Apr 12 2016

Connected Classrooms Preparing for Huge Gains in 2016

Important developments in four key technology areas could bring digital learning to more K-12 classrooms in the coming year.

To get a glimpse of tomorrow’s digitally powered classrooms, just look at today’s pockets of innovation.

Case in point: Students in some school districts are using 3D modeling software and 3D printers to create prosthetics for other students with missing limbs.

Contributors to the Helping Hands initiative, these students aren’t only honing their engineering skills using new technology, but also addressing a need that’s created when health insurers balk at paying for expensive prosthetics for non-adult patients who will outgrow them.

“This is a beautiful display of how students are learning to make positive changes in the world,” says Samantha Becker, senior director of publications and communications with the New Media Consortium and the lead researcher for its Horizon reports about trends in education. “Learning that you don’t have to wait until you’re older to change the world is a powerful notion for students.”

Not every school district has the technical and financial resources to take full advantage of the latest technology. But education industry analysts expect that many K-12 schools will make significant strides in 2016 to modernize classroom technology as well as to establish the essential infrastructures that support innovation. As a result, revamped classrooms in 2016 and beyond will showcase powerful combinations of high-speed, business-grade networks running powerful mobile devices and related tools such as 3D printers — all to support new pedagogues that turn traditional classrooms on their heads.

Educators should be aware of four key areas where forward-looking school districts will likely be focusing their innovation efforts in the year ahead.

Networks: The Frameworks for Change

Behind all the impressive digital devices and learning software beats the heart of connected classrooms, namely high-performing, reliable and secure networks. Modern K-12 districts stay connected using three important communications links: local area networks (LANs), wireless infrastructures and wide area networks. The federal Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan reiterates White House recommendations that districts provide Internet access speeds of at least 100 megabits per second for every 1,000 students, and be on track to boost the speed to 1 gigabit per second within two years.

“Network upgrades require multistep solutions.”

How can districts meet these goals while also supporting an influx of students bringing personal devices to school (known as bring-your-own-device or BYOD), online testing and network-dependent initiatives such as the Hour of Code, which encourages students to polish their programming skills? When devising networking roadmaps, IT managers should first consider quality-of-service requirements from an end-user’s perspective. That hasn’t always been the case, and classrooms suffered.

“Many schools designed resources such as Wi-Fi for coverage rather than capacity,” says Timothy Zimmerman, vice president of research at Gartner. “This means I can get 35 students to connect to the network — they just can’t use it.”

Similarly, schools may not have deployed network switches to adequately handle the growing traffic volumes coming from Wi-Fi access points, or they had to settle for limited broadband capacities that impaired performance.

The lesson: “Network updates require multistep solutions,” Zimmerman says. To accurately plan for network capacity, schools are aided by the latest site survey and centralized network management tools from vendors such as Aruba Networks, Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks. These tools help administrators quickly identify current bottlenecks and help planners estimate how their needs may grow over time.

This upfront planning pays dividends.

“Having abundant and robust networks changes everything,” says Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “Instead of a mindset of scarcity, we now need to think about what learning looks like with ubiquitous networking.”

Mobility: New Device Options Increase Flexibility

Mobility and today’s digitally empowered, personalized learning models go hand in hand. According to a survey by CoSN, 80 percent of school districts are planning to deploy a BYOD program in some form. Combined with one-to-one programs that provide computers to students who need them, BYOD is part of several broad strategies to enable learning wherever students happen to be — at desks, in informal workgroups in a classroom, throughout school campuses or at home.

“The future is BYOD, with districts providing devices for kids that don’t have their own... It’s a ‘BYOD-and’ approach as opposed to ‘either-or,’” says Krueger.

There’s no shortage of devices available to support this model of learning. Among the latest are new all-in-one tablets, such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Apple’s iPad Pro. These versatile devices shift from ultraportable tablets into keyboard-equipped notebook replacements. The latest lineup augments a range of other versatile devices, ranging from diskless Chromebooks (from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Lenovo, Samsung and others) to full-powered traditional and convertible notebooks from ASUS and Lenovo, which feature touch screens that twist into tablet form factors.

Analysts say educators in 2016 must look beyond particular devices and focus instead on academic goals.

“The biggest takeaway is that savvy districts are finally realizing it’s not about the device; it’s about pedagogy and creating fair and ubiquitous access,” says Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at the International Society for Technology in Education. “The key is having a browser-based strategy so students can access material from any device.”

Flanagan points out that Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides as much as $2.3 billion in state teacher-quality grants.

“A big piece of that is focusing on professional learning for more effective implementation of technologies,” he says.