What's Hot, What's Not in 2016

Our expert panelists weigh in on education technology to give us their verdict on which approaches to tech-enabled learning will have a major impact, which ones are stagnating and which ones might be better forgotten entirely.

ed tech trends in 2016, hot education technology trends in 2016

Our panelists for the 2016 What's Hot, What's Not roundtable

The four panelists in THE Journal's annual end-of-year survey hit full consensus on just two of 11 topics — giving the "hot" label unanimously to "blended learning" and "student data privacy concerns." Meanwhile, e-portfolios garnered the least amount of enthusiasm, with two panelists opting for "losing steam" and two for "lukewarm." Other topics formed a mixed bag, with the "lukewarm" rating suggesting that many technologies/techniques are holding steady, if not exactly lighting the education world on fire.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): Lukewarm to Hot

Karen Billings: There is huge upside [in BYOD], but it won't be easy. Teachers need to keep up with the huge numbers of apps on the market. Administrators must get increased bandwidth for their schools, and tech directors must transition to cloud-based solutions. Providers need to ensure their apps work on tablets and smart phones. With the shifts in platforms, operating systems and form factors, there are major development issues for companies.

Jim Flanagan: With numerous studies and reports showing that personal tablet and smartphone ownership continues to grow for students, it makes sense that school districts are continuing to explore ways to have students use these devices as learning tools — whether at school, at home or both. However, many schools around the country still lack the WiFi connectivity necessary to truly realize the potential of mobile devices for learning. Ultimately, schools must prepare for "use any device," as many students have access to many devices, while also guaranteeing equitable access to at least one high-quality, dedicated device for each student.

Dissenting Voice — Chris Harris: Despite showing promise as a way for schools to reach a 1-to-1 goal without having to spend money, this never really took off in most places. The problem with BYOD is that it provides a wonderful opportunity for those families with the economic means to purchase devices without really solving the major issues of providing equity for all learners. Add to that the problem of matching software/apps to multiple devices, and you end up with a solution that causes more problems than it solves. With the low price points on Chromebooks and the ability to pursue building or district-wide rollouts that provide equity, I don't see BYOD persisting.

Tom Murray: All districts have BYOD in place as students are already bringing their devices to school. It's whether or not school leaders embrace the device as a learning tool that's the true discussion. BYOD will remain one of the most talked about initiatives in 2016, yet at this point, some districts have had this opportunity in place in some capacity for almost a decade. Many districts continue to pilot and dabble with BYOD, yet the fear of abdicating some classroom control still gets in the way for some teachers. Although an increasing number of schools are allowing and even promoting student devices on campus, changing the instructional pedagogy is ultimately the challenge and what takes the most time to transform. The FCC will continue its work mitigating the digital divide in what's been coined the "homework gap," and, as always, educators need to problem solve connectivity issues for those students who lose access the moment they leave the school campus.

Social Media for Teaching and Learning: Lukewarm to Hot

Karen Billings: Growth is lukewarm with consistent student interest and a growing acceptance by teachers, administrators and learning providers. Social media gives students more opportunity to write about topics that interest them and to reach an audience that they want to reach.

Jim Flanagan: A recent study by the University of Phoenix College of Education found that fewer than 15 percent of teachers have embraced social media, with 62 percent of those surveyed saying that they are reluctant to use social media in the classroom. The reason for their reluctance is the same as it often is with integrating other types of technology into learning and teaching: professional development. However, this could get hot again [lukewarm now] as we find ways to make teaching and learning more relevant to students' social media preferences.

Chris Harris: Social media as a teaching and learning tool is hot, but only for custom education platforms. Trying to shoe-horn teaching and learning into existing social media platforms always promises more than is ever delivered. What schools need are customized social tools that can be tweaked to support teaching and learning applications within established style frameworks.

