Anyone seeking evidence of a healthier U.S. economy and renewed tech-sector growth should have been in New Orleans from June 20-23 for the 25th annual National Educational Computing Conference (NECC).

The largest educational technology exhibit in the world drew a record crowd of more than 17,500 people, according to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which staged the conference. The massive crowd included 13,302 registered attendees from roughly 50 countries. They made the trek across an expansive convention floor that featured 1,189 booths and 450 companies displaying their hardware, software, and other solutions for educators.

The host city’s festive reputation helped shape an upbeat atmosphere surrounding the four-day show, but the real engine of enthusiasm was a tangible sense that the future is bright for ed tech. NECC 2004 seemed proof that the entire technology industry has reawakened after several difficult years, and the education field is one of its top priorities.

How else to explain the presence of so many high-profile attendees at this year’s show? Two of the world’s largest technology companies, Dell and Intel, both sent their CEOs to New Orleans, a clear indication of the field’s promise and NECC’s importance.

News from the exhibit hall

  • Assessment and instructional management
  • Communications and audio
  • Curriculum and software
  • Digital imaging and creativity
  • Hardware and peripherals
  • Library systems and technologies
  • Online learning and research
  • Presentation solutions
  • Professional development
  • School administrative solutions
  • Security and network management
  • Michael Dell, the founder and chairman of Dell Inc., who will relinquish his CEO post next month, was at NECC to launch his company’s Intelligent Classroom initiative. The program will provide schools with a low-cost bundle of computers, projectors, cameras, presentation screens, and other high-tech devices, giving classrooms an entire technology upgrade in one fell swoop. (See Dell expands push into classrooms.)

    Dell, whose company’s success has translated into a personal net worth of more than $13 billion, spoke of Dell’s central role in education. Nearly half of all U.S. school computers and computer equipment are Dell products, and the new Intelligent Classroom initiative could make Dell’s educational presence even greater.

    This rapid growth, dubbed the “Dell Effect” by Business Week, resulted from the company’s commitment to lowering prices in all sectors in which it competes. From 1998 to 2003, Dell’s sales to the education field increased by 224 percent, the company reported, compared with the average rate of 36 percent.

    “By passing savings along to our customers, we have grown education and made technology more available to students,” Dell said. “This helps the country develop a future workforce that can stay competitive with the rest of the world.”

    For Craig Barrett, the CEO of Intel Corp., NECC offered the perfect setting for a black-tie gala awards ceremony at which 20 schools were named winners of the Intel-Scholastic 21st Century Schools of Distinction Award. The awards recognized these schools’ “comprehensive programs exhibiting excellence in the use of technology, involvement of parents and community, professional development, teamwork, and high academic standards.”

    Several major ed-tech companies teamed up to present more than $2.3 million in technology grants to the 20 winners, with each school receiving curriculum materials, professional development resources, software, and hardware worth more than $120,000. The big winners at the Academy Awards-style event were Houston County High School in Warner Robins, Ga., and MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, which were named “Best of the Best” among the 20 honorees. The Intel Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant to each school, while distributing $10,000 to each of the 18 other schools.

    “By sponsoring these awards, we hope to share the outstanding programs and efforts these schools have put in place with other schools around the country,” Barrett said. “We have to learn from each other in order to transform our classrooms and our schools.”

    Dell and Barrett weren’t the only corporate heavyweights in New Orleans. Also on hand, having just engineered a $77 million initial public offering–the largest IPO of 2004–was Blackboard Inc. chairman and co-founder Matthew Pittinsky. He gave a speech on how online learning has affected relationships among education stakeholders.

    Pittinsky’s recent Wall Street success was yet another indication that educational technology’s key players feel the economic climate is ripe for expansion. Mona Westhaver, the president and co-founder of Inspiration Software, who was ahead of her time 16 years ago in developing one of the most popular educational programs in U.S. schools, also sees big opportunities in 2004. Westhaver came to New Orleans to showcase Inspiration for the Palm OS–making it one of the first major educational software applications to take the leap to handhelds.

    “We moved to the Palm OS because our customers were asking for it,” Westhaver said. “Educators felt there weren’t good products available for the handheld.”

