Technology in Education
The rapid and constant pace of change in technology is creating both opportunities and challenges for schools.
The opportunities include greater access to rich, multimedia content, the increasing use of online coursetaking to offer classes not otherwise available, the widespread availability of mobile computing devices that can access the Internet, the expanding role of social networking tools for learning and professional development, and the growing interest in the power of digital games for more personalized learning.
At the same time, the pace of change creates significant challenges for schools. To begin with, schools are forever playing technological catch up as digital innovations emerge that require upgrading schools’ technological infrastructure and building new professional development programs. Some schools have been adept at keeping up with those changes, while many others are falling far behind, creating a digital divide based largely on the quality of educational technology, rather than just simple access to the Internet.
The rapid evolution of educational technologies also makes it increasingly challenging to determine what works best. Longitudinal research that takes years to do risks being irrelevant by the time it is completed because of shifts in the technological landscape. The iPad, for instance, became popular in schools soon after it was released and well before any research could be conducted about its educational effectiveness.
Following is a look at some of the hottest issues and trends in educational technology and how they are creating opportunities and challenges for K-12 schools.
Schools and districts continue to battle to keep pace with ever increasing demands to upgrade their technological infrastructure. But the demands themselves have changed during the past decade, from a focus on simply gaining connectivity to finding enough bandwidth to run more complex applications in classrooms such as, for example, streaming audio and video.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 97 percent of schools across the country had Internet connectivity as of 2010 (FCC, 2010). Far fewer, however, were able to successfully meet the need for higher speed access, the FCC said, citing that demand as one reason it unveiled its National Broadband Plan in March 2010. In October of the same year, it also revised the E-Rate, the federal program that subsidizes school purchases for Internet connectivity, to allow schools to use E-Rate dollars to gain connectivity via dark fiber networks, among other reforms. The stated theory behind the reform was that by allowing more options for connectivity, schools could in theory gain more bandwidth while at the same time drive down cost because increasing the speed of fiber networks generally involves a one-time upgrade rather than consistent, periodic expenditures to secure more bandwidth via other connections.
Yet even before all this action had a chance to take effect, it appeared some schools were already making progress meeting infrastructure demands on their own. For example, data released in the spring of 2011 as part of the ongoing Speak Up research by Project Tomorrow found that restrictive Internet filtering was the top student complaint about Web use in 2010. Five years earlier, the chief complaint was connectivity speed. And anecdotal evidence suggests more schools are providing, or at least considering providing, high-speed wireless networks on their campuses, and reaping savings in some cases by allowing students who own their own laptops, netbooks, or mobile phones to use those devices rather than purchase new school hardware.
But because technology infrastructure needs vary widely between districts, and indeed between schools within the same districts, the federal government’s perceived desire to focus its efforts as a facilitator of infrastructure access has become somewhat controversial among education technology advocates. This was especially evident when it became clear that the Enhancing Education Through Technology, or EETT, program, was in jeopardy. The program, which was initially funded at $700 million annually but had dropped to $100 million by 2010, was the only federal program within the U.S. Department of Education’s general funding devoted specifically to education technology. It was defunded as part of a federal budget compromise in the spring of 2011 (Education Week, April 29, 2011).
In an interview after his appearance at the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference in New Orleans in March of 2011, White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra reiterated the stance of President Obama’s administration and the U.S. Department of Education beneath it that being facilitators of technology access was the best and perhaps most practical goal of the federal government in lean economic times (Digital Education, March 15, 2011). By contrast, organizations such as the Consortium for School Networking, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the International Society for Technology in Education, united on several occasions to voice their stance that investment in access and infrastructure was wasted without support for programs like EETT, which was designed to direct up to 40 percent of its funds toward professional development needs.
Huge differences in technology infrastructure remain among schools in the United States. And while chief technology officers generally say that school infrastructure is improving, many openly doubt that capability will catch up with demand, since new digital tools used in education are requiring ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth.
While there is much on-going research on new technologies and their effects on teaching and learning, there is little rigorous, large-scale data that makes for solid research, education experts say. The vast majority of the studies available are funded by the very companies and institutions that have created and promoted the technology, raising questions of the research’s validity and objectivity. In addition, the kinds of studies that produce meaningful data often take several years to complete—a timeline that lags far behind the fast pace of emerging and evolving technologies.
