ISTE Conference 2017

ISTE_Opening Keynote

In December 2016, Cymantha Cantrill won $1,000 toward professional learning in a competition run by Scootle. The Deputy Principal from Canberra elected to attend the ISTE Conference in San Antonio, Texas. The ISTE Conference & Expo is recognised globally as the most comprehensive educational technology conference in the world, with over 18,000 attendees seeking to transform learning and teaching. We asked Cymantha to provide some insight into her experience.


What is ISTE?

ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education. It started nearly 40 years ago, at a barbecue in Eugene, Oregon, when a close group of progressive K–12 and University of Oregon educators began to ask the question, ‘What if …?’

Together, they considered the possibility of giving students powerful tools that would enable them to take charge of their own learning, follow their own passions, and work with their peers to solve problems. They thought about teachers becoming guides and collaborators rather than people who delivered information. And they wondered together what might be created if computers could be used to ‘do what they do best’, which would leave humans free to dream, create and ‘change the world’.

The group of educators contacted others who believed in education technology’s potential. As ISTE puts it, ‘From there, ideas and inspiration spread geographically and generationally’. Four decades on, there is now a worldwide network of like-minded educators.

Why go to an ISTE conference?

ISTE is held in a different US city each year, and is the place to go if you want to meet and hear from ed-tech’s finest minds, and to continue to network with them. It is also a place to develop knowledge in areas that relate to your own career focus.

You can read about the huge range of activities at the conference in the ISTE 2017 program guide. ISTE is a place where delegates can personalise their learning to a great degree. For example, there are masterclasses, opportunities to ask questions of presenters (in ‘interactive lectures’), and places to just listen and watch lectures and panel discussions. ‘Poster’ sessions showcase a range of projects, enabling interaction with presenters. There are practical BYOD (bring your own device) sessions that extend skills and knowledge of new resources. ‘Playgrounds’ provide environments for connecting with other educators and interactive technologies. ‘Learning academies’ provide curriculum-integrated, project-based sessions that are hands-on. There are workshops of different durations, from 90 minutes to 3 hours. The expo hall features the best in current digital teaching and learning. There are the much-discussed social events , where many professional learning networks (PLNs) plan get-togethers in order to connect. I attended the Global Educators PLN and the Leaders and Administrators PLN. The hottest ticket for social events is the ISTE Karaoke. It is on a grand scale — held in a theatre with a real band. ISTE participants sure know how to rock.

Another significant component of ISTE is the calibre and credibility of the presenters. Imagine being able to go and listen to Jenny Magiera, Chief Innovation Officer of Des Plaines Schools in Chicago, and then walk straight into a room with George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset. The opening keynote was presented by Jad Abumrad, host and creator of Public Radio’s Radiolab, with the closing keynote from Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. To have access to these education technology leaders at the one conference is unbelievable.

The ISTE conference centres around learning and pedagogy rather than the tools or devices. It caters for the very beginner to the more advanced. Learning is cutting edge. The ability to learn from other educators, and talk to students and school leaders, is very powerful.

There are ISTE veterans who go every single year. Personally, I have wanted to attend an ISTE conference for a long time. With the support of Scootle and Education Services Australia it became a reality. The 2018 conference will be hosted in Chicago, and you might just see me there!

What was the most engaging part of the conference for you?

That is a very difficult question to answer. The keynote speakers were very inspiring. I really engaged with the workshops and learning academies to build my own technical skills. These were focused, in-depth sessions over three hours. Another engaging part of ISTE17 was the opportunity to connect and collaborate with other educators. I am already a member of several PLNs, and I had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with others in my network. I was fortunate enough to meet many inspiring, talented, and passionate educators. This has opened up so many new networks for me to connect to.

Could you identify a big difference in ed tech between Australia and the US?

The first big difference I discovered was by participating in the BYOD sessions, learning academies, and playgrounds. Talking with other educators and school leaders in these sessions provided a valuable insight into the focus placed on accelerating learning through technology, and the structures to support that learning.

