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Outlook: Deluge of mobile devices

Students and teachers demand digital tools, including open educational content
Mobile devices and Wi-Fi will get the most spending attention in schools in 2016, according to a DA survey.
Mobile devices and Wi-Fi will get the most spending attention in schools in 2016, according to a DA survey.

Students three years from now will use two or three mobile devices in the classroom compared to the current ratio of one device to every two students, according to a survey of districts by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The steady decline in cost and expanding capabilities of mobile devices make them more viable and numerous in K12 education.

Students and teachers will use the devices to access an increasing amount of digital learning tools, from a broader array of providers. This bounty includes more open educational resources—teaching and learning materials, like interactive lessons and electronic textbooks, that are freely available online.

The surge in devices will continue to tax bandwidth. It will also put an added burden on district technical staff to make learning resources easily available.

Instructional software gains ground but mobile devices dominate

Districts will again expand use of mobile devices, Wi-Fi and instructional software in 2016, according to a DA survey of K12 technology leaders.

While mobile devices and Wi-Fi/internet infrastructure ranked high on the list for 2015, this year’s respondents showed slightly less urgency. Last year, 66 percent said their districts would invest substantially in tablets and other portable devices, compared to 55 percent on the survey for 2016.

Also last year, two-thirds expected their district to spend heavily on Wi-Fi and internet infrastructure. Only 40 percent offered the same forecast this time around.

Respondents showed more enthusiasm for instructional software this year, with 38 percent planning to buy these products, compared to 22 percent last year.

BYOD and 1-to-1 initiatives lost some ground, with only 30 percent of this year’s respondents predicting big investments, compared to the 73 percent who last year expected to launch or expand a program.

Planned spending growth on cloud computing and storage held steady, at 27 percent this year and 29 percent last year. Network and data security also remained stable, with 22 percent of respondents predicting spending increases, compared to 27 percent last year.

One commenter said their district has already implemented all of the technological programs listed on the survey, perhaps indicating the reason for the industry-wide drop in planned spending.

Another commenter expressed some fear of technology: “Tablets, etc. will become the poison of educational processes. When books disappear, the school will become an anachronism.”

The DA technology outlook survey was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2015. A total of 302 district leaders participated in this particular survey.—Angela Pascopella

District tech staff need to keep applications and security features current on devices so students and teachers can safely access digital content for instruction. However, software applications act differently on different devices, requiring more work on the part of tech staff.

The challenge is compounded by BYOD, which will become more pervasive in districts, says Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

“More schools are recognizing that cell phones are the center of a student’s universe, and are starting to embrace them as a learning tool,” Neugent says. “Progressive schools are realizing that BYOD will continue and should continue.”

Managing interoperability is easier when fewer types of devices are used, adds Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

“With BYOD, it gets more complex,” she says. “It also compounds data privacy and security issues. Managing all those devices is challenging but not impossible.”

Connect systems to connect the dots

“Interoperability” is the ability for data to flow among different software applications and for students and teachers to easily access all the digital resources they need without signing in and out of different programs. Along with ensuring accessibility, IT staff will need to link these applications to each other in support of personalized learning.

By pulling together course lessons, grade books, portfolios and other evidence of student learning, districts can see student progress dynamically over time and understand where a student needs help, says Patrick.

Additionally, all that data will become more visual. “Companies are working hard to develop software that helps teachers and administrators make more sense of the data,” says Neugent. “The future will be full of bar charts and graphs that help teachers see what is needed to get a student to the next level.”

Achieving this level of interoperability likely means a refresh of today’s learning management systems, experts say. “

The days of learning management systems that are closed systems are gone by,” says Karen Cator, president and chief executive officer of Digital Promise. “They’ll give way to solutions that are more open and flexible and let teachers curate and capture the resources they want.”

Lighting up bandwidth

The increasing number of devices will tax bandwidth that is already strained, and districts should plan on doubling capacity every 18 months, says Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of CoSN.

“There’s no fixed point to say, ‘We’ll have enough bandwidth after we finish this expansion,’ ” he says. “Districts will have to constantly evolve their networks.”

Fortunately, some districts are getting financial help. The revised federal E-rate program received a $1.5 billion annual boost to fund the expansion of school Wi-Fi connections, networks and broadband speeds.

“We’ll see the impact of E-rate in a very significant way this year,” says Neugent. “More schools will have bandwidth that will be incredibly fast.”

Shift in hardware purchases

The goals of project-based and collaborative learning will likely shift hardware purchases.

The hot item for districts in 2016 is 3D printers. The price has dropped from thousands of dollars to less than $1,000, making them more affordable.

But districts might think twice before purchasing electronic whiteboards, e-readers and tablets that aren’t as supportive of collaborative learning, Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).—K.K.R.

Also in 2016, some progress will be made in narrowing the “homework gap.” It will be driven by the increasing realization that children need internet access points after school hours, says Cator.

Also, service providers are installing high-bandwidth networks to areas previously not served and the cost of service is decreasing. This means connectivity will extend to more residences and businesses, helping to narrow the digital divide.

Cator recommends that districts conduct an audit to see which homes don’t have internet access. Then the district can work with area businesses and government agencies to establish Wi-Fi locations where students can do work after school.

Districts can also provide students with take-home devices with built-in hot spots.

However, the need for increased access will continue well beyond 2016. Three out of four school systems do not have any off-campus strategies for providing connectivity to students, according to CoSN’s 2015 Annual E-rate and Infrastructure Survey.

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.