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ISTE 2020 Goes Virtual, Just like School

This year’s International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference felt different, and not only because it was virtual. ISTE was less of an opportunity to announce shiny new objects, and instead a chance to elevate expert voices, connecting curious educators with the tools they crave to serve their students. Over 10,000 presenters and attendees came together online to learn about, share knowledge on and expand their use of technology for education. Throughout the full week of programming, the unifying theme was the potential to leverage tools, services and techniques to ensure all students thrive.

This year, technology has been a lifeline for keeping students and teachers connected. With the backdrop of widespread distance learning and its inherent challenges, the focus was on reaching and nurturing people with technologies that are increasingly or already accessible. For communicators, ISTE is a call to action to relate — first and foremost —  to customers as people, then bring an inclusive point of view and ensure we’re providing people the information they need to succeed not only in today’s disrupted environment but into the future of learning.


Student well-being is a top priority

COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on kids. The topic of student well-being rose to the surface of countless ISTE sessions. The online event allowed the education community to reflect on what they’re observing collectively as they work closely with their students.

Without a doubt, the topic of social and emotional learning (SEL) has evolved from the role of a school counselor to a necessary focus all teachers are bringing to their daily work. Brands eager to join this conversation can learn from folks like Dr. Quentin Lee, principal of Childersburg High School. Although he’s achieved YouTube fame for his viral video, reminding students of COVID-19 hygiene to the tune of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” his goal wasn’t millions of video views. Rather, it was building relationships within his learning community; he looks to foster interactions with students and parents every day. We can only have these strong relationships when we reach people and drive them to action.

Looking toward the new year, with its continued uncertainty, education technology communicators must prioritize relationships, human well-being and connection above all else.


Overcoming bias

Although students are learning despite the challenges created by COVID-19, education research nonprofit NWEA reports that a quarter of U.S. students are unaccounted for. We know that many of these students come from underserved backgrounds or have disabilities that put distance learning out of reach. Yale researcher Dena Simmons’ presentation on racial equity was one of the most discussed on social channels by ISTE attendees. Her statement, “we cannot SEL away racism,” reverberated in the session and across Twitter, highlighting the importance of a multicultural, inclusive mindset and approach to leveraging tools and technologies.

Although personalized learning is often viewed as the promise of education technology, the education technology industry must be deliberate when building and talking about these tools to ensure they contribute to inclusion and equity. Services such as Flipgrid and Minecraft stood out in ISTE conversations as tools empowering students to share their mastery and learning in their own way. In short, the metric has shifted from broad student engagement to direct conversations about how tools can help students of differing abilities reach their potential.

As we refine a brand narrative and product messaging, we must consider students and educators from a variety of backgrounds when thinking about product use scenarios and potential obstacles.


Ed tech during COVID-19 and beyond

More than ever, teachers are reaching students from digital classrooms, and ISTE attendees found a wealth of content from educators sharing tips and tutorials. Education technology brands with authentic ambassador voices have the potential to reach a community hungry for help, whether with brand-owned platforms or events and earned media.

Nurturing customer voices is key for breakthrough. Simultaneously, there’s growing optimism that we will return to school in person in the coming year. ISTE CEO Richard Culatta challenged educators and the industry to ensure that when a sense of normal returns, we don’t revert back to the way it was, but instead reimagine the way it should be. Now is the time to chart that course, and education technology leaders have the opportunity to stand up and share their visions.

Brands must move beyond positioning their products for COVID-19-era learning or the traditional classroom. Start with what’s possible, where a brand’s purpose and mission align with opportunities to advance student outcomes. Consider how your product serves as a solution to the challenges faced by educators. This is our moment to dream about the transformations we must make in education to ensure all students succeed in the future.

ISTE 2020’s focus on human impact, connection, inclusion and thought leadership reminds the education technology industry to think beyond today’s tools and tech that enable distance learning. When educators and teachers come back online in January, following a well-deserved winter break, administrators will be thinking beyond the 2020-21 year, imagining what 2021-22 could bring. It’s time to consider the voices you amplify, the stories you tell and the innovations you advocate for, and how they help students learn in or out of the classroom, and how they point us toward a better-educated and more  connected world.

December 10, 2020

Ali Koper
VP, Consumer & Education