As the Bush administration sends the message through its proposed budget for the next fiscal year that educational technology isn’t as important a national priority as the president’s other goals, education leaders in Bush’s home state of Texas aim to catapult what used to be a regional technology conference into a signature national event.

The 25th annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) convention closed in Austin Feb. 11 with a record paid attendance of 8,362 educators, a record total attendance of more than 13,000 people, and an exhibit hall featuring some 360 ed-tech vendors. Conference attendees got an early look at a new template designed to help educators create WebQuests more quickly and easily, and they were treated to other technology-based solutions, many with a special focus on math and science instruction.

The mood of the conference was generally upbeat. The record attendance furthered its organizers’ goal of bringing the Texas state conference up to a level of national importance in the coming years. But the recent federal budget announcement and concerns about ed-tech funding cast a slight shadow over an event designed to showcase the latest ed-tech solutions. (See “Budget to cut deep in the heart of Texas.”)

The 2005 TCEA conference opened with a frenetic keynote address from motivational speaker Ron Clark. Clark, winner of the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year award and many other honors, including Oprah Winfrey’s first-ever “Phenomenal Man” award, told a standing-room only crowd in the Austin Convention Center his stories of working with problem children in North Carolina, Harlem, and around the world. Clark, a man with a passion for travel and adventure, told educators that his “greatest adventures happened right within the four walls of the classroom.”

The speech was preceded by videotaped testimonials from students whose lives Clark had affected. Most were children with severe behavioral problems whom Clark worked with in Harlem. Those images were interspersed among images of Clark speaking with Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell, as well as images of him dancing and jumping “double Dutch” rope with his students.

A large part of Clark’s message expanded on the rules laid down in his book, The Essential 55, a guide for students that reads like Cliff’s Notes for the social contract. “Kids like structure. I remember in college people were always saying, ‘Never have any more than five rules’–that’s such crap!” he said.

Clark believes children want to know how you want them to behave. “But they also want to know that you respect them,” he said.

Clark said children–especially those understood to be problem children–internalize and repeat bad behavior by being judged to be “bad kids” by both peers and adults.

“A lot of these kids don’t have a good family life at home,” Clark said, while standing on top of a chair. Stepping down, he said, “I try and make my classroom a family; I try and make the schools I teach in a family.”

Clark told the audience that demonstrating passion in teaching is the best way they can reach students. “Now, I know that most of you people won’t run around acting like me,” Clark said, seamlessly slipping into a dance move.

“This conference is about technology,” he said in his only direct mention of the TCEA conference theme. “If you teach it with passion [and with respect and consistency], then your students will eventually respond.”

Audience members certainly responded to Clark.

“I saw a lot of tears,” said Kaye Eskue, a teacher from Texas who attended the speech. “He has a lot of love for what he does. His message, I think, was that you have to incorporate that love into your teaching.”

Another attendee described Clark as “a force of nature that can’t be contained.”

Changing the system

If the opening keynote address from motivational speaker Ron Clark was about renewing a passion in educators, the Day Two keynote speech by Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, was about using this energy to examine the deficiencies of the nation’s K-12 schools.

“I’m never politically correct; I say what is on my mind,” Daggett began by saying. He then went on to explain how his organization has identified the top 30 schools in the nation.

“High-performing schools spend a lot of time not talking about the latest [technological] gadget, but talking about the changing world,” Daggett said.

Daggett asked the crowd to consider a young person in their personal lives–someone under the age of seven. “What year was it when you were that child’s age? Was it the ’50s?” he asked. “What was cutting-edge technology of the ’50s? Television? Do you remember manual typewriters and carbon paper?” He said teachers could not have imagined what the world today would look like back then.

“Here’s my prediction: There will be more technological change in this country in the next four years then there has been in the history of mankind,” Daggett told a hushed crowd.

He said the world outside public schools won’t use “information technology” (IT) by 2008. Biotechnology, nanotechnology (a branch of science that seeks to control individual atoms and molecules to create incredibly small computer chips and other devices), and IT will increasingly overlap and continue to drive change in all fields. Education, he said, must keep up with this change.

