Photo by flickr user Wesley Fryer.

Attending conferences was a consistently powerful experience for me as a classroom teacher. While my session choices failed me at times, I left each conference feeling more empowered and inspired. For my first ISTE, however, I landed in Philly with a new purpose. My focus shifted from discovering ways of improving my craft in the classroom to identifying best practices for supporting teachers in my new role outside of it. And while I found ISTE to be overwhelming (not surprisingly) and somewhat lacking, I left feeling equally inspired to empower teachers.

Focused on supporting personalized learning and technology integration in an urban school district, here were my (albeit limited) ISTE 2015 takeaways. For my full notes from the conference, click here.

1) Learn from the rest

There are so many organizations, districts, school-systems, individuals, and non-profits who are already doing this work. Duh. I know. The classic, ignorant view of edtech being “new” continues to frustrate to amaze me, but I still didn’t realize or know of the specific partners who are working in situations so similar to ours in New Orleans. The few district-focused sessions at ISTE brought together panels of leaders from across the country. Technology directors, professional learning leaders, superintendents, teacher leaders, non-profit chiefs, university fellows and others shared the many lessons they’ve learned in trying to promote and support personalized learning in their schools.

What inspired me most was how much work has gone into this new focus (I’m extremely hesitant to call anything with a long-history in education a movement, so I’ll go with focus instead) in the past 5-10 years. With the explosion in Chromebook sales of late, reflective of a combination of cheaper access to hardware and proliferation of adaptive software, blended learning has established itself as a potentially effective means of personalizing learning for students on scale (emphasis on potentially given the lack of definitive research supporting blended learning’s effectiveness, the focus on low-level thinking, and the current shortcomings of software, not to mention the problematic belief that access is synonymous with equality). For schools with increasing class sizes, widening ranges in entering learning levels, and increasing political pressures around standardized test scores (woof), its no surprise to see the push for blended learning.

What ISTE demonstrated, however, was that leaders are doing the hard work of identifying how best to support teachers in personalizing learning for students. For veteran, experienced teachers, this shift is forcing (for some) an uncomfortable change, asking these teachers to take new risks. For new teachers, blended looks vastly different than the K-12 (at least, K-8 for sure) education they experienced, making it harder to relate from the student experience. To support teachers in personalizing learning for our students, we are leveraging computers. (As Shawn Rubin of the Highlander Institute pointed out, “if the objective is mastery, and the challenge is personalized learning, then the solution is blended learning.”) While computers do not, by themselves, personalize learning (blog post for another day), they do have a place in supporting personalized learning. The question these organizations have sought to answer is how we support educators themselves.

2) Professional development needs to empower teachers.

One of the consistent themes of so many of my sessions (keeping in mind I sought these out, as opposed to presentations on literacy programs or Minecraft) was the need to reform – or as the ‘innovators’ will say, disrupt – professional development. We all know that PD can be bad – really really bad. (I gave some ‘bad’ PD just this week!) What’s surprising is how ‘bad’ PD is still the norm in schools. ‘Bad’ is a lazy word here, admittedly; unpacked, ‘bad’ PD is that PD that typically fails to meet the needs of individual teachers, and has been bastardized by corporate, top-down accountability measures that assume a great deal about lots of people being forced to sit in a room together.

The sessions at ISTE included a range of quality – some folks delivering sit-and-get PD about how not to give sit-and-get PD, while others revealed truly innovative systems and processes to reach more teachers with higher quality PD on greater scale. Much of that PD revolves around the use of “blended” or “flipped” PD, allowing teachers to access resources on-demand (even e-courses) instead of requiring 100% face-to-face.

It was inspiring to see how many districts are choosing to trust their teachers with their own learning – a seemingly obvious idea, but one that all educators can attest is normally not the case; instead of the rigid, top-down requirement of certain types of PD at certain times, some are moving in the direction of the 20% time/FedEx model of allowing teachers choice to determine their own professional path. Empowering teachers to own their learning is a keystone in the vision for how I plan to support teachers this year.

3) The lack of diversity in edtech needs to change.

I’ve experienced the whiteness and maleness of tech conferences before, so I can’t honestly say I’m surprised – especially as a white male who regularly reads Audrey Watters and Rafranz Davis. But ISTE exposed the systemic, entrenched nature of the problem. What stuck most with me was the maleness and whiteness of the people in public, leading positions – keynotes (with Soledad O’Brien as the exception), session leaders, vendors, Twitter celebrities. There are pioneering women and people of color who are clearly bucking the trend (see Audrey and Rafranz, as well as Jose Vilson, Sarah Thomas, Jennie Magiera, Ken Shelton and many many others), and they deserve greater voice in our PLNs and conference sessions. As a straight white male who presents at conferences, I can’t help but be conscious of my own perpetuation of the problem, and I’m open to any and all thoughts on what I can do as an ally. It’s not just on ISTE. It’s on all of us.

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