Across the nation in 2006, educators sought out new policies to deal with the problems posed by social-networking web sites and other emerging online tools. In Washington, voters ushered in a new Democratic Congress with plans to overhaul President Bush’s landmark No Child Left Behind Act; and in classrooms from coast to coast, educators continued their search for new educational technology solutions destined to prepare today’s students for the challenges of a new century.

In this two-part retrospective, the editors of eSchool News count down what we believe to be the top educational technology issues from 2006–many of which no doubt will continue to make headlines in the coming year.

We hope you’ll enjoy this look back through our archives and will use the information you find here to make the best educational technology decisions for your students in the New Year.

Happy Holidays, –The Editors

10. Cell phones: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Few technologies these days are as ubiquitous as the cell phone. But while parents rely on the portable devices to keep a bead on their children, and students use them to freely swap photos, music, and text messages with friends, the debate over the cell phone’s place in schools is heating up.

In the classroom, some educators say the devices represent what amounts to a double-edged sword. While the growing list of interactive features–including cameras, video-capture technologies, and storage capabilities–have many educational technology advocates pushing schools to embrace the cell phone as a potentially powerful classroom learning device, resisters argue that cell phones represent a distraction and a potentially dangerous security risk that, if not held in check, could spell trouble for schools.

In a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press, America Online, and the Pew Internet and American Life Project, young adults indicated that they used their cell phones as mini-PCs. Not only do the devices make and receive phone calls, they said, but they also serve to store information, run basic computing applications, and swap music files, ring tones, pictures, and movies. Some educators said the results were encouraging and pointed to how cell phones could be used in the classroom to influence learning. In some schools, they already are: Boston University earlier this year reportedly became the first to introduce a class on using cell phones as video-production tools, and other colleges and universities are replacing telephone landlines with cellular services for students that include educational content.

But just as the survey shed light on the potential for cell phones in education, other, more troubling developments have served to mute that enthusiasm. For example, in one recent story, eSchool News reported on how students were using a high-pitched noise that only they can hear as a cell phone ring tone that is undetectable to most teachers. There also have been reports of students using cell phones to cheat on tests, take compromising pictures of classmates in school locker rooms, and socializing with friends– instead of learning–during the school day.

As the debate over cell phones in schools has evolved, so, too, have the policies intended to govern the use of such devices in schools. While some parents–anxious to have a method of reaching their child in the event of an emergency during the school day–have argued that policies barring cell phones from schools are out of touch with reality, several districts, including the New York City Public Schools, have taken steps to ban cell phones entirely for the risks they pose. In New York, parents have filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s policy.

Here’s a look at the issues:

Malware migrates to cell phones

Students call on new video skills: BU students produce movies via cell phones for new company-sponsored class

Viewpoint: ‘No-cell-phone’ rules for students are out of touch

Parents sue NYC schools over cell-phone ban

Colleges go cellular to contact students

Schools dial up new communication plans: Campus landlines are disappearing as universities respond to cell-phone ubiquity

Teacher-proof ring tone latest ‘teen buzz’

Youths use cell phones as mini-PCs

Coaches woo students with text messages

9. One-to-one computing: Promising solution–or overhyped mistake?

One-to-one computing is another issue that continues to spark discussion–and debate–in education circles, particularly as developments in technology offer a range of new choices for schools.

Buoyed by the arrival of former MIT Media Lab Director Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop–a low-cost, Linux-based machine designed to bring the power of educational technology to students in developing nations–advocates of one-to-one computing in schools contend that an emerging crop of affordable laptop alternatives are making the promise of one-to-one computing a fiscal reality for schools.

Earlier this year, Intel Corp. announced its own alternative to the $100 laptop, a $400 machine called Eduwise that, unlike Negroponte’s device, will be marketed immediately to U.S. schools. In addition, Fourier Systems has introduced a new one-to-one computing device that aims to “bridge the gap between the cost-prohibitive laptop and the less functional handheld device.” Weighing 2.2 pounds, the company’s Nova5000 is a Windows CE 5.0 tablet computing device that aims to meet students’ everyday computing needs, including internet access, word processing, spreadsheets, and eMail–starting at $419. What’s more, a company called nComputing claims it can supply a one-to-one computing solution for schools for less than $100 per student, by fueling the computing needs of up to seven users off the processing power of a single machine.

Despite many new options that are driving down the cost of one-to-one computing, some parents and educators say there are still few measurable indicators to justify a large-scale, system-wide deployment, at least at current prices.

Though scaled-down alternatives might be appropriate for some learning environments, fully functional laptops remain cost-prohibitive in most school districts. Even for schools that can afford them, the question remains whether the price of the machines is too high for schools to optimize their investment.

