Calling technology’s “greatest potential” for education its ability to personalize instruction, Katie Lovett, chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), kicked off the group’s 12th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in San Francisco March 28.

The conference brought together school district chief information officers and other educational technology leaders from around the world to discuss key ed-tech challenges and solutions. One of these challenges, Lovett noted in setting the stage for the meeting’s opening general session, is the need to break out of the mold of the one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

Lovett, who is the CIO of Georgia’s Fulton County Schools, introduced Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Education. Dede moderated an opening general session that explored two creative yet very different approaches to personalizing instruction with the help of technology.

One of these approaches is Notschool.net, a United Kingdom-based international virtual learning community. Notschool.net offers an alternative to traditional education for students who, for a variety of reasons, can’t cope with school.

“We’re the absolute antithesis of what school is,” said Jean Johnson, project director.

Johnson explained that Notschool allows students to take ownership of the curriculum and shape their own education. They can choose their areas of study, and because instruction is asynchronous and online, they can choose when they’ll participate. “Teenagers don’t want to learn at in the morning,” she said–but, given a choice over the direction of their education, they do want to learn.

Operating within the confines of the traditional school system, Virginia‘s Fairfax County Public Schools–the nation’s 12th largest school district–is working to create an Individual Learning Plan for each of its 163,000 students.

“It’s time to craft our vision for the future, instead of dwelling on the past,” Superintendent Jack D. Dale told conference attendees.

After Johnson and Dale described their respective projects, Dede moderated a discussion about the challenges each faces. He concluded the session by noting that, while it’s clear technology allows educators to personalize instruction “in ways we never could before,” school leaders often must confront significant political and cultural hurdles to make this happen.

(Editor’s note: For highlights of this opening general session, see the nine-minute video clip titled “Personalized Learning”: http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic.)

Re-engaging students

A key idea to emerge from this opening general session, which was repeated throughout the conference, was the need for schools to re-engage today’s youth.

“Why are kids on MySpace?” Johnson asked conference attendees. “They’re there because they want to be there.” But, too often, the same can’t be said about school. Today’s students are growing up immersed in a world of video games, cell phones, and instant messaging–but when they get to school, they’re often forced to leave these technologies at the door.

In an international symposium held March 27, the day before the conference officially began, CoSN brought together education leaders from several nations to discuss how computer games and simulations–interactive media that today’s students embrace and understand–can be used as serious learning tools.

The symposium included an address from Lord David Puttnam, an Academy Award-winning British filmmaker and education official. Puttnam, whose films include The Mission, The Killings Fields, and Chariots of Fire, is the only non-American to lead a major Hollywood studio, having run Columbia Pictures in the 1980s. After retiring from the film industry, he went to work for the United Kingdom‘s Department for Education and Skills, where he has sought to spread the message that today’s schools must change if they are to reach a new generation of learners.

In an interview with eSchool News, Puttnam said educators can learn a lot from the entertainment industry. The primary lesson? “Know your audience,” he said.

(Editor’s note: For highlights of the interview with Lord Puttnam, see the five-minute video clip titled “‘Know your audience'”: http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic.)

The exploration of computer gaming as a serious approach to instruction continued on the conference’s first day, with a session examining a project in Japan, called the Instructional Activities Game (AIG), that uses games in teacher education. Another session looked at existing research on the effectiveness of using games to teach core curricular content.

An international flair

This year’s CoSN conference had a decidedly international feel to it, highlighted by a closing general session on March 30 examining what might be the world’s largest effort to transform instruction through the use of technology on a national scale in Great Britain.

In a session titled “Personalization and the U.K.‘s Whole-School Reform Effort,” Doug Brown, head of learning technologies for that nation’s Department for Education and Skills, described the scope of these efforts and the vision behind them.

The U.K. has pumped a tremendous amount of funding into educational technology over the last 10 years, Brown said. It now spends the equivalent of $1.5 billion a year on school technology alone for its 9 million students–and this figure is growing at a rate of about 5 percent, per year. The country also has made a push to install interactive whiteboards in its schools, and though the decision to participate is left to each institution, the devices are now in more than 50 percent of the nation’s classrooms.

