At the Texas Computer Education Association’s 29th annual conference earlier this month, educators heard an impassioned plea to open their students’ eyes to the world around them–and were urged to change their approach to instruction to take full advantage of 21st-century learning tools.
Despite the gloomy economy, TCEA reported a record attendance of 8,500 educators from all over the country. Hundreds of exhibitors also showcased their latest ed-tech products and services in an exhibit hall that boasted more than 900 individual booths.
The conference opened Feb. 4 with a dynamic, student-produced video demonstrating how technology is transforming education and empowering kids at Klein Independent School District’s Krimmel Intermediate School.
Set to pulsating music (used with permission under the Creative Commons license), the video captured students using tablet PCs to record themselves speaking in foreign-language classes, so they can replay the audio and practice their pronunciation. It also showed them collaborating on projects, doing research online, and presenting what they’ve learned.
"We’re plugged in," the video concluded. "Are you?"
After screening the video for the thousands of educators attending the three-day conference in Austin, Candace Threadgill, vice president of the convention, went live to Krimmel students through a real-time videoconferencing feed.
The students said they use tablet PCs every day in their classes and at home. "It’s truly a 24-7 learning experience," said one student. "We’re able to customize our learning."
The theme of TCEA’s conference was "Accelerate Technology," and that’s what a partnership between TCEA and the Verizon Foundation aims to do for Texas educators. The two organizations have teamed up for a program that trains the state’s teachers how to use Verizon’s free learning and literacy platform, Thinkfinity.org.
The site contains a wealth of free digital resources that teachers can use in their classrooms. During the opening general session, a Verizon Foundation executive presented Threadgill with a check for $70,500 to expand Thinkfinity training to more of the state’s teachers.
Ling to educators: Tell the world’s stories
TCEA’s opening keynote speaker, Journalist Lisa Ling, had strong words of rebuke for the current state of the U.S. news media–and an inspiring message of hope for the thousands of conference attendees.
"There aren’t enough people telling the world’s stories," said Ling, who has traveled the globe as a correspondent for National Geographic and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She urged conference attendees to help open their students’ eyes to the world around them.
Ling got her start in journalism at age 18 working for Channel One, the student-targeted news network that sparked controversy because it showed ads to students during school hours. To help overcome this stigma, the program began taking on more serious assignments.
Working for Channel One in the mid-80s, Ling covered the civil war in Afghanistan as a 21-year-old student at USC. She said she was struck by how many 10-year-old boys she met in that war-torn country who knew little else except how to fire a bazooka.
When the former Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in the late 80s, leaving behind a nation with billions of dollars of high-tech weaponry supplied by the U.S. to help fight our Cold War enemy at the time, "I wondered if we thought of the consequences of arming a country that knew nothing except war," Ling told a hushed audience.
Back then, she said, there were few media outlets covering events around the globe. And now, even though we have more news coverage with the advent of cable TV news and 24-hour news channels, "we’re still not any more informed about our world," Ling said.
She added: "Somehow we’ve empowered these people to discuss and debate and pontificate" on the key issues of our time–when most don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what they’re talking about.
After seven years at Channel One, Ling was deemed too old to appeal to that medium’s youthful demographic. Eventually, she ended up on The View–the multi-generational talk show aimed at women.
As the show’s resident Generation Xer, it was Ling’s job to represent the youth culture. But "I’d just had this global experience" covering events such as the refugee crisis in Kosovo, she said, "and I wanted to show that we could be multidimensional." She also wanted to use the show’s platform to raise awareness of larger issues.
"The producers said, ‘That’s nice–but no one in America cares about what’s going on in the rest of the world,’" she said.
Later, to loud applause, Ling said: "Don’t you wish our media would spend a fraction of their time covering substantive news?"
Ling found the opportunity to do that for National Geographic and as a special correspondent for the Oprah Winfrey Show.
"Every time I start on a project, I have a preconceived idea of what the people will be like, what the culture will be like"–and it’s never quite that simple, she said.
