Today’s students are digital natives. This is a generation that has never known a world without Google, the internet or even smartphones. Technology is at the center of their lives, touching every aspect of their day-to-day experiences and influencing their decisions, large and small.
It stands to reason, then, that technology should be a crucial part of their educational experience. Traditional tools such as encyclopedias and card catalogs are being replaced by computers and tablets offering up search results in seconds, while chalkboards and erasers have been discarded in favor of “smart” whiteboards that display any manner of interactive materials. Every day, schools are adopting new, innovative technologies to further enhance the educational experience for these digital learners.
While technology can act as a catalyst for greater learning, it must be paired with the right tools to enable the right kind of interaction. Beyond computers, technology in education also includes a growing lineup of other devices and online services that provide a rich digital environment for students to learn and teachers to instruct. Underlying these devices and services should be an infrastructure that can handle the bandwidth demands of a technology-first learning environment, providing seamless, always-on connectivity wherever users are on campus and whatever device they’re using.
The Impact of Technology on Education
Ever since the first personal computer was introduced in the 1980s, technology has steadily infiltrated the educational experience, first as a productivity tool for administrators and then as an instructional tool, to teach students computer programming classes. A few years would pass before PCs were considered appropriate for other areas of instruction: By 1989 computer usage shifted from being a relative rarity in American public schools to being present in nearly every school district.
Today, computers are used for just about every subject, from mathematics to physical education. And other technologies, from tablets to flat-panel displays, have now become part of schools’ arsenal of technologies to enhance learning.
Through technology, teachers have the ability to provide instruction beyond the standard “stand and deliver” method, utilizing tools such as online videos, interactive demonstrations, class surveys and educational websites to expand their communication and address myriad types of learners, auditory to visual and everything in between. Teaching is no longer a static activity; technology enables teachers to make learning a truly interactive experience.
Students, too, benefit from technology in a number of ways. Beyond their comfort level in using technology, students can use various types of technology to study topics from multiple angles. For example, students learning about life in ancient Rome can watch educational videos on how its major buildings were constructed, play a video game to try and defeat the Roman invasions of other countries and even use an online calculator to determine how much a Roman denarius is worth today.
Indeed, students exposed to subjects in multifaceted ways have a greater chance of knowledge retention, studies show. According to the American Institutes of Research, students at high schools focusing on so-called “deeper learning” had higher scores on standardized tests in mathematics and English, and higher graduation rates than their peers.
Technology also enables students to learn at their own pace, helping increase their level of comfort with both the topic and the learning environment in general. In-classroom lessons coupled with activities on computers or mobile devices both in and outside the classroom allow students to read directions, process information and complete their work at their own pace. This self-directed learning also enables teachers to focus their efforts on helping students who may need extra guidance or assistance.
What’s more, technology can help students feel more “connected” with their work, as they are able to see the subject matter beyond the four walls of the classroom. Such connection leads to greater student engagement with learning. “When students are using digital resources, building multimedia projects, collaborating and connecting online, and conducting online research, they are more interested in their schoolwork today, and they feel more connected to what their future holds tomorrow. Most of today's students expect that, as a matter of course, they will be using technology after high school—in college, in their future occupations, and in their personal lives—to work collaboratively, research, create and solve problems,” wrote Mark A. Edwards, school superintendent at the Mooresville, North Carolina, Graded School District in an article in The Journal.
It’s clear technology benefits students and teachers alike, as it impacts the way instruction is delivered and information is received.
How Technology is Being Used in Education
The last 10 to 15 years in particular have seen a bevy of technology-focused tools and services aimed at the education space. Indeed, according to IDC Government Insights, U.S. higher education institutions were on track to spend about $6.6 billion on IT in 2015, while K-12 schools were on track to spend about $4.7 billion.
In comparison, the Education Technology Industry Network reported the total education-technology market in the 2012-13 academic year (the most recent year the group had such information available) totaled $8.38 billion. That means spending in 2015 was projected to be more than 120 percent of the total market just three years earlier.
In the Classroom
Technologies both entrenched and nascent are helping enrich the learning experience in the classroom. In addition to computers in the classroom, a growing number of mobile devices such as tablets and even student-owned smartphones are being put to work as tools for both learning and student engagement.
Tablets not only help keep students engaged, they also can be money-savers for schools, combining books, calculators and word processors into one device. Teachers are using tablets in many ways: to conduct digital field trips through the use of Skype, Google Hangouts or other web-based video collaboration tools; to foster peer-to-peer collaboration through the use of cloud-based tools such as Dropbox or Google Drive; and to reach special education students through apps designed specifically for those with learning disabilities.
Tablets also are being used increasingly as a vehicle for digital content, including textbooks. According to a 2014 survey of K-20 educators conducted by the Center for Digital Education, 64 percent of respondents said they had adopted e-textbooks in some fashion. A full 75 percent of those participating in the survey said the move to digital content was important to their education institution.
A number of schools also are taking advantage of the fact that more students carry smartphones. Once eschewed and even banned by schools, smartphones today are becoming another tool for instruction, with 73 percent of teens having access to smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.
Apps such as polleverywhere.com enable teachers to assess students’ level of knowledge before a test through a simple “text your answer” interface, while Remind101 and other reminder apps can automatically send out reminders to students’ smartphones when an assignment or project deadline looms, for example.
