“Sparking a revolution in learning” was the theme of the 2005 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), the nation’s largest annual ed-tech event. Held June 27-30 in Philadelphia, where patriots such as Benjamin Franklin helped spark another revolution 230 years ago, this year’s NECC was one of the largest in its 26-year history, with some 16,000 educators and ed-tech executives assembling in the Pennsylvania Convention Center to explore how technology can transform today’s schools.

If there was an overall message that girded many of the sessions and keynote speeches at this year’s conference, it was that student voices hold the key to this transformation.

From student showcases, or student-led sessions in which kids demonstrated how they are using technology to enhance learning in their classes, to a Student Voice Film Festival sponsored by Philadelphia public television station WHYY, this year’s NECC featured many opportunities for attendees to hear students’ perspectives on a variety of issues facing educators today.

And that’s increasingly important in today’s digital age, many speakers and conference organizers said, because this generation of students has a whole new set of needs and skills that most schools so far have been slow to address.

Student voices might be key to igniting a revolution in schools–but it was educators’ voices that Kurt Steinhaus, president of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which organizes NECC, sought to encourage in his rousing call to action during the opening general session.

Steinhaus began his remarks by noting that more than 40 countries were represented by NECC 2005 attendees, and that the future of educational technology is as bright as ever on an international scale. In the U.S., he pointed to numerous achievements over the past year, including those by 2005 ISTE Outstanding Teacher Award winner Donna Roberts of Liverpool Central School District in Liverpool, N.Y., and 2005 ISTE Outstanding Leader Award winner Joe Hairston, superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools in Towson, Md.

But Steinhaus’ tone quickly turned to one of caution, as he spoke of the growing threat to federal ed-tech funding. Focusing on the Bush administration’s proposed elimination of the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology program in its 2006 budget plan, Steinhaus urged educators to become true ed-tech advocates, asking them to sign up with the grassroots advocacy initiative known as the Ed Tech Action Network (ETAN).

“We may be strangers to advocacy, but let me assure you that it’s learnable and doable–even empowering,” said Steinhaus. “I urge you to commit to this effort today … this week … at this conference.”

Exploding old notions of ‘knowledge’

Opening keynote speaker David Weinberger, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center, also took an anti-establishment approach in a lively and humorous keynote speech titled “The New Shape of Knowledge.” Few scholars have as much insight into the internet’s revolutionary impact on society as Weinberger, and he demonstrated this expertise by tracing conventional notions of knowledge from the ancient Greeks, through Descartes, and up to the modern technology-infused era.

Weinberger said he sees society at a crucial turning point with respect to its notion of what constitutes knowledge. In the days of ancient Greece, he noted, knowledge was far more flexible than it has been for the past several hundred years. Everyone in the community was welcome to voice their opinions in an open market of ideas as Greek scholars began to classify the true meaning of knowledge.

Over the years, however, the body of accepted knowledge became narrower and narrower, thanks to a prevailing belief that knowledge could be organized and mapped in ways that would hold up for all eternity.

For Weinberger, the Dewey decimal system is the ultimate example of knowledge-mapping gone haywire, because the classification numbers themselves were influenced more by Dewey’s personal experience than by external reality. Weinberger pointed out that Dewey set aside minimal or no number categories for any of the Asian languages, and had just one number for all of Judaism–compared with dozens for the various branches of Christianity.

As Dewey’s example shows, Weinberger argued, the world can never be classified, and it is only now, in the digital era, that knowledge is beginning to break free of this misguided organizational belief. On the internet, the owners of information do not control how it is organized or presented–and the seemingly infinite number of informational sources returned by most Google searches is the greatest reminder that there is no one truth.

Weinberger believes today’s kids understand this notion better than adults. They are growing up with web logs, or “blogs,” and social bookmarking sites that encourage visitors to contribute to a pool of research and discuss entire topics rather than simply accept what others tell them.

So much can be found online, Weinberger said, that it is almost silly to expect today’s students to waste their time memorizing information they can easily locate in what already exists as societal “scaffolding.” In this sense, information literacy and the ability to find accurate sources are more important than the previous generation’s need for each student know all the information by heart. It’s more important for today’s students to be able to readily find the capital of each U.S. state, rather than to memorize this information. Weinberger compared resistance to the internet to the past concerns about calculators in math classrooms, saying you can’t run from technology or ignore the reality of the world in which students live.

Weinberger urged NECC attendees to think about knowledge in this way–to “educate toward conversation” and encourage students to “seek ambiguity.” After thousands of years, the sort of dialogue once practiced in the Greeks’ open market of ideas is now emerging again on the internet.

Weinberger also had harsh criticism for present-day political forces that seem to insist on “testing against ambiguity” and forcing students to memorize facts rather than engage in a social form of learning.

“Some forces are afraid of ambiguity and difference,” he said. “These people believe there is one knowledge. … These people are afraid to admit they’re ever wrong.”

But the notion that there is one true knowledge is wrong, Weinberger said, because the “world will never agree.” Instead, each side of a dispute should focus on listening to and learning from the other. The internet, led by the blogging culture, encourages this–and that’s why it can be such a positive force in education.

“Sharing knowledge is the only way to share the world,” he concluded.

Listening to student voices

In a highly creative and entertaining keynote speech on June 29, titled “The Natives are Restless,” actress and educational technologist Deneen Frazier Bowen continued the premise that student voices are key, urging educators to ask questions and listen to what their students have to say about their instruction.

Her point: Listening to students will help educators understand the disconnect that often exists between students’ expectations for their education and what they’re actually getting from school, so educators can begin to help bridge this gap.

Bowen got her point across by assuming the roles of four characters on stage: Dr. Priscilla Normal, a research “expert” who believes all the answers teachers need about this new generation can be found in the demographic data; Edy, an eighth grader who discovers her voice and her best place for learning by writing a blog; Maria, a fifth grader who leads a school-wide effort to find out what the students in her school think about technology; and Joanne, an 11th grader who takes a journey around the world to get involved in her own community.

From the stories of each of the three student characters, it was evident that today’s educational system needs to reach students who learn in vastly different ways. Edy is most comfortable expressing herself via a written blog, while Maria prefers more verbal forms of communication, such as her cell phone and podcasts.

What’s also clear is that technology–whether a blog, or a podcast, or a digital story–can help students find or express their voice.

In her persona as Dr. Normal, Bowen revealed some compelling statistics about today’s digital “natives,” including these: 78 percent of students in grades K-3 know what the internet is; 58 percent of students in grades 7-12 know their friends’ screen names better than they know their friends’ phone numbers; and 18 percent of kids in grades 7-12 have four or more screen names.

In light of these statistics, it’s clear that today’s educational system needs to adapt to the methods and media students are most familiar with and comfortable using.

“An administrator’s job is to protect the system,” Bowen told eSchool News in an interview following her speech. “But administrators sometimes forget that it’s the students who drive the system.”

Related story:

eSN Conference Correspondents set coverage record
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStoryts.cfm?ArticleID=5779

News from the exhibit hall:

Assessment and data management
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5769

Grants, contests, and studies
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5777

Hardware and peripherals
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5767

Instructional technology
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5768

Library systems and technology
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5775

Multimedia creation tools
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5771

Professional development
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5774

Projectors and presentation tools
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5770

Research
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5776

School network administration
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5773

School video solutions
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5772

Links:

eSN Conference Information Center
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic

Official NECC site
http://www.iste.org/necc

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

David Weinberger’s home page
http://www.evident.com

Deneen Frazier Bowen’s home page
http://www.actwith.com