In this two-part special retrospective, the editors of eSchool News highlight the ten most significant educational technology stories of the past year. Part 1, which appeared Dec. 20, featured stories No. 10 to No. 6; here are what we consider to be the top five issues affecting educational technology in 2006.

5. Online learning comes of age, multiplying the opportunities available to students and teachers.

The past year saw an explosion in online learning programs for teachers and students, continuing a trend that some experts predicted would begin to level off.

Instead, according to a report from the North American Council for Online Learning, enrollment in K-12 online classes grew by more than 50 percent in some states–and at least 38 states now feature either state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online education, or both. In higher education, the story was the same: According to the Sloan Consortium, which tracks online enrollment figures at higher-education institutions annually, online enrollment was up 40 percent over the previous year.

Educators say the trend is fueled by several factors. In some states, schools are using online learning as a way to reach out to students who are sick or cannot attend neighborhood schools. (To facilitate this, the nonprofit Virtual High School launched a pilot program earlier this year that is offering virtual-school seats at no cost to three children’s hospitals–and the group hopes to expand the program to other hospitals nationwide.) In other places, virtual-school programs provide an alternative for students whose needs aren’t being met by a traditional education. (At Stanford, educators have developed an online high school for gifted and talented students interested in taking more advanced, college-level courses. And in Mississippi, to curb a high school dropout rate that is among the highest in the country, state education officials are proposing a self-paced, online curriculum as one solution.)

Earlier this year, Michigan became the first state in the nation to make virtual learning a requirement for high school graduation. And as online learning has exploded in popularity, at least two groups–the Southern Regional Education Board and the National Education Association–have released standards defining excellence in online teaching.

One recent development that will help push online learning to even further heights is the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM, an emerging set of standards designed to promote interoperability, accessibility, and reusability of online learning materials. Proponents say the specifications should help schools integrate any SCORM-compliant digital content into their existing learning management systems (LMS), regardless of manufacturer.

The emergence of SCORM is making innovative experiments like the one in California possible, where a new program under way in select elementary schools has history teachers scrapping traditional textbooks in favor of digital learning materials. But despite this progress, an ongoing patent dispute between leading online LMS provider Blackboard Inc. and its competitors threatens to cast a cloud over the LMS market.

For more on how eLearning is changing education, see:

FLVS debuts forum for virtual teachers

Music education moves online

Study: Virtual-school enrollment explodes

Patent fight hits eLearning

Free online instruction for hospitalized kids

New standards aid in virtual instruction

Virtual schools again in spotlight

California schools adopt digital history program

vSKOOL brings vital aid to hurricane victims

Students grade online ed programs

Mississippi proposes self-paced, online curriculum

Stanford targets gifted high schoolers

Free online courses teach tech skills

Gathering SCORM could transform eLearning

’24-7 Learning’ extends the reach of Fairfax County schools

Mich. first to mandate online learning

4. Video goes ‘viral,’ expanding the reach of college lectures–and turning ordinary students into internet celebrities.

Last year it was MySpace that exploded onto the internet scene, forever changing the nature of the web. This year, it was the video-sharing web site YouTube. Providing users with the ability to upload and share their own videos easily online netted YouTube’s creators $1.6 billion when the site was purchased by Google Inc. earlier this year–and it has made internet celebrities out of countless teens armed only with video cameras and a little imagination. As author and inventor Ray Kurzweil noted at the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning Conference in November, this kind of technology “is very empowering; it’s very democratizing.”

YouTube was merely the most high-profile example of a trend that really flourished in 2006: the rise in online video, which has had enormous implications for schools. Besides helping students become creators and publishers of their work, the emergence of YouTube, Google Video, and other online video-sharing services has given schools a wide array of new tools to help them connect with today’s crop of media-savvy learners.

Looking to include the use of video more in the learning process, innovative educators in Missouri recently launched a new online television network that delivers educational content via IP-TV. Many schools, and now even some entire conferences, have begun streaming football games and other sporting events on their web sites, eliminating barriers such as cable or satellite TV availability or advertising support. And the development of the video iPod has opened new doors for schools to make video recordings of lectures and other content available to students for downloading and watching at their leisure.