One powerful example was when Ling went to China to report on how Chinese families are abandoning their young daughters or giving them up for adoption by the thousands as a result of that nation’s one-child-only policy for controlling its exploding population.
Ling said she couldn’t understand how Chinese mothers could be so callous toward their little girls–until she interviewed several families and realized there’s a clear economic reason for choosing to keep sons over daughters: Chinese parents worry that if they have a baby girl and keep her, she’ll eventually marry and move in with her husband’s family, leaving no one to care for them when they get old.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Ling said of this simple explanation. Her point was that understanding different cultures changes our perception of them profoundly.
"My hope is that, when viewers are able to live vicariously through our reports, it will be enlightening" for them, too, she said.
The understanding that comes from learning about others offers hope for our planet’s future, Ling said, as she urged TCEA attendees to awaken this understanding within their students.
And though Ling didn’t mention this herself, it was obvious to those attending an ed-tech conference that technology provides a key means of doing this, as tools such as eMail, video, and the internet can help connect students to the world around them.
Ling ended with a quote from Oprah that served as a strong call to action for educators to raise their students’ awareness of how others live and inspire them to seek change:
"Now that you know, you can’t pretend that you don’t."
Web 2.0: What does the future hold?
Another conference session included a spirited panel discussion of Web 2.0 technologies and their role in schools.
In Web 2.0 technologies, schools finally have the optimum tools for learning, said the panel’s speakers–but educators must learn to change their approach to instruction to take full advantage of these tools.
Jim Bower, CEO of the student-focused virtual world Whyville, explained the difference between first-generation online tools and the new tools of today–and why Web 2.0 holds so much promise for education.
"Web 1.0 was largely a ‘push’ operation, taking already existing content and posting it online," said Bower. "Web 2.0 is driven by ‘pull,’ not push. … Kids can create their own content and interact."
But, he added: "The question is, are we inventing a new way for students to learn using this technology?"
Bower, who’s also a neurobiologist at the University of Texas, said the way we learn hasn’t really changed over the years; what has changed has been the medium for this instruction.
We tend to learn best through hands-on experiences, he explained–by trying things ourselves and taking ownership of our own learning, rather than passively receiving information from another source. But until the internet came along, we haven’t had a scalable way to deliver this kind of experience to every student.
Before the internet, Bower said, the two most important developments from an educational perspective were the invention of the printing press and the creation of a university system. But both of these developments were "push" operations, he said–meaning they pushed information out to students, rather than letting students experience learning for themselves.
"We’ve been saddled with bad technology to teach for the last 500 years, with predictable consequences," Bower said. But now, with Web 2.0 tools, "we finally have a technology that will let us better match our learning process" with what goes on in schools.
Now that we have the right medium, Bower said, we have to figure out how to take advantage of it. When any new technology comes out, he explained, we typically superimpose our old ways of doing things on this new medium–and education has been no different.
"We haven’t figured out how to leverage Web 2.0 yet" in schools, Bower said. Instead of pushers and producers of content knowledge, he added, teachers must become pullers and directors.
Bower gave an example that illustrates the potential for Web 2.0 technologies to empower students.
Whyville is an online virtual community for students, with a reported 4.2 million members worldwide. Students create their own avatars, and–as in the virtual environment Second Life–they can buy and sell virtual goods using the site’s currency (clams) and even operate virtual businesses.
Shortly after the site launched a few years ago, Bower got an eMail message from a child saying, in effect, "Your [avatars’] face parts are lame." So Whyville’s programmers created a virtual factory in which students could design their own face parts. That, in turn, has led to the creation of several start-up virtual businesses in which kids design and "sell" face parts to other Whyville members.
Over the last few years, Bower said, Whyville’s residents have created and sold more than 2.5 million face parts. Some 12-year-old girls run entire virtual companies around this industry, he said, with 30 to 40 employees handling sales, marketing, and graphic design.
