Featuring the likes of country singer Dolly Parton and political satirist Mark Russell, this year’s American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conference, Feb. 15-17 in San Diego, had a definite focus on show business.

There’s no business like show business, they say. But for exhibitors at the AASA conference this year, the trade-show business seemed to be something more akin to the no-show business.

AASA’s National Conference on Education tallied the worst attendance in years. According to AASA spokeswoman Barbara Knisely, paid registrations numbered approximately 3,300. This compared to as many as 4,500 paid registrants in San Franciso in 2000.

AASA is not suffering its absentee phenomenon alone, by any means. The National School Boards Association’s Technology + Learning conference in Atlanta last November endured a severe attendance shortfall, and a superintendents’ conference produced by eSchool News immediately after the 9-11 attacks also came up light on attendees.

The phenomenon is ubiquitous and appears to be resistant to the best efforts of conference planners. AASA addressed the issue head-on in a report for its “Conference Daily”:

“Concerns over air safety and economic problems brought about by state budget crises are the major contributors to lower-than-usual attendance at national conferences.”

AASA’s report cited a USA Today poll published just before its February conference: “The survey found 44 percent of the public either ‘very afraid’ or ‘somewhat afraid’ of air travel, a negligible change since a late November poll.”

Lack of attendance was Topic A at this year’s AASA conference, but the lively lineup of speakers and a trade-show floor featuring more than 400 exhibitors, including many technology companies, also commanded the attention of conference-goers.

Country singer Dolly Parton was the main attraction at the conference’s first general session. She opened with the theme song from the movie 9 to 5 and closed singing part of the hit song “I’ll Always Love You,” which she wrote. In between, she received an award from AASA and spoke of her Imagination Library.

“My goal is to get a book each month to every prekindergarten child in the country,” she said. “That’s 15 million books mailed out each month.”

She was joined on stage by AASA Executive Director Paul Houston. Noting that he has a daughter who is blonde, he asked Parton what she thinks of dumb blonde jokes. Her reply:

“I don’t think about them, because I know I’m not dumb and I know I’m not blonde.”

Parton’s one-liners were a warm up for the zingers of satirist Mark Russell, who spoke to the third general assembly. Russell made fun of his audience (“Nobody ever says I want to grow up to be a superintendent”), current events, political figures, tobacco companies, and the Taliban. And even he couldn’t resist taking a shot at conference attendance.

“This event was brought to you by Enron,” he quipped. “Arthur Andersen was brought in to count the crowd. [Andersen declared] there are 50,000 people in this room.”

During the conference, AASA and ARAMARK ServiceMaster named the 15th recipient of the National Superintendent of the Year award: Gail Uilkema, schools chief in the 2,600-student district serving Piedmont, Calif., an affluent community near Oakland.

Uilkema edged out three other finalists: Lorraine Costella, superintendent of the 2,900-student Kent County Public Schools in Chestertown, Md.; R. Stephen Rasmussen, superintendent of the 7,900-student Franklin Pierce School District in Tacoma, Wash.; and Eric Smith, superintendent of the 106,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in Charlotte, N.C.

Technology is prominent at Piedmont. Ninety-eight percent of the district’s 500 computers and 100 percent of its classrooms are wired to the internet. Instruction is available in the latest software, a coordinator is stationed at each school site, and a full-time technology coordinator oversees the whole operation.

Momentum builds on eLearning

In a revealing study of electronic learning (eLearning) trends, Apex Learning and Blackboard Inc. indicated that more than half of United States high schools now offer online courses or are exploring them for the future.

The study, “Online Courses and Other Types of Online Learning for High School Students,” was conducted by Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc. of New York City. The results were unveiled at the conference Feb. 15.

Researchers surveyed 447 high school principals and 345 school district administrators. Their findings revealed that more than 40 percent of all public high schools already use online courses or are planning to start using them during this school year. Another 17 percent are interested in offering online courses in the future.

The study also revealed that 32 percent of public school districts will adopt and use an eLearning platform for the first time in 2002.

“When we began this study, we expected that we would see a fair number of schools offering online courses, but the momentum that virtual learning is building in U.S. high schools is noteworthy,” said Jay Sivin-Kachala, principal investigator. “The data suggest that many educational leaders are committed to taking advantage of the benefits that online courses can offer their students.”

School administrators who were surveyed indicated they are turning to online courses to help tackle a number of challenges.

