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Some Final Thoughts on NECC 2009

In the 1980’s era musical “Chess“, the lead character proclaims the tournament in which he is about to participate to be “… a show with everything but Yul Brynner*”.

That lyric has been running through my warped little brain as I’ve been reviewing my notes and watching some of the video from NECC, the annual edtech expo that wrapped up here in DC just over a week ago.

This is one conference that really does have something for everyone – or at least anyone even remotely connected to instructional technology.

However, one big impression I always have following NECC is to feel sorry for the novice.

The sheer size of this carnival is overwhelming, which also makes it hard for newbies to find the good stuff.

Certainly someone who followed the crowds likely saw lots of rapid fire examples of cool web 2.0 tools, not to mention lots and lots of people poking at interactive whiteboards.

The two largest manufacturers of those devices were conference “Tier 1 sponsors” so they, and the people selling them as the ultimate edtech solution, were impossible to miss. (I feel a new rant about IWBs coming on. :-)

Hopefully someone guided those NECC first-timers into the area for the poster sessions where they were far more likely to see examples of authentic uses of technology for teaching and learning.

For me, the highlight of NECC was once again was the day-long EduBloggerCon, an event that’s not even part of the formal conference. (Most of us in the class of 09 are pictured at the left.)

This was the third year for this meetup/unconference and the size and style returned to being more like the first time around in Atlanta.

Lots of valuable discussions (big and small) along with the always-valued opportunity to meet some of the people whose work I regularly follow online.

So, that’s pretty much it for this year.

As I noted earlier, our commitments to support the conference didn’t allow for many sessions or getting involved in many Blogger’s Cafe discussions, making this year’s event a different sort of experience.

Or any blogging during those five days, although for many, Twitter has taken over that function.

And I’m already looking forward to getting back to normal (or whatever passes for normal) next June in Denver.

* Look him up, kiddies. :-)

The Power of the Network

One day last week during the NECC conference, I was standing at the Ask Me table near the Bloggers’ Cafe, talking with a couple of colleagues from our overly-large school district.

twitter.jpg

Among other things, I was trying to explain Twitter to them (something I seem to be doing more and more of lately).

At one point a woman brought over a cellular wireless card that someone had left on one of the couches in the Cafe.

And under normal circumstances it would have gone to the conference lost and found, to sit in a box waiting for someone to figure out exactly where that office was in the huge convention center.

But… expensive wireless service, lounge area dedicated to bloggers… I figured the owner must be a Twitterer. So, I tossed a 140 character notice into the mix.

They may not follow me but, considering the people who hang out in that area of the hall, the number of degrees of separation between me and them was probably far less than six.

Anyway, it only took a few hours to get the card back to it’s owner.

Ok, I admit, as an example of the power of Twitter, that story doesn’t rise even close to the same level as the way the system is being used by the election protesters in Iran.

But it’s a nice little illustration of how this particular tool helps connect the members of one particular network in ways that were impossible even a few years ago.

Not Your Normal NECC

Ok, so normal may not be the right word.

But the recently concluded NECC (soon to be the conference formerly known as NECC) certainly was a very different experience from the past four or five I’ve attended.

Much of that was due to having the event so close to town (and commuting into town instead of staying in a hotel) in addition being more involved with both supporting the conference and our district’s presence.

Going far away for a conference is somewhat isolating, even with constant connectivity, and going home every night instead of a hotel allowed real life to intrude.

One result was that I didn’t get to many sessions, but I’m not sure that’s a big problem. Increasingly for me the real value of a conference like NECC is not found in the presentation rooms but in the corners and hallways.

It was not being able to spend much time in the Blogger’s Cafe or at NECC Unplugged (not to mention the after hours conversations) that I missed most.

Fortunately, I did make it to EduBloggerCon, which is more of those less formal discussions (more thoughts about that in another post). And my session went well.

Anyway I’ll also be spending more time than would be normal in the weeks following NECC going through the videos and other online materials to get some idea of what I missed.

And figuring out how I can get to Denver next year.

Not More Time, Better Time

In advance of his keynote this Sunday at NECC, I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Overall it was a very good read, about on par with The Tipping Point and much better than Blink.

As always, Gladwell is a great story teller and does an excellent job of helping us get to know the people he calls outliers.

Unfortunately, as with his other works, he also works way too hard to stretch his anecdotes into fitting around his thesis, which in this case essentially can be summarized as “chance favors the prepared mind”*.

But there’s one example late in the book that had me yelling at the pages.

In that chapter, Gladwell is discussing a study showing the change in reading scores over summer break for students in different socioeconomic classes.

Now take a look at the last column, which totals up all the summer gains from first to fifth grade. The reading scores of the poor kids go up by .26 points. When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. [his emphasis] The reading scores of the rich kids, by contrast go up by a whopping 52.49 points. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.

From this he concludes: “Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”

No!

The reasons for the large gains made over the summer by wealthy kids is not more of the same traditional schools. The explanation is provided by Gladwell right there on the same pages.

Those “rich kids” went to summer camps, museums, and “special programs”. They had “plenty of books to read” at home and parents who both encouraged and modeled reading.

Their parents “see it as their responsibility to keep [them] actively engaged in the world” around them.

Gladwell may be right that some kids need more time in school in order to raise their achievement levels (aka test scores). However, that’s not what’s happening here – or what should be happening.

The students who showed the most gains over the summer did so because of the alternative learning opportunities they received, that active engagement with a variety of sources, guided – not taught – by their parents.

Just extending the school year, one of the school reforms most loved by politicians and education “experts”, will do absolutely no good for any socioeconomic group of kids if that additional time is filled with more of the same test-prep-driven activities used during the current calendar by most schools.

And, no, I’m not convinced that the extended school day/week/year, highly regimented KIPP model Gladwell discusses in the same chapter is one that should be replicated for all students, not even for all low achieving kids.

More time is not the answer to better education. Better time is.

* The more commonly used version of Louis Pasteur’s original observation that “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind”.

Getting Around DC for NECC

For those of you coming to DC for the NECC conference beginning next weekend, some transportation options for getting away from the Convention Center.

A car should probably be your last resort since you really don’t want to drive into DC on a weekday. Traffic is generally lousy and parking is hard to find (the Center says there are 3000 spaces close by; that’s optimistic), not to mention that it can be expensive.

Also on the expensive side are taxi cabs and short trips on the Metro system. Fares on Metro run $1.65 to $4.50 per trip during morning and afternoon rush hour (slightly lower at other times) depending on how far you travel.

At least the cabs are now using standard meters like those in every other major city instead of the hard to understand (and easy to get ripped off) zone system we had for decades.

Walking is always an option in good weather, although the Convention Center isn’t especially close to the big name tourist attractions.

However, Chinatown is nearby and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Building Museum and the International Spy Museum (all worth a visit) are five to seven blocks away.

If you need to get from the Convention Center area to the National Mall and don’t want to walk (which can be a long hike in hot, humid weather), consider taking the DCCirculator bus.

Their busses run every 10 minutes on a round trip between the Convention Center and the Waterfront area, stopping on the Mall near the Museum of Art and the Air and Space Museum.

The Circulator also runs a crosstown route between Union Station and Georgetown* with stops on the south end of the Center (across Mt. Vernon Square Park) and one that circulates around the mall and Capitol Hill.

Each trip is $1 or you can pay $3 for a one-day, all-you-can ride pass.

Lots of other bus routes run through the area but plan your trip carefully since their routes can sometimes be confusing and not well marked on the signs at some stops.

* BTW, if anyone tells you to take Metro to the Georgetown Station, you are being punk’d. It doesn’t exist.

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