This post starts with my experience in grad school. I am currently finishing up my instructional technology specialist, and I have become a bit frustrated by the inherent problem with a degree in a field that is innovating so quickly. That problem is course work that is just not up on the latest and greatest innovations in the field. I can even understand why it's not considering. Education technology has changed at a frenzied pace in the last 16 years.
That frenetic pace of innovation has brought us to a place where we have two generations of people, companies, and thoughts in the education technology field. You can see that separation in degree programs, classrooms, and conferences every day. The most obvious place is in conference exhibit halls because products are sitting side by side, and I term that split the smart board generation vs. the mobile generation. I fall squarely in the mobile generation, and I think to make education technology a game changer we need to move others to mobile as quickly as possible. It’s going to be a long hard road though as most teachers still fall directly in the smart board generation.
The SmartBoard Generation
The SmartBoard Generation is typically the older generation, but the influence of this generation over college programs and new teachers has put many younger teachers squarely in this generation. As innovators and thought leaders, we have to start advocating for this generation to change their thought process. The Smart Board generations view on education technology is what is one of the main factors leading to the backlash we tend to see against technology spending.
When we talk about this generation, Education Technology sits squarely in consumption. This is the generation that grew up with student creation being difficult when you moved outside of Microsoft Office. This is the generation where having a smart board and annotating over it in teacher driven instruction matters. This is also the generation where many of their creation projects are with analog (think tri-folds) or super basic technology like power point.
Unfortunately, I believe that this generation is still winning when it comes to how technology is used in the classroom. It’s incredibly obvious when you visit big conferences like ISTE. Who has the big booths? Smartboard makers and textbook companies. The size of the booth means they are still making boatloads of money with districts. Even when you look at smaller booths, they are filled out many times by digital consumption companies. The businesses that are truly for the mobile generation are typically either in small booths or not on the show floor at all. It is changing though as companies such as Nearpod have seen enough growth to see their booth slowly expand.
When talking the Smart Board generation, the easiest way to see it in a classroom is through the prevalence of things like digital content. Many school districts are spending boatloads of money on platforms that supposedly measure where the student is in their understanding, and then they try to ask the students questions to raise that level of understanding. These platforms include things like IXL, ST Math, Imagine Learning, and much, much more. These platforms sit squarely in the Smartboard generation though because they are all about consumption. Most of them accomplish their goals by asking what amounts to multiple choice questions and students sit passively in front of a PC just clicking away. Many times the curriculum within these platforms is also preset.
I honestly think these platforms are doing more harm than good. I can see their use somewhat with young children to learn and support things that are necessary rote memorization such as sight words and math facts, but these platforms, want a bigger piece of the pie. Many platforms have a curriculum that goes much higher in grade level and some cases content. We are also starting to see digital platforms that focus on content outside basic literacy and math, and that has caused students to spend more and more time on them. I have two elementary age children who have 3 to 4 digital content logins. Another issue with these platforms is the fact heir curriculum is present. This is intended to make the teacher's life easier, but is it what is the best course of action for students? I would argue it is not because it is never going to match up to exactly what students need.
I am going to take heat for this, but I have come to the conclusion that Microsoft OneNote sits squarely in the Smartboard Generation. OneNote is gaining in popularity with schools because it is paired as a free tool with a district email solution (Outlook) and it gives you many of the same functions that an LMS would. While I have some issues with the product on the technical side (the way it syncs is just crazy), the biggest problem I have with it is the false sense of high-level technology use it brings to many. I have seen too many folks who have gotten on there, moved their classroom to a paperless vision, and then thought they had achieved that high-level use. Student creation then becomes stuck at a level where students are annotating and recording a little bit of audio. Most of the time this is in response to something that is pushed down by the teacher. Some outliers have found surprising, creative ways to use OneNote, but the majority of use cases do nothing for student creativity and originality. If you come to this conclusion and move to just using OneNote as a conduit for teacher turn in, you then sit squarely in a camp that makes Google Drive the better option because of its deep integration with Google Drive and the superior experience it gives the user over OneDrive.
Even though the mobile generation is what we desperately need teachers and education as a whole to move into, it's going to be a very hard road. The teacher-centered, consumption culture of education technology is still a major focus of university programs, and because there is still such a focus on experience in the education field, it's what is pushed on young teachers when they get out into schools. It's high time we change that; it's time to move everyone into the mobile generation.
The Mobile Generation
When you think of the mobile generation, we typically think of the younger teachers that have grown up in the smartphone world. While much of that is true, there are still plenty of older teachers who are intrigued by the vast changes in the technology landscape and have put themselves out there with amazing work that allows students to create and make. It's high time we moved everyone to this space.
When you look at this space from the business side of things, it usually centers on companies that are innovative start-ups. Often these firms look at an issue at education and the devout all of their resources trying to solve that problem and iterate on that design. In fact, I think you could do a fantastic case study with students on some of these companies reasons for existing, consistent iterations, and models that they have used to be successful.
