NECC 2005 Revisited

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I decided to wait awhile to see what impressions of NECC 2005 stuck. It’s been a couple of weeks since NECC 2005 ended. I haven’t read other reviews or comments about the conference. These impressions continue.

I listened carefully to what teachers said about what they saw and heard. Most appeared enthusiastic and made open to neutral comments about products. Interestingly and I don’t know why, I kept meeting fifth grade teachers on the floor as well as at Reading Terminal where I ate several meals.

I understand that about 14,000 people attended the conference. I’m guessing that products on the exhibit floor represented over one hundred million dollars of development investment in electronic products usable in schools. Ironically, most vendors handed out paper descriptions, not electronic samples or promotional gadgets.

Too many vendors expected acceptance of their products, not detailed technical questions. I expected vendors prepared for classic education, which means prepared to address detailed technical questions about their products, its validity and reliability, and about what technical results were most likely to occur from their products. A few met my expectation.

The US Department of Education distributed what I estimate to be over 500 pounds of paper documents and promotional literature. Several textbook and supplemental instructional material publishers displayed their paper products.

The two consistently busiest exhibits were Microsoft and Apple.
Only one vendor I remember used the decades old, but still fantasy phrase “Intelligent Classroom.” I have liked the phrase since first using it 15 years ago in Illinois and look forward to it representing electronic schooling sooner than later. Thankfully, the phrase has for eons represented many excellent classrooms based on human initiative and organization without electronics that pushes students to learn at their own pace and level.

Most products at NECC 2005 appeared “about” learning and to supplement existing instructional and administrative practices in schools. The main sales pitch was to make instructional and business administrative jobs easier. Most did not claim to (but most offered the illusion they did) increase learning effectiveness or efficiency directly. Classroom software seemed mostly about learning a topic with a diffused focus, not direct or directed learning to meet specific criteria. A relatively few vendors said that “learners learn” by using their products.

About 40 percent of vendors pitched to the lowest common denominator of their market segment. Another 40 percent pitched to conventional educational practice with advanced technologies. Less than 10 percent inferred that their product addresses the highest possible results for its users. Maybe 10 percent described mixed, undifferentiated users and results with their products.

A smaller percentage of these products appeared dedicated to “education.” That is, they were intended for use in education as an equivalent to schools, and were not adaptations of products from business or entertainment. Most of the dedicated learning products appeared developed by small independent software vendors offering worthy, high impact products on a specific subject.

Probably less than 20 percent of products gave priority to learning over management and administrative functions in schools. About a dozen exhibits gave explicit priority to products I’d categorize as promoting direct learning (products requiring no or minimum external mediation), and increasing learning rates beyond regular classroom learning rates. Only a handful of exhibitors offered empirical data to support claims of increasing effectiveness or efficiency in learning.

One exhibitor explicitly announced that their products increase learning rates and decrease error rates under certain conditions. They understand the new imperative for electronic tools in schools.

And yes, I saw educators using Tablet PCs at the conference and during breaks in hallways, at break areas, and in cafeterias. One fifth grade teacher told me that her supervisor gave her a Tablet PC to learn to use; she said that the she and her students keep it busy all day long. The supervisor did not know how to use the Tablet PC and did not ask for anyone to help her learn how. The teacher taught herself to use it. Her supervisor asked her to teach her principle how to use it next.

About a dozen exhibitors used a Tablet PC to demonstrate their products. Microsoft and Motion had exhibitors almost constantly demonstrating and answering detailed questions about uses of Tablet PCs in classrooms as well as for completing administrative functions. Amelia Linbo of Zones Corporate Solutions demonstrated the new Lenovo Tablet PC to enthusiastic educators. Someone in the Dell booth borrowed a Motion Tablet PC to use in the Dell booth.

Several exhibitors told me that they did not know what a Tablet PC is when I asked them about their product taking advantage of Tablet PC features.

I met several dozen excellent exhibitors who knew their products sufficiently to discuss uses and modifications beyond promotional scripts and what handouts described. Most exhibitors have room to increase the technical confidence educators can have that their products will increase learning rates and decrease error rates.

Almost all people I heard spoke English on the exhibit floor and in hallways between sessions. Maybe 10 percent of these people used English as other than their first language.

In short, this excellent conference illustrates that the future of computers in education, including in schools as well as home schooling, continues to emerge because of noble efforts of talented, enthusiastic and ready educators and their students.