Tom Murray: Over the next decade, 80 percent of jobs will require technology skills (via Intel Education). Social media provides a unique avenue for both students and teachers to tap a global audience to collaborate, network, share and learn together in real time, while simultaneously building such skills. Our students' world is only limited by adult restraints. If one of our goals is to truly prepare students for their future, we must leverage the power of connectivity and model such practice for our students.

Digital Badges: Mostly Lukewarm

Karen Billings: Digital badges may catch on as they did among higher ed students ... if K-12 institutions provide paths for earning them. Proof of learning experiences can be a valuable asset for students who just want to learn to do something — like coding to produce Web sites or apps — and be engaged with that learning community.

Jim Flanagan: With the popularity of MOOCs and other independent learning experiences, you would think that the digital badging movement would have been a much bigger trend by now. But it hasn't caught on yet — not in K-12, higher education or even the corporate learning world. Digital badges have the potential to become "hot" as badge value gets better defined as part of the human capital ecosystem.

Chris Harris: Informal learning in school and public libraries is growing steadily as these institutions flourish with maker spaces and online learning opportunities. Digital badges provide a way for libraries to certify and document informal learning using rich metadata and links to evidence that demonstrates mastery of skills and concepts.

Tom Murray: Districts continue to look for more effective strategies to implement professional learning opportunities as study after study indicates that the traditional top-down, one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get, hours-based approach to professional learning shows virtually no impact on student achievement. Digital Promise writes, "As an emerging professional development strategy, educator micro-credentials can enable our public education system to continuously identify, capture, recognize, and share the best practices of America's educators so all teachers can hone their existing skills and learn new ones." Although such a shift is being discussed in many districts, the hours-based model of professional learning has been entrenched in the system for decades, and, therefore, the transformation to a competency-based system for teachers will take significant time to implement properly.

Open Educational Resources (OERs): Mostly Hot

Karen Billings: OERs are lukewarm but have become mainstream as a major model for the development and distribution of content. Interest is still there given the free initial cost, and some resources better meet the needs of students and educators. Educators understand those benefits but also have discovered that OER materials require some initial investment/resources/time searching and vetting, then a longer and recurring cost for professional learning and support to make a systemic impact. If the only reason educators are using OERs is that they are free, the students may not be best served. But if it's because the OER materials are the best fit for their students, then everyone wins.

Jim Flanagan: The use of open educational resources in schools continues to expand as educators look for materials that they can modify and adapt to meet student needs and personalize learning. In addition, these online learning resources provide schools with an on-ramp as they make the transition to digital learning. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently appointed Andrew Marcinek as the first ever open education adviser to focus on helping schools explore the use of open educational resources and establish guidelines and best practices for their use.

Tom Murray: The U.S. Department of Education has single-handedly made this issue hot for 2016. By recently announcing its first ever open education adviser and by leveraging and building upon the President's ConnectED Initiative and recent Future Ready Schools effort, the push for open access and the pressure on companies to "go open" will reinvigorate the necessity for high quality materials that are free and open for use in schools.

Christopher Harris: OERs are sitting at a low simmer, and no matter how much we watch the pot, it just isn't going to come to a boil until we turn things up to 11 by adding a usable platform. For OERs to flourish, we are going to have to put more energy (time and money) into UX design and platform creation. It is quite naive to think that OERs can replicate the value of commercial resources simply by mirroring content; libraries know that the real power of high-end commercial resources is a carefully designed platform that makes it easy for teachers and students to find and use the content.

E-Portfolios: Losing Steam

Karen Billings: E-portfolios are flat now but expected to grow, given usage by higher education students who want to show potential employers what the graduate can do. The same could apply to graduates from high school who are looking for a job or entrance into college. Given the K-12 emphasis on accountability, curriculum standards and assessments, it will be a while before the e-portfolio becomes mainstream.