"That is the power of this medium when it actually opens up and lets kids contribute," he said.
Much of the rest of the discussion focused on how to overcome resistance to this paradigm shift in education, which is notorious for its aversion to change.
One session participant, a district technology director, said she’s had trouble integrating Web 2.0 technologies in her schools, because it’s often hard to convince administrators and teachers of their value. How do you get this buy-in from stakeholders, she asked?
"When an administrator says, ‘Show me the proof,’ just point at the current state of schools," Bower said. "If we’re not engaging these kids, they’re not learning."
Ed-tech best practices
During the TCEA conference, eSchool News hosted its annual "Ed-Tech Best Practices Summit," which featured informative sessions on data management, digital media management, interactive whiteboard technologies, "green" technologies, best-in-class instructional solutions, video distribution technology, smart textbook management, and more.
Videos of these Summit sessions can be found at www.eSchoolNews.tv under the "Video Marketplace" category or by clicking on the following links…
Elmo USA: Bob Crellin, regional manager for Elmo USA, talks about safer, greener technology for students.
Follett: Sherri Daniels, senior project manager of best practices for Follett, discusses textbook management best practices.
JDL: New York City’s PS376 uses JDL’s Learning Symphony.
mimio: A mimio master trainer explains the advantages of using a mimio whiteboard.
Pearson: Paul Smith from Pearson’s School System Group explains how to achieve increased parental participation with online resources.
SAFARI Montage: Tim Beekman, president of SAFARI Montage, discusses video-on-demand and digital media management.
Skyward: Ray Ackerlund, director of marketing for Skyward, gives some best-practice examples of moving from data management to data analysis.
News from the exhibit hall
Adobe Systems has teamed with Certiport to create two levels of certification in the use of its software: Adobe Certified Associate for validating entry-level digital media skills (creating and communicating information using Adobe’s multimedia, video, graphic, or web design software), and Adobe Certified Expert for validating expert-level skills.
The certification program "will help educators effectively teach and validate digital communication skills while providing students with credentials that demonstrate real-world prowess to prospective employers," Adobe said.
Britannica showcased SmartMath, an online formative assessment and math practice system for elementary students. Students can practice math at their own pace inside or outside of class with 35,000 math problems covering 91 topics, and teachers can check their students’ progress (including success rates and time on task) at the touch of a button, Britannica said.
Century Consultants demonstrated its Star_Base School Suite for student information management, which includes a Parent Portal to include parents in the education process. The portal gives parents access to their children’s grades, attendance, assignments, test scores, discipline records, homework, course requests, transcripts, and graduation requirements from anywhere with internet access, Century said–including a cell phone.
EBSCO introduced NoveList Plus, a comprehensive database of information on youth and adult books–including summaries of 163,000 fiction titles and 60,000 nonfiction titles that support school curricula, as well as more than 500 book discussion guides and recommended reading lists for students of all ages on more than 1,200 topics. The database also can link directly to a school’s or district’s own library catalog, EBSCO said.
NoveList also comes in a version made specifically for K-8 students, called K-8 Plus. This smaller database has information on 63,000 fiction and 21,000 nonfiction titles (including Lexile scores), as well as other features designed to get kids interested in reading.
EdOptions highlighted its Stars Suite adaptive online courses, which the company said can be used to replace traditional summer school for students who need credit recovery for about $50 per student.
Educational Resources promoted Sunburst’s Type to Learn 4: Agents of Information. This typing software includes age-appropriate exercises built around the concept of a secret society called the Agents of Information, and students can rise through the organization’s ranks as they complete each exercise.
The program’s lessons and exercises span grades K-12 and can be used for classroom teaching or independent practice, the company said. Type to Learn 4 includes a diagnostic pre-test; formative assessments of student progress; personalized remediation; teacher, parent, and student reports; English as a Second Language content; and a web-enabled version that allows students to practice from anywhere they have an internet connection.
ePals highlighted SchoolBlog, a free–and secure–student blogging environment that includes built-in translation tools for helping students connect with their peers around the world, ePals said.
