Using technology as a tool to prepare students for the challenges of the global economy was the focus as more than 2,000 educational technology stakeholders met Oct. 26 to 28 in Denver for the National School Boards Association’s 2005 T+L² (Technology, Leadership, and Learning) conference.

Returning to the Colorado Convention Center for the second straight year, this year’s event stayed true to its official theme: “Build the energy. Share the momentum,” mobilizing school stakeholders at all levels to embrace change by pursuing innovative uses of technology while building on a national conversation about the benefits of project-based learning in schools.

Technology is “a gateway to closing the achievement gap and creating 21st century learning environments,” said Joan Schmidt, NSBA president, in welcoming attendees to the annual event, now in its 19th year.

But, as several speakers and other conference attendees pointed out during the show, simply acknowledging the importance of technology isn’t enough. In an age when eMail and internet access are as essential to many students as paper and pencil, educators need not only embrace technology as a tool for learning, but also must understand how these devices are changing the way we receive, process, and use information in the digital age.

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), encouraged attendees and educators everywhere to embrace what he believes is the start of an entirely new technological revolution: The age of “personal fabrication.”

After years of harping about the coming of the “digital revolution,” Gershenfeld said, the time has come and gone. The new revolution, he claimed during a morning keynote address, isn’t happening on the internet, but in the classroom, where teachers and students are using a newfound understanding of technology’s potential to create … almost anything.

Imagine an alarm clock you have to wrestle to prove you’re actually awake, or a wearable container that works as a portable stress reliever, capturing your screams of frustration in silence and recording them for release at a more convenient time. Want something more practical? How about a device that eliminates red-eye from photographs, or low-income houses made from snap-together parts–giant Legos constructed to revitalize struggling downtown neighborhoods?

These and other innovations are all concepts that evolved out of Gershenfeld’s latest class at MIT. The course, called “How to Make Almost Anything,” surrounds students with millions of dollars of lab equipment, computers, and high-tech machinery designed for what the professor has dubbed “personal fabrication.”

The ultimate in project-based learning, the course brings students together to create personalized products designed to meet their own individual needs. Whatever they can imagine, Gershenfeld says, the idea is that, with the help of technology, they can build it.

Rather than mass-producing products, Gershenfeld says technology will evolve during the 21st century so that individuals can become their own manufacturers, using digital blueprints constructed on computers to produce products that address their own unique needs–whatever those might be.

“Technology can be as passionate an experience as painting a painting or writing a sonnet,” said Gershenfeld, who predicts that in the future, rather than taking classes about how to use technology, the trend will be to offer more courses that teach students to create technology–from the ground up.

Gershenfeld called on educators to create “villages of innovation,” where different cultures and societies can congregate to share ideas and create new products from the power of their own imaginations, “not by being consumers,” he said, “but by being creators.”

This ideological shift already is under way in some forward-thinking schools. During the conference, dozens of students and teachers were honored for using technology as means to achieve their artistic visions.

As part of the T+L² Technology in the Classroom MovieFest competition, students created and submitted 60-second public service announcements meant to emphasize technology’s impact on their education. Sponsored in part by Apple Computer Inc. and the Apple Distinguished Educator Program, the event recognized student filmmakers in three separate grade ranges: K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

After showing their winning submissions, which included a music video about technology’s influence on learning and a montage of shots depicting the use of Apple products in the classroom, the young producers took to the conference exhibit hall, where they documented the goings-on at the show for a presentation during the closing general session.

“Technology is not just about typing your book report & it’s about turning something great into something extraordinary,” said student video producer Jillian Dukes, whose production team from Hebrew Day School of Central Florida in Maitland, Fla., took home top honors in the K-5 category for its film “iApple,” a look at technology’s impact in elementary school classrooms.

(eSchool News and Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications, also sponsored a student video production crew during the conference. For more on the eSN student video correspondents, click here.)

Student musicians also had a chance to display their talents during the Electronic Music Composition Talent Search, a joint competition between the National Association for Music Education and NSBA that recognizes budding composers who embrace technology as a means of producing music.

Trumpet player Peter O’Regan from Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Mass., won with his composition “Appomattox Sunset,” which he wrote, produced, and recorded using technology installed on home and school computers.

Other winners included student Albert Sackner Behar from Ojai Valley School in Ojai, Calif., for his composition “Quartal,” and Carrie O’Foran, a second-grader from Horizon Elementary School in Sterling, Va., for her composition “Our Class Song.”

Entries were judged based on their aesthetic quality, effective use of electronic media, and their power in communicating the benefits of electronic music composition in the school curriculum to school board members, administrators, and others.

