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Research Connections: Bringing the ISTE Standards to more classrooms

By Brandon Olszewski, Ph.D. 
September 30, 2020
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Since their initial release in the 1990s, the ISTE Standards have set a high bar for educators and education leaders around the world who are seeking to evolve traditional models of teaching and learning.

Generally, the goal for educators has been to offer students experiences that give them agency in the content and format of their learning, and provide learning opportunities grounded in authentic, real-world examples. In this vein, the ISTE Standards provide a road map for redefining teaching and learning. For example, the Empowered Learner standard in the ISTE Standards for Students reminds us that it’s helpful for students to participate in defining their own learning goals and processes. This is a powerful reminder on many fronts: that learning goals and objectives should be central to any learning process; that the approach to reaching such goals is malleable and can vary based on learners and their contexts; and that practices informed by the learning sciences (such as providing feedback that’s specific, actionable and understood) can be instrumental in reaching learning goals.

One perplexing problem has been how to make the standards a reality in schools. ISTE Standards guide books and ISTE Certification for Educators offer onramps that help, but educators have also been asking fundamental questions about how much access to technology is required before you can start to see the impact of the ISTE Standards on the classroom. Do you need to be 1:1? Do your students need home access? Do you need to use technology tools every day? Do you need particular kinds of devices?

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My colleague, Helen Crompton, Ph.D., and I recently published an article in Computers & Education shedding new light on these issues. This article was the first targeted effort at demonstrating valid, reliable measurement of the standards and the ways that technology access, use and systems shape their implementation in the classroom.

This research supports the following ideas:

1.  It's not what digital access you have, it's what you do with it.

Rather than focusing on the amount of technology access you currently have, it’s more important to focus on how you’re using the resources and access you have to support the standards in the classroom. The statistically significant relationship between use of digital applications and the ISTE Standards in our study supports this conclusion. So when it comes to digital age learning for your students, what you do with the technology you have is more important than your level of access.

2.  Standards offer sound ideas for improving teaching.

The ISTE Standards are a powerful tool to transform classroom instruction from a teacher-centered model to one that’s centered on students and their interests. There are ways to validly and reliably measure this, thus giving teachers concrete ideas for how to change the teaching and learning experience. The methods we used in our research support this conclusion.

3.  Applying the ISTE Essential Conditions reaps rewards.

Finally, a takeaway for leaders is that even in schools that have less access to resources, if you commit to applying the ISTE Essential Conditions, you can make major progress on implementing the ISTE Standards. In fact, we found that, statistically, it mattered much more whether or not your organization was focusing on improving its capacity to lead educational technology initiatives than whether you’re a 1:1 school, whether you have a high free and reduced-price lunch student population, or whether or not you’re a public or private school. This doesn’t mean that equitable access (including devices) doesn’t matter, but rather that if you focus on the conditions that support digital age learning today, you can make an immediate impact.

Classroom applications

When it comes to applying these findings to the classroom and school, we need to think concretely and get away from the idea that to address the standards, teachers must “use technology.” Instead, let’s focus on what teachers and leaders can do today to inspire practical change.

Don't wait for more technology access to get started

It’s not unreasonable to think, “Once I get those new laptops, I’ll be able to do so many new things with my students!” But don’t wait for that. Instead, start somewhere, perhaps with one standard, and build from there. Take a lesson you already love and reshape it with the standards in mind. The ISTE Standards for Students videos are great resources that give educators ideas on how to provide students new ways to construct knowledge, use deliberate design processes or apply computational thinking procedures to solve problems more effectively. These can all have an impact even before you have as much technology available as you would like.

How do teachers address the ISTE Standards? Watch the videos!

Create simple, student-centered goals

Standards resources like booklets and videos help educators understand generally what the ISTE Standards look like in practice. That’s inspiring, but doesn’t always translate to simple, concrete ideas for your classroom with your students. The research we conducted shows that you can develop bite-sized indicators about the standards to guide teaching and learning. The implication here is that, rather than trying to work on all the standards at once, you can start by developing simple indicators for student- centered learning that you work toward, such as offering students the opportunity to set and reflect on personal learning goals (Standard 1a).

A note for leaders

Education leaders balance many priorities and often have to navigate complex waters around funding and technology program implementation that involve many stakeholders. An implication of this research for leaders is that, rather than waiting on macro-level transformation (such as a new bond-funded tech initiative or completely rebuilt tech plan), you can take a look at the ISTE Essential Conditions and consider where you can start today. Which of the conditions is a most urgent need? Can you bring together some voices to improve support for just one of these? The challenges your students bring to school from home aren’t going to change quickly; however, you can systematically improve the level of support for teachers seeking to transform learning with technology.

The limitations

Of course, a long journey begins with a single step, and while I’m excited about our research, there’s no delusion that we’ve answered big questions definitively. One limitation of the study is that it relies on teacher self-reporting. Although reporting the specific technology access you might have on any given day may be fairly easy to do, there’s more gray area around reporting whether or not teachers “design learning activities that require my students to use technology to strategically collect, evaluate and use information” (one of the questionnaire items). That can lead to some unintended variability in the reported data.

Further studies might use other data collection methods, such as direct observation, to establish the presence of the ISTE Standards. Additionally, future studies may use a more sophisticated set of items describing the indicators, thus leading to nuances in the structure of the standards.

Open questions

We’ve just started measuring digital age skills and dispositions, and there’s tremendous potential. We’re still working to improve how to most effectively and easily measure the ISTE Standards. We also don’t have research yet that considers how the student-centered impact they can offer plays out in a culture more or less dominated by high-stakes testing. But we believe our initial research is a solid next step toward educators and researchers working together to develop ways to advance the conversation around the role of technology in transforming education.


To quote Liz Kolb’s bestselling ISTE book, Learning First, Technology Second, this new research helps validate the idea that learning must supersede technology. Crompton and I found that it wasn’t the level of technology access that predicted exhibition of the standards, but rather, how teachers used technology that counted.

We don’t yet have valid, reliable indicators of the standards in common practice. For decades, the education community has relied on standardized tests as the primary (if not single) mark of academic success. What if we had good measures of Knowledge Constructor that were easily assessed? Further, could researchers look to practitioners for examples that one could build new research upon?

This would essentially turn the traditional research-to-practice model on its head. How would you, as a teacher, measure the standards in a way that would be apparent and reasonable to anyone who walked into your classroom?

The learning sciences are an underused treasure trove of ideas for making teaching more effective and efficient. They offer educators and leaders simple, evidence-based ideas around many of the common practices already at work, including scoring student work, setting learning goals and guiding assessment and feedback. If you haven’t dug into the learning sciences yet, check out ISTE’s Course of Mind initiative.

Prioritize student learning with Learning First, Technology Second. Explore the book!

Brandon Olszewski, Ph.D. ISTE’s Director of Research. He has expertise in educational research, program evaluation and social science methodology and theory.