Setting the technology agenda for the nation’s schools was the theme as superintendents and senior executives from school districts across the country came together in sunny Palm Springs, Calif., to reach a consensus on key ed-tech issues.

The occasion was the third edition of the Superintendents’ Technology Summit, hosted by eSchool News Oct. 21-23. (The next summit will be March 10-12, 2002, in Austin, Texas.)

After briefing by experts on three topics of relevance to school leaders—virtual schooling, how the Children’s Internet Protection Act will impact schools, and how technology can be used to relieve the shortage of qualified teachers—summiteers overwhelmingly chose virtual schooling as their chief topic of concern.

In a presentation given by Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School in Orlando, attendees heard about the trials and tribulations of starting, funding, and running a completely web-based school.

Among other issues, attendees discussed which entity—state governments, local school districts, the federal government, or the virtual school itself—should be responsible for staff certification, setting curriculum goals, and footing the bill for virtual schools.

Using group interactive feedback technology, summiteers then recorded their positions on each of these issues, and the results differed sharply on many key points from positions taken at an earlier version of the summit held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., April 30 and May 1 (see our December issue for an in-depth analysis of the most recent findings).

Where the Florida group had near-unanimity on many of the issues surrounding virtual schooling, the Palm Springs group was almost evenly divided on many of these same issues— underscoring the topic’s complexity and how much work remains for school leaders to resolve these issues.

Another topic on the agenda was the new Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a federal law that requires schools receiving eRate discounts for their internet access or internal connections to adopt internet safety policies and block students’ access to inappropriate materials online. By Oct 27, most schools receiving Year Four eRate discounts were required to certify their compliance with the law.

eSchool News Associate Editor Elizabeth Guerard presented summiteers with a set of milestones for certifying their compliance with CIPA and prompted them to think about the legal and ethical issues pertaining to the law.

Because the law involves the use of internet filtering technologies on school networks, Guerard encouraged superintendents to develop their own set of ideologies about filtering and ask themselves whether receiving eRate funds was reason enough to certify compliance with CIPA.

The third featured consensus-building topic was “Using Technology to Relieve the Teacher Shortage,” presented by Sue Collins, chief education officer of Apex Learning. The discussion revolved around the many ways school leaders can use the internet, teleconferencing, and streaming video to recruit and train new teachers.

Collins discussed a number of distance-learning initiatives for new teachers, the use of virtual job fairs, teacher recruitment clearinghouses on the web, and specific district sites that do a good job of making themselves attractive to new teacher candidates.

Professional development sessions

Besides helping to shape technology policy for these key issues, attendees were able to sharpen their technology leadership skills by taking part in informative sessions on a variety of subjects.

The summit began with an address by Jaron Lanier, chief scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative and Eyematics Interfaces Inc. He also is known as “the father of virtual reality,” a term he coined in the 1980s.

Lanier discussed the changing relationship between children and technology in the 21st century. He attributed the popularity of virtual reality, video games, and the internet among teenagers and kids to a residual longing for the limitless world of the imagination.

Children, as consciousness matures, confront the hard realization that instead of being the all-powerful center of the universe, as they had imagined as infants, they actually are small and relatively weak citizens of reality. Virtual reality is appealing, Lanier said, because it blends the opportunity for shared experience, a characteristic of reality, with the fantastic possibilities of the imagination.

“The only concept kids like more than virtual reality is dinosaurs,” Lanier said. The power of this medium lies in creating “shared virtual spaces.”

Lanier also addressed high-stakes testing, arguing that exams claiming to test for very detailed sets of proficiencies are most likely invalid.

“As an educator, you want to have some way to make decisions, but it is not always statistically valid to test for more than three bits [of information],” he said.

Lanier closed by challenging educators to develop programs that allow students to create their own curriculum, citing the success of the ThinkQuest project, in which students create instructional web sites.

“Let’s harness the kids to make the instructional materials,” Lanier urged, explaining that with projects such as ThinkQuest, “the best and brightest kids would be creating educational materials in the language of their peers.”

In a session titled “Communicating Your School District’s Technology Program to Board Members and Business Leaders,” Bill Attea, a former superintendent and current executive secretary of the Suburban School Superintendents Association, urged attendees “to make our colleagues more knowledgeable.”

“There is a potential and promise for technology,” he said. “But there are challenges. We have to overcome the lack of hardware [and] connections, and by and large the software in our schools is very poor.”

In a session called “Balancing Security and a School Climate Conducive to Learning,” Kate Stetzner, a superintendent from Butte, Mont., began by playing a recording of a 911 call she placed to the police when there was a school shooting at her former district. The dramatic recording drove home the importance of taking measures to protect children through whatever means possible—including technology.

Harold Kellogg, a former junior high school principal, advocated the safety benefits of using wireless phones in schools.

In “Cutting Technology Costs through Standards and Audits,” Daryl Ann Borel, assistant superintendent of technology for the Houston school system, outlined the challenges of reducing total cost of ownership (TCO) in school settings. “We keep our computers longer, and it’s safe to say our levels of support are different [than those of businesses]. When a PC fails in business, you call someone, and it is fixed in a matter of hours. But at schools, they say ‘we’ll be around sometime,'” she said.

She recommended a number of ways to reduce TCO. The first is to take advantage of educational pricing programs for technology. The second-best way to reduce costs is by increasing support, she said.

“The cost is not in the box,” Borel said. “We need to make hard decisions and implement software suites, open standards, and centralized processors. Standardizing decreases the complications of support.”

