Opportunity was the key word at the nation’s largest educational technology conference earlier this summer, 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 Corp. 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. 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.

Covering all bases

While Negroponte seeks to provide opportunities to kids in developing nations, a host of ed-tech companies and organizations aim to provide them for students and educators in the United States through a series of interactive video conferences.

Leonard DiFranza believes he’s got a home run for educators: The interactive systems technician from the National Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) was at NECC to discuss how teachers can use interactive video conferences with HOF staff to engage students and teach core curricular concepts.

In a live demonstration with James Yasko, manager of visitor education, DiFranza showed how HOF staff can use artifacts in the museum to impart knowledge. Yasko was in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the demonstration, and his image appeared on a large screen at the front of the room.

The Baseball Hall of Fame offers 13 different modular units to help teach concepts across the curriculum, DiFranza said. These include civil rights, American history, women’s history, science, economics, communications arts, geography, and mathematics.

In the American history unit, for example, HOF officials show an old baseball jersey worn by the 1917 Chicago White Sox, which contains an insignia of an old American flag. HOF officials use the jersey as a launching point to discuss America’s involvement in World War II, which led to a heated debate over whether baseball should cancel the 1917 World Series.

Each modular unit contains objectives, standards, background information, additional resources, pre-program and enrichment activities, and information about how to plan a HOF video conference, DiFranza said. All of these resources are available on the HOF web site free of charge, though the museum charges $100 per actual video conference. Educators can connect to museum officials through an Internet Protocol (IP) or Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) connection.

DiFranza’s presentation was one of a series of events showcasing standards-based applications of interactive video conferencing (IVC) in K-12 education. Other K-12 IVC Showcase sessions demonstrated how teachers can explore the effects popular music has had on society with experts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bring the natural world into their classrooms with officials from the Indianapolis Zoo, and take part in hands-on research with scientists at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

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