At a time when tech-savvy educators are touting the power of technology to transform teaching and learning, thousands of attendees at the National Educational Computing Conference gathered here this week to discuss and debate how to make the best use of those resources and extend their use to more of the nation’s classrooms.
The conference drew more than 12,000 educators and technology experts from around the country and abroad for discussions and practical demonstrations on using tech tools to deliver school content in more effective and engaging ways, and to develop the skills many in the field deem essential for today’s students. The enthusiasm of many attendees, however, was tempered by the economic realities facing states and school districts, and the ongoing challenge of equipping schools, teachers, and students with the tools and training needed to realize the potential of educational technology.
“I do believe that we’ve got the technology pieces and we know enough now to effectively integrate them” into the classroom, Donald G. Knezek, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education, which sponsors the annual conference, said in an interview. “We’re at a point now where it’s well within our reach if we have the will and the discipline to do it.”
Knezek said that ISTE and other organizations have been working with members of Congress to head off significant cuts to the federal education technology program, Enhancing Education Through Technology. President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2010 would slash funding for the program from $269 million to just $100 million. In the economic stimulus package, the program received $650 million in additional funding, which was intended to supplement, not supplant, existing programs. The EETT program had been slated for elimination by the Bush administration, and its funding was progressively cut over the last eight years.
Watch a wrap-up video of Digital Direction‘s coverage of the National Educational Computing Conference.
Hundreds of educators attending the NECC event spent part of their time converging on lawmakers on Capitol Hill, hoping to make their case for EETT funding, as well as continued support for the federal E-rate program and the Preparing Teachers to be Digital Learners initiative.
A caravan of buses dropped the large group of ed-tech advocates off at the U.S. Capitol June 30 well-prepared to educate lawmakers on the challenges they face in trying to integrate technology and ensure access to computers, high-speed Internet, and high-quality tech-based content for all students.
“With this event being in Washington, it’s a great opportunity when we have our legislators all in one place to get our message to them,” said Terri Besnahan, director of technology for the Addison School District #4 in Illinois. “If we’re all delivering the same message, we have power in numbers and unity.”
Bresnahan said that state budget shortfalls and the increasing competition for limited federal E-rate funding among school districts throughout the state have made it difficult for her district to maintain and expand technology resources in schools there.
Ed-Tech Skepticism and Constraint
Many teachers and administrators attending the event shared similar stories, making it hard for some to imagine how they might use some of the lessons and tools showcased at the event. Hundreds of vendors in the exhibit hall, for example, displayed shiny new devices, from oversized interactive whiteboards to high-tech, hand-held computers loaded with enticing lessons and activities, as well as assessment and data tools.
Many of the attendees at the conference have already embraced the use of such technology in the classroom, a zeal that was evident in the crowds at the computer stations and meeting areas, as well as those participating in Web-based networking throughout the event. Wireless Internet access allowed hundreds of attendees to send out Twitter feeds from conference events, communicate with colleagues via Facebook, and post frequent blog posts summing up the issues and proceedings of each day.
Convincing others in the education field at large, however, of the value in using such tools in schools has proved challenging for many advocates, several attendees and presenters said. A number of the sessions were aimed at helping advocates tackle obstacles to scaling up the uses of tech-tools for learning. The need for infusing technology lessons into teacher preparation, providing better in-service training, and persuading administrators and policymakers to invest more in the kinds of hardware, software, and professional-development resources teachers need to implement tech-based strategies were themes throughout the event.
Despite the mostly optimistic promotion of technology solutions for education—from conference organizers, presenters, vendors, and attendees—there were also calls for skepticism and constraint.
A number of attendees sent out messages, via Twitter, questioning whether teachers really need costly tech-based assessment tools and if the teaching demonstrations showed any real shift in pedagogy or simply adapted traditional methods using electronic tools.
Virtual vs. Face-to-Face Learning
One of the big draws at the conference was an elaborately orchestrated debate about the value of brick-and-mortar schools in the digital age. Following formal forensic protocol, National Public Radio host Robert Siegel moderated the debate, which included three advocates for eliminating public schools as physical locations altogether, and three experts who argued for the need for schools that offer hybrid virtual and face-to-face education programs.
“It’s not brick-and-mortar schools that are the problem; glibly dismissing schools as irrelevant does great violence to millions of children lacking an alternative,” said Gary Stager, a visiting professor at Pepperdine University. “The problem lies with the philosophy that built and manages so many of our schools.”
Stager argued that too many schools use technology to simply reinforce staid instructional practices and administer the same multiple-choice tests they used in paper form.
“Unfortunately, the very things that will make schools viable in the future,” he added, such as high-tech labs and quality arts programs, “are the first things that get stripped today from the curriculum.”
Cheryl Lemke, an education consultant and a former executive director of the Milken Exchange on Education Technology, said that schools are essential institutions for communities, but that they should provide a combination of innovative face-to-face instruction and virtual learning opportunities.
“You still need the bricks and mortar, but redefined,” she said. “Research suggests that when students are socially and emotionally connected to their communities and schools, their grades go up, they stay in school, they increase their academic achievement, and they graduate.”
“That’s one of the things that you don’t get when you’re online,” Lemke added. “Distance learning has the word distance in it, there’s that disconnection.”
Just over a quarter of the 4,000 people in the audience, weighing in with their votes on remote, hand-held voting clickers, agreed that physical structures for schools are obsolete.
Josephat Mua, an information technology specialist at Laurel High School in the 134,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., school district, came to NECC because of the array of resources on display, he said. “It’s a good networking ground, and a great place to exchange ideas with your colleagues,” said Mua.
“I always get ideas when I come to these events,” said Verne Becker, the head of the computer education department for the 700-student Brearley School in New York City. “It’s a chance to get connected to resources that I can take back and use in my school.”
Becker said he enjoyed attending workshops to learn about how to use new tools or get introduced to software. The conference also makes him think about bigger ideas in technology, he said, “like what we’re going to be doing in 10 years with technology in our school? And how can we be thinking ahead enough to be prepared?”
This was the 30th anniversary celebration for ISTE, which has plans to continue the conversation about educational technology at its annual conference in Denver next year.
Staff Writer Katie Ash contributed to this report.