The National School Boards Association’s 20th annual Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference featured two different speakers with different points of view, but each hit upon a common theme: The need for today’s students to learn high-level skills has never been greater.

Speaking on the opening day of this educational technology conference in Dallas Nov. 8, celebrated futurist, author, and inventor Ray Kurzweil talked about the huge impact that rapid advancements in technology are having on education.

The power of technology is increasing at an exponential rate, Kurzweil said–and this phenomenal rate of change has important implications for schools.

“The first industrial revolution extended our physical reach; we’re now expanding our mental reach,” he said. Such rapid advancements in technology are taking away many low-skilled jobs, he added–but they’re adding highly skilled jobs in their place. And that makes education more important for this current generation of students than for any others in our history.

On Day Two of the conference, economist Clyde Prestowitz sounded a similar note, albeit from a different perspective.

Prestowitz, a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Reagan administration who now heads up a leading economic think tank, addressed the rising tide of globalization and its implications for today’s students.

Prestowitz warned that China’s economy, which is growing at a rate of 10 percent a year, soon will exceed that of the United States.

“The world our kids, and your students, are going into will be completely different,” he said. “Our kids will have to come up with new ways to live, new ways to be competitive. … Our kids are going to have to be better than in the past, and they’re going to have to know more about the world than we did.”

How to reinvent teaching and learning to prepare students for these challenges–and ensure they have the high-level skills they’ll need for success–was the focus of the three-day conference, which brought nearly 2,000 educators, administrators, and school board members to the Dallas Convention Center. NSBA Associate Executive Director Susan P. Merry pegged total attendance, including vendors and others, at approximately 3,000.

Through dozens of concurrent sessions, conference attendees had the opportunity to learn about the latest technology trends and best practices at school districts nationwide. They also could tour an exhibit hall with more than 240 companies showcasing their solutions. To highlight some of these ed-tech best practices, NSBA honored several educators and school systems by bestowing awards. In the opening general session, for instance, NSBA recognized the Kyrene Elementary School District in Tempe, Ariz., as one of three “Salute Districts” this year. The awards are given to districts that effectively use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Kyrene, which has 18,000 students in grades K-8, was selected for its Kyrene Teaches with Technology Project (KTTP), an innovative curriculum project that uses technology to foster a collaborative, team-based approach to instruction within each grade level.

Each KTTP classroom is supplied with five wireless laptops and a projection system. This model takes the concept of the mini-lab and leverages it with a grade-level, team-based teaching approach to create new possibilities, as laptops flow seamlessly to where they are most needed at any given time, district officials say.

KTTP is “a curriculum project, not a technology project,” said the narrator of a short film about the project that was shown to T+L attendees.

One of the keys to the project’s success is that district leaders started with the question of what students need for learning–and then designed an environment around these needs, instead of the other way around. Another key to its success is that teachers can draw upon the support of a “technology mentor” to help them integrate the laptops into instruction. “What has made KTTP very successful for teachers is that we get to work together as a grade-level team, and we have a mentor,” said first-grade teacher Carla Fisher. “This support group has meant that many of us who would never have taken the risk of using technology on our own have not only been successful, but have become just as enthusiastic as our students about learning with technology.”

The other Salute Districts, which were honored later during the conference, were Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools and Indiana’s Kokomo-Center Township Consolidated Schools.

In addition to its Salute Districts, NSBA also recognized 20 up-and-coming ed-tech leaders as part of a new awards program called “20 to Watch,” which the organization created in honor of the 20th anniversary of its T+L Conference.

News from the T+L exhibit hall A free online workshop on blogging, a program that helps students become digital storytellers, and a statewide implementation of textbook management software in South Carolina were among the news coming out of the T+L exhibit hall. Here’s a quick roundup…

Atomic Learning (www.atomiclearning.com), a provider of web-based software training and support, announced the availability of a free blogging workshop, along with more than 700 other new online tutorials. Geared toward learners of all abilities, the new blogging workshop explains the difference between various kinds of blogs, introduces participants to some hosting solutions, and shows them how to set up their own blog using Blogger software. The workshop will be available free of charge from the Atomic Learning web site through Feb. 1.

VideoCraft Workshop (www.videocraft workshop.com), a maker of software programs designed to improve students’ video editing skills, demonstrated the Start Editing Now Classroom Workshop Edition. Through this DVD program, students create movies from a series of pre-recorded clips, deciding when and how to edit certain shots, how to frame their story, and how to use video to bring their presentations to life. Rather than just teach students how to use and operate equipment, the company’s product encourages students to think creatively about the footage they capture and use higher-level thinking skills to communicate effectively through visual media. The program sells for $129.95; site-license discounts are available.

Follett Software (www.fsc.follett.com) announced a statewide adoption of its Destiny Textbook Manager software throughout South Carolina. Using the program, South Carolina officials will centrally track every state-owned K-12 textbook throughout the state, in an effort to save money by reducing the number of lost textbooks. The South Carolina Department of Education has piloted the program in five districts this fall and will begin the process of implementing it in all of the state’s 1,150 schools this month, Follett said. Besides making Destiny Textbook Manager available to all schools via the web, the state also will provide every school with bar codes and a bar-code scanner to use in tracking state-owned books.

Editor’s note: For more information about the “20 to Watch” winners, as well as session reviews and video coverage of the keynote speeches of Kurzweil and Prestowitz, visit the T+L Conference Information Center at eSchool News Online: http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic.