By Mike Baum
In the old Road Runner cartoons, there’s always a point where the slavering coyote, relentlessly and enthusiastically pursuing his dinner, runs off a cliff. But he hangs in mid-air momentarily, falling only when he realizes there’s no longer anything supporting his feet. Walking the floor of ISTE (nee NECC) last week, I thought I heard “beep beep” from time to time.
On the surface it was a very good show. Attendance down a couple thousand from last year, but you expect Denver to draw smaller crowds than D.C. About 200 fewer exhibitors but that’s par for the course right now – and still one of education’s biggest show floors. No one I talked to missed the Elvis impersonator from 2009, either.
Attendees had money to spend. Visitors to the booth of one of my clients often opened the conversation with needs for fall, grants they expected, budgets they still had to allocate. That’s one of the things that make ISTE today such a must-attend for technology companies – unlike a few years ago, a high percentage of attendees are really shopping. And they’re looking for educational solutions, not just gadgets or wiring.
If there was a “buzz” at this show it might be “the year of mobile.” Vendors, sessions, and corridor conversations focused on ways to use iPods, iPads, phones, and even older tech like netbooks, to put applications in kids’ hands more quickly, more interactively, at lower cost. Software vendors are being challenged to make their content run on just any platform teachers have or want to use. The “21st Century Classroom” – all interactive, all the time – fits this paradigm just fine and was also all over the show, with whiteboards, projectors, panels, and student responders, which have proliferated like crocuses in springtime.
All very good, and a genuine trend – but how far can tech buyers run with it before they realize they’ve run out of cliff? ARRA money will only go so far. At her presentation on the future of federal funding, ISTE lobbyist Hilary Goldmann put a brave face on it but had to admit that this time, E2T2 may really be dead. While it could be 2011 or 2012 before our contentious Congress finally agrees on a new ESEA, dedicated tech funding has fewer and fewer defenders. ISTE is trying again to get momentum behind the ATTAIN Act (Achievement Through Technology and Innovation) but the current administration seems focused on other priorities, and the public mood is starting to swing against finding new things to spend money on.
And state budgets will keep reeling for some time from the effects of unemployment and housing-price declines. My airplane reading right now includes the weighty and depressing This Time is Different by economists Reinhart and Rogoff (the title is intentionally ironic). Their historical data indicate that it takes five and six years respectively for jobs and housing to start recovering from major financial calamities. Figuring from 2007 or 2008, take your pick, at that rate it will be 2012 or 2013 before we see improvements, and there’s always a time lag before state tax collections and disbursements reflect the economy. A couple weeks ago I was interviewing the tech director of one of our large urban districts and asked his opinion about the funding outlook. “Things won’t improve till about 2015,” he replied. At the time I thought he was a pessimist. Now I think maybe he’s a prophet.
So should tech companies just go into hibernation for the next five years? Not necessarily. Maybe it will be a good thing to have tech funding merged with school-improvement and professional development initiatives. It could keep us focused on why we’re all in this business in the first place.
Recession or recovery, this country will go on spending about half a trillion dollars on K-12 schools per year. If schools are going to spend some of that money on handhelds or clickers or anything else, it will be because they produce results when teachers really know how to use them effectively. If administrators are ever going to get less twitchy about letting kids use as mobile educational devices the cellphones two-thirds of them now carry (the figure rises to 70-85% when you get past age 11), it will because the educational uses are plain, proven, and easily implementable by teachers who mostly aren’t techies.
Among the educators walking the mile-high floors at ISTE, I saw a lot of principals and other non-tech people looking for solutions. Not “solutions” in the tech sense – solutions to problems with educational achievement. Are we providing the research, the real-classroom models, the teacher training they need? And are we making it plain to them how it works for them? If not, the Road Runner of technology growth in society may just keep streaking along ahead of us while we look around and find the ground under our feet has disappeared.
Sophia Consulting LLC
mhbaum (at) gmail
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