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Ed-tech leaders reveal keen insights


eSN-TV and JDL Horizons conducted nearly three dozen video interviews with CoSN conference participants.
eSN-TV and JDL Horizons conducted nearly three dozen video interviews with CoSN conference participants.

What do U.S. students want most when it comes to technology? How is one school system saving thousands of dollars per year in software licensing fees? How is a European nation about to embark on revolutionary experiment in computer-based testing?

These were some of the many insights captured by eSchool News TV in video interviews with education technology leaders during the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) annual conference in Washington, D.C., last month.

All told, eSN-TV (in conjunction with JDL Horizons, maker of the EduVision platform for streaming and archiving Flash-based video) conducted nearly three dozen video interviews with CoSN conference participants. You can watch all of these short video clips at www.eschoolnews.tv; here are some of the highlights.

What students want most from ed tech

Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow, discussed the latest findings from her organization’s annual Speak Up survey of students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

The newest findings from the student data reveal two significant trends, Evans said.

No. 1, “it’s all about mobile, mobile, mobile” with today’s students, she said: They’re interested in using “the computers they’re carrying around in their pockets—the smart phones” for learning.

Nearly a third of high school students (32 percent) who took part in the survey said they now carry smart phones, Evans said, and a quarter of middle school students who responded now own smart phones. That opens up “all kinds of opportunities to really leverage that kind of technology” in education, she said.

No. 2, students are interested in replacing their traditional textbooks “with a truly interactive learning experience,” Evans said. Not an eReader device, like the Kindle—but an online environment that includes educational games and simulations, as well as links to outside experts and web sites and the ability to download this online environment to their smart phone.

(Watch our interview with Julie Evans below.)

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Evans said her organization would release the latest findings from the teacher and administrator surveys later this year.

A ‘social network for social good’

Michael Furdyk, co-creator of the web site TakingITGlobal.org, talked about his organization, which he described as a “social network for social good.”

Furdyk was using an old Commodore 64 computer in 1985, at the age of two, and in middle school he created his own company—a web site about computers and technology that he sold to a New York City firm in 1999. After selling his company, he received eMail messages from young people all over the country looking for advice on entrepreneurship.

“I realized there was … a need online for a network that could support young people and their ideas to make a difference in the world,” Furdyk said.

He launched TakingITGlobal.org ten years ago as a way to help students address global challenges—and to help teachers integrate global learning opportunities into their classrooms.

The site contains hundreds of lesson plans relevant to subjects such as social students and political science, Furdyk said—like creating a blog or other artifact and sharing it with students in other countries.

(Watch our interview with Michael Furdyk below.)

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Last year, more than 4.5 million students from several different countries used the site, Furdyk said, and they “produced over a million pieces of content on almost 50 different global issues.”

Most projects start with writing and reflection, and then end with a call to action, he explained—adding that the site’s instructional model is “inspire, inform, and involve.”

Saving money by using open technologies

Jim Klein, director of information technology for the Saugus Union School District in California, discussed how CoSN’s K-12 Open Technologies Initiative helps inform school IT leaders about open technologies and how to implement them.

“Open technologies are particularly important for educators these days, especially in our current financial situation,” Klein said. School technology leaders are constantly trying to find ways to increase their students’ access to technology resources, he added, “but it’s often difficult, because finances have a tendency to get in the way.”

Using open technologies can enable school districts to get more technology into the hands of students, he said, while freeing up money to invest in other areas.

Saugus Union uses open technologies across its server infrastructure as well as on desktop computers, Klein said.

On the server side, the district has replaced its proprietary server software from companies such as Microsoft and Novell with Linux-based servers—and this has saved the district $50,000 to $60,000 per year in licensing fees.

“We’ve taken those dollars and reinvested them in the classroom,” Klein said.

On the desktop side, Saugus Union uses OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office software, which saves about $150,000 per year in software licensing fees. The district also uses the Linux operating system to extend the life of older computers. So rather than a three or four-year refresh cycle, “we’re able to extend the life of those machines out to seven, eight, nine years and still have effective technology in the classroom,” Klein said.

(Watch our interview with Jim Klein below.)

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One concern that school leaders often have about using open technologies is that they are harder to support. But Klein said he’s found it’s actually easier to run Linux, because it eliminates the need for the “patch cycles” that proprietary systems are notorious for.

And from a desktop perspective, “having a consistent [user] environment is a plus,” he said; you can install the same desktop system across every computer, which eliminates software compatibility issues. This also allows Saugus Union to give students a disk with open software to take home, so they can use the same learning tools as they use in school.

On innovation, and a vision for ed tech

Karen Billings, vice president of the education division for the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), discussed the challenges of innovation for school leaders and ed-tech vendors.

If an education technology program is really innovative, “they’re not sure if it’s going to be a success in schools,” Billings said, “and by the time they wait to make sure it’s going to be a success and that it will lead to student achievement … it’s no longer innovative.”

To help encourage successful ed-tech innovation among its members, SIIA runs an Innovation Incubator program, Billings said, in which new companies receive advice and support to help bring new products to market. Through an annual awards program, the organization showcases the best ideas that are deemed most likely succeed in the education market.

All 150 member companies of SIIA that sell to schools have agreed on a vision statement about where schools can use technology most effectively to support their goals, Billings said, so the United States remains globally competitive.

The web site for this “Vision for K-20 Education” framework “includes a survey so schools can see where they are in relation to attaining the vision,” she said. School leaders can benchmark their progress toward implementing technology effectively to support teaching, learning, and school operations, and they can take the survey again the following year to see how much progress they’ve made.

(Watch our interview with Karen Billings below.)

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The web site also offers advice on how schools can do better in the areas where they scored poorly on the survey, Billings said. Supporting resources include research reports, case studies, and a video platform through which educators can share success stories on integrating technology effectively in the classroom.

A creative approach to testing

Steen Lassen, senior advisor for the Ministry of Education in Denmark, discussed how that nation uses information and communications technology (ICT) in support of student testing.

Denmark has allowed its secondary students to use computers during written exams for more than 15 years, Lassen said. The initiative began in 1994, allowing students to use computers only as a word processor at first, so they could compose and edit text-based responses.

“But after a few years, we could see that more and more students were using computers,” Lassen said. By 2000, he said, 98 percent of the nation’s students were using computers to take their written exams.

That prompted Denmark’s education leaders to ask: “If we knew beforehand that the student has a computer, can we then make a new type of assignment that uses the facilities of the computer,” Lassen said—so it can used as more than just a word processor?

Inspired by this line of thinking, Denmark rolled out a new type of assessment in 2001 that used a CD-ROM as the method for delivering exams. That allowed educators to incorporate multimedia (such as video clips) into the assessment process, Lassen said—providing a more authentic method of assessment in which students could browse a collection of digital resources to find information, analyze it, synthesize it, and write about their conclusions.

Danish officials put what Lassen called an “artificial internet” on the testing CDs. Students could quote from the material, and they could cut and paste from written texts (with the appropriate citations) to support their arguments. The assessments tested whether students were able to find relevant information, think critically about what they have found, and present their findings, he explained; in other words, Danish students were asked to demonstrate the kind of 21st-century skills that many U.S. companies say they are looking for when hiring candidates.

But with wireless connectivity built into students’ computers, it became harder and harder to make sure students weren’t accessing the internet during exams, Lassen said—so this May, Denmark is embarking on a new pilot program that will allow internet access during testing for some subjects.

In the United States, that might be considered cheating—but in Denmark, Lassen said, officials are testing for “competencies,” not simply a regurgitation of facts.

(Watch our interview with Steen Lassen below.)

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