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Reflections on NECC 2009

Photo by Flickr user 'NedraI' via CreativeCommons

Photo by Flickr user 'NedraI' via CreativeCommons

I was recently fortunate enough to attend the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Washington D.C. I had previously attended a number of large regional and national conferences, but this was by far the largest I’d ever been to. I was pleased to find that the massiveness was not overwhelming, rather it was comforting to be able to find a niche topic and exist in it for 3 days. At smaller conferences a person is bound to attend a number of session topics that do not really mesh with what their interest or organizational responsibilities, and it can become tedious. Not so at NECC!

A clear highlight of the conference for me were the two different sessions I attended that were led by Dr. Scott McLeod, the Director of the CASTLE center at Iowa State University. I’ve been an avid follower of his work for a few years, and (especially after catching these sessions) am pleased to say that he will be spending a day with the Technology Affiliate Group (TAG) of our ESU system in Kearney next October, the day before he is with a group of administrators from across the state of Nebraska.

The first session I attended of Dr. McLeod’s was titled ‘Current Leadership Models are Inadequate for Disruptive Innovation’ and is available to view here on ISTEvision.  The talk centered around the writing of Clayton M. Christensen [‘The innovator’s dilemma.‘ (2003) & ‘Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns’ (2008)] regarding the ways that disruptive innovations impact large organizations. Here are a few of my notes from this session:

  • When schools (organizations) are confronted with a disruptive innovation the new technology is never “Good enough” as it appears originally. We have important customers (teachers, students, parents) and this tech does not meet their needs. It is ignored because current customers don’t “need” it. Meanwhile the disruptive tech finds itself a niche audience. It DOES meet the need for somebody. This niche group works to improve the disruptive technology, and is patient while the tech improves. Suddenly, it is “Good Enough” for EVERYONE. When that happens, your current customers move to it in droves, and you are left unprepared.
  • “1st mover status” is a critically important advantage in a new paradigm created by disruptive innovation. (Think iPod/Zune, Toyota Prius/Honda Element, Google/Any other search engine). Success rarely comes when you are not the first player in the market. You have to provide the tech to teachers BEFORE they find ways to implement it themselves outsde the system. At that point, you’ve lost them.
  • School leaders are currently very complacent. “Of course our schools are going to be around forever.” The idea that we could be replaced does not exist in our heads. We are the vinyl record makers of the 70’s, the land line phone company presidents of the 80’s, etc.
  • Sometimes orgs try to create change in the current system – like removing textbooks, giving kids laptops or handhelds. This modification of the playing field can foster innovation. It tends to crack open the existing teaching/learning process.
  • Allow disrupting technology to compete directly with your existing organization. Do not filter it away or block it or starve it for resources or personnel. Any kind of artificial constraints you put on it will only delay the inevitable. Support it in parallel to your existing structures and allow it to flourish. Otherwise you are actively preserving the old paradigm and will ultimately be replaced by something from outside of your organization instead of something of your own from the inside.
  • Even though everything seems fine right now… the bottom line is that it is still business as usual. Our schools are “Good enough”. But, while we ignore them, niche groups are working on using technology for personalized education. We need to be players, or we will be pushed off of the playing field.

On the second day of the conference I attended a technology leadership breakfast hosted by learning.com at a hotel adjacent to the conference. Dr. McLeod was the keynote speaker and his topic to the assembled tech leaders was ‘Why Aren’t You Making a Bigger Impact?’ (VIDEO of the session.) This time his session revolved around the idea that our organizational systems in education are not adequately supporting or fostering new and improved teaching/learning paradigms. A focus was on the “4 Frames of Leadership” as put forward by Bolman and Deal in their 2003 book ‘Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership.’ (More information can be found here on Dr. McLeod’s blog.) A few of my notes from this session:

  • By looking at our current organizations through these 4 “frames” (lenses), we can identify where we are succeeding and failing and make strategic corrections.
  • As school district IT departments, TEACHERS are our core application. Not servers, software, smart boards, etc. We need to focus our work (organization) on supporting teachers in what their needs are.
  • How district technology staff perceive themselves and their role in the organization is usually very different than how teachers perceive it. This creates political tension. A focus should be on building relationships between district technology staff and teachers, because this political tension can cripple progress.
  • Who does your primary technology leader for the district report to? If it’s not the superintendent, it is a significant problem. The further down the org chart the primary technology leader sits fro the Superintendent, the harder it is for that individual to facilitate necessary change. Also, it sends a clear message to teachers and community that technology is not valued and non-essential in your district. (More on this thought is spun off into this recent post on Dr. McLeod’s blog.)
  • We HAVE to do a better job at supporting our core technology in the districts – and that is helping teachers function efficiently.