Delivering a broader curriculum cost-effectively and expanding college preparation and Advanced Placement offerings were among the top reasons they gave for adopting online courses. Providing educational equity and resolving scheduling conflicts also were cited as key motivators. When selecting a vendor for online courses, survey respondents reported that an accredited curriculum was the No. 1 factor in their decision-making process. Other important factors included affordability; configuration for the needs of grades 9-12; ease and speed of implementation; reporting of student progress and outcomes; and realistic time and training demands on district and school staff.

To read the report’s executive summary, go to www.apexlearning.com or www.blackboard.com.

Exhibitor news

In the exhibit hall, technology solutions vied for attendees’ attention with food service companies, employee benefits providers, and other low-tech suppliers. Here are some of the key technology companies who were on hand:

Adobe Systems recently announced new Macintosh versions of two popular school titles, the web authoring software GoLive 6.0 and animation software Live Motion 2.0. “We are pleased to demonstrate our commitment to the OS X platform by delivering new native versions of Illustrator, InDesign, LiveMotion, GoLive, and After Effects,” said Shantanu Narayen, Adobe’s executive vice president of worldwide product marketing and development. “The reliability and performance of Mac OS X.1, coupled with our award-winning applications, will help our customers reap the benefits of network publishing.” http://www.adobe.com

Bigchalk unveiled four new database tools that facilitate student inquiry and learning. Bigchalk Multimedia, a reference database for middle and high school students, contains more than 435,000 audio and video clips, pictures, TV and radio transcripts, and maps, providing students with a full range of multimedia information for use in learning activities. Bigchalk Library Elementary is an easy-to-use reference tool with a broad range of content chosen specifically for K-5 students. Featuring an appealing interface for younger children, Library Elementary provides elementary students with access to audio and video clips and editorially selected web content along with traditional reference material, such as encyclopedia text, magazine and newspaper articles, maps, and pictures. Literature Online for Schools is a high school library database that combines a rich array of information and works with an intuitive interface. Finally, ProQuest Health delivers a broad spectrum of health-related and scientific material and presents it in accessible layman’s terms. http://www.bigchalk.com

Brodart’s Books Division has announced enhancements to its web-based collection development and ordering site, Bibz.com. These enhancements offer librarians a number of value-added services. Currently, Brodart has more than 16,000 customers using Bibz.com. Their feedback resulted in the following site enhancements: order duplicate checking, order status reporting, and improvements to age and grade range searching. Collection Development Manager Lauren Lee said, “Making enhancements to the Bibz.com site will be an ongoing process, in which we will continually be soliciting customers for feedback.” http://www.brodart.com

Shortly before the AASA conference, Houston-based Cimarron signed an agreement with the Cambridge Group to develop a comprehensive strategic planning package for school districts. Known as the Strategic Performance System (SPS), the package will increase a superintendent’s ability to track and monitor the educational progress of schools within the district. Through SPS, schools can develop their own performance plans, which can be easily monitored at the district level. By pulling up easy-to-read reports from a common database, superintendents can track student performance, compare school plans with the overall district’s plan, and make necessary changes to improve the quality of education. http://www.cimarroninc.com

Classroom Connect, a subsidiary of Harcourt Inc., previewed a new student-centered web quest, which runs Feb. 25 to March 22. During GreeceQuest, a team of explorers and scientists will bicycle through the ancient lands of Greece and Turkey to explore the true roots of western civilization, challenging K-12 students to answer the question, “Are the true origins of western civilization to be found in the East?” Classroom Connect also announced that it had formed a partnership with the Philadelphia-based Franklin Institute, which is widely recognized for its innovative science education programs. The partnership will enhance Classroom Connect’s suite of internet-based learning resources with content from the Franklin Institute Online’s science and technology collections. http://www.classroom.com

In January, Dell Computer announced that it had begun calling for interested school districts to submit proposals for Dell TechKnow, a technology training program that teaches middle school students to take computers apart, put them back together, and—at the end of the program—take their computers home at no cost. To be considered for Dell TechKnow, school districts must have an urban population of students who are at risk of missing classes and not graduating, and they must be willing to establish and support the training program and local community partnerships. For a complete description of criteria and to apply for the program, visit http://www.dell.com/k12/techknow.

