Opportunity was the key word at the nation’s largest educational technology conference, where one keynote speaker urged attendees to “reframe challenges as opportunities,” and another talked about his efforts to provide opportunity–in the form of low-cost laptop computers–to all the world’s children.

An estimated 17,000 educators, administrators, and company and nonprofit executives gathered July 5-7 in San Diego for the 2006 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), where attendees had their own opportunity to take part in any of 100 hands-on workshops, sit in on any of 300 concurrent sessions, visit with more than 500 exhibitors–and even preview the $100 laptop that has ed tech abuzz.

NECC 2006 began with a bang on July 4, with an opening reception and fireworks display over San Diego Harbor. It continued that way on July 5, too, with an inspiring keynote speech (and stunning visual images) from famed photographer Dewitt Jones.

Jones discussed what he considers the four keys to creating a meaningful existence–vision, passion, purpose, and creativity–and what he believes are the means to achieving them. Using photographs and stories gleaned from his travels to illustrate his points, he urged conference attendees to “transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.”

Many of the lessons Jones imparted were drawn from his experience as a photographer for National Geographic magazine. In one example, Jones said he came upon a field full of dandelions. Rather than seizing the moment to capture a great photograph, he decided to come back the next day. But what he found the next day was a field full of “puffballs” instead.

Jones was disappointed, but he set out to find a good shot anyway. After much searching, he hit upon a stunning solution: He photographed a puffball from underneath, silhouetted against the sun.

His point? We should reframe challenges as opportunities. “There’s more than one right answer, more than one solution,” he said. If you lose the fear of mistakes or setbacks, then “you begin to embrace change, rather than fearing it.”

That’s an apt lesson for today’s educators, who find themselves confronting huge challenges and a rapidly evolving set of circumstances in a profession that traditionally has been slow to change.

So, how does one capture that “extraordinary” vision? Jones outlined four key steps: (1) Train your technique; (2) Put yourself in the place of most potential; (3) Be open to possibilities; and (4) Focus the vision by celebrating what’s right with the situation.

Though Jones did not speak to educational technology in particular, his words of inspiration and advice seemed to resonate with audience members, who gave him a hearty ovation when he finished.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which hosts NECC, introduced Jones by saying his keynote speech was meant to “rev your creative engines.”

Vision and creativity are traits considered “essential” to educational technology by conference attendees, in an informal poll that Knezek conducted with the help of personal response system technology. When asked, “What do you think is the most essential element for transforming education for the digital generation?” 44 percent of audience members chose “visionary leadership,” followed by “redesigned professional growth” (24 percent), “digital tools and content” (15 percent), and “individualized instruction” (10 percent).

“If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that technology must be systemic to be effective,” Knezek told those in attendance.

Creators, not consumers

Vision and creativity are characteristics found in abundance in the Day Two keynote speaker, former MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte.

If the digital revolution is about “placing power and opportunity into the hands of individuals,” as ISTE President Kurt Steinhaus told NECC attendees before the July 6 keynote, then Negroponte is a modern-day Samuel Adams.

Negroponte–founder of the One Laptop Per Child initiative and chief architect of the $100 laptop–brought conference-goers to their feet by describing his efforts to give kids in developing nations a low-cost computer they can take home with them. After his presentation, attendees had the chance to try out a prototype of the $100 laptop for themselves.

Negroponte’s goal is no less than the elimination of global poverty: “You’re not going to have peace if you have poverty,” he said in a press conference following his speech. In the process, his ambitious plan just might transform education worldwide.

“Kids learn not by being consumers of knowledge, but creators of it,” Negroponte said. And that’s the idea behind giving every child a laptop equipped with the tools to inspire creativity, collaboration, and communication.

(Note: For more on the One Laptop Per Child initiative, watch the seven-minute video clip, “$100 laptop…Billion-dollar idea,” at http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic.)

Negroponte’s plan comes as evidence is mounting that laptops can improve student learning.

In Maine, he said, where officials there were the first to provide laptops to all seventh graders statewide, about 80 percent of teachers initially were apprehensive about the idea. Now, he said, “try finding a single teacher who has anything bad to say about the program.” Attendance is up, kids are more motivated, and they’re assuming more responsibility for their own learning.

At NECC, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) announced the results of an evaluation of Michigan’s Freedom to Learn program, which was modeled after Maine’s laptop project. The study, conducted by the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, found that equipping Michigan teachers and students with laptop computers is increasing students’ motivation to learn, and they’re also gaining valuable technology skills.