For example, it is difficult to pinpoint empirical data to support the case for mobile learning in schools—a trend that educators have been exploring for several years now—let alone data to support even newer technologies such as tablet computers like the iPad. The studies that do look at the effects of mobile technologies on learning are often based on small samples of students involved in short-term pilots, not the kind of large-scale, ongoing samples of students that educators and policymakers would like to see (Education Week, Feb. 23, 2011).
However, there are a handful of large-scale studies that do point to trends and observations in the education technology field. For example, Project RED, a research initiative linked closely with the One-to-One Institute, which supports one-to-one laptop initiatives in K-12 schools, released a study about successful implementation models of education technology in October 2010. That study found that most of the schools that have integrated laptops and other digital tools into learning are not maximizing the use of those devices in ways that best make use of their potential. The report goes on to outline the critical steps needed to capitalize on that potential (Project RED, 2010).
A meta-analysis of more than a thousand studies regarding online learning was released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009, followed by a revised version of the report in September 2010. That study concluded that students in online-only instruction performed modestly better than their face-to-face counterparts, and that students in classes that blended both face-to-face and online elements performed better than those in solely online or face-to-face instruction. However, the researchers cautioned that the vast majority of the studies in the meta-analysis were from students in higher education, and as a result, the conclusions drawn may not be applicable to K-12 education. In fact, a major finding of the meta-study was the severe lack of rigorous research studies regarding online learning in K-12 (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
The Speak Up survey, which is conducted annually by Project Tomorrow—a nonprofit research organization—and Blackboard, Inc., surveyed nearly 300,000 students, parents, teachers, and other educators about their views on technology in education. Findings from the 2010 survey found an increased interest from educators in mobile learning, as well as an increase in the number of students who own mobile devices such as smartphones, regardless of economic or demographic differences. The survey also found an increased interest in online learning and blended learning opportunities, as well as electronic textbooks.
While these studies represent some of the more large-scale research conducted in this field, education advocates emphasize the need for a wider range of well-researched, longitudinal, and ethically sound data on education technology.
Online learning in many forms is on the rise in schools of all types across the country. Students in many parts of the country now have a long list of choices when it comes to e-learning. The menu of options often includes full-time, for-profit virtual schools; state-sponsored virtual schools; supplemental online learning courses offered by brick-and-mortar schools; and charter schools presenting a hybrid option of digital material coupled with face-to-face instruction.
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, estimates that more than 1.5 million K-12 students were engaged in some form of online or blended learning in the 2009-10 school year. At the end of 2010, supplemental or full-time online learning opportunities were available in at least 48 of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia (iNACOL, 2010).
Options for full-time virtual schools are growing. Students from kindergarten through high school can seek out online schooling opportunities, which usually include virtual teachers and a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online learning (Education Week, June 15, 2011). These schools are starting to focus more on the issue of socialization for their students and some are incorporating more face-to-face instruction into their array of services to allow for student interaction both online and in person. They’re forming clubs, holding proms, and creating school newspapers.
At the end of 2010, 27 states plus the District of Columbia had full-time online schools serving students statewide, according to iNACOL’s report, “A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning.”
But full-time virtual schools also face the reality that for many students with two parents working outside the home such a scenario is not an option. Such students often cannot tap into full-time online schools for that reason, and virtual school providers acknowledge that their version of education works best, particularly in the lower grades, when an adult is present to assist.
In addition to courses that offer an online instructor, some researchers say students have had the most success with hybrid or blended education. That can mean that students use digital content with a face-to-face instructor, or an online instructor and an in-class teacher may work together to assist students. Hybrid charter schools, which use mostly digital curriculum with face-to-face support and instruction—sometimes even combined with an online teacher—are gaining a foothold in K-12.
At the same time, a growing number of students now have access to online courses in their brick-and-mortar schools. Schools are tapping into e-learning for a variety of reasons. Some schools say it saves money and allows them to offer a wider variety of courses, including Advanced Placement classes. Others say it can help with scheduling conflicts when a face-to-face class is provided only at a time when a student already has another obligation. In addition, online courses can provide highly qualified teachers for classes otherwise not offered by a school.
One of the fastest growing areas of e-learning, and a category that mainstream schools are increasingly turning to, is credit recovery. These online courses allow students to retake classes they haven’t passed, but in a new and different format. Many of these credit recovery courses give students a brief evaluation, then permit them to skip concepts they already know to focus on ideas they haven’t yet grasped. However, some educators and education experts have questioned the quality and academic rigor of these programs (Education Week, April 28, 2010).
