Ed-Tech Policy Reporter's Notebook

With Technology Conference Blog, Mavens Practice What They Teach

By Rhea R. Borja — November 01, 2005 4 min read
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About 2,200 technology specialists, administrators, teachers, and a futurist or two converged at the National School Boards Association’s annual educational technology conference here last week to learn and share how technology can improve student learning.

The dozens of seminars, round-table discussions, and workshops at the NSBA’s T+L² convention at the Colorado Convention Center were organized in six “strands,” such as leadership and vision; assessment and evaluation; and social, legal, and ethical issues. Nowhere was the variety of the sessions so evident as on the NSBA’s blogging page at http://boardbuzz.nsba.org/t+l/.

The complete results of the NSBA 2005 Technology Survey are online at NSBA.

The Alexandria, Va.-based association recruited 11 conference attendees and five of its employees to post items about the convention at least several times a day. They were urged to opine frankly about the sessions, and readers had plenty of room to comment on the postings.

The postings ranged from brief notes to thoughtful longer opinions. One T+L² blogger, Sharon Betts, the director of educational technology for Maine’s School District No. 71, said about a morning seminar on electronic desktops: “It was a little harder to get up for the early morning session today, but I struggled to attend a session on using an electronic desktop. … I realized that this session was centered on a vendor product. … Since I come from a district that is developing its own portal/electronic desktop, I was a little discouraged to find this a ‘sales’ session.”

A “blog central” booth, equipped with five computers and one giant flat screen, was set up next to the registration area to encourage attendees to read and comment on the blog, said Michele Sabatier, NSBA’s production manager for publications. As of midweek, the blog’s home page had gotten more than 1,300 hits, but only a few attendees had posted comments. Sometimes, noted Andrew C. Paulson, the NSBA’s legal-information assistant and one of the conference bloggers, people are afraid to be the first to post a comment, even if they’re savvy about technology.

In a keynote speech before a standing-room-only crowd, Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms, discussed what he regards as the emerging digital revolution of personal fabrication—the ability to design and produce your own products through computer-aided manufacturing technology.

In his MIT class titled “How to Make Almost Anything,” students work in a low-cost fabrication laboratory on campus to make their inventions real. The class melds abstract academic concepts with hands-on application, said Mr. Gershenfeld, who is also the author of Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, a volume published this year by New York City-based Basic Books.

The National Science Foundation agreed to fund his “Fab Lab,” with equipment and manufacturing processes such as a laser cutter, sign cutter, electronics assembly, and microcontroller programming.

One student made an alarm clock that you have to wrestle with to turn off in order to prove you’re awake. Another created a “defense dress,” which shot two metallic prongs out of the back of the garment to prevent people from coming too close.

“What is personal fabrication good for?” Mr. Gershenfeld asked. “It’s for self-expression. It’s for a market of one.”

But he said Fab Labs could be a great asset and teaching tool in developing countries; the NSF funded a handful of other Fab Labs costing about $20,000 each in countries such as Ghana, India, South Africa, and Norway.

“There’s not just a digital divide,” said Mr. Gershenfeld, “but an instrumentation and fabrication divide.”

Teachers are either completely unprepared or only somewhat prepared to integrate technology into classroom learning, according to 85 percent of the respondents in the NSBA’s annual technology survey, which was unveiled last week at the conference.

More than 400 educational technology specialists, administrators, school board members, and teachers answered the survey, which was e-mailed to about 1,500 conference registrants.

“School districts have a lot of work to do … to help teachers understand how to use technology tools to enhance student learning and performance,” Anne L. Bryant, the NSBA’s executive director, said in a written statement.

More than three-quarters of those surveyed said home access to the Internet was hard for their low-income students, but only 10 percent said closing the digital divide was a challenge for their districts. Almost half of the respondents who said home Internet access was a problem said such access was available at community centers, and that their districts were doing nothing to improve home Web access.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week

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