A clear theme emerged at the National School Boards Association’s annual T+L² Conference in Denver Oct. 27-29: School technology has come a long way, but it’s time to take the next step.

Educators who traveled to Denver for the 2004 conference were treated to three days of tremendous optimism about technology’s future in learning. From the bustling exhibit hall, where more than 200 vendors touted many new solutions for the challenges faced by schools, to a parade of featured speakers urging administrators to embrace the role of technology in a new learning paradigm, all signs indicated that the future will belong to school leaders willing to meet 21st-century needs with 21st-century approaches.

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 that addressing schools’ 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.

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    The mood at the Colorado Convention Center reflected the boost this event gave to T+L² organizers, who just a few months ago had questioned the conference’s future. Not only will T+L² be back in 2005; it also will return to the same location where it enjoyed such success in 2004.

    NSBA president-elect Joan E. Schmidt said this year’s conference had drawn 2,300 paid registrants–a 77-percent increase from the lackluster 2003 event. T+L² also brought 1,300 exhibit personnel to Denver, for a total attendance of 3,600 people.

    While the overall tone was positive, messages aimed at educators–particularly those in decision-making positions–were sober. Simply bringing technology into schools could never be enough, the lecturers agreed. Making a student’s education relevant to his or her world was the bottom line, and for the most tech-savvy generation in history, this would only be possible by stressing learning outcomes that require the use of technology.

    Susan Patrick, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Office of Educational Technology, was a center of attention. Patrick was on hand to discuss ED’s 2004 national ed-tech plan and the bright future of technology in American classrooms.

    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. Patrick stressed the importance of one-to-one computing and the dissonance experienced by students who have computers at home but 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.”

    ED’s Susan Patrick was the center of media attention after she spoke at the New Heights Leadership Forum. (eSchool News photo by Dan David)

    Patrick said Secretary of Education Rod Paige is “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.”

    Keynote speaker Michael Hawley, the director of special projects at MIT, focused his presentation 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 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 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: No matter how much technology might come into classrooms, it is still up to teachers to use this equipment to give 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.”

    Focus on the learner

    Day Two of the conference featured two speakers who hammered home this theme of transforming education in a pair of inspiring lectures that raised key questions about the future of technology in schools.

    Sir Ken Robinson, senior adviser to the President of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, gave the day’s opening speech. An expert in developing creativity and former education professor at Great Britain’s Warwick University, Robinson was knighted in 2003 for his service to the arts. He showed the T+L² crowd why he deserved this honor, and why he was honored as Europe’s business speaker of the year, with a memorable 40-minute presentation that mixed first-rate stand-up comedy with deep insight.

    Ian Jukes, speaking at the day’s Showcase Luncheon, also combined wit with a clear passion for learning. During his high-energy presentation, which lasted 65 minutes, Jukes directed forceful words at education leaders, all but pleading with them to re-evaluate the role of technology in their schools and ensure that individual student learning remained the focus, regardless of the high-tech equipment used.

    It seemed more than a coincidence that Robinson’s and Jukes’ lectures built on a thread in the opening-day speeches by Hawley and Patrick. Both Hawley and Patrick urged their audiences to recognize that today’s world is fundamentally different from that of previous generations, and that the very nature of education must change with the times–keeping the focus on the learner and emphasizing real-world relevance in curriculum-related choices.

    Robinson wasted no time making this same point. He began by discussing what he called a “hierarchy in schools,” in which languages and math are at the top of an inverted pyramid, towering over science, the humanities, and, lastly, the arts. Noting that no country teaches dance on a daily basis, he complained that schools are still only educating people from the neck up.

    Questioning the lack of emphasis on arts and physical education, Robinson pointed out that many societies associate a subject’s relevance with its potential economic benefit. In mainstream Western culture, the arts are scorned, he said, because of the perception that there is no money in them for anyone but truly gifted people. As a result, the notion of creativity becomes separated from, and less valued than, the concept of intelligence–even though creativity is just as important and is often what drives the greatest human achievements.

    Robinson pointed to a British study in which 1,600 children between the ages of 3 and 5 were tested for their level of “genius.” In this age group, 98 percent of the children qualified as geniuses. Three years later, in the same test, only 32 percent of the same group were still classified at the genius level. By high school, only 10 percent retained this status, and when 200,000 25-year-olds took the test, only 2 percent qualified. Robinson blamed this phenomenon on schools.

    “We are inhibiting the capacity for original thinking in schools,” Robinson said. “Our present education system was invented in the 19th century and designed for an industrial economy. But this is no longer an economy in which 80 percent of the workers are performing manual labor, and those with a college degree are no longer guaranteed a job.”

    In the next 100 years, however, Robinson noted that it will be crucial for Americans to educate young people for the post-Industrial Revolution, because the jobs for which students have long been trained–and which form the basis of most curricula–are moving to Asia.

    Robinson concludes that it is therefore time for American educators to recognize that intelligence is diverse, and creativity should be encouraged, rather than stifled under the weight of outdated thinking. As for technology in schools, he sees a bright future. He urged education leaders to find and use high-tech tools that bring creativity out of their students, which inevitably would lead to breaking away from a limiting educational model.

    “We must first do away with the hierarchy of subjects. And we must recognize that technology is not just some add-on to an existing curriculum. It is a means by which the future will be created,” he said.

    Robinson received a standing ovation for his remarks. Jukes was also well-received, although he went a step further in challenging his audience to finally deliver the “long-awaited technology revolution in education.” Jukes insisted that most schools have failed in their efforts to recognize the value of the technology on which they spend so much money.

