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Learning Library Blog The Hottest Topics in Edtech in 2021
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The Hottest Topics in Edtech in 2021

By Diana Fingal
January 29, 2021
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For a few years now, we’ve shared the hottest edtech trends of the year based on the topics resonating with educators at the annual ISTE conference. Although the topics themselves often don’t change much from year to year, the approach to them does. But 2020 was a year like no other, and thus new topics emerged on the list and others moved up a few notches. 

Digital citizenship, professional learning and social-emotional learning still made the list like they did the year before, but they took on new urgency as schooling moved online. Meanwhile, topics like e-sports, online learning design and creativity were new to the list. 

All these topics will be well represented at ISTELive 21 this year. The fully online conference will run for four days, June 26-30. Here’s a look at the trending topics and why they are especially important now.

1. Digital citizenship

Digital citizenship has been a hot topic for educators for nearly a decade — but it has quickly evolved in the past two years — especially in the past year as remote and hybrid learning has shifted learning online. 

In the beginning, digital citizenship was focused on safety, security and legality (protect your passwords, keep your identity secret, and cite sources when using intellectual property). Now the focus is on making sure students feel empowered to use digital tools and platforms to do good in the world — and that they do so responsibly. 

The DigCitCommit movement was born out of this shift to focus on the opportunities of the digital world rather than the dangers. DigCitCommit breaks down digital citizenship into five focus areas: 

Inclusive: Open to multiple viewpoints and being respectful in digital interactions.
Informed: Evaluating the accuracy, perspectif and validity of digital media and social posts.
Engaged: Using technology for civic engagement, problem solving and being a force for good.
Balanced: Prioritizing time and activities online and off to promote mental and physical health. 
Alert: Being aware of online actions and their consequences and knowing how to be safe and ensuring others are safe online.

Look for digital citizenship sessions at ISTELive 21 that focus on global collaboration, media literacy and social justice projects. 

ISTE21 Save the Date

2. Online learning design

One of the biggest challenges educators have faced in responding to the pandemic has been how to effectively move lessons that were designed for an in-person classroom online. Many educators around the world had to make that transition in less than a week in spring 2020 and, in some cases, less than a day. 

What many discovered immediately was that you just can’t simply upload worksheets to Google Classroom and expect the same learning success.

Michele Eaton, author of the book, The Perfect Blend: A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning, says good in-person teaching doesn’t equate with good online teaching. 

 “I have a strong belief that if all we ever do is replicate what we do face to face, then online learning will just be a cheap imitation of the classroom experience.”
In her post, 4 tips for creating successful online content, Eaton outlines ways educators can design online lessons that are interactive, reduce cognitive load, and build in formative assessments. 

Look for ISTELive 21 sessions that focus on online learning strategies and ideas for the hybrid classroom. Check out ISTE’s Summer Learning Academy, a course designed to help educators take what they learned from teaching in online and hybrid settings and moving to the next level.  

ISTELive 21 Team Virtual Journey.

3. Equity and inclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many of the ugly inequities that have existed in education for a long time. It also created a few new ones. When school moved online, many young learners and students with disabilities were unable to access learning without parental help, which was often unavailable because parents were working.

The lack of devices and bandwidth hampered many rural and low income students. Most districts were able to secure funding to get hotspots and laptops or tablets into the hands of students who needed them, but those solutions were not always ideal. Hotspots were at times unreliable and devices would be in disrepair. Because of these problems and others, many teachers reported a high percentage of missing students — those who never showed up online.

Patricia Brown, an instructional technology coach for Ladue School district in Missouri, said the pandemic has been a watershed moment. In the blog, COVID-19 Thrusts Digital Equity to the Forefront, Brown shares some of the complexities of the inequities wrought by the pandemic.

 “It’s definitely bringing some attention to things that a lot of people have been talking about and nobody was listening to,” Brown said. “Now, when it affects people in their own communities, they are realizing they don’t have it together like they thought they had it together. People are having their eyes opened.”