By 2008, the U.K.‘s goal is to have all schools using learning platforms, all students using personalized learning spaces, and “universal access” to technology, wherever and whenever students need it, Brown said. That could include laptops, personal digital assistants, Sony PlayStation Portables, tablet computers, or whatever technologies school leaders choose.

As with the projects featured during the conference’s opening general session, the goal of these initiatives is to personalize instruction, Brown explained, adding: “One size fits all isn’t going to work.”

Sir Michael Barber, a consultant on global public-sector practice and former head of the British Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, was the original architect of Great Britain‘s school-reform movement, which provides the context for that nation’s ed-tech initiatives.

Barber addressed the conference in a pre-recorded video, saying, “Change will only happen if it is placed in the context of whole-school reform.” It also will happen only if education leaders combine pressure with support, he noted.

Toward that end, high-quality leadership is key. Brown acknowledged that education officials made a mistake when their initial push to train teachers in the use of technology to improve learning didn’t include training for school principals; that has since been rectified, he said.

How are these reform efforts working? There is some evidence that achievement gaps have been narrowed, Brown said, and literacy rates in the elementary schools are on the rise–but there is still much more work to be done.

‘A new kind of conversation’

Continuing this international theme, other conference sessions highlighted such initiatives as Australia‘s national education portal, EDNA; the use of open electronic learning content in Japan; and an international research project to investigate new ways of measuring the value of school technology.

For the last six years, CoSN has held an International Symposium in conjunction with its annual conference, in which the organization has brought together key education and policy leaders from the United States and abroad to examine global responses to educational technology. But with this year’s conference, CoSN has made an effort to integrate more international speakers and voices into the general program itself, said Keith Krueger, the group’s executive director.

This year’s conference featured more than 50 international participants from more than a dozen countries, Krueger said; that’s double the number from past years. Besides the U.K., Japan, and Australia, these included Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, France, and Denmark.

Krueger said CoSN wanted to give more international education leaders the chance to showcase their own ed-tech challenges and solutions, “so we can start a new kind of conversation and not just stop at the ocean’s shores.”

Overall attendance at this year’s show was up 10 percent over last year, he said, establishing a new conference high of more than 1,000 participants. This was the first year that Washington, D.C.-based CoSN has held its annual conference in San Francisco, and Krueger said the group plans to alternate between San Francisco and the D.C. area in future years.

News from the exhibit hall

Over in the exhibit hall, dozens of educational technology companies showcased their products and services for the education market. Here are some of the highlights.

3Com Corp. announced its “Spring Price Break” for schools, in which educational institutions can save money on 3Com’s switches and routers, IP telephony, security, and wireless solutions from now until June 1.

http://www.3com.com/summerschool

Atomic Learning highlighted the most recent additions to its stable of online technology tutorials, including new tutorials on Microsoft’s latest product offerings: Office 2007 and Windows Vista. The company says it now offers more than 25,000 tutorials on more than 100 computer applications that students and teachers use every day. These are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from any internet-connected computer, with new tutorials reportedly added every 45 days.

http://www.atomiclearning.com

Brother International Corp. displayed its printing and imaging solutions for schools, which give educators the ability to reduce paper usage through double-sided printing, easily convert paper documents to PDF format or archive them by scanning to FTP, protect confidential student information with secure fax and print features, print hall passes with a date and time stamp, and create such products as visitor ID badges and bar code labels for books.

http://www.brother.com

Elluminate Inc., a provider of live eLearning and web collaboration solutions for schools and businesses, introduced vRoom, a free, three-seat “virtual office” for both academic and corporate users. vRoom is optimized for low bandwidth connectivity, works on multiple platforms, and is always available, Elluminate said. It features two-way audio, an interactive whiteboard space, direct messaging, application sharing, file transfer, live video capabilities, and multiple language translation. “The collaborative opportunities available in Elluminate’s vRoom are tremendous,” said J. Ricky Cox, a professor at Murray State College. “I use vRoom and my tablet PC to conduct virtual office-hour sessions in my chemistry courses. Audio capabilities in vRoom allow me to discuss problem-solving strategies with my students, while I use the tablet pen to work problems and draw structures on the whiteboard. I also use vRoom with research colleagues across the country to plan experiments and converse about scholarly manuscripts we are writing.”

