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December 11, 2015 Article 9 min read

Excerpt from "The technology imperative: Staying ahead of the curve in the classroom."

As technology becomes an evermore essential part of daily life, schools are challenged to find ways to embed it into curricula and to fund it as it continues to evolve. School districts have had to get creative. Whether it’s sanctioning and supporting “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) initiatives or taking advantage of open source resources, they’re looking for ways to leverage technology that don’t overburden their increasingly constrained budgets.

Top technology trends affecting learning

Advances in technology are transforming K-12 classrooms across the nation, changing not only what students learn but how they learn. Given the right professional development, teachers are finding new and exciting ways to harness technology as a tool for student-centered discovery and learning. Nevertheless, challenges for school districts are considerable. There’s no escaping the need to integrate technology into the classroom to support the teaching and learning process, but at what cost? What technologies and devices make the most sense? And how can schools build enough flexibility into their use of technology so that they can make changes and adjustments as technology evolves? Here’s a look at the top trends having an impact on how schools are designing and funding their technology initiatives.

One-to-one (1:1) learning

In its purest form, 1:1 computer learning entails putting a device — a PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone — into the hands of every student. But if schools are on the hook for supplying those devices, the tab can be quite high, and it ties teachers to using a single device that may not be suited for all types of lessons and assignments. As a result, 1:1 learning, once a coveted goal for K-12 schools, has received a great deal of pushback in recent years from educators. Apart from the cost, a common criticism is that 1:1 places the technology at the center of the learning, rather than the other way around.

This has led to a more considered approach that focuses on the “right device for the right task.” With this approach, rather than providing each student with a device that they check out and keep over the course of a year or even their school career, a school has sets of different devices that are brought out based on individual lessons. This is a growing trend, especially since different devices are more suitable for specific tasks or activities.

Nevertheless, schools still need to purchase these devices, and for many the cost is simply too high. Some have gone the route of providing devices for certain grade levels only — say middle school — and relying on students to supply their own devices in high school. In fact, increasingly, schools are turning to a “bring your own device” policy as a way to both solve their financial quandary and provide students with a more personal means of using devices for learning.

Bring your own device (BYOD)

BYOD refers to the practice of having students bring their own laptop, tablet, or mobile device into the classroom and use it to access and interact with instructional content. This is certainly a more affordable model for schools, although it does present some drawbacks, including the need to develop content that can be accessed by varied devices. BYOD also requires more robust technical support and network infrastructure than a single-device strategy, as well as increased professional development to ensure teachers can work with multiple devices.

Of course not every child has access to a laptop or a tablet, so schools adopting BYOD may still need to find a way to supply devices to students with financial needs. However, the increasing availability of smartphones does offer one potential solution. For some years now, the percentage of students with access to smartphones has been growing rapidly. While smartphones don’t lend themselves to all types of assignments, they do accommodate an increasing number of tasks.

Ideally, districts should consider combining BYOD with district-purchased devices in order to provide equal opportunities to all and match devices to activities.

Flipped learning

Flipped or inverted learning turns the function of the classroom on its head. Students receive instruction at home via readings — or, increasingly, videos and podcasts — and do homework in the classroom when the teacher is available to help them. With flipped learning, teachers can make use of a huge range of online content offered free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection. Classroom exercises, which are often technology-enabled, then focus on hands-on exercises that demonstrate that students have mastered the content. Flipped learning is an increasingly popular way to use technology. In fact, according to the 2014 Speak Up survey, 48 percent of school technology leaders chose flipped learning as one of the approaches to digital learning that has yielded positive results in their schools.

Open education resources (OER)

One of the benefits of flipped learning is that it makes use of materials that are readily available online. However, even in traditional classrooms teachers have access to online educational materials that exist in the public domain or that have an open license. Anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt, and share such Open Educational Resources (OERs).

OERs offer benefits that go beyond a nonexistent price tag. Perhaps one of the most important is that they allow teachers more flexibility. A dedicated teacher with the proper training can assemble resources from a variety of sources in the public domain and turn them into a customized learning experience for students. OERs can also be interactive in nature, and there are a number of organizations dedicated to developing content for K-12 students in a range of areas. As a result, quite a few districts are moving away from standardized textbooks that cover all the aspects of a subject, instead turning to a mixture of resources.

