Ed-Tech Policy

How Digital Learning Is Reshaping Education

By Benjamin Herold & Sean Cavanagh — July 07, 2015 6 min read
Jason Meyer, of Epson, displays the company’s Augmented Reality Sandbox, which allows users to transform a topographical map in real time.
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Leadership, professional development, and hands-on “maker” education were on the minds of nearly 20,000 educational technology enthusiasts who converged here last week for the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE. Education Week Associate Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writers Benjamin Herold and Michele Molnar were on hand to cover the gadgets, policies, and teaching trends that are reshaping digital learning.

‘Homework Gap’ Garners Attention

Fresh off a major victory in overhauling and expanding the federal E-rate program, proponents of educational technology are turning their attention to a trio of policy issues they say could threaten the spread of personalized digital learning. Chief among them: expanding out-of-school access to high-speed broadband. “The ‘homework gap’ is the cruelest part of our new digital divide,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, speaking at ISTE.

Ms. Rosenworcel cited research suggesting that 70 percent of teachers assign homework requiring online access, even though one-third of households do not subscribe to broadband.

The ed-tech community has reason for hope, however. Advocacy groups played a big role in the successful effort to increase by $1.5 billion the annual cap on the federal E-rate program, which helps subsidize telecommunications services and broadband for schools and libraries.

Now the challenge is to move from improved connectivity in schools to expanded access at home, said Ms. Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee to the commission.

A bust of Benjamin Franklin sits in a 3-D scanner and printer exhibited by Tinkerine.

The FCC voted last month to invite public comments on a proposal that would restructure the federal “Lifeline” program, which subsidizes phone service to low-income households. Under the proposal, recipients would have the choice of applying their subsidies to either phone or broadband service.

Expanded Wi-Fi is also important, Ms. Rosenworcel said, as well as future approval of a newly proposed federal competitive-grant program that seeks to identify and expand “innovative broadband access programs that are popping up around the country.”

Putting wireless hot spots on school buses or allowing mobile hot spots to be checked out of public libraries can be “the difference between [a student] keeping up in class or falling behind,” she said.

–Benjamin Herold

3-D Technologies Draw Hype, Skeptics

From 3-D printing to holograms to the emerging wave of virtual-reality headsets, three-dimensional technologies continue to capture the imaginations of some K-12 educators. That range—and a set of older tools, including a shoebox full of 3-D glasses from the past few decades—were on display at ISTE.

“It’s really all about visualization,” said Len Scrogan, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado-Denver and a former technology director for the state’s 30,000-student Boulder Valley schools.

“We aimed 3-D at the most stubborn, difficult learning problems where kids stumble all the time,” he said. “Never use 3-D for what’s easy to learn or easy to teach.”

The focus in Mr. Scrogan’s session, titled “Depth-Defying Learning: Exploring the Top 10 3-D Developments,” was less about pedagogy than about cool tools, however.

Take, for example, a new virtual-reality desktop tool from the Silicon Valley company zSpace, which displayed its wares during the session.

Users sit in front of a large flat-screen monitor. They wear special glasses and hold a stylus that is connected to the display. The product combines stereoscopic imaging technology (to give a 3-D view), head-tracking technology (to move the object being viewed around in response to the user’s motions), and the ability to manipulate objects using the stylus.

Betsy McDonald, a design and programming teacher at North Carolina’s private Cary Academy, tested an application that lets users explore an animated 3-D human heart. Using the glasses and the stylus, she could rotate the heart and bring it “closer” to her eyes, feel its beating in her hand (via the stylus), and unpeel layers to see the organ’s inner workings.

While it was undoubtedly engaging, Ms. McDonald said, it wasn’t immediately evident how useful a classroom tool the zSpace technology would be.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond the bells and whistles,” she said.

–Benjamin Herold

Ed-Tech Coaches Get Blunt Advice

The job of the school technology “coach” is to help teachers and administrators become comfortable, competent, and—ideally—creative working with digital tools. If only it were that simple.

In practice, the job requires flexibility, toughness, and a lot of diplomatic skills, said Alyssa Tormala, an English teacher and instructional-tech coach at the private St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Ore. She offered tips to a roomful of district educators and tech specialists.

Tech coaches are often expected to know how to fix any breakdown with any device, or any loss of connectivity—and right away. They’re expected to introduce new technologies and devices, and work with teachers eager to learn, and those who are resistant. In some school districts, they juggle those duties with teaching too, as is the case with Ms. Tormala. Among her recommendations for school tech coaches:

3Doodler displays its 3-D drawing tool.

• Work as “informed collaborators.” Make it clear teachers must know the technology—though they may not claim to be experts on everything about it—and they should be comfortable trading ideas about how to use it with classroom educators.

• Find your “village.” Coaches need help from administrators and teachers who will support them and urge them to keep going with important tech projects in the face of resistance.

• Keep professional development short, engaging, and choice-based.

• Know what your job is and is not. Some tech coaches are asked to be the fix-it people for nearly everything in a school. “Stand firm” and tell administrators not to dump other tasks on them.

• When working with teachers, sell them on why the tools they’re being asked to master will help instruction and learning.

“It needs to be a program of invitation and attraction,” Ms. Tormala said.

–Sean Cavanaugh

Students Helping Local Communities

Even though it’s mostly adults at ISTE, students did make appearances. Here are two student technology projects highlighted at the conference:

Building a Database for Kentucky Farmers

In her three years in the Student Technology Leadership Club at Maurice Bowling Middle School in Kentucky’s 1,800-student Owen County school system, 10-year-old Sydney Cobb has learned a lot: How to use iMovie. How to produce a newscast. How to build a database. How to work with QR codes.

But what Sydney really loves about all that technology is how it’s helping her rural community. The club’s first project was building a database to track the health history of cattle raised on local farms. The students paired the database with QR-code tags that can be attached to the cows’ ears, so any farmer with a smartphone can get an instant read on the medical history of any cow he or she comes across.

More recently, the group has produced short videos for local farms, in the hope of promoting the markets where they sell their produce. Sydney is hooked, in part because the benefits of her newfound interest in technology have been tangible.

“Originally, I just had a Kindle,” she said. “Now, I have a computer and a phone.”

Teenage ‘Geek Squad’ Showcases Skills

“We’re like the Geek Squad,” said 17-year old Caroline Espinal, a senior at In-Tech Academy in the Bronx borough of New York. She was referring to the mouse Corps, a multischool after-school club that pulls together technology-minded students from around the New York City area.

The program’s focus is on applied design and technology. For Caroline and her peers, that has meant spending the past year creating assistive technologies to help adults with cerebral palsy. At ISTE, the students showed off a hacked joystick mapped to an-onscreen keyboard. The device allowed an adult with limited use of only her right hand—for whom the mouse Corps was designing—to type and navigate a mouse with ease.

To get there, the group ordered a video-game joystick online, then hacked its software so it would work for their purposes. They also coded their own on-screen keyboard using Flash and Action Script.

–Benjamin Herold

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as ISTE Conference Examines How Tech Is Reshaping Education


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