For instance, at the University of California, Berkeley, students and others all over the world now can access a special account through Apple’s iTunes U, where they can download webcasts of lectures and other events on campus to their desktop, laptop, or portable iPod. Many colleges and universities also have tapped video as a way of reaching out to prospective students, using online tours and other video resources as a recruiting tool to lure students who otherwise might not be able to visit the campus in person.

Even eSchool News has seized upon the online video trend. Earlier this year, eSN launched TechWatch, a free monthly video news program that reports on ed-tech news from around the nation. The program is available via streaming video online–but it’s also available in other digital formats for school systems to broadcast over their local cable channels.

For more on the online video movement and how it’s likely to affect your schools, see:

Ex-coach: Tech a win for student athletes

Calling visual learners: ‘TechWatch’ debuts

Webcasts offer a winning formula for school sports

Video-on-demand service a valuable tool for teachers

Schools use technology to share course content

Ohio district saves $200,000 by streaming cable TV to classrooms

Video sharing creates challenges for schools

Interactive video conferences cover all bases

Student TV finds a home on the web

Technology creates lectures on demand

MSBA debuts online TV network for education

3. Education 2.0 has arrived: The emergence of web-based services and other open technology alternatives is changing the nature of school software.

Hoping to lure teachers and students, thus capturing the attention of a whole new generation of users, Google–the world’s largest internet company–this year launched an online portal for educators, complete with lesson plans and other resources designed to help educators use the company’s free online tools (such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets, an open alternative to Microsoft’s Word and Excel) in their classes. The site also contains resources for using Google Maps in education, and Google last month ran an online project encouraging students from around the globe to brainstorm ways to slow or stop global warming–using the company’s software to collaborate.

Google is perhaps the largest, but it’s by no means the only, example of how the emergence of free, or low-cost, web-based services and software is changing the nature of school computing. For years, schools have been using web-based software for their data systems, administrative systems, and even their curriculum software–and students and teachers have used web-based eMail accounts. But now, even applications that traditionally have been tethered to a desktop computer, such as productivity tools–spreadsheets, word processors, and the like–can be accessed entirely online. And many of these tools are available to use or license free of charge.

Besides the obvious bottom-line benefit these open technology alternatives to costly proprietary software offer, educators say the services also enable them to customize their digital learning environments more easily–providing a host of resources designed to meet the needs of teachers and students, regardless of platform. Web-based tools also allow users to collaborate on the same documents from different locations. But there are some challenges, too: Using web-based software requires a constant and reliable internet connection, for instance–and some people also are concerned about the privacy of information held in sign-in accounts stored on company servers.

For more on how the world of school software is changing, see:

Education 2.0: The next evolution of school software has arrived

Open technology options for schools

Online exercise tackles global warming

Google acquires wiki tool

Google courts schools with online tools

A paradigm shift for school software?

Google adds to suite of products for teachers, schools

Google digitizes historic video clips

For some educators, tagging is ‘it’

Feds want Google search records

2. Disaster planning takes on added importance for schools–and technology plays a huge role.

In the wake of the devastating hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, school leaders have placed greater emphasis on disaster planning over the past year–investing in systems and solutions designed to back up their data, for example, or send out automatic messages to parents and other school stakeholders during an emergency.

Then in April came the federal government’s call to prepare for the possibility of an avian flu outbreak, and a new component to disaster planning emerged: Technology could be used to deliver instruction if school buildings were closed in the event of a pandemic, experts said, and schools were advised to prepare accordingly. In storm-ravaged school districts across the Gulf Coast, computers and online learning programs already have helped students catch up on schoolwork missed during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Tragically, the importance of disaster planning was hammered home yet again with the terrible shootings at three schools this past fall. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and President Bush responded immediately by challenging administrators to get tough on school security, increasing communication between employees and stepping up policies to curb school violence. Not surprisingly, many school districts are turning to web-based surveillance cameras and other technology tools in order to reassure stakeholders they’re doing everything in their power to prevent a similar tragedy in their own schools.