While the benefits of OERs are indeed compelling, there can be some hidden upfront costs that schools need to plan for. These involve the time and resources required to develop new lesson plans and assignments that will replace those linked to traditional textbooks.

Online Assessments

One consequence of many states moving to the Common Core standards has been the adoption of online assessments (OLA) to measure student achievement of these standards. Any school using OLA needs to ensure they have the appropriate technology to be able to administer them. The easiest way to administer OLA is to have a dedicated computer lab that offers wired Internet connectivity and computers connected to a power source so that batteries dying in the middle of a timed assessment is never an issue. Computer labs are also set up to accommodate a group of students, all of whom are starting and finishing the assessment at exactly the same time.

This presents a challenge to districts because the technology tools required for OLA might not line up with what they’re trying to do from a curriculum perspective. In fact, many schools have been trying to wean themselves from computer labs in an effort to fully integrate technology tools into classroom learning. Trying to offer both options may not be a cost-effective approach for many schools.

Cloud computing

The move to the cloud that has swept the business world is also affecting schools. Many districts are looking at cloud options for specific applications such as student information systems, individual lesson plans and special education programs, or supplementary learning programs developed by organizations like IXL. Many districts are also becoming less reliant on Microsoft Office applications and opting for Google Apps instead. Google Apps is free, hosted, and gives students email access. Perhaps more importantly, it gives teachers access to resources remotely without the need for technical support.

Depending on what type of information is being transferred to the cloud, one of the main concerns is security. In the case of Google Apps, where the focus is on posting, organizing, and sharing homework, lesson plans, or syllabi, security is less of an issue. But if a school moves to a cloud vendor for hosting of any applications that require the posting of students’ personally identifiable information (PII), then careful vetting of the vendor for Internet protocols, security, and firewall protection is critical. These vendors must be compliant with both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Having an effective approach to data classification will help schools understand what level of security is appropriate when moving to the cloud.

Getting your technology strategy right from the start

  • Do your upfront planning. Make sure you know what you want to accomplish with the program.
  • Run the numbers. Determine if the model you’re leaning toward is sustainable. It could be a dazzling program, but if it depends on funding increases every year, it may not be feasible.
  • Flush out the hidden costs. Funding technology is about more than buying devices. There are a host of costs involved in supporting those devices, from the obvious, like antivirus licenses and Internet security, to the less obvious, such as the professional development that will be necessary to impact teaching and learning.
  • Put teachers in the driver's seat. Teachers need to have a stake in the program. They also need to be able to experiment, make mistakes, and figure out the best way to use the technology.
  • Then give them the time and resources that they need. Teachers can’t be expected to do it on their own. They need professional development that helps them effectively leverage different types of technology in the classroom and beyond. They also need the opportunity to network with peers so they can share what works and lessons learned.

Smart technology calls for smart strategies

Technology is evolving all the time, and it can be difficult to keep up. Districts cannot afford to jump on every technology trend simply because it’s the latest Big Thing. What needs to ground a district’s approach to technology, and its decision to adopt one type of technology over another, is its overall strategy. The district’s overall strategy, balancing student and curricular needs, and learning philosophy, needs to be the overarching approach to technology.

What’s more, technology is not always a source of increased costs — it can also help districts reduce expenses. For example, open resources can provide a way to minimize — in the long run — some of their textbook costs. A number of schools are considering resources, such as Google Apps, that are available to educational institutions at no or reduced costs.

Moving certain applications, such as student or financial information systems to the cloud may also cost less in the long run. Furthermore, if a district is hosting such applications itself, there may be a way to save money by collaborating with either regional service agencies or other districts. Schools can also share IT support, particularly if they do less proprietary hosting. Ultimately, the more schools can save on non-academic technology costs, the more money they can re-deploy into technology for the classroom.


Much has been written about the role of technology in the classroom, but no one can dispute that it has a role to play. It has the capacity to transform both teaching and learning and to connect students and teachers to people and places unimaginable just a decade or so ago. School districts are acutely aware that without access to technology, their students will be at a disadvantage, so it’s imperative that they find ways to make that access possible. Funding is of course always an issue, but so is finding ways to maximize existing resources, to take advantage of those that are offered free of charge, and even to use technology to reduce costs and free up funds for what is ultimately the mission of every school — making their students avid learners and the best they can possibly be.