Near the site of the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, Texas, the 2008 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) kicked off June 29 with a night to remember–featuring a keynote speech by celebrated author James Surowiecki and an exhortation to radically change education.

Hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), NECC is the largest educational technology conference in North America. Now in its 29th year, the conference brings together educators and school administrators to network, share successful ed-tech strategies, and learn from their colleagues.

And in keeping with the theme of this year’s event–"Convene, Connect, and Transform"–ISTE President Trina J. Davis challenged attendees to really transform education through the use of technology, not just implement small changes.

After a local high school mariachi band put conference-goers in a festive mood, Davis struck a more serious note when she described five ways attendees could make a difference in their schools:

1. Become powerful advocates for change. Regardless of who inhabits the White House next year, educational technology must play a more prominent role in our national education policy, Davis said–and educators should do everything they can to ensure that it does.

2. Share your knowledge and your passion. Help others take steps to ensure their growth as teachers, Davis said–so they can help students grow as learners.

3. Showcase your work, and students’ work, in innovative ways. Invite parents and community leaders into your schools, Davis said–or take students’ projects to them with the help of podcasts and other technologies.

4. Dream big. Have high expectations for your students, Davis said, because the possibilities that educational technology offers are "endless."

5. Use all of the resources available to you as you try to effect change. These include ISTE’s many online resources, such as the group’s National Educational Technology Standards and its research-based reports.

"Collectively, we can have a real impact around the globe and be effective change agents," Davis concluded.

Speaking of having an impact, keynote speaker James Surowiecki–author of the best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds–explained to attendees how it could be that the collective decision-making ability of a diverse group of people can be smarter and more effective than the very brightest of these people individually.

But to take advantage of this phenomenon, Surowiecki said, you need three conditions: some way to aggregate individual judgments to create a single group judgment; cognitive diversity (different ways of looking at the same problem) among the individuals in the group; and independent thinking.

"Diverse groups in general are going to do a better job of making decisions than homogeneous groups," he said. And "you have to be willing to have real arguments–you have to be willing to not only to tolerate conflict, but to embrace it."

Surowiecki’s research has important implications for educators and their students, as problem solving and decision making become increasingly valued skills by 21st-century employers.

(Editor’s note: For more on Surowiecki’s advice to educators, watch for the video news clip "21st-Century Decision Making" to be posted later today: http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/necc/.)