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School technology trends in 3D

Revolutionary printers, remote labs, and augmented reality forecast for K12 technology
Prince William County Public Schools is beginning to use technology to tailor instruction to individual students.

Open content, electronic textbooks, personalized learning, cloud technology and learning analytics are emerging technologies that K12 administrators will integrate into schools over the next few years, according to the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report on tech trends.

In addition, the report, which was released in June, predicts that within five years schools will be using even more far-out technology, including virtual labs, wearable technology, 3D printers and “augmented reality.”

Here’s a breakdown of the tech trends schools are seeing now and what’s coming in the near future:

Open content, electronic publishing

“Open content,” which refers to classes, lessons, and other educational programs that are free over the internet, often can be easily customized. “There are large networks of information and lesson plans that teachers share widely,” says Larry Johnson, chief executive officer of The New Media Consortium (NMC). Networks, such as, offer free searchable databases of lesson plans in PDF format on various topics.

But schools are already facing challenges with open content. “We never heard anybody talk about content filtering in schools before we went digital,” says Casey Wardynski, superintendent of Huntsville (Ala.) City Schools. “Now filters are blocking people from having access to things they want from open data.”

And schools are wary of violating the Child Internet Protection Act when using YouTube and Google, Wardynski says.

At the same time, schools are adapting to electronic textbooks, though they aren’t yet widely used. “Electronic publishing provides for interactivity. There can be videos and lots of things besides text and pictures,” says Johnson.

K12 schools also are using tools like iBook Author to make their own textbooks. Dave Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton (Mich.) Community Schools, has invited education students from nearby Hope College to use his district’s data and work with its teachers to create iBooks. The teachers-in-training gain valuable career experience and the district gets content designed for specific groups of students.

CIOs can work with curriculum and professional development specialists to support educators in using open content, says Leslie Conery, interim chief education officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. In electronic publishing, CIOs can work with the curriculum team to stay informed about options and the technology requirements to support the use of online materials, she says.

“Perhaps more importantly, CIOs can focus on making sure that every student has on-demand access to a mobile device to access the online resources,” says Conery.

Adaptive, personalized learning

Adaptive and personalized learning technologies will use online assessments and other tools to tailor curriculum to students’ learning needs. Adaptive learning likely won’t take hold for another two years or more, Johnson says. The push will come from large publishers, like Pearson, that will create adaptive learning programs as school districts find the technology suits their students.

Once the technology takes root, schools will be able to transform traditional teaching approaches to better support individual students, who also will be taught to use online resources to learn on their own. However, not all the tools are yet developed, Johnson says. Amplify Education, for example, is developing multimedia tools for a range of devices to deliver content suited to specific students. But based on a marketing video on the company’s own site, the technology still has a long way to go.

Some schools and teachers are already improvising. Lisa Gustinelli, who is the NMC K12 ambassador and teacher at Saint Andrew’s School in Florida, says her students are making videos with iMovie and using a laptop-based paint program to illustrate what they have just read in Latin class.

By taking an intuitive approach, Gustinelli, who also is a member of NMC Horizon Project K12 Advisory Board, offers her students adaptive learning now while schools wait for the technology to arrive.

Prince William County (Va.) Schools hopes to use personalized learning with a mobile device management system from Airwatch, which the district is piloting now, and hopes to implement this fall. “It will allow for easier device management and allow us to target apps to push down to the students’ iPads and tablets to meet their individual learning needs,” says AJ Phillips, the district’s supervisor of Instructional Technology services.

Prince William County also is moving toward implementing Google Apps for Education for middle and high school students to access assignments from home, turn in assignments virtually, and for teachers and students to work collaboratively on lessons, documents, and projects, says Phillips.

Many of its schools use the Interactive Achievement and Success Maker software programs to gather data to tailor learning to students’ individual needs, Phillips explains. “I work closely with our office of instructional technology services to choose the best technology that will enhance student learning and content knowledge,” says Phillips.

Learning analytics

This technology turns an older trend into something new for classrooms. For many years, online tools like Google Analytics have been telling web managers how many unique visitors they are getting and how much time users are spending on their sites, along with reams of other valuable data.

Within the the next two years, learning analytics will use pieces of information from various sources to measure a student’s progress in real time. Some of the information might be entered by teachers and some might come from assessments that students complete online; still more might come from students tracking their own progress, Conery said.

