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1994 NECC Conference Report

By Dr. David Ayers
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #6, 1994.

What happened at the 1994 NECC Conference
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Dr. David Ayers

The National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), held from June 13–15 this year, was an educator’s technological feast of real size and importance. About 5000 participants, including public and private school teachers and administrators, technologists, political figures, and educational futurists, converged on Boston for three days to learn and talk about the latest educational computing products, trends, and ideas. While certainly no match for major computer expos like MacWorld or COMDEX, NECC could certainly be called the biggest event of 1994 geared specifically towards the still-youthful world of educational computing.

I talked to a lot of people there. Not one was sorry he or she attended. There was something for everyone in educational computing. Over 425 formal presentations were given, supplemented by about 57 vendor’s workshops and an exhibitor’s floor featuring over 200 companies. The exhibition hall, full of dazzling presentations, hands-on labs, shows, and demonstrations, was worth a trip to Boston all by itself.

Major computer companies were represented in force, including DEC, Compaq, Apple, IBM, Zenith, Pioneer, Dell, and Texas Instruments. In addition to leading seminars and hosting parties to wine and dine potential buyers, most of these were highlighting “bundled” systems for educational applications. Vendors such as Compaq, less known than companies like IBM and Apple in the world of educational computing, were making an aggressive attempt to access what they clearly hoped would be a booming market. Compaq hosted a two-hour party filled with food and drink, a pile of fruit and stuffed animals about twenty feet high, animal sounds, and attendants wearing jungle shirts and gorilla outfits. Their angle? “Let Compaq help you through the computer jungle out there.”

In addition, many educational software houses promoted their wares and provided sneak previews of their up-and-coming offerings. Such well-known names as MECC, Brøderbund, Optimum Resource, Paramount Interactive, Humongous Entertainment, HyperGlot, Davidson, and Edmark were joined by scores of smaller, often newer, companies showing products ranging from the well-known “Sticky Bear” programs for young children, to Snowbird’s “Electric Chemistry Toolkit” series—on-screen laboratories complete with virtual “bunsen burners,” “test tubes” and so on, with a complete shelf full of simulated chemicals. (I got a Snowbird representative to “mix” some explosives for me. Yes, they did explode—“virtually.”)

A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.
—Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918)
The conference slogan was “Recreating the Revolution,” complete with flags and pictures everywhere depicting Paul Revere’s famous ride. Throughout, the idea was pushed that this select group of teachers and administrators constituted a vanguard in a generally hidebound industry, the cutting edge of a new technological revolution in education.

Seminars and workshops focused heavily on telecommunications, online services and access and especially the Internet—at least 82 devoted mostly or wholly to some aspect of that topic, with one panel discussion drawing at least 600 people. Covering a range of topics from the beginner’s “Internet For the Rest of Us” to “Linking Classroom to Prisons” and sessions on specialized areas such as AskERIC, Dialog, and TENET, educators explored ways to access and use online possibilities for teaching, training and administration. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to enter cyberspace—preferably with their pupils in tow.

Some of the most intriguing offerings in this area were new products and services promising to bring improved access and user-friendliness to the Internet. For example, the University of Massachusetts promoted their UMassK12 system, which provides full Internet access to any student or teacher in the state who desires it. Does this include homeschoolers? Director and founder Dr. Morton Sternheim says, ”Yes.” Any home educating family living in Massachusetts can get an account, just as private schools can. Call (413) 545-1908, or send e-mail requesting an account to helen@k12.ucs.umass.edu).

Another interesting online presentation with real possibilities for homeschoolers was the Alice Project, named after—you guessed it—Alice in Wonderland. This project allows students and others worldwide to share data and analyze it together. Free software, still in the testing phase (though phs was able to secure a copy), provides a user-friendly way for the data to be shared and analyzed. With the Alice software, students in five cities could take water samples in their homes or schools, then work together creating maps depicting water quality by region.

There was also an emphasis on project-oriented teaching. The idea is to identify projects that students really want to do, but will have to learn valuable concepts and facts to complete. The philosophical buzzword for this is “constructionism.” (Homeschoolers engaged in unit studies may feel they recognize this concept!)

The capstone in NECC’s offerings on this area was a fascinating collection of exhibits and small group presentations at MIT. My favorites here were what they were doing with the ever-popular Lego block. Students used what were called “electronic bricks” to create Lego machines, which they then controlled with computer programs they wrote themselves (with a little instruction!). The teachers there had a lot of fun with one creation, a Lego electronic crane.

Now imagine that the Lego block itself is a miniature, programmable computer. Yes, such devices were featured at the conference. They can talk, interact through infrared rays with consumer electronic devices (electric ray guns and so forth), and do a lot of other neat things, including analyzing the chemical content of simple solutions. No—you won’t be able to buy these at “Kids ‘R Us” anytime soon. And MIT’s Randy Sargent predicted that, when they are available commercially, they “may be a little expensive.”

Homeschoolers, of course, are even more interested in what the educational leaders in schools are up to. While most conference presenters concentrated on the technology, quite a few speakers were promoting New Age ideas laced with more than a touch of Big Brother-ism.

In one popular workshop entitled “Educators as Futurists,” participants were taught how to change their schools through tools such as “visioning groups.” While listening to background music from Chariots of Fire and Indiana Jones, and television’s Mission Impossible, we learned to chew gum to enhance the neural connections between the left and right sides of our brains, and to play with soap bubbles to bring out our “inner child.” The idea was to use New Age techniques to break down mental and social resistance to change, and to “envision and create our own futures.” How uncreative. Now if they had tried chewing soap instead. That would have really shaken up those inner children.

