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Outlook on technology: Safety at high speed

Bandwidth, privacy, and professional development top district tech talk
School districts will make their biggest tech investments in tablets and WiFi in 2015. (Click to enlarge chart)
School districts will make their biggest tech investments in tablets and WiFi in 2015. (Click to enlarge chart)

Computing devices embedded in jewelry and glasses. Microchips tattooed into skin and sewn into clothing.

In one form or another, devices that gather data without any help from the user will slowly infiltrate districts in 2015. In fact, the number of people with a wearable computing device will more than triple this year, according to Forrester Research.

“In the near future, our shirts, jackets, glasses and hats could have chips connected to the internet that are doing some sort of task,” says Keith R. Krueger, CEO at CoSN. “A microchip worn by a student could let districts do attendance differently or know if a child got on the bus. The ‘internet of things’ will be interesting to watch.”

While it is unlikely that districts will develop useful learning applications for the embedded devices this year, it is probable this technology will suck up limited bandwidth. Reliable internet is among district leaders’ top tech concerns, along with professional development and privacy, experts say.

Bandwidth takes a hit

The ongoing rollout of online assessments in support of Common Core and the increased adoption of digital learning resources will propel more districts to start 1-to-1 device programs. When students’ smartphones, activity trackers and other personal devices are factored in, the equation becomes 2-to-1. Providing enough bandwidth is therefore front and center this year.

“Districts continue to struggle to make sure that classrooms have robust networks that can manage multiple devices,” says Krueger. “When everyone has a device on all the time, and maybe even more than one device, that’s a huge strain on bandwidth.”

Mobile devices, WiFi will top tech spending in 2015

School districts will continue full-speed-ahead on mobile device implementations and improvements to internet infrastructure in 2015, according to a DA survey of K12 technology leaders.

Two-thirds of survey respondents, 66 percent, said their districts will devote significant investment in tablets and other portable devices this year, and 67 percent said their districts will invest heavily in Wi-Fi and other internet infrastructure.

Other areas of tech investment cited by survey respondents included cloud computing, 29 percent, and network/data security, 27 percent. Investments in personal computers and instructional software were each cited as areas of 2015 investment by 22 percent of respondents.

The survey also found that the BYOD trend will continue to surge in 2015. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents, 73 percent, said their districts will launch, maintain or expand a BYOD program, with just 27 percent saying their districts have no plans to go BYOD.

Perhaps because of the continued growth of BYOD, the outlook for 1-to-1 implementations appears less robust this year, according to the survey. Just under half the respondents, 44 percent, said their districts have no plans to launch a 1-to-1 program this year, compared to 10 percent who said their districts would go 1-to-1.

About 25 percent of respondents said their districts will likely expand a 1-to-1 initiative this year.

The DA technology outlook survey was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2014. A total of 537 district leaders participated in the surveys.

Districts will also grapple with providing enough bandwidth to support online assessments and the increasing use of digital learning platforms. If a mathematics class is using a new, high-bandwidth program and a social science teacher is accessing an online video while students are taking online tests, there could be service disruptions.

“Everything is connected on what I call a ‘waterbed of technology’,” says Geoffrey H. Fletcher, deputy executive director at the SETDA. “A change in one area impacts another. They’re all connected to one another.”

The third part of the growing bandwidth challenge is availability outside the district. “Districts need to be concerned with who has enough bandwidth and who has home internet access,” says Susan Einhorn, executive director at the Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation. “Without it, the divide grows between those who have and those who have not. It’s not just about the devices students have in their hands; it’s what they can do with them. That should be a huge concern for administrators.”

For example, students without internet access at home cannot complete online homework assignments. They also cannot access videos and other online learning resources to get extra help with difficult concepts in math, science or other subjects. The lack of access requires teachers to provide students with other useful resources, such as paper handouts.

District leaders need to spearhead efforts to make bandwidth available throughout the community. Wi-Fi hotspots at local businesses, YMCAs and foundations are all potential places where students could go after school to continue their learning. In some states, districts are partnering with internet providers to boost local bandwidth.

“Our nation has a funding and bandwidth crisis,” says Krueger, adding that the networks in rural districts are “grossly inadequate.”

Privacy: everybody’s business

Whether students are accessing digital resources at home or school, they are leaving a trail of data, making privacy another top concern in 2015. Policymakers, parents, school board members and state legislators are asking questions about what data is being collected as teachers and students use online apps with increasing frequency.

Fletcher says that parents should know what is being collected, be able to see it, and know who has access to it. “Transparency would go a long way to alleviate their concerns, and many school districts don’t have policies around that,” he says. “If the concerns are not alleviated, then we’re in danger of being pushed back decades in terms of technology use.”

Keeping the data pipeline open, and safeguarded, gives districts the chance to start improving outcomes, says Einhorn.

The right data and analytical tools let teachers analyze not just content understanding, but also the effectiveness of a particular learning activity. District leaders can identify effective practices and, in turn, strengthen those methods by creating more professional learning opportunities.

Shift in conversation

Schools in 2015 will spend less time discussing whether technology has a role in instruction—Einhorn believes that question is mostly resolved by the intense push for using Common Core.

“Once you have devices available for assessment, there is a greater impetus to look at them for other uses in the classroom,” she says. “There is also a greater understanding that this (use of devices) is what our kids know. They don’t even have a ‘before tech’ landscape to compare it to.”

But the question of how to best use technology to improve learning remains. Years ago, communities nationwide pressured schools to start buying all kinds of technology, says Brian Lewis, the CEO of ISTE. Today, educators are talking about how to use that technology effectively, Lewis says. “More districts are taking their time, doing a pilot study, and making sure they have a team of people in place so they can build in the likelihood of success and tie technology to learning.”

Comprehensive planning includes financing, establishing policies, ensuring a strong connection between technology and curriculum, and providing opportunities for professional learning. The latter will require the most attention in 2015.

“As educators, we want to create environments where students feel comfortable to literally and/or figuratively raise their hands and ask for help,” Lewis says. “We haven’t been truly successful yet creating that same environment for teachers.”

An emerging model for professional development is leveraging the same social media and collaboration tools that students are using. Online courses and virtual communities give teachers immediate access to self-directed learning, and avenues to learn from their peers.

“Social media has created a shift in how we learn, and we need to model that,” Einhorn says. “Teachers need more opportunities to have self-directed professional development opportunities.”

Whether the tools are for teachers or students, there’s always a chance someone will feel a technology curve ball was thrown at them.

“There will always be surprises in the technologies that come out and how they are adapted for use in schools,” Fletcher says. “We always have to be mindful about what helps kids, and what helps kids learn.”

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