Practical Nerd: Three ‘secrets’ of the digital classroom

Frank Catalano, Practical Nerd

If you think you understand what’s happening in digital education because you follow digital consumer or business developments, think again. Because there are three digital technologies changing K-12 education that you’ve probably never heard of.

I’ve worked in both consumer and education digital technology for nearly 20 years. The prevailing wisdom used to be that, compared to consumer tech, the educational technology experience was a decade behind (as opposed to the educational in-person experience, which is about a century behind). But for several reasons, since the turn of this century that delta has been compressed to three to four years at most, and in some cases education has leapfrogged consumer and business.

Nowhere was this acceleration more obvious than at the Software and Information Industry Association’s annual Ed Tech Industry Summit, held in San Francisco in late May.  A record 400 industry executives attended, representing the companies that build the products that travel in the tubes that get caught in the filters on the way to the classroom.

And while there was a lot of talk about the digital education initiatives you likely have heard of – distance learning, digital textbooks, game-based learning and one-to-one computing – three clear trends are in progress where these mass niche technologies will be huge factors in classrooms this decade, though they may never be discussed at a Genius Bar:

An interactive white board (Credit: Promethean)

1) Interactive white boards. These chalkboard or whiteboard enhancements aren’t new, per se:  I reviewed an early Mimio model on-air for KCPQ-TV Seattle in June 2000. But the focus then was the corporate meeting room, which gave the tech a lukewarm response. Schools, however, embraced them, partly because they allowed combining projected web and computer content with touchscreen-like student interaction on the board, and partly because they didn’t scare teachers comfortable with “sage on a stage” classroom control. Education’s embrace was so firm that a new Education Market Research study notes IWBs from various manufacturers, including well-known companies SMART and Promethean, are in the hands of 63% of U.S. K-12 teachers.

But the real change is coming now that IWBs are in a majority of classrooms, providing a large installed base that can use the devices as a platform for tying other, non-proprietary classroom hardware to them (such as iPads, Android tablets and smartphones), and for high-quality, interactive, multimedia instructional content. There has to be a reason why what’s now DYMO/Mimio recently bought Seattle educational software company Headsprout, and why Promethean earlier bought Seattle’s Synaptic Mash and renamed its assessment product suite ActivProgress to match Promethean’s interactive classroom branding.

A video lesson in equations. (Credit: Khan Academy)

2) Open Educational Resources. Much like open source in the enterprise did for code, Open Educational Resources in education is doing for content. OER goes beyond “free” instructional content, though that certainly is a driver in tough budget times. High-profile examples include the Khan Academy videos, professionally produced materials from NASA and the Smithsonian, and teacher-created lesson plans and supplements. Yet, like open source, OER is free like a puppy, not free like a beer. Schools and teachers are challenged in how to find it, sort it for quality and integrate it into what they already do.

Good OER is granular down to the lesson or concept, and can be mixed-and-matched with other free and paid instructional materials seamlessly. Both the U.S Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have recently taken steps to encourage OER. And for-profit education companies are, in some cases reluctantly, going along. When asked at an Ed Tech Industry Summit session if their firms plan to directly compete with, integrate or ignore OER, the company presidents who chose to respond said “integrate” – which should have interesting implications in the classroom and for new fee/free business models.

Adaptive learning for math. (Credit: DreamBox Learning)

3) Adaptive instruction. We can probably all recall a computer-based test which bluntly adjusted the next question based on whether we answered the current question correctly or not. But fine-tune that adaptation. Apply it to web-based instructional materials. Combine it with a push to better “personalize” instruction in increasingly crowded and diverse classrooms. Then you get the current trend toward adaptive instruction which changes the lesson, and creates a learning plan, based on how well a student understands the digital content.

Companies playing in this space, and playing hard, include Seattle firms DreamBox (for math instruction) and Headsprout (for reading). While adaptive digital instruction was rarely part of mainstream instruction in the past, the Summit highlighted products and services in which personalized learning was assumed, and the teacher’s role perhaps implicitly shifted from knowledge source to knowledge guide.

Other K-12 developments at the Summit mirrored changes in the consumer market, such as more web- and subscription- based products and services. And the drive to digital learning also began to cast light upon, but led to little discussion about, two new elephants in the classroom: existing limits of bandwidth and battery life.

But it’s the three trends, not necessarily well known to those who aren’t edugeeks, that will touch students and teachers directly. And, combined with digital learning developments you likely have heard of, could make the classroom a more personal and engaging place. If a classroom is still needed at all.

Frank Catalano is an author, consultant, and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose “Practical Nerd” columns appear regularly on GeekWire. He consults via Intrinsic Strategy and tweets @FrankCatalano.  He maintains his edugeek cred by tracking, and advising on, education industry trends as a consulting senior analyst to the EdNET Insight market research service.

  • Anonymous

    You are just a little out of touch with the educational world, aren’t you?

