And the winner is…

Well, winner may be too strong of a word. There were three things that struck me at FETC last week in Orlando. So instead of a winner, these are some trends I noticed during the conference. These are just my impressions and do not represent a scientifically based random sample. They’re just three things that stood out to me.

More Math. Without actually counting and comparing, it seems like there were more math applications available in the vendor exhibits. That’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the not-so-distant release of the report from the National Math Panel in conjunction with dismal math scores on state and national exams has prompted more math curriculum content and tools. In addition to commercial products, I attended an interesting session by Dr. Ted Hasselbring from Vanderbilt University. I know of Dr. Hasselbring’s reputation as an expert on the use of assistive technologies, but he released some new research in the area of math.

Ted (I’ve worked with him, so I don’t think he’ll mind me calling him Ted) reported some interesting findings from working with young students and those with learning disabilities around math. These are some interesting things I learned:

  • Everyone can do math. It’s a capability that is hard-wired into our genetic make-up. That means that there are many reasons why people come to think they “can’t do math,” and many of them can be experiential, or the lack of experiences that promotes inherent math ability.
  • Approximate number sense (ANS) is the ability to be able to compare groups and know which has more. ANS is shared by infants, adults, and animals. For example, if a pack of wolves meets another pack in the woods, the wolves can determine which pack is larger (which has all kinds of implications for fighting or fleeing). Many special education students have difficulty with ANS, but it can be taught!
  • Another foundational math skill Ted identified is subitizing, which is the ability to recognize the actual number of items in a group. He suggests that, “Just as phonemic awareness is a prerequisite for reading, subitizing may be a prerequisite for succeeding in math.” Subitizing, too, may be a teachable skill and technology is an especially effective way to learn it.

It was a very interesting presentation that has implications for math instruction as well as areas beyond math, such as comparing novice and expert performance in any domain, whether learning a language, dribbling a basketball, or other area. His session was videotaped and I hope you can view it soon from FETC.

Florida is Mac Territory. Those of you who know me will think this is my biased perception, but really, I’ve never seen so many Macs in one place at the same time. It first struck during one of my “ergonomic breaks” between sessions. Sitting on benches between the restrooms were five different people with laptops. Four out of 5 were Macs. I thought it might make a good picture, especially for some less Mac-lightened folks I know, but it caused me to start looking. Almost every session I attended was run on a Mac (except my own! because I used Qwizdom personal responders. How’s that for irony?). I attended two sessions that included a visit to Second Life and both were run by Macs. I saw them just about everywhere, except, not so much on the vendor floor. Interesting. I’ll have to see how that compares to ISTE this summer.

It’s a whiteboard world. It seems like the most common technology at the conference, whether hardware or software, was interactive whiteboards. There were whiteboard vendors, whiteboard resellers, whtieboard gizmos, professional development for whiteboards, and tools to simulate whiteboards so you didn’t even need to buy a whiteboard. Whiteboard vendors, like Promethean and Smart, also offered whiteboards for presenters in their rooms (as did makers of student response systems, like Qwizdom, whch provided responders for my own session). I’m not sure of the implications of the plethora of whiteboards. Maybe they are being seen as the de facto tool for classroom teachers in the 21st Century. I just hope we all get training on them so we use them to their best advantage instead of seeing them being used as expensive screens or, even worse, as room dividers. Honest! It wasn’t even plugged in, and that was during a school visit, not the conference.

“We have an opportunity…to change education.”

That’s a paraphrase of a statement made by Diane Lewis, Director of Instructional Technology at Seminole County Public Schools. Her full statement was, “We have an opportunity in education to do something that hasn’t happened in one hundred years…(insert dramatic pause here)…and that is change it.” Powerful words. While the theme from the opening ceremony was looking back, several of the sessions I attended seemed more like looking at the future, but looking at it from a vantage point so close that if we just had enough momentum we could tip over into it. If we could do that, I’m sure Diane Lewis would be willing to be our captain.

It was clear Diane has a clear vision for professional development in her district, and while Seminole county does have a professional development department, it quickly became apparent why the instructional technology department offers the most professional development opportunities.

Diane really won my respect when she emphasized that it’s not about the technology, the instruction is the important part. Seminole County has adopted Understanding by Design, and Diane bases her discussions with teachers on that framework. As she reported, teachers will come to her and say, “Oh, I saw a wiki, I want to do a wiki.” Or “I heard about blogs, I want to do a blog.” And Diane’s response? “Why? Why this technology?” (I can’t tell you how often I have to ask this same question, Diane!) She asks teachers what they want to accomplish, the topics they have to teach, the goals of their instruction. Then she helps them find technologies that can help them get there. And what technologies she uses to get there!

Seminole uses a variety of methods and tools to support its professional development. Diane used the metaphor of an artist’s palette of opportunities. Of course they have face-to-face training, but its training focused on…instruction. Or perhaps more appropriately, it is training focused on technologies that enhance instruction. They use Blackboard, the popular learning management system, for what she calls, “those things they don’t want to do face-to-face.” At least not any more. That just means they’ve developed short asynchronous training opportunities, often with videos or screen captures, to address basic software functionality and commonly requested tasks so they can focus their limited available time on using technology to improve instruction. The ISTE NETS have moved forward, and so has Seminole County. Teachers can go in, learn what they need, then go on. It’s just-in-time training at its best.

