40+ Insights From FETC’s 40th Anniversary in 2020

While my childhood (and adult family trips) to Florida have always been epic (see my extensive Disney planning spreadsheets for reference), I have never before been to FETC, the Future of Education Technology Conference. And this year it was the 40th anniversary and it was located in Miami Beach (a plus for not packing a coat and a minus for my excessive need of sunscreen) made this a good year to go along with my coworker Charles Bender. I was presenting a few sessions, information from which is generally present here, but I wanted to share some fresh insights I had while I was there. There were several opportunities to learn about practical tools and techniques at the MegaShare 2020 and the TechSHARE Live! and get inspires by author Daniel Pink and Alberto M. Carvalho, Miami Superintendent. Here were my major takeaways.

Overarching Perspective

Too often education starts with what (what curriculum? What program?) somewhat better is why (Why do we need this), but it should begin with who (Who are our students? Who can we help them become?) only after that can we approach how to help them get there
  • It’s not about the technology. This isn’t a new idea for me, but it is always worth restating. 1:1 programs too often focus on the one that is a device rather than the more important one…the student. It should be about what technology can empower students and teachers to do. And some of the best of that is seen through technology that can provide disabled and often marginalized students. Here I ask if more technology is the answer and here are 16 keys to successfully implementing technology.
  • Accessibility and inclusivity must be a priority. The best resources are open, available, and accessible. Again this is not new, but it needs to remain a priority. And to their credit, FETC had a whole track of learning focused on special education. That said, of all the neat ribbons people could add to their badges including a sweet one for beaching and teaching, none had anything to do with accessibility. Also, their website fails the accessibility checker My sessions covered accessibility across subjects and platforms, but vendors would talk of their new robots and coding systems and have no response to how they made it accessible. Some platforms remain very proprietary. And while that may help to maintain standards and perhaps even privacy, it makes addressing instructional challenges more difficult. Why does a great tool work only on one kind of device or cost so much? Some groups are better at this than others. Microsoft has made particular headway with LiveCaptions and allowing Immersive Reader (a great literacy/accessibility tool) to be used across other platforms like Wakelet, Buncee, Nearpod, and more.
FETC scores 68 errors and 25 contrast errors on the WAVE accessibility evaluatin.
FETC website score on the WAVE Accessibility CHecker
  • Accessibility conferences should perhaps be obsolete. This was an intense conversation that continued after one of my sessions. ATIA and Closing the Gap have made wonderful efforts about advancing assistive technology…to communities already familiar with and advocates for assistive technology. There are vast swaths of educators in the broader community who know nothing of any of this and they and their students would be benefitted. Can we really be closing a gap if we remain separated with each to their own?
  • Accessibility could make much of pop culture obsolete. I have previously dug into the junction of disability and pop culture before, but a conversation led to a reexamination. I enjoy the wonderful songs in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (even though the original story is much darker), but Ariel’s willingness to give up her voice, her family, and her identity/species simply to please Prince Eric are a bit shady in a modern context. But I also now recognize Ariel could still have made Eric easily aware of who she was with assistive technology, an understanding of sign language, or a willingness by Eric to recognize alternative forms of communication (maybe crude picture symbols with paint or charcoal). I mean are you telling me there wasn’t a single inkwell or pencil in that castle? And in this light, is Ursula the real hero pointing the finger at society’s flaws? Or is it just me?
  • The information age is long dead. We entered into the 4th industrial revolution. So Every time I still have to look at a tool or listen to session that tells me how I can more efficiently pour buckets of information into kids, I want to shout STOP IT. I don’t need you when Google and YouTube exist. Now show me how I can engage students in hands-on real-world challenges that engage them in the 7 Cs of 21st-century learning and then I might care.
  • Simple answers mean poor questions. I heard someone complaining about how their granddaughter asked Alexa to help solve some math equations for their homework. First, isn’t the fact that their the granddaughter knows where to find information good? That’s an important life skill. Second, isn’t the greater problem that the homework is just wrote problems that Alexa can easily answer? Shouldn’t we be asking higher order questions that can’t easily be Googled?
  • Education remains the great equalizer and the tool for generational transformation. Despite the changes in our world and the way learning must change, one thing remains the same. Learning can drastically change lives for the better. As others have said, no one can steal your knowledge.
  • Everyone’s experience of the present is colored by their past. Our thoughts, opinions, and mental models we’ve formed over a life of experiences. This was particularly clear for me when superintendent spoke eloquently and passionately about education in ways that I agreed with wholeheartedly, but in the back of my mind was a voice saying, “you ditched us” in regards to him withdrawing his acceptance of the NYC Schools Chancellor position. Would the challenges now faced with our current chancellor exist with him? Probably. He is definitely within his right to choose what is best for him and Miami is better for it. The bright lights of the NYC press corps would not have been kind as they never are, but I still ponder what if as he spoke of what could be.
  • You can’t learn if you don’t listen. Even in sessions where I did a lot of talking (maybe too much), the audience and co-presenters provided me with a breadth of information that I am still going through. So occasionally I might be capable of getting out of my own way.
  • All solutions don’t work in all places or for all students. There are as many different answers as there are people with individual needs. Yes, some work across a broad range of needs, but some solutions that work in New York City won’t necessarily be effective or even possible in Pocatello, Idaho.