Daggett examined specific developments in these fields. For instance, he discussed the development of a watch-sized computer that, through nanotechnology, projects all the content of current PCs directly onto a physical surface and, in the same manner, projects a keyboard that can read keystrokes.

By 2008, Daggett said, consumers will be able to buy a device in a drug store that reads DNA through saliva and–through an interface with another readily accessible device–discover if they are personally predisposed to thousands of different diseases. Expectant mothers will be able to discover the same for their fetuses.

In the realm of IT, through the use of a developing technology known as the semantic web, Daggett said “we will no longer search for data through keywords and headers, but by asking broad questions.” When retrieved, he said, these data will come instantaneously and be highly malleable.

All of these technologies, Daggett said, are interdependent: “By 2008, it won’t make sense to speak of information technology. We’ll just be speaking about technology.”

Through the current emphasis on testing and compartmentalized learning in schools, the increasingly interconnected nature of the various disciplines is being ignored, Daggett said–an oversight that could have incredibly negative results for the children currently in school.

“You know what’s scary to me?” he asked rhetorically. “You can’t imagine the world my five grandkids are going to live in.”

Daggett called for radical reforms in curriculum design that reflect this interdependency of the various disciplines. “Our children are going to drive the use of these new technologies. We need to be aware of them,” he said. He was especially critical of remedial programs in the United States.

“There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that pulling a kid out of a class that he likes to teach him stuff that he doesn’t like works,” he said, suggesting instead that educators seize opportunities to do things like teach math through the language arts and music, and vice versa. He said technology can be used to do just that.

“The most successful schools,” Daggett said, “don’t use technology to make improvements on the current system that doesn’t work; they use it to change the system.”

Educators at the conference seemed to have mixed reactions to Daggett’s presentation.

“I agree with him that our curriculum should be more integrated,” said one educator from Irwin, Texas. “But I don’t know if many of the older teachers would be open to changing their habits this late in the game.”

Meeting the funding challenge

A regularly scheduled meeting of the Ed-Tech Action Network (ETAN) at the TCEA conference was forced to deal with the surprise announcement that President Bush plans to eliminate entirely the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology apart from the eRate. TCEA hosted the first local meeting of ETAN. Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, said, “We were all in a state of shock and disbelief.”

The meeting at TCEA “really was a planning meeting to talk about our advocacy day in Washington on March 21,” Krueger said. “But we took a portion of the meeting to discuss & how the cuts will impact each state. We knew we were going to be discussing a small budget cut; we didn’t think we [would be] talking about the huge cut that occurred.”

A thousand ETAN members “on the front line of this issue” are willing to talk directly to government officials about their concerns, Krueger added.

“What was especially shocking is the fact that the administration had just released the national ed-tech plan,” said Sheryl Abshire of the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La. “We were ramping up to speak to the issue of funding that plan.”

Abshire added, “We felt we had our legs cut out from under us” owing to earlier cuts in education funding. “But now we feel we’ve had our torsos severed. I am very saddened that we are balancing the budget on the backs of the neediest children in the country [whom EETT has served]. I think, with this budget, we’re leaving all the children behind.”

All the talk of major cutbacks in ed-tech funding could lead administrators to seek out more creative and inexpensive ways to use existing classroom technology.

One possibility is the use of WebQuests, an already popular way to use the internet to foster an inquiry-based approach to instruction. Bernie Dodge, a professor of educational technology at San Diego State University (SDSU), held a workshop for those seeking to develop WebQuests for classroom instruction. Dodge developed this instructional model, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, at SDSU along with his partner, Tom March.

Dodge plans to introduce an accelerated WebQuest model at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Philadelphia on June 28. He previewed this new version in his TCEA workshop.

“One of the basic problems with the WebQuest for all these ten years has been that it takes a long time to create one,” Dodge said. “I had templates created for teachers to use. But they still need to know how to use a web editor, FTP it up to a server, and have a server. There are a lot of teachers out there who are good teachers who would just not participate in this.”

