5 Big Ed-Tech Problems to Solve in 2020: Q&A With ISTE’s Richard Culatta

By Alyson Klein — August 06, 2019 6 min read
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Teaching Artificial Intelligence. Moving beyond coding when talking about computer science. Training teachers to use technology without having to get certified by a big company.

Those are among the five education technology issues that Ricard Culatta, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, thinks educators should watch in the 2019-2020 school year. Education Week sat down with Culatta for a wide-ranging conversation on those and other topics. What follows is an edited Q&A.

Teaching AI: Focus on the Future of Work

Let’s get one thing straight, Culatta isn’t talking here about how chat bots might be able to answer students’ questions before a teacher does. Instead, he’s thinking about making sure that students understand and are prepared for a workforce in which AI is bound to play a much larger role.

“Everybody is really excited about the conversation on AI to transform learning and that’s premature. And because they are so focused on that, they are missing the conversation we’re actually behind the ball on, which is how we’re preparing students to thrive in a world where they are going to be expected to understand how to work with and leverage AI. That’s the part we are really missing,” Culatta said.

Right now, K-12 schools aren’t on track to get students ready to meet the AI needs of future employers. “We have a partnership with General Motors. They say we have essentially a workforce shortage problem ten years out. They say we aren’t seeing the types of conversations that need to be happening in schools now in order to have a workforce ready for us in five to ten years.”

To help address that need, ISTE has created what Culatta said is the only comprehensive program in the country to help train teachers on AI. So far, about 650 educators have participated, or are participating. ISTE’s course offers a primer on what AI is and how it’s developed. It also helps educators understand some AI programming, including creating a chat bot.

Beyond that, the course explores the ethical questions around AI, and delves into how these new technologies will affect the workplace, including the “cultural norms of working on a team when not all members of your team are human,” Culatta said. It’s about “helping students [understand] how they’ll be expected to use these tools in their future jobs.”

Shift From Coding to Computational Thinking

For years, “there has been a big push to get coding happening in schools, and it’s largely been around teaching kids actual coding language, how to program something in Python or perhaps something in Java or whatever,” Culatta said.

But that might not be the best way to prepare kids for the future of work. “While there’s certainly value in that, programming languages really become obsolete very quickly. It’s less important to know how to program something in a specific language than it is to understand the concepts of computing,” he said. “The [computing] language is going to change ten times before they get their first job. But the concepts are not.”

ISTE is encouraging schools instead to teach approaches to computing that employers are likely to look for in the future, including how to use data sets to answer specific questions, ensure that computer systems aren’t biased against different racial and ethnic groups, and collaborate on writing code (aka “pair programming”). (Check out ISTE’s computational thinking standards here.)

“That’s a skill that employers are expecting. They are expecting developers to be able to come in and write programs as part of a group, not sittng alone in the corner typing,” Culatta said.

After all, not every student is going to grow up to be a coder, but many will need to understand the broader concepts behind computer science. “If I’m using tech in any way in my job, it’s incumbent that we all speak a common language, and that’s really the language of computational thinking,” Culatta said.

Redefine Digital Citizenship

Schools need to shift the way they think about and teach students to be good digital citizens. “For the past several years, when we talk about teaching digital citizenship in schools, what we really are talking about is online safety,” Culatta said.

Schools have been telling students “keep a strong password. Don’t upload an inappropriate picture. Don’t be a jerk online. That’s a ridiculously low bar,” he said. What’s more, “it’s been a sort of negative approach, don’t do this online, don’t do that online. Which is not very compelling for students.” It may even give students ideas—including when it comes to cyberbullying—that they wouldn’t have thought of on their own, Culatta suggested.

Instead, he said, digital citizenship should be about “how are we using technology to make the world around us a better place. It’s about how are we recognizing fact from fiction in virtual spaces,” which is not an easy thing to do, Culatta said. It’s about getting students to use technology to engage in democracy. And it’s about turning all those negative ‘don’ts’ into positive ‘do’s.’' For instance, he said one school district in California is turning the conversation from anti-cyberbullying into “how do you be good cyber friends.”

ISTE is part of a coalition of organizations, including Common Sense Education, Google, and Facebook Education, pushing for a new way to teach digital citizenship. Learn more here.

Rethink Teacher Prep for Technology

District leaders have flagged a big problem, and ISTE is working to solve it: Until recently, there was no vendor-neutral program to teach teachers how to use technology effectively, Culatta said.

Instead, teachers could earn an endorsement or certification from say, Microsoft, Google, or Apple. “There’s good things about all their software. But at the same time it comes in with the assumption that all of the problems you need to address as a teacher can be solved by their software. And that’s a problem, and frankly, it’s a conflict of interest.”

He said that a teacher would never say they were a “Houghton-Mifflin teacher, I only use textbooks by Houghton-Mifflin. Give me a break. Immediately, there were would be a conflict of interest. But because of this vacuum, we haven’t had another option in technology. ... We’ve had superintendents reaching out to us saying ‘please, help with this. We need something that is from a nonprofit organization, that is completely tool neutral.”

In an attempt to fill that void, ISTE launched its own certification program. Last year was a pilot year, and Culatta is hoping to take the program to a bigger scale moving forward.

Here’s how it works: Local organization partners provide the training, with an eye towards helping educators learn broad ed-tech concepts that can be used with all different types of products. Afterward, of course, if educators choose to, they can also get certified by one of the big tech companies. “We have no problem with that. But your fundamental concepts for how to use technology effectively should be taught in a 100 percent tool-neutral way,” Culatta said.

So far, 1,600 educators have earned the certification or are in the process of earning it. It takes 3 to 6 months to complete.

Better Procurement Questions: ‘Does It Improve Learning?’

Right now, when procurement officers are ready to purchase new technology, they tend to look primarily at price, experts say. What they don’t always ask: “Does it improve learning? Is it aligned to learning science?” Culatta said.

After working with districts to learn more about the process, ISTE has created some support materials to help districts make procurement decisions “based on solid learning principles,” Culatta said. “Yes, it’s important to look at price, but it’s actually much more important to know ‘does this have a chance of making an impact that we would want?’ It just changes the role of the person making the purchasing decisions when it comes to tech.”

Photo of Richard Culatta courtesy of ISTE.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.