The Importance of Time

  • A walk down memory lane can prep you for the future. I enjoyed cruising the eSports zone and reminiscing about games I loved in my youth and how the still inspire me towards playful learning. Looking at the past does not always preclude us from looking towards the future, but…
  • Don’t allow the past to cloud your judgement of the future. This is true of our own past struggles, but it is true of every student and teacher we interact with. We must be quick to forgive and rebuild relationships and allow for hope to reign over cynicism.
  • The time of day testing occurs can affect as much as factors of income and family education. Studies make it clear that we are not consistently good at all moments for all tasks. Yes, exhaustion can be a factor, but it is not the only one. And studies for years have shown this to be true. Does that mean that this type of testing is somewhat arbitrary Perhaps that is so, but if test we must (hmm…portfolios instead, he said) let it begin early.
  • Bring back time for recess. And I’m not saying this because we need to allow young children to experience the joy of play in their youth. We do, but if state test scores are our sole measure of quality, they have benefit there as well as with behavior. That doesn’t mean poor instruction can be made up for with 4 recesses (as proven by one brief stint at a school I went to as a child), but there is value in respite as well as physical exercise in a nation (and world) where childhood obesity and lethargy are on the rise.
  • Brain breaks are proven beneficial. Breaks are not a deviation from learning but an important part of it. The brain can only maintain intense focus for brief periods of time. It does not need to be wholly unstructured, but it is the whole purpose behind platforms like GoNoodle, Fit4Schools, CosmicKids, Move to Learn, and Fuel Up to Play 60.

The Importance of Play

a stage filled with esports players competing

eSports

  • Games are now prime time. I love attending many of the game-based learning sessions at these conferences, but this was the first time I have ever seen the eSports area in a prominent spot the heart of the expo hall. And that doesn’t even include the many sessions about it in rooms and halls across the venue. When most major universities now have eSports teams and major sports franchises in the NBA and other professional leagues also have eSports teams, it is deserving of real attention. If you want more insight, check out the work of Steve Isaacs and Mike Washburn.
  • Games are big business. Yes, the eSports champions are making millions and my own children enjoyed heading to the Fortnite finals in Brooklyn. And more people have and will be watching major eSports tournaments than the Super Bowl. So, yes, the players and creators are doing well, but there is a whole surrounding industry including marketers, coaches, analysts, event organizers, journalists, and more who benefit as well. Just sharing on Twitch is now a major revenue stream.
  • Gaming business opportunities can even trickle down to teachers. Sure this speaks to the variety of opportunities and coaching roles for educators in eSPorts and GBL, but it also refers to a specific contest from Unreal where educators can get $25,000+.
  • Play is serious. Or at least it should be taken seriously both as a valuable learning resource, according to research, and as a serious sport. Like with any sport good strategy, coaching, practice, and (believe it or not) fitness make a difference in the elite world of gamedom. But there are organizations, like NASEF, that can help with that process.
  • Students should play students. While I was impressed that I could beat a few kids there on Rocket League, if you are setting up an eSports team in your school or district, make the matches fair with similar aged students. Don’t try to match your kids against some pros. Most will never make it there (just like you likely don’t have future NBA players in your class), but the process is still valuable if done thoughtfully.
  • Playing to learn is not new. From Piaget to Papert, we know playful learning is powerful. But even competitive gaming, which is new to schools has been around. The first tournament of SpaceWar was back in 1972. Check out a more expansive history.
  • Coaching gamers requires a different touch. While the types of players who make the football team and win at Madden may have some overlap, your genuinely skilled League of Legends masters are more than likely thoughtful, calculating, shy, and soft spoken. They won’t respond to the same intensity as traditional athletes, so do not treat them the same.