HP and Microsoft collaborated with Michigan officials to design and implement the Freedom to Learn program, which currently has the participation of some 23,000 students and 1,500 teachers across 100 Michigan school districts. By giving students and teachers wireless laptops combined with training and curriculum, students are able to learn at their own level and pace, the study found.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is on record as saying that cell phones, not laptops, hold the most promise for getting technology into the hands of every child around the world (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6159). At the press conference following his keynote, Negroponte dismissed that idea.

“You don’t learn in a one-inch by two-inch window,” he said.

In introducing Negroponte, Steinhaus said the digital divide is a problem that “only innovation and smart public policy can bridge…Just think what one innovation like the $100 laptop can do in these places.”

Steinhaus referred to a Gates Foundation study of more than 400 high-school dropouts, which revealed that most had at least a passing average when they left school. Why, then, did they drop out? “Because they were bored,” he said.

But if you give kids the tools they’re familiar with–computers and internet access–“the results will be astounding,” Steinhaus said.

HELP arrives for schools

While Negroponte seeks to provide opportunities to kids in developing nations, a coalition of ed-tech companies and organizations aims to provide them for students and educators in hurricane-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast.

The Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP), a massive Intel-led effort to rebuild Gulf Coast schools with the technologies they lacked before Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, unveiled its new web site during a July 6 session at NECC 2006.

HELP is working closely with the New Orleans Public Schools and other Gulf Coast districts to rebuild and install technology in hurricane-damaged districts, with the goal of giving these schools the tools they need to become 21st-century learning environments.

The new HELP Team web site (see the bottom of this story for link), offers resources for team members and those interested in helping with the effort, ways to contact the HELP team, and an explanation of a 21st-century learning environment.

“Our huge concern was that if we do not get involved…a lot of the Gulf region would rebuild their schools in the same way they had before, which is really an 18th- or 19th-century learning environment,” said Terry Smithson, Intel education strategist. Smithson is heading up the HELP team initiative.

Carol Roberts, IT director of Plaquemines Parish Schools, the first area hit by Hurricane Katrina, talked about her experiences working with HELP and how the team is allowing her parish to realize its vision of having a 21st-century school system. Plaquemines Parish lost six of its nine schools in the hurricane. “A lot of bad happened on August 29, but so much good has happened afterwards,” Roberts said.

Other Gulf Coast educators echoed Roberts’ sentiments, praising the HELP team’s efforts and recounting how much their districts need help in rebuilding and making their districts better than they were before the storms.

“There are no movie theaters, there are no malls, there are no recreational facilities, period. It’s only through programs such as this that I think our kids will be able to rebuild their sense of confidence, their sense of purpose, their sense of hope,” one school principal said.

The New Orleans Charter and Public Schools, along with the New Orleans Parochial Schools, will host Education Technology Experiences, or demonstrations of what a 21st-century school environment should look like, in the beginning of August.

“We need to bring this 21st-century learning environment in and let these decision makers see what it is,” Smithson said. “We want to provide a 21st-century learning environment menu to people.”

During these events, HELP team partners will demonstrate how they work together using technology to create a more efficient classroom and equip students with the technology skills required for college and careers. Demonstrations will include the use of interactive whiteboards, smart cards, student response systems, tablet and notebook computers, and assessment tools.

Smithson said the team soon will launch a major funding campaign challenging corporations to donate money to Gulf Coast school districts. The money will go to these districts in the form of classroom technologies and teacher professional development. Plans for mobile classrooms, with 25 to 30 tablet or laptop computers, a printer, a projector, and a SMART Board, also are in the works.

The HELP team’s mission is to provide strategic guidance and support for the affected states and schools. Team partners have donated millions of dollars in products and services to the region. The HELP team hopes to leave behind a 21st-century learning model that can be easily replicated by other school districts and states across the nation.

“If you go there [to the Gulf Coast], I absolutely guarantee you that you will leave a changed person,” Smithson said.

NECC 2006 attendees might say the same thing about their time in San Diego.

Links:

NECC 2006
http://center.uoregon.edu/ISTE/NECC2006

eSN’s complete NECC 2006 coverage
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic

One Laptop Per Child
http://www.laptop.org

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.state.me.us/mlte

Michigan’s Freedom to Learn
http://www.fltwireless.org

HELP Team
http://www.educationhelpteam.org