Educators attending the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) last month got a glimpse of some of the many ways that technology can help advance learning.

More than 8,000 educators and ed-tech directors convened in Orlando Jan. 23 to 25 for this year’s FETC, one of the largest educational technology conferences in the nation. (Exact attendance figures were unavailable as of press time, but conference organizers did say this year’s show was larger than last year’s.)

Speakers included Jeff Corwin, a wildlife biologist who hosts “Corwin’s Quest” and “The Jeff Corwin Experience” for Discovery Communications’ Animal Planet channel, who explored how technology can help solve challenges and raise global awareness; Vanderbilt University professor Ted Hasselbring, who discussed how insights into how students learn have spurred advancements in reading software; and Harvard University professor Chris Dede, who revealed how technology can provide a more complete picture of students’ understanding of the curriculum.

Corwin to educators: ‘Empower young minds’

Technology can help bring the world to students’ desktops, and it can empower whole communities to come together and make a difference: That was the key message of Emmy award-winner Jeff Corwin, who urged educators to use their position of influence to build students’ sense of compassion and understanding of the world around them.

Corwin kicked off this year’s FETC on Jan. 23 with a keynote speech in which he outlined a vital challenge facing today’s educators.

“You’ve been charged with this incredible responsibility … to mold future leaders in an environment of incredible uncertainty,” he told conference attendees. “We are at a critical stage when it comes to the conservation of our natural resources.”

He described what he called a “perfect storm” of factors that will challenge future generations on this planet. These factors include habitat loss, global climate change, a fast-growing human population, and “environmental degradation,” or pollution—and they are conspiring to tax the earth’s resources and cause huge problems for its species.

“In the next 24 hours, four or five or 10 species will disappear from the planet forever,” Corwin warned. “Today, we have an unnatural rate of extinction.”

Although the environmental challenges facing today’s youth are enormous, technology can help bring people together to solve these common problems. It also provides a platform for raising awareness of these issues, bringing images from around the globe into students’ classrooms.

Corwin’s programs for Discovery are a good example of technology’s potential to shrink the world. Video clips from his television show have been downloaded from Discovery Education Streaming, the company’s video-on-demand service for schools, more than 1.4 million times, Discovery Education said. Online video streaming has helped thousands of teachers incorporate Corwin’s lessons on conservation into their curricula.

Corwin said having a four-year-old daughter has underscored the importance of his message: “It’s important to pass on a world that is equally healthy, if not more healthy,” than the one we have now, he urged attendees.

Dissecting the science of reading

Researchers have learned a great deal of information in the last 30 years about how humans acquire knowledge, and this understanding provides important insights for using technology to enhance students’ reading skills, said Vanderbilt’s Ted Hasselbring, who discussed what researchers have discovered about the science of learning—and how software providers are using this information to create reading programs that work.

Only 38 percent of the students who aren’t reading well by middle school will graduate from high school, Hasselbring warned in a Jan. 24 keynote session. He said there are two key problems that typically hold students back: an inability to decode and read connected text fluently, and an inability to comprehend text.

Hasselbring showed conference attendees a short block of text and asked them to try reading it in 20 seconds. But, by putting capital letters where they didn’t belong, he made the task extremely difficult.

Simply changing the way the text looks “interferes with our neural models for how words should appear—or what our brains have come to expect,” he said.

A functional MRI taken as students are reading shows that the brain activity for struggling readers is different, Hasselbring explained: There is not as much activity in the back of the brain, where we recognize and retrieve words very quickly from our memory.

“When students lack fluency in foundational skills, performance is likely to be painfully slow, difficult, and full of errors,” he said. This leads to comprehension problems, because kids can’t read with enough speed and flow to make sense of the words together.

The automaticity with which skillful readers recognize words is the key to successful reading, Hasselbring said, because the reader’s attention can focus on comprehension only when it is not bogged down with decoding words and letters. “So, the key to successful reading is developing neural models for quick word recognition,” he said.

Developing these neural models requires students to move from using the alphabetic principle to recognizing entire words automatically, Hasselbring said. And the more times students read a word correctly, the stronger their neural pathway becomes to retrieve that word rapidly from their long-term memory.

So, repeated exposure to words is a key to developing students’ reading fluency. And an important advantage of technology is that it allows schools to provide more reading instructional and practice time for students than a teacher alone can provide.

But “we have to go beyond simple drill and practice if we want to realize this advantage,” Hasselbring said.

He described a successful model for using technology to boost students’ reading fluency that includes three components: assessment, instruction and guided practice, and independent practice.

In the assessment portion, he said, reading software programs can look at not only the accuracy, but also the speed of students’ responses, to determine whether a word has been stored in the students’ long-term memory or if it is still being processed in their working memory.

Rather than supplying random drill and practice, Hasselbring said, the latest research-based software programs only allow students to practice what they are ready for—that is, words they have moved from their working to their long-term memory.

Research on the science of learning also has informed the instructional component of many reading software programs. For example, studies show that students between the ages of five and 13 can hold only three to seven chunks of information in their working, or short-term, memory before they experience cognitive overload. So, many reading programs today offer small instructional sets, with no more than five elements presented at a time.

Reading comprehension relies on fluency with text, but it also relies on the building of accurate “mental models,” Hasselbring said.

While reading, he explained, we maintain and update complex mental models of the text—our mental “picture” of what the words are saying. Successful readers are able to retrieve previously learned information, or background knowledge, to support their understanding of the text.

But if kids don’t have the proper background knowledge to draw from, their comprehension will suffer.

“We have to prepare students with the proper background knowledge before they read a text, so they can construct an accurate mental model,” Hasselbring said.