In this workshop, talk of moral absolutes and real-world limitations were forbidden. One poor fellow was chastised by the instructor for pointing out that most public school districts would never pay for most of these advanced educational gizmos. This was a “downer” that cast a cloud over our positive “metaphors” and “visions.”

The next day, the unreality got even more pronounced during a keynote address by Edward Markey, a U.S. Congressman from Boston. Markey is the chief architect of a new bill entitled the “National Communications Competition and Information Infrastructure Act,” described by his staff as “a legislative roadmap for the information superhighway.”

The Congressman was introduced by a woman who warned us that computers may create “another socio-economic barrier in our society” unless our government does something to ensure “equity” and “access.” Then Markey stepped up to the podium and made it clear how he was prepared to meet this challenge—a government-managed and funded (dare I say, socialized?) information network.

by PHS Research Director David Ayers
Markey pointed out what everyone knows—that rich kids have more computers and online access than poor ones. The insidious result? “Educational apartheid.” Cable television, he said, had already exacerbated social divisions because since all kids didn’t have it, they couldn’t watch the same shows and talk about them in the schoolyard. His point? Every child should be guaranteed access to “Nickelodeon, HBO and the Disney Channel” because this is “fair” and encourages interaction among people from different backgrounds. In fact, he said, the divisions and “lack of hope” created by telecommunications “inequities” were partially to blame for the Los Angeles riots. And if the unfair distribution of television creates social unrest, said Markey—imagine the problems caused by unequal computer ownership and Internet access. More violence would follow, he warned, if measures to remedy this were not instituted.

Markey’s goals were clear. The government must ensure that “technology continues to be a democratizing force” instead of a source of a new “apartheid.” How? Well, hold on to your wallets! “We are going to give to every teacher and parent in the country the option of providing a computer for their children.”

Assistant Secretary of Education Sharon Porter, though vague about how it would be done (computers in every public library, or computers in every home?), made the same point at a second general session the next day. “Equalizing access to technology,” she said, was a major Department of Education concern. In a panel discussion immediately following her speech, others were less vague on implementation. Linda Roberts, the panel chair, specifically agreed with Markey’s vision, and warned that technology would “divide us” if equitable access could not be achieved.

To be sure, many of the speakers were not New Age and had their feet planted on the ground. Quite a few were as averse to major state interventions as are most homeschoolers. For example, Stephen Marcus, a University of California virtual reality expert, candidly discussed the problems of online sex and violence; he even used a lengthy video clip from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) to introduce the issue. Such exposure could possibly, he admitted, damage children’s “neural wetware” (i.e., their brains!) and had to be considered when wiring schools for the Internet. Marcus also seemed to believe that some things were right or wrong (an increasingly rare viewpoint for academicians).

Freedom and not servitude is the cure for anarchy; as religion, and not atheism, is the true remedy for superstition.
—Edmond Burke
In one expert panel on the Internet, participants expressed concern about government attempts to police cyberspace. The wave of the future, said several, was local—not federal—initiative in bringing Main Street online, along with freedom from dependence on large information providers, including the government. In another Internet dialogue, a prominent speaker pointed out that easing access to computers and cyberspace did not require putting systems in every home—if public libraries, schools and community centers had them, she said, everyone who wanted some access would have it.

Yes, there was plenty of sanity at NECC; a lot of great ideas, products and services too. Still, the New Agers and the Big Brother-ites were also well-represented and well-received. Given the past history and current inclinations of public education—in its humanism, desire for control and its love of state and bureaucracy—this was worrisome.

As I headed for the airport, I wondered about a lot of things. Assuming these forces won the day, would the cost of computers double under taxes designed to “give every child the option of owning a computer?” Are we establishing a universal “right to a PowerBook?” Will online services have affirmative action quotas? Will parents who refuse to buy modems be guilty of child neglect? Would “offensive speech” be banned on the Internet—inclu-ding, as in many colleges today, vocalizing Christian moral concerns?

And if a relativistic worldview is seen as necessary to properly utilizing this technology, will this increase the pressure to expose all children to state-sponsored humanism? Petty issues occurred to me too—for example, if Johnny’s Mom sells his government-issued PowerBook to buy drugs, or if his Daddy smashes it in a fit of rage, does he get another one free? And who pays his phone bill? If only the Rockefellers can afford computerized Legos, will they be banned from the market until the government has enough money to buy one for everybody?

Lost in my thoughts, I did not notice at first that my taxi, and everyone else on the road, had come to a complete stop. The reason? An 18-wheeler full of live Maine lobsters had rolled over, spilling its swarming contents all over the highway. My airplane left without me as scores of bemused police officers and fire fighters hosed and chased the frightened crustaceans.

How ironic. Do we also have an out-of-control truck—that is, our Federal government—threatening to obstruct our progress down the information highway? Will it, like this traffic-jamming semi, keep us from our virtual destinations? And how many pincered creatures will be unleashed on us by this monster, to pick away at our freedoms?

As rhetoric about “equal access” and “managed competition” on the information highway heats up, we’ll need to think about these things. This NECC conference displayed so much promise for what can be done in education using computer and telecommunications technology. Much of it is of phenomenal value to homeschoolers. But there are perils, too. Staying in touch with the good and the bad will enable us to respond effectively to both, and even help shape the future in positive ways. That way, we can have the lobster on our plate, rather than at our toes.

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