Educators and ed-tech specialists who attended the 2008 Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin got a Texas-size helping of new educational technology ideas, approaches, and solutions to take back to their schools.

With more than 8,500 registered attendees from all over the nation, this year’s TCEA conference was the largest ever, said TCEA Executive Director Ron Cravey.

“Everyone there had a good time, and the amount of knowledge shared was overwhelming.” Cravey said. “One attendee described this year’s event as ‘awesome’ and told me he ‘would be here every year’ until he died. TCEA will continue to grow bigger and better, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Those in attendance had a chance to tour an exhibit hall featuring 430 ed-tech vendors and sit in on any of the dozens of workshops and concurrent sessions. (For session reviews written by conference attendees, see here.)

They also heard keynote speeches from former NASA astronaut Sally Ride, who sounded an alarm about the state of science education in the nation’s schools, and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, who described new technologies that “will change your life” and discussed their implications for today’s educators.

Another feature unique to this year’s conference: eSchool News hosted a two-day “Ed-Tech Best Practices Summit,” during which conference attendees learned how their colleagues in other schools are using technology successfully to enhance education. Among the approaches that were highlighted were solutions from American Education Corp., Atomic Learning, BenQ, ePals, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, LenSec, Lightspeed Systems, Moodlerooms, PBS TeacherLine, Saywire, Troxell Communications, and Voyager Expanded Learning.

Why science matters

“It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology,” the astronomer Carl Sagan once said–and former NASA astronaut Sally Ride couldn’t agree more: At the 2008 TCEA conference, Ride used this quote to highlight the importance of science education.

“Nationally, we just don’t put enough emphasis” on science literacy, she said in a Feb. 6 keynote speech. “It’s time for us to wake up and respond to this challenge, just as we did 50 years ago in response to Sputnik.”

Colleges in the United States aren’t graduating enough scientists and engineers, Ride said, and this threatens the nation’s ability to compete in a global economy.

But it’s not just our future scientists and engineers who need to learn more about science, she added: Because science plays an increasingly important role in our society, students will have to make many decisions–such as what kind of foods to eat, or what kind of products to buy–that depend on scientific literacy.

The problem can be traced to the middle grades, Ride indicated.

Research shows that, in the fourth grade, about two-thirds of students say they like science. Moreover, boys and girls respond the same way: 68 percent of boys and 66 percent of girls say they like science. But in grades five through eight, “we start to lose both boys and girls–but especially girls,” Ride said.

It’s not their interest or aptitude that is at fault, she said. Instead, she blamed the lack of focus our nation gives to science education.

“We have a culture that encourages students to pursue other interests,” Ride said. “Kids want to be accepted. They want to do what their peer group or their parents expect of them.” And, too often, she said, that isn’t to pursue a career in science.

It’s around this age that students also start to internalize the messages they see all around them, Ride said. And the image that most students have of a scientist is a geeky-looking guy in a lab coat–“not what anyone would aspire to,” she added.

But the good news is, “we don’t need to convert these kids to get them interested in science and technology,” she said. “We just need to sustain the interest they already have when they’re younger throughout the higher grades.”

Ride has formed a company, called Sally Ride Science, that aims to help educators do just that. The company produces lessons and curriculum materials that demonstrate to middle-school students that science is creative, collaborative, fun, and–perhaps most importantly–connected to the real world. These materials also introduce students to actual role models in science that are just like them, putting a human face on what often is an abstract field.

“Kids need to learn there are real-world problems that still need to be solved,” Ride said. And by learning about science, she said, students can contribute to the solution.

(Editor’s note: For more information about the science education crisis in the United States and what can be done to address it, watch our six-minute video interview with Sally Ride here.)

‘Game-changing’ technologies

What are the “game-changing” technologies that today’s students are using–and creating? And, how are these technologies changing students’ culture of students in ways that have important implications for educators?

At the 2008 TCEA conference, New York Times personal-technology columnist David Pogue offered his thoughts on the topic. Speaking at the group’s Past Presidents’ Celebration, Pogue–one of the world’s best-selling technology “how-to” authors–cited the convergence of phones and the internet, ubiquitous wireless, and Web 2.0 technologies as key tech trends with important implications for schools.

Voice over IP, or the ability to make phone calls over the internet, has driven down the cost of making calls by 30 percent over the last three years, Pogue said.

Skype, which is free software that lets you make calls from computer to computer, has been downloaded some 250 million times, and “it’s huge for college kids,” he said, because it allows them to call their friends from high school free of charge.

Having this capability is nice, Pogue said–but what really would be useful is if a version of Skype came on your cell phone, so you could make internet-based calls free of charge from wherever you are. The technology to do this exists, he said–yet “for some reason, the cell-phone companies are not interested in helping you avoid calling fees.”

There is one exception, though: T-Mobile HotSpot @Home, which launched last June 29.

