Debating the ISTE2015 Keynote Selection

In Equity by rafranzdavis2 Comments

Last year when I saw that America Ferrera was slated to keynote ISTE, I was absolutely confused by her selection. When she backed out and was later replaced by Ashley Judd, I was even more confused. Fast forward to the end of Ashley Judd’s speech and I, like almost every other person in that room, was mortified at how uninspired she was for that particular event. (While her story is compelling, it was not the right time or tone for that event)

This year, ISTE announced Soledad O’Brien as the opening keynote speaker and it gave me pause, not because I am a  “Soledad fan”, as one so eloquently put it…but because I am familiar with some of her work in the diversity arena. I sat with my family and watched her documentaries, political forums and interviews. I am very familiar with the stories that she has created and shared and actually see the correlation of her voice to an educational technology event.

Others though? Not so much. The questions, placed publicly in a social forum…Why a celebrity instead of a female educator? Why is it that when women are touted to speak, they are celebrities and not teachers?

First let me say that these are valid questions and in looking at the keynotes for the last few years at ISTE, it’s one that ISTE needs to answer.

However, when I pointed out Soledad’s credentials as a person living what we are empowering our kids to do with technology, I was immediately reminded that…”This is not about Soledad O’Brien”.

To be clear…The only woman speaking this year is Soledad O’Brien. She is a celebrity, therefore it IS about her. (Simple math logic makes this the case)

ISTE’s Diversity Issues…

Aside from Soledad O’Brien, there are two other keynote slots. One is being filled with a celebrity speaker, Jack Gallagher and the other is an educator, Josh Stumpenhorst. People were excited for Josh…including the same people questioning Soledad’s selection…because he’s an educator and known very well within this community and on the speaker circuit.

Quick questions though…Why are we not questioning these last two slots? Why are we not questioning Jack Gallagher’s selection? Could women in education not fill this slot?

Also…Why do we raise the diversity angle and not consider other types of diversity?

For example…I do not have a problem with a celeb speaker as long as their story is compelling, relatable and hits the tone of the event. Soledad is a media personality who not only advocates for equity in education but has also covered some pretty diverse stories in her career…stories that are often ignored in mainstream media…which sounds a lot like edtech and it’s own diversity issues.

I do agree that there is an oversight of women speakers who are educators but you can’t make that argument when in the same breath you suggest women speakers who are not even working in schools…except as authors and paid consultants.

Also, don’t just raise questions about the qualified woman that is selected to speak if you are not willing to raise those same questions about the two white men who were also selected.

And yes, I brought up race because ISTE’s keynote problem isn’t just a lack of educators who are women but also an issue of race. It’s an issue of perspective, age and also academic relevancy.

While I still stand by Soledad O’Brien and even Josh Stumpenhorst…that other spot could have and should have gone to an educator.

Dear ISTE, If you want a formula that works…choose your speakers in this way

1. A person who has made a significant contribution to society, media, edtech…etc

2. An educator

3. An Educator

Now…make sure that within those selections are people who represent diversity of race, idea, age and gender. 

When you do that…this debate stops.


One more thing…NO ONE ATTENDS ISTE BECAUSE OF THE KEYNOTE SPEAKERS…unless those keynote speakers are Audrey Watters, Diana Laufenberg, Jose Vilson or even Chris Lehmann. They are on my shortlist anyway.

ISTE’s Keynotes Over the Last Few Years

2015 Keynotes

  • Soledad O’brien
  • Jack Gallagher
  • Josh Stumpenhorst

2014 Keynotes

  • Ashley Judd in place of America Ferreira
  • Kevin Carroll
  • Jeff Charbonneau

2013 Keynotes

  • Jane McGonigal
  • Steven Johnson
  • Adam Bellow

2012 Keynotes

  • Sir Ken Robinson with Shawn Covell, Marc Prensky, and Mayim Bialik
  • Dr. Yong Zhao
  • Dr. Willie Smits and Christopher Gauthier

2011 Keynotes

  • Dr. John Medina
  • Dr. Stephen R. Covey with moderation by Boyd Craig; follow up session by Muriel Summers with Dr. David K. Hatch
  • Chris Lehmann

2010 Keynotes

  • Jean-François Rischard
  • Panel: Karen Cator, Terry Godwaldt, Shaun Koh, Jean François Rischard; Moderator: Jennifer Corriero
  • Jeff Piontek





  1. Rafranz thanks for pointing out the lack of diversity in choosing speakers that are representative of education and edtech. I would love to hear from more woman and people of color who are educators. Very insightful article.

  2. Personally I think it’s great when we go outside the educational arena for some of the speakers. People complain all the time on Twitter about the echo chamber so why wouldn’t you want to hear from people outside of the traditional sense of who we consider educators?

    I know you know this, but diversity is crucial to learning. That same echo chamber exists in gender, culture, and age. It is why it’s so important to have student voice at conferences and professional development at your school site. As a member of leadership of any institution you need to constantly ask yourself “who are the voices we are not hearing?” And than make sure to bring those voices in.

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