"Innovation" was the watchword at the National School Boards Association’s 2009 Technology + Learning (T+L) conference last month in Denver.

Keynote speaker Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, kicked off the annual education-technology conference Oct. 28 by revealing what he believes are the keys to innovation. A panel session on Oct. 29 followed up on that theme, discussing how technology can help bring successful school innovations to scale. And NSBA honored several outstanding innovators who are using technology to help improve learning with its "20 to Watch" awards.

Meanwhile, in the conference exhibit hall, nearly 300 ed-tech companies demonstrated innovative new products and services developed for schools.

Keys to innovation

Bringing together teachers and school leaders with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks can help drive educational innovation, said Johansson during the opening general session.

"All new ideas are combinations of existing ideas," he said. "The best chance at innovation is when we combine things from different fields. … Many times, if [ideas] are closely related, they’re not very innovative."

Innovation, as defined by Johansson, occurs when people take the knowledge and wisdom of their network of colleagues and combine it with something completely different.

The title of Johansson’s book refers to the proliferation of new ideas and the burst of creativity enabled by the Medici banking family in Renaissance Italy. He said innovative individuals and teams generate more ideas–and diverse teams of innovators generate far more ideas.

"Find inspiration from fields or cultures other than your own, and dare to explore the connections between them," he urged a room full of school board members, educators, and technology leaders. "And prepare your students to innovate."

He also stressed the importance of expecting and accepting failure, and he noted how students are already used to dealing with failure from their experience with video games. Johansson said students don’t look at failure as the end, but rather an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and try again.

"You will not know what ideas will work or not, so reserve resources for many trials," he said. "Passion maximizes the chance for success. Your ideas may fail, so you’re going to have to keep trying. And encourage your students to explore interesting idea combinations on their own."

Bringing innovations to scale

Technology allows educators to share the innovative best practices and ideas they gather with others easily, said panelists during an Oct. 29 discussion titled "Innovation, Technology, and Going to Scale."

Jean Hendrickson, executive director of Oklahoma A+ Schools, said that when addressing challenges in a school district, educators should envision a specific child they care about and then think of all of the opportunities they would want that child to have while in school.

"Technology can help us to do it all. But it can’t do it all [by itself]. It is a tool. It is inert without input, without humanity, without thinking about the child that you love and outcomes that we need, and getting beyond half answers," she said.

Paul Kelley, founder and headmaster of Monkseaton High School in the United Kingdom, agreed that investing in technological innovation is something educators need to do more vigorously.

Kelley said educators need to take the $650 million in "Investing in Innovation" (I3) grant money proposed by the Obama administration and spend it wisely to boost education. (See "Feds propose rules for $650M innovation fund.")

"It could really mean that education in this country could do something very special," he said, adding that grant winners should share their innovations broadly with their colleagues. "It is a tremendous opportunity in the next few years in the [United] States."

Kathy Christie, chief of staff for the Education Commission of the States, said she believes most policy makers want to do things the "right way" to help improve education.

"Sometimes they just don’t know what that way is, like most of us don’t always know what the right way is," she said. "I’m a big fan of … ‘creative compliance.’ As long as you have the right end in mind–which is what’s good for the kids–I think most policy makers are very willing to listen and learn something new and adapt."

Christie said that as the federal government is working to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, federal officials should be encouraged to take the regulations governing programs such as Title I and English as a Second Language and make them one entity to help at-risk students.

But Kelley disagreed with Christie, stating that it’s not the job of the federal government to decide what is the right thing to do to improve education.

"The big job over the next 30 years is allowing educators to work with other people to find better solutions," he said. "And I don’t doubt that politicians and policy people generally care about students, but they don’t know what they’re doing."

20 to Watch

During its annual T+L conference, NSBA honored 20 emerging leaders in education technology, ranging from teachers to superintendents to directors of nonprofit organizations.

The leaders make up NSBA’s "20 to Watch," an annual list of movers and shakers chosen by the organization’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN). These individuals were recognized for championing initiatives that are making a difference for students, teachers, school districts, and the greater ed-tech community.

"This year’s 20 to Watch represents educators who see the potential that technology brings to the learning environment, and they know how to translate that knowledge in a way that excites and inspires their students and colleagues," said Ann Flynn, director of education technology for NSBA.

"We hope their stories and experiences will influence policy makers and encourage district leaders to develop and support programs that allow their successes to be replicated across the country."

Brian Nichols, principal at Hidenwood Elementary School in Virginia’s Newport News Public Schools, said he thinks his district’s progressive approach to education is what made him stand out among the other "20 to Watch" nominees. Nichols helped develop an after-school academy where students can immerse themselves in technology.

"They’re trying to save the world through technology," he said of the students. "They’ve [created public service announcements] about saving the Chesapeake Bay … and the program is targeted to students who aren’t meeting their [state] benchmarks."