With this service, any time you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot, all your calls are free, Pogue said. What’s more, he said, T-Mobile will give you a Wi-Fi box to use in your home or office free of charge, because the company wants you to give up your telephone land line–it’s the only cellular provider that isn’t also in the land-line business.

The HotSpot @Home service seamlessly hands off your call from hot spot to hot spot, or from a hot spot to a cellular network and vice versa, Pogue said. And if your call starts in a Wi-Fi hot spot but is transferred to a cellular network, it’s still free of charge for the duration of the call.

Another service Pogue cited that takes advantage of the convergence of phone and internet service is Google Cellular, which is a no-cost way to eliminate those pesky $2 surcharges on your cell-phone bills when you dial 411 for information.

If you’re looking for directions, or the telephone number of the nearest pizza delivery place, you can send a text message to Google at 46645 (“Google” without the “e”)–and in five seconds, Google will send this information back to your phone at no charge, Pogue said.

The service also works for getting weather information (e.g., “weather austin”), flight information (“aa 152”), stock quotes (“amzn”), movie show times in your area (“shrek 44120”), word definitions, unit conversions, and currency conversions.

Pogue also highlighted various services that convert voice messages to text, and vice versa. He said he uses a service called Simulscribe, which automatically transcribes phone messages and delivers them via eMail. “I don’t check my messages; they come to me–and they’re written out,” he said. Callwave is another software program that turns voice mail to text.

Grand Central, a service bought by Google, will issue you a “uninumber,” or a single phone number that, when dialed, will ring all your phones simultaneously. Because the service is web-based, you can control many options, Pogue said; for example, you can record different greetings for various callers. (You can even set it to respond to callers who are harassing you with a message stating, “We’re sorry, but the number you dialed has been disconnected…”)

Another trend with important implications for schools is “wireless everywhere,” Pogue said. For instance, you can buy cellular cards that plug in your laptop–giving you internet access anywhere you have cell-phone service. These solutions presently cost about $60 a month, but “I can tell you now, they won’t be charging that much when today’s kids are in charge,” he said.

Wireless internet access is coming to cameras and other devices, too, Pogue said. The technology now exists for cameras to upload the pictures you take to a computer automatically through a wireless internet connection, so every time you take a picture, “you know it’s being backed up online,” he said.

Web 2.0 technologies, which rely on user-created content and interactivity, are yet another trend with enormous implications for schools.

“We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg” with regard to Web 2.0 possibilities, Pogue predicted. He described two new and creative variations on the Web 2.0 theme: One is a site called goloco.org, which allows people who are making local trips (to the mall, for instance) at the same time to find each other and share the ride; the other is an online petition service launched by the U.K. government.

“We’ve only scratched the surface on the things that we can share,” he said.

With these shifts in technology, however, come profound cultural shifts–changes that create whole new challenges for educators.

One of these is the desire for instant gratification, Pogue said: Even eMail now seems too slow for many students, who are accustomed to sending and receiving instant text messages on their cell phones.

Another challenge is what Pogue called the “splintering” of kids’ attentions.

“We already have so much information to deal with, and it’s only getting worse,” he warned. “It’s going to be a challenge for this generation to figure out how to divide their attention.”

To address these challenges, educators will have to teach students new skills for processing information, judging the credibility of information, and behaving ethically and responsibly online, Pogue said.

And though advancements in technology are bringing changes at quite a rapid pace, things have a way of working themselves out, he assured conference attendees.

Until they do, he advised, “enjoy the possibilities” that technology affords.

(Editor’s note: For more of David Pogue’s thoughts on the social implications of new technologies, see the eSN-TV video “Teaching the Net Generation” here.)

Exhibit hall news

Over in the exhibit hall, some 430 educational technology companies demonstrated new products and solutions for schools. For a roundup of news from the TCEA conference exhibit hall, see these links:

Computer hardware and infrastructure

A digital notepad that electronically records handwritten text, a mobile laptop cart that allows you to install software and manage the laptops remotely while they’re recharging in the cart, and more.

Curriculum solutions

An integrated suite of applications to help students and teachers cover the full range of K-12 curriculum using handheld technology; a download service featuring eBooks for K-12 schools; an online math resource that lets students practice math skills, prepare for high-stakes tests, and play in real-time math competitions, and more.

Multimedia, presentation, and video tools

New documents cameras from several manufacturers, an animated video curriculum service, and more.

Assessment

A new Response to Intervention classroom solution, a personal response system with free software for collecting and analyzing data, and more.

School administrative solutions

A point-of-service product for streamlining school food service, an application that enables school leaders to monitor hall traffic using handheld computers, and more.

Learning management and eLearning systems

A new partnership that combines a communications platform and a child-friendly search engine; a secure, web-based environment for creating “connected learning communities,” and more.

Safety and security

A Lo-Jack system for recovering stolen laptops, an IP-based video surveillance solution, and more.

Professional development and consulting

Tools for administering “professional development in your PJs,” and more.