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The expanding role of technology in education: 5 key insights from ISTE 2016

By Joni Schlapa, Senior Director, Strategy & Analysis

This past week, I was one of the 20,000 people who attended the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education Conference and Expo (ISTE) in Denver, CO. While I was there, I spoke to passionate educators about the future of learning and the expanding role of technology in the classroom. Five themes kept returning after countless discussions:

It’s the same as it ever was.
I can’t think of another career where duties and expectations have changed more over the last decade than in K12 teaching. The science of teaching keeps evolving with the advancement of EdTech, but the art of teaching is the same as it ever was. Teachers want to make a difference. The art of making human connections with students, facilitating “aha” moments, and inspiring growth is still at the heart of K12 teaching.

The conversations that I had this year at ISTE were fundamentally the same as conversations in years past. They all began with an educator saying something like, “I’m looking for something to help my students with…” Even with all of the advancements in EdTech, educators are always seeking something more, something better, and something special to give their students an edge. It is an awakening reminder to those who serve K12 to never become too comfortable with the next best thing. Thankfully, the hunger to push the envelope in helping students to grow is the same as it ever was: insatiable.

Teachers have a love/hate relationship with data.
“I went into teaching because I love aggregating and analyzing data,” said no teacher ever. Most educators recognize the power of data-driven insights, but they loathe aggregating disparate data points and making sense of it all.

Good data tells a story. Great data is actionable. At a minimum, data worthy of a teacher’s attention is two-fold. It provides insight that the teacher doesn’t already have, and it points to empirically-validated next steps. However, it shouldn’t end there. Great data should be linked to a variety of instruction and practice resources that the teacher can choose from to plan personalized or differentiated instruction.

Students who own their journey, own their outcome.
Choice is critical when exercising the art of teaching. The stories that student data tells, not unlike Choose Your Own Adventure books, should provide teachers with choices to create paths to the desired outcome. In her Ignite session at ISTE, Kerry Gallagher—a Digital Learning Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, MA—talked about creating maps and suggested routes for the student-led journeys. Students taking ownership of their education has been bantered about for years, but few educators have mastered the skills and time required to produce maps to guide student-led discoveries and learning experiences.

Efficient educational technology marries the many forms of assessment results with artifacts that students can explore and learn from throughout their educational journey. Another point Gallagher made is that students want to be recognized for their work, not just graded. When students own their journey, they own their outcome, and enjoy sharing the product of their learning with other students on social channels. How cool is that?

Even smart software doesn’t know students.
Grouping is something that teachers do frequently in order to differentiate instruction. It is an act that technology can and does perform easily by stratifying sets of numbers. Effective grouping is another thing. Educational technology can suggest groups, but only teachers can balance personalities and student behaviors to form small groups where members work together, inspire, and learn effectively from one another. Only teachers can select materials with the highest engagement level based on known personal likes and dislikes of students.

When evaluating educational technology, it is easy to be distracted by all of the things that technology can do. After-all, saving teachers time is an admirable thing. However, saving time shouldn’t come at a cost. Vendors in the EdTech space need to reach further and try harder to solve the problems that eat up teachers’ time or don’t require human insight in order to perform the function well.

Growth is difficult to define.
I had the opportunity to ask a panel of educators at ISTE how they thought about growth. There was a collective sigh from the group as they wrestled with the many facets of growth. Some had experienced the measurement of growth as a punitive hammer. Some simply said, “It’s everything” and others exclaimed that it was too big to formulate a statement as to how they felt about growth in general.

Growth is more than a static measurement. It is the day-in and day-out repetitive process of learning, practicing, and mastering. When growth is reduced to a fixed number at the end of a point in time or the delta between a fixed set of numbers, it discounts the essence of growth, the behaviors that foster growth, and the very culture of growth. Until we can celebrate the act of growing and the very nature of growth in its living form, the inclination to reduce it to a static noun will remain, shortchanging the work of our students and educators.

