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
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
|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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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?)
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
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.|
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
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
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.