Technology is a disruptive force that brings many challenges to teaching and learning–but that doesn’t mean educators should fear its use in schools, said speakers at the National School Boards Association’s Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference in Seattle late last month.

The annual conference opened Oct. 28 with a keynote speech from Paul Saffo, an associate professor at Stanford University and technology trend forecaster and strategist, who acknowledged that the uncertainty that accompanies change can be hard for educators to deal with. But Saffo offered attendees a ray of hope with some advice on how to anticipate the next key trends that will carry education forward into the future.

As attendees and exhibitors sat in their seats, sipping Seattle’s trademark beverage, their eyes focused on the stage: Seattle’s black skyline with hues of purple and blue, clouds massed on the horizon–rain clouds on the way.

"I’m here to talk to you about the technology landscape that lies ahead … and what this implies for education," said Saffo. "We live in uncertain times because of the economy, because of the abundance of technology schools could use to better education–and because most schools can’t afford this kind of technology."

But even storm clouds have silver linings, and Saffo said the same is true for schools and technology. "You as educators need to look back twice as much as you look ahead," he said. "Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes–and that’s the lesson that will help educators through this changing economy."

According to Saffo, there are some tips educators can use to predict the next big technological innovation that will directly affect the economy–and their schools.

First, take a look at history: In the 1950s, the key technological innovation was the television–and the media expression of it was broadcasting in the 1960s. In the 1980s, it was the client server that led to the media expression of the World Wide Web of the 1990s. Earlier this decade, peer-to-peer file sharing and online social networks emerged, and perhaps in the next decade, sites like Twitter will be the definitive media expression.

"If you look at these trends, technology makes the medium possible, but the … medium is not ubiquitous until the next big innovation comes along," explained Saffo. There is a trend of a decade’s difference between the technology and the medium–and most media will not be fully integrated until the next new technology is able to leverage the decade-old medium.

Saffo listed examples, such as an avatar site called Habitat in the 1980s. Even though it was the same concept as we see today in sites such as Second Life–the avatar moved around a virtual world, buying things and being able to talk to people–the right platform just wasn’t there, and it failed.

According to Saffo, it wasn’t until gaming became popular and gaming software improved that people became enthusiastic about virtual worlds. Thanks to new gaming technology, Second Life is now a huge success.

Another example is handheld electronic books. In the 1980s, Franklin Electronic Publishers made a handheld device that stored books. But it wasn’t until the invention of sturdier hardware, newly designed plastic frames, and the switch from print to digital nearly two decades later that Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader was able to take off.

Saffo related the popularity and successful mainstream implementation of technology to an "S"-shaped curve.

At first, educators and technology trend watchers usually overestimate the influence of a new technology on the market. Then, just when educators and tech enthusiasts give up hope and severely lower expectations, the technology is diffused into society.

"I give this piece of advice to educators: Embrace failure," he said. "It worked for Christopher Columbus. Don’t be afraid. It’s only through failure and unexpected conclusions that progress happens."

Saffo also provided analysis of some future trends educators should look for: the rise of "superstar" educators, thanks to the ability to blog and post free classes online; the change from the information revolution to the personal media revolution; and the switch from a consumer economy to a creator economy.

"All of these things are important to watch as an educator, because students will have to learn from different types of teachers; use different types of resources, such as Web 2.0 tools; and exist as a citizen in a ‘you-buy-and-you-sell’ economy," he said. "We have to prepare these kids."

As attendees pondered these tips and trends, Saffo closed by saying: "Don’t be in the valley, be on the mountaintop. Don’t look for what little bits of tech you need just to stay afloat, look around to the past and the present. Be a leader and look out."

Banning school technology: A bad idea?

This theme of embracing change continued on Day Two of the conference. In a session titled "Leveraging Banned Technologies to Create Ubiquitous Learning Environments," panelists offered their advice to educators on why technology shouldn’t be banned from classrooms–and why saying "yes" is worth the time and effort.

The session started by asking school superintendents and technology chiefs about the use of technology in their schools. Using a Promethean ActivExpression system, educators weighed in on their tech policies and practices.

Here’s what they had to say: 50 percent of participants said they had schoolwide wireless access; most said they don’t allow students to bring their own technology devices to school; and many don’t have a policy in place about students bringing their own devices to school.

