#ISTE2015 Day One: It's about the students, NOT the Keynote

Five years ago, I went to my first ISTE conference in Philadelphia. I remember waiting with nervous anticipation for the opening keynote in the grand ballroom in the Pennsylvania Convention Center along with thousands of other participants. And then dancing robots came out. Followed by the introductory speakers who were long on praise of ISTE and short on specifics. This was followed by the keynote itself which was so underwhelming that I have no memory of the speaker or the content of the talk. At that time, I made a rule for myself. I would never attend a keynote again.

Today, I violated that rule. Well, sort of. I did not actually go into the ballroom to watch the keynote. I watched outside on a screen in one of the playgrounds. The keynote was OK. Part pep rally and part mussar schmooze. The presenter, Soledad O'Brien, was entertaining enough. She shared information about her father who was white and Australian and her mother who was black and Cuban. They were a rare interracial marriage in the 1950s, having to travel to Washington D.C. to get married since interracial marriage was still illegal in Baltimore, Maryland where they lived. She spoke of being the first Latino/black family growing up in her neighborhood in Long Island. She described how in her professional life she has tried to open vistas for minority children who often had lesser opportunities just because they did not have many examples in their family and community of successful professionals. All good stuff, but little about technology. The only technology in her talk to this point were some truisms that everyone could agree with, like its not the technology that matters but the education.

Soledad then told the story of Maria, a young lady who dreamed of going to Stanford, loved STEM, and was a leader on her FIRST robotics team. When calculus was not offered in her school, a requirement for applying to Stanford, Maria arranged for an after-school calculus class in her school. Unfortunately, Maria never got into Stanford. Then Soledad said something to the order of that greater access to online classes might have helped Maria fulfill her dream. This type of generalization made me quite skeptical and downright annoyed. Does the lack of opportunity for people like Maria really stem from less access to technology or are there much more complex issues at play?

This gets to the crux of what I love about ISTE but HATE about keynotes. Keynotes are an inherently difficult medium since they are designed to appeal to everyone so that they rarely enlighten anyone. I want practical examples not generalizations. I want to hear from real-life teachers and students on how they have transformed their learning with the help of technology. Not from journalists or other professional speakers who are entertainers and crowd-pleasers but ultimately add little to the conversation about technology in education.

At some point shortly after this, I left with my group to attend some of the Poster sessions. These are sessions where teachers and students share projects that they have done in the classroom. I LOVE Poster sessions for all the reasons that I HATE Keynotes. They are filled with specifics.

I talked with a group of delightful eighth graders from the Longfellow Middle School 2015 Media Club in Enid Oklahoma. They shared how they produced a weekly broadcast for their school complete with announcements, the lunch menu, song of the week, app reviews and much more. This was something that I could imagine doing in my school. It required a pretty simple setup of green-screen, lighting, iPad or smartphones to take videos and a Mac with iMovie and it combined so many fundamental skills sets in written communication, public speaking, and film editing.

Next, I talked students from Mexico who described their project entitled, Mesoamerica: Virtual Trip to an Ancient Magic World. This project combined the history and archeology of ancient Mayan culture with filmmaking using Adobe Premiere and apps like Prezi and Google Maps. What was fascinating about this presentation was how the class integrated history and technology. Students researched and visited ancient Mesamerica sites while also learning about high level filmmaking with their final project involving sharing both content knowledge about the places, peoples, and cultures, they studied and procedural knowledge on filmmaking with student-produced tutorials on various features in Adobe Premiere.

What I loved about these two projects which I sampled on my first day and so much more to follow at ISTE is how they demonstrated how technology can be used to promote student centered learning in which they compose and share high quality content with a worldwide audience. This to me is what should be front and center at ISTE. Maybe next time, we can have a keynote session led by the students presenting their amazing projects, facilitated by creative and talented teachers who know how to harness technology to spark student creativity.