For more than a decade I had gone annually to the eTech conference in Columbus, Ohio.  During that time, I presented twice, assisted with others’ presentations and gained a lot of insight into best practices for the use of technology in the school environment by attending numerous sessions.  I made new connections with fellow technology directors from throughout the state and established deeper relationships with those who I knew previously.  However, I had become a bit burnt out from the routine of going each year and listening to the same type of sessions and presenters.  When it came time to attend last year, I decided to take a break and skip the 2011 eTech conference.

            In my place, I sent a new district employee in our technology department who had never attended the conference.  It was my hope that, being new to working in the field of education, he’d learn a great deal about ‘how schools do technology’ and find practical applications to use back in the district.  After returning, he was able to tell me that he learned a lot about such topics, but that he would have preferred to have had me there as a person to brainstorm with between sessions about practical applications back In the district.  In my infinite wisdom, I had sent him to the conference to learn (which he did), but didn’t think to provide him with a real time way to discuss what he was learning and how to use the knowledge when he was back in the district during the days and weeks following the conference.

            When it came time to revisit the idea of attending the conference this year, it was a ‘no brainer’ for me.  I needed to attend so that I could work in real time with the teachers and technology staff that the district sent, collaborating with them and encouraging them to find specific applications for their classrooms and school buildings.  This year, we sent a team of eight from Woodridge Local Schools to the conference.  Our budget is very tight this year, and doing so required a good deal of persuasion on my part amongst our district administrative team.  After a couple of very good conversations, we were on our way to Columbus. 

At one point on Monday, I found myself telling another technology director about how I really had to work hard to justify spending that much money to attend, but that doing so was integral to how we use technology in the school setting.  I found myself saying, “you’re only as good as the people that surround you.”   Investing in the lives of others is why I went into education back in the 90’s.   As a technology director, I miss being the instructional leader in the classroom and working with 25 or so students at a time, exposing them to new things and then seeing how they can challenge themselves as they learn and then make practical applications which have a real world impact. 

At dinner each night, I found my colleagues talking about what they had learned in the day’s sessions and how they’d like to apply it once they were back in the district.  Some of these discussions were very significant to members of our group.  A few of our teachers were able to learn from one of our sessions (and one of the teachers attending from our own team) about the impact of Skype in the elementary setting.  This teacher, Mrs. Roman, had found a classroom teacher in Scotland via Twitter a few months back and after exchanging ‘Flat Stanley’ letter back and forth, was able to set up a video call with the classroom in Scotland.  Imagine the impact in the lives of her second graders to have a middle school pen pal in Scotland who they had talked with over Skype.  Her fellow teacher from our team was able to brainstorm with her about the logistics of everything from the logistics of sending the initial letters to scheduling a video call across multiple time zones.

For me personally, it was a good time of renewal and personal reflection.  When I first presented at the conference in 2004, I spoke on the use of Open Source software in the elementary school.  Such software is developed by individuals or small groups and then freely distributed via the Internet to anyone who’d like to use it.  At the time, I was working with a very tight budget and found that free software and resources were the best way to supplement what I was seeking to do in my classroom.  As the years since have transpired, much has shifted away from software that runs on desktop computers towards web based resources.  One of my favorite jewels from this category is Weebly.com, a site that allows you to quickly build web sites via an easy to use (drag and drop) web interface. 

Another similar resource that’s a bit more complicated is Google Sites.  I’ve started to redesign a web site that I own using Google Sites with the eventual goal sharing the best open source ideas with fellow educators.  The site, OpenIdeas.org will contain a message board and forum where folks can gather and share best practices with colleagues the world over.  I’ve thought for a number of years that many educators are eager to share what they have done in their schools with others.  Open Ideas will be a gathering place for those wishing to share what works for them in the classroom.

One of the other things from the conference that I’d like to learn more about is the means by which educators can co-develop and freely release textbooks.  There are a handful of vendors who are heavily pushing digital textbooks and their use on tablet computers.  Apple has announced that they are working with top industry publishers to develop electronic versions of textbooks for the iPad.  While they have released a free program (iBooks author), the program itself will only run on a Mac and the product can only be displayed on an Apple product.  While I love my iPad, it’s a pricey alternative to a paper textbook.  At $500 per device, plus the cost of textbooks and labor required to support and synchronize iBooks and apps, it’s a pricey endeavor that the market won’t easily bear out. 

The alternative is to develop free and open source textbooks that can be collaboratively built, freely downloaded and modified by individual teachers and districts alike.  This movement does exist, but it is fledgling and is not welcomed by the textbook publishers or Apple corporate interests.  One free alternative is sponsored by the CK-12 Foundation (ck12.org) and provides dozens of free textbooks for educators and students alike.  One final tool I’ll share with educators is Wikipedia’s Book Creator, which allows a user to create a digital textbook based upon any articles found on the website. The link itself is rather long (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Book&bookcmd=book_creator&referer=Mars), but can be found as ‘Create A Book’ to the left of every Wikipedia article.