Relationships, Connected Learning, & ISTE 2019

The International Society for Technology in Education is a community that “believes in the power of technology to transform teaching and learning.”  In reflecting on activities and conversations I was able to participate in at the recent ISTE 2019 conference (#ISTE19), I was amazed though at how little technology was emphasized in these discussions.  Perhaps it was a skewed experience based on the events I attended, but I felt this was one of the first technology-centric conferences where the narrative was truly not about technology – and this (perceived) shift was quite uplifting.

Sure, there was the usual commentary that “technology is just the tool and not the end,” etc. etc.  However, at a conference of technology-minded educators, I was pleasantly surprised how technology was de-emphasized in place of narratives of Relationships and Connected Learning:


1.   During a visit to First Hand Philly, educators discussed the non-profit’s efforts to provide STEM-related learning activities to middle school students.  While the STEM focus was obvious, First Hand Philly emphasized the importance of its proximity to other high-tech companies in Philadelphia.  It was these relationships, where students could connect “first-hand” with career professionals, that provided the greatest influence on the experiences for these middle schoolers.

2.   The Science Leadership Academy, Building 21 in the School District of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Learning Collaborative discussed the importance of relationships in their respective missions and focus.

Building 21 Principal Ayris Colvin

Principal Ayris Colvin of Building 21 described how strong relationships with students are critical to the Building 21 learning model.

CEO Chris Lehmann noted how SLA models the teacher-student relationship throughout all of its activities, including the language used by SLA educators.  SLA promotes how teachers care “for” students (a student-centered narrative) rather than teachers caring “about” students (which centers more on the teacher).  Most impactfully, SLA student Horace Ryans described that he had to learn how to be creative and how to collaborate when he came to SLA.  These skills were built through intentional group work activities.  He described how he sat grouped at tables with other students, a classroom design requiring him to make consistent eye contact with his peers.  Ultimately, Ryans said this layout and the corresponding learning activities (such as fishbowl discussions and book discussion pods) promoted creating relationships, exchanging ideas, and learning how to collaborate.

SLA Student Horace Ryans & CEO Chris Lehmann

Connected Learning:

1.   A visit to Drexel University’s ExCITe Center took participants so far beyond the concept of a STEAM or technology “makerspace.”  The Center demonstrated how connected learning enables the development of new knowledge, lines of thinking, products, and businesses.

Main makerspace area in Drexel University’s ExCITe Center

Center participants are developing new gaming through its Entrepreneurial Game Studio and innovations in sound, music, and digital media through its Music and Entertainment Technology Laboratory.  These innovations are not focusing specifically on the “tech,” but on creativity and leveraging different areas of expertise and disciplines.

ExCITe Center’s Magentic Resonator Piano – combining electrical engineering & music

2.   On multiple occasions, school leaders at #ISTE19 moved past simple technology integration in the language they used:

  • Chris Lehmann noted educators are “not engaging with technology, you are just working.”
  • While STEAM touches on this, educators discussed how true connected learning is far greater than just including art or music into “traditional” science/math/engineering activities.
  • In fact, some participants at the pre-#ISTE19 Tech & Learning Leadership Summit were even suggesting we need to ditch the terms “STEM” and “STEAM” because those collective disciplines are treated as something separate from just “learning.”
  • In many conversations I had with #ISTE19 vendors, companies regularly led with the problem they were trying to solve, not the technology they were demonstrating.

Are we turning the corner on the conversation about the connection between technology and learning?  Not sure, but it was at least encouraging to listen to the emphasis on relationships and connected learning in the conversations at an international technology conference – rather than the technology itself.

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