At the Blogger’s Cafe last week, people blogged from their laptops, updated their Twitter feeds and connected with others whom they had “known” online. They often skipped workshops at the National Educational Computing Conference to discuss issues they were facing in their school districts.
The formal sessions at the District of Columbia conference provided useful tools and resources to more than 18,000 attendees, but for many, the real learning happened in informal settings such as the Blogger’s Cafe.
“That’s where all the movers and shakers hang out and bounce ideas off each other,” said Eric Hileman, the director of instructional technology for the Oklahoma Education Department. “It’s a big giant brain trust.”
In the cafe, Hileman met many of the people he follows on Twitter and interacted with them face-to-face. Through those conversations and sessions, he learned how to use mobile Google tools to perform tasks such as hosting blogs remotely. Now he wants to explore ways to enhance learning and teaching through mobile phones.
“As a state educational technology leader, this is the one conference that I can use to gauge the pulse of what’s happening in the world of ed tech,” he said.
But not everyone keeps up with what’s happening. At a session on Web 2.0 in the schools, many educators didn’t understand the value or purpose of social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and wikis, said Beth Still, a social studies teacher at an alternative high school in western Nebraska.
“It really surprised me how many people in the audience still weren’t aware of what Web 2.0 tools even were,” Still said. “I’d really thought we’d broken past that barrier, and I thought there were more people who were receptive to it.”
Many people at the conference didn’t know about free applications and technology that they could use in their classrooms, so they were at the right place to learn, said Adam Bellow, a technology integration specialist for Copiague Public Schools in New York and founder of the nonprofit eduTecher.
“I think you really had anything that perked your interest, whether it was more academic or hardware or software,” said Bellow, who led a session on applications. “It was like a smorgasbord of educational content that related to technology.”
The demand for base-level instruction on social networking tools is enormous, said Kevin Jarrett, an elementary teacher from southern New Jersey who posted 1,098 conference photos on flickr. Teachers don’t usually have time to figure out how to mix technology into their classes, and if they do, it’s on personal time.
“The people that are in the know need to know to slow down and to make what they talk about relevant to the classroom teacher,” Jarrett said.
At Still’s school in Nebraska, no one could access Twitter and YouTube. But in the Blogger’s Cafe, she met up with educators in her Twitter network and asked them how they convinced their administrators to unblock the sites. She used their strategies, and they worked.
“We all face the same issues every day,” Still said, “and it’s nice to be around other people who think like we do and who maybe can offer some insight into how they’ve handled things in their district.”
Based on what she saw other teachers doing at the conference, eighth-grade science teacher Angie Dowling decided to start a class blog and ask her district’s technicians to install the course management system Moodle on their servers. She enjoyed the informal poster sessions and bring your own laptop sessions the most because they were interactive.
“It’s a lot better than just sitting there and having somebody talk at you,” Dowling said.
The student project showcases and a keynote session by Gary Stager inspired Jarrett to try more sophisticated activities with his classes and collaborate with them.
“If anything, what I’ve brought out of NECC is a greater dedication to having the students take more control of their learning,” Jarrett said, “and what that looks like, I’m not sure yet.”
Photos by Kevin Jarrett