The National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference has made quite a comeback from a year ago, when low turnout led organizers to consider ending the 18-year-old event.

On Wednesday, the nation’s second-oldest educational technology conference showed it was completely revitalized – as thousands of educators and ed-tech enthusiasts descended upon the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. The program that included a rousing keynote speech by MIT’s Michael Hawley, an exhibit hall packed with more than 200 companies’ booths, and a number of after-hours events, including the Education Excellence Fair, and the Scantron/SchoolNet New Heights Leadership Forum, where the U.S. Department of Education’s Susan Patrick discussed ED’s 2004 national ed-tech plan and the bright future of technology in American classrooms.

Building on the momentum from last summer’s National Educational Computing Conference in New Orleans, T+L² offered more evidence that the economy has rebounded for technology companies, and addressing school needs is a big priority. Several of the vendors who spoke with eSchool News mentioned that they had recently added employees. Meanwhile, educators were quick to note the increased focus on technology in their districts and an increase in school leaders willing to embrace high-tech solutions.

Patrick, who spoke during the day at the conference and later at the New Heights Leadership Forum, was a center of attention. The federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act has left a major stamp on the ed-tech world. Companies focusing on assessment and data management continue to thrive in a climate that considers these areas crucial to the future of schools. Similarly, content providers-particularly those with research validating the use of their products in curricula-are also talking about an increased demand as schools recognize that access to massive amounts of online material makes a difference in the lives of young learners.

And with a healthy tech economy, there was even room for new solutions. A number of companies have sprung up to offer teaching tools involving computer animation. One company drew attention to its animation product by attaching motion sensors to dancers, whose movements were replicated by animated characters on giant display screens.

Teaching tools reminiscent of video games are sure to catch the attention of a generation that has grown up with technology. In her presentation, Patrick noted that students typically spend the bulk of their lives immersed in technology, but in schools, their high-tech exposure drops to a national average of only 15 minutes per week in front of a computer. ED wants to align learning environments with students’ real-world environments, and these are packed with technology. She stressed the importance of one-to-one computing and the dissonance experience by students who have computers at home find it difficult to access them in schools.

“The world around us has changed dramatically,” she said. “Students show up in our schools and wonder how these environments are relevant to their world.”

Patrick said Secretary of Education Rod Paige is a “huge advocate” of how technology can transform education, and ED keeps a close eye on how it is being implemented. She noted the role of online assessment in informing instruction and the instant feedback technology offers, enabling assessment to take place more rapidly than ever before. She also said ED is keenly aware of emerging technologies and the future they might have in education.

“We want to transform education, not just modernize instruction,” Patrick said. “Technology integration is a limiting term. Simply integrating technology doesn’t transform the experience. It assumes the current way of doing things is right. We have to look at new ways.”

By contrast, keynote speaker Hawley, the Director of Special Projects at MIT, downplayed his own high-tech resume to focus on the role of students and teachers. A true renaissance man, Hawley is a talented pianist who won the Van Cliburn piano competition, a passionate sports fan, and the founder of Friendly Planet, which produces books about how young people learn in the developing world.

Hawley told two very personal stories. In the first, he described his “up close and personal” experience of watching Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France. A longtime cycling fan, Hawley recalled how MIT researchers had helped a younger Armstrong analyze his cycling style, and how this led him to improve by as much as 10 percent. Hawley noted Armstrong’s willingness to learn from others, including non-traditional sources such as the MIT scholars. He also said part of what makes Armstrong such a great student of his sport is a belief in teamwork and his personal graciousness. After losing a grueling leg of the Tour, for example, Armstrong told reporters that just seeing the joy in his victorious competitor made him happy as well.

In another story, Hawley spoke directly to teachers, marveling at the role they can play in an individual student’s life. He recalled his own piano tutor at Yale, who just happened to be the head of the piano program at the university’s music school. After hearing Hawley play piano once, this professor convinced him to turn away from football and soccer and instead make the most of his musical talent. Hawley said that this professor’s continued support in the years after he left college helped motivate him to compete in the Van Cliburn competition.

His message to teachers was that no matter how much technology might come into classrooms, it is still up to teachers to use of this equipment in giving students a different perspective on life that motivates them to improve themselves (like Armstrong) or explore new areas (like his own experience with the piano).

As if in sync with Patrick’s call for a transformation of the learning experience, Hawley called on school leaders to “think about stuff differently.”

Such an optimistic and pioneering spirit was certainly reflective of T+L²’s opening day.