At Voc.-Ed. Show, Latest in Technology Turns Heads
As robotic arms guided a block of plastic along the curving conveyor belt of a scaled-down, automated assembly line, Trevor Walker looked for an opening in the passing crowds to snap photographs.
His pictures, explained the Canadian educator attending the American Vocational Association's annual convention here, will be used in a slide show to be presented soon to 18 school boards in his country. They will provide an illustrated account of the latest in vocational-education technology and methods on display at the sprawling ava trade show.
In the rooms above the vast exhibit floor of the city's convention center, vocational educators met Nov. 30 to Dec. 4 for discussions ranging from high-level policy questions, such as implementation of a new federal law reauthorizing vocational programs, to more narrowly focused topics, such as "Leadership Characteristics, Functions, Incentives, Inhibitors, and Developmental Experiences as Perceived by Selected Home Economists."
At the trade show, meanwhile, educators like Kevin B. Christie, a Vermont automotive-technology teacher, were hardly bashful in admitting that they skipped the lectures upstairs to do some hands-on learning.
"For me, it's been a large part of coming to the convention," said Mr. Christie, who teaches high-school students and adults at the Hartford Area Vocational Center in White River, Vt. "It's really given me some very, very good information.".
He lingered at an electronic display aimed at improving the troubleshooting skills of automotive students. "This allows the student to have good hands-on learning and allows the teacher to work with a live blackboard," Mr. Christie explained. "Before, I'd have to take you under the hood to do this and then take the whole thing apart."
For Mr. Christie, the electronic board explaining such functions as auto wiring and engine operation reinforces the idea that higher competencies and more individualized learning are essential in vocational education.
"The students of today need much higher levels of expertise to deal with the cars that are coming out," he said. "With vocational education going toward higher technology, this makes it easier for us to present those materials to the students."
Half the convention hall away, Joyce B. Lyon, a mathematics teacher at the Ohio Hi-Point Joint Vocational School in Bellefontaine, tested a math program on an interactive videodisk that is designed to improve the skills of students who fared poorly on their first attempt in a traditional academic classroom.
She said that the walk through the exhibit area--where more than 250 companies displayed products ranging from computer-aided design systems to "patient simulators" for nursing students--helped her to see how classrooms, teaching, and technology are changing.
"Our children are growing up in a technological age. Three-year-olds can program video recorders that some adults don't understand," Ms. Lyon said. The interactive videodisk, she said, remains on the wish list for her classroom, which currently has a single computer.
"For adults, this may be the future," Ms. Lyon observed, "but for the students, this is now."
Mr. Walker, here on behalf of the Ottawa Carleton Learning Foundation in Ottawa, said that after four years of attending the ava convention and taking a close look at the trade shows, he can tell a lot about what is catching on in vocational education from year to year.
The Canadian said he was glad to see more instructional equipment that uses interactive video and computers.
"The biggest change is going to be in the delivery of instruction,'' he said. "But one of the things I'm a little disappointed by is that there isn't as much problem-solving being put in as we need."
Just as observant educators said they could spot new ideas and trends for instruction and curriculum by roaming the aisles of the trade show, the exhibitors also claimed to be able to spot changes in the technological savvy of vocational educators over the past few years.
Bob Khouri, an instructional-video representative for the Wisconsin Foundation for Vocational, Technical, and Adult Education Inc., the group offering the 20-disk interactive math program for about $6,000, said he was encouraged by educators' improved awareness of class room technology.
"For quite some time, when people came up to look at this, they would ask things like 'How does this work?"' he said. "I've been flabbergasted this year at their familiarity with this technology. Most of them know what's going on and have figured out how to apply it.'' But others echoed the sentiments of many observers of vocational education, who point out that the level of sophistication among local programs and teachers varies widely from school to school.
While an understanding of the changes in computer technology is catching on among vocational educators, "some others don't even have computers," said Jim Steele, a regional manager for Innovative Technologies in Education Inc., a supplier of computerized technical-training equipment.
"Some people have no idea what anything post-1971 is, and others are very aware," Mr. Steele said. "In general, I would say most educators are not yet where they need to be. "But that's as much because there's not enough money for them to stay up to date," he said, "as it is a lack of interest."
A former community-college teacher, Mr. Steele said he has been discouraged that his company has had to downscale its software to meet curriculum needs of many American schools.
But after talking throughout the day with a variety of vocational educators, he said he was somewhat more optimistic.
"I think we're going in the right direction," Mr. Steele said. "At least we've identified the problems."
"Unfortunately," he added, "the funding, teacher recruiting, and qualification testing are still behind the need."
Mr. Khouri said limited budgets will probably keep most schools from upgrading their equipment and technology, with suppliers continuing to forecast modest sales in creases despite the large potential market in vocational programs.
"We have to take one step at a time," he said. "At least they know what they're talking about."
Vol. 10, Issue 15, Page 7