Online learning also has taken its place among in-classroom digital technologies, with teachers utilizing various services and sites to provide more personalized instruction that complements in-classroom learning. For example, in presenting a unit on the biology of a grasshopper, a teacher could provide classroom instruction including a short video and presentation of facts. Students then could log on to a particular site or app to perform a virtual dissection of a grasshopper, then take a short quiz to gauge their level of learning. Students who score poorly on the quiz would receive access to additional materials online, then take another quiz.
State testing, too, has gone online: During the 2015-16 school year, only 15 percent of assessments administered to students in grades 3-8 were of the pencil and paper variety, according to a report by EdTech Strategies. Most grade 3-8 students—of which there are about 20 million in the United States—take between two and four state-mandated tests each year, the report noted. That’s a lot of students logging on at once.
Outside the Classroom
Technology’s impact on learning extends beyond the school, as well. Homework now can include watching instructional videos on YouTube or creating a wikipage on a particular topic with other class members, for example. Or, students can participate in an online game that teaches them about survival in a particular time period, or even develop a game of their own.
In addition, most schools today have online portals for both parents and students to foster communication between teachers and families. Student information such as attendance records and grades are available for parents to access, keeping them in the loop regarding their child’s academic status. Students can view assignments, access outside-classroom resources such as video links and sites to visit, and even submit homework to their instructor, either through the portal or via email. In addition, secure communications could be sent from teacher to parents, or vice versa, helping promote a constant flow of information. And all parties have the ability to communicate with each other, through email, chat or text messages.
Today and Beyond
Technology’s role in education is growing, but a number of nascent applications and services could help it become essential to teaching and learning alike. Some, such as cloud computing, are more well-known and already have become established in education. Others, such as machine learning, have yet to make their mark, but have the ability to fundamentally transform the educational experience.
Augmented/Virtual Reality: Imagine teachers being able to teach history by taking students on a tour through a battlefield or showing the architecture of ancient Greece—without leaving the classroom. Augmented and virtual reality technology can put students “into” an environment, enabling them to experience what’s going on without actually being there.
Machine Learning: IBM Watson showed the power of cognitive computing when it beat Jeopardy! champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings in 2011. Today, the technology is being used in multiple industries, including financial services and healthcare. In the higher education space, Watson is being used to parse research data, but its ability to personalize education could have a profound impact on the way teachers teach and students learn.
Technology ‘Mash-Ups’: The combination of 3D printing, robotics and programming is opening a world of opportunities for students to move beyond concepts and into creation and taking learning to a much higher, more lasting level. The ability to take a project from idea to finished product can help students learn faster and retain knowledge better.
Mobile Devices as Learning Devices: Recognizing that more people use their smartphones and other mobile devices for internet searches more than they use their PCs, a number of mobile app development companies are building learning apps for the education space—a quick count in the Apple App Store alone tallied more than 1,700 apps. And as more users turn to their mobile apps as their primary source of information, the number of apps will continue to increase.
Cloud Computing: The cloud has made its mark in the business setting as a flexible, scalable alternative to on-premises infrastructure. The same can be said for cloud in education. Using the power of the cloud, teachers can extend the learning environment beyond the four walls of the classroom for students who can’t make it to school. Or, they can create more interactive assignments, including videos, chat sessions and live interactions using technologies such as Google Hangouts or Facebook Live.
The Network is the Key
Digital learning relies on technology; therefore, schools need networks robust enough to meet the needs of the technologies that power a seamless, secure educational experience. To provide the content necessary in creating a powerful digital learning environment, their networks must offer connectivity and speed for the multitude of both wired and wireless connections.
The network is a vital element in delivering the digital learning experience. As such, the network should provide high availability, high bandwidth and redundancy to deliver seamless and continuous teaching and learning from all locations inside the four walls of the school, and handle the traffic needs of users connecting from outside the school.
To ensure always-on connectivity today and provide the path for advanced technologies down the road, school districts and higher education institutions should look for a network service provider that can provide a secure, high-performance network that can be adjusted according to bandwidth needs. A good network service provider will address current demands and anticipate future needs to guarantee the school can continue to provide its population of students and instructors with a stellar online experience.
In order to provide services that meet the needs of today’s digital natives, school systems should work with service providers that can support a full line of dedicated, broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity services, ensuring an always-on, always-connected environment that works for everyone. Look for a network provider who can handle every aspect of the network, from provisioning to management, installation, maintenance and repairs. That helps schools focus on providing the best learning environment, instead of tending to their networks.
The educational experience is evolving to keep pace with technology. Computers and mobile devices are being adopted at a more rapid pace as tools to enhance learning. More school districts are cognizant of the fact that almost all students now carry a smartphone or other mobile device, and are using their presence to further learning in and out of the classroom. What’s more, education-focused and non-educational websites alike, such as YouTube, are extending the teaching environment beyond the four walls of the school and into students’ homes, providing them with instruction and direction at any time.
To facilitate the technology-driven educational experience, school districts and higher education institutions must ensure their networks are robust enough to handle the data loads brought on by the many systems connecting to the network. High bandwidth, high availability and redundancy are the hallmarks of a strong, reliable network necessary for the digital learning renaissance.
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 Ellucian, “The Cloud: A Smart Move for Higher Education,” 2015
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Technology is changing the way teachers teach and students learn. The evolution of the connected classroom has tremendous implications for the future of education.