Trends | Features

5 K-12 Ed Tech Trends for 2012

As the new year begins, education technology experts look at what's ahead for learners and educators.

In 2012 education technology will see an increased focus on individualization--from personalized learning environments to digital textbooks designed to connect students to the resources that work best for them. And with a growing number of students using handheld devices to access these learning tools, trend watchers can expect to see big pushes for faster innovation to tie everything together.

"There are a few trends worth watching this next year," said Karen Cator, the United States Department of Education's (ED) director of technology. "I would say the expansion of mobile devices is one, expansion of ever improving digital content is another, and the expansion of social networking for learning is another."

Personalized Learning Environments
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to personalize learning environments--to make learning more efficient and effective because it's more personal and it's more closely related to who your are as a learner," said Cator.

While the idea of interest-driven learning is not new, the movement has experienced a resurgence in growth, thanks to advances in individualized learning technology and the new role of student as collaborator in the creation of curriculum.

"That is an important trend, but before you can really achieve that in any meaningful way you have to have an adaptive learning engine that makes individualized instruction possible," said Frank Ganis, a general partner at the Gilfus Education Group, which released its annual list of educational predictions in October 2011. "Realistically, when it comes to the schools you don't really see a lot of true applications. Where you do see it is in supplemental education."

The January print edition of THE Journal focuses on personalized learning. You can access the cover story online now!

Companies like Kaplan and Sylvan provide a number of online tutoring options to supplement learning. Schools can either purchase the online platform that enables district teachers to tutor students or they can use the professional tutoring services offered by the companies.

"It's a very interesting trend right now," said Ganis. "The online tutors give the students some sort of assessment, and what the assessment is trying to do is measure what they have mastered and where are their skill gaps. And that's where you get individualized curriculum to fill in the gaps."

The right instructional software supports personalized learning by not only adapting to students needs--and evolving as they progress--but also providing instructors and administrators with valuable insight in the form of learning analytics.

"When we're talking about personalized learning, learning analytics will definitely be a field that's going to help us get better and better at personalizing the learning environment," said Cator. "It's a new field, and I think that we should, in 2012, be looking for an emergence of more learning analytics."

Beyond the Digital Textbook
Cator also said that improved digital textbooks will offer students information in ways that is more likely to connect with them.

"I think the trend is towards--I wouldn't call them e-books, I'd call them 'digital learning environments,'" Cator said. "We'll see in 2012, the expansion of digital learning environments that will help all students learn."

To explain the distinction, Cator said that e-books are simply digital representations of books, with text and pictures. "But when we think about the expansion in digital books or digital learning environments, it also includes not just the text and pictures, but also video and Web sites and simulations, visualizations, and environments where you're testing yourself and lots of other kinds of things that would be important."

Cator also said she thinks 2012 will see "continued expansion of free and premium models of delivery of digital content."

The open-source movement will further push digital delivery of online material. Google is investing millions into sites like Khan Academy while other sites including Open Educational Resources and CK12--which is part of California's free Digital Textbook Initiative--are also finding more acceptance.

Tablets and Mobile Devices
One of the biggest education technology trends in 2012, will be an increased use of mobile devices with educational apps, according to a September 2011 study by Encyclopedia Britannica. Smartphones, tablets, and netbooks lead the pack of preferred handheld devices among K-12 students.

Cator said that she thinks "mobile technologies that are in the student's backpacks, and are with them all the time" will be more important in the new year than they have been in the past. "For learners and people of all ages," Cator said, "I think we're going to see a trend expanding in that direction."

South Korea is already moving ahead with this trend. The south east Asian country has invested $2 billion to replace traditional textbooks with tablets for its K-12 students. And according to Ganis there are good reasons to think tablets will work better for younger children than PCs or laptops.

"The reason tablets are so important, especially in the lower grades of K-6, is because if students at that age have to use a keyboard it interferes with their ability to absorb and retain information," Ganis said, citing the early days, when typing was taught in classrooms but not before grade 6 because students' motor skills and mental facilities were not yet synchronized. "By removing the keyboard from the learning applications, the tablets are more effective than a laptop or a PC."

The End of the LMS?
But Ganis also said that there is one technology that may impede this forward trend: the learning management system (LMS).

"Probably the most dominant trend is selecting learning platforms," said Ganis. "This is such a landmark trend in K-12 that almost all the other trends are somewhat meaningless."

And Ganis said that those platforms should be something other than a traditional LMS.

"We believe that LMS is an antiquated concept because most of its capabilities were thought of or developed during the era," said Ganis. "And technology has evolved so dramatically that there is so much more that is now possible that is almost impossible to add to LMS because of their technical architectures. So platform selection is critical for schools if they are going to be able to do anything meaningful, say with mobile devices."

"Most school districts and schools are now shopping for their school-wide and district-wide learning platforms," Ganis said. "It's critical for K-12. It's the core that, for instance, would make the use of PCs or laptops coherent and productive, much less tablets or smartphones."

The Digital Promise
A final trend to watch for in 2012 is the effort to bridge gaps in technology innovation and access.

The Gilfus Education Group has found that when it comes to using technology, K-12 is about 10 years behind higher education. According to Ganis , there is less academic freedom at the K-12 level, which hinders technology experimentation and adoption. But a new program is seeking to turn that around.

In September 2011, ED provided startup funding for Digital Promise, a new initiative created by President Obama and the U.S. Congress, which is designed to bring technological breakthroughs into the classroom. Digital Promise endeavors "to support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal, in order to provide Americans with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy."

The program seeks to achieve this goal by:
  • Providing a central location where education technology developers and innovators can access research about learning and ways to improve it;
  • Using competitions and prizes to encourage innovation; and
  • Creating the League of Innovative Schools, a coalition for schools to "share ideas about using technology successfully, find new ways to get promising technologies in the classroom, and evaluate how well they work" according to information released by Digital Promise.

"With more than 14,000 school districts and outdated procurement systems, it's difficult for entrepreneurs to break into the market and it's also tough to prove that their products can deliver meaningful results," according to a prepared statement from the organization. "Meanwhile, the amount we invest in research and development (R&D) in K-12 education is estimated at just 0.2 percent of total spending on K-12 education, compared to 10-20 percent of revenues spent on R&D in many knowledge-intensive industries such as software development and biotech. Digital Promise will work with school districts to create 'smart demand' that drives private-sector investment in innovation."

Another area where K-12 students continue to struggle is Internet access. Innovation and personalized learning depend on students having consistent and reliable access to the Web, both at home and at school.

"I think we're going to see in 2012 the ability of low-income families to have the opportunity to get home access and improve the opportunity to learn," said Cator. "I think there will be some really interesting work in 2012 associated with enabling the last 100 million Americans currently not connected to become connected."

On Monday, Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed expanding the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program to include reduced costs for broadband Internet service for low income families. The program currently provides qualified families with cheap phone service, but Genachowski said that focus has become outdated now that "high-speed Internet has become our vital communications platform."