ISTE CEO Richard Culatta’s passion for innovation goes back to one of his first jobs when he was putting his degrees in Spanish teaching and educational psychology to work as the director of operations for a school in rural Guatemala.
Seeking new ways to bridge generations-old poverty cycles, he developed a plan to use technology to bring new learning opportunities to the students in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. There are pictures of Culatta hanging from power lines in a shirt and tie (he had just finished teaching), pulling cables across the street to connect the school to a makeshift satellite dish – an adventure that led to the first school in the area having access to the internet.
And that, in a nutshell, is his approach: roll up the sleeves and get to work.
Prior to joining ISTE, Culatta, a longtime ISTE member, served as the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island and the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He was also an education policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
During his stint at the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology, he was at the helm of numerous efforts to expand connectivity to schools across the country, promoted personalized learning and developed the National Education Technology Plan. He also pioneered new ways to involve educators in the process of designing education policy and informing the priorities of the Department of Education.
In his most recent role, Culatta focused on developing partnerships to improve opportunities for students, including launching a program to make Rhode Island the first state to offer computer science in every K-12 school.
But Culatta began his career in the classroom. After a short time teaching high school, he was called to help redesign the technology component of the teacher preparation program at Brigham Young University. There he prepared preservice teachers to use technology to support student learning. Since then, he has coached educators and national leaders around the world on using technology as a tool to reimagine learning.
We sat down with him to discuss his professional and personal experiences, and his vision for ISTE:
You blogged about your decision to speak Spanish at home even though you and your wife are not native Spanish speakers. Tell us about how that came about.
My wife and I learned Spanish as a second language. I was a high school Spanish teacher for a bit, and we both taught in schools in Latin America, and we decided we wanted our kids to have the benefit of speaking two languages. We read a lot about it, and we wondered if two non-native speakers could pull it off.
We decided to give it a try, and somehow it worked. All four of our kids have entered school with Spanish as their first language, which we view as a badge of success. As they get older, their dominant language quickly becomes English, but we still try to speak Spanish at home as much as possible.
And we periodically pack them up over summer break and travel to a Spanish-speaking country to enroll them in school for a bit so they can be immersed in the language. It’s rewarding when we see them translating for other kids or adults.
What’s your family’s approach to raising good digital citizens?
We try to talk very openly about the impact we have on other people in digital spaces. We talk about what it looks like when you see people treating other people unfairly online and what our role should be in those situations. We have conversations about how people can easily be lulled into saying things in a digital space they would never say face to face. We talk about the things we choose to share with other people online and why.
But we try to talk about more than just what not to do online. Being a good digital citizen is also about actively using technology for good purposes. I worry that too many digital citizenship conversations focus on what not to do, and that’s not very compelling. It’s much more compelling to talk about what we should be doing and how we could be using tech tools to make our communities and the world around us a better place.
So in addition to helping our kids recognize the things to watch out for, we encourage them to be leaders in the digital space to encourage other people to use that medium to do good.
You’ve discussed your underlying philosophy about ISTE as a membership organization and mentioned that membership is what makes ISTE unique among edtech organizations. Can you tell us more about that?
There are a lot of great education events each year. But events, by their very nature, are ethereal. No matter how great the event is, it ends after a few days.
ISTE provides the ongoing engagement for educators in between events. It hosts the network for us to connect and engage during the entire year, no matter where you are in the world. That’s very powerful.
Moving forward, we will be thinking about how to use the ISTE network in the most impactful way. For example, I believe that the members of ISTE nationally and internationally can become a powerful platform for problem-solving, for addressing tough issues in education.
Whether it’s rating and reviewing education apps, developing best practices for using technology that can be shared more broadly, or doing live or virtual presentations to share knowledge, there are many new opportunities that we’ll be looking to bring to take advantage of our talented members.
Tell us about your first ISTE conference. How many ISTE conferences have you attended over the years?
I’ve gone to so many ISTE conferences over the years that it’s hard for me to remember the first one. I started going back when it was still NECC (the National Educational Computing Conference). In fact, just the other day I was moving things out of my closet and came across an old NECC volunteer T-shirt I got when I was a new teacher.
As I transitioned between varying job roles, I always stayed connected to ISTE to have a group of peers and mentors that I wouldn’t lose as my career changed. A lot of times, professional networks are tied to specific jobs – the school you work at, the place you live – and when you transition to a new role that network dissipates.
It was great for me as I transitioned from different roles in the education space to have the consistency of always being part of the broader ISTE network no matter where I worked.
Years ago, your title at Third Rail Games, an educational games company, was Chief Impatience Officer. You’ve also previously discussed the idea of “thoughtful impatience.” What do you mean by that?
It’s true, I am frustrated by the pace at which we find solutions for challenges in education. I am proud to know many others who share this sense of urgency to improve the lives of the students and teachers we serve, but we can still do better. This is especially true when we consider how much is at stake for those who have the potential to benefit from the solutions we come up with.
We can’t become complacent. There are so many great things that are happening in education, but it takes too long to get new tools and opportunities in the hands of students and teachers. And it takes way too long to identify which systems and approaches are effective and which aren’t. So the idea of thoughtful impatience isn’t to make quick decisions without appropriate data. But it’s figuring out how to accelerate the process of getting the right solutions to the right educators and learners much faster.
