The week of August 17, 2014

It’s time to ford the river

By Austin Powell

We are in the midst of a gold rush in education technology, or edtech. Consider it a modern version of Oregon Trail—the classic classroom video game that schooled an entire generation on the dangers of 19th century pioneer life—with tech companies racing to claim school districts like territories.

At stake are massive contracts with lasting implications, as administrators look to equip K-12 students with laptops and tablets to assist in the learning process, not to mention the infrastructure needed to support such additions. Edtech is currently a $121 billion industry, and it could be as high as $335 billion by 2019, according to recent industry forecasts. We’re still in the early stages of Apple, Google, and others fighting to carve out their respective market shares.

In our second issue of The Kernel, we take a comprehensive look at the state of education, examining its privacy concerns, pitfalls, and bold new initiatives, like the Minerva Project, an experiment in online learning that emphasizes debate over lectures and introductory class work.

The problem, at least in K-12 education, is that for all of the money being spent on slick new touchscreens, and for all of the so-called “smart classrooms” across the country, we’re not yet seeing a return on those investments. Students are no better prepared for the technological needs of the modern workforce than those of us who battled measles, snakebites, dysentery, and exhaustion in Oregon Trail decades ago.

As my colleague and elementary school rival Caitlin Sharp notes in her piece on the importance of coding in schools, “It might be an ebook, but it’s still To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In other words, while kids may have tablets in their backpacks, we’re not yet at a place where we can capitalize on the advantages of these devices. That’s due to a variety of reasons: Administrators are purchasing the wrong equipment, teachers aren’t being trained properly, and the access to—and the skill set to utilize—such technology varies drastically between affluent and disadvantaged schools. (For a more comprehensive look, see Allen Weiner’s report, “Why the edtech bubble could burst.”)

Right now, an estimated 72 percent of public schools have Internet connections too slow to utilize in the classroom. President Obama has pledged that 99 percent of American schools will have access to high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi in the next five years, but access is only the first step in closing our ever-widening digital divide.

Where there’s been progress, it’s happening at the local level. As explored by Leslie Anne Jones, cities like Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Baltimore are using their relatively low cost of living and pool of Teach For America alumni to incentivize programs and tech initiatives to bolster student progress. In the process, they’re raising the bar for independent school districts and creating a blueprint for other cities across the country.

As that report makes clear, there will never be a silver-bullet app or tablet for improving our education system. It’ll take intense collaboration between teachers, administrators, and tech companies to understand the challenges faced in the classroom and to create the solutions—and training—to address them.

But it’s time to ford that river.


Photo via LibAmanda/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)