The new accelerated WebQuest is a web-based, streamlined model with a built-in tutorial. “The tool guides instructors, step by step, just like I would [if I were] standing behind them in a workshop,” Dodge said. “They respond to prompts on the web site, [and this new version] does not require teachers to know how to use a web editor. I never have a local copy. They have a web address to which they can refer their students.”

Dodge said what used to take weeks of free time for educators to develop can now be done in a weekend.

He will offer the service at no cost until the end of the year, he said. But “once I scale this up,” he warned, “I’m going to have to buy a more expensive server and probably hire some people to maintain it. So [the new accelerated WebQuest] will be offered on an inexpensive subscription basis after 2006.”

Testing for success

Although support for standardized testing among educators is mixed at best, the heavy emphasis placed on testing and accountability in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) made assessment a major theme at this year’s TCEA conference. A number of software and hardware packages featured at the conference were aimed, in one way or another, at testing and assessment.

One testing system that stood out was Harcourt Assessment‘s Stanford Learning First. The multiple-choice system first takes into account a state’s individual standards and then tailors a test to suit the specific needs of the state. According to Harcourt, most other companies typically develop one standardized test and use it as the basis for later state adaptations.

The online testing system allows educators to conduct both web- and paper-based testing, the results of which are easily tracked via the company’s web site. Perhaps the most interesting element of Stanford Learning First is its built-in formative component. Answers to questions on the test are written using what Harcourt calls an Answer-Choice (Distractor) system. The system posits four answers to any given multiple-choice question, only one of which is right. Every Distractor answer represents a typical error. Teachers can then track the typical errors made by students and modify instruction techniques to address those deficiencies.

Stanford Learning First tests are now being administered in six states, including Texas. The system currently tests only for reading and math in the third through eighth grades. But Harcourt hopes to take the program much further. It is developing the system to test for other subjects and, according to one Harcourt representative, the company hopes eventually to “design 51 unique tests–one developed to the standards of each state and the District of Columbia.”

CTB/McGraw-Hill demonstrated its pre-made iKnow tests. These tests are being offered in reading and language skills, applied math, and math comprehension for ages 14 to adult. With iKnow, teachers can get instant reports on individuals or groups, and they have the option of conducting testing both online or in print. Hard copies require special scanners for scoring.

The common iKnow testing system is based on national assessment standards. These standards are then tailored to meet state-specific standards. A representative for McGraw-Hill said state-specific iKnow tests have been designed for a number of states. The iKnow tests are reviewed for adherence to state standards by educators from each of the states they’re developed for, he said.

Education software provider Riverdeep Interactive Learning also announced a new version of its math and reading courseware, Destination Success. Version 3.0 is a web portal-based version, hosted at the district level. Students, teachers, administrators, and parents can access the courseware from anywhere the internet is available.

The new offering includes prescriptive, formative assessment courseware that permits instructors to tailor lessons down to the individual student level or ratchet them up to the state level. It also reports Adequate Yearly Progress by subgroups to guide school and district-level decision makers toward meeting state and national standards.

The math portion of the Destination Success courseware, Destination Math, is now being offered in Spanish in this new version. Driving a great deal of traffic to the Riverdeep booth was the recent announcement that five independent school districts in Texas have adopted the bilingual math courseware to serve approximately 1.2 million students.

Teaching math and science

The Destination Math announcement was just one of many at TCEA that focused on new or innovative products for science or math instruction.

Local technology giant Texas Instruments (TI) demonstrated its TI-Navigator system, which offers schools another solution for managing a math or science learning environment. A combination hardware and software system, TI-Navigator includes individual system hubs, which connect with four graphing calculators, and software that allows instructors and students to collaborate and work individually.

The system includes a wireless access point to allow wireless communication between the teacher’s PC and the students’ graphing calculators. The standard system can be bought to meet needs of 16 or 32 individual students per classroom, but TI can supply a classroom with up to 40 of the devices.