But perhaps the most revealing data came from the next question: Do you allow cell phones in school?

Most participants said students can carry cell phones as long as they keep them turned off during class; yet, most also agreed that cell phones could be useful for instruction.

Participants also said that if students bring personal devices to school, 40 to 60 percent of those students bring a device with broadband access.

"This makes sense to me; I’ve seen this type of data before," said Karen Greenwood Henke, founder of Nimble Press and one of NSBA’s "20 to Watch," a list of 20 movers and shakers in educational technology. "Educators want their students to be able to use these technologies, but they don’t know how they can be applied in the classroom."

According to Henke, there are three types of reactions from educators to students’ use of personal technology devices:

1. Banning outright. This will quell the innovation that’s already happening in educational technology, Henke said–and although educators might think the personal devices aren’t being used, they usually just go underground.

2. The Walled Garden–the "yes, but…" approach. This means firewalls, filters, and a host of other restrictive policies and technologies aimed at keeping students "safe" and on task. This is the most common of school practices, Henke said, but maintenance and management consumes time and money and often provides only a false sense of security.

3. The Jungle–meaning the school wholly embraces most new technologies and innovations that come along. It’s not always safe or "pretty," but it is rich in variation, Henke said–and many new opportunities can be created.

"The jungle is a great option," said Henke, "but it’s not all wild. The school has to have common goals that are prioritized. The school must also build consensus among all departments, not just teachers over here and the IT department over there. It must be everyone together."

Henke said another challenge for schools adopting the "jungle" approach is bandwidth capacity.

"Schools first need to develop a plan of action for when new technologies are introduced and then determine their bandwidth needs. Then they’ll be getting somewhere," she said.

For Kathy Rains, director of technology for Madison City Schools in Alabama, her district’s success in using new technologies started with defining what "ubiquitous" access really should mean for students.

Rains and her team decided it was more complex than a single sentence could encapsulate–and this led officials to develop a plan of action with key points, such as developing a school system network, offering parent information training, and defining rules and safety for students.

"We decided that ubiquitous [access] for our students meant 24-7, anytime, anywhere access to learning, through the internet, and we went from there," she explained.

In Madison City Schools, students can bring in their own laptops and can log on to the district’s network with a guest sign-on. Rains said the district would have given students their own laptops, but it cannot afford to.

The district is working with the city’s Wi-Fi provider to make this access possible, she said.

The district also opens its libraries after-hours, provides laptop carts for classroom use, allows students to sign out laptops overnight and for long-term use, and has developed a common technology language.

"This means that we want everyone to be on the same page, so we use all open-source technology. We also go by PDFs and we have one file transportation system, not eMail. We also have a district web portal through Stoneware and a content management system through Moodle," said Rains.

The district’s web portal is functional for parents as well. Besides being able to view lunch menus and school schedules online, parents can submit payments online.

Students can search the internet through this web portal, then save and store any information or documents they might need directly to their own space on the portal.

But it’s not just students who get all the fun, according to Steve Hargadon, director of the K12 Open Technologies Initiative at the Consortium for School Networking, and founder of www.classroom20.com.

Hargadon developed his social networking site for educators as a way to get educators used to the idea of social networking not always as a scary, educationally empty phenomenon.

"We have to look at the tools and the devices behind popular technologies. Just because bad things sometimes happen on Facebook doesn’t mean the technology itself can’t be useful. It just depends how it’s used," he said.

Hargadon says that for educators, profile pages can be portfolios and background information for others to see. The "friends" you are making are really "colleagues," he said–and uploading content and adding commentary provides authentic feedback to your ideas.

"Common interest groups can be turned into group projects, and the discussion forums allow for asking questions and getting engaged in meaningful conversation. The wisdom of the group will always help when trying to solve problems," he said.

For these panelists, the shift in education from a teacher-centric, factory-style model to a more dynamic model filled with ubiquitous access to information, newly created content, and personal devices is not a struggle if you start with a plan–because only by being open to new ideas will today’s students be tomorrow’s innovators.

