Realizing the promise of one-to-one computing and achieving the effective integration of technology into instruction were the foci as more than 13,000 educators, students, and exhibitors–including more than 8,300 paid participants–converged on the Austin Convention Center, Feb. 6-10 for the 26th annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference.

Taking “Technology Gone Wild” as its theme, TCEA aimed to guide attendees through the “jungle” of educational technology, with special speakers, hundreds of free instructional sessions, and 700 ed-tech exhibits.

Throughout the three-day event, one of the largest annual statewide demonstrations of educational technology in the nation, educators and software vendors alike came together to find solutions to a pressing problem: How to prepare today’s students for success in the new global economy–one where technology will intersect every aspect of their personal and professional lives.

Motivational speaker Coach Ken Carter was the featured keynote for the opening day of conference activities. Carter’s experiences as the head coach of the Richmond High School basketball team in Richmond, Calif., became the basis of the movie Coach Carter. Carter made news when he locked out his undefeated basketball team to push them to improve their grades. The team members later went on to be successful in basketball and academics.

In his speech, Carter emphasized accountability, integrity, and teamwork. His positive attitude generally matched the mood of those taking part in the morning’s proceedings.

But Carter’s words might have had more resonance than many of the educators in the packed conference hall would have liked. With President Bush proposing to eliminate the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program–the primary source of federal ed-tech funding for schools–in his 2007 budget proposal, part of $3.2 billion worth of cuts to education spending overall, Carter’s words on keeping a positive attitude while growing up poor in the south were perhaps too close in their relevance, if positive in their message (see story: Bush: Cut $3.2B from education).

“You can be broke,” Carter told the crowd. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But, never be poor. Broke is an economic state–just ask any college student, they’ll tell you. But poor is a disabling state of mind.”

It’s this same “disabling” state of mind that academics such as David Thornburg, a senior fellow at the Congressional Institute for the Future and author of Campfires in Cyberspace, a guide to teaching with the web, say is keeping schools from fully embracing the benefits of technology-based learning–and one-to-one learning environments in particular.

In an interview with eSchool News, Thornburg stressed the value of ubiquitous computing models in the nation’s classrooms. Thanks to lower prices made possible by the emergence of free, or inexpensive, open-source alternatives to proprietary operating systems and applications, he said, one-to-one computing is becoming an educational reality–albeit somewhat slowly. Despite the continued march of technology, Thornburg said, the average student-to-computer ratio remains stuck at 4-to-1, where it’s been now for nearly three years.

Thornburg attributes much of this sluggishness to a general reluctance on the part of educators–and even some parents–who he believes feel threatened by the emergence of anytime, anywhere learning in the nation’s schools.

“There is a perhaps well-placed fear among educators that if technology becomes ubiquitous, it will totally transform the practice of education,” Thornburg said. It’s this threat to the established economy of learning–where the teacher is the keeper of knowledge and the student is the one upon whom it is bestowed–that leaves educators uncertain, he said, adding, “[Educators] don’t want the practice of education transformed, because they’re very comfortable with it.”

And some of these concerns are justified, he said.

As with any kind of wholesale instructional change, Thornburg explained, it’s entirely possible that learners who thrive under traditional teaching models might encounter a learning curve when moving to a more cooperative classroom environment–one that is less dependent upon rote memorization and other strategies inherent in the textbook-and-lecture approach to learning.

Conversely, he said, many students who do poorly in traditional settings have been shown to improve dramatically in the types of collaborative, inquiry-driven, project-based learning environments offered by anytime access to technology.

“The possibilities offered to all students with this kind of access–we just can’t talk about that enough,” he said.

But achieving that potential won’t be easy, he acknowledged.

Like the business world–which today is powered by a vast array of digital tools, from cell phones and laptops to personal digital assistants–schools, too, must begin to integrate these technologies effectively, he said. Without them, U.S. students will continue to enter the workforce at a distinct disadvantage to their academic counterparts from other, more forward-thinking nations.

Assessing tech skills

During the conference, executives from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) brought together educators with makers of classroom technologies and other assessment tools to ease the transition to a better-connected 21st century classroom.

The session, “Assessing Students’ and Teachers’ Technology Skills: NETS as Benchmarks,” highlighted initiatives that focus on providing high-quality assessment items, tasks, and resources supporting ISTE’s National Education Technology Standards, or NETS, a list of benchmarks designed to promote the effective integration of technology in schools.