    “The value and place of technology is still being questioned,” Jukes said. “Why is that? Why is it that schools lag in the use of these tools?”

    Jukes cited considerable research that backs up claims of technology’s power in school buildings, but he faulted school leaders for failing to understand the bigger picture.

    “The use of technology is still largely on the periphery,” he said. “Technology is not transforming learning.”

    Why are schools failing to maximize their technology investments? Jukes argued that our society continues to look for a cause-and-effect relationship between the presence of technology in schools and the improvement in test scores–a relationship that by itself does not exist. At the same time, he faulted educators who scorn technology for threatening traditional learning tools, including books.

    “I respect their opinion, but they are wrong,” Jukes exclaimed. “Our living in a technology-rich society is a reality. … It is an undeniable fact that the world has changed.”

    Jukes pointed to three levels of technology in education. The first level, known as the Literacy Level, focuses on technical skills such as keyboarding and mastering specific software packages. Jukes said most U.S. schools have never gone beyond this level.

    The second level, known as the Integration Level, works technology into a traditional curriculum. At this level, a student might effectively use the internet to research a paper, or use a spreadsheet program to produce a report. While the Integration Level is a step in the right direction, it is not enough for Jukes.

    “The question should be if I take the technology away, will the learning and teaching be the same?” he said.

    Jukes encouraged educators to strive for the highest level of technology in schools, the Transformation Level. In this framework, the focus is on targeting learning outcomes that can’t be achieved without the use of present-day technology. He gave one example of students instructed to recommend a travel destination for an upcoming weekend. These students would go to the internet and research the available options. They would then use the internet and spreadsheet software to predict and compare the weather in each city. Their ultimate achievement of the assigned task would come from a sequence of activities not even possible for previous generations.

    The key would be learning by doing. Technology would be part of the experience of learning.

    “Am I teaching technology in this situation?” Jukes asked. “Yes, I am. … And no, I am not.”

    Jukes also called for professional development models that instruct teachers to learn with technology in a similar fashion, because most teachers would be able to instruct others only in the way they were themselves instructed.

    Also on Day Two, NSBA and the Center for Digital Education announced the culmination of a joint survey to examine how school boards are applying technology. The survey also ranks the top 10 school boards nationwide for using technology to enhance their ability to function. Rankings are available on the NSBA web site.

    Board members from the top 10 boards explained why they made the leap to going digital. Among those responding was Nancy Roche of Forsyth County, Ga., whose school board finished sixth overall.

    “When we had kindergartners giving PowerPoint presentations at a school board meeting, we decided it was time to lead them by example, not the other way around, so we decided to move toward technology,” Roche said.

    Remember to engage

    Cile Chavez was shown on giant TV screens as she spoke to educators at the T+L² closing session on Oct. 29. (eSchool News photo by Dan David)

    The message to take school technology use to the next level was delivered one last time in a conference-ending speech by former Littleton, Colo., Public Schools Superintendent Cile Chavez. She reminded school leaders that they are the gatekeepers of children’s trust, and that they can’t afford to fail their students by delivering an outdated learning experience.

    “Even with the advanced technology we have, we must remember to engage,” Chavez said.

    Chavez noted that responsibility placed on educators is even greater today, because the wider society often seems to forget the value of education. She lamented that a recent issue of Time magazine examining “Visions of Tomorrow” left out education altogether while including subjects such as fashion and celebrities. Because educators are often left out of a wider cultural emphasis, the burden falls on them to remain focused on the importance of their task.

    “The key question is: What do we do now with what we know?” Chavez said. “School leaders must make manifest a compelling sense of purpose. Of all we could do, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What must we do?'”

    Calling on her audience to rethink the meaning of learning, Chavez reminded them that most people seek only two things–to be deemed good and to do something significant with their lives. Only educators can simultaneously transform a young human being in both areas, and to do that, they must maximize the potential of technology. Viewed only as a tool, technology could not possibly play a role in true learning.

    “We can foster the goodness of children and inspire their genius,” Chavez said. “This is more than teaching automation. This has everything to do with transformation.”

    Echoing several other T+L² speakers, Chavez said it was time to really listen to students because, in many cases, they had as much knowledge about technology as their teachers. Stifling students’ voices would be counterproductive at best.

    “Let’s stop doing the very things that impede learning,” she urged. “Let’s stop doing the things that we did 50 years ago.”

    Before Chavez’s speech, a group of K-12 students showed just how much they knew about technology as they presented winning entries in the NSBA/Apple Computer MovieFest competition. As part of the competition, students across the United States were challenged to produce 60-second public service announcements that demonstrated the need for more technology in schools.

    Student-produced films demonstrated how the world has changed. In one film, a youngster struggled with Wite-Out and erasers as he wrote a paper, while a classmate breezed through the same exercise using word-processing software. In another film, a high school student’s back was crushed by the weight of books in his backpack, while another was able to transport massive amounts of learning materials on his small, handheld computer.

    Ann Flynn, director of NSBA’s Educational Technology program, presented the week’s final Technology Leadership Network Salute to Colorado Springs District 11. Terry Bishop, the district’s deputy superintendent in charge of technology, noted how his team helped increase graduation rates by 3.8 percent. Successful programs in Colorado Springs include a digital school at a local shopping mall and a student-produced cable television channel. He also noted the long-term success of an early decision to turn each school’s librarian into a resident technology expert.

    Reported and written by Online Editor Dan David, with exhibitor information developed by Managing Editor Dennis Pierce, Associate Editor Cara Branigan, Assistant Editor Corey Murray, and Contributing Editor Laura Ascione.

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