After one year of being in the program, he said, 95 percent of participants passed the state-required tests.

Nichols’ students aren’t the only ones trying to save the world. Anne Smith, a language-arts teacher at Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, said her students–who are primarily ninth graders–also operate with changing the world in mind.

"It’s about what the kids want to do to [improve the world around them]," she said. "So they find ways to make a difference … [and then] kids see that what they do makes an impact."

Smith said her students regularly participate in live blogging events with authors such as Cory Doctorow, who wrote "Little Brother," and Daniel Pink, author of "A Whole New Mind," who has worked with the students for about two years. They also use Skype, a software application that allows users to make free voice calls over the internet, to interact with the authors, as well as with fellow students when they are sick and have to stay home.

Innovation is something that Barbara Kurshan, executive director of Curriki, said drives her and the nonprofit social entrepreneurship organization that she runs. Curriki supports the development and free distribution of open-source educational materials to improve education worldwide.

"Curriki is the [winner] here," she said of being included in this year’s "20 to Watch" list. "I’m lucky to be the leader … where I’m getting a chance to do things that change the way teaching and learning is done."

Kurshan said standing out isn’t the reason Curriki works to build a community of teachers who share knowledge and information with their colleagues worldwide.

"We just do it because it’s the right thing to do," she said.

More information about this year’s "20 to Watch" winners can be found here.

News from the exhibit hall

Nearly 300 companies were on hand at this year’s T+L to demonstrate their latest ed-tech products and services. Here are some of the highlights.

Alcatel-Lucent introduced two new IP routers that offer an economically viable alternative for schools in rural areas to receive the same advanced broadband service currently available in larger metropolitan areas, according to the company.

AlertNow showcased its rapid communication service, designed specifically for K-12 schools. The service reportedly can deliver voice, eMail, and emergency SMS (Short Message Service, or text messaging) at a rate up to two million messages per hour, keeping parents and staff up to date on important and time-sensitive information. Besides delivering routine messaging, AlertNow can serve as a critical component in a school’s crisis plan, the company said–ensuring that accurate information is communicated immediately in the event of a lockdown, relocation, evacuation, or other emergency.

American Education announced new courses in History II and three updated math courses for students in grades 1-3 as part of its A+nywhere Learning System courseware. The upgrades include more semi-interactive features and colors to make lessons more engaging to students. The company also said its A+ Classroom Student Response Software, which gives teachers the ability to make automated quizzes and formative assessments to check student learning on the fly, soon will be compatible with eInstruction’s student response systems. The software already is compatible with response systems from several other companies, including Promethean, Renaissance Learning, and Turning Technologies.

Ascend Education announced that its K-12 math solution is now available in Spanish to help students for whom English is a second language. Ascend Math includes skill-reinforcing multimedia components and is offered as a full line of courseware, from elementary math through Algebra 1. Resources include video-based lessons and directions, audio-enhanced practice problems, and student study guides.

Aspen Learning launched a new version of its OpenClassroom server, which comes loaded with safe collaborative tools and personal storage space for students, as well as learning management tools for teachers. Based on Intel’s Atom 330 dual-core processor, the new device reportedly is twice as fast as the previous version and will be available at the same price, the company said.

BoardDocs launched an "all-new" version of its paperless school-board solution at the conference, powered by Web 2.0 technology. With the all-new BoardDocs, any browser can be used to access the system’s flexible and responsive interface, and new features include advanced meeting control, enhanced annotation capabilities, improved workflow processes, and delegated policy administration. The new system moves the power of document management away from the IT department and directly into the hands of those who actually create and manage the documents, BoardDocs says.

Datawise showcased its Datawise MEASURES automated assessment and data-management solution, which offers real-time integration with leading student information systems and an automatic nightly roster refresh. Datawise says it has provided assessment and data management to California school districts since 2000.

Eastern Townships School Board of Quebec reportedly has acquired a worldwide reputation for its implementation of a one-to-one wireless laptop program for all students in grades 3-9. The board is now offering ed-tech consulting services to other districts. Board members say they will conduct an on-site needs assessment, design and provide direct support for meeting a district’s key challenges, and provide online professional development both before and after direct contact with client districts.

Epson previewed new ultra short-throw projectors, the Epson PowerLite 450W and Epson PowerLite 460, that are ideal for use with standard or interactive whiteboards, as the ultra short-throw distance significantly reduces shadow interference, Epson said. Designed to meet the growing demand for wall-mounted projectors, the models include hardware for quick, easy, and inexpensive installation. The PowerLite 450W and 460 also include built-in closed captioning support, a 10-watt speaker, the ability to deliver presentations over a network, and optional wireless capabilities.

GlobalScholar demonstrated its Pinnacle Suite of software, which allows teachers to analyze student data flexibly and accurately, the company said. The software supports multiple rubric-based assessment methods, and it allows teachers to link assessments to specific learning standards and benchmarks; track student attendance, demographics, and performance; automatically generate customized, real-time reports for district administrators and parents, as well as standards-based report cards and required district and state agency reports; and tailor data collection according to individual needs.

