Technically Speaking

From buzzword to boom, the new EdTech industry is finding its way into classrooms near and far.

Rob Bixler has seen the writing on the chalkboard for some time. Now the clock is ticking down; the bell ready to ring.

Bixler is senior director for strategic data systems in technology and innovation for Orange County Public Schools — “a big title,” he says with a chuckle. And there is an urgent task to match at the nation’s 10th-largest school district and fourth largest statewide.

Next fall across Florida, half of all classroom instruction must begin using digital materials, as mandated by the state Legislature.

At the same time, Florida shifts to the Common Core State Standards, joining 45 other states and the District of Columbia in a move designed to align what students learn in K-12 more closely with what they need to know in college. And already, all students must complete an online course in order to graduate from high school — to be taken through their high school, the Florida Virtual School or a dual-enrollment course at a college.

Significant and widespread change is afoot in K-12 classrooms. And technology is squarely in the middle.

“Technology in the classroom has sort of always been there,” says Bixler. “But in general, probably over the last three years, technology has boomed, especially in the state of Florida.”

Hardware, software and the Internet are sharing space with, and in many cases replacing, textbooks and traditional teaching. “College and career readiness really lends itself to the use of technology,” Bixler cites. “Most professions have changed dramatically over the last several years, and almost everything is technology based. Industries are changing at light speed.”

Not coincidentally, colleges and universities are witnessing their own explosion.

The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference held recently in Orlando offered a peek. More than 300 information sessions involving 500-plus speakers addressed the opportunities and challenges of using technology to meet new higher education requirements. A trade-show exhibit space was packed with 300 vendors.

One of the biggest areas of growth is online learning.

According to the 2013 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of college students taking at least one online course surpassed 7.1 million during the fall 2012 term. The 6.1 percent growth rate, although the lowest in a decade, still represents 411,000 more students taking at least one online course.

Back at Orange County Public Schools, Bixler and other officials offer a case study in K-12 tech preparedness. Seven OCPS schools are in the second year of a digital curriculum pilot program (dubbed Digital Learning
1 to 1). Participating schools encompass all grade levels in varying geographic areas of the district. The five-year Digital Classrooms Plan includes measurable student performance outcomes, professional development, digital learning tools, online assessments and operational activities — at an allocated cost of $1.7 million for the 2014 to 2015 school year.

Students at each school are provided the use of devices and Google Apps for Education. At Pinewood Elementary School, for example, students are using the Class Set iPad with keyboard, while Liberty Middle School has the 1:1 Lenovo Chromebook laptop and Ocoee High School has the 1:1 MacBook Air laptop, to name three.

In this second year of the pilot program, parents and students have been supplied with greater how-to resources to encourage greater understanding of using digital resources. The district already offers a free keyboarding/typing software program for students. Teachers have access to on-demand training modules on a range of topics. Another item soon to be available is unlimited E-Book software access.

“We are testing not only the specific device, but also the operating system the device has,” Bixler says. “We spend a lot of time in the teaching and learning aspects and the technical side of the house, making sure that together, in a collaborative effort, we’re working toward some really informed decisions.

“Every district tries to discover a different way. Let’s not go out and buy 20,000 or 30,000 devices and see how it works. We started out on a very small scale. … Ultimately, the device should support teaching and learning.”

The goal is for all 187,000-plus OCPS students to have a personal device for learning. “The benefit of having every student with a device in their hand is that it opens them up to activities and resources that they would otherwise not have access to,” he says.

“Personalized learning helps the kids who need remediation plus the kids who are advanced; it allows them to excel and have opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

K-12 school districts are in the midst of transforming the learning process

Noting the price tag for such an arrangement through the school district would cost $229 million, Bixler offers this assessment: “That’s the dream.”

More realistic are incremental steps toward merging technology with new curricula demands. The Florida Department of Education is creating new course descriptions for each subject in each grade, based on the new Common Core State Standards, which are largely deemed as tougher by educators. The technology must also help students and school districts navigate the new standardized testing that’s intended to eliminate the concept of “teaching to the test.” Instead, the curriculum will focus on problem solving and analytical thinking vs. fact memorization.

At Hillsborough County Public Schools, the nation’s eighth-largest district, an internal reorganization has resulted in a department branch dedicated to instructional technology and training. New products are entering classrooms, such as more versatile and adaptive interactive whiteboards and 3-D printers. Creative learning spaces are taking shape. And there’s a list of new software “a mile long,” cites Joshua Sawyer, department manager of Information & Technology – Architecture & Integration at the School District of Hillsborough County.

“We’re seeing it all come through our doors,” says Sawyer, who also is one of only 27 specialists called Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts nationwide.

Like OCPS, Hillsborough has plenty of plans for advanced technology. One example is the “intelligent classroom school” in the works at Turner/Bartels K-8 in Tampa, where 150 classrooms are being designed with hopes of outfitting them with the “latest and greatest” technology. “It’s kind of a reach-for-the-stars model,” he describes.

Other pilot and prototypes abound throughout the district in the quest to enhance 1-on-1 learning. “Apps plus applications plus devices, and trying to make that work, is definitely a big task to accomplish. But we want to ensure that we have student success and teacher success,” Sawyer says.

“Our ultimate goal, at the end of the day, is to transform learning, and how does that happen with, A, the human component and, B, the technology component?”

No matter how you slice it, the pie for EdTech, as it’s labeled, is huge and growing, with name brands making recent noteworthy moves. McGraw Hill has established a partnership with StudySync, a company that creates digital English curriculum tools. Scholastic Inc. has introduced Codex, a middle school English digital curriculum.

Reportedly, investors placed $1.25 billion in 2013 on the future of such education companies, with the belief that business will continue to expand as school districts incorporate more and more technology into their classrooms.

For EdTech, the future has arrived — but with a caveat: Technology can only go so far. At least that’s what Bixler says — he of that long and telling title.

“A great teacher with a textbook is a great teacher. A great teacher with devices and technology is a great teacher,” he says. “It all begins with a great teacher in the classroom. That is the key.”