Barely more than a week after business-to-business information company 1105 Media Inc. of Chatsworth, Calif., announced that it had acquired Florida Educational Technology Corp.–the long-time producer of the annual Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC)–this year’s FETC kicked off at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando Jan. 24.

Despite the announced change in ownership, it was business as usual for the teachers, administrators, and ed-tech experts who attended this year’s conference. FETC 2007 featured eight keynote speeches; more than 200 concurrent sessions demonstrating how ed-tech applications and best practices can be used in the classroom; and an exhibit hall showcasing the products of more than 400 companies.

Though FETC’s change in ownership might not have registered with attendees, the theme of change itself–changing the world, changing technologies, and changing expectations for today’s students–resonated throughout the three-day event.

Science Guy to educators: ‘Change the world’

FETC 2007 began with an ambitious challenge from keynote speaker Bill Nye to conference participants: “Change the world.”

Best known for his work on the television program Bill Nye the Science Guy, which earned him seven Emmy Awards, Nye also has written four books. He is the host of two currently running television series: The 100 Greatest Discoveries, which airs on the Science Channel, and The Eyes of Nye, which airs on PBS stations.

“The next decade is going to change the world, and we’re all going to be here for it,” Nye said, addressing the audience in his trademark blazer and bowtie.

Nye discussed how his father’s fascination with sundials inspired his own interest in how science affects everyday phenomena, then linked his personal interests and experiences with FETC’s mission–to promote educational technology.

Calling the essence of science “the joy of discovery,” Nye discussed recent discoveries on the planet Mars and related them to today’s science education. He also discussed the issue of global warming and the fact that some influential political activists and others in leadership roles do not believe it to be a problem.

“We are facing a serious business here on Earth; we are facing a very serious future unless we get on it,” he warned. “This is where we, as educators, must change the world.”

President Bush’s American Competitive-ness Initiative, designed to increase the number of scientists, technical workers, and qualified math and science teachers in the United States, should be a motivation to educators, Nye said.

He described several scientific problems and their potential solutions, emphasizing that through education, the nation’s students might come up with the answers to some of today’s most pressing questions.

“One hundred years ago we were riding horses to work, but now we’ve changed and we have cars,” he said. “In another hundred years we can change again, and that is up to us as educators, to make our students realize that [science] is a worthy pursuit.”

Three skills students need to be globally competitive

Day Two of the conference opened with several simultaneous keynote sessions. One of these, from Alan November, an internationally recognized ed-tech leader and consultant, focused on how to prepare U.S. students to compete and succeed in an increasingly global economy.

“Are we producing children who are globally competitive?” November asked the audience. “The answer is no. Until we sort out what it means to be globally competitive … [we] will fail.”

The key to using technology in the classroom, November said, is not to train teachers how to use it, but to train them on how to incorporate technology creatively into lessons in engaging and stimulating ways. Additionally, students should be able to connect with classrooms around the world, to boost a global perspective on learning.

“The real staff development problem in K-12 is not teaching teachers technology, it’s teaching them to redesign the assignments they give students to be more rigorous and demanding,” November said. He added: “Our standards are too low.”

November emphasized three skills needed to turn the nation’s classrooms into places of effective digital learning. The first, he said, is to teach students to deal with massive amounts of information.

“We tend not to do this, and tend to give children only a little bit of information at a time, in the right order, to take the next test,” he said.

The second essential skill requires every classroom to become a global communication center, with a more globalized curriculum.

“Teach children to work with people around the world, and establish a network of people you tap to make your students’ learning experiences more effective,” he urged attendees. “If every classroom were to connect students around the world, not only will we teach content, but [also] social protocol and how to work in teams, and [how to respect] other viewpoints. We’re spending too much time teaching teachers technical stuff and not enough on the creative application of the technical stuff.”

The third skill today’s students need is self-direction.

“The real change in the global economy isn’t that you get a laptop or an MP3 [player], it’s that you don’t have a boss telling you what to do,” he said. “If one person freezes up when they don’t know what to do and someone else is self-directed, that self-directed person is more valuable. We here have a culture that creates dependency; we teach kids how to be taught, and we need to teach them how to organize their own learning.”

November suggested ridding schools of planning committees, and turning those groups into global competitiveness committees. The real focus should not be to plan for technology, he said, but to plan for students who can contribute something to the world. Teachers can reach students creatively by tapping into technologies they already use. Use podcasts to teach algebra, or use MySpace to teach social responsibility and implications, November suggested.

“We must teach our teachers to think globally, to connect content from other countries across the curriculum,” he said. “Everyone in the world does not love us–they don’t. If we don’t teach empathy to understand the position of other people, I don’t think it’s going to get better. We have got to teach empathy.”

He concluded: “The real revolution’s not technology, it’s the fantastic management of information and relationships. That’s why we’ve got to stop planning for technology.”