Here are six new ed-tech innovations you should know about
Each week, I’ll highlight new ed-tech innovations that readers should be aware of. This week’s column includes a next-generation wireless infrastructure, more powerful voice recognition software, a blended learning curriculum to prepare students for college, and a device that could help prevent cell phone cheating on exams.
Control app use over your Wi-Fi network
On March 12, Aruba Networks  unveiled a new Wi-Fi architecture that gives school leaders tremendous visibility and control of the apps their students are using on a wireless network.
Aruba’s latest Wi-Fi access points include what the company calls a Next-Generation Mobility Firewall that uses advanced deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to identify more than 1,500 applications being used on the network.
Using Aruba’s Wi-Fi network management software, school leaders can set very granular policies for which apps their students have access to, as well as where—and when—this access can occur. IT leaders can allow or deny access to certain apps for certain groups of students, or “throttle” service for certain types of apps in order to maximize their wireless bandwidth.
This ability could be extremely useful when schools roll out online Common Core testing next year, said Kezia Gollapudi, product marketing manager for Aruba’s K-12 business. For instance, if students are taking Common Core exams in one classroom, school leaders could set their wireless infrastructure to throttle video applications in adjacent classrooms during this time, to make sure the testing occurs uninterrupted.
IT leaders can control access to certain types of resources based on users’ roles—for instance, allowing access to social media sites for students in upper grades, while denying this for students in lower grades—or based on location (that is, by specific access points). What’s more, a feature called AirGroup allows teachers to control who has access to Apple TV devices without having to bother an IT administrator.
This degree of visibility and control over mobile apps has been available before in separate products, such as mobile device management software. But now, schools can enjoy these features directly within their wireless infrastructure from Aruba—making it a very cost-effective solution for schools, Gollapudi said.
(Next page: A low-cost entry into 802.11ac wireless access points; voice recognition software gets even more advanced; and a blended learning curriculum for college and career readiness)
More wireless innovations from Xirrus
Xirrus  has introduced new Wi-Fi access points that give schools a less expensive way to upgrade to the higher-bandwidth 802.11ac technology that just became available last year.
The company also offers a creative solution for boosting wireless bandwidth on a temporary basis, which is another solution that could help with online Common Core testing.
Xirrus’ new XR-620 access points are capable of supporting 800 megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth out of the box, said Bruce Miller, vice president of product marketing. That’s about two-thirds of the full capability of 802.11ac technology—but it’s twice the performance of current 802.11n technology.
What’s more, the access points are programmable to support full 802.11ac speeds with a simple software upgrade, Miller said. So, for the cost of standard “n” technology, schools can have better wireless performance immediately, he said—with a low-cost way to upgrade even further when they’re ready.
Xirrus also sells what it calls a Common Core Testing Kit that is perfect for schools in need of a short-term boost in wireless bandwidth, such as when they’re deploying online testing. This “rapid deployment kit” is quick to set up; all you need are a power outlet and an Ethernet connection.
The kit, which costs about $2,500, consists of a four-antenna wireless array on a tripod. It supports 1.8 gigabits per second of bandwidth, or enough for “a few hundred” students to take online exams, Miller said. It can be moved easily from room to room and also can be set up outside, for outdoor events.
Voice recognition software becomes more powerful
Nuance Communications  has released Dragon Dictate 4 for the Mac, the latest version of its speech-to-text software for Macintosh computers. With this software, users now can transcribe audio from any speaker, and not just themselves, Nuance says. They also can control Gmail using just their voice.
The new transcription feature can transcribe text of a single speaker from pre-recorded audio files in many different formats, such as .mp3, .mp4, and .wav. This is a useful feature for creating and posting transcriptions of class lectures or podcasts. The audio must be high quality, though, such as a recording of a teacher wearing a microphone.
You can use any audio file to “train” the software to recognize that speaker’s voice; the program transcribes the first 90 seconds or so of the audio, and as you make corrections, it “learns” that speaker’s nuances and creates a unique profile for him or her, just as it does for the software’s primary user.
In addition, Dragon Dictate for Mac lets you control your Gmail inbox within the Safari or Firefox browser with a few simple voice commands. While this feature is also available in the latest Windows version of Dragon Dictate, v12.5, the transcription service is unique to the Mac version for now.
