Researchers identify key ed-tech trends

Widespread adoption of one-to-one computing programs and the growing use of online assessments are among the key ed-tech trends occurring in schools across the country, according to the 2008 America’s Digital Schools report. However, implementation of these and other technologies leaves little funding for new initiatives, and bandwidth issues are limiting the scope of interaction students can have with technology.

The report, conducted by Thomas W. Greaves of The Greaves Group and Jeanne Hayes of The Hayes Connection, isolates the most important ways in which technology is changing teaching and learning and identifies the implications of those changes for the future.

The results were compiled from a survey of more than 400 school administrators between April and September 2007.

Besides one-to-one computing and online assessment, the report identifies and examines new computing devices, interactive whiteboards, learning management systems (LMS), and growing bandwidth needs as other key trends on the rise in schools.

"…District-level respondents make it clear that these six trends are becoming increasingly entrenched, indicating that America’s Digital Schools are moving beyond the concept stage and becoming a reality," says the report. "Understanding the trends and their implications is increasingly important for educators, policy makers, and industry alike–to help them make plans, maximize opportunities, and avoid pitfalls."

One-to-one computing programs–defined here as programs that provide full-time personal computing devices for all students in at least one whole grade level, and not simply mobile laptop carts–have improved dramatically in the last few years, the report notes. Professional development has improved, teachers are more involved, and hardware failures have been reduced.

In 2006, 30 percent of districts reported moderate to significant improvement in one-to-one computing programs. In 2007, this number climbed to 78.7 percent. Consequently, the average district pilot program has climbed to include 1,631 students. Forty percent of one-to-one pilots include more than 1,000 students, and 10 percent include more than 5,000 students.

Implementation also is more widespread, with 27 percent of districts reporting their involvement with one-to-one computing programs. Thirty-one percent of district pilot programs involve three or more schools, meaning these districts have moved beyond the initial stages and are on the path toward system-wide implementation.

For Hayes, the most positive finding of the report was this improvement in one-to-one computing programs. "They’re bigger, in more schools in a district, and are being evaluated more closely and for longer," she said. "This is good news, suggesting that one-to-one computing is not a fad, but has lasting efficacy."

David Underhill, principal of Bayshore High School in Manatee County, Fla., believes that one-to-one computing can only be successful through teacher ownership. "If teachers are presented with the new machines without any prior involvement in the decision, the program probably won’t succeed," he said. "But if teachers have an opportunity to learn about the program early in the process and provide input, they feel brought in–and the picture totally changes."

Another trend on the rise is online formative assessment, with 30 percent of districts employing this strategy. According to the report, a key reason for this trend is that schools are now more data-driven and more careful to ensure that assessment is driving instruction. Hayes and Greaves believe the widespread availability of high-quality online assessment software and test items will allow this trend to accelerate in the future.

"The use of … online assessments [is] exploding," Hayes said. "That suggests a real improvement in using tests to help students learn what they don’t know, rather than beat them over the head–after the fact–about what they don’t know."

The only major inhibitor to online assessment, according to survey respondents, is the lack of suitable student devices with which to take the exams. However, Hayes and Greaves believe this hindrance will be solved in the next few years with lower-end devices now coming to the market–yet another trend noted by the report.

For instance, the report reveals that vendors are racing to ship sub-laptop devices into schools, segmenting the market for mobile computing devices into traditional laptops, student appliances, handheld devices, personal digital assistants, smart phones, and Wi-Fi enabled music/video devices.

Yet, vendors still have a long way to go before the ideal student device emerges, the report suggests. For instance, "survey respondents indicate that they require an average battery life of eight hours, but today the average is less than four," it states.

Another finding is that interactive whiteboards (IWBs) are now viewed as "standard equipment" in schools. The report predicts that IWBs will be in nearly every school five years from now. As with one-to-one computing, this widespread implementation can be credited to educators who are comfortable with the technology and with IWB improvements.

Just in the last few years, the report notes, IWB innovations have included:
– Boards that support multiple, simultaneous input devices;
– Improved classroom ergonomics;
– Integration with other classroom technologies, including student response units and mobile computing devices;
– A trend toward very specific software, such as for high school algebra, calculus, et cetera; and
– A more mature purchasing process–districts now know what they want, and order sizes are increasing as schools move from pilot programs to full-scale rollouts.

While one-to-one computing, online assessment, and interactive whiteboards are examples of successful ed-tech trends, another key trend–the growing use of LMS software in schools–hasn’t fully realized its potential, the report suggests. While the number of school districts using LMS software climbed to nearly 50 percent of respondents, with another 19 percent indicating plans for future use, schools "frequently take less than full advantage of the available applications," the report says.

These applications include school portals, teacher authoring, electronic assignments, electronic supplements, electronic core curriculum, and content management.

The report suggests that educators might need time to take full advantage of all new features, because in the past, districts were faced with two alternatives, "neither of which met all their needs–either a highly sophisticated LMS with good educational content but no ability to add other applications, or an open LMS from the university world with no K-12 content."

Now, proprietary systems are opening up, and "the open standards systems are maturing, giving schools K-12 features such as the ability to search for content using state standards tags," says the report.

The final trend–internet bandwidth–remains in a state of crisis, according to the report.

What’s more, although awareness of inadequate connectivity has risen substantially among educators, this crisis is evolving and intensifying. School administrators who were surveyed revealed that the average amount of bandwidth needed per student has climbed some 123 percent from year to year.

Schools are dealing with the problem by using optical-based solutions that expand data at a lower cost per megabit than copper solutions, and by adding bandwidth shaping and metering services.

The crisis also is intensifying, according to school leaders, because 54 percent of districts foresee a problem obtaining sufficient funding, regardless of the source (local, state, or E-rate). Forty-three percent foresee a problem with E-rate funding levels in particular.

Says the report, "The prevailing opinion is that E-rate funding will remain capped at $2.25 billion a year. As demand goes up, the percentage of reimbursement [that each school system receives] will go down. Since we are facing another funding shortfall cycle where states are projecting teacher layoffs, the possibility of increased bandwidth funds is slim."

Thirty-seven percent of districts foresee a problem obtaining sufficient bandwidth regardless of their ability to pay. Two-thirds of those polled say they have implemented a policy to restrict the use of certain applications in order to conserve bandwidth–including banning streaming video.

Hayes says she finds it striking that technology directors would choose to restrict or prohibit the use of video streaming and other media as a solution to limited bandwidth. "This seems to be the opposite of the objective that we should be striving for–to create a ‘real-world’ environment with all media used to help kids learn," she said.

Another disheartening trend, according to Hayes, "seems to be a serious shortage of tech support, which makes support of new initiatives very difficult. Schools continue to lag behind businesses in terms of tech personnel." (See "Schools need help with tech support.")

She continued: "If technology is going to be a full-time partner in digital learning with teachers, it has to be accessible and fixed ASAP if there’s a problem. The shortage of staff to help teachers limits further growth. The current economy suggests a concern about budget cuts in technology, as well as in other areas; many IT directors tell us that new programs cost too much when they are struggling to support the programs they already have."


America’s Digital Schools 2008 Report

The Hayes Connection

The Greaves Group

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom

Meris Stansbury

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