A Recent Interview with Dr. Bitter Revealing His Views on Educational Technology

This year (2009) the International Society of Technology in Education and the National Education Computing Conference will be celebrating its 30th anniversary, and if you’d like to talk with someone who has been there since its conception then you should look up Dr. Gary Bitter at this year’s conference in Washington, D.C. 

In 1968 Dr. Bitter became a member of the Association of Educational Data Systems (AEDS) and has continued to change the face of educational technology since. His research and development of digital curricula and professional development materials for teachers has transformed learning environments worldwide. He has published over 200 articles and books and has presented an estimated 1200 talks to state, national and international organizations. He is also an inspirational leader who is very much responsible for the advancement of technology-based research throughout the world. As the founding board member and first elected president of the International Society for Technology in Education, he helped to redefine the boundaries of classrooms by forming a network of professionals sharing classroom-proven solutions to address the challenge of infusing technologies across the curriculum. He definitely chose the right career.

Dr. Bitter may also be the only person who has attended all 30 of the National Educational Computing Conferences. He remembers Al Gore being the keynote speaker in 1990 at the conference held in Nashville and realized, even then, how impressive it was for ISTE to have such a prominent spokesperson. Gary explained that at that time, Gore was senator for Tennessee and this was the first time that we had a keynote speaker who was a politician and who was very knowledgeable about technology. This was ground-breaking because the organization was starting to gain recognition from the political world. Dr. Bitter jokingly added, “that was before Al Gore had misspoken and said that he had invented the internet.”  This event was so memorable to him because at the time it seemed that public officials did not know much about technology, and here was a politician who had knowledge about technology, and who had an idea about the potential of technology in education. Gore was, at that time, one of the few politicians that were supporting technological advanced. Gary added that he feels that President Obama will be an avid supporter of technology in education. Gary also remembers that the day Gore spoke it was hot, but he added “the weather didn’t matter, we were at the Grand Ole Opera hotel (which is in bourbon country) and everyone was very content to be drinking mint-juleps.”

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) was the result of a 1989 merger between International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE) (formerly AEDS) and the International Association for Computing in Education (IACE). Dr. Gary Bitter was instrumental in this merger and, in fact, was the chair of the merger committee. He became the first elected president of ISTE in 1990. He said that one of the main goals for the ISTE was “to establish an international presence” and judging from conference attendance today - that goal has been met.

Dr. Bitter remembers when in 1996, ISTE received nearly 50 thousand dollars in grant money to launch the National Education Technology standards (NETS). Lajeane Thomas and Gary Bitter as well as many ISTE members began to organize and develop student and teacher standards for technology use. The creation of these standards was the turning point for technology in education, and we can thank Dr. Bitter for his part in that. Gary explained that he had seen tremendous success in math standards with many states adopting them. The success of the math standards influenced the committee who was working on the standards for technology, because they realized that the technology standards could be just as successful. These standards would help bring about technology in education. It started with accreditation, and that led to standards, along with the idea of getting these compiled into an understandable format. The project was grant funded and had many focus groups. Finally the national standards for technology, as Gary says, “put us on the map.”  There was tremendous input from many people and groups. They promoted the standards in many ways; they put together booklets using the grant money, and set up booths at congressional activities so that the senators and representatives would have knowledge of them. Eventually they were adopted across the country, and today, almost all states use some of them.

The merger was exciting because putting the two groups, the International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE) and the International Association for Computing in Education (IACE), together gave them power and they could pool their resources and membership base. The joining of these forces gave some breathing room with finances. The merger of these two groups was the beginning of a light for educational technology. I wanted ISTE to have the recognition that other organizations have – to the point that people will associate the acronym with the organization. Gary explained that “Technology education should be a worldwide goal.”  He added that “After the NETS became of interest by worldwide users, ISTE became more financially able to could reach out to many countries, and last year the international reception at the conference was gigantic.”

When Gary was asked what it was like to teach 30 years ago? 20 years ago? 10 years ago? Today? He replied “30 years ago, I had energy!”  In1970, he started teaching at Arizona State University, and at that time it was very the computers where time-shared and slow. But at that time, it was very exciting! He remembers one semester when he had an Introduction to Technology class and the computer was down every week, except one!  To be able to use technology in the areas of calculus, statistics, and for numerical analysis was so much better with technology, Gary added. The ability to show data precisely was great with computers, instead of doing it all by hand, he said “because students could see the numbers approach a certain point.”

Gary always had the vision; even as early as 1981-82 when he was working he was awarded an Apple lab (which was the 1st lab given to an educational instruction at that time and contained 30 Apple III’s).  “Back then it was a rare event to see someone use technology, because you had to be a real trooper to stand the trials and tribulation that came with it. I remember when technology for the teachers meant to be able to thread a projector for movies and now we have built in projection systems, little hand held computers and lap tops that weigh 3 pounds. I remember when we could start using video through the computer. I started doing--have computer and projection system and I was set to present anywhere without an overhead projector.  I used a portable Infocus projection system (Barely fit in the airplane overhead compartments) and a Toshiba steaming video computer that was about 30 pounds, and the size of a brief case. I remember giving probably one of the first video based keynote talk which was at the International Computing Conference in Birmingham, England.”

Today, with better memory and speed of processor – this has taken much of the anxiety out of using technology in the classroom.

Using technology in the classroom does still take time and effort – so some are still lagging behind. Gary said that some teachers are still concerned with the problems that can occur that is out of their control, too. For example, the problem that occurred at this year's Super Bowl where pornography started floating across people’s television screens.

He believes that we will begin to see smaller, touch screen and less expensive computers in the next few years.

When asked “What one event do you think most changed the way teaching and learning take place?” Gary replied, “The standards for technology hit at a perfect time. It was a time when technology was becoming so prominent, people realized that using technology was a way to work toward the future. The NETS was a big change.” Gary added “I was fortunate enough to be in the right place, and the right time doing the right thing.”

Dr. Gary Bitter has been published in numerous journals and written monthly columns for several magazines.  He has received outstanding Alumni Awards from Kansas State University and Emporia State University as well as Lifetime Achievement awards from ISTE and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In 1982, Bitter wrote an important series of articles entitled “The road to computer literacy” that was published in five parts in “Electronic Learning.” He has been involved in numerous research projects, published books, monographs, CD ROMs, online programs, filmstrips, and tapes. He has served on editorial boards and technology advisory committees throughout the world. Dr. Bitter has made such a big difference in education and when asked about all of these extraordinary accomplishments he simply said “It was a great ride.”