As schools continue to demand more out of their technology purchases, the conversation about one-to-one learning in schools seems certain to continue in the New Year. Here’s a look at the key stories we published on the topic in 2006:

One-to-one computing for under $100?

School laptop debate heats up: Educators, parents, split on effectiveness of one-to-one learning

Maine extends laptop program with Apple

Educators salute $100 laptop’s architect

Intel’s answer to $100 laptop: Eduwise

eSN Special Feature: 1-to-1 computing on the rise in schools

Viewpoint: The ‘brutal facts’ of 1-to-1 computing

Gates: Cell phones, not laptops, will best answer poor students’ needs

State laptop plan prompts mixed reaction

New one-to-one device bridges the gap between laptops and handhelds

8. Video-gaming in the classroom: Playing attention

Video games used to be a hobby students engaged in after school, eschewing household chores and sometimes even homework on their way to conquering virtual worlds where education took a backseat to entertainment. These days, however, as technology and computer-based learning continues to play a more central role in education, a growing number of educators are urging schools to explore the possibility of video games as an educational tool. After all, they say, it’s what students are used to.

In October, the Federation of American Scientists, a group known more for its expertise on nuclear weapons and government security than education, released a report calling on schools to weave video games more prominently into existing curricula. In an age when the majority of students have grown up with computers, researchers said, video games could be used to reconnect with learners bored by traditional classroom lessons. Advocates also suggested that computer games, many of which are based on real-world simulations, could help teach students the types of analytical and critical-thinking skills most desired by 21st century employers.

For more on how gaming is being used in schools, see these stories:

‘Second Life’ develops education following

MacArthur to invest $50M in digital learning

Scientists: Can video games save education?

Microsoft to sell game-design software

Gotta catch ’em all! Pokemon courts schools with educational game

New course teaches instructional gaming: Teachers explore the benefits of computer gaming as a classroom tool

7. 21st-century learning environments: Building schools of the future

As educators search for ways to prepare today’s students for the challenges of tomorrow’s workforce, school districts nationwide are doing more than simply changing the policies that govern how teachers teach; many are redesigning the traditional classroom altogether, building special learning environments–and even whole schools–designed to better prepare students for success in a global, knowledge-based economy.

In Philadelphia earlier this year, students and administrators celebrated the opening of the School of the Future. A joint venture between software giant Microsoft Corp. and the school district, the $63 million building–equipped with everything from wireless laptops and electronic whiteboards to energy-efficient windows and customizable furniture for project-based learning environments–was touted as a cost-effective model that other schools around the nation could emulate as they sought to redesign today’s high schools for the 21st century.

Philadelphia isn’t the only place where architecture and philosophy have come together to redefine the notion of the typical American schoolhouse. Across the country, design firms have been working closely with educators to reconfigure traditional learning environments to reflect the needs of 21st-century learners. And the movement toward redesigning education for the 21st century got a huge boost last summer, when billionaire investor Warren Buffet announced a contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a strong supporter of the concept, totaling about $1.5 billion a year.

Here’s a look at how schools are changing:

Creating a ’21st-century school’ for learning and working together

Another kind of ‘intelligent design’: Schools link architecture, academics in new construction

‘School of the Future’ opens doors

Ed to win with Gates, Buffett: Buffett’s pledge, Gates’ direction should benefit schools

Dell, St. Louis team on high-tech school

6. Social-networking web sites challenge policy makers

The growth of social-networking web sites such as MySpace.com, the popular online community that connects millions of users with friends around the world by enabling users to post their personal profiles online, continued to confound school leaders and state and federal policy makers in 2006. Though the sites present an opportunity for peer collaboration and cross-cultural exchanges among students, they also have become trolling places for online predators and hotspots for cyber-bullying.

According to a recent survey conducted by the National School Boards Association, only 35 percent of the educators, administrators, and school board members who attended the group’s Technology + Learning Conference in November said their districts had policies to address the use of social-networking sites by their students. Fifty percent of respondents said their districts had no such policies, and 15 percent weren’t sure.

School leaders aren’t the only ones struggling with how to protect students who use social-networking web sites. Members of Congress introduced a bill that would ban the use of MySpace and other such sites in schools and public places, prompting outrage from some educators who believed the bill went too far. MySpace itself has taken steps to enhance security, though critics of the measures question whether they will be effective.

Despite the challenges these sites pose for schools, proponents of online social networking say the sites, when used effectively, can be educationally beneficial.

For more on the issue, see:

Virginia leads internet safety push

Police tap student sites to fight crime

Social-networking sites confound schools

Campaign targets web crimes against kids

Warnings about social-networking sites

‘Safe’ social networking sites emerge

Bill calls for MySpace age limit

New Va. law: Teach web safety

Experts to students: Watch what you post online

Editor’s Note: For Part 2 of our year in review, in which we count down the top five stories of 2006, check back at eSN Online Dec. 21.