My Techforum Northeast ’08 Reflection

Posted on Oct 26, 2008 by kjarrett Comments Off

My first-ever Techforum Northeast was a great conference. Everything about it was world-class. The facility, in particular, was stunning, easily the most luxurious I’ve encountered since leaving the business world in 2002. The program was excellent, Judy Salpeter’s conference team was well prepared, and other than some connectivity hiccups (is there EVER enough bandwidth at a conference?), the event appeared to be a great success all around. Best of all, since I was an invited presenter, my district didn’t have to pay a dime. Nice…

David Warlick started us off with his keynote, “Our Students, Our Worlds.” Having just worked with him a few months ago at NJELITE, I had a sense of what David’s keynote MIGHT include, but I was entralled by his latest spin on a familiar theme, essentially, the challenges facing education in the 21st century. His core message: “the best description of the 21st Century teacher is Master Learner.”

David builds great personal examples and illustrations into his presentations, from insightful observations about members of his own family to reflections on educational research and even examples pulled directly from popular culture. The combination of the material and his delivery left me wishing more could see and hear it for themselves. Unfortunately my UStreaming [recording] efforts fell miserably short; see for yourself: clip #1 | clip #2. I’m at a loss to explain what happened. My Macbook Pro had a wired network connection, AC power, and a brand new webcam. I don’t get it. Perhaps UStream was having issues. Doesn’t matter. It was an opportunity lost. :(

My morning breakout session selection, “Assessing 21st Century Skills,” featured Kim Carter and Jeremy Burrus. Kim is from Monadnock Community Connections, a public school of choice in New Hampshire. Her presentation described the school’s curriculum and graduating requirements and I swear it sounded like a Ph.D. program. Entirely portfolio based, the school stresses community, 17 habits of lifelong learners, personal accountability, internships and more. This truly unique high school offers a glimpse into what education could be like in a world where performance tasks, not bubble sheets and paper deliverables, drive assessment.

Jeremy was from Educational Testing Services (ETS). His presentation covered the Personal Skills assessments currently being developed there. Developed in response to the 2006 survey Conducted by The Conference Board, (et. al.) in which 400 people were asked, “What does it take to succeed in the workplace?” Personal skills – Work Ethic, Teamwork, Oral Communication, Leadership, Creativity, and Lifelong Learning were the top six out of ten traits, easily besting Math, Written Communication, English, even Critical Thinking skills. So, ETS has set out to develop a diagnostic that helps to identify student performance traits in these areas. The product, currently in testing, is called Learner Snapshot.

After a short break, visits with some vendors and lunch with friends old and new, Marc Aronson and I headed up to room 370 to prepare for our afternoon roundtable, a conversation about how the Internet and tools such as Second Life can be used to reach and engage young adult readers. Sensing an opportunity, I drafted Peggy Sheehy onto our presentation team, and then, made the smartest move of the day – I got out of the way.

This session was, with the possible exception of David’s keynote, the highlight of the conference for me. Marc is a historian whose deep understanding of the past is complimented by a profound appreciation of the connective power of social media and (in particular) virtual worlds.

I loved witnessing Marc engage the audience with a discussion about the modern concept of “race” and its ancient counterpart of “difference” and how he plans to use his Second Life build to allow people to explore and experience their feelings on the subject. Virtual worlds are at their best when used for things “not possible in real life,” and this is a perfect example. In “What Can Video Games Teach Us about Learning and Literacy,” noted gaming researcher James Paul Gee identifies the “psychosocial moratorium” principle (p. 207), referring to learning experiences in which risk taking occurs without the threat of real-world consequences. To me, this means people can be honest without fear of retribution. What could be better environment for discussing one of the most divisive issues of modern times? Marc plans to create builds for this purpose in both the Teen and Main Grids of Second Life. Throughout the discussion, Peggy (who had no idea she would be asked to participate) offered her firsthand experiences with students in Teen Second Life, helping ground Marc’s theoretical premises with real-virtual-world (is that a valid phrase?) knowledge.

If the session with Marc and Peggy was the highlight, the one that would follow, a hands-on workshop Peggy and I were to lead called “Getting Started with Second Life,” would to be the … uh … how can I put this … oh well, never mind.

As Peggy began her introduction (which was flawless) it quickly became clear that the conference wireless bandwidth would not be sufficient to complete the workshop (and it would be unreasonable to expect it would.) Although many people DID get in, many did not, and even my wired connection was so slow it was unusuable. After joking that we mis-named the workshop (it could have been called “Getting Frustrated with Second Life,”) we decided to offer three free in-world “makeup” sessions later to share what we’d planned to cover in the workshop. It will be a lot more work, but, it was the right thing to do. The audience was very understanding (we’ve all had lessons blow up), and we made many friends. So, all’s well that ends well, right?

We ended the conference with dinner at a nearby Dave & Busters, then it was an easy two-hour drive home. Techforum was a great experience overall, well worth the time and effort, even considering the glitches here and there. With luck, Techforum will have us back next year, and the event will be bigger and better!

-kj-

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