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April - 2016 - issue > CIO INSIGHT
K12 Education and Technology - Challenges and Opportunities in a Connected World
Deepak Agarwal
CIO-Palm Beach County School District
Friday, April 1, 2016
The marriage of technology and education would seem to be a natural fit - transform schools to the digital classroom model, provide a laptop or tablet for every student, beef up the technology infrastructure and watch as creativity, test scores, teacher ratings, and graduation rates go through the ceiling. Simple, right? OK, maybe not so much. There are major hurdles, both internal and external to transforming our national education model from one designed to support an industrial society to one that prepares students for the expanding global digital economy.

While progress has certainly been made in leveraging technology in schools (e.g. computer labs, electronic textbooks, virtual classes, online sources & tutorials, etc.),we stand the cusp of a real revolution in the possibilities of technology to fundamentally alter the way kids learn and instructors teach. The increased attention and importance placed on Science, Technology, Engineering & Math(STEM) in K12 education is overdue and much-needed to maintain our position as innovation leaders, but it's not the complete picture.

Introducing rapid, severe technology modifications into our current K12 education model would almost certainly do more harm than good. While a more gradual, iterative approach is preferred, change must not lag too far behind mainstream adoption. Teachers, students, and administrators will need to accept, even embrace new technologies and different educational paradigms(personalized learning, active learning, etc.).

As we move from the Internet of Things (IoT) to the Internet of Everything (IoE), it's inevitable that technology will play a larger and more critical role in the buildings, teaching methods, measurement and ultimately, the success of K12 schools. Shepherding those changes in a climate of limited funding, competing priorities and embedded belief systems will require leaders who can communicate, build consensus, inspire and execute on the collective strategic vision.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Most school districts grapple with the issue of student availability to technology-both inside and outside of the classroom, a problem that is magnified for large urban districts. The substantial gap between the District's affluent students and those from low-income homes means that some students have expensive smartphones, tablets or laptops while others don't even have internet connections at home. Lack of access to technology for low-income students, means that beyond not just having the latest smartphone or tablet, they also lag their more affluent peers in the technology skills that are increasingly required for both education and the21st century workplace. This has the effect of putting already at-risk students in jeopardy of falling further behind in their education, college-readiness, and limited vocational options.

Personalized Learning and BYOD (Bring your own device)

As school districts across the country try to find the budget dollars to fund more devices for the classroom, more and more students are coming to school with a computer in their hands - a smartphone.

Parents, students, and teachers all want BYOD access, but the unenviable task of making it all seamlessly work falls to IT departments. Providing a consistent user experience across myriad combinations of devices, operating systems and applications that is secure, protects privacy, ensures content appropriateness and manages network bandwid this a very delicate balancing act. BYOD can help bridge the digital divide by leveraging existing technology students are using, which in turn frees up capital to provide more devices for those unable to afford them. There are many risks prior to embracing a BYOD program that needs evaluation are application control, potential data loss, local labor laws/issues, potential privacy issues, regulatory requirements, lost/stolen devices, data recovery and legal ownership of data stored on a personal device. Finally, defining the appropriate policies with clear expectations on the outcome will be the key to a successful BYOD program.

Infrastructure Needs

Any significant implementation of digital devices will almost certainly require corresponding IT infrastructure changes to ensure the project's success. Wireless Access Points (WAP),increased broadband access, servers, storage and network switches can all need upgrades in order to handle the increased demand. Security concerns require more redundancy in networks, better SPAM and content filtering as well to ensure the internal and external access has high availability, protects privacy and limits the opportunities for bad actors. Being able to accurately estimate, plan and prepare the infrastructure changes prior to implementation is crucial.

Technology Funding

In many ways, the impact of the Great Recession in2008 is still being felt in school districts across the nation. As boom turned to bust, federal, state and local funding sources were greatly reduced or in some cases, disappeared entirely. Per-student funding from the state of Florida is slowly increasing but is only now approaching pre-2008levels-with the additional technology-related expenses from online testing, virtual classes and other expanding tech initiatives that have accrued over the last eight years unaccounted for. Beyond the increased strain on technology infrastructure, large technology initiatives require increased staff for the support, maintenance, repair and replacement of digital devices-costs that need to be accounted for when considering how to move the digital revolution into the classroom.

Power to the PPP

Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) for education have been touted as the 'future of education' and can provide assistance to reduce the digital divide and move closer to the digital classroom. Some like internet providers offering high-speed broadband access and low-cost computers at substantially reduced prices have a proven track record of helping millions of kids get online at home. Public-Private Partnerships also offer schools the ability to leverage economies of scale in purchasing or sharing technology resources.

However, some highly-publicized ventures that ought to quickly turn around failing schools in a short time show little to no improvement by any reasonable measure. While the motivations are no doubt noble, the results show that the same strategies employed when launching a dot.com or social media site do not necessarily translate to improving schools or increasing student achievement.

Measuring Results

It's vitally important that district leadership collaboratively design, plan and execute on a strategic vision to move our schools, teachers, staff and students into the digital age-it's equally important to effectively communicate that vision to community leaders, business interests, and taxpayers. Only by building a coalition of stakeholders, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome, will the investment, resources and energy necessary for success be attainable.

Pilot programs and model classrooms can provide vital feedback on which technologies are appropriate for students, schools or districts as a whole. With the proper vision, planning, strategic partnerships and support from all interested parties, advancing technology has the potential to fundamentally alter the ways we teach, learn and view the role of K12education for current and future generations.
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