TI-Navigator allows for anonymous student collaboration through the calculators. Results and average student scoring can be shown on a whiteboard or projected onto a large screen by the instructor. Teachers say the system allows for greater student ownership of the class materials.

The system includes modules designed to create and instantly grade online quizzes and exams. The results of students’ work can be tracked in a color-coded graph that instantly displays overall student performance.

Another local company, Ignite Learning, led by President Bush’s brother Neil drew large crowds at the conference in previewing the new version of its science courseware, Ignite Science. This latest suite of materials offers integrated science instruction for the middle-school grades. It will be fully available for the fall.

The software includes textbook-level teaching in a multimedia format with thousands of video clips, songs, animations, and engaging activities that are correlated to national standards and customizable to the state level, according to company representatives, adding that a year’s worth of teaching materials is provided for each grade level.

The entertaining animation demonstrated at TCEA, with recurring characters like the know-it-all scientist “Mr. Bighead,” seemed to appeal to viewers, engaging them with materials that appeared to be a cross between late-night programming on the Cartoon Network and NOVA. Such pedagogical tactics answer one of Daggett’s central calls to employ strategies to teach materials that might otherwise fail to captivate a teenage audience in a way that is more accessible.

Though not as well attended as the keynote speakers’ addresses, a speech by Forrest Mims III was well received in an off-site conference session at a nearby hotel.

Organized by iScienceProject in support of the company’s newly-updated, more powerful version of the HOBO science data logger, this session brought Mims–billed as the most widely published science writer in history–to Austin. Speaking about the road that led to the HOBO’s creation, Mims discussed the history of data logging–beginning with the log itself.

He began his talk by showing the audience a tree ring, which acts as a natural data logger. By cutting the tree and studying the rings that form during its annual growth cycle, Mims explained, a recording of data such as climate, sunlight, fire damage, flooding, and a variety of other environmental factors can be determined.

“Kids wouldn’t be intimidated by science if they had a device like this,” Mims said in describing the HOBO data logger, which records and charts external light, temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and a variety of other atmospheric conditions. Mims noted that a third-grader can easily operate the matchbox-sized device by simply pressing a button and downloading the climate information recorded on the device to a computer. Yet this same tool also is used by researchers for a wide variety of complex projects, such as determining the effects of volcanic eruptions on global air quality, Mims said.

iScienceProject offers the new 12-bit data logger to educators for a two-month trial period at no cost. At the end of this time, if the class has developed a lesson plan that is not presently on the free iScienceProject web site, the school is permitted to keep the data logger. In exchange, iScienceProject retains proprietary rights to the lesson plan.

Other products and solutions

NetSupport Inc., a company that provides on-site support for networks and attached workstations, showed conference attendees its latest security and management software application, NetSupport School 7.5. A NetSupport representative told eSchool News that the management system “allows teachers to focus on what they do best–teaching.”

Instructors can centrally manage the workstations of an entire PC lab with NetSupport School. One option allows instructors to display a screen on individual or selected student workstations. Another option gives teachers thumbnail views of up to 16 student computer screens at a time. The screen, keyboard, and mouse of any given student workstation also can be controlled through NetSupport School 7.5.

The NetSupport system permits instructors to capture screen freezes from student workstations, and student activity can be recorded down to the individual keystroke. The system will continue to record such student activity until it is told to stop. These functions operate on the level of the classroom or, for curious administrators, the entire school.

Teachers can identify active and minimized applications on student computers. Applications can be dragged and dropped into “approved” and “restricted” lists. Approval and restriction can be managed down to the individual student level. An instructor also can rigidly control student eMail, permitting students to send and receive messages only to and from approved addresses.

