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3 Trends to Watch in Ed Tech

3 Trends to Watch in Ed Tech 

Imagine if students left high school with a secure, permanent digital record of all their accomplishments — their academic achievement, extra-curricular experiences, community service and more — that followed them throughout college and into the workplace. Every new degree, certification, digital badge or other honor they earned throughout their lives would be added to this record like links in a chain, and these credentials would be tamper-proof to give employers some assurance that students actually earned them.

This technology exists now, and it’s being used by a small but growing number of colleges and universities around the world to empower students by giving them ownership of their official record. K-12 education is likely to follow soon.

The technology is called “blockchain,” and it’s the same technology used by Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies to keep a secure and reliable record of financial transactions. In the academic world, blockchain is being used to link students’ educational records together — and it’s poised to revolutionize the credentialing process.

“The ability to recognize all kinds of learning experiences throughout a student’s education, and have that record follow the student, is very exciting,” says Samantha Adams Becker, a futurist in residence at Penn State University and a consultant to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “Blockchain has the potential to seamlessly connect K-12 with higher education, careers and professional learning.”

Driving K-12 Innovation

Blockchain is one of many technologies that Becker and other edtech experts are watching closely as part of a new CoSN initiative to help K-12 superintendents and chief technology officers lead innovation in their schools.

Called “Driving K-12 Innovation,” the project will produce a series of three reports each year about emerging issues that could affect teaching and learning.

The first report, released in January 2019, focused on the “Hurdles” holding back K-12 innovation. The second report, released just last week, focused on “Accelerators” driving changes in K-12 education. The third report, expected in June 2019, will highlight five “Tech Enablers,” or emerging technologies that can help schools overcome the chosen hurdles and put the accelerators into practice. A toolkit for K-12 leaders will tie these reports together with practical guidance for integrating the technologies in question.

The initiative is led by Becker, who managed the Horizon Report series for the now-defunct New Media Consortium (NMC). The yearly Horizon Reports explored the top technology trends affecting education. NMC issued two Horizon Reports each year: a higher-education version and a K-12 version that was produced in conjunction with CoSN. The higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE now produces the higher-ed version, and the “Driving K-12 Innovation” series will build on the work that began with the K-12 version.

CoSN Chief Executive Officer Keith Krueger describes the new initiative as “more holistic” in nature than the Horizon Report series. Instead of creating a document that was downloaded only once a year, “we are trying to create a year-round conversation about technology’s role in driving K-12 innovation,” he says.

As with the Horizon Report series, an advisory board consisting of nearly 100 edtech experts will convene in an online community to discuss the challenges, opportunities, and emerging technologies affecting K-12 education. The advisory board will then choose the hurdles, accelerators, and tech enablers to be featured in the reports.

Transforming Credentialing

Although the advisory board will have the final say in what the reports will focus on, Becker says one of the technologies the group will be discussing is blockchain — and how it could transform credentialing in the future.

A blockchain is a secure ledger of transactions in which each block builds on the previous one, making the entire chain immutable. When used for financial transactions, it records who sent the currency, who received it, and how much it’s worth. The same concept underlies the use of blockchain for academic credentialing.

With the use of paper or digital transcripts, schools are the keepers of this information — and students (or former students) must undertake a slow and often expensive process to access these records or share them with prospective employers. The promise of blockchain is that it will allow students to maintain their own official academic record in a way that is safe and cannot be tampered with — while also building on this record throughout their professional life.

A software company called Learning Machine has built a toolkit of open-source components that any developer or school can use to create, issue, view and verify blockchain credentials. This toolkit is available free of charge at www.blockcerts.org.

Here’s how the process works: Using a mobile app, students would add a school to their list of credentialing institutions, just as they would add friends to an app. This would send the school their name, email address, and a public key that is unique to each student. Once the school has this information, it can begin to issue credentials as these are earned. When a credential is issued, a record of the transaction is added to the blockchain — and both the school and the student have an official “copy” of the transaction. When students later apply for college or a job, they would simply submit a link to their certificate, and the college or employer would use an independent blockchain verification service to verify the information.

With this process, students no longer have to request a copy of their transcript — which is more convenient for both students and schools.

The technology is already in use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Central New Mexico Community College, among other institutions. Learning Machine CEO Chris Jagers says it’s only a matter of time before K-12 schools are using it as well.

“Learner-owned records are extremely relevant for K-12 education, in particular the high school transcript,” he says. “Giving students their official record in a blockchain-secured format would ensure they have a permanent record of their accomplishment, which is useful when applying for college or employment.”

Other Technologies to Watch

Besides blockchain, Becker says, other technologies that K-12 leaders should watch for include…

Haptic interfaces: These are systems that allow people to interact with computers through bodily sensations or movement. A haptic interface sends an electronic signal to a computer based on different movements or sensory interactions. Each signal is interpreted by the computer to execute a process or action. In turn, the interface also sends a signal back to the human body, such as an electronic vibration. When you feel your phone vibrate as you get a text message, that’s an example of a haptic interface.

Haptic interfaces have important implications for learning, although cost is still a barrier to adoption in K-12 schools. In higher education, haptic interfaces are widely used in industrial and medical training. For example, medical students can perfect delicate surgical techniques via computer, feeling what it’s like to actually suture blood vessels or make precise cuts. In Portugal, K-12 students and engineering freshmen have been using a haptic device to feel the elastic force on a spring.

“Now that we’re seeing handheld devices proliferate in K-12, the touchscreen technology we’re using is only going to evolve and become more sophisticated,” Becker says. “It makes sense that haptic interfaces will find their way into K-12 schools, because the technology is all about trying to interact with an object or device authentically.”

Extended reality: This encompasses virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and “mixed” reality, which combines a physical and augmented learning experience. AR is a technology that layers computer-generated enhancements on top of existing reality, while VR is a fully immersive experience in a computer-generated environment.

For a long time, the hype surrounding these technologies outpaced their usefulness in the classroom. But now they’re beginning to make a real impact on teaching and learning, as hardware costs have come down and new applications have emerged that put extended reality within the reach of most schools.

For instance, extended reality technology can take students to places they can’t physically travel to and help them visualize abstract concepts, such as bringing chemical elements to life.

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