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Big screen and bigger ideas: EduCon promotes innovative ideas, tools.
[February 01, 2010]

Big screen and bigger ideas: EduCon promotes innovative ideas, tools.

Feb 01, 2010 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- EduCon 2.2 is no ordinary assemblage of people from around the country involved in education.

Consider that the weekend conference that ended yesterday was conducted by the Philadelphia School District's Science Leadership Academy, and held in its classroom building. Forget about yawn-inspiring presentations -- these sessions featured rousing conversations blending realism with innovative idealism.

And no ordinary education conference has the Multi-Touch Wall, the whiz-bang computer CNN uses for election coverage. EduCon, whose attendees came from around the country and abroad, did.

"I think EduCon has developed a sense of identity that makes it unique. It is fundamentally an educational forum that looks at the intersection of progressive pedagogy and 21st-century tools," said Chris Lehmann, 38, one of the conference's founders and principal of the Science Leadership Academy.

The academy is a public partnership school with the Franklin Institute, which works with students in a variety of ways.

"I'm blown away that a public high school has the capacity to do this. We're ecstatic," said Frederic Bertley, vice president of the Center for Innovation in Science Learning at the institute.

Lehmann said he and others began the conference about three years ago as a way to stoke the imaginations and conversations of those involved with learning. The barriers to attending are purposely low: While about 330 people attended the conference in person, an additional 465 participated online in real time.

EduCon attracts people with its principles that learning, be it in the classroom or at a conference, must be inquiry driven and interactive, that technology is a means and not an end, and that collaboration is crucial. The academy's students are involved in every aspect of conference planning and activities.

The conference's approach, not to mention the growing reputation of Lehmann and his school, were reasons Jeff Han decided to attend and bring his electronic baby, 100 inches in diameter, with him. Han's New York City company, Perceptive Pixel, created the Multi-Touch Wall.

The wall, which looks like a giant television screen, allows a number of people at a time to touch and swipe their way to completing computerized tasks on it. (CNN reporter John King manipulates voting maps on the wall like a modern, media masseuse.) There is no keyboard, no mouse. Just the computer interface and fingers.

The wall's customers include government agencies and companies well-heeled enough to afford its six-figure price tag. But, Han said, the cost will drop in time and make it a more affordable teaching tool.

Whereas on Saturday, Science Leadership Academy students crowded around the giant touch screen to solve puzzles, yesterday morning Han and EduCon attendees were imagining that day when a version of the wall could be in classrooms.

How might it help teach kids? Han wanted to know.

"I'm thinking right off the bat that kids could do collaborative learning, pulling up words" from reference materials on the screen alongside the children's compositions, said a fourth-grade teacher.

Information could be electronically "thrown" back and forth from small groups to the entire class, said others, who noted it could excite students who don't like sitting at their desks with a pencil.

What if, Han threw out, "it could be integrated into a child's desk?" But another participant asked: How to keep it from being one more high-tech gimmick? Drive its classroom use by curriculum and pedagogical ideas and objectives, came the answer from around the room.

Everyone agreed that technology alone is not the answer to raising the quality of education, a reality discussed in a later session that explored why computers have "failed to bring substantial change to American schools." "Bringing technology into the classroom isn't going to change what isn't working in the first place," said Tracy Rudzitis, 50, a teacher at the Computer School in New York City.

Schools need to let ideas and educational aims drive technology usage and not the other way around, she and others said.

Think about how you do a home-improvement project, Rudzitis said.

"You're not starting with a tool," such as a hammer. "You're starting with an idea and figuring out which tools you need to achieve it," she said.

"Do we focus too much on tools?" asked session leader Tim Stahmer of Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools.

Students at the conference didn't seem to think so.

Science Leadership Academy senior Levon Avagyan, 17, was wowed by the private instruction on software coding he got from Han.

"It's like learning relativity from Einstein," Avagyan said.

Mike Nathman, 16, came from the Oakridge School in Arlington, Texas, with classmates and their teacher to discuss a project in which they used blogs to analyze Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Nathman said the conversations at EduCon, which he wished more students attended, were a revelation to him.

"I never understood," he said, "how much thought people put into education." Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or

To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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