Dragon Dictate for the Mac normally costs $199, but education pricing is $129 for an individual license and $1,499 for a school license.
New blended curriculum prepares students for college
While 93 percent of middle school students list college as a goal, only 44 percent ultimately enroll in a postsecondary institution, according to the Educational Policy Improvement Center.
To help close this “aspiration gap,” particularly among students who would be first in their family to attend college, Hobsons  has released a new blended learning product called the Naviance College and Career Readiness Curriculum.
“We’re providing an affordable means for even the most under-resourced schools and districts to deliver a comprehensive and compelling college counseling solution at scale to all their middle and high school students,” said Steve Smith, president of Hobsons’ K-12 division, in a press release.
The curriculum broadens students’ perspectives of what is possible while instilling the behaviors they’ll need to succeed in college and beyond, such as time management, confidence, and perseverance. Developed in collaboration with Roadtrip Nation, it includes a sequence of 105 multimedia lessons for students in grades 6-12, including videos featuring students who have successfully made the transition from high school to college. Lessons also show students how to navigate the college process and what it takes to enroll.
Through pre- and post-assessments, schools can gauge how prepared students are for college at each grade level; teachers and other staff can use this information to identify students who need more support.
School leaders can learn more about the curriculum by signing up for a free demo or calling (866) 337-0080.
(Next page: Software that combines classroom, asset, power, and network management in a single package—and a solution for curbing cell phone cheating)
Software that can manage students, networks, and more—in one system
Impero Solutions , a U.K. company, offers a program called Impero Education Pro, which combines the features of several types of software in one system.
Here are some of the software’s capabilities…
• Classroom management: Impero Education Pro helps keep students safe and on task while they’re online. Teachers can see their students’ computer screens, and they can block, control, or broadcast screens remotely—putting the teacher in control of the lesson.
• Real-time monitoring: A keyword detection system alerts teachers to potential risk. The software ships with a built-in “abuse library” that can be customized with additional terms suggesting at-risk behavior—gang activity, bullying, child abuse, suicidal thoughts, and the like—and teachers receive an alert if any of these terms is mentioned over the school’s network.
• Network management: The program can save time by automating software patches and letting IT staff take control of users’ machines to resolve tech-support issues. Administrators also can set parameters for internet and application usage, and they can get detailed reports showing who’s been doing what on the network.
• Print management: School leaders can set limits and can track users’ printing activity.
• Power management: The software can power down any devices on the network according to a set schedule, or whenever the devices are idle. Using this feature alone, schools could see a return on their investment within six to eight months, said Impero Managing Director Jon Valentine.
• Software auditing: The program indicates the number of software licenses in use, so you can share these among various devices without exceeding legal limits.
• Asset management: An automated inventory feature can tell you the status of devices on your network, making auditing simple and helping with lifecycle planning. Reports include the usage patterns of each machine, helping you make better purchasing decisions.
These features are available in many other software programs as well, but few—if any—combine them all in a single system.
The management console requires Windows XP or above, though it can monitor and support any desktop OS—and support for Android devices is coming later this year. Impero Education Pro costs less than $30 per seat, per year; about 450 U.S. school districts are currently using the product.
Stop cell phone cheating with PocketHound
As more students own smart phones and other mobile devices, academic integrity is a subject that many school leaders are wrestling with.
The New Jersey-based wireless security firm Berkeley Varitronics Systems  has a possible solution: It’s a pocket-sized cell phone detector that can tell when students are using a cellular signal when they shouldn’t be.
The PocketHound , which costs $499, is about the same size and weight as a deck of cards. When the device picks up a cellular signal, it will vibrate—and the blue LEDs on the top will light up.
The indoor range of the PocketHound varies, depending on the number of walls and the construction of the building. But in an open area, the detection range can extend as far as 75 feet, says Berkeley Varitronics CEO Scott Schober.
If a cell phone is in “Airplane” mode, it won’t transmit a cellular signal—but it still could be used to access information stored on the device. In that case, the PocketHound wouldn’t detect this activity. Still, it offers a way to ensure that students aren’t texting each other during exams.
Follow Dennis Pierce on Twitter: @eSN_Dennis .