Dr. McLeod was a clear highlight, but there were other great sessions that I attended. Another was led by Cheryl Lemke of the Metiri group, a consulting firm. Her session was titled ’21st century Skills that Matter’ and the supporting materials and examples she used are available.  A major focus of this session was on the learning and technology use of adolescents. A few of my notes on this topic:

  • We as educators need to begin thinking differently about the adolescents who come to us. They learn a LOT informally, outside of classrooms. Teachers who interconnect with them in web 2.0 ways are tremendous influencers. They do not understand how to learn in this system, and it is imperative that we assist them in this transition.
  • The amount of time they spend in classrooms is tiny compared to the amount of time the spend OUTSIDE of classrooms
  • Web 2.0 is often “friendship” driven. That feels like “being at the mall” and educators do not want you bringing your social network into their structured classrooms.
  • “Our students are giving us their continuous partial attention.”
  • In order to get intellectual safety in your classroom, begin to ask questions that do not have correct answers. These are the hard ones to frame and they teach you a lot about the students.
  • Shoving desks together is NOT collaboration. Think about how you structure your formal and informal tasks so that students rely upon each other (positive interdependence.).
  • She included many examples of newer technologies and how they can be used to foster critical thinking and collaborative discussions.

A session I did not particularly appreciate as I sat through it, but has stuck with me over time was presented by Valerie Woods. it was titled ‘Hammers & Nails: Transformational Leadership.’ Here are a few of my notes from that session:

  • Organizations are intricately complex systems. every degree of change you make impacts the rest of the system.
  • Leaders are more powerful when they give power away through permission to learn and change systems.
  • Change is an event. Transition is an emotional process.
  • Change is the new norm.
  • Regarding transitions – If you cannot clearly see what the new thing adds to your life or work, you will cling to the familiar. if you are the one implementing the changes, be very aware of this and work to eliminate this as much as possible by illustrating how the “new” makes something easier than the “old.”  (Not enough to be better, it has to be easier.)
  • Lead from wherever you are in an organization. Leadership is a “way of being” not a title or position.
  • Young employees are not looking for “gadgets”, they are looking for tranformational leadership. (But they’ll take the gadgets too!)
  • Liberate the leader in others.

An important thing to share is that one of the best sessions I “attended” was at my desk the week after the conference! NECC did an outstanding job of recording many sessions and has them available online for anyone to view. If you have the opportunity, take advantage of some of the ideas presented there without the airplanes, hotels or registration fees!

I attended a number of other sessions that were good, but were “tool specific” enough that I will not post about them here. My final thoughts are about the vendor area. I was shocked, appalled, even offended by the garish nature of vendors. In this era when the economy is faltering and budgets are being slashed across the nation, the vendor floor was a city block long and wide, packed with pitchmen, glittering high-tech booths, meaningless tchotchkes, and worst of all teachers lining up to prostrate themselves to corporate snake-oil shills for a free t-shirt or the chance to win an iPod. It was embarrassing to the profession. I overheard someone describe it (accurately) as being “like a casino floor in Vegas, but with no real chance of winning anything, and a very real chance of losing a lot.”

Furthermore, I managed to make it through every session I attended at NECC over three days without gathering a single piece of paper. The teachers and educational technology professionals presenting at NECC are truly living “paperless.” Sessions had supporting websites with links, PDFs, videos, or other ways to access their information digitally. How is it that these companies that push themselves as the best and most current digital solutions to this problem or that problem cannot do the same? EVERY SINGLE BOOTH had reams of glossy full color paper that they were actively shoving at you. The only silver lining that I could find was the recycling boxes posted at regular intervals around the floor. They were overflowing with product flyers.

Overall NECC was a wonderful experience, and proves that we are certainly not short of great thoughts and ideas in our profession. I only hope that a fraction of the leadership shared there will filter back into our school districts and classrooms!

Posted in My Thoughts, Quotes.


2 Responses

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  1. Scott McLeod says

    Thanks for the kind words. Can I bring you along to all of my presentations? You take great notes and you’re complimentary too! =)

  2. bfitz says

    Great picture. I really liked that KRYPTOS-looking thing that the light was shining through.



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