Notes + Takeaways from ISTELive 2021

by Laura Farmer, Director of Operations, Online Student Programs and Sean McCarthy, Digital Program Coordinator

In late June, we attended the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Every year thousands of educators gather from around the globe to learn about emerging technologies in education.

This year the conference was held virtually and there was lots of participant chatter that the virtual setting meant more accessibility. Sessions were recorded, quickly uploaded to the ISTE site, and will be accessible until January. (ISTE has already announced the 2022 conference will be in person.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has conditioned many of us to be digital-first thinkers, requiring that professionals are preparing digital alternatives for nearly everything. This is no different for educators, who were presented one of the greatest challenges this past year: to quickly convert their very in-person classrooms into interactive virtual experiences.

Picture an elastic band pulled tightly from one end, a traditional school classroom, to the other, the virtual model. Teachers, whose learning strategies have been stretched between these two spaces are now suddenly being flung back toward a place of familiarity and comfort. After being stretched for so long in the other direction, it feels good to be surrounded by the tools of the trade that have proven successful in the past. Instead of being caught in the gravitational pull of the chalkboard or whiteboard, educators must continue to consider alternative methods of teaching and technologies to empower their learners.

Below we outline some of the most exciting themes we heard about at this year’s conference and the technologies that teachers and schools are turning to after this disrupted (and experimental!) year.


Augmented and Virtual Reality
At ISTELive 2021, presenters showcased some intriguing alternative learning experience options for students across K12 environments. One particularly well-represented category was augmented reality and virtual reality solutions (AR/VR). Although AR/VR emerged years ago, it has only recently found its way into more mainstream learning. The tools we saw at ISTE are shooting for breadth, not depth; web-based apps and iOS/Android technology are starting points for many students to create in virtual space for any subject. It seems to us like AR/VR is a gateway to interdisciplinary discovery, empowering students to experiment without the requirements of specific physical teaching aids.


Holding a Merge Cube, students can rotate, examine, and interact with any virtual object in real space.

Here are few of tools we think you might want to check out if you are looking to design a learning experience that transcends reality:

Mozilla Hubs
As Mozilla describes, Hubs is an online platform that allows people to connect in a virtual space. Users have full control over the look and feel of a space, and guests can interact with objects throughout it. In reality, this tool may prove more useful in a completely online environment, though it could be used for activities in user experience and user interaction design.

Merge Cube
Merge Cube is an impressive product that gets digital teaching aids into students’ hands faster. Powered by smartphone technology, students can experience AR/VR environments without costly headsets. Merge Cube allows for a multisensory experience that would be otherwise impossible if limited to a tablet or similar device.

CoSpaces is like a fun mix of Microsoft’s MakeCode and Mozilla Hubs; think AR/VR with further customization/creation options. Students can use block code to program 3D models within digital spaces. Then, they can explore and experiment inside each other’s spaces in VR.

Esports has continued to grow exponentially for nearly a decade, and we learned that competitive video gaming is becoming a staple extracurricular across educational institutions. We were excited to hear that esports is taking off, making waves over the past couple of years, and is now a more socially accepted form of competitive entertainment. Schools have noticed and they are taking the steps to prepare esports programming to expand their breadth of extracurricular offerings.

The presenters in esports sessions encouraged us in understanding that esports players are learning soft skills fast, like teamwork, collaboration, and problem-solving all under the pressure of a competitive environment. More so, students who have not involved themselves in extracurricular activities in the past are more often committing to an esports program. Esports professionals believe that gaming is becoming more of a universal language for young people, which makes the esports barrier to entry much lower and more inviting than other clubs.

Companies like Lenovo have their eye on esports in education and are developing entire departments dedicated to support K-12 and university-level esports organizations. Learn more about Lenovo’s work here.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Students and teachers took on the weight of the pandemic, which led to immense emotional stress and isolated social environments. As we come out of the pandemic, social and emotional learning is a focus for educators across all academic settings. Academic institutions are continuing to elevate their social and emotional support programming for teachers, ensuring that they can then foster a similarly healthy well-being for their students.

Presenters passionately reminded us that social-emotional learning and technology can coexist. Students can practice skills like self-management, self-awareness, and relationship building through the use of tech tools. Additionally, schools with makerspaces are able to provide students with purposeful, meaningful projects that also develop SEL skills. Just creating routines around tool safety and responsibility in a makerspace can help students to develop responsible decision-making and self-management skills.

As educators continue to set up social and emotional support systems and strategies, we thought you might want to check out some useful tools that we were inspired by:

Google Tools
Google Tools can be used for emotional checks including mindfulness minutes with Google Arts + Culture, virtual calming spaces such as this Teq Calming Space, and emotional check ins with Google Forms.

AR/VR Empathy Experiences
Develop empathy through AR/VR experiences such as visiting a Syrian Refugee Camp through United Nations VR or using Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.


With a VR headset, students can tour the Za’atri Refugee Camp in Jordan using the United Nation’s VR app. Stanford Empathy researchers have found VR experiences like this one change helping behavior more than any other form of empathy exercise.

Teacher Training + Coaching

As previously mentioned, the pandemic has required educators to adapt teaching and learning methods. So too has it led to changes in professional development, which has become more flexible and agile for both teachers and coaches. The massive boom in edtech generation has pushed educators and education specialists to become future-forward thinkers. The edtech coaching cycle is improving to include ongoing training through the year rather than one-off training on professional development days or summer-only offerings. This integrated approach benefits teachers who are able to adapt and adjust how technology is effectively introduced throughout the year.

Schools and districts are creating professional learning portals that allow teachers to find tools and resources on demand. Self-paced, online professional development creates spaces for teachers to revisit bite-sized learning when they have time to access the topics most important to them. Additionally, professional learning communities are cropping up, creating large networks of teachers, coaches, and administrators that can support faculty through edtech challenges and provide a space for collaborative practice.

We noticed that several presenters used Wakelet and Nearpod as tools during presentations. These are simple tools to organize and showcase the information you want to share with teachers for professional development or students in the classroom.

Digital Citizenship

ISTELive 2021 showcased hundreds of tech tools, diverse teaching methods, and fun, explorative options to redefine the learning experience for teachers and students. Importantly, in the age of the Internet of Things, presenters focused more on the concept of digital citizenship than ever before. Digital citizenship means more than safely engaging in an online, digital world.

We learned that schools are taking pressure off of resource managers, librarians, and tech specialists and encouraging all educators to teach how to become and act as a responsible digital citizen. Unfortunately, those who were tasked with this job in the past struggled to define what it means to be a digital citizen in the first place. As students continue to engage with technology powered by the Internet, they are becoming increasingly susceptible to encountering unsafe digital spaces. Instead of blocking all of the wrong paths, presenters shared that becoming a digital citizen requires a person to be informed and alert about online actions and consequences.

Google amazed us with Be Internet Awesome, a game for kids to teach them how to safely navigate the Internet.