Technology Building Blocks Are Changing the Future of Education
Sophisticated tools enable learning in physical, virtual and hybrid environments.
Advances in technology are pushing a major upheaval in K–12 education. Tools such as mobile devices, audiovisual solutions, learning platforms and other technologies are altering how children learn and how they work with teachers and each other.
Today’s learning communities are more egalitarian, collaborative and personalized than in the past, largely as a result of the expanded curricula and activities that technology makes possible.
From an IT perspective, the modern learning environment has greatly expanded staff’s scope of responsibility. Technology teams must facilitate teaching and learning in physical, virtual and hybrid classrooms, across all grade levels and within diverse academic disciplines. Success depends on selecting the best tools and creating an ecosystem that maximizes the extent to which those tools can integrate seamlessly and securely.
Inside and outside the classroom, tablets, laptops and phones have become a primary means of K–12 instruction. Many K–12 schools have long had one-to-one device programs for some or all grade levels, taking advantage of the benefits of standardization for both users and IT.
These programs paid off in early 2020, making it easier for schools to transition to remote learning with the knowledge that students at least had school-owned devices and that teachers were familiar with digital content and applications. However, some of these devices were not intended to serve in predominantly virtual classrooms, and many students continued to rely on their own devices, including phones, to get and complete assignments. In lower-income districts, nearly 20 percent of students use cellphones as their primary learning device, according to a survey by the International Society for Technology in Education and BrightBytes (PDF).
In the future, districts may favor devices with the flexibility and robustness to support the demands of remote learning, including downloading and streaming videos, participating in synchronous class sessions, running specialized software and collaboration platforms, and maintaining security. For the best user experience, devices also need to integrate easily with the learning management system (LMS), simplifying day-to-day work for students and teachers and reducing the need for IT troubleshooting.
Monitors, cameras and audio equipment transform online instruction from a static, content-focused activity to an engaging, interactive experience. The ability for students and teachers to see, hear and speak with one another adds depth and connection to synchronous sessions in which classes are all online at the same time. This connection can be especially important as teachers strive to maintain engagement with younger students and with those who may need additional support.
Although some districts have used both face-to-face and online instruction during the pandemic, the majority of instruction has taken place online, with teachers leading classes from their homes and creating content for asynchronous sessions. High-quality audio and video recording equipment ensures that students can easily see and hear the teacher, while also making it easier for teachers to create digital content. Recordings should be easy to incorporate into LMSs or collaboration platforms and simple for students to access.
Online learning software includes LMSs, videoconferencing and collaboration platforms, video recording software and a wide variety of applications developed specifically for K–12 education. Integration among these solutions, particularly between the LMS and meeting platform, is a critical task for IT.
LMSs are the one-stop shop for teachers, students and parents — feature-rich solutions that serve as an administrative hub. In remote learning, roughly 70 percent of teachers say they always use the LMS as their primary educational platform, compared with 30 percent who say the same of videoconferencing platforms, according to ISTE-BrightBytes research (PDF). The LMS is where teachers post class information, assignments and grades, and where students submit assignments and interact with classmates. The better the integration between the meeting platform and the LMS, the better the user experience will be.
In addition to the LMS foundation, teachers layer on tools for specific content and activities, such as lessons, quizzes and game-based interactivity. Increasingly, face-to-face and remote learning both call for students to use self-directed content creation, carried out through multiple formats, to demonstrate mastery of content and pedagogical objectives. A variety of tools can increase students’ options and keep them engaged. In upper grades, older students may need specialized software — for example, for computer-aided design or engineering applications — that school-issued devices do not support. Virtualized applications and similar solutions can help districts provide this access remotely.
To optimize integration, IT staff should streamline the collaboration tools in use, with the goal of increasing consistency where it makes sense to do so. Over time, and particularly as schools shifted quickly to remote learning, teachers may have created ad hoc solutions that do not integrate well with the LMS, are not used consistently across schools or do not support best practices for security and privacy.
In recent years, many districts have prioritized networking enhancements and upgrades that allowed them to support one-to-one device initiatives and the increased use of digital content in the classroom. Amid the pandemic, that focus shifted to networking capabilities outside the school: specifically, students’ internet access at home. As remote learning revealed major discrepancies in students’ connectivity, districts have responded by placing Wi-Fi hotspots on buses and in communities, lending out hotspots and partnering with libraries and municipalities to expand internet access.
On the back end, infrastructure has moved from an on-premises capital expenditure model to a cloud-based operational expenditure model. This has resulted in converting physical labs to anytime, any device virtual online classrooms.
The cyclical nature of the school calendar, with heavy technology use only nine months out of the year, makes the cloud an attractive cost-saving strategy. Application and desktop streaming services allow more flexible use of both apps and hardware. This democratizes the use of industry-leading software by students: They can now use popular design, engineering and gaming apps running on any device. IT staff can fine-tune the required computing power for individual applications to provide an optimal experience for end users. Increasingly, the cloud is the strategy that enables schools to achieve the agility, security, versatility and reliability they need to support students — wherever they happen to be.
At the same time, cloud services may place new pressures on IT departments. Staff may need more training, peer-to-peer support or the addition of new hires who are skilled in cloud management, security and optimization. Districts transitioning to the cloud will need to establish governance processes to monitor and manage costs. Finally, although the cloud can strengthen security in many respects, it may also warrant new solutions that address cloud-specific vulnerabilities, such as misconfigurations.
Learn about the technological building blocks of tomorrow’s learning environments by reading the white paper “Delivering the Future of K–12 Education.”