What parents can learn from an educational technology conference

Every year, thousands of teachers, administrators, and companies gather for an enormous educational technology conference to learn and share the latest in tech and teaching trends.

What parents can learn from an ed tech conference

This year, I was fortunate to join 18,000 educators in Denver, CO, to see the latest innovative ideas, gadgets, and services making their way into classrooms. With over 1200 sessions and 500 vendors, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) is always an overwhelming experience that takes a while to process.

Of course, I see it all through the eyes of an educator. That’s primarily why I go. And I’m bringing back many new ideas and tools to share with my colleagues and use in my work.

But, like anything, I also see everything through the parent filter. Many times during the conference, I found myself thinking I wonder if my son’s school is using that? or Would that help my boys learn better? As you know, it’s nearly impossible to turn that off.

So, what’s coming in the world of educational technology? What might you see in your own child’s school or classroom…or on their device?

Here are some of the themes I saw through that parent filter.

Maker culture

Over the past few years, many schools have tried to create a space within the school to give students an opportunity for raw, innovative play. These “makerspaces” would allow for exploration outside of the traditional curriculum, trying things that wouldn’t be offered in class.

Often these spaces are filled with everything from craft supplies to tech gadgets. The holy grail of makerspaces has become the 3D printer.

But in all the conversation about “making” at ISTE, there was a significant absence of discussion about the “room.” Instead, advocates called for more of a culture of making and innovation and an integration into the traditional classroom.


STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has been around for many years, and even entire schools have been created with a STEM focus. One of the trends lately has been to incorporate the Arts into these STEM activities and programs, creating STEAM instead.

The conversation around STEM/STEAM, like the one about “making,” is a push to blend this type of thinking and learning into every part of the curriculum, not isolate it to a separate class.

As a geek who is also a humanities major, I love the idea of blending the arts into STEM, and then blending it all into every aspect of learning. Bringing the hands-on elements of STEAM into the not-so-hands-on subjects that we teach in school can be a huge advantage to many students.

Student Voice

A very clear message was evident in many of the presentations and tools offered by vendors: students need to have more say in their own learning.

Personalized Learning has been a buzzword for a few years now, and the definition is a little fuzzy at times. But the overall trend is to give the students more choice and voice in the path they take in their learning.

To quiet the alarm bells, this doesn’t mean getting rid of teachers or letting the kids totally dictate what they learn. Teachers, parents, and others coach students and provide resources and feedback all through the learning. And many software tools are now on the market to help students (and others) track their progress and process in order to hit defined learning targets.

It is about empowering students’ voices and giving them a platform, too. One of the clearest examples of this at ISTE was a presentation by a precocious, 11-year-old spitfire named Marley Dias (and her mom) who told the story of starting the 1000 Black Girl Books initiative after her frustration in the lack of children’s books with black girl protagonists or main characters.

Multiple Literacies

At one point, educating kids was as simple as the “3 Rs”: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. While those are still fundamental, they are not enough.

One of the sessions at ISTE was entitled “The new 3 Rs: VR, AR, and QR.” That’s virtual reality (think: immersive 3D environments using a headset), augmented reality (computer-generated imagery overlaid on reality–like Pokemon GO, or those greeting cards you scan and a 3D image pops up), and QR codes (those square barcode-like symbols that contain information or links when scanned by a device.)

Even Lavar Burton, the Reading Rainbow rockstar, advocated for a deliberate teaching of digital literacy. Reading Rainbow (you know, the show about books) has now regenerated into SKYbrary. “We have to prepare them for the world of technology and be on the devices where they are,” said Burton. “Technology, when used appropriately, allows students to take charge of their own learning.”


Minecraft clearly had center stage in any conversation about games in education, with a new release of MinecraftEDU, a teacher-friendly version. And Minecraft is not just a different type of game that can be used in learning, but it has prompted many conversations about how to use gaming in the classroom.

One of my favorite uses of Minecraft is a new physical computer/electronics kit called the Piper Computer Kit, which requires kids to build their computer to play Minecraft. Along the way, they learn programming and basic engineering.

The other word of the day for the gaming conversation was badging. Just like video games, where you unlock achievements and reach new levels, badging is now becoming a part of the learning environment in some innovative classrooms. Students “level up” as they learn the content and concepts.

What Does this Mean for Parents?

These trends and innovations, of course, are different from what the classroom looked like when we were there. And it’s far too easy to fall into the “it was good enough for me when I was in school” fallacy, and dismiss all of this as a fad.

Which leads to my first suggestion:

Keep an open mind. Be willing to see your child’s school experience as something different from your own. Accept that their culture is different, and that requires a different approach to learning.

Encourage play and “making”. Provide plenty of opportunities for innovation and creation. Give them (fun) problems to solve where they need to do a little out-of-box thinking. Introduce coding and robotics.

Allow them to express themselves online in safe and productive ways. Allow them to produce and publish their ideas, and use that as a teachable moment to teach good digital citizenship skills and privacy. Teach them how to advocate for themselves in a respectful and positive way.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in education. But with all the ever-changing technological innovations, it’s also a challenging time to be a parent.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen as your kids have grown up? Add to the conversation in the comments below.

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