According to a survey commissioned by Jones Knowledge, called “The Role of Librarians in the Digital Age,” 87 percent of librarians said their biggest challenge is the perception that “everything can be found on the internet.” The second largest challenge was funding library programs, services, and resources. Only two percent of those surveyed considered keeping up with current technology a challenge. Jones Knowledge also announced that it will deliver 25 Apex Learning online professional development courses via its Jones e-education course management and delivery platform. http://www.jonesknowledge.com

Lightspan debuted a customizable, online assessment tool called Lightspan Assessment Builder. The tool was designed to help schools meet the yearly testing requirements mandated in the new education law, No Child Left Behind. By using Lightspan Assessment Builder, district administrators can create assessments that are correlated to local standards, use paper and pencil tests in an online environment, or create test items in additional languages and subject areas. They can select from more than 60,000 test questions developed by Lightspan content experts or create their own from scratch using Lightspan Item Builder. http://www.lightspan.com

NCS Pearson has combined three education software and curriculum businesses to create a complete education package for schools consisting of curriculum, assessment, and enterprise data management products. The new business, called NCS Learn, represents the combination of NCS Pearson’s K-12 Enterprise Software Solutions group, the SchoolCONNECTxp application service provider, and the NCS Learn comprehensive courseware group. As a result, NCS Learn will offer schools a product called NCS4School, featuring administrative, curriculum, assessment, and collaboration programs in a single online solution. http://www.ncslearn.com

NetSchools Corp. announced that a new version of its online accountability system for student achievement, NetSchools Orion Version 4.0, will debut this summer. The new edition will allow schools to add online lesson planning, assignments, assessment, textbook correlation, reporting, and communication as their needs dictate. NetSchools also launched “Nettie’s Net News,” a free online newsletter written by teachers that will offer classroom tips and links to internet resources. http://www.netschools.com

QuickPAD Technology Corp. showcased its low-cost mobile computing solutions for education. The QuickPAD IR and QuickPAD PRO have built-in keyboards and small LCD screens. They use simple technology coupled with notebook applications that let students word process, manage and organize contacts, schedule due dates, and more. The QuickPAD IR costs less than $199, operates on four AA batteries for up to 400 hours, and can hold up to 250 individually named files in 10 separate folders. Using infrared technology, files easily can be transferred into any writing application in either a PC or Macintosh computer with just a single keystroke. http://www.quickpad.com

Riverdeep-The Learning Company announced that it has teamed with Kaplan K-12 Learning Services to provide training for teachers in Florida schools using Riverdeep’s products. Under the terms of the agreement, Kaplan will provide experienced instructional consultants to help public school teachers in South Florida use Riverdeep’s suite of web-based curriculum products, including Destination Math and Science Explorer. Kaplan, as a leading provider of K-12 educational and training services, was selected as a result of its success at providing professional development services to thousands of educators in large urban school districts nationwide, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. http://www.riverdeep.net

A New Jersey school district is deploying SpectraLink’s NetLink system of wireless telephones for every teacher and staff member at its 13 schools to improve safety and security. The New Brunswick School District will give its teaching, administrative, and technical staff members portable handsets to help them stay connected to the world both inside and outside the school walls, no matter where they are on the school grounds. The NetLink wireless telephones will be integrated with Cisco’s CallManager IP telephony application and Cisco Aironet wireless LAN access points in each school. http://www.spectralink.com

ProfessionalTeacher.com is a free, online service designed to simplify license renewals and professional development for K-12 teachers. The site was launched by Canter & Associates, a division of Sylvan Learning Systems. ProfessionalTeacher.com aims to streamline the recertification process for individual teachers attempting to meet their states’ requirements, as well as their own individual professional development goals. The site features concise, state-by-state license renewal requirements; links to state-specific renewal forms; a comprehensive glossary of current state terms; and a career center for working teachers. It also describes professional development options ranging from single courses to master’s degree programs to help teachers further their education. http://www.sylvan.net

Illinois teachers can now use a professional development CD-ROM from Technology Learning Solutions Inc. to earn continuing education credits. The CD-ROM, called “TLS Solution One: Internet Integration,” guides teachers to teach subjects such as math, science, and social studies in innovative ways. It also explains the WebQuest technique, an inquiry-based approach in which students use the internet to gather information for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. http://www.tlstraining.com ______________________

Associate Editor Elizabeth B. Guerard and Assistant Editor Cara Branigan also contributed to this report.