No matter how they use it, NSBA’s Schmidt said, “technology is the [educational] driver behind today’s millennial generation.” Unfortunately, as she pointed out, the degree to which educators and stakeholders understand this is less than consistent.

One school system that has come to understand the power and promise of technology in transforming education is Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C. One of three “Salute Districts” recognized during the conference for using technology as a tool to boost student achievement, Richland is among the fastest-growing school systems in South Carolina, servicing more than 20,000 students.

Speaking on behalf of his district, Superintendent Stephen Hefner said the goal in Richland is to build one-to-one learning environments, where “everyone can shine.”

With more than 900 computers in 50-plus internet-connected classrooms, teachers and students in Richland use technology in every aspect of the learning process–whether it’s through the use of electronic whiteboards, or as part of the school system’s virtual learning program, which encourages high school students to pursue more rigorous courses in preparation for college.

The district even has devised its own software, TestView, which reportedly lets teachers use up-to-the-minute student performance data to drive instructional decisions. The system was such a success that last year the district licensed it to a technology solutions firm for regional and national marketing.

Hefner, who was honored by eSchool News as one of the 10 most Tech-Savvy Superintendents in the nation in February, said he knew his staff was doing a good job integrating technology when “at the end of the day, kids asked to stay” in school.

Also honored were the Clarke County School District in Athens, Ga., and Northside Independent School District (NISD) in San Antonio.

With the help of several successful bond measures, NISD–which has about 75,000 students and is the state’s sixth-largest district–reportedly has raised more than $120 million for technology-related programs in the last nine years.

Georgia’s Clarke County, which enrolls just 11,500 students, focuses on preparing district leaders to better understand the role technology can play in achieving the district’s academic goals.

Following the infusion of technology and staff professional development programs and other resources, 70 percent of Clarke County students now meet or exceed state standards, said Superintendent Lewis Holloway in acceptance of his district’s award.

“For these school districts, technology is not an isolated subject left to a few teachers, but a resource the entire staff embraces to ensure their students have the preparation and experiences they need to be successful in the future,” said Ann Flynn, NSBA’s director of educational technology. “Our ‘Salute Districts’ have an appropriate vision for technology and have provided the necessary support to make it a reality.”

Where are we going?

Although the pervasiveness of technology is championed by most ed-tech enthusiasts, keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain–founder and chair of the Webby Awards, an international awards program that honors the best and most innovative sites on the internet, and on-air technology expert for the television news program Good Morning America–cautioned that the pace of innovation, while loaded with potential, also could lead to certain challenges educators should prepare for.

“We’re all so immersed in technology that sometimes we fail to see how it’s changing the way that we live,” she explained. When thinking about the internet, Shlain encouraged educators to ask themselves: “Where are we today, and where are we going?”

In an era when more than 500 million people in more than 40 countries now use the internet, Shlain said, technology affects everything from how we view our own personal space, to how we communicate with friends and co-workers, to the way we write and record our thoughts, and the information we consume.

Through interactive web sites like MySpace.com, where teenagers and adults reportedly are flocking in droves to create their own personal web environments as a means of personal expression, to Wikipedia.com, the online encyclopedia that invites users to edit and add to the comments of those who came before them, the internet–unlike school projects and book reports–“is organic … it’s never done,” Shlain said.

The result, she said, is a free-flowing culture of ideas that encourages students and others to forge new relationships, question how they live their lives, and think critically about the choices they make.

“People want to share what they know, and people want to hear what other people have to say about things,” Shlain said.

With this change comes great responsibility, she said, especially for the nation’s teachers, whose job is to prepare students for life and work in a new century.

“We need web literacy,” she explained. With all the changes that are occurring in how we access, receive, and process information in a digital world, she said, students and other members of the online community need to develop a sense for what is and is not reliable. At the same time, she added, students also must understand that the internet–while full of useful information–is not the only place where high-quality educational materials can be found.

As the internet continues to play a more prominent role in the way we conduct our lives, Shlain said, the needs and wants of students will continue to evolve–and so, too, will the challenges facing educators.

Already, Shlain said, the web is providing evidence of new trends in education and personal communication. Blogs, a form of personal expression once defined by writings and commentary, are becoming more multimedia-focused, including photographs, videos, and other features that provide new outlets for personal expression. Search engines also are getting smarter, integrating advanced features and customized interfaces to help users more easily locate what they’re looking for online. Meanwhile, in the classroom, distance education is becoming an increasingly attractive option for students looking to take on more rigorous courses.

So, just where are we headed, exactly?

Shlain says she’s not quite sure. But wherever this online odyssey eventually leads, one thing is clear: The allure of the internet will always be about the potential to be a part of something “larger than ourselves.”

Links:

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org/

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

eSN Conference Correspondents
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic/nsba/blog/index.php