The Five Ed Tech Elephants in the PreK–12 Classroom | Opinion

From OER to equitable access, schools continue to battle challenges to the digital revolution.
Despite encouraging advances in the application of technology in classrooms, we have yet to see a more pervasive model of true Blended Learning, where technology is seamlessly integrated into instruction in order to drive better student learning outcomes.   Schools worldwide are redefining the traditional classroom model to deliver personalized learning through technology-driven methods, but familiar issues − including lagging student achievement, still-inequitable distribution of resources, and continued segregation – continue to impede progress. How do educators provide equitable distribution of the most promising and effective learning technologies and strategies to all students—most notably the ones in resource-poor districts? Schools are gamely exploring ways to lay down wireless infrastructure to deliver more consistent Internet access for students. Increasingly, these efforts include creative models for distributing critically needed Wi-Fi into communities, as well as affording students and families access to an unprecedented array of resources, classes, and content.

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We also now see schools intentionally blending “technology” into teaching and learning objectives. They no longer talk about tech separately, as if it were an awkward appendage that they can’t quite control. Annual Speak Up surveys from nonprofit Project Tomorrow has compellingly shown that stakeholders at every level—from students and families to classroom teachers and district-level administrators—are demonstrating a gradual, behavioral shift, where blended learning is becoming more of the norm. Speak Up’s most recent survey, which includes responses from more than 500,000 PreK-12 stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, librarians, students, and parents, confirms schools’ progress toward seamless technology coherence and identifies top digital learning trends, such as new classroom models, parents’ expectations for digital communications, as well as how district curriculum and instructional leaders are vetting digital content for classroom use. But are these trends truly transforming classroom instruction? Further, are they breaking down the barriers for the most at-risk communities? The Five Elephants present the challenges that are preventing our nation’s schools from achieving a more evolved, personalized, and equitable learning model that benefits all students. Elephant #1: No mobile distribution platform. As much as some educators cite the use of innovative mobile apps in the classroom, the fact remains that school districts cannot procure apps in bulk in the same way they purchase other content, such as print books or web-based subscriptions. App stores (Apple and Google) are not designed to sell large numbers of apps to school districts. Microsoft just launched its App Store for Education, which will purportedly give districts the ability to bulk-purchase mobile apps, but that will only work if all those schools are committed to a Windows environment. Moreover, when a native app is sold through an app store via Apple, Google, or Microsoft, customer information is retained by those companies, not the app creator. Many companies are working around this restriction by launching web-based apps via HTML and/or (initially) free download models, presenting customers with the “in-app purchase” opportunity to upgrade to more content and services. Opening the pipeline of mobile apps into K–12 schools will show iOS and Android developers that American education as a viable market in which to focus their considerable technology talent. We need to convince developers that they can net substantial revenue from institutional education, as K–12 spending on digital is growing to an annual market of $3 billion-plus, according to a number of sources including Simba Information and the Learning Counsel. Schools have been slow to adopt mobile devices and apps, according to data from Speak Up. At the same time, the majority of administrators, teachers, and parents agree that it’s critical for students to have access to mobile devices, because they believe it helps students develop college and career ready skills, drives engagement, and provides much-needed Internet access.  Elephant #2: Redefining what we mean by equitable access. Access to a diverse and robust collection of quality books—via a 24/7, 360-degree model with family involvement—has been long established as a critical equity issue. According to findings from the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education, 46% of both teachers and principals cite access to fiction and/or nonfiction books as not adequately available for their students. Districts nationwide have sought to provide wide-scale access, via the ambitious distribution of devices—Chromebooks, tablets, etc.—and most critically, the necessary bandwidth. The reality, however, is that those methods represent only temporary fixes. The real solution requires a more ambitious, large-scale federal policy (ConnectEd notwithstanding) to address the need for “last-mile” access to communities and homes away from school grounds—which the federal E-rate program does not currently cover— or the private sector jumping in with a more affordable, scalable model. Equitable access to the Internet is only equitable if all students have the same opportunity to access the same high-quality digital content. As districts face the challenge of distribution and scale—both for devices and the bandwidth to power them—they are also discovering that negotiating the digital content landscape is just as daunting, especially in our most at-risk schools. They are not only in desperate need of bandwidth but more books in all formats, as documented by New York University professor Susan B. Neuman in a 2016 study. This dire condition will only be exacerbated if we don’t make an effort to ensure access to the best digital content—including ebooks—for all students. Too often kids’ only exposure to “reading” is via one-dimensional, contrived text on which someone can measure their progress. These tests and assessments often