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How ISTE evolved into the largest ed-tech conference

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In 1984, Holly Jobe, immediate past President of ISTE, met a colleague from Australia at National Educational Computing Conference. Jobe and her new acquaintance both had a passion for using technology to connect students.

By the following year, the two had set up a pen pal program through Telnet, the pre-internet form of international communication which required the students to compile individual messages into one long text file.

“We had to put in a 10-digit number to get to the Telnet connection,” Jobe said. “No pictures, nothing like that – it was just text.”

Primitive as it was, the connection proved valuable in opening students’ minds to other cultures.

“The kids in Australia thought that the kids here all knew movie stars, that we had movie stars walking around the streets,” Jobe said with a laugh. “And our kids thought that they all had pet koalas and kangaroos.”

The National Educational Computing Conference was the annual gathering of the International Society for Technology (ISTE). This year’s ISTE conference, which was June 28-July 1, brought 14,000 people to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The first NECC was held in Iowa City in 1979. There were only 32 sessions and no product exhibits – not nearly enough to fill the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The theme: A debate about micro and mini computers.

In 1987, the conference came to Philadelphia, and Jobe volunteered to speak on a committee. She was also the secretary of the Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology (PAECT), a statewide organization that became ISTE’s first Pennsylvania affiliate member. Affiliate organizations are nonprofits that collaborate year-round to integrate technology into the curriculum in their state. Jobe became the PAECT’s president in 1988.

Heidi Rogers, another former ISTE president, first attended in 1988, as a graduate student.

“Seeing the possibilities and the people who are making dreams come true for kids and teachers, it motivated me to finish my doctorate and go into this profession,” said Rogers, who is from Idaho.

By 1989, the conference had expanded to 138 sessions, and 154 companies set up exhibits. It focused on computer literacy and ethics in computer courses. That year, the two founding organizations – the International Council for Computers in Education and the International Association for Computing in Education – merged to form ISTE. The conference became a collaboration between ISTE and NECA, the National Education Computing Association.

Jobe first volunteered to work for ISTE when the conference came again to Philadelphia in 1995. She was the chair of marketing, volunteers, and partners. Like the ISTE presidency, the job was unpaid. Jobe was responsible for securing a partnership with Philadelphia-based Internet 2 – a local high-speed academic network.

“At the time, they did a lot of video conferencing,” Jobe said. “We partnered with them to bring a connection here.”

ISTE has evolved from its beginnings as a conference about computers.

“It was about teachers using computers,” Jobe said. “Now it’s more focused on learning with all kinds of technology. With the Internet, there were new ways for this to be more than just a conference: ongoing professional development, resources, webinars. I’ve seen it change completely.”

By 1999, participants chose from 345 sessions and 335 exhibits. The theme was using technology to facilitate learning in core subjects. The discussion had shifted, from teaching technology to using technology to help teach everything else.

Rogers was president of ISTE from 1999 to 2001. When she took office, NECA organized the conference, but ISTE was the primary contractor responsible for developing the sessions, workshops, and theme. In 2001, she oversaw the merger of ISTE and NECA.

“ISTE and NECA had a committee, and we worked for about a year,” Rogers said. “At the end, the NECA organization dissolved, and ISTE became the start of what it is today.”

After stepping down as ISTE president, Rogers became the CEO of one of ISTE’s largest affiliates, the Northwest Council for Computer Education. She’s been on the board since 1994.

“We represent Idaho, Montana, and Oregon, but we also do training all over the nation,” Rogers said. They are the premier partner of Microsoft education, responsible for their professional development.

From 2006 to 2011, Jobe was the project manager for Classroom for the Future, a Pennsylvania Department of Education initiative started by former Gov. Ed Rendell. The program was designed using ISTE’s standards. The goal was to provide access to laptops and smartboards for use in the core academic subjects. They created what came to be known as the “smart classroom” in 543 high schools.

Each of the classrooms contained an electronic smartboard, a cart of computers, a wireless network router, printers, scanners, and multimedia tools like video cameras. The Rendell administration targeted grades 9-12 in an effort to stem the tide of dropouts. Technology was a tool to keep the most at-risk students engaged in learning. The state could not afford a 1:1 laptop ratio, so each laptop cart was shared by four teachers.

Classroom for the Future also offered professional development and computer training for teachers.

“The majority of the schools in Pennsylvania are small, rural, and poor,” Jobe said. “They don’t have big staffs with a professional development team.”

The goal wasn’t just to get computers into more classrooms, but to use technology to allow “the role of the teacher to shift to more of a guide – a mentor – rather than just a lecturer.”

The program also provided a part-time teacher coach in each school to help teachers redesign their curriculum as needed.

“We knew that you can’t just plunk computers into teacher’s hands. You have to create a mindset,” Jobe said. She also appointed a mentor to each intermediate unit who supervised the coaches.

By 2009, the number of sessions at ISTE had expanded to nearly 1,000, with almost 500 exhibits on the trade floor. A year later, the name was changed from NECC to ISTE.

Rogers said the name changed because “it’s not a computer conference, it’s a technology integration conference. It shows teachers and administrators how to integrate technology and best practices into their curriculum.”

Adam Bellow, creator of the popular social learning platform eduClipper, got the idea for the site by polling educators he met at ISTE, starting at his first conference in 2009. EduClipper allows what Bellow called “organic collaboration” between teachers and students: Teachers can create online lessons and review content that students created themselves.

Jobe became president of ISTE in 2011 after the Classroom for the Future program was discontinued by Gov. Tom Corbett. She still sees some of the coaches that worked in the program at ISTE and said she is “heartened to learn from [them] that they have been able to grow the programs in their school districts in so many schools.”

Everyone at ISTE seems to know each other.

“It is truly like a reunion,” Bellow said, “I’ve seen more than one occasion where people who have been talking online for years meet each other – and there’s hugging and clapping – ISTE is like social glue. You have this reunion once a year with all these amazing people.”

Rogers also continues to attend ISTE each year. The focus has “evolved to be more K-12 teacher oriented, vs. a mix of computer science and K-12 programming,” Rogers said, “It’s evolved to being what’s best for the classroom – what’s best for the kids.”

Rogers also attends for personal reasons.

“Over time, you get to know a lot of people,” she said. “These are your role models, your peers, and your lifelong friends.”

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