ISTE_Poster Session

Schools in the US have invested heavily in digital leadership to empower teachers and students

Each district has a superintendent whose role is to provide high-level leadership to each school. The superintendent works with an Ed Tech Coach and an Ed Tech Administrator.

The role of the Ed Tech Coach is to provide professional learning to teachers in classrooms, and help them to design and deliver learning programs in coding, computer science, and STEM fields. Coaches are specialists, rather than classroom teachers with an interest in technology. These coaches can also have a teaching load, but it would be in the areas of coding, media, computer science, or STEM.

The Ed Tech Administrator looks after purchasing, infrastructure, hardware, passwords, accounts, and deployment of software.

The School Superintendent, Ed Tech Coach, and Ed Tech Administrator collaborate to realise the vision of each school and district. Smaller schools might share an Ed Tech Coach and Administrator, and larger schools may have more than one person in these roles.

Schools in the US have a focus for the year

During one of the workshops I joined, each school had to name their focus for the year. Responses included coding, robotics, computer science, 3D, and augmented reality. Schools had specific plans, vision statements, and policies relating to the use of IT in their schools.

A pedagogical shift

I learned that there is a big push in the US from teaching using technology, to teaching through technology. Many schools have moved to 1:1 (1-to-1) and BYOD programs, which is really a focus on the tool, not the pedagogy. Just having a device is a baseline approach to teaching with technology. The devices or tools are really the 21st-century pencil case. It’s what you do with the technology, how the learner engages with it, and how it empowers students that count.

Creativity, problem-solving and collaboration are the drivers in using technology to power or accelerate learning. The ISTE Standards for students and teachers provide a framework for learning and teaching. An example of this is a workshop I attended on creating digital learning centres. In an English/Literacy program there were centres for students to create their responses via podcasts, movie-making, Google-Suite, Prezi, and mini-clips, among others. As educators, we all had to complete a task that was differentiated and could be personalised. It was engaging, and required high-level thinking and creativity. It was also so much fun!

What did you learn at ISTE that you are most looking forward to implementing in your program?

I have designed my program to be a blend of hands-on learning through learning academies, masterclasses, interactive poster sessions, playgrounds, workshops, panels and lectures. I would like to move into the augmented reality space to make interactive textbooks for senior students. I am keen to explore coding for all ages, using a variety of approaches to drive learning in the STEM space. Creativity and global collaboration has also been on my list, as well as effective leadership practices to design, implement and embed new approaches.

So, what am I most looking forward to implementing?

  1. Turning technology initiatives into educational movements with innovative, proven strategies for aligning the vision and planning of school and Directorate, cultivating buy-in from stakeholders and showcasing incredible results.
  2. STEM development and leadership – boosting engagement by using a design thinking approach for engineers, artists and coders. Developing the engineering and design process to foster critical thinking, student voice, creativity, and problem-solving. Looking at ways to increase participation from all students and growing the number of female student leaders in this space.
  3. Professional development – attempting to address the distinct lack of powerful learning for educators in Australia. I believe we have the capacity, but how are we sharing it? I would like to explore ways to better equip our teachers to lead this 21st-century learning.

Any other comments on your experience?

I had high expectations of this conference and they were surpassed in every way. There really is nothing quite like it. Firstly, it’s big! In 2017 there were 21,000 participants who came from all 50 states in the USA and over 70 other countries. There were 1,187 workshops and sessions to choose from, in a conference centre so big you almost needed GPS (I did actually use the map button on my conference app). I met people from all over the world who are doing incredible things, who want to do more, and who want to impact the lives of our young people. I met some incredible students who talked about learning experiences that only a few years ago would have been unimaginable. Participation has really broadened my view about what I like to think of as a global educator and collaborator. I got to see the future and I really like what I see!


Cymantha CantrillCymantha Cantrill
Deputy Principal Pedagogy, Wanniassa School, ACT