    • FrankCatalano

      Nope. Just trying to explain to those outside of education what’s happening inside education. These are real trends, long in the making, that aren’t necessarily the ones that get the news media attention given to 1-1 computing initiatives, online education and others I cite. But they’re similarly important. To someone familiar with developments in ed tech, they shouldn’t come as a surprise.

      • Me

        I think many inside of education would disagree. These toold aren’t necessarily improving education, just a more shiny version of the way things have always been done.

        • FrankCatalano

          These tools may not improve education (nor do I say they do). But they are changing its current form. As with any tools, they can be used well or poorly. Whether they improve education is not just a matter of the digital technology, but a whole host of interrelated factors. Including, most importantly, people.

  • Roy Leban

    (note: I was the second developer at DreamBox and invented key portions of the adaptive engine behind the DreamBox Learning System.)

    There’s a certain amount of truth to the comment “These tools aren’t necessarily improving education, just a more shiny version of the way things have always been done”. Computer systems cannot replace human teachers. But, human teachers are expensive 1-on-1 and they get tired, they may forget how a student is doing from session-to-session, etc. And, let’s face it, there are great teachers and there are not-so-great teachers. Systems like DreamBox aim to do things that great teachers have always done — tailor instruction for each individual kid, speeding up or slowing down as necessary, repeating things, providing extra help, etc., while providing accurate reporting to parents, teachers, and others who want to help the student. The more systems like this can help students, the less of that work needs to be done by human teachers. And that means teachers can spend more of their time on things that computers can’t do.

    It’s easy to pooh-pooh new technology as not being better than the old way, but I’ll give another example of a technology that has truly changed classrooms. The document camera or Elmo replaced the old overhead projectors and opaque projectors, meaning that any teacher or student can instantly project anything on paper to the entire room. No special plastic or paper or pens. No transparencies to prepare or clean up means that there’s no obstacle to use. Is it better? Ask any teacher who has used both.

  • Brian Wade

    I’m not an ed guy but I have a 3-year-old son who will soon take me there. For him, I find this trend encouraging. By “existing limits on bandwidth” you/The Summit really means limits on funding, right? All the more reason to get this news out there for the non-ed among us. Thank you.

    • FrankCatalano

      Brian, glad this was of interest. It turns out the limits to bandwidth aren’t necessarily just driven by not having enough money to pay for more of it to accommodate web-based programs. Sometimes, there are actual physical limits. An ISP may simply not have more to sell, such as in rural areas. The wiring or structure of WiFi hotspots in a school building may not allow multiple classes at the same time to stream educational video or use certain web apps. One district level technology coordinate in a Northeastern state recently shared with me that “a day doesn’t go past” where bandwidth limits aren’t an issue.

      So some of it’s money, some of it’s technology infrastructure. The U.S. Department of Education did a nice analysis at to show, with drill down, bandwidth availability to schools nationwide. And the State Educational Technology Directors Association ( estimated a pretty high percentage of schools and districts don’t have enough bandwidth to meet current needs, let alone a lot more web-hungry apps.

      With luck and persistence, one can hope this won’t be as much of an issue by the time your three-year-old son reaches school.

      • Brian Wade

        Interesting. Thanks for the additional info.

  • Bill Kuper

    Frank, you mentioned game-based learning.  Was it discussed much at the conference?  It seems like such a no-brainer to me– that to engage today’s digital kids, one needs to use the same mechanics that hook them all day long on their iPods and Xboxes– game mechanics.  

    I would think Generation G– those kids born after 1998 whose principal entertainment comes in the form of games, would respond best to the typical game mechanics of achievement, reward, progress, etc.  After all, school is all about “leveling up” right?

    Imagine if instead of planting crops or building city halls, Zynga’s customers were working through math or history lessons to advance in their games.

    Sorry to go a little OT, but combining adaptive learning with game mechanics, much like what Dreambox is doing but on an even larger scale, could have huge implications on the ed-tech world.

    • FrankCatalano

      Game-based learning had a good presence at the conference, but I didn’t highlight it in my column because it’s relatively well known outside of education.

      Some of the same issues came up about games that have been coming up ever since I’ve been working in digital education (circa 1995): how to integrate them into lessons properly, bandwidth/computer device availability, and even their name. One speaker said her company had to change the description of their science product from “game” to “virtual investigation” due to education customer concerns that they couldn’t spend money on something that might be seen as frivolous — based simply on the label.

      Her Interactive, a Seattle company, showed off its newest Nancy Drew title (the first came out in 1997, and I recall writing about the company for Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly). Speakers agreed that better content is key to educational games.

      In SIIA’s Innovation Incubator, which featured companies doing cool things with personalized learning tech, Sokikom ( showed a massively multiplayer online social learning game for grade 1-6 math, and Six Red Marbles ( had an entrepreneur simulation game for middle school called Cabanga. So there is a lot of activity. And slowly growing acceptance.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Thank you for this, Frank. It got me challenging assumptions. AND I’d not payed enough attention to the Khan Academy before — what a wonderful story that is! A man whose parents immigrated from India and Bangladesh, you say? How could that be? I thought immigration was a problem in America :-)