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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.

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