ISTE annual conference was held from June 28 to July 1
For Administrators

Tech Conference Shows Welcome Focus on Building Tools to Promote Learning

By Brian Gatens July 23, 2015

I noted an encouraging trend at last month’s annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in Philadelphia: a growing consensus that we should start with children’s needs and build tools to match, rather than buy tools and force children to adapt.

ISTE annual conference was held from June 28 to July 1With attendees from every state and over 70 nations, ISTE is the benchmark conference for everything involving learning and technology. This year’s exhibition hall had many products, but the real learning happened in the conferences, panels and presentations.

Here’s a quick look at the highlights of this year’s conference:

It’s not the device

We’re all drawn to the new “bright and shiny” thing, so it’s only natural that schools perpetually look for a “silver bullet” device that will magically improve student performance, satisfy teachers and make parents happy.

Well, that will never be, and it’s clear that ISTE members have heard that message loud and clear. A consistent drumbeat through many sessions was the idea that schools must begin with the desired student learning in mind — and then build the device around it. The other way around does not work, but far too many schools have not figured this out yet.

Time is on our side

Many presenters spoke of hard lessons they learned from moving too quickly into a technology. Instead, presenters urged schools to take their time by building faculty participation into the process, creating flexible timeframes and continually focusing on what’s best for the learner.

Having clear goals and being willing to adjust them as necessary were key components of many successful school experiences. No one ever looked back and said, “Wow, they definitely gave us this great new learning too slowly.”

Connection is king

A common thread throughout ISTE was that technology should connect students to one another through shared documents, projects and at-home collaboration over school networks.

I love this positive trend, as it emphasizes using technology to help people to work better together and not just merely complete individual tasks. Another benefit of this approach is that collaborating via computer is so common in today’s work environment. The earlier the students begin to work in this manner, the more successful they’ll be after their formal schooling ends.

Classrooms need to change with the times

Unlike offices and other work spaces, too many classrooms look like they did 15 or even 50 years ago. But lots of changes are coming:

  • Student-focused classrooms are using movable furniture so students can relocate desks as they need to.
  • Wall-mounted computer monitors are allowing students to connect wirelessly, making ceiling-mounted projectors a thing of the past.
  • Ceiling-mounted cameras allow students to take part in distance learning projects.
  • In perhaps the coolest change of all, some classroom walls are being coated with a special “whiteboard” paint that student groups can use to complete projects and then easily erase.

Collaboration, connection and group work are now the order of the day in successful technology-based classrooms.

So what were the bright, shiny things?

The most common items on the exhibition floor were different types of 3D printers. Unlike regular paper printers, 3D printers create plastic-based items for a host of uses, including prosthetics, puzzle games and connectable projects.

The appeal of 3D printing is that students need to work through some pretty advanced calculations and group work to complete quality products. Without a pretty extensive rollout of these devices and strong integration into the classroom, they can easily become a toy and not a tool. I’d definitely take a wait-and-see approach before investing in that technology.

What does the future hold?

Only one thing stopped me in my tracks as I wandered the exhibition floor — Zspace, a new company that allows students to handle and move in a virtual 3D environment. Wearing special glasses and handling a special stylus enables a user to pick up a facsimile of human heart, spin it, take it apart and put it back together.

This is still a young technology, but when touch-friendly haptic gloves are eventually introduced and the price becomes more affordable, this type of technology will let students explore ancient cities, dissect anything they want and enjoy powerful visual experiences. I’m not a cheerleader for new technology, but this one seems sure to grow in the years to come.

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