If you’re my single reader from yesterday, you know that Seminole also has space in Second Life, which they launched with a guest appearance by digital learning guru Bernajean Porter and who continues to provide ongoing learning opportunities for Seminole’s teachers. The critical lesson I learned from their use of Second Life was that Diane admitted it addressed a common shortcoming, and that was that while there are often professional development opportunities for teachers and even for school leaders, at the district level, it is difficult for instructional leaders to find professional development. She noted that the global education community that she interacts with on Second Life has given her that opportunity, musing that perhaps she has had more and better professional development since joining Second Life than throughout the rest of her career. I can empathize. If you’re the only person in your school or your district who does your job, it’s hard to find professional development. I found that to be true 10 years ago with Pine e-mail and discussion boards. Diane has taken that simple interaction into the future.

Despite all these interesting technology-based opportunities, Diane noted there still seemed to be a gap in their current offerings. Working with outside developers, Diane and her team are informing the development of a new media-based, collaborative environment that allows for high levels of interaction. It’s like YouTube and Facebook got together and had a child, and then fed it steroids and bought it a gym membership. There are so many potential uses, from creating how-tos, refreshers from other trainings, and most exciting to me, support for eCoaching.

What? You haven’t heard about eCoaching? That was the topic of my session! O.K., if you weren’t able to be there, Diane has given me a push. I can see so many opportunities for supporting one-to-one and group collaboration. See, I’m right there on that apex. I’m ready to go into the future. Thanks to the many things I’ve learned at FETC, I’m ready to take that step. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice that Diane’s palette had one more empty spot. She’s looking towards the future, whatever that may bring.

“Good technology that works.”

Ed Begley Jr. is a star, or at least he plays one on TV. Seriously, Mr. Begley was very modest about his acting career. I was curious about his selection as the keynote speaker for FETC, but knowing that the theme of the conference is “Learning to do more with less,” it does make some sense.

Mr. Begley is certainly passionate about his work, his work to help preserve our global communities more so than his acting. The passion seemed to be a little overwhelming at times, though, considering his audience was primarily educators at a technology conference. His was a good presentation, but perhaps not for this audience, at least judging by the stillness of those around me about 15 minutes in. Still, he has been quite successful in his own work and had a couple of lessons to share with the audience, that which resonated most with me being his statement about “good technology that works.”

In an upswing of emotion, Mr. Begley said he is hopeful that we as a global society can address some of the problems he described at the beginning of his presentation. Problems that seemed unsurmountable. However, he shared some success stories with some due, in part, to what he identified as “good technologies that work,” at least in his story about the number of cars in Los Angeles quadrupling over the past 40 years while the amount of smog had decreased by half. Thanks to technology!

What I had hoped, however, was that Mr. Begley would have brought that point home a bit more to his audience of educators. “Come back round the mountain” to meet the needs of his audience, like teachers have to do with their students. You can forgive him, though. He’s energetic, sometimes funny, and certainly enthusiastic about his passions. So, I thought I would take some time to think about how we might take the idea of “good technologies that work” to the classroom or school level and round out his presentation to bring it back home.

Much of the opening session was focused on looking back at the past. FETC is 30 years old. Ed has been doing his conservation work for 40 years. Hindsight was a theme. Based on the changes in educational technology over the past 30 years, it would be impossible for me to guess what the field and capacity will be like in another 30, but by those 30 years, here are some technologies that, if they worked, would be really helpful. I know some of them exist today, but perhaps part of “working” is making sure every teacher and every school has access to these resources. I use the term technology loosely, because I’m not going to hazard a guess as to what actual wires and boxes will be available to make these happen.

Good Education Technologies That (Could) Work

  • Engaging, accurate content that is up-to-date, available 24/7, and presented in a variety of formats to meet the literacy needs and learning styles of every student. (Digital media being adopted by state curriculum adoption committees, as mentioned during the opening session, could be a positive step in that direction.)
  • Robust learning environments that support student inquiry and encourage creativity in all students and are available when students need them. (These may be at homes, schools, libraries, community centers, the mall…wherever kids need them. I’m sure I’ll see some good examples at the conference.)
  • Seamless and transparent data systems that unobtrusively, quickly, and easily capture, store, analyze, and report information to help every child’s support network (including teachers, family members, health care providers, school administrators, and others) know how that student is progressing towards their learning and life goals and what they need to reach them. (These include data collected at the classroom level and beyond and are transferred easily, securely, and instantly so that more time is available for learning.)
  • Energizing and invigorating ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers and other educators that help keep them excited about teaching, working with young people, and their content, and that encourages career-long growth in teaching as a respected and rewarded profession.
  • Learning systems that do more than audit student performance but that help students build lifelong learning plans and monitor their progress toward their own goals and provide flexibility in terms of timing, sequence, and opportunity for achieving those goals.

That’s probably enough. The list could be longer, and I’m sure you have some of your own you could add (please do). But as we were encouraged to look back on education 30 years ago and the environment 40 years ago, I don’t want us to look back in 30 years and not accomplish these things. I feel like they are within our grasp, certainly in 30 years. I’m looking forward to the sessions and vendor displays at FETC to see how far we have progressed on making some of these technologies a reality, because I know we’re on the path towards to success. I just don’t want any rivers to have to catch on fire for us to get there.