Each year in late June, the biggest educational technology conference in the world, ISTE’s annual conference, is held in some large US city drawing educators and administrators from across the globe. Hailed as the premier gathering for all things “ed tech,” ISTE conferences hosts some of the largest and most interactive displays of classroom technologies, many claiming to be capable of innovating teaching and learning. What sets these products apart, whether they be software or a new device, from the numerous ed tech inventions flooding the growing K-12 ed tech marketplace?
For me, the answer to this question was not answered at ISTE, but at the annual pre-ISTE Tech & Learning Leadership Summit held in Philadelphia. As is typical with a Tech & Learning Summit, the weekend kicked off with site visits of two schools that were doing amazing things for kids in the classroom with the help of technology. Beginning at First Hand Philly’s Science Learning Academy, an entire school that had embraced Project Inquiry learning, student centered projects were on abundant display. These included a re-imagining of what a student desk should be, complete with snack boxes and a built-in privacy screen. These and other student-led inquiry projects at SLA demonstrated how empowering students and providing them access to the tools needed to create can lead to end results every educator and administrator strive to see daily: demonstrated competencies.
The second site, the Drexel EXCITE Center for Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies, highlighted more of the same, with more emphasis on the advanced expression involving “technologies.” As students demonstrated the game they had coded now for sale on Xbox One Marketplace (the game is called Sole) or showed how they learned to program an automated drum set to play the “Super Mario Brothers” theme song, or even wrote the necessary code to ensure a robot could “see” via an Xbox Kinect sensor, the transformative approach of allowing students to personalize their own learning, including their assessments, adorned the center.
Throughout the summit, other outstanding examples of schools that were bold enough to innovate the manner in which students’ learning was assessed were highlighted. Building 21, in urban Philadelphia, shared many of their bold initiatives the following morning, many of which created the capacity for student success with high school students entering the program at a 5th-grade reading level yet creating rigorous and relevant contributions to both the school and surrounding businesses, including both professions and vocations, the 21st century’s definition of career readiness. This extraordinary success, part of Philadelphia’s Innovative Network, combined personalized learning pathways with a strong culture focusing on staff-student relationships while being completely immersed in problem-based learning. The school’s laser-like focus on “improving skills, not percentages” seemed to be paying off in preparing students for success outside the school walls.
Throughout the weekend of learning and networking in the City of Brotherly Love, many more examples of “best practices” regarding instruction with technology were shared. And while later in the week at ISTE, many new inventions were sure to be on display, this practice of boldly using any available technology (devices, shop tools, software, musical instruments, etc.) to transform the teaching and learning experience into something more meaningful and personalized to students is true innovation