Jim Flanagan: While there continues to be discussion around the use of e-portfolios in schools, the actual adoption of them as an evaluation tool seems to have been slow to take hold. However, technology tools that can now support the development of e-portfolios, combined with the current national conversation around testing and assessment, may be the perfect storm to ignite the rapid acceleration of the adoption of e-portfolios as a way to provide a complete picture of a student's academic experience. Conversely, student projects, and the "maker movement," are hot, and this work needs to be curated and archived somewhere.

Christopher Harris: Are e-portfolios still around? I mean sure, it is a great idea, and they would be infinitely preferable to the standardized testing that abounds, but I haven't heard about this in a while. I hate to be negative, but it seems like the education profession agreed that we are all too lazy to actually put in the work it takes to assess learning in an authentic way.

Tom Murray: The tools have been around for years, and similar to digital badging, such a strategy requires a shift in mindset as well as a systemic K-12 vision. Although many districts will continue to dabble in e-portfolios, with the likes of Google Sites inside Google Apps for Education, or OneNote inside Office 365, this strategy will gain little traction in 2016 as it requires a shift in mindset.

Learning Management Systems (LMS): Lukewarm to Hot

Karen Billings: Learning management systems are hot if called "learning platforms," an emerging category with a full set of teaching and learning tools, especially on mobile devices. Growth is in the applications where students can access resources a teacher provides and collaborate to share the resources and knowledge they build. A trend that started in higher education, and evolved into a broader learning tool, became easier to use, and the providers have adapted the tool for mobile devices.

Jim Flanagan: While from an industry perspective the reported sales numbers of learning management systems continues to grow, there still appears to be some confusion about what learning management systems are and how schools use them. With growing trends like the use of OERs, personalized learning paths for students, blended learning environments, interoperability and adaptive assessment, the traditional LMS needs to continue to morph into a platform that will support these approaches to learning, as well as the next instructional innovations that are emerging.

Christopher Harris: LMS is hot, like an oppressively humid late summer day in Florida. You stand in the doorway, trying to cloak yourself in the last few seconds of air-conditioned comfort before sighing deeply and stepping forth into the torrid hotness of the sun that sucks all will to live from your pores, much like an LMS sucks the joy of learning from our classrooms. There has got to be a better way to do this.

Tom Murray: As more districts move to implement a 1-to-1 learning environment, the number of students enrolled in an LMS continues to climb. Although enrollments continue to trend upward, the question is really more about the utilization. Many large-scale LMS rollouts often simultaneously occur alongside ineffective professional learning practices and thus end up with minimal usage rates. The potential in this area is vast, and the tools continue to improve, but, overall, usage will remain generally under-utilized in 2016. The saturated market makes tools plentiful and high quality professional learning options difficult, thus leading to wide-scale implementation that often ends up being ineffective.

Flipped Learning: Mostly Hot (but Equitability a Question)

Karen Billings: It is getting incorporated into some teaching practices. It fits many subject areas (but not all) and certainly fits the higher grades more than the lower. Five years from now, we'll know if it's a fad or simply evolved to be part of a more dynamic teaching model.

Jim Flanagan: While virtually unknown a few years ago, flipped learning has gained significant momentum and is being implemented in an increasing number of schools around the country because teachers recognize its positive impact on student achievement. Jon Bergman and Aaron Sams — considered the fathers of flipped learning and ISTE authors — are powerful evangelists for this instructional strategy. Through their books, workshops and speeches, they have spread the word about how to implement flipped learning to thousands of teachers around the country.

Christopher Harris: Efficient and effective — but is it equitable? Before a school gets too excited about the hotness of flipped learning, we need to make sure that we are accommodating all of our students. It is great to see the FCC taking on the "homework gap" and exploring creative ways to bring broadband to more homes.

Dissenting Voice — Tom Murray: As eloquently stated by Michael Fullan, "Pedagogy is the driver. Technology is the accelerator." Just because we can doesn't mean we should. Many of those who have moved to the "flipped model" have essentially created "lectures on the go." Simply putting it online doesn't make it effective. Flipped will also continue to lose steam in 2016, as schools become more in tune with the "homework gap," where, according to the Pew Research Center, 5 million of the 29 million households with school-aged children lack access to high quality broadband while at home. Try watching an instructional video on dial-up, and then justify how it's best for a student to learn in such an environment. It's a difficult argument to make. Educators must always consider those that are traditionally underprivileged or under-served in decision making with such new models.