Other Ways to Play

John Meehan with a chart showing challenge and engagement levels.
John Meehan presenting on good gaming.
  • Games can come in unusual packages. I love playful PD with teachers and have created escape rooms of a vast variety and types, but using locks in OneNote for it was new for me. Two teachers from Florida, Jorge and Liz, created a training on Microsoft resources using this OneNote Breakout. Yes, the clues were fairly easy (apart from checking spelling and capitalization), but it gives a clear view of what is possible in this context.
  • Good games can get you in the zone. Yes this is the zone of engagement and challenge, but it is also referring to the zone of proximal development which drives genuine learning.
  • Everyone should get a turn. Many types of great games, including Breakouts, don’t always have an equitable division of labor and don’t allow all students to meet every challenge. I had the privilege to see and talk with John Meehan, author of EDrenaline RUsh, about his work with QR Break-Ins that sought to resolve that issue by allowing for simultaneous challenges for your students where they think you “checking in” on their metacognitive understanding is just in-game interviews.
  • Traditional homework doesn’t work because no child is “traditional”. The busy work that often gets sent home doesn’t boost learning and it is often the beginning of student’s seeing school as a terrible rote chore. Collaborative play allows students to share their prior experience and connect that with their learning.

tech Tools

Microsoft

PowerPoint Design Ideas options
  • Microsoft is worth taking a look at again because they are inclusive. The accessibility work they’re doing that I already shared about is worth the view alone, but they offer more too even if you’re definitely not a Windows person. This became clear as Leslie Fisher used Office 365 in the Chrome Browser on her MacBook. For example, OneNote now has multi-lingual live captions. That can be a huge game-changer for multi-lingual learners and struggling readers trying to take notes. Check out those details and more.
  • PowerPoint might deserve my attention again too. I love Apple’s Keynote because it is pretty looking for presentations (but some accessibility stuff needs attention), and I like google Slides for collaborating. And for a long time PowerPoint was still a 4:3 antique in a 16:9 world. But we learned that the captions and translations for in-person PowerPoints are will be available on screencast ones too. Yes, the web version added built-in search, but the becomes more powerful with Design Ideas that will automatically reorganize your presentation and make it look good similar to the way that works with Google’s Explore button. In fact, if you start listing dates, it will automatically help create a timeline. Also, the morph transition is pretty cool (though similar to Apple’s Magic Move).
  • Other people should love spreadsheets like me. Okay, maybe expecting others to enjoy a good VLOOKUP function like I do is too much, but did you know that you can snap a photo of a paper spreadsheet and Excel will auto-magically import it into the appropriate cells in a spreadsheet document. What is this wizardry? If you want more spreadsheet/forms nerd-dom, you can create equations easily (without an add-on) and then have Forms create other similar questions and populate a full quiz.
  • Microsoft is made for math. Yes, there are the math tools built into OneNote that will create and even solve your equations and auto-generate quizzes, but apparently you can do all that in Microsoft Forms as well. Apart from that though they have a Math Solver app to help you figure it all out.

Robotics

You can also check out a more thorough overview of robotics and hands-on computer science.

  • Ozobot has expanded their repertoire and become easier to manage. The tiny Ozobots are simple and can be ‘programmed’ just by drawing with some markers on paper. There are also more advanced skills that students can master by programming in Ozoblockly, their block-based coding software, that allows students to take full advantage of the Ozobot Evo’s proximity sensors. None of that is new, but there will soon be a fully functioning Ozobot classroom that will help educators manage student use and performance and with the bots. The new charger cases are much easier to use also. They sell premade color-code stickers if drawing is too much of a challenge. Check out Ozobot’s full lesson library for more ways information to integrate it. 
  • Bird Brain is better. Bird Brain technologies, the maker of the Finch bot, now has their FinchBot 2.0 coming with an included MicroBit, a spot for marker drawing, and more improvements. They also have frequent Bots & Bevs events where you can learn to use them in a casual setting or they will show you how to hold your own.
  • MakeBlock makes many things. Their programmable and rebuildable mBots are their main hardware, but they have several others. The cute mTiny programmable robot with a tap pen controller and their neuron programmable blocks are great for early learners. They also have an LED robot, Codey Rocky and an Airblock drone. Check out their variety of education solutions.
  • There are bots for little bitty engineers. Kibo uses wooden blocks to code a bot with various sensors while Matatalab has a tower that scans your coding puzzle pieces to speak to a nearby robot for a variety of curriculum areas including music and art.
  • There are bots for communication. In the past I’ve seen the Nao robot used for students with autism, but Milo from Robokind is much more personable. It’s designed specifically to support students with autism.
  • There are bots that learn. Robolink makes a few different constructible robots and drones, but their new Zumi car robot learns through drawing powered AI to make decisions just like a robotic car would.
  • There are bots to check every box. Do you want a variety of coding languages? Do you want expansion capabilities with attachable sensors and connection to the internet of things? Do you want game-based learning and adventure mats? How about augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) capabilities? Sure, but how many robots do I need for all this, you ask? Well, apparently just Kai’s Clan to do EVERYTHING! Now whether that’s awesome or overwhelming is up to you, but it’s available.