So where are traditional schools getting these online courses? Some are developing their own, others are purchasing them from for-profit vendors and a growing number are able to tap into state virtual schools or state-led online learning initiatives that currently exist in 38 states. Some schools find it easier to use courses developed by a state-run virtual school, since it is already aligned with their state standards.
Increasing access, growing acceptance, and decreasing cost are all helping to make the use of mobile devices a popular and increasing trend within the world of educational technology.
While the digital divide between the affluent and disadvantaged still exists, mobile devices appear to have the potential to close it, at least in terms of access.
According to the “Horizon” report. The report predicts game-based learning will be widely adopted by mainstream classrooms within two to three years (New Media Consortium, 2011).
Instead of educational software, e.g. Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit, students and teachers are much more likely to incorporate Web-based educational games into classrooms, which are often available for free. The National Science Foundation has played a large role in providing funding for the research and development of Web-based science games such as Crystal Island—a game developed by the IntelliMedia Group at North Carolina State University where students investigate an infectious outbreak—and the River City Project—a multi-user virtual environment for science inquiry created by researchers at Harvard University (Education Week, March 17, 2011; Education Week, April 30, 2008).
Some educators hope that games and simulations will provide a way for students to picture themselves in career paths they may otherwise would not have chosen, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, and some argue that games and simulations offer students a way to connect what they are learning in class to (simulated) real-world situations in a safe and low-cost environment (Education Week, March 17, 2011).
Researchers have also found that games and simulations may help students learn by helping them visualize processes they otherwise could not see, such as the flow of an electron or the construction of a city. Games can also promote higher-order thinking skills, such as collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and teamwork (MIT, 2009; National Academies Press 2011).
However, creating a healthy marriage of an engaging and entertaining game with educational objectives and goals is a challenging process that has yet to be perfected. To create and design games with the kind of high-resolution graphics and complex situations that children are used to seeing in commercial games takes a large amount of funding and time that educators often do not have. And finding the time and resources to train teachers who may not be familiar with game-based learning is a challenge for most schools.
Despite these challenges, many educators and researchers are committed to developing educational games and incorporating game-based learning into classrooms across the United States.
Many schools are no longer debating whether social networking should play a role in education. Instead, that debate has shifted to what social networking tools work best and how to deploy them (Digital Directions, June 16, 2010).
Some schools are using mainstream social networking tools, like Facebook, for everything from promoting school events to organizing school clubs as well as for more academic purposes related to assignments and class projects.
But educators wary about security, advertising, information-sharing, and social interaction in such an environment are often seeking out social networks designed specifically for learning instead. These sites, like ePals and eChalk, are more restrictive, often allowing teachers and school officials to limit not only who can join, but who students can talk to and interact with. Some educators also say students seem to take these sites more seriously and treat them with a more academic focus and tone than they would a site they routinely use for socialization with their peers. These sites also often provide safety features that can detect foul language or bullying phrases and alert a teacher (Education Week, June 15, 2011).
Many educators say the academic benefits of social networking are real. They allow students to work cooperatively on projects in an online environment that feels familiar to students. Teachers often report that a student who does not speak up in class will be more engaged on a social networking site and that these sites allow instructors to extend the school day.
Educators have also taken to social networks for professional development. The social networking site Ning, for example, has a plethora of group sites organized around teaching a particular subject, like English literature or high school biology. In addition, Twitter has become a force in the professional development arena, with features such as EdChat, weekly one-hour conversations that take place around pre-arranged educational topics (Digital Directions, June 16, 2010).
Web 2.0 and other technology tools are making it quicker and easier than ever to create digital portfolios of student work—a method of showcasing student progress that experts say increases student engagement; promotes a continuing conversation about learning between teachers, parents, and students; and extends academic lessons beyond school walls (Education Week, March 17, 2011). New social networking tools to aid this are being developed and updated regularly.
Wikis and blogs allow students to work collaboratively and share their work with a limited or unlimited number of people. The video phone service Skype is also popular with teachers, particularly for allowing their students to connect with peers in other parts of the country or the world. Other tools, like VoiceThread, which archives and indexes images, videos, text and audio, are popular with all ages of students, including at the elementary level (Education Week, June 16, 2010).