Now that I’ve shared a few of my insights, I’d love to hear yours. If you were able to attend ISTE this year, what were your key takeaways? If you weren’t able to make it, what are some of the insights that you have about the intersection of education, teaching, and technology? I’d love to hear your thoughts—and if you’d like to hear ours, consider subscribing to our blog using the button below.

Joni Schlapa, Senior Director Strategy & Analysis
Joni Schlapa, Senior Director Strategy & Analysis
Joni Schlapa is the Senior Director of Strategy & Analysis at Renaissance. She has worked with Renaissance since 2013 and in the K12 Education industry for 15 years. Joni’s mission is to understand the contemporary problems and issues that educators wrestle with and to get the word out about how Renaissance solutions can help. Joni holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Accounting and advanced coursework in Law. She has passion for ensuring quality educational opportunities for juveniles who are incarcerated. In her spare time, Joni pursues artistic expression through painting, working with clay, jewelry making, fiber arts, and creating with found objects.


  1. Patti Urban says:

    Joni, great information, I am in the Sales Department and I can use your insights to relate to my customers to gain a greater understanding and what they like and do not like but must work with every day, such as “data”.

  2. Sally Mundell ----LIBRARIAN says:

    Thanks for a glimpse into the conference in Denver which I did not attend.
    The key points shared are ones at the top of my list! Thanks for your effort & time to share your experience there.
    As I wind up another of my 21 years an continuing, as School Librarian at New England Kurn Hattin Homes ) where about 100 children (K-8) experience a new opportunity, build a new chapter in their lives which have included trauma, abuse, neglect and/or other detrimental lifestyles. After four years here, I discovered Renaissance Learning and introduced Accelerated Reading followed by STAR and 360 last year. We have observed some amazing changes as individual children ” take on their journey” as you describe! We have had 7th graders enter reading on a primary level and 2 years later graduate reading at the 5+level while holding their heads high and walking taller with a determination to continue growing! I think of Josh who came to us as a bubbling fountain of questions on everything, won our Mystery Writing Contest, went on to Milton Hershey School, graduated with the Senior Prize and a 4 year scholarship to Syracuse University and has now graduated. Yesterday a new student asked me if I knew “Josh…”Yes, “he’s my uncle and he now works in California”……….yes, a new generation of folks needing continuous support and vision and skills to accomplish what’s ahead! See our website at …….. established in 1894 as a residential campus overlooking the Connecticute River Valley in SE Vermont!

    Yes, we’ll begin our 18th year offering Renaissance Learning products and with 3 brand new teachers, one of whom used STAR in his former schoo; I am excited to report that our school principal has just authorized payment for another year. Your blog is timely for us…..will share it with our faculty and counselors.

    Thank you again,


    • Renaissance Joni Schlapa says:

      Sally, thank you so much for taking the time to share so generously with us. I’m very inspired by your story and your 21 years of service helping children to “build a new chapter in their lives”. I’m so pleased that you chose Renaissance to help you along the way. I look forward to checking out your website and learning more. Who knows? I may get to SE Vermont someday to swing by to see all of the good things happening there and to meet you in person.

  3. Kristy says:

    Interesting read. My school district uses Renaissance and I believe it is an awesome tool to utilize, especially with data collection. It allows the teacher to be able to understand the needs of her students and craft lessons around them. With the field of education ever-evolving, it is important to keep up to date with the latest technology and becoming familiar and comfortable enough to use them so that our students can receive the most.

    • Renaissance Joni Schlapa says:

      Thank you for your comments! I’m happy to hear that you are using Renaissance solutions to assist with understanding student needs and to make instructional choices. We share the common goals of assisting teachers and of wanting students to receive the most.

  4. Nancy Guth says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about data telling a story; a story that often can be overwhelming for teachers with 11 students each semester, whom they care about and want to guide their progress. Renaissance products assist the teacher in this task, as well as guide the student in constructing their own story. That is a strength, one that we must share with teachers as they often struggle for time sensitive ways to make a positive difference!
    Dr G

    • Renaissance Joni Schlapa says:

      Thank you, Dr. G! Well said. I agree, it’s about the process of turning caring into positive differences.

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