Equus demonstrated its NOBI Convertible, a rugged, mobile computing device designed for K-8 students. The device works as a tablet or laptop computer, and students can control applications with their finger or a stylus on the touch-sensitive screen. It includes wireless connectivity and a built-in webcam, offers four hours of battery life, uses Intel’s Atom processor, offers a 60-gigabyte hard drive, and runs on either Windows XP or Linux.
LearningExpress promoted eFolio, an online writing system that enables students to practice their writing skills from any internet-connected computer. The system includes a computer-based scoring engine that provides instant feedback on students’ writing assignments, reducing the burden of grading essays and allowing students to practice their writing more frequently, LearningExpress says.
Teachers can create and manage assignments for the whole class or for individual students, and an online annotation feature allows teachers to add their own comments to students’ essays.
PASCO Scientific introduced the SPARK Science Learning System, a mobile science discovery system that includes a rugged, touch-sensitive tablet device, temperature and voltage sensors, and 62 pre-installed SPARKlabs, which are standards-based guided inquiry labs in an electronic notebook format. Students can connect up to two additional sensors that are sold separately. The tablet’s full-color, high-resolution display can show graphs, tables, and other data in the same view, PASCO said. The system sells for $329.
SANAKO, which used to be known as Tandberg, highlighted its Study Mobile Module. This solution includes Nokia N810 Internet Tablet devices with SANAKO Study software installed and 12 months of remote support. Study is software that helps teachers keep their students on task–and off web sites they shouldn’t be browsing during class. It allows teachers to monitor their students’ screens and includes voice and text communication, so teachers can guide students and provide instant feedback during instruction.
Siboney Learning Group highlighted case studies showing how schools have used the company’s Orchard software for the reading practice, assessment, and intervention that occurs during Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies.
Skyward Inc. showcased its School Management System, which it calls the industry’s first fully integrated student, finance, and human resources software package for school districts. The system enables district leaders to manage student progress, annual budgets, employee pay and benefits, and even food service from a single, centralized system.
A key component of the solution is the Family Access module, which lets students and their parents access grades, homework, and class assignments online. "We’re focused heavily on expanding this tool and giving families increased access to what goes on in the school from home," said Skyward’s Ray Ackerlund. The company plans to roll out a digital student locker component soon.
Study Island introduced a new online program that helps students earn their General Education Diploma (GED). The company also previewed an online graphic novel for reading intervention that will debut near the end of March. Called "The World As You Know It," it’s a three-book series aimed at middle and high school students who are behind on their reading skills.
"Once you get to a certain level and you can’t read well, you’re often written off," said Becky Wofford, vice president of marketing. "The way to reach that audience is to give them something interesting to read, something that captures their enthusiasm."
The graphic novel will be an add-on feature for Study Island’s existing subscribers; the GED program will be sold as a separate product.
SunGard Public Sector, the division of SunGard Data Systems that sells to schools, promoted its eSchoolPLUS web-based student management software, which allows parents to access information about their child from home. The system also includes dashboards for building- and district-level administrators to monitor attendance, discipline, test score, and NCLB progress data from their own customized home page, SunGard said.
Vulocity showcased the wide range of transportation technologies and services it sells to schools, including bus-routing software integration, security cameras, and GPS and video monitoring systems.
Wireless Generation demonstrated its mCLASS:RTI solution, an approach to managing Response to Intervention that includes DIBELS assessment software, handheld data collection, and RTI analysis and reporting tools. Using the solution, school leaders can accurately track and document K-6 students’ response to intervention in early reading and math, the company said.
(Editor’s note: For more coverage of this year’s TCEA conference in Austin Feb. 4-6, including video interviews with conference attendees and company representatives, visit the TCEA Conference Information Center page at eSN Online: http://www.eschoolnews.com/conference-info/tcea.)