Attending the Florida Educational Technology Conference and Measuring One Rural District's Growth in Using Technology

Three years ago, I was a part of a team of teachers and several administrators, including our current superintendent of schools, who attended the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) as professional development to meet the coming demands for the 21st Century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Our rural Regional School District #6 is small (under 1000 students total) tucked away in the pastoral splendor of the Northwest Corner of Connecticut. The regional high school (Wamogo Middle/High School) is a vocational agricultural school that brings in one-third of the population from surrounding communities. We have a cow, pigs, lambs, and fish on the high school campus at any given time of the year. Despite our rustic roots, we had a committed technology team that was willing to support early adopters of technology in the classroom.

When we attended this FETC in 2010, we were overwhelmed with the amount of educational technology that was competing for our attention; the exhibit floor was awash in hardware and software. We came home laden with flyers, booklets, and pamphlets. We took notes. We followed up links and websites. The experience was mind-boggling and exhausting.

This January (2013), several of us returned to FETC. The exhibit floor was still awash with hardware and software, but we were far more savvy. That is because in three short years our district invested in the necessary hardware and training for 21st Century educational skills. There are Smartboards in every classroom, a netbook 1:1 initiative in the elementary and middle schools, and iPads for faculty and staff. The high school is in its first year of a “bring your own digital device” policy. For two years now, we have had an EDCamp style professional development for our faculty and staff (K-12) to share what we have learned individually and collectively.

Consequently, during this FETC conference we were already familiar with the technologies featured in many of the sessions, and we could add to our knowledge base without feeling completely overwhelmed. In three years we learned the basics for wikis, blogs, podcast, vodcasts, screencasts, and websites. So, when we attended this FETC, we were prepared for the presentations and concurrent sessions that featured platforms we use daily such as Livebinders, Edmodo, Wordpress, and Google apps. We were reassured that the open source software platforms we chose to use three years ago are still major players in education. We learned new ways to use technologies to help us assess, organize, and deliver content.

We attended keynotes that discussed the future of education:

  • Google Global Education Evangelist Jaime Casap spoke on "Unleashing the Power of the Web in Education". His presentation focused on the power of collaboration and the rapidly changing way our students access and use information. "Your Smartphone?" he predicted with a laugh, "one day will be in a thrift store, purchased by some hipster as a nostalgic decorative touch." The standardized test did not have a place in his vision of education.
  • Educational Consultant & Author, Dr. David Sousa, (How the Brain Learns, How the Brain Learns to Read, How the Brain Influences Behavior, and Brainwork: The Neuroscience of How We Lead Others), gave an address titled "Designing Brain Friendly Schools in the Age of Accountability". His talk emphasized the importance of physical movement in learning, the needs for sleep for healthy cognitive processing, while dismissing the notion that anyone can "multi-task" effectively. "Multi-tasking three or four things means doing three or four things poorly," he admonished those in the tech-connected audience who raised their hands as multi-taskers. He dismissed the standardized test as unnecessary.
  • Executive Director, Institute of Play, Katie Salen (Professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University) spoke on "Connected Learning: Activating Games, Design and Play". This keynote offered video from students engaged in designing and playing games in different content areas. She explained that games allow students to "learn how to fail up" using immediate feedback and experience to reengage in a game. She dismissed standardized tests as "unimportant and that's ok."

While each keynote speaker addressed the role of technology in education differently, none of them saw the standardized test as a means to access what students were doing. There was no standardized tests in their visions of education. They rejected the idea of standardization entirely, speaking instead of collaboration and individual exploration. In contrast to the speeches, however, the exhibit floor was filled with software and hardware from the giants of the standardized testing industry: McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Global Scholar. The juxtaposition of what was being said in the keynote speeches about standardized testing with the marketing of materials by testing companies on the exhibit floor illustrates a huge conflict in the use of technology in education today: How will our schools systems be measured in this age of information? What will be important for our students to know? How will we measure these skills? The economic implications for testing companies cannot be ignored; they want a place at the local, state, and federal table where the education budget is being discussed.

Of course, our small district does not have the solutions to these questions, but what we do have is a sense of confidence in the tools of education technology. The attendees at this year's FETC conference are confident that our school district is on the right track in providing an education with an emphasis on the 21st Century skills. We will be collaborating with our fellow faculty members, communicating what we learned, critically thinking about how to use technology in our classrooms in order to enhance our students creativity.

While we were attending, we met members of a neighboring school district who were attending FETC for the first time. We recognized the glassy-eyed look of a first visit; they claimed to be "overwhelmed." They also told us that they were attending because, "we saw what you all had done. We are here because of you!"

In three years, the teachers in Regional School District # 6  have achieved competence and confidence in the use of technology because of our administration, our regional Board of Education, and the Superintendent's commitment to the future of education. As one science teacher tweeted during a session he was attending, "Don't mean to brag, but I'm lighting this social media seminar up. Props to Region 6 for giving me the freedom to communicate."

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