    Handhelds were a major focus at the show, and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) turned up the spotlight by releasing “A Guide to Handheld Computing in K-12 Education.” The 56-page report, compiled by CoSN’s Emerging Technologies committee, features 12 case studies that describe how different schools are using handhelds and graphing calculators. CoSN examines the benefits of this technology, while also considering challenges that include management issues, the breakage and loss of handhelds, inappropriate use of the devices, and the relatively limited availability of software.

    “As more schools use handheld computers or are considering their use, it is critical to address the potential impact these devices can have on the education community,” said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. “We needed a resource to answer questions about how handhelds can function to facilitate student learning and development.” The handheld-computing guide is available for purchase at CoSN’s Online Store.

    Assessment and professional development

    Another key theme of the show was professional development solutions for teachers who are struggling to keep up with the available technology. Robin Surland and Deanna Somers, both members of the Instructional Technology Department for the Wichita Public Schools, gave a presentation on the history of their district’s innovative Standards for Teachers through Educational Projects (STEPs) program, which helps Wichita teachers learn new technology skills, create project-based lesson plans, and meet ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS*S). The intensive-but-optional program has enabled many Wichita teachers to become more comfortable with technology, while inspiring them to make it part of their curricula.

    Assessment and professional development have taken on added significance because of an approaching deadline. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation mandates that by 2006 every eighth-grade student in the United States must be proficient in technology literacy skills. To help teachers monitor student progress toward meeting those requirements, several initiatives were announced at NECC. For starters, a new free, web-based assessment tool made its debut. The tool was developed as a collaboration between ISTE and Microsoft Corp. and is a component of Microsoft’s U.S. Partners in Learning program. Based on NETS*S, the tool will contain 12 assessments along with classroom curriculum and teacher support materials. Seven assessments have been available since June 19 at the ISTE web site, and the remaining five will be available in mid-August. Each assessment meets at least two NETS*S standards and includes a mapping tool to specify the standards met. ISTE also is working directly with two educational testing companies to develop a technology literacy assessment for middle-school children. The assessment, which also draws on ISTE’s NETS*S, is designed to help school administrators meet the technology literacy requirements of NCLB. The International Computer Driving License U.S. company (ICDL-US) and online testing company Vantage Learning are the partners with ISTE in this venture. The web-based assessment will consist of several specific test units, each lasting up to an hour, with knowledge-based, performance-based, and open-ended questions that require students to apply what they’ve learned. A pilot project for the new assessment will launch in five to 10 states or large districts during the 2004-05 school year.

    In addition, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills–a public-private organization whose members include the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Dell, Microsoft, the National Education Association, and SAP–issued a series of free tools to help teachers, administrators, and lawmakers incorporate specific “21st-century skills” into the core curriculum. (See New guides help teach 21st century skills.)

    Few companies were as busy on the NECC news-making front as Sprint Corp. The global communications provider made several announcements in conjunction with the show. Two of Sprint’s announcements involved the company’s Empowered Education Desktop for Schools program, which combines Sprint’s network with online delivery of many learning tools from a wide range of K-12 content producers.

    At NECC, Sprint announced that the Empowered Education Desktop for Schools has added Atomic Learning’s online software tutorials and an application service provider (ASP) version of ParentLink, a web-based program that lets parents and teachers securely access essential school-related data through the web. Sprint also announced that it was teaming with Cisco Systems to offer a network video solution to enable teachers and administrators to provide rich, dynamic video content to classrooms using the school’s existing bandwidth.

    Digital video in the classroom

    When they weren’t talking about professional development or assessment, convention visitors focused on digital imaging and the integration of video into the curriculum. As teachers strive to make technology work for students, high-end video editing applications have been among the first to find a home in classrooms. A spokesman for Atomic Learning, which offers online tutorials to familiarize teachers and students with numerous software products, said the company’s most popular tutorials of late have been the iMovie program for the Macintosh and Windows Movie Maker for the PC.

