At a conference where participants discussed the sea change occurring in today’s schools and explored ways of using technology to meet the needs of a new generation of learners, perhaps it was only fitting that the opening keynote speaker was Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the famed ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who spoke of technology’s power to reach students worldwide.

Cousteau kicked off the 2009 Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) last week in Orlando, which organizers said drew 7,000 educators and school technologists from 49 states and 17 countries.

Before he spoke, Ronald Blocker, superintendent of Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, alluded to the changing nature of education, noting that today’s students crave technology.

"They’ve grown up with it. High school seniors were born in 1991, the same year the World Wide Web launched," Blocker said. "As teachers, it is our duty to speak in a language that students understand."

Then Cousteau took the stage, explaining how education has gotten him to where he is today.

"For three generations, education has been the driving force behind the work of my family," said Cousteau, who is the chief ocean correspondent for the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet. "I am a product of good teaching."

It was the spirit of conservation and care for the environment taught by his grandfather that inspired him to work toward raising people’s awareness of the need to restore and protect the world’s oceans.

"Oceans are critical to all life on this planet, and they are in peril," Cousteau said.

He said the lessons he was taught by his grandfather and others in his life led him to found EarthEcho International, a nonprofit environmental education and conservation organization, with his sister.

Over the past year, Cousteau filmed a series of seven one-hour installments of an ocean documentary program. While he enjoyed the exploration of different oceans around the world, he said he was most impressed by his ability to use technology to further his work–and to share it with students from around the world.

"I could take videos on my cell phone and upload them to [the internet]. Or I could respond to questions from students on my eMail, and they could get the answers right away," he said.

Cousteau said he is also exploring ways to use documentary filmmaking in classrooms. He produced, co-directed, and wrote a documentary on the Everglades in which five high school students were invited to help during their summer vacation. He said they all planned to finish high school, but none saw the point in going to college.

"When I saw them [later that fall at the documentary premiere], their lives were changed. I could see what the power of teaching could do," he said. "All five of them had decided to go on to university."

Gaming: The future of education?

Other conference speakers discussed how gaming and other forms of interactive media can help educators reach students who were raised in an all-digital culture.

Gaming is moving out of the entertainment realm and into other areas, said Jim Brazell, president of ventureRAMP.com.

"We now have serious games. There are applications of video games to domains other than entertainment," he said Jan. 23 at an "eye opening" keynote–so named for its start time 28 minutes after sunrise. "Video games do not belong pigeonholed in entertainment."

Interactive games and simulations have become commonplace in areas such as health care and military training and have given birth to new models of playing, learning, and socializing, he said.

"You can get more data in a video game than in any other educational area," Brazell said, adding that gaming allows for the convergence of physical, virtual, and imaginary realities.

Video games have been used for things as diverse as emergency-response training and language acquisition. The utility of gaming derives from the fact that mammals learn best through play, according to Brazell.

"[Students] don’t know that the learning is embedded. That’s the thing about play, the learning is embedded," he explained.

Of the more than 75 attendees in the keynote session, nearly all said they were interested in using gaming in the classroom. Brazell said educators should start by determining what it is they hope to convey.

"Never start with the idea that you’re going to use a [specific] video game [as a teaching tool]. Decide what you want to teach, and then find the right application," he recommended.

But Brazell stressed that games should not replace the classroom experience or classroom teachers.

"We’re talking about blended learning," he said.

Other uses of interactive media

Interactive media have changed the way students learn and will continue to change the way teachers teach, says Chris Dede, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

"Almost any piece of information can now be found online in less than a minute," he said during another morning keynote session on Jan. 24. "We, as educators, must decide what … knowledge every student should learn to prepare for 21st-century work and citizenship."

During his address, titled "Emerging Interactive Media: What to Use, When, and How," Dede listed several other types of interactive media and gave examples of how they could be used in the classroom.

For example, Dede said, online discussion forums allow for students and teachers to collaborate on different topics that often go beyond the curriculum. He noted that one issue or challenge with using online forums in instruction is that the teacher has to facilitate the conversation. It is also necessary for students to learn the proper "netiquette"–etiquette that governs communication online.

Dede also spoke of ways to use podcasting and vodcasting (video podcasting) in instruction.

One of the educators in the audience suggested that teachers could record their lessons and provide them as MP3 files to students who had iPods or other digital audio players. That way, students who missed the lesson would be able to hear it–or students who needed to hear a particular part of the lesson again would be able to listen to it until the concepts are mastered.

Other interactive media that Dede discussed included writers’ workshops and fan fiction, wikis, mashups, social networking sites, blogs, photo and video sharing, social bookmarking, and collaborative social change sites.

For educational uses of blogging, Dede said, teachers could set up free, private blogs for the class to publish responses to class assignments, conduct peer reviews, collaborate on group projects, and share links of interest to the community. He said the biggest advantage of blogs is that they give students the chance to see their work instantly made public with prompt feedback.

Wikis are easy ways to collaborate on file creation, Dede said.

"Wikis provide opportunities for students to interact and learn as a group," he noted. "They can help students lean how to peer edit and to give and receive constructive criticism on their creative work, all at their own pace."

Social bookmarking sites allow users to sort and organize bookmarks using keywords, or tags, and store them in an online account. The bookmarks are then publicly or privately shared within an online community.

Dede said much can be learned about a student by what he or she tags. Social bookmarking, he said, can add transparency to the process by which students are gathering and integrating information, allowing teachers to guide students in evaluating sources of information.

Photo and video sharing could be used to eliminate language barriers, he said. Writers’ workshops and fan fiction are primarily used by teenagers and professionals because they require a complex understanding of the functionalities of the web, Dede said, but the frameworks could be adapted to create special sites for younger children or seniors. Workshops give small groups of like-minded people a space to provide constructive criticism and feedback.

A mashup is a new web application made from combining two or more specific web functionalities, which is then used to create an original representation of data and media.

"These mashups can be used in informal or formal education settings for gathering information, performing research, analyzing data, thinking critically, problem solving, and simply enriching course materials and subjects for better learning," Dede said. "By creating and sharing their own mashups, students can design tools that will meet their individual needs while building and sharing living knowledge repositories that are flexible to change."

Dede said social networking sites can be used in classrooms to allow students to connect to and interact with their classmates, as well as other students studying similar topics around the globe.

Another medium that Dede said he’s found to be useful in his classes is collaborative social change sites, such as www.care2.com, DoSomething.org, and www.idealist.org.
 
"Harvard students want to use educational technology to empower people across the world who are not empowered," he said.

On these sites, students take part in collaborative learning, where they work toward a common purpose of gaining knowledge about a specific problem.

News from the exhibit hall

Some 500 ed-tech companies were on hand in the FETC exhibit hall, demonstrating their latest products and solutions. Here are some of the highlights.

Instructional Solutions

Computers, Furniture, Infrastructure

School & Network Administration

Safety & Security

Printing & Imaging

Purchasing, Professional Development, Consulting

(Editor’s note: For more coverage of this year’s FETC, check out our online FETC Conference Information Center page: http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/fetc.)