Back in 2019, the last time the International Society for Technology in Education held an in-person conference, no one had heard of COVID-19, U.S. schools were still slowly building their 1-to-1 computing programs, and most educators had never taught virtually.
Fast forward to the present. Schools have spent billions in federal pandemic relief funding on new laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots; school district 1-to-1 computing programs have expanded across the country; and nearly every teacher has at least some experience with online learning.
And, now, thousands of educators will gather in person June 26-29 in New Orleans for the nation’s largest educational technology conference, organized by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE. It will be ISTE’s first in-person conference in three years.
But unlike back in 2019, this conference will have a significant virtual component, a symbol of how much things have changed in the past two years.
How is one of the largest ed-tech conferences in the world hoping to address the current moment in K-12 education? Education Week talked with Richard Culatta, ISTE’s chief executive officer, for answers to that question.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
At the last in-person ISTE conference in 2019, teachers had yet to experience a crash course in digital instruction and way fewer schools had 1-to-1 computing environments. How do the past two years change the game for this conference?
We’ve made massive progress in terms of [technology] infrastructure. The way that that came about is probably not the way any of us would have wanted. But it is important to note that that is a really powerful, unintended benefit. We have time warped our infrastructure.
What we have to also realize is that we didn’t have an equivalent time warp in effective use of technology. We’ve all been so focused on addressing connectivity issues. I’m thrilled that we did that. But it is not time to hang up the mission accomplished banner. It’s time to now say, ‘let’s get this second piece done’ which arguably is the more important part. How we use technology matters most.
I think another thing is that the pandemic exposed a whole bunch of Swiss cheese holes in our education system. And that’s frustrating. But when you expose stuff, it means you can do something about it. So I actually look at the next year or two in a very optimistic way. It stinks that we have all these problems, but we know what they are. And when you know what they are, you can do something about it. And I think that the technology infrastructure that came along with the pandemic actually gives us a new set of tools to really be able to tackle some of these problems that were exposed during the last two years.
What we have had is really not effective digital learning. We have had emergency remote learning. And so, of course, we're all exhausted by that.
Can you just elaborate a bit on how you think tech can help fill those so-called Swiss cheese holes that we’ve seen in the system?
There are many, many examples. One of the most obvious ones is recognizing that learner needs are very different, right? There is no average learner, no matter how much we want to think there is. This is not a time in education, maybe [there] never was, but it’s particularly not a time where 20 kids that [all] happen to be about the same age should all get the same assignment at the same time, right? That just doesn’t make sense. And technology can help with that.
The least interesting thing we can do with technology is use it to put content in front of kids. The most interesting thing we can do is use it to connect humans to each other. You don’t have to be geographically co-located with someone with expertise in order to have them be part of the learning experience.
The same can be said for parents. That idea of check in once a quarter once, once a semester in the evening, if you’re not working two jobs, for parent teacher conference? That’s just sort of such an artificial limitation. The ability for parents to be much more engaged and involved really matters.
In the next year, it is projected that 350,000 new educators will be coming into the field in the U.S. alone. How can we prepare them to use technology better, to help become excellent teachers faster? We don’t have the luxury of letting them take three, five, six years to get up to become excellent teachers. We just don’t have that luxury.
ISTE has been remote for the past two years. Why did you decide to do it mostly in-person or hybrid this year?
We do think there is still real value in in-person. I think people like to be able to connect. At the same time, one of the advantages of that virtual experience was that we had way more people participating internationally. We had people who weren’t able to fund the cost [of travel]. We didn’t want to leave them out. And so this year, we made the decision to be hybrid.
There will be some experiences that will only happen in the virtual space. And so even if you’re in New Orleans, you’ll log in and participate virtually. There will be some experiences that only happen face to face. And then there’ll be a bunch where there’s some blur between the two. We think this is the future of events.
There’s a lot of “tech fatigue” out there due to the past two years. How do hope this conference will help reinvigorate educators?
Teachers are exhausted and are feeling beat up. This [event] is a time for teachers to reenergize and really become inspired again. It isn’t even about tech per se. It’s just about sort of reengaging [through] some really interesting ways of thinking about teaching and learning.
We also have to just be real about the fact that a lot of the tech use in the last couple of years has been pretty bad. What we have had is really not effective digital learning. We have had emergency remote learning. And so, of course, we’re all exhausted by that. We have to shift and say there is a role for technology. It is not many of the ways that we’ve been using it for the last couple of years and we should feel tired of that, and we should want to put that away. But what we shouldn’t do is not take advantage of this infrastructure that we now have to do the really awesome things that are energizing and recharging.
What are the big themes that will emerge from this year’s conference?
We’ll be actually doubling down on that idea of digital citizenship. We will have some key tech leaders there, including the head of privacy and security for Facebook, including the head of privacy and safety for Snapchat, and people in similar roles from Apple.
Another key theme we will be talking more about: What does learning look like in a world that is increasingly VR enabled? For the first time in ISTE history, we will actually have a VR experience where educators can come and sign up and actually experience being in VR worlds, doing learning activities. They can see what that looks like, what are the pros and cons of it, and really experience it.
What’s your final piece of advice for people who are attending ISTE in person this year or dropping in online?
I think we’ve been so busy running around with fire extinguishers trying to put out all the problems that keep popping up that we haven’t taken the time to reinvest in our human networks and meet people who can help and inspire us. I think this is one of the best investments anyone coming to ISTE live can make. There’ll be great content, but the best thing that you’ll walk away with is 50 new best friends who can help think through things and show you ways to look at issues and challenges that you can’t see because they have different life experiences. They have different ways of approaching issues and challenges. And you do too, and they need your voice as well.