    Video on demand also is heating up as an educational tool. In an independent study commissioned by Discovery Education, the use of short video clips during instruction was found to increase students’ math scores in four Los Angeles middle schools. Results of the study, which were released at NECC, supported earlier research that showed the company’s “unitedstreaming” video solution also was effective in teaching science and social-studies concepts. (See Video on demand boosts students’ math scores.)

    To help more schools experience the same kinds of gains, Discovery Education has announced it will offer its unitedstreaming service at no cost to one school in every non-subscribing public school district in the United States during the 2004-2005 school year. According to the company, the service provides access to more than 2,200 full-length videos and 22,000 video clips correlated to individual state education standards.

    Interactive videoconferencing, another popular use of video in the classroom, has gained momentum from the push for more professional development and the fact that the infrastructure necessary for its use is largely covered by eRate funding. At NECC, Canon USA and Tandberg showcased high-end systems that enable districts to bridge physical distances between educators looking for more technology instruction and IT personnel who might not otherwise be able to visit the school on short notice. Tandberg’s newest product, a videoconferencing unit on wheels, allows schools to easily move the equipment from one classroom to another, enabling multiple teachers to employ distance learning.

    ISTE also weighed in on the topic of videoconferencing, releasing “Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms: A Program Development Guide.” The book, written by three educators with extensive videoconferencing experience, offers numerous best practices for the technology. It is available for purchase through ISTE’s online bookstore.

    Feeding off the popularity of video, interactive whiteboards were out in full force. SMART Technologies, Promethean, GTCO CalComp, Numonics Corp., Mimio, and Polyvision all demonstrated their latest incarnations of hardware that transforms the traditional classroom blackboard into a multimedia learning environment, complete with interactivity and other elements designed to engage a generation of children who have grown up with video games and other visually stimulating technology in their homes.

    Students as technology ‘mavens’

    Technology’s role in helping increase students’ enthusiasm for learning was particularly evident during a CoSN forum to announce the release of the Youth Technology Support Collaborative’s new “School Decision-Maker’s Guide to Student Technology Programs.” In this 20-page report, YTSC examines the emerging trend of students providing technology support and leadership in schools. The entire guide is available online at http://www.studenttechsupport.org.

    “When it comes to technology, students sometimes can know more than their teachers,” said Tim Magner, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. “In many schools the technology ‘mavens’ are the kids themselves, and they are eager for opportunities to participate in the life of the school.”

    In a news conference detailing the report, YTSC presented five students, all from grades 5-8, who had spent the past school year in such programs.

    “I didn’t expect the program to be as rewarding as it turned out to be,” said Falan McKnight, an eighth-grader from Weir, Miss. “And I didn’t expect to learn everything that I learned.”

    “I was just surprised I could learn how to replace a power supply. I had never even seen the guts of a computer before,” said Kelly Lott, a sixth-grader from Purvis (Miss.) Middle School.

    McKnight, who took the course for a letter grade, recalled having to explain software to a science teacher multiple times because the teacher kept forgetting how to use it. She also said the experience brought her closer to the teachers, helping her realize her own value to the school. She noted that younger teachers were more comfortable with technology in their classrooms than their more experienced counterparts.

    Building a top-notch IT team

    Another major CoSN forum in New Orleans brought chief technology officers from several K-12 schools together to discuss their experiences with building their own IT teams and encouraging teachers to embrace technology.

    Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano (Texas) Independent School District, urged his colleagues to focus on personnel issues and recognize that the effective use of technology in schools would largely depend on those charged with overseeing it.

    “Mediocre people are going to give you mediocre results,” said Hirsch. “Good is not an option here. You have to look for great people and find staff who take responsibility and want to help others.”

    Dave Richards, technology and information systems director for the Rochester, Mich., Community Schools, spoke on the importance of a CTO’s role in creating professional development programs and ensuring that adequate funding is available.

    “The real challenge for most of us is getting people to fund professional development,” Richards said. “Bond money pays for hardware, but not for training of teachers. It’s our job to do a needs assessment and make sure training opportunities are appropriate.”

    Although his IT staff was limited, Richards found that by enlisting several of Rochester’s most respected teachers as “technology coaches,” he was able to break down many barriers. Teachers who were previously reluctant to integrate technology into their curricula became more receptive to the idea when presented with esteemed colleagues who had made the leap themselves.

