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Meet ISTE’s new CEO

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.

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 Culatta to get his take on some of the hottest topics in edtech:

On raising good digital citizens (he’s the father of four) and redefining digital citizenship:

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 you should be doing and how you could be using tech tools to make your community and the world around you 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.

On the pace of change in the education ecosystem:

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.

On barriers to the adoption of 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.

On challenges related to E-Rate:

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.

On the U.S. Department of Education’s support for OERs:

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.

Read more about Culatta’s vision for ISTE in a question-and-answer feature in Empowered Learner, the ISTE member magazine, publishing in June.

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