“Ready or not, the world is different,” said Christine Richman, a representative for the ISTE 100, a group of ISTE corporate partners recognized by the organization for their commitment to improving education through technology.

“One assessment may work for one school, and may not work for another,” Richman said.

To maintain vendor neutrality while demonstrating industry-wide acknowledgement of the NETS’ high quality, ISTE invited educational software providers Certiport Inc., Learning.com, Microsoft Corp., and PBS Teacherline to demonstrate their assessment products.

Together, the vendors showcased a variety of teacher- and student-based assessment tools, remediation solutions, and technology certification programs, all based on NETS benchmarks.

‘Techno-traditionalism’

Elsewhere at the conference, educators continued the search for new and innovative approaches to learning, sampling a variety of products and solutions designed to resonate with a generation of students raised on digital media.

“Any time you can keep a kid interested for a longer period of time by engaging more of their senses, the better they’re going to learn,” said motivational speaker Tony Brewer. Author of Beginners’ Guide to the Internet, Brewer led a session on the integration of digital presentation technologies in the classroom.

Using Photo Story 3, a free photo-editing product available for downloading from Microsoft, Brewer demonstrated how to edit images for presentations, using the program’s functionality to quickly create documentary-style photo editing using pan camera techniques, voice-overs, and more.

Brewer said the software enables teachers and students to incorporate their own images into assignments and classroom instructional materials for the purposes of illustration and demonstration, offering an array of possibilities for learning through the addition of a strong visual element.

In contrast to Thornburg, who said the effective integration of technology in the nation’s schools could be achieved only through a radical shift in teaching and learning, Brewer argued for the continued maintenance of more traditional approaches to learning, in which students are monitored closely by instructors, whose job is to engage them through traditional lecture and assignment-based practice activities.

The difference between the two styles provided a great illustration of the broad range of teaching and learning solutions represented at this year’s conference.

“The answer,” said Brewer, “is techno-traditionalism, which brings tech into play when it’s needed to engage kids in the learning process. By doing a PowerPoint presentation about the Civil War, with embedded videos and things like that, it’s a lot more engaging than just reading aloud from the textbook. Techno-traditionalist teaching brings technology in to enhance, accelerate, and engage the kids.”

The first step: Building the right infrastructure

But, as at least one school technology leader noted during the conference, pairing the right philosophies with the right standards will get you only so far. To make technology work for learning, the first step–for schools, at least–needs to be building an infrastructure that can support the needs of an evolving institution.

David Burkhart, network communications manager for Texas’s Wylie Independent School District (WISD), said in his presentation, “IP Telephony: Do It Right the First Time,” that district officials have to embrace the transition from traditional telephone network services to the much higher-functioning Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). VoIP converts analog signals of traditional telephone networks into data packets and transports them across a fiber-optic data network. This increasingly popular, flexible, intuitive solution to a district’s telephony needs reportedly lowers the total cost of ownership of the district’s network.

Burkhart said VoIP permits communications managers to have greater local ownership of and control over their communications network. He said it offers more features, including voicemail-eMail integration, drag-and-drop desktop options for assistants and secretaries, and video conferencing. VoIP also reportedly permits simplified, “fix-it-from-anywhere” support options for overstretched district support staff, and a far more redundant telephony network resulting in fewer communications disruptions, he said.

Burkhart’s step-by-step VoIP demonstration was intended for chief technology officers and systems administrators and was culled from his own experiences at WISD.

For officials who want to make the switch to VoIP, Burkhart offered a few helpful tips.

First, he said, administrators must embrace the concept of VoIP. Burkhart warned that critical administrative buy-in will help ease the difficulties that are likely to arise when transforming the district’s voice communications network. These will include technical as well as human challenges, resulting from the frustrations of faculty and staff as they adjust to the transition.

Burkhart also pointed out that the network should be cautiously deployed from building to building and “tested, tested, tested” through a third-party VoIP service provider who can come in and make certain that the network has been properly configured by the core district support staff. Burkhart also said it is best to use a single hardware vendor for the total solution, because “Cisco stuff works best with other Cisco stuff,” for example.

Burkhart’s final piece of advice: “Keep the secretaries happy. They’re the ones who are on the phones most often. If they’re happy, then the principals will be happy. If the principals are happy, then the teachers will be happy. Since you have to deal with all of them, then everybody being happy means less work for you.”

Links:

TCEA 2006
http://www.tcea.org

eSchool News Conference Information Center: TCEA coverage
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic