Schools ride the next edtech wave

K12 sees effectiveness and efficiency increase with automatic grading, automated buildings
By: | December 14, 2016

As in years past, this new year will bring all sorts of new technology to schools. The question for educators is: To what degree do these technologies enhance education?

“Figuring out which tech belongs in education is just the start” says Kelly J. Calhoun, research director at Gartner Research, a Connecticut-based market analysis firm. “The real hard work is adapting it to help in the classroom.”

Hundreds of new technologies appear every decade, but only a few end up having a lasting impact on education. We pulled out District Administration’s crystal ball to forecast some of the major tech trends now gaining momentum. The seven scenarios that follow represent our ideas for how the next generation of hardware, software and services can have a positive impact on education.

“We’re often wrong when we try to predict the future” adds Calhoun, “but the act makes us think about what we need today and how we can provide it tomorrow. The thought process is what’s important.”

Online hand-in

Forget about paper worksheets, local networks and USB thumb drives. While we have not quite reached the paperless classroom stage, the future of homework lies in sophisticated learning management systems with online storage repositories.

When students transfer work to the online storage center, a notification pops up on the teacher’s dashboard. In addition to alerting teachers that the work has been turned in, the software can show who is late or who has missed assignments.

“This way nothing can fall into the cracks” says Calhoun. More to the point, connected schools can transfer this information to parents to let them know if their children are keeping up.

Timeline: Now

Super screens

Computer, phone and tablet screens have improved a lot in the past few years with resolution that rivals expensive TVs. It’s just the start, because most still use liquid crystal display panels that require a power-hungry light in back to illuminate the image.

Last year brought early organic light emitting diode (OLED) screens to tablets, but 2017 will see a proliferation of this technology. The key difference is that these displays not only create their own light and use less power, but they can be made thinner for super-skinny devices. For instance, Calhoun looks forward to when we’ll use tablets and notebooks that are just 0.2-inches thick.

Timeline: 2017

Go Blue (5.0)

The first four generations of Bluetooth have made it easy to connect wireless speakers, printers and a lab full of STEM sensors, without a cable in sight. The fifth-generation Bluetooth specification will arrive later this year and it promises to double peak data throughput and extend range four-fold for better reliability and a variety of new uses.

That’s just the start, because Bluetooth 5.0 can create “mesh-based micro-networks” that can cover the classroom. This technique lets each computer act like a wireless extender to connect with other nearby devices, which then connect with others, and so on.

Such daisy-chaining can link an entire classroom of computers together without adding to a school’s already burdened Wi-Fi network. But, as was the case with earlier Bluetooth versions, it will take years before all systems have these capabilities and can join in, says Mark Powell, executive director of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.

Timeline: Mid-2017

Mix and match

The Chromebook has taken the K12 classroom by storm because of its rugged designs and low price tag, but software has always been the platform’s Achilles heel. But that’s about to change as Google combines the software of Android tablets with Chromebooks.

You won’t need to choose between Android or Chromebook systems or get both platforms to cover all the bases. Chromebooks will do both.

Right now, the software works on a handful of Chromebook models, but later in 2017 Google will release its Andromeda software that allows most recent Chromebooks to use Android apps, from curriculum to student information systems to gradebooks.

“This opens a new world for students and teachers and expands the realm of instructional options at no additional cost” says Calhoun.

And Andromeda software will also lead to an increased emphasis on doing as much work as possible in the cloud.

Timeline: 2017

Internet of things in education

Someday everything in a school, from door locks and thermostats to lighting fixtures and surveillance cameras will be connected and remotely controllable by servers. When a teacher and students arrive for class, the door of the room automatically unlocks, the lights come on, the projector fires up and the air conditioner starts. That’s the internet-of-things vision for the classroom.

But not all computer-controlled components have enough power for this version of the future. For instance, you don’t want a door lock that is plugged in. Enter the University of Washington’s passive Wi-Fi.

Instead of a powerful wireless transmitter sucking up power in a device, the data it sends and receives piggybacks on existing Wi-Fi transmissions—like how a surfer rides a wave to shore.

It is a huge undertaking. Schools will have to wait for the components—such as door locks and thermostats—to be made and sold. That’s why low-power transmissions are so important: They can expand the internet of things in schools.

The result is moving Wi-Fi up to about 10 Mbps—plenty for command and control functions—using 10,000 times less power because the school’s existing Wi-Fi network moves the data.

It will take years for this to come to fruition. Plus, there’s an inherent risk to a fully connected school: Such devices are open to hacker attacks, as was seen last fall when routers and thermostats were used as web robots to overwhelm popular websites with a distributed denial-of-service attack. It’s what Gartner’s Calhoun calls IoT’s dark side. “Each device has to be secured and encrypted as if it were a desktop PC or tablet” she says.

Timeline: 2020

Think like a machine

We often take Amazon’s artificial intelligence suggestions for what to buy, and we often interact with robotic phone operators. Why not teach with AI?

While the notion of robot teachers has spawned a whole genre of dystopian science fiction, many education technology experts think artificial intelligence has the power to personalize education while at the same time freeing instructors from some of the tedium of grading papers and tests.

To start, an AI teaching assistant can grade essays, geometry proofs and fill-in answers—freeing teachers to, well, teach more and spend more one-on-one time with students.

Next, curriculum will no longer take students through a series of predetermined tasks. AI has the pedagogical power to fully individualize instruction based on the student’s needs and interests, as well as the district’s standards.

For instance, the system could give math students sufficient practice in factoring before introducing them to quadratic equations.

Because of its learning-based structure, the more artificial intelligence is used, the better it will become.

Timeline: 2020+

In the end

Robot teachers, top-speed wireless connections and super-thin learning devices add up to a brave new world where schools continue to get more digital and more connected.

The goal is to make teachers more effective in preparing students for the future, which will have job opportunities that we can’t even imagine now.

While some of these innovations may take a decade and others might not pan out at all, in 10 years we might look back and wonder how we were ab

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.