Manipulatives

iPad with wooden number manipulatives
  • Tactile toys are good for learning across content areas. PlayShifu has several options from an AR Globe, a counting/arithmetic game, animals, travel, and more. several tactile toys that interact with a tablet. Marbotic partners with Sesame Street and uses number and shape manipulatives that interact with the iPad. AstroReality offers AR planets to learn more about the solar system.
  • Play time can turn to learning time. Bluebee pals turns stuffed animals into communication partners to help train students in life skills while Unruly Splats are programmable floor lights that can be used for physical learning activities. They both have resources and lessons available.

More Tools

While these ideas aren’t new, the tools to help you do it may be for you.

Panoform VR view of a carbonate drawing
Panoform VR view of a carbonate drawing
  • Tech can help with life basics. Do you want any webpage to print properly? Use Print Friendly. To capture beautiful photos to stylize, import documents, add business card info to your contacts, or take 360 photos use MS Pix Camera. TryShift can help you manage your various emails and communication apps. Or if the tech is becoming too much, get yourself a paper phone and get a digital break.
  • Tech can help you learn about the world. Among other things, Google Lens can let you know what kind of plant that is, Microsoft’s Seeing AI will tell you colors and people’s ages, and Smartify will help you identify works of art. If you want to look closely at the world get a microscope attachment for your phone.
  • Tech can help you get creative. Students without a voice can get one with VocaliD or can use their handwriting to create their own font with Calligraphr. YouTube’s Audio Library gives your free access to music and sound effects. VideoAnt lets you annotate on videos while Synth can easily get you podcasting. Panoform VR helps you turn drawings into 3D VR environments. A Bellus 3D scanner can put your face in your VR environments. Create AR games with Koji. If you’re into a holographic gaming table, check out Tilt Five. Or get some LED thumbs to just be silly and colorful.
  • Tech can help you collaborate and communicate. InsertLearning allows you to insert any extra instructional content on a website. YoTeach lets you create backchannel chats while Parlay helps you track and take data on class discussions. But if you want to be impactful, talk about health using Be Vape Free or Teaching Tolerance will give you resources to have the challenging discussions about diversity, equity and justice.

Conference Learning

  • The goal is always helping children to reach their fullest real world potential. And that requires connecting the learning to personal real-world challenges.
  • Nothing in a virtual space can compare with the natural world. The Miami Botanical Gardens were across from the convention center, ancient cypress trees were around, and the beach very nearby. Sometimes the best insights come from walks with friends or quiet contemplation in these spaces.
  • Zombies make everything more interesting. The idea of reading another educational book frankly didn’t appeal to me at all especially in the midst of the many others I’m digesting, but Amands Fox’s zombie-themed Teachingland genuinely interests me as it speaks to many of my favorite things.
  • We need not be the same to share common goals. I connected with Spencer Lunsford, an educational coach from North Florida who had a very different background and different ideas about what the biggest challenges in education were. Even so, we both agreed that we wanted to strive to bring the best for ALL our students.
  • New friends aren’t as annoying a concept as I often anticipate. Maybe it’s because I’m older and crankier or maybe it’s because I’m generally anti-social, but I’m not really looking for new friends. But sometimes you meet people whose insights and honesty compel you to try.
  • Real friendships are lasting. There are just some people you may not see for a while IRL, but when you do it is like no time has passed. I’m thankful for those people.
  • Sometimes the most important things we can say are the ones we really don’t want to. Without delving into details, I was at an event with a number of educator authors of note, and at one point they began a discussion of some technical matters. I was not on board, and I think some could tell that from my expression as they prompted me to share. I was reticent and refused several times, but eventually I spoke of my disillusionment. To their credit they listened intently and shared their own struggles with maintaining balance. It was one of the more valuable education-related conversations I can remember having recently. So I guess I might be more open to sharing now.

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