Nestled in the heart of downtown Chicago, Tech & Learning hosted its annual pre-ISTE Tech & Learning Leadership Summit at the W Chicago—Lakeshore hotel. As usual, the Summit included a familiar cast of characters as well as some fresh blood added to the mix. Unlike the massive event that follows (ISTE has reported 23,000 attendees and vendors), the Summit always provides tremendous opportunities to interact in an intimate environment with colleagues and vendors alike.
SITE VISIT: LEAP INNOVATIONS
This year’s Summit featured a site visit to LEAP Innovations (leapinnovations.org/) in Chicago. The tour of the flexible and creative workspace of the LEAP offices was inspiring, to say the least. At one point, I found myself trapped in a soundproof booth—a perfect space for someone trying to focus on their work (or to recreate a scene from Anchorman: “I’m trapped in a glass box of emotion!”)
Following the tour, the extremely knowledgeable team at LEAP Innovation led us in a variety of roundtable discussions about their strategies and solutions for embedding true personalized learning in schools.
What I found appealing about this nonprofit organization wasn’t just the passion their team has for their framework but also the fact that they’re targeting schools and districts in need. Often I’ll hear companies or organizations throw the word “personalization” around as a modern-day catchy buzzword without really understanding what it entails. I was impressed with the thoughtful and research-based approach LEAP Innovation takes to tackling the “one-size-fits-all” approach that many in public education adopt.
The official opening of the Summit featured four educational administrators from a variety of backgrounds and locations who tackled the “marriage” between curriculum and IT. This is a complex issue that plagues districts large and small, urban and rural. Each of these districts addressed the issue using its own unique approach. Superintendent Mike Kuhrt from Wichita Falls ISD in Texas likes to start by encouraging “teacher magnets” to try innovative ideas in collaboration with the technology department. These teachers aren’t necessarily the most “high tech,” but they’re the ones kids respond to best and are the vocal leaders on their campuses.
Donna Williamson, CTO from Mountain Brook, Alabama, shared some very sound advice for bridging the gap between IT and curriculum: “There’s no better way to build a relationship than working together on a project.” Chris Jenks, director of technology from Tuscaloosa City Schools (AL), reminded us that “hope is not a strategy.” And in his inimitable style, Adam Phyall, CTO from Newton County Schools (GA), shared about how reaching the diverse needs of learners requires a truly collaborative approach between both the curriculum and IT staff.
The deeper dives throughout the day tackled the many challenges schools face today, from digital citizenship to STEAM to redesigning learning spaces. One trend that none of us could avoid was the increasing discussion around school safety. Some districts are actually arming teachers, similar to the US Marshal system on airplanes. Others are using advanced protective intelligence systems to “sniff” social media in hopes of identifying anyone planning to do mass harm or self-harm (think “pre-crime” in the movie “Minority Report”). One thing is for sure—school safety will be an issue that everyone can agree on as an area of concern. After all, what good are all those arguments over networks, filters, and online textbooks if we can’t guarantee the safety and security of the children we’re here to serve?
I know what you’re thinking: interact with vendors? Who thinks that’s a good idea? Well, I for one have always seen tremendous value in interacting with the folks who fund the event. There are multiple reasons for this:
They sponsor the event in exchange for ideas: In education, we rarely get a free meal without some sort of strings attached. The beauty of the Summits is that these free meals come with no guilt or pressure, as they are managed by Tech & Learning—which means no pressure from a vendor that just paid for your meal. This makes for a much more relaxed environment to share and discuss ideas, and benefits both the educators participating and the vendors hoping to learn about trends in our schools.
It’s an opportunity to provide feedback: Some vendors are pushing a product that they may believe in but doesn’t really have a great fit in education. Others may have amazing products but are impatient with the slow purchasing cycle in the K–12 educational space. Regardless of where their company is on the spectrum, gathering feedback from the progressive educators gathered at these events can give a company a tremendous leg up and help develop future roadmaps.
Learning about a product informally vs. “the hard sell”: Some of the educators who attend are also customers of the vendors who help fund the event. This provides a unique opportunity to gather insight from those who have tried the product and to hear their feedback. This happens throughout the event in different ways. Sometimes it’s a case study or panel session, but quite often it’s an informal conversation during the “anything goes” moments or social gatherings. I’ve personally discovered some amazing educational technology products that could benefit my district during these informal interactions, and I’ve also learned about some to avoid.
All of the different elements of this year’s Summit combined to provide inspiration, food for thought, and valuable connections. For more information about upcoming Tech & Learning Leadership Summits, go to www.techlearningleadersummit.com.
Carl Hooker is the director of innovation & digital learning at Eanes ISD and the author of the six-book series titled Mobile Learning Mindset, a guide for teachers, administrators, parents, and others to support and embrace mobile learning in our schools.