hinder the joy of reading. The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report: 6th Edition points to the importance of choice, with a majority of kids ages 6–17 (89%) agreeing that their favorite books are the ones they picked out themselves. Finding the best authentic fiction and nonfiction in e-formats must be as high a priority for schools as the connectivity and bandwidth. There are vexing challenges: Librarians and teachers have not had an easy time obtaining unlimited, 24/7 digital access to trade titles defined by their rich authentic text, riveting characters, and clever plot twists. The challenging landscape of e-book distribution driven by still-knotty royalty issues tied to the best trade titles has continued to slow the evolution of the unlimited use model. Scholastic is continuing to improve its existing digital programs, BookFlix and Storia, while also developing new digital resources for schools. Elephant #3: Integrating  curation into the digital content ecosystem. With a tsunami of non-vetted content courtesy of the Internet, students, teachers, and parents—and the virtual communities and social networks in which they increasingly live—are suffering the effects of unmitigated intellectual malnourishment. While teachers and students leverage content and tools, dangerous precedents are being set. The Internet, in all its permutations, has changed our attitudes toward information and our behaviors in the way we access and consume it. Our entire value system around information, about what is factual, about the veracity of things, has been forever altered by a white-noise construct that values the provocative over being precise. As schools continue to eliminate certified librarian positions, these professionals are needed more than ever for curating digital materials and resources to help design and deliver the next-generation taxonomy of order, logic, and accuracy. We not only need librarians to help our students be more discerning, but to help them think more critically. There is not a school district in America that does not have critical thinking as one of its highest priorities. Librarians must be at the forefront of adopting and promulgating a prevailing set of evaluation criteria in order to more effectively evaluate and curate content, including social media. While grassroots projects have addressed quality control, the opportunity to meld an authoritative organization that can sustain with a community-based, crowd-sourced model of evaluation, is long overdue. Common Sense Media has done an admirable job around digital citizenship, helping parents and educators negotiate the overwhelming content terrain of mobile apps and websites. In another example, Texas has created the Learning List, which aims to deliver qualified reviews  of both publisher offerings and open source materials in a range of content areas. Whether Texas will allocate the critical state funding to sustain and grow Learning List remains to be seen. Other curating resources are bubbling up, including the Educational Hashtag and Twitter Chat Database. Built by Shake Up Learning’s Kasey Bell, the database is both filterable and searchable, as well as “a work in progress.” The Learning Counsel has also done an admirable job and shown a commitment to driving this conversation, in terms of awareness, with its Digital Curriculum Sustainability Discussions. Still, we have a considerable way to go. Elephant #4: Understanding the potential and the limitations of OER. The open educational resources (OER) initiative is akin to Wikipedia. The two entities share an early struggle for legitimacy, in addition to well-documented gaps in their content repository. But Wikipedia has shown it can morph and change and get better. While some question the credibility and quality of content derived from an open source framework (vs. content produced and published by a private publishing entity),  Wikipedia has turned into a household search tool, by tapping into the same dynamic that is now driving OER: leveraging the aggregate knowledge of communities. OER will get bigger, better, richer and more diverse as the learning communities it represents expands its aggregate knowledge base, as the number of avid and committed participants grows, and as this emerging community continues to enhance, grow, and shape the repository of content. But OER is not driving the open source revolution by itself. For example, Knovation, which aims to enhance open source content, and Amazon Inspire, which touts itself as “a free service for the search, discovery, and sharing of digital educational resources” are also emerging models. According to Speak Up, OER has emerged to compete with other key school initiatives including blended learning, game-based learning, one-to-one learning models, and flipped classrooms. However, there remains a discernible divide between the high-quality, standards-driven core and supplemental materials that school districts need and off-the-shelf, public domain materials that OER currently offers. Elephant # 5: The Internet of Things (5G). This might be the most profoundly impactful and disruptive elephant of all. The crux of 5G is that it provides the high-capacity bandwidth to allow for a hyper-connected network, referred to as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and defined as a network of Internet-connected objects able to collect and exchange data using embedded sensors. Florida has taken a major step forward with Governor Rick Scott’s recent signing of a 5G wireless technology bill. From an education perspective, 5G would transform emerging cutting-edge technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence, or machine learning, into legitimate teaching and learning tools for the classroom and beyond. Certainly, we haven’t fully grasped the potential impact of IoT on teaching and learning, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking differently about what’s possible, given this unprecedented capacity to create and distribute content that will (finally) disrupt the learning landscape as we know it.
Evan St. Lifer is vice president of strategic and digital initiatives for Scholastic. He previously served as editor of chief of SLJ.

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