Those inequities aren’t just limited to ensuring students have devices and internet access. Brown says there are multiple dimensions of digital equity. One focus is on the need for professional learning and providing support for teachers, students and families.

“When we talk about equity, we can talk a lot about devices and curriculum, but we also have to think about the basic needs that our kids and our families have,” Brown said. “We need to think about those basic needs, whether that’s providing lunches or breakfasts, or social-emotional resources for families or having counselors and social workers available,” Brown said. “That’s part of equity, too, providing what is needed for your population or for your community.”

Expand digital equity in your school! Read ISTE's book Closing the Gap.

4. Social-emotional learning and cultural competence

We’ve lumped these two important topics together because much of the anxiety and trauma students have faced during the pandemic relate to both. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, involves the skills required to manage emotions, set goals and maintain positive relationships, which are necessary for learning but also a tall order for students facing a barrage of COVID-related issues like family job loss, stressed parents and the illness or death of friends or relatives. 

The pandemic has caused enormous emotional stress and trauma to students across the board, but the emotional effects have disproportionately affected students of color, English language learners and students in other marginalized groups. 

That’s why in order to help students process their emotions, it’s important for educators to have cultural competence, which is the ability to understand, communicate with and interact with people across cultures. 

In the blog, 3 Ways Teachers Can Integrate SEL Into Online Learning, educator Jorge Valenzuela writes that “dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has caused multiple traumas — which have been heightened by news and graphic images of the murder of George Floyd and the outrage and fear that followed.” 

That is why he says all educators should seek out cultural competence training in addition to learning about restorative justice, trauma-informed teaching and culturally responsive teaching. 

5. Professional development

Teacher professional development, especially related to edtech, is nothing new, of course. But the pandemic changed that, too. No longer are teachers attending daylong face-to-face lectures at the district office or out-of-town seminars and events. 

Because of social distancing, the urgency to quickly learn new skills, and increasingly tight budgets, many educators have formed professional learning communities within their schools and districts. Some of these are grouped by grade level, others by content area. In her post, 4 Benefits of an Active Professional Learning Community, Jennifer Serviss explores how PLCs enhance teaching and learning. 

Many educators have sought PD online — some for the first time. Those used to attending conferences in person might feel at sea trying to plan for and navigate a virtual conference. In her post,  10 Tips for Getting the Most out of a Virtual PD Event, Nicole Zumpano, a regional edtech coordinator, shares ideas for making the most out of virtual PD. 

It can seem daunting to choose the most worthwhile online conferences and courses in a learning landscape flooded with choices. Probably the best way to select: Look to the trusted sources. ISTE offers online courses and a slate of virtual events to prepare educators for the future of learning. 

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6. Esports

Esports — aka competitive video gaming — has exploded as a form of entertainment in the past decade, and now it’s naturally finding its way into schools, clubs and after-school programs. Many educators are embracing esports as a way to engage hard-to-reach students who don’t necessarily gravitate to athletic sports or academic pursuits. Research indicates that 40% of students involved in esports have never participated in school activities. 

Esports also promote interest in STEM careers and are a pipeline to jobs in the burgeoning esports industry.

Kevin Brown, an esports specialist with the Orange County Department of Education in California, says educators can tap esports in the classroom to support just about every subject because esports connect student interests to learning in a positive way.

Brown says esports have seen explosive growth in the last few years. The North America Scholastic Esports Federation started as a regional program in Southern California with 25 clubs and 38 teams. In 2½ years, it has grown to include more than 1,000 clubs and 11,000 students in North America.

Many educators mistakenly believe that if they aren’t gamers themselves, they can’t incorporate esports in the curriculum or organize a club. Not true, says Joe McAllister, an education esports expert for CDW who helps schools and districts get programs off the ground. 

He often sees reluctance from people who say, “Oh, I don't really play video games.”

“That’s OK. Do you do enjoy kids growing and learning and providing them structure? Of course, that’s what teachers do,” he said. “The content and strategy for the games, that’s all out there on YouTube and Twitch. Most students will bring that to the table.”