Blended Learning: Unanimously Hot

Karen Billings: Blended learning is hot. The number of students taking online courses has grown dramatically over the past few years. In fact, SIIA's Annual Market Survey found that the revenues in the online course category grew by 320 percent the last two years. But we also found that it has grown into a much broader definition and can include a fully digital curriculum delivered in the classroom.

Jim Flanagan: While a decade ago there was discussion that someday K-12 education might shift entirely to online — particularly for the upper grades — blended learning is rapidly emerging as an approach that offers students the positive cultural, social and academic features of a traditional school environment, combined with the expanded and personalized learning opportunities of online learning.

Christopher Harris: Good teaching that makes use of all available tools and resources is hot. Good teaching is always hot.

Tom Murray: Often used interchangeably (although technically defined differently) with "digital learning" or "personalized learning," the premise of teachers mixing face-to-face instruction with high quality digital opportunities will continue to grow in 2016.

From priorities at the highest levels in Washington to the push for "open access" and gains in connectivity to a dropping price point for devices, a perfect storm has evolved for districts to blend digital content with face-to-face instruction. With that said, to be effective, classroom instruction must always remain learning-driven and not device-focused.

Student Data Privacy Concerns: Unanimously Hot

Karen Billings: Consumers have become increasingly concerned about the security of their data given the increasing number of hacks of credit card information. Similarly, parents have become concerned about the privacy of student test data, even though the current publishers must comply with federal regulations such as FERPA and COPPA. The more that learning happens digitally, the more there needs to be a trusted framework among students, parents, schools and learning providers.

Jim Flanagan: Student data privacy concerns are among the "hottest" topics in K-12 education right now. The challenge has been, and will likely continue to be, developing strategies and policies that allow us to leverage the power of student data to inform instruction while ensuring that all student information is properly safeguarded. In addition, it is critical that schools are armed with the information they need to effectively communicate with students, parents, teachers and policy makers about how student information is managed, used and protected.

Christopher Harris: Privacy concerns are hot like one of those fancy lighters that doesn't show a flame but will burn you if you aren't careful. The problem with privacy is that we usually only think about it after there has been a problem. Privacy is also one of those thorny issues where perception of risk can be more problematic than actual risk. As a librarian, privacy is very important to me, so I strongly encourage administrations to remember that this a very hot issue, even if the flame is invisible.

Tom Murray: 2015 was a year that saw an unprecedented amount of student data privacy legislation introduced at both the federal and state levels. By October 2015, 46 states had introduced 182 bills addressing privacy, while 15 states had already passed 28 new laws. Simultaneously, just under 200 educational technology companies signed on to the Student Privacy Pledge that was touted by President Obama in this past year's State of the Union address. With the vast number of privacy-related bills currently in state legislatures, and action in both the Congress and the Senate, privacy will remain a hot topic in 2016 and beyond.

Apps for Learning: A Mostly Lukewarm Mixed Bag

Karen Billings: Apps for learning are hot. The growing use of mobile devices by students at home and in classrooms has led to huge and growing numbers of learning apps (250,000 by one estimate) and won't slow down for some time. They are easy and fun to use, inexpensive or free. What's not to like?

Jim Flanagan: Apps for learning are lukewarm. It is hard to believe that it was six years ago when Apple's tagline in commercials promoting the iPhone was "there's an app for that," because today there literally does seem to be an app for everything, and learning is no exception. There are millions of learning apps for all types of devices. While the quality of these learning tools varies greatly, there are many that provide students with powerful supplemental learning tools, link to their curriculum or provide them with a chance to play a game that helps them build scientific inquiry or critical thinking skills. However, apps must increasingly be able to interoperate with learning and analytics platforms to provide students and educators with a more coherent and manageable resource.

