Reflecting on ISTE 2014

Going to a conference alone is an unusual experience. I like my independence, but to a point. About a month ago, I had the fabulous opportunity to attend the International Society of Technology in Education’s 2014 conference  (ISTE). However, unbeknownst to me, the morning of the first day was dedicated to set up, so I spent a large portion of this time wandering around by myself trying to get my bearings. I soon decided that there was strength in numbers and befriended a group of teachers from a local high school. Together, we explored the conference center, exchanging secret codes for the “networking game” that turned making connections into a competition. Sure, you met more people but if the interaction was nothing more than a a few words, did it really count as networking?  For me, the highlight of the first day was the cool people I met (many of whom I knew well from Twitter), followed closely by actress and activist Ashely Judd’s opening keynote. Her touching speech highlighted the importance of teachers in the lives of their students.

The following day was a whirlwind of networking. As luck would have it, a former teacher and mentor of mine was at the conference and I enjoyed getting to reconnect. I also managed to link up with some of my Student Voice friends/colleagues with whom I discussed at length the benefits of technology in the classroom and how it should be carefully leveraged so that it’s a tool on the path to deeper learning instead of an end result.

Many of the sessions I attended also supported this premise. The first session I attended was a series of Ignite talks and round table discussions, a rapid format designed to squeeze the most ideas into a limited amount of time. As a result, I ended up hearing a multitude of ways teachers are expanding their classrooms past the brick and mortar walls. For example, UNICEF has come up with a collaborative online portfolio of international education resources that can be found at http://teachunicef.org/. Mail-order elephants (modern day flat Stanley), mystery Skypes and international e-pen pals were a few that truly stood out. Many teachers also suggested asking the students what they want to gain out of the year and how global learning could help. Each project was designed to foster not only knowledge of other areas of the world but also form relationships with people outside of the students’ cities and build an international community.
In that first ignite session, I spent my roundtable discussion with Vicki Davis, co-creator of the Gameify project, an intergenerational learning experience. Her students tried to identify what makes an “effective” game, linking ed-theory with game theory. They joined MOOCS and tested over 50 games to see their benefits. Only a few met all the students’ criteria of an effective game – one that is both engaging and informative.  Sadly, the conclusion they reached with a majority of the games was that the highly engaging ones didn’t teach much and the highly educational ones aren’t very interesting. As a next step, the class wants to partner with older, more experienced coders to create the “perfect” game that would pass the rigorous judgment they’ve become accustomed to passing. I got a chance to see some of the educational games currently available up close and personal on the second full day of the conference. I sat in on a session between Dell and Brainpop that gave me the opportunity to play a handful of online games in science, math, and English, that targeted different specialties and professional fields. I was surprised at how engrossing some of them were and how completely boring others were. Despite having seen the research, I hadn’t realized how obvious the difference was between a game that was good (engaging and informative) and bad (monotonous, too general and/or not actually educational).
On the first real day of the conference, I visited the general poster session, a hall full of different projects and teams from across the world, eager to share how they use technology in education. One of the booths that particularly intrigued me presented a “student voice and choice” curriculum. These teachers had their elementary students blogging and tweeting about what they learned and did each day, allowing them to learn by doing rather than having the teacher talk at them all day. Furthermore, 20 minutes of each class were dedicated to a project chosen by each student. The project guidelines were few and simple; the students didn’t have to be researching or solving a problem, just pursuing something that they were passionate about and producing a final result at the end of the year, be it a presentation or a product. I found this model simple yet very effective and admired how technology simply helped the students gain control of what they were learning.
The last session I attended on the final day of the conference was all about changing the paradigm. The public school system of Manor, TX created an innovative student leaders program with a group of students who showed that they know how to integrate technology into their everyday lives. These schools realized that the students of my generation, the so-called “digital natives” are already well versed in a lot of technology and programs that schools are adopting. Therefore, rather than wasting time, money and energy, training certain teachers with no prior knowledge who in turn would teach others, the logical choice was to put the students in charge of technological professional development of all teachers.
In addition to the sessions scattered throughout the days, an entire level of the conference space was dedicated to a sponsor/vendor expo. There, big companies like Adobe and Google talked about their new products and their educational initiatives and tools to large crowds while smaller companies like Bretford took up just as much space showcasing their flexible, re-arrangeable furniture/desk sets that come with built in charging stations. One of the smaller companies that really grabbed my attention was Bizworld. Bizworld endeavors to teach entrepreneurship to elementary students. Their newest product, Bizmovie, is a project-based module on the film industry. Students are a part of the full movie-making process, from creating the film to publicizing/marketing it and generating “revenue” by selling tickets. It’s a hands-on, simulation of real life that’s fun for the students while also teaching them valuable, real-life skills.
Furthermore, ISTE showcased how technology can be used by students to make a real impact. The idea of introducing more technology into our schools receives a lot of pushback. But one only has to see the over 14000 attendees at ISTE and feel their energy and passion to realize that technology isn’t the demon it’s often made out to be. Despite what some people may say, technology hasn’t turned Generation Y into narcissists who live in their own little world. Far from it. Kids of today are more willing to support philanthropic causes and volunteer to work for the satisfaction of helping others, sometimes even going so far as to use their technological knowledge to make things happen. I witnessed this in action at ISTE with the DELL Youth Innovators Advisory Board (YIA). The YIA is a new Dell initiative that gives 12 student leaders from across the country a platform to enact social good and change while leveraging Dell’s resources. It’s a beautiful collaboration, and after spending a lot of time hearing their ideas, I’m excited to see where this all goes.
Overall, this experience confirmed what I already knew: when you are truly passionate about something, it doesn’t feel like work. Time truly does fly when you’re having fun. And sharing innovative ideas with such a fabulous cohort of like minded people was, in addition to being very informative, definitely fun.
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