School CTOs tackle online tests, Wi-Fi access at CoSN 2015

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School technology directors and education experts from around the country met in Atlanta this week at this year’s annual Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) conference, looking for ways to use technology more effectively to fulfill the promise of digital learning.

EdScoop found that the 900 participants, especially teachers and CTOs, were unabashedly honest about how they could do better to raise standards at their schools – and the roadblocks they had stumbled upon. The conference even had a “Fail Fest,” to showcase experiences where digital tools and practices failed to deliver as hoped, and what educators and school IT leaders could learn from them.

The conference also offered an early glimpse of what the future holds for educators, with the release of preliminary findings of an annual Horizon Report from the New Media Consortium (NMC). The study, which explores how technology trends will impact education, noted that 3D printing, drones and wearable technologies will all become important pieces of education within the next five years. The full report is expected to be released in June.

“The great thing about emerging technologies is they always draw a large crowd,” CoSN CEO Keith Krueger said during remarks. “But as leaders, we need to focus our energies on solving real educational problems.”

Speakers and panelists tackled a wide range of issues such as making wireless access available beyond the classroom, taking advantage of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, and where the best education technology can be found to meet a school’s specific needs.

Below are some highlights from the three-day conference, including sessions on online assessments, student innovation centers, technology procurement, wifi data management and the essentials of mobile learning:

Online assessments

As schools adopting Common Core-aligned tests are shifting to computer-based assessments, some districts were candid about how they’re scrambling to prepare for them.

One is Dysart Unified School District in Arizona, which has been hit recently with massive budget cuts and the lay-offs of a whopping 143 teachers in January.

“Our first year of piloting online assessments was a pretty sad story,” said Michelle Benham, director of instructional technology for the district. “We have pictures of going into classrooms and seeing surge protectors plugged into laptops that won’t run.”

The district decided to try out three reading assessments to test out their own online testing capacity – out of about 19 schools, two could not complete the pilot because they did not have the infrastructure or wireless capability.

“They still used paper and pens,” Benham said.

But students in the other schools tried taking their exams on devices including desktops, laptops and iPads that were 8 years old or newer. And the district measured how long it was taking kids to boot up their computers, log on and go to the appropriate website to take the exam.

“The first (test) was really rough,” said Benham. “If teacher stress level is high, student stress level is high.”

Starting later this month, Dysart will be the largest district in Arizona to test all students using online assessments. School leaders are trying to catch up, and Benham said the district has invested in Chromebooks for all students in third grade through eighth grade.

Student innovation centers

Schools are starting to think about creating “innovation centers,” a broadly-used term for converting a classroom into a tech hub where students can experiment with 3D printing, learn coding and help each other work on their devices.

Theresa Jay, technology director at private college-prep school Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., said she selects sophomore, juniors and seniors to be “tech fellows” who are charged with helping middle school students figure out new applications, software and online programs.

She said the innovation center is not built into their curriculum, but students can participate when they have free time or study hall between classes. She added that the center “has changed the discussion in terms of how can we have more blended learning” in the classroom.

Purchasing and procurement

With so many stakeholders, it’s challenging to buy education technology.

That was the general takeaway from a session on trying out and making decisions on which digital curricula and software will work best for a particular school, especially in light of growing concerns over how software products use student data.

Phil Martin, who manages education marketplace initiatives for nonprofit organization Digital Promise, conducted a survey that showed:

– 43 percent of school leaders are not satisfied with the amount of time it takes to buy edtech.

– CTOs and curriculum directors are most involved in the procurement process, while students and parents are the least involved.

– 29 percent of CTOs are satisfied with the credibility of the effectiveness of the products they end up buying.

– There is too heavy a reliance on piloting products, which are often not “intentional and well-structured,” said Martin.

On the provider side, just 23 percent of ed-tech providers were satisfied with the ability to gain visibility in a district while 11 percent of them were satisfied with district information on buying cycles and purchasing policies.

Tips for monitoring wifi

Michael Flood, vice president of education markets for wireless service provider Kajeet, urged teachers and school CTOs to make an effort to provide students with Internet access beyond the classroom.

He said schools are still learning how to manage after-hour, or off-campus, use of school networks by students using hotspot mini-wifi devices loaned to students or their own devices at home.

Flood, who won CoSN’s Private Sector Champion Award last year, which honors companies that have helped to advance education technology, claimed that schools can cut their data consumption by up to 60 percent by properly monitoring wifi and wireless usage patterns, and identifying and blocking non-educational content services.

He suggested curtailing excess Internet use of non-educational websites by instituting daily rather than monthly data limits for each student accessing school networks.

“Kids get the message when they hit their limit before the end of the day” that visiting non-educational sites can chew up their data privileges, he said.

Kajeet’s research shows that YouTube remains a difficult problem for teachers and administrators to harness – of all the websites students visit in school, 9 percent went to the video streaming site each day, with individuals downloading an average of 44 videos each.

In May 2014, Google’s YouTube stopped supporting a service called YouTube for Schools that filtered its content for educational purposes. But Google, also a big tool used in schools, has not yet developed something to take its place, Flood said.

Essentials for mobile learning

Chris Dede, Wirth Professior in Learning Technologies, Harvard University and Julie Evans, CEO, Project Tomorrow described “eight essentials of mobile learning,” from a variety of case studies and related.

They pointed to the importance of recognizing and adapting to the shift taking place in way students are learning. The traditional model of learning from teachers lecturing in the classroom is giving way to students learning from one another in a broader contextualized world.

Dede spoke about the rapid evolution of learning where digital information can now be routinely discovered and delivered to mobile devices, creating an era of “augmented real world ecosystems.”

“The important issue is not the use of technology, but changes in content, pedagogy, assessments and continuous peer learning outside the school – and mobile helps,” said Dedes. “The hardest part for teachers is not learning (to use technology), it’s unlearning. “ Teachers “have to unlearn their beliefs about schooling from all those years in traditional schools…and develop fluency in using emerging interactive media.”

He and Evans summarized what they described as eight essentials to effective mobile learning:

Wyatt Kash contributed to this report.

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