More than 50 faculty members, administrators and technology office staff from private secondary schools across the United States traveled to Blairstown in mid-June for the annual edAccess Conference, a four-day, peer-led program that focuses on how technology can best support teaching and learning.
From June 18 to 21, attendees immersed themselves in Blair life, staying in the dorms, eating in the dining hall and convening each day in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration for a series of focus groups, demonstrations, guest lectures, breakout sessions and networking events. The flexible and technology-rich facility served as a perfect backdrop for the conference and highlighted just how much Blair has changed and grown since the School last hosted the meeting in 1997.
“The people who are running this conference and attending it are technology administrators and educators at private high schools, and participants submit the topics they want to focus on, which makes for a good deal of grassroots discussion about the challenges and opportunities we all face,” said Blair’s Director of Technology Sam Adams, who planned the logistics of this year’s meeting. “What also sets the edAccess program apart from other conferences is that it takes place on campus, so it is really rooted in the host school experience and culture.”
With topics ranging from classroom technology and connectivity to information systems and strategic thinking, the conference touched on routine and hot-button issues in the fields of technology and education, with identity theft and cybersecurity being an example of a recent, pressing issue currently being faced by schools and other organizations.
In addition to Mr. Adams and the four members of his technology team, Blair conference attendees included Dean of Teaching and Learning Gwyneth Connell, Director of Timken Library Ann Williams and computer science teacher Michael Garrant. While technology team members worked the conference by organizing logistics, facilitating focus groups and leading social activities after each day’s sessions had ended, they also had the opportunity to participate in the conference and enjoyed the opportunity to learn from peers at other schools. Mr. Garrant had the chance to connect with colleagues who also operate maker spaces and robotics programs during demonstrations he ran in those spaces; Ms. Connell enjoyed learning about cutting-edge technology that supports teachers and innovative ways to improve the classroom experience; and Ms. Williams collaborated with peers who manage library data systems and sought out teacher colleagues as she looked for ways to present content material to her history classes.
In keeping with the theme of utilizing technology, Blair Head of School Chris Fortunato spoke via video conference with attendees from Massachusetts about the vision, thinking and planning that went into conceptualizing, designing and building the Chiang Center as a technology-heavy facility. “Our attendees really enjoyed talking about leadership at the highest level in terms of bringing this type of building to life at schools such as ours,” Mr. Adams said. “We have built this incredible facility, and it was gratifying to have peers come to campus and see how it supports and amplifies our academic and technology programs.”
A guest lecture on digital citizenship by author and Internet studies pioneer Reuben Loewy was also a big draw. The author of Living Online: Teaching the Internet focused on the importance of guiding teachers and students to engage positively and creatively with the Internet, rather than addressing the negative aspects of social media and fake news. “We are in the midst of the greatest information and communications transformation in human history,” he said. “Entertainment, commerce, education, healthcare and communication have all been radically upended by the Internet. However, the majority of institutions do not address the complete picture of what the Internet is, how we affect it and how it affects us.”
Other popular activities were the special sessions in Blair’s maker space and robotics classroom. “Our attendees were at all levels when it came to these kinds of programs: Some schools are considering how they would go about creating them, while others have exceptionally well-run facilities and were able to share tips about getting such an effort off the ground,” Mr. Adams said. “The Chiang Center is an incredible facility to showcase these technology programs, and the building itself served as a launching pad for many discussions about creating learning environments that foster collaboration and innovation among our students.”
Blair will host edAccess again in 2019, and Mr. Adams came away from this year’s program pleased with how smoothly everything went. “At the end of the day, we want attendees to have a good experience and to feel that they left Blair having found answers to technology challenges they are facing at their own schools, which is really what the conference is about. I hope that attendees felt our program worked well and that the trip to Blair was a critically good use of their time. Speaking from personal experience at past events, I can say attending the four-day program is the equivalent of doing 50 site visits to other schools and is always worthwhile.”