Netsupport 7.5 includes a full Student Testing Module that allows an instructor to design, customize, and administer tests in multimedia formats. Instant student surveys also are available. Using these tools, instructors can immediately find out if students have internalized materials presented in the classroom.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) offered a new suite of mobility products. Kathy Martin, the director for HP’s education and government division, said the company’s booth at TCEA was “very well attended” for demonstrations of the nc4200 series notebook. The notebook can be converted to a tablet computer that includes a digital eraser pen with tether and clip, designed to allow users to write in a manner reminiscent of an old-fashioned pen. It features a number of enhanced security options ideal for a learning environment in which portable devices may be removed from within the firewalled confines of the school, HP said.

Another HP solution, the HP Enterprise BladeSystem, gives IT professionals the ability to better manage and consolidate their servers. The system features a flexible, reconfigurable rack design server that allows for the sharing of power, networking, and storage connections throughout a school. The BladeSystem technology provides virtual physical, modular power components. That means power is pooled and intelligently directed to applications that need it and minimized to those that do not.

The BladeSystem technology also brings all the different data sources in a school into one virtual data warehouse, where student information, assessment data, demographics, and other core information can be processed and regularly evaluated while carrying out daily classroom activities, HP said.

FileMaker Inc. promoted its FileMaker Database Project For Kids, which aims to supplement the database training that many schools have had difficulty addressing so far. “Schools are doing a poor job of teaching database [skills],” explained Bob Barboza, one of the project’s developers. Yet these skills are needed in the world students will encounter when they leave school, he said.

FileMaker has beta-tested the project in three middle schools so far, sending database trainees to Junior Business, Junior Medical, or Junior Law schools. These labs simulate the environments in which professionals work.

The FileMaker software “was so intuitive, the kids could operate the database within a week,” Barboza said.

In addition, Barboza noted that algebra and other subjects that are difficult to get kids interested in are embedded in each of the database projects. Students must solve certain problems to get to the next level of the Junior professional narrative, and in doing so, the program demonstrates the real-world importance of topics such as math–something teachers have been trying to pull off since before Aristotle began compiling his lesson plans, Barboza said.

3com Corp., which provides telephony, wireless, and a number of other solutions to school districts, has teamed up with Alinian, a provider of financial software, to offer administrators free use of an investment tool that can evaluate proposed technology solutions to determine if they’re a good value for the district.

The Alinian ROI Analyst program is specifically calibrated with demographic data that can inform school district budget decisions, 3Com said. With a two-page set of questions, educators can identify what type of IT solution they’re looking for and the size of their district. The software then uses this information to analyze the proposed solution’s return on investment (ROI).

The 3com product suite is used as the default pricing mechanism. But labor rates, industry averages within the United States, and other necessary economic information reportedly can be overwritten by users. The free service is designed to be a new foot-in-the-door strategy for the company–a 3com representative brings the ROI Analyst software to his or her meetings with school administrators, enters the relevant information, and generates a report based on that information.

While you wait, your 3com representative would be happy to discuss with you all the voice-over-IP (VoIP) solutions that 3com offers. 3com representative John Halpin noted that all these solutions are based on industry standards and therefore do not necessarily have the three- to four-year refreshment cycle common to many technologies.

“The fact that we do everything for interoperability allows you to get better value out of your new investments, because we are not proprietary with the protocols,” Halpin said. “The cost of training for your people is also less, because [our solutions are] based on an industry-standard perspective.”

Related item:
More than 60 session reviews from TCEA

Links:

TCEA
http://www.tcea.org

Ron Clark’s web site
http://www.ronclark.info

Willard Daggett’s web site
http://www.daggett.com

Ed-Tech Action Network
http://www.edtechactionnetwork.org

Official WebQuest page
http://www.webquest.org

Harcourt Assessment
http://harcourtassessment.com

CTB/McGraw-Hill
http://www.ctb.com

Riverdeep Interactive Learning
http://www.riverdeep.com

Texas Instruments
http://education.ti.com/educationportal

Ignite Learning
http://www.ignitelearning.com

iScienceProject
http://www.iscienceproject.com

NetSupport Inc.
http://www.netsupport.com

Hewlett-Packard Co.
http://www.hp.com

FileMaker Inc.
http://www.filemaker.com

3Com Corp.
http://www.3com.com