One strategy that has proven effective is called “anchored instruction,” and it relies on preparing students to read a text by giving them the proper background knowledge first. And one highly successful approach to anchored instruction, he said, involves showing a video to students about the topic of a text before they are asked to read it.

The future of assessment

What would assessment look like, if you could reinvent it using 21st-century tools?

The question was posed during a Jan. 25 keynote speech by Harvard’s Chris Dede. And his answer revealed a vision for assessment that is much richer and potentially more useful than what currently exists in schools.

Dede’s vision for the future of assessment relies on two guiding principles: that formative, or diagnostic, assessment provides a much more valuable snapshot of students’ abilities than an end-of-semester exam; and that technology gives schools access to an incredible amount of data that can be used to gauge students’ understanding of key concepts.

Any time students have some kind of mediated interaction involving technology—a video conference, for example, or an online chat session—this interaction can be logged, saved, and analyzed at a later date to reveal important information about students’ thought processes, Dede explained. And this information, in turn, can be used to help guide instruction.

Setting aside the obvious privacy and security concerns this practice would raise, “we’re missing a huge opportunity to capture these data and use them to enhance assessment,” he said.

Dede, who is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, used a research project at the university to illustrate his vision.

The project, called River City, is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) that immerses students in an online scenario in which they are asked to apply scientific inquiry skills to solve a problem.

Students travel back in time to the 19th century, working together in small research teams to help discover why residents of a virtual world called River City are becoming ill. Students use technology to keep track of clues that hint at causes of illnesses, form and test hypotheses, develop controlled experiments to test their hypotheses, and make recommendations based on the data they collect.

Every time students interact with a resident of River City, this interaction is logged in a database, Dede said. This means that, besides formal assessment data, researchers also have access to observational data based on these event logs: information about where students went (and in what sequence), which artifacts they examined, who they talked with, and what they said in these interactions.

The problem now facing researchers is how to make sense of all this information—and how to use it to improve instruction.

Some kinds of analysis are rather simple and can be quite revealing, Dede said. For example, educators can look at the logs and see fairly easily what proportion of scientific data was contributed by a given team member, or how much time students spent gathering information.

More complex types of analysis, such as trying to reconstruct which sequence of events led a given student to become more engaged in the lesson, are problematic—but Dede said researchers are working on developing data-mining techniques to help solve these challenges.

Although few schools are using tools as technologically sophisticated as the River City MUVE, Dede said, most are using some form of mediated, technology-based interaction with students—and such techniques could apply equally well in these cases, too.

And while this vision of how technology can help enhance assessment “isn’t going to happen tomorrow morning,” he acknowledged, it’s something educators should be thinking of as they move forward.

Exhibit hall news

Over in the exhibit hall, nearly 500 educational technology companies showcased their latest products and services for the school field. Visual learning was a common theme among exhibitors, as several companies unveiled new or enhanced products for bringing video into instruction.

For a roundup of news from the FETC exhibit hall, see these links:

Computer hardware and infrastructure: FETC attendees discovered new height-adjustable media carts for the classroom and an environmentally friendly thin-client laptop computer.

Curriculum solutions: With interactive technology, students can master the curriculum while improving visual processing, auditory processing, memory, attention, sensory integration, and thinking skills. The exhibit hall at FETC featured products including a new online library of standards-based interactive math and science activities, intervention materials for K-12 schools, and a tool to help educators create individual education plans for students.

Multimedia, presentation, and video tools: The wide array of multimedia presentation tools educators have at their disposal can directly enhance visual instruction. At FETC, attendees got a taste of visual learning tools including photo editing, podcasting, video, and interactive-whiteboard technologies. Plus, the hall featured primary-source video products, and information on where educators can go to find video clips, audio files, and still images.

Assessment: The benefits of technology-enhanced formative and interim assessments in supporting student achievement are clear. The FETC exhibit hall featured an array of assessment tools, including those that adapt to individual learners’ abilities, produce individual and classroom reports, allow for two-way communication between teachers and students, and enable teachers to give feedback directly to individual students as well as the entire class. Plus, a handheld response unit featured real-time student assessment, integration with PowerPoint, standards-based reporting, and the ability to answer various question types.

Data and document management: Tools to track and manage student data are integral for the busy educator. With products introduced at FETC, users can access up-to-the-minute statistics and information on student records, integrate classroom and administrative data needs, and simplify data entry and reporting processes. Plus, the hall showcased a new statewide electronic student records and transcript exchange system.

Desktop management: To teach more effectively with computers, educators need tools to simplify and secure their classroom’s desktops. At FETC, educators caught a glimpse of classroom-management software that allows teachers to set up and configure all of the computers in their classrooms easily, with no special knowledge or training.

Learning management and eLearning systems: Visitors of the FETC exhibit hall discovered products to support the increasingly popular open-source trend. Among them: a standards-based learning-management product; and information on services for helping schools, colleges, and universities take full advantage of Moodle, an open-source course-management system.

Network administration and IT support: To help build better communication between school districts and individual schools, the FETC exhibit hall featured monitoring software that has been credited with dramatically reducing frivolous and inappropriate PC and internet activity.

Communication tools: Dependable online communication channels improve a school system’s overall responsiveness, keeping students safe and ensuring that diverse needs and viewpoints are not passed over by busy school and district personnel. At FETC, attendees witnessed a mass-notification desktop alert system and a parental engagement tool designed to eliminate all barriers to effective communication.

Professional development and consulting: Professional development tools for the 21st century educator are abounding. The FETC exhibit hall showcased a new web site to help educators teach with technology, and tools to help take advantage of “Response to Intervention.” Plus, research-based tools and data-collection software to help principals or other school leaders when conducting classroom visits.