Borel also recommended that educators look at lease purchasing, build strategic partnerships, and track what is done to create some financial models.

In his presentation, “Emerging Technologies: The Management Perspective,” Joe Kitchens, superintendent of Oklahoma’s Western Heights School District, outlined the successful technology initiative he spearheaded in his state.

Oklahoma’s VISION (Virtual Internet School in Oklahoma Network) project invited Dell, Intel, and Microsoft to design an open, extensible, standards-based architecture for the exchange of information among the state’s school districts. Extensible Markup Language compliance “helps enhance communication between students and teachers,” Kitchens said.

He commiserated with attendees on the topic of managing today’s technology-rich school systems. “You have to find a person who has the technology background to drive a converged network, and that person has to be sensitive to what educators need,” he said. “It is not very easy.”

In his session “Damage Control: When Technology Creates a Crisis,” Tom DeLapp, president of Communication Resources for Schools, recommended a number of steps school leaders can take to counteract public-relations problems when they occur, particularly those involving technology use (or misuse).

“Investigate before it percolates,” was one of DeLapp’s primary points. He urged superintendents to get to the bottom of potentially harmful problems—instances such as school employees caught viewing pornography, student privacy breaches, and filtering failures—as soon as possible.

“In the case of a high-profile controversy, don’t worry about Diane Sawyer coming to your district. Worry more about your local press,” he said.

DeLapp also encouraged attendees to make sure to write press statements and news releases, foster productive media relationships, and use district web sites, eMail, and bulletins to promulgate their side of the story.

“Engage in active, aggressive rumor control, and make sure to spotlight rumorists,” he added. “Try to flood them with accurate information.”

In a general session, Dale Mann, professor of education at Columbia Teachers’ College and president of Interactive Inc., noted the lack of a productivity dividend for schools using technology.

“Technology has accounted for 40 percent of the growth in domestic product in the U.S. in the 1990s,” he said. “Transparent technology now exists in all areas of industry, but it does not yet exist in schooling.”

Based on the boom in consumer use of new technologies—in three years, the use of wireless technology among kids will go from 11 million to 43 million—Mann stressed the importance of establishing productivity-based measures for technology adoption.

Teaching is the most labor-intensive craft, and has the most unionized workers, Mann pointed out. A higher percentage of teachers belong to unions than do steel workers or auto workers,” he said. “Concerns about collective bargaining are slowing progress with technology. We have to move from managing teachers to managing learning.”

Mann also emphasized the potential for using computer simulations to help administrators learn how to manage schools.

“Worldwide, there are three irrevocable forces—more democracy, more free markets, and more technology,” he said, adding that school leaders need to ask themselves seriously whether there is a productivity deficit in the way they manage themselves, then ask how technology can reduce that deficit.

Summit sponsors

The third eSchool News Superintendents’ Technology Summit was made possible in part by the support of a number of corporate sponsors:

Achievement Technologies publishes a suite of technology tools designed to improve student achievement and accountability for educators in K-12, post-secondary, and workplace settings.

Advanced Academics offers digitally-delivered content in a variety of subjects, ranging from health and physical education to calculus and everywhere in between.

Aladdin Knowledge Systems Inc. is the maker of eSafe, a proactive, multi-tiered content security system, protecting schools against viruses, inappropriate content, and the misuse of school resources.

Bigchalk offers a growing family of subscription-based educational products, as well as free resources, accessible 24-7 through the web site.

Compass Learning is a leader in research-driven, standards-based, digital learning solutions that inspire achievement, personalize learning, and connect communities of learners.

Electronic Education delivers innovative, technology-based products that meet the educational needs of children in the 21st century, including the Waterford Early Reading program and Knowledge Box., from the Princeton Review, is a web-based assessment and diagnostic tool housing more than 100,000 math and reading questions aligned to all state standards, major classroom textbooks, and specific state and multistate standardized tests.

InfoHandler designs software that provides teachers and administrators with a solution to the enormous task of managing special-education systems.

Leadership Technology Group is the creator of group interactive feedback technology (GIFT), a system that employs personal wireless response pads to facilitate meetings and make them more productive.

MatchWare is a provider of multimedia tools designed to help schools more effectively create, organize, and distribute information via disk, CD-ROM, network, and the internet.

NetSchools Corp. is the creator of the Orion curriculum management tool and numerous other wireless laptop solutions.

Nortel Networks is a global leader in networking and communications solutions and infrastructure, transforming how the world communicates through the internet using optical long-haul networks, wireless networks, and metro networks.

Schoolnet is a leader in providing software for data-driven solutions designed to improve student performance.

SMART Technologies, the creator of the SMART Board, provides “roomware tools,” including interactive whiteboards, multimedia furniture, whiteboard capture systems, and software.

SpectraLink designs, manufactures, and markets wireless systems that integrate with a school’s existing phone system to provide telephone access anywhere.

Sun Cobalt develops and markets server appliances and affordable internet and intranet servers for non-technical users.

Teacher Created Materials is an educational publishing company and the creator of TechWorks, software designed to help teachers use technology in the classroom.

TestU brings high-quality standardized test preparation to everyone by providing powerful, internet-based tutorial programs.

VIP Tone integrates content, applications, and infrastructure from leading systems and service providers to deliver integrated portals to schools.

The following educational organizations also lent their support to the Superintendents’ Technology Summit:

Association of California School Administrators

Association for Educational Communications and Technology

Consortium for School Networking

George Mason University

New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators

SchoolTone Alliance