Often, the best way to find the right answer to a tough problem is to just get moving. Along the way, you’ll find many of your assumptions were wrong and need to be adjusted. But you will come to answers that you never would have considered if you’d spent all the time planning instead of doing.
This approach is known formally as “bias to action.” Start moving forward, taking small steps, and carefully measuring the results. Then quickly make adjustments and take the next step based on what you’re learning. That’s the idea of thoughtful impatience.
You were the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, and more recently the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island. What excites you about your new role as CEO at ISTE?
First and foremost, it’s an organization that I love and that I’ve been a proud member of for years. I love the fact that ISTE is laser-focused on serving teachers and education leaders. I love the diversity of membership – across K-12 and higher ed and from over 130 countries. That’s very exciting to me. I’m a people person. I like engaging with smart people and ISTE’s a whole collection of very smart people doing important work.
The other reason I’m excited to join ISTE is that, moving forward, almost every part of the education ecosystem will require some element of technology to enable it. When we think about next-generation learning environments, they are supported by technology. When we think about new forms of assessment, they are enabled by technology. If we think about teacher professional development or rethink how we prepare new teachers to be successful in a very quickly changing field, largely the solutions are going to involve the smart use of technology. When we think about equity, or new learning models, or even the design of new buildings, in every case technology is an enabler.
That makes ISTE a critical partner for designing just about every aspect of the education system, because whatever the topic, technology is a core component that enables it all to happen. I love the way our work and our members can cut across these multiple siloed issues in a way that other education organizations may not be able to.
You’re a big advocate of personalized learning and even presented a TED Talk on the subject. What do you think is the biggest barrier to getting educators, schools and districts to adopt personalized learning?
I think there are two main barriers. First, while everyone generally agrees with the concept of personalized learning in the abstract, we need common agreement on what it looks like in practice. Some people hear personalized learning and they think of a kid sitting in front of a computer using adaptive software. That’s not what I think of.
I think of learning experiences that are tailored to individual student needs – meaning that the pace of learning can adapt and the approach to learning can adapt. The student has autonomy to make decisions about their learning and use technology to help them become explorers, creators and designers.
But if we’re not on the same page about what we mean by personalized learning, it’s very hard to implement. One of the projects my team led when I was in Rhode Island was developing a common statewide vision for personalized learning.
The second barrier is that we are just starting to see the creation of the tech tools we need to manage personalized learning. Personalized learning requires tech to manage students moving at different paces, visualize student progress in real time and recommend learning activities based on individual student progress. Without tools to support personalized learning, it can become an exponential burden on teachers. The tools to help manage that process are just becoming available.
In the past few years, the FCC made great gains in bringing connectivity to more students through E-Rate. What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead?
Because of the changes that were made several years ago, E-Rate has had a great impact on closing connectivity gaps at school and will continue to do so. Where we need to focus our attention now is improving connectivity gaps at home. That’s something that I was hopeful the FCC would do; they have the levers to do it. But it looks like that may not be on their agenda now, and that’s disheartening.
While it is clearly the FCC’s responsibility to ensure equitable access, if they choose to be asleep at the wheel, we will have to look for other creative solutions as a country to make sure students and their families have connectivity at home.
While you were at the U.S. Department of Education, your team launched the GoOpen initiative. How did the education department get involved with #GoOpen? Why were they offering increased support for open-licensed resources?
The reason we made open licensing of educational materials a priority was because we heard loud and clear from teachers that they wanted more flexibility in the types of learning materials they could use with their students. I remember when I was teaching, there were times when I would adapt and modify some of the materials we had because they weren’t right for what my students needed. I was told that I had broken international copyright law and I better not adapt any materials again!
As an educator, that’s a problem because I was hired to be able to provide the right materials to my students based on their needs. While there are certainly cost savings involved with using open-licensed resources instead of traditional textbooks – I’d love to see the $8 billion we spend on copyrighted textbooks go back to schools to use in other ways – my real interest in supporting #GoOpen was to empower teachers to jointly create, adapt and reshare content so that it could be much more tailored to the needs of individual students in specific schools.
Teachers are the best curriculum designers we have, and they should be empowered to adapt and adjust the materials as needed to support their students. If licensing doesn’t allow for that, it’s a problem.
What’s the biggest takeaway from your time at the Department of Education and how will it influence your work at ISTE?
The biggest takeaway is how many incredibly smart, dedicated, creative people are working to improve our K-12 and higher ed systems every day. I feel very honored to have had a unique national and international view of some amazing work happening. I felt then, as I do now, that we need to do a much better job of telling the story of all the things that are going incredibly right with education around the world – even as we seek to improve.
At the Department of Education, I led the creation of a story archive where we’d go around and capture stories of educators, and in some cases students, that were finding incredibly creative ways to address tough problems and share those more broadly.
Another key takeaway from my time at the education department was the value of neutral conveners. When I think about the role the Office of Ed Tech played in leading the ConnectED work around connectivity, or the Future Ready work around preparing future school leaders, what made magic happen was our ability to bring people to the table and build partnerships across organizations. We absolutely did not have all of the answers on my team, yet we got so much done because we were a trusted broker of expertise between dedicated individuals and organizations.
That’s a lesson that I won’t quickly forget, and one I’ll continue to use at ISTE.