“The technology is available as applied to the business world and to some limited uses in higher education and in K12,” Conery says. “However, the powerful application of learning analytics or ‘big data’ to education is still on the horizon.”

Still, the Prince William County district is pushing beyond today’s limits, Phillips says. “Everything we do is based on data. We have a data warehouse,” says Phillips. “Every student’s grades, testing, scores, everything is uploaded into that and then that’s pushed down to the school so they can analyze all the way down to individual students, see how they’re doing, and tailor the learning in the classroom to meet that student’s needs.”

Phillips’ office helps maintain and prepare state reports for the data warehouse in collaboration with the state Office of Accountability, which helps the district’s administration achieve strategic goals and meet state and federal requirements, Phillips says. Further, the data analysis and reporting section of the state office aggregates and disseminates data in reports on which the district’s board and school administrators can make decisions.

Virtual and remote laboratories

Labs that are virtual and remote enable students to conduct experiments in online or distant labs. This saves money for schools, which no longer have to build their own facilities. “Virtual and remote labs allow schools to have access to things we don’t have sitting here in front of them,” says Tebo, whose district has some science teachers using the labs.

Through remote labs, students access expensive, specialized equipment that the school cannot afford. Virtual labs also allow students to experiment in safe environments. “The district CIO’s investment is in finding examples of virtual labs and making sure that local educators know what is possible. The investment is in time, not a cash outlay,” Conery says.

Some examples of virtual labs come from the HP Catalyst Project, including the Hands-on Information Technology Virtual Laboratory and Project Access, and K12, the online learning company. For example, K12 describes virtual labs in part as part of science lessons. It is used as a tool for observing and collecting data, and which is immersed in instruction using such technology like videos and animations.

3D printing

Though forecasted for the four- to five-year time frame, 3D printers are already here. Groundbreaking three-dimensional printers—which take virtual designs and lay down material such as liquid, powder, or metal to build a real-life model within hours—may revolutionize manufacturing and education. “I think that’s going to be a big one,” Gustinelli says.

Right now, students taking an engineering class at Mahtomedi High School in Mahtomedi (Minn.) School District can literally make almost anything—from chess pieces to DVD cases to clocks—using their classroom’s 3D printer. And at the Limestone County Career Technical Center in Alabama, local high school students are using 3D printers to design and build products, teaching them about different engineering approaches to problems, Johnson says.

Three-dimensional printers are affordable and most large cities in the U.S., Europe and the developed world already have 10 to 12, Johnson says, which they use in K12 schools in shop class and in business incubators. “You can get a 3D printer, if you build it yourself using a kit with parts and instructions, for under $1,000, or be completely ready to go out of the box for about $2,500,” says Johnson.

The CIO’s role also is to find money to train teachers to use 3D printers. More funds may be found in big manufacturing states.

Wearing technology, new ‘reality’

Wearable technology includes any accessories, jewelry, or clothing that are embedded with computer chips, GPS trackers and other electronics.

“Initially, the uses in teaching and learning are going to be to protect kids. That’s where we’re going to see it in schools,” says Johnson. “The kids are going to be wearing it, bringing it in to school. In the same way that we need to figure out cell phones and how to integrate that technology in schools, we’re going to have to sort all that out with wearable technology as well.”

GPS bracelets are already on the market. “Wearable technology already has big applications in health and sports, and investing in such technology makes sense for districts with strong sports programs today and even more so in the next couple of years,” says Johnson. K12 examples in sports include footballs embedded with computer chips and accelerometers to determine whether players may have suffered a hit hard enough to cause a concussion, explains Johnson. Health applications in K12 include wearable cardiometers for students taking part in track and field.

Augmented reality, which will enable students to view real-world environments or virtual environments in some multimedia format with sound, video, and graphics added, will also be wearable. “We’re about to see a bunch of new devices come out that will enable that,” says Johnson. “It used to require a lot of bulky materials, and now, by summer, Google Glass will be added and that will be the first big implementation of it.”

Google Glass, which costs $5,000 per device, is a camera, display, map, touchpad, battery and microphone built into spectacle frames. Users can perch a display in their field of vision, film, take pictures, search and translate languages, according to It could one day be used as a user-friendly experience for learning in augmented environments, including field trips.

David Geer is a freelance writer based in Ohio.