For the last five years, the Wilton Public Schools have showcased their use of technology in the classroom in an annual program called “Tech Expo.” This year, Mathew Hepfer, the district’s director of technology, wants to refocus the program.

Rather than making the technology tools the stars of the show, he wants to show how the teachers and students are using technology to expand the ways they’re learning. He said the shift grew out of a changing attitude toward the way technology is so integrated into the way education works–and an acknowledgement of how the students themselves engage with each other and with the world around them.

“I’d like this to be an event for people to understand how technology can support the way kids direct their own learning,” Hepfer explains.

“We used to hold Tech Expo before the budget vote. But now, we have made enough of a compelling argument to the Board of Education, the superintendent and voters that we don’t see technology as something we have to support–it is so integral with everything we do that we can’t not support it. They’re not fighting us on if we should invest in technology. If anything, they’re concerned we don’t invest enough. So now we wanted to take the opportunity to show how technology is a piece of our kids’ lives,” Hepfer says.

With that change Hepfer took a look at how the Tech Expo was run. In past years, with presentations in individual classrooms spread throughout a school, attendees didn’t get the chance to see as many presentations as possible, and some of the student presenters didn’t get a lot of exposure.

Hepfer has teamed with his colleague, Skip Ploss, the district’s webmaster and a TED Talks fan, who had the idea to transform Tech Expo into a TED Talks-type format. All the presentations will happen in one place–the Little Theater in Wilton High School, on May 18, at 5:30-7:30 p.m..

As part of the newer approach, the program will be called TechNext.

Hepfer and Ploss plan to have teachers from each of Wilton’s four schools put together a presentation showing what’s being done at each location. But they’re hoping to recruit students to take part too, to highlight the ways students use technology at home or in the classroom to expand their learning.

The presentations will be varied–some examples of ideas they already have include a fourth grader and a second grader who make YouTube videos; two high school student singers who record music with a portable recording studio; and another high schooler who is experimenting with hydroponics (growing plants in water). But how does that show off the way students are incorporating technology in the way they learn?

“I’m going to guess that all the research he does is digital:  that he’s watching YouTube videos, that he didn’t go buy a book on hydroponics–or if he did, he bought it on Amazon–the way he draws plans, the way he reaches out to other people doing hydroponics is through social media,” Hepfer explains. “When I watch it, it’s not about hydroponics, it about, my gosh, look at how that kid did that!”

“Even if things at TechNext may not seem technology-driven, there’s a thread of technology through the whole thing. It’s a celebration of not necessarily technology-focused forward thinking, but forward thinking that uses technology to go forward,” Ploss adds. “It shows how our students are thinking in and outside of class, and it also shows the ability the district has to nurture that in young people of all ages.”

Both Hepfer and Ploss agree that this approach reflects the shift in the district’s philosophical approach to technology that has taken place since the arrival of Dr. Kevin Smith as superintendent last July. What used to be a system with rigid boundaries preventing students and faculty from accessing some technology (e.g. the Internet and devices) during the school day, has now transformed into an open invitation to use technology to engage in the learning process.

That’s demonstrated in the district’s recent technology report, for example, which shows the explosive growth in the number of devices connecting to the schools’ network:  On average there are an additional 500 devices at Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll; bandwidth needs are even greater at Middlebrook and WHS with the shift to BYOD (bring your own device) instruction–1,200 wireless devices connect at Middlebrook and 1,700 devices connect at the high school.

Ultimately, says Hepfer, he hopes the TechNext event will showcase forward-thinking teaching and forward-thinking learning.

“We can really get insight into when students self-direct their own learning. When they are [using technology] to figure out how to compose and publish songs, when they’re figuring out how to make artwork. That’s the way instruction is changing–we start building an educational system where kids start learning about where they are in the world and how they can contribute,” he says.

To apply to be a TechNext presenter, complete the online form, which can be found here.