Christopher Harris: What a hot mess — from discovery in an app store to designers with no clue about instructional methodologies, there are endless problems with apps for learning. What has worked for me over the last decade is to build internal capacity in my school library system for Web development. We now push out our own apps designed by school librarians, with school librarians and for school librarians that are meeting real needs and solving real problems. School districts and regional educational services agencies need to become educational startup incubators and develop apps that really work for local needs.

Tom Murray: The potential for apps to personalize learning for each student remains feasible yet is under-utilized and under-planned. Quite often, apps are an afterthought, reinforce low level skills or have little strategic alignment to curriculum goals; no less to individual student needs. The use of apps will continue to increase as the number of devices continues to climb, but their effectiveness as currently used for learning will be minimal until there's a pedagogical shift in this area.

Games for Learning: Hot

Karen Billings: Online games have grown phenomenally, especially the massive, multiple-player ones, though they are mostly used outside formal classrooms. Our annual CODiE Award nominations continue to see a steady growth in game-based learning products. Simulations work well where the teacher knows how to incorporate them, but there is still a stigma with the word "games."

Jim Flanagan: If you attended ISTE 2015, ... you likely saw the long lines outside the sessions focused on game-based learning, teaching with games such as Minecraft and games [in the context of] the maker movement. Research shows that learning with games boosts student engagement, especially for struggling students, and that games provide students with an experience that helps them think like scientists. They try an approach, fail and then try again until they succeed. And this is a trend that has implications both at home and in school. To accelerate adoption, games must be able to interoperate with learning platforms. Also, I am curious to see the balance between teacher-created learning with OER and games/simulations.

Christopher Harris: Please, stop trying to make games for learning happen, and just make great games. Great games are complex, rigorous, and so deeply thematic that they are natural instructional resources that can be directly aligned to curriculum standards. The best games are also tabletop games that can be manipulated by an expert teacher to create custom scenarios and direct instructional experiences. This is my thing. See and

Panelists Parse Hot Devices

As a bonus question, we asked: What are the hot devices?

Christopher Harris: Music video recorders are hot. These hybrid devices that combine 1080p HD video capabilities with exceptional audio microphones are a hot choice for classroom video use. Cameras like the Canon VIXIA, the Sony HDR-MV1 or the Zoom Q4 or Q8 range from $200 to $400. The secret of these small devices is a tradeoff between video flexibility and audio power. With digital-only zoom, these cameras still deliver full HD video (or better) but with limited distance capabilities. In return, the audio quality is unsurpassed by anything short of a professional boom or wireless microphone setup; most of these cameras feature high-end condenser microphone capsules that will make music or interview recordings shine. The Zoom series can also be connected to a computer via USB to serve as a very high-end Web camera, with exceptional audio to make video conferencing more effective. Most of these cameras also feature wide-angle lenses that make them great choices for recording classroom instruction for video mentoring.

Tom Murray: The Chromebook is hot. Seventy-two percent of Chromebook sales were education-related purchases in 2014. Due to the incredible price point of these browser-driven devices, the increase in quality seen in recent years and the ease of both deployment and management, the Chromebook looks unstoppable as the go-to digital learning device for 2016.

Karen Billings: Apple iPads are still hot. Apple had a head start with the design, relationship with schools and critical mass of the number of learning programs, especially for early elementary classrooms. But they are losing market share where cost is a consideration. Google Chromebooks and Android tablets are trending up, especially because of the growing use by teenagers and growing adoption given the lower cost and burgeoning number of apps.

Jim Flanagan: The smartphone is hot. Every day, the smartphone becomes less of a "phone" and more of a device for connecting with others via social media, researching information on the Internet, learning with apps and games and recording experiences with photos and videos. For many kids, many adults as well, the smartphone is the true "nerve center" of their lives.