Infinite Campus laid out its long-term vision for the type of data collection it hopes to be able to achieve in the future. The company plans to launch individualized learner plans, where the system works similar to Amazon.com or Netflix and uses the information it is given to suggest activities that students might be interested in. The goal is to help teachers spend less time with paperwork and other things that take away from teaching and give them more time with their students. Infinite Campus said it was rated by Gartner Industry Research in September as being the only "strong positive" student information systems provider among nine in the K-12 market.

Lightspeed Systems discussed its solutions for securing, monitoring, filtering, managing, and optimizing school networks. The company says its aim is to help balance safety and learning so that network security doesn’t limit the educational power of the internet. Lightspeed prides itself on offering an "intelligent" and granular filtering solution–one that can differentiate between good and bad YouTube content or social networking tools.

Lightspeed Technologies designs audio systems that can help increase student achievement by amplifying and clarifying the teacher’s voice. Lightspeed’s audio systems use infrared technology, are easy to use, and provide exceptional quality at competitive prices, the company said.

Pearson School Systems announced its PearsonContinuity.com web site, offering print and online resources for students, parents, and teachers to continue the learning process if attending school is not an option owing to the H1N1 virus or another crisis. The company also highlighted the early successes of Project Tapestry, a web-based learning environment built specifically for K-12 education. The successes of two districts in particular–Plainedge School District in Massapequa, N.Y., and Independence School District in Independence, Mo.–are chronicled in a recent Project Tapestry customer video.

Samsung TechWin demonstrated its L300 data projector for the classroom. The projector’s 3,000 ANSI lumens, XGA resolution, and advanced 3-chip LCD technology deliver high-quality images that are realistic and sharp, with natural and vibrant colors. The device also boasts easy connectivity and extremely quiet operation, Samsung says.

Schooldude.com showcased its integrated suite of online solutions for school IT administrators, which reportedly help more than 860,000 education professionals save time and money by streamlining work orders, managing IT inventory, scheduling facilities, analyzing ed-tech use, and more.

SchoolReach helps administrators deliver personalized phone or text messages to every parent or staff members, or select groups of stakeholders, through an affordable and easy-to-use web-based system that requires no on-site hardware, software, or phone lines. Parent, staff, and student contact information can be uploaded or automatically refreshed daily through the company’s universal Data Integrator module. Once contact lists are established, three simple steps are reportedly all it takes to launch a broadcast: Create a message; select the recipients; then launch.

Skyward launched a school decision-support tool that offers a centralized, customizable data dashboard. Users can customize the widgets they’d like to see and arrange the screens in ways that suit them. At the end of 2009, Skyward also plans to begin a revenue-sharing program with school districts, in which local or national businesses can advertise within the dashboard, with a percentage of the money going to the district. The vendors will work directly with Skyward, letting the company know which district(s) they would like to advertise to.

SmoothWall is an open-source project to create a Linux-based internet firewall device from a redundant PC. SmoothWall Express is the free firewall that has resulted, and it includes its own security-hardened GNU/Linux operating system and an easy-to-use web interface. SmoothWall Limited provides resources and funding for the SmoothWall Open Source Project. As the commercial arm of SmoothWall, it offers an affordable range of supported commercial applications to schools, enterprise networks, and small businesses.

Spectrum Industries, a school and office furniture supply company, offers furniture for computer labs, multi-use classrooms, laptop implementations, libraries, video conferencing, instructional centers, and offices. All of the furniture is made in Wisconsin.

In January, Weekly Reader will introduce Weekly Reader Connect, a multimedia reading-comprehension program that aims to combine high-interest, real-world nonfiction content, research-based lessons, and interactive activities. The online reading program for first through sixth graders requires no additional software and will deliver dozens of "themed units" throughout the school year, with a focus on current events in grades 3-6. Weekly Reader Connect will presents short, multi-leveled content enriched with interactive multimedia, including brief videos, narrated slide shows, topical audio clips, animated shorts, and pop-up dictionaries.

Xirrus offers a wireless solution that provides more than enough bandwidth, security, and control to replace switched Ethernet to the desktop as the primary network connection for a school, the company says. Xirrus’ Wi-Fi Array integrates four, eight, 12, 16, or 24 802.11abg+n radios and a high-gain directional antenna system into a single device, along with an on-board, multi-gigabit switch, Wi-Fi controller, firewall, dedicated threat sensor, and an embedded spectrum analyzer–resulting in a solution that reportedly uses 75 percent fewer devices, cabling, switch ports, power, space, and installation time compared with any other networking solution. Xirrus says it provides the network connection for a number of universities and school districts, including the Plano Independent School District in Texas and William Woods University in Fulton, Mo.


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