. WeVideo explains “We’re on a mission to empower students to discover their voice and make an impact in the world. By using multimedia in the classroom, students develop collaboration, critical thinking, creative and problem-solving skills.” I especially like how this resource provider encourages teachers to create content, as well, as part of their teaching. Teachers traditionally have been limited by the very finite body of content items provided them, or they’ve struggled to supplement those with whatever they can find on their own. It’s heartening to see WeVideo re-focus the conversation with teacher-created multimedia instructional content a reality waiting to be tapped for the benefit of today’s media-demanding students. Surely, this is one important way the teacher’s role will expand. 

A Strong Pull 

During the course of the conference’s five days, participants were invited to an immense body of workshops, talks, panels and large space presentations. The following are some from which I felt an especially strong tractor beam pull:

Let me start by saying that, yes, I too heard the siren song of AI in Education, especially from these first two offerings: 

Unlocking Student Potential w/A.I. Assistance

Presenters: Adam Geiman | Keith McCray

Critical Strategies That Prepare Teachers to Teach With and About Artificial Intelligence

Presenters: Nancye Blair Black | Stein Brunvand | Camille Dempsey | Amy Eguchi | Lucretia Fraga | Stacy George | Nicol Howard | Elizabeth Langran

And, in line with what I feel showed up heralding the emergence of a trend that I’ll name “Humanism 2.0,” the following:

Cultivating Youth Creativity and Student Agency Through Challenge-Based Learning

Presenters: Quandra Adams | Karissa Bowen | Ruquanda Epps-Primas | Victoria Guerra | Jim Hausman

Technology for Good: Using Educational Technology to Drive Social Change

Presenters: Erinn Budd | Julian Fitzgerald | Leah Hirsch | Arana Shapiro | Jennifer Williams

Using Technology & Science-Backed Strategies to Make Happiness a Priority

Presenters: Jeff Glade

Strengthening Schools Through Educator Well-Being

Tuesday, June 27, 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Presenters: Michael Fauteux

And a couple I feel are emblematic simply of applying technology to take Instruction into fresh areas of increased relevance: 

Using Fortnite Creative to Imagine Solutions to Real World Problems

Presenters: Catherine Cheo-Isaacs | Steven Isaacs

Escape from Monotony: Transforming Basic Activities Into Mind-Bending Puzzles

Presenters: Lenette Hillian | Laura Hunter

Make Learning Magical: Innovative Strategies to Inspire, Immerse and Empower

Presenters: Tisha Richmond

My own presentation, “Social-Emotional Learning Through Easy, Creative Projects” was well received. I’m proud to have stepped up to this opportunity to illustrate how technology can be used by teachers and students to deepen their understanding of what it means to be human. 

With ISTELive ’23 behind us, I feel we have a clearer road map leading us toward loftier destinations than I’ve seen in some time. And, yes, the June 2024 installment will be in The Mile High City, Denver. 

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of Creative SEL: Using Hands-On Projects to Boost Social-Emotional Learning and 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.

  • Angelo Fernando


    This has been a landmark year for ISTE and many of us. Wish I was there at The confernce! I wonder what takeaways and goals we might have one year from now when the AI buziness fades and morphs into other areas. I loved Richard Culatta’s point of Humaniam. To me that’s an area worth bringing into focus in our youth.

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