    Bringing about change

    Keynote speaker Malcolm Gladwell urged educators in New Orleans to use their social power. (Cara Branigan for eSchool News)

    Two of the convention’s keynote speakers also emphasized the valuable role technology plays in the learning process and the importance of having teachers who are comfortable with it.

    Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Tipping Point, was the opening keynote speaker. He described how a single event–a live broadcast of a $1 million prize fight in Jersey City in 1921 between Jack Dempsey and George Cartier–helped personal home radios take hold in U.S. society.

    “Change happens far more quickly than you can imagine,” Gladwell said, whether it’s getting radios into the mainstream or computers into classrooms. The fall of the Berlin Wall is another example.

    It’s not economic or political power that brings change, Gladwell said. It’s social power, and it’s social power alone that can “bring about change to education.”

    Most people have a social circle of about 35 people, but a few people, whom Gladwell calls “connectors,” have social circles in the hundreds. Connectors, he says, have social power because they connect one person to the next and spread ideas.

    “Unless you have social power, unless you have the ability to reach many, many people in many, many different worlds, then you don’t have the ability to make a difference, to make a social change,” Gladwell said.

    Gladwell tied his concept of social power to the unique relationship teachers have with their own colleagues as well as students. He told the audience that they need to help those who are overwhelmed and frustrated by technology.

    “You may not be the most powerfully connected people, you may not be the most wealthy, but you have social power,” Gladwell said. “If you use it wisely, you can bring about social change.”

    Peter Reynolds, the author-illustrator who is also founder and CEO of Fablevision, gave a rousing speech to end the convention, urging educators to get technology into the hands of children because it will stimulate their natural creativity. Reynolds told the story of how his own high school teacher in Toronto sparked his interest in math by encouraging him to apply his artistic talents to an animated film about a mathematical concept. Reynolds credited this teacher with changing his entire life, putting him on a path to educational story-telling that ultimately led to the 1996 founding of Fablevision.

    A strong advocate of school laptop programs, Reynolds demonstrated the wonders of a graphics tablet by drawing one of his popular animated characters for the several hundred members of the audience. He then showed a short film based on his children’s book The Dot, which tells the story of a young girl named Vashti who feels her artistic talent is limited to her ability to draw dots. Vashti’s teacher encourages her to hone her dot-drawing skills, and by the end of the story, the formerly disenchanted girl has become a respected artist who inspires other students at her school.

    Reynolds urged educators to think of his story as a model for student-teacher relationships. By encouraging young people to use technology in creative ways, they can raise their self-esteem and make them more excited about learning, he said.

    “Let’s put tests in perspective and bring back creativity,” he said. “Right now, computers are often used in unspectacular ways, like test prep and testing. They aren’t used to get kids to be creative. Let’s put the technology right in the kids’ hands and let them make their mark with it.”

    Links:

    National Educational Computing Conference

    International Society for Technology in Education

    Consortium for School Networking

    Awards

    ISTE handed out a number of awards during the course of the show. Major awards included:

    • The Sylvia Charp District Award, won by the Irving (Texas) Independent School District
    • The Kay L. Bitter Vision Award for Excellence in Technology-Based Pre-kindergarten Education, won by Linda Sprague of Whit Davis Elementary School in Davis, Ga.
    • The Affiliate Award for Outstanding Leader, won by Bill Simpson of San Diego (Calif.) County of Education
    • The Affiliate Award for Outstanding Teacher, won by Deborah Singer of Miami-Dade (Fla.) County Public Schools
    • The Multimedia Mania Award, won by Tolenas School in Fairfield, Calif., Percy Juan Middle School in Oak Park, Ill., and Jasper Place High School in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
    • The SIGTE Research Paper Award, won by Melissa Pierson and Alysa McLachlan of the University of Houston
    • The SIGTel Online Learning Award, won by Karen Kliegman of Searingtown School in Albertson, N.Y.

    This eSchool News Online report on the 2004 NECC is made possible with financial support of Dell.