07/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Convene, Connect, Transform: Teachers on Roll to Transform Schools

Anyone in San Antonio, Texas last week would have thought that American education had entered a new digital age. Thousands of teachers and tech coordinators (12,500 to be exact) could be seen blogging on digital devices from computers to mobile phones and packing the 1000+ sessions with standing room only audiences. A parallel virtual conference was also taking place for those who could not attend.

Attendees came for the 29th annual educational technology conference, the largest of its kind in the world -- the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) sponsored by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) which ran from June 29-July 2.

The theme of the conference was "Convene, Connect, Transform," basically encouraging teachers to go home and connect with colleagues and community members, and help to transform the classroom using digital media. Why this theme? Not enough schools are using digital media to enhance learning.

The enormous exhibit hall was packed with 4,500 vendor participants from around the world announcing their newest product for the education market and distributing a variety of teacher-gifts.. Exhibitors included the big names including Microsoft, Adobe, Intel, Sony as well as business that just opened their doors. It had the air of a big fair as exhibitors gave out candy, popcorn, pens, software and free prizes. Teachers were entertained by costumed characters such as BrainPop and given free demos on how to use the new products.

While it was a memorable conference for all the attendees, these 12,500 teachers represent only one half of one percent of the 3.2 million teachers in this country. It felt like the whole country because teachers were there from every state in the union and even from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. But it was not. The attendees represented the early adopters.

CEO of ISTE, Dr. Don Knezek, thinks that the time is finally here for some actual transformation in the classroom. "The debate is no longer about the need for technology in the classroom. It is now a debate about how to get technology in the classroom. We just need to provide models for people to do it," he said.

The focus of many of the 1000 sessions at the conference was modeling ways to teach more effectively using digital devices thereby increasing student motivation for learning.

Also in keeping with the conference theme was the second release of the NETS.T or the National Education Technology Standards for Teachers, an impressive document that was worked on by more than 2,500 educators from 50 states and 25 countries.

The motivation for the updated release was the changing nature of education all over the world to meet the needs of the digital workplace.

All of the standards in NETS.T focus on encouraging teachers to use digital age equipment both in the classroom and in their private lives, to create digital age learning experiences and assessments, and to model digital age behaviors for their students on a regular basis.

"Rapid advances in technology have put new demands on educators and students.
The refreshed NETS.T provides a framework for educators to use as they
transition schools from Industrial Age to Digital Age places of learning," Knezak said. "These standards help teachers focus on what is important in the classroom."

Many of the sessions were taped and are available online at the ISTE website for free. Also, there are hundreds of handouts and lesson plans also available.

A couple examples of the digital teaching models used at the conference were a social networking site for the conference attendees through Ning, an online platform for customized social networks, and a Second Life NECC teachers group in the virtual world of Second Life.

Second Life now provides another channel for the distribution of educational and social resources to teachers. Teachers are coming to the conference continuing conversations that started on Second Life or on Ning," said Leslie Conery, NECC conference chair and ISTE deputy CEO. She was also happy to see people who could not attend NECC participating in virtual conference activities.

Hopefully, the virtual conference and the hundreds of handouts on the NECC website will help connect teachers who are not yet digital teachers to model lessons that work. Not knowing how to use digital technology effectively is one of the barriers. Another is lack of administrative and community support.

What can businesses leaders and community members do to help foster the digital age in the classroom? Number one, according to Ann McMullan, Executive Director of Instruction at Klein Independent School District, Texas, is to get the superintendent on board.

"Clearly, if the superintendent isn't involved in these conversations (about digital learning], it doesn't happen. If you don't have your key central office personnel on board, it simply doesn't happen," she said.

Here is a booklet that can be ordered free to help inform superintendents. Perhaps community pressure will help American education reach the tipping point for technology in education.

The tipping point is blocked by NCLB in poor performing schools by the testing. The testing had the unintentional side effect of killing creative programs that involved technology in favor of classes that taught to the NCLB tests. Those tests control the curriculum in ways that are not compatible with digital learning. When test scores are down, schools revert to "drill and kill" classes to teach to the test, which leads to the high drop out rates and poorly prepared workers.

Here are some examples of how far American schools have to go:

•Districts in Texas are paying for paper textbooks to get the accompanying digital content. They then also pay to store the unused textbooks.
•Chicago Public Schools survey showed that 70% of its students had better technology access at home than at school.

An unofficial consensus among many of the speakers at the conference.
•The public does not yet understand the need to move to a different model of instruction. Educators need to help re-frame the mental models of schools.
•Insufficient IT support is one of the blocks to successful integration
•Teachers should be included in the selection of digital software for the classroom. not just the tech coordinators.

Ways you can support teachers in their campaign to improve schools:

Tell your school administration about the ISTE bookstore with great resources to help administrators and teachers. Write to your congressman and get involved in the Ed Tech Action Network.