Esports was the topic of a daylong series of events at ISTE20 Live in December and will be a focus again at ISTELive 21. In the meantime, check out the ISTE Jump Start Guide "Esports in Schools."

7. Augmented and virtual reality

Pokemon Go may have introduced the terms virtual and augmented reality to a majority of educators in 2017, but there’s a lot more learning potential in AR/VR than chasing around imaginary creatures. The game that took the world by storm has faded in popularity these days but AR/VR has not. 

The reason for that, says Jaime Donally, author of the ISTE book, The Immersive Classroom: Create Customized Learning Experiences With AR/VR, is because AR/VR deepens learning. It allows students to see the wonders of the world up close and it grants them access to experiences that they wouldn’t be able to get any other way, such as an incredibly detailed 3D view of the human body or a front row seat to unfolding world events. 

The technology is becoming more affordable and sophisticated all the time, allowing students to do more than consume AR/VR experiences. They can actually create them. 

Most of the AR experiences in the past 10 years involved using a trigger image to superimpose an object or video on top. The trigger image is similar to a barcode telling the mobile device precisely what to add to the image. Newer AR technology eliminates the trigger image and places objects in your space by surface tracking. In the past four years, this technology is included on most mobile devices and uses ARKit for the Apple platform and ARCore for Android, Donally explained, which opens up even more possibilities for students and educators.

8. Project-based learning

At first blush, it seemed like project-based learning, or PBL, would be one of those educational strategies that would have to go by the wayside during remote and online learning. After all, you can’t really organize collaborative projects when students are not together in the same room, right?

“Wrong,” says Nichlas Provenzano, a middle school technology teacher and makerspace director in Michigan.

When the pandemic hit, Provenzano was teaching an innovation and design class, and it wasn’t immediately clear how he could teach that class remotely. He decided to implement genius hour, the ultimate PBL strategy. Genius hour is an instructional approach that allows students to  decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. The teacher’s job is to support the student by offering resources and helping them understand complex material.

He told his students to create something using the resources they had at home. One student submitted images demonstrating his ability to build a side table that he designed himself. 

Another student hydro-dipped some shoes and then created a website to demonstrate the process.

“This approach to personalized learning was a huge success in my middle school class just like it was in my high school class,” Provanzano says in the video, “ The emphasis on personalization increases engagement, but more importantly, it builds the skills necessary to be lifelong learners long after they leave our classrooms.

Learn how to infuse project-based learning in your classroom by enrolling in the ISTE U course, Leading Project-Based Learning With Technology.

9. Creativity 

Of course creativity is nothing new. Cave drawings dating back to the late Stone Age continue to awe and inspire us, as do the ivory, stone and shell artifacts created by ancient peoples. Nevertheless, creativity is considered a hot topic because educators are embracing more creative and less traditional methods for students to demonstrate skills and content knowledge. 

Tim Needles, an art teacher from Smithtown High School in New York, loves to show teachers how to incorporate creativity into all topic areas. In his video “Digital Drawing Tools for Creative Online Learning,” he demonstrates how to “draw with code,” using the lesson called Artist. It merges math and computer science with art.

Needles who has presented at ISTE’s Creative Constructor Lab, is also a big fan of sketchnoting, a method of taking notes by drawing pictures. Sketchnoting is not just a fun method for getting information on paper, it’s a proven strategy backed by learning science to help students recall information.

Nichole Carter, author of Sketchnoting in the Classroom, says that sketchnoting is not about drawing the perfect piece of art. It’s about getting the content on the page. That’s why she says it’s important for teachers to help student improve their visual vocabulary. Watch the video below to understand more about this. 

These nine topics represent a mere fraction of the content you'll fine at ISTELive 21. Register today to ensure the best registration price, then return to the site in March to browse the program. 

ISTE21 Save the Date

Diana Fingal is director of editorial content for ISTE.