http://www.elluminate.com

ePALS Classroom Exchange featured its new SchoolBlog solution, which enables students to blog freely in a protected environment. With ePALS SchoolBlog, teachers and students can safely incorporate classroom and school web sites and blogs into their educational endeavors, the company said.

http://www.epals.com

Parat Solutions introduced its Paradidact Mobile IT Transport System, which allows educators to transport, store, recharge, administer, and synchronize up to 32 notebook computers cost-effectively and efficiently. The system allows users to conveniently administer updates or synchronize lesson plans from any remote location via “Wake-on-LAN” technology, according to the company.

http://www.paratsolutions.com

Stoneware Inc. featured its web Network solution, which allows schools to create a single, secure access point for all of their applications, services, and content. Stoneware says its webNetwork 5e combines the security of a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Virtual Private Network with the services of a web portal.

http://www.stone-ware.com

Following a successful pilot during the 2004-06 school years, Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School now offers two, 2-year online International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme courses: economics and information technology in a global society. VHS says it is the first and only online course provider to offer IB courses online.

http://www.govhs.org

A closer look at the report’s findings

The first-grade study was based on five reading software products that were implemented in 11 districts and 43 schools. The sample included 158 teachers and 2,619 students. The five products were Destination Reading (published by Riverdeep), the Waterford Early Reading Program (Pearson Digital Learning), Headsprout (Headsprout Inc.), PLATO Focus (PLATO Learning), and the Academy of Reading (Autoskill). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $100 a student for the school year, with a range of $53 to $124.

According to records maintained by the software, usage by individual students averaged about 30 hours a year, which the study estimated to be about 11 percent of total reading instructional time. Some control group teachers used technology-based reading products that were not in the study, though these teachers reported using software about a fifth as frequently as treatment teachers reported using the products in the study.

First-grade reading products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero, according to the report. But researchers observed large differences in the effects among schools–and effects were larger when schools had smaller class sizes.

The fourth-grade study included four reading products that were implemented in nine districts and 43 schools. The sample included 118 teachers and 2,265 students. The four products were the Leaptrack Assessment System (LeapFrog SchoolHouse), Read 180 (Scholastic), Academy of Reading, and KnowledgeBox (Pearson Digital Learning). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $96 per student for the school year, with a range of $18 to $184.

The average annual usage by students for the two products that collected this measure in their databases was seven hours for one product and 20 for the other. Assuming a typical reading instruction period was 90 minutes, that means students used these products for less than 10 percent of the total reading instructional time, according to the report. The fourth-grade reading products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero–though, not surprisingly, effects were larger when teachers reported higher levels of product use.

The sixth-grade study included three products that were implemented in 10 districts and 28 schools. The sample included 81 teachers and 3,136 students. The three products were Larson Pre-Algebra (Houghton-Mifflin), Achieve Now (PLATO Learning), and iLearn Math (iLearn). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $18 per student for the school year, with a range of $9 to $30.

Student usage was about 17 hours a year, or about 11 percent of total math instructional time, according to data from product records. The products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero.

The ninth-grade algebra study included three products that were implemented in 10 districts and 23 schools. The sample included 69 classrooms and 1,404 students. The three products were Cognitive Tutor Algebra (Carnegie Learning), PLATO Algebra (PLATO Learning), and Larson Algebra (Houghton-Mifflin). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $15 per student for the school year, with a range of $7 to $30.

Product records showed that student usage averaged 15 hours for the entire school year, equivalent to about 10 percent of total math instructional time. As with the other products studied, algebra products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero.

Minor technical difficulties, such as issues with students logging in or computers locking up, were fairly common throughout the study. However, most of those problems were easily corrected or worked around, according to the report.

Tellingly, when asked whether they would use the products again, nearly all teachers indicated that they would.

The report detailed the effectiveness of the products as a group and did not review the performance of particular programs. That was a point of contention among some critics of the research, and ED says it will publish details about each program’s effectiveness after the second year of the study. (See Delays, designs diminish ed-tech research: http://www.eschoolnews.com/ news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6927.)