News from the exhibit hall

The American Education Corp. released phonics-based reading content geared toward kindergarteners through second-graders as part of its A+nyWhere Learning System. Featuring 15 lessons, the company’s Storybook Phonics I module takes a story-based approach to reading instruction that emphasizes phonetic fluency, initial consonant sounds, and beginning reading. Read by a British voice, all 15 stories contain a study guide, practice test, mastery test, and a two-part essay. The company says its new curriculum set can be used for independent or team study with computers, and all stories are compatible with interactive whiteboards. They’re also illustrated in full color and include character animations. Words are highlighted in sync with the narrator’s voice. Each lesson contains a variety of interactive games, such as drag-and-drop activities and picture-to-word matching. American Education also plans to introduce Storybook Phonics II for grades 1 and 2 soon. These additional 15 stories reportedly will focus on initial consonant clusters, vowels, and long vowel phonemes.

Ascend Education released data suggesting the efficacy of its Ascend Math Solution 3.3 software, which offers targeted intervention in mathematics by delivering personalized, differentiated instruction that includes assessments, lessons, and summative reporting. The company says the data show that its targeted math solution is used in before- and after-school programs, classrooms, computer labs, alternative learning environments, and in students’ homes. Using the product, for instance, Pinellas County, Fla., high school students reportedly improved their math scores by 28.7 percent. (Individual gains for these students on the math portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reportedly averaged 27.4 percent.) At the completion of the program, 78 percent of students said they had a positive experience in using Ascend.

DigitalBridge Education announced that it has won a statewide contract from the Utah State Office of Education for an electronic student achievement and data management system. As many as 40 Utah school districts and 96 charter schools will use the company’s DigitalSAMS solution, the company said–allowing teachers, parents, and administrators to have better visibility and understanding of each student’s individual academic needs throughout his or her educational career. DigitalSAMS is a software system that gathers both historical and real-time information about students from a variety of data sources, allowing the entire educational community to collect, view, act on, share, and protect individual student information.

Follett Software announced that its Destiny Library Manager software now works with SAFARI Montage video from Library Video Co., allowing users to incorporate video-on-demand clips into lesson plans and student research projects more easily. When Destiny users load the MARC records for SAFARI Montage video clips into their database, those records will appear within Destiny search results. Clicking on these results will take users directly to the district’s SAFARI Montage video server and the titles in question. Users also can add reviews or recommend these titles within the Destiny system, just as they can do with other resources. In addition, Follett announced that its Destiny Resource Management Solution now gives users greater flexibility. Students and teachers can manage their own usernames and passwords, and users can choose the background, colors, and images that are displayed during Destiny Quest searches. Other new features include ways to narrow searches more effectively and the ability to track consumables such as workbooks and study guides through Destiny Textbook Manager.

Funds for Learning has expanded its E-Rate Manger for Applicants service by adding a resource designed to help applicants prepare for audits by guiding them through each step of the process. The new resource guides applicants through an audit from start to finish, telling them what documentation they will need and what they can expect when auditors arrive. The company also announced that it has automated the entire e-Rate application process and has launched a free, online e-Rate Calendar.

Phonevite, a broadcasting service, allows teachers and administrators to broadcast emergency alerts, absence notifications, school event reminders, weather cancellations, school closings, student progress reports, and more for a per-call rate of 4 cents–meaning schools can cut their mass-communications costs by up to 75 percent, according to the company. Phonevite also offers a free service that teachers can use to send up to 25 calls at a time at no cost. Teachers can receive immediate feedback with call tracking and response-back features, and Phonevite reportedly has no setup, training, or maintenance fees.

SMART Technologies unveiled a new product called the SMART Table, an interactive learning center designed for students from preschool to sixth grade. The new product is a colored table with a touch-sensitive surface, where groups of students can work together and interact simultaneously with digital content. The SMART Table builds on SMART’s Digital Vision Touch (DViT) technology, which allows for multi-user and multi-touch functionality. The table is ready to use right out of the box, the company said, and contains a customized PC and a projection system that are turned on with one button. It has a built-in, 27-inch screen that can read simultaneous input from a number of fingers or pen tools. The table is 29 inches wide and 25 inches high, and it ships with a standard set of learning applications, interactive activities, and educational games. It also supports SMART Notebook software through the SMART Table toolkit. A toolkit is included with every unit and allows teachers using a PC or Mac to create their own customized lesson activities and content, which can be loaded onto the table easily with a USB key. Independent software and content developers have begun to create additional content, which will be available with the product next spring, SMART said.

(Editor’s note: For more coverage of this year’s T+L Conference, see our online Conference Information Center.)

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom