ISTE | Keynote

Richard Culatta Has Big Dreams for ISTE

Interview with the CEO of the world’s biggest nonprofit ed tech organization.

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Richard Culatta is the new chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE. He leads an active nonprofit organization of more than 16,500 members, with reach in 126 countries and programs that touch approximately 148,00 students and 100,000 education stakeholders.

Prior to joining ISTE on May 1, Culatta was the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island —the first person to hold that position. He also served as director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, where he helped author the National Educational Technology Plan.

Culatta, 37, recently spoke with THE Journal about his experiences in education and ed tech, as well as his plans for ISTE as it prepares for its big summer conference this month in San Antonio, TX. The father of four also discussed his vision for ISTE in the coming years.

THE Journal: Can you describe what you did in Rhode Island prior to joining ISTE?

Richard Culatta: I was the first chief innovation officer for the state; I reported to the governor. My role was to ask, “How can we use technology and new approaches to tackle tough problems?”

I grew up in Rhode Island. When I was asked, “Would you return to the state, and would you come and start this from scratch?” I said I’d love to! We accomplished some major initiatives around personalized learning, open educational resources, redesigning libraries and expanding infrastructure. The work of the innovation team in Rhode Island is still going strong and I continue to cheer them on from the sidelines.

THE Journal: What does your job at ISTE entail? What’s the purpose of ISTE, from your perspective?

Culatta: ISTE is really focused on how we can use technology to help accelerate good practice in education, also help solve problems in education. I want to help make sure we are extending the reach of our services and offerings to as many education leaders as possible.

I also want educators to help us determine what are the areas we should focus on and what conversations ISTE should be hosting.

We’re also highlighting best practices of people who are doing amazing work. And frankly, we’re calling out practices that aren’t working out there.

THE Journal: How many people are on staff at ISTE? Are you the boss of all of them? And what are some of your other responsibilities?

Culatta: We have a great team. There are about 50 people on the team. We also work with a number of partners, especially around large events, like our conference.

Our offices are based in the D.C. area, also in Portland.

At this point, my role is learning as quickly as I possibly can. We have our conference coming up — it’s one of the largest ed tech focused events in the world. It’s a pretty amazing endeavor, to pull off an event with over 20,000 people.

I’m going to be hosting some of the conversations we’re going to be holding there. I’ll also be connecting with our members, who are really deep experts in this work.

THE Journal: What else do you hope to achieve with ISTE?

Culatta: We’re very interested in looking at how technology can be used to close equity gaps. We want to use technology to bring opportunity to students and families who may not have same opportunities as others.

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I’m also very interested in focusing on personalized learning, on using technology to tailor and customize learning for every student. It’s a right for every student to have an educational experience that’s tailored to their needs. We have activities or lessons delivered to all students. Technology has a key role in helping to solve that problem.

ISTE is an international organization. We should find out where are there best practices that we can be learning from people all around the world. A lot of what we do is brokering expertise.  

We should be looking at how we can help increase access to computer science opportunities. In Rhode Island, we launched something called “CS4RI.” The governor made it a goal to be the first state in the country to offer computer science in every school. I'd love to see that expand to all states. There are still long-standing gaps when it comes to which students have access to computer science and which don't. but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. We need to provide a lot more support to teachers.

THE Journal: It’s almost become a cliché, but don’t we need to teach kids technological skills so they can be prepared for the jobs of the future, jobs that don’t even exist yet?  

Culatta: Absolutely. We know we’re not preparing them for specific jobs of the future, because we don’t know what those jobs are. But if we’re preparing them with the technical skills they’ll need, they can be reliant on those skills to do things which we haven't yet imagined.

Also, we should prepare them to be life-long learners. We should show them where to get the resources that they need. If we teach them how to continually learn, they will always be prepared.

THE Journal: In recent years, the United States has ranked about midway in the pack among industrialized nations when it comes to students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Shouldn’t we be doing better than that?

Culatta: There’s one thing to remember — we are very large and very disparate country. When it comes to education, we should be careful when we see averages. There are some schools that are doing amazing, amazing things. There are also schools that are far, far below par. The challenge is to expand the phenomenal examples. We should remember what William Gibson said: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

THE Journal: Can you elaborate on the education and technology problems here in the United States?

Culatta: It’s incredibly sad to see two schools right down the street from each other, one that is using technology to empower students and the other that may not even have an internet connection. We have to deal with this scale problem.

That's one of the things that ISTE does — we host these vibrant online professional learning communities that go through the whole year to share what's working across schools.

When I started teaching, I was one of the only Spanish teachers in the school. I wish I could have tapped into a broader network of teachers across the country to learn from them. I think we need to do a much better job of telling stories. ISTE has an awards program to highlight and recognize teachers and achievements and to help tell their story. but as educators we could all do a better job of spotlighting great teachers and telling their stories.

THE Journal: Describe your own educational experience.

Culatta: I started as a high school Spanish teacher. I only taught one year because I was asked to come back and help redesign the teacher prep program at Brigham Young University — where I had received my degree. Like most teacher prep programs at the time, the technology courses were very much about how do you use technology to make worksheets. BYU was one of the first schools of education in the country to flip that to focus on using technology with students to help them learn.

THE Journal: What are you going to do during the ISTE conference?

Culatta: We have an amazing conference team — my goal is to stay out of their way. I’m excited to be talking with Reshma Saujani, one of our keynotes, and the leader of the Girls who Code work. I'll also be welcoming my good friend, Jennie Magiera, who I worked with on the National Educational Technology Plan. It’s great to be able to be part of those conversations.

THE Journal: You’re a Mormon. Does your faith have any influence on your outlook on education and education technology?

Culatta: It actually does for me. Latter-Day Saints place great value on education. We believe that every person has great potential. That's one of the reasons personalized learning is important to me, so all kids can reach their potential. I know many others from a variety of spiritual and cultural backgrounds share that belief. It is really important that we are providing opportunities for every child to succeed.

THE Journal: What were your biggest achievements as director of the ED’s Office of Educational Technology?

Culatta: My team was responsible for writing the National Educational Technology Plan. A key shift that I brought to that office was broadening our focus beyond K–12. We shifted to focusing on supporting learning from birth to college and beyond. We established a team focused on higher education. We also broadened who we worked with. We developed great relationships with the tech developer community.

We hosted developer events — we weren’t allowed to call them hackathons so we called them Data Jams. We invited developers to help us find solutions for a variety of different problems, such as college access. Using data that we released, the developers were able to build tools to help students make better choices about college.

We also invited top game designers and asked them what would next-generation assessment look like. We looked at designing assessment through the lens of game designers from Rovio (who developed Angry Birds), Disney and Brain Pop. My team also published the Ed Tech Developers Guide

One of the things we learned was the value of a partnership. For the size of our team, we accomplished a huge agenda because we had really phenomenal partners.

THE Journal: What are some challenges that we still face in education and ed tech?

Culatta: The challenges we’re facing in education are big ones. They are ones that require us to come together across organizations and figure out how we work collaboratively with other groups and organizations to really tackle tough problems.

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Technology is really enabling a whole variety of different approaches for how we think about, how we even go about addressing the big issues. The big, thorny issues.

At ISTE, we're interested in working with partners to think about things differently. What should professional learning look like for teachers? What might AR and VR bring to education? How can research and practice be more connected? We need to think differently about the tech developer community and the education community. There needs to be much more collaboration between the two.

THE Journal: You’ve been CEO of ISTE since the beginning of May. Do you have some comments or thoughts about joining the organization?

Culatta: I’ve been a member of ISTE for many years. It’s an organization that I respect deeply, because it’s been so helpful for me as an educator to be part of this great network. I’m honored to lead this organization that has been so impactful for me.

THE Journal: What are some of your future goals as head of ISTE?

Culatta: I want to explore how we can extend the reach of our network. There are many educators around the world who could benefit from joining the conversation of really awesome, early adopter teachers. So how we invite them in is one of the things we’ll be looking at.

There are some areas ISTE will need to refocus on — like higher ed space, for example. How can technology help redesign the learning experience in college the same way it has in the K–12 system. I worry that students are graduating out of high school and showing up in college classrooms, where they feel like they’ve been time-warped back 20 years. That’s something we’ll be looking at.

Also, the international side represents a great opportunity for us. We have an international presence and we want to explore how to best capture and share the great examples we're seeing across various regions and cultures. 

THE Journal will be exhibiting at ISTE, June 25-28, in booth 754.

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