To help families, educators, and communities respond more effectively when disaster strikes, a New Jersey communications company has launched a new, low-cost service that loads many of the nation’s top emergency-management resources into a single, user-friendly web site, called Ready-or-Not. Subscribers reportedly can tailor the site to meet local or state needs and concerns. For example, the Louisiana Educators Association has included public-service videos that help parents understand the importance of advance planning.

And to help school leaders better prepare for emergencies, eSchool News and the International Society for Technology in Education have teamed up to create a new web site, called the SAFE (School Actions for Emergencies) Center, that will serve as a free online clearinghouse for school-safety resources. The web site will contain research documents and guidelines on preparing for and coping with a disaster or emergency; a collection of exemplary state and local disaster plans that educators can use as models when developing their own plans; links to corporate security and preparedness providers; and more. The new site, available free of charge to educators, will launch Jan. 8.

For more on how schools are using technology to prepare for disasters, see:

eSN, ISTE to launch emergency-preparedness portal for schools”

Pandemic committee formed to help schools

Police tap student sites to fight crime

Schools use tech to beef up security

How to stop school violence: Communicate

Schools to get hazard warning radios

HELP inspires Gulf Coast educators

Storm-ravaged schools begin new chapter

Getting ready for emergencies just got easier

Feds to schools: Prepare for bird flu

Florida district is a model for disaster preparedness

Gulf Coast educators reveal tech needs

Report blasts government’s indifference to disaster preparation

CoCo helps diverse devices talk to each other: School pilot aims to improve emergency preparedness

Education rebuilding begins for Gulf Coast

1. Elections bring a ‘changing of the guard’: New Democratic majority in Congress set to tackle several education issues.

When the 110th Congress convenes early next year in Washington, there will be a lot of new faces walking the halls on Capitol Hill–and for the first time in years, the majority of them will be Democrats.

After a convincing win in the Nov. 7 elections, the new Democratic leadership, led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the House and her colleague, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, just across the Rotunda, likely will have a significant sway over legislation affecting such issues as school technology funding, student loan interest rates, and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind in the coming months and years.

The elections’ true impact might not be known for a while. Even though Democrats wrested control over both chambers of Congress from Republicans, their agenda could be curtailed by the threat of a veto from President Bush. Still, Democratic control of Congress means chairmanships of the various committees will fall to Democrats. That could have a significant impact on the legislative priorities of Congress, influencing issues such as federal education funding, 21st century workforce preparedness, and the impending reauthorization of NCLB, which is expected to begin next year.

Federal funding for educational technology and other education programs could see a boost in the new Congress. In recent years, the Republican-controlled House has passed an appropriations bill that mirrored President Bush’s budget request, which in 2007 would cut education funding by more than $3 billion and eliminate ed-tech funding altogether. Democrats in both chambers of Congress have favored more education spending, however, which could bode well for schools.

What’s more, the Democrats’ win could spur progress toward a five-point plan for innovation that Pelosi and other House Democrats unveiled a year ago. Aimed at boosting the competitiveness of American workers, the plan includes affordable broadband access for all citizens and incentives for students to pursue careers in science and technology. House Republicans issued a statement calling the plan an agenda of “higher taxation, litigation, and regulation” when it was first announced.

The new Democratic majority also could result in a significant shift in tech-related policies for addressing issues such as “net neutrality,” digital copyright rules, and more. For more on what the change could mean for schools, see:

Democrats’ win could be good for schools

‘No Child’ splits feds, public: Only 3 in 10 people favor education law

Back to school for Congress: Educational technology a focal point as lawmakers reconvene

U.S. marching to the rear on ed tech: As U.S. cuts ed-tech funding, other countries are accelerating plans

Senate panel rejects ‘net neutrality’ rules

Why schools need ‘net neutrality’

Telecom bills jeopardize ed programming

Web’s future: Pay for better service?

Bush: Cut $3.2B from education

Budget cuts send ed-tech programs reeling