When I look at a company that has been around for a while but sits squarely in the mobile generation, Nearpod comes to mind. Nearpod saw an issue, utterly boring content delivery, and they used mobile innovation to make the delivery more personal for students and give them the opportunity to interact with the content in new ways. They took presentations away from the front of the room put them on a device in front of the student, and they allowed the teacher to personalize content by putting students on different presentations at the same time. Nearpod can be used to enable teachers to create their own digital content.
You might look at Nearpod, and say what is the difference between it and a tool like OneNote? I think it all comes down to knowing what you are. Nearpod knows that it is strictly a content delivery device. It adds interaction and chances for students to do things like creating original drawings within that content delivery. In OneNote, you can create original drawings, but most of the use cases focus on annotating and recording over teacher delivered documents. It also gives that false sense of high-level use, while Nearpod is just a tool utilized in the broader toolbox of the mobile teacher.
The mobile generation also sits squarely in the student creation camp. If you want to be considered part of the mobile generation, the best way to start is to get your students using the power of their device to do things like make videos, audio, websites, games, animations, and much, much more. To do it and ensure learning, you need to design both a process and scenarios that put students in real-world situations. An example could be something like creating an audio commercial for the new products of the industrial revolution. Students will never forget that invention if they have to act as if they are selling it.
Another key aspect of student creation in the mobile generation is giving students a process of learning that they have to undertake with each project or assignment. I see teachers all the time who decide to do a project, and it comes down to just telling students to give them a final product. If you develop a process that allows students to both plans, create, and reflect the learning becomes much more powerful. A great place to start with a process is the steps of the STEM design process.
The biggest area of progress though for the mobile generation is the frantic pace and amazing products that are coming out of the maker and coding movements. In the last few years, there has been a push to get kids to create and make in places like makerspaces and classrooms. Making can focus on so many things, and because of that, it has become a massive area of innovation in education technology. New products and services come out every day to push students into the making space.
One of the biggest focuses in the maker movement is on coding. For years, teaching coding on schools got down to having to type the real code into a terminal. Now there are tons and tons of both programs and toys to teach kids how to code from a very basic level all the way to complex code that will truly create something unique. A few of my favorites include Dash robots, Spheros, Swift Coding App from Apple, and Ear Sketch. These can be fantastic ways for students to learn and create their own mobile experience!
To close, think about what you truly are? Think about your colleagues. Where are they? How can we move the needle into what students truly need with the Mobile Generation and student creation? We are going to face push back as an education technology community until that shift happens. Outsiders (including our wonderful politicians) will continue to not understand the use if we stick in that Smartboard Generation. They will see it as a waste of money because student learning and achievement may not move that much. If we move students to the mobile generation with student creation, student achievement will more than likely move, but best of all we will be preparing our students for the world that wants them for the mobile generation.
An Educator's Call to Arms
So, Betsy Devos got confirmed. It's a sad day for public education. Ms Devos comes into office with absolutely no experience in public schools and a lifetime of advocating for them. From a personal standpoint, seeing my Senator Johnny Isakson vote for her might have been the saddest part. I worked as an intern for Senator Isakson, and I was hoping he would be willing to stand up for the right thing in education, rather than the party thing.
Through Senator Isakson, I saw one of the biggest issues in public education: politics. All too often we are letting members of both the Federal and State Congresses make education decisions based on what their party says. It does not matter if it's a poor decision for kids.
I have seen some say that Ms. Devos will get the federal government out of the education system and return local control to the states. If that were the case I might be more for her, but for those that think that I ask, "How do you figure?" Ms. Devos has spent her life working on education from a government level. Now she sits in a seat of power to push that policy through. If anything, my guess is we are for more politics in education.
As I have contemplated the reasons behind some of our Republican Senators votes, I have come to the conclusion that the voice of teachers was just plain not loud enough. Teachers are just not heard. Yes, there are teachers union groups in Washington to lobby, but they have been delegitimized over and over again. At this point, no matter what good they do, they can't help.
We need a grassroots organization made of educators that can be mobilized to lobby for education policy. From the little bit I have seen, this group does not exist. I, of course, may be wrong, and I would love to help if it does.
Again, this group should not be a teachers union. To keep it legitimized they should focus completely on the policy that affects kids, and they should ignore the things that focus on things like teachers job benefits. As soon as a group moves to discussing shared benefits, there is a certain group of the country that does not listen.
With an advocacy group like this, all of the educators putting their views out on Social Media could have had a unified front. A group like this can also make powerful statements with Marches on Washington and State Capitols. It could be a powerful way to say we won't settle for the status quo of politics entangling education.
Not matter what party you associate with, I think you can agree that teachers really don't have a say in education policy. Education advocacy is fragmented, and teachers unions hold no weight with a certain group of politicians. It's time we change that. Who's with me?
For years, one of the major spaces of competition in the education technology space has been Learning Management Systems. There are several companies big and small that have gone from startup to major player in the ed tech space, but I think we may be soon in for a bubble burst. LMS's may go the same way as most things in technology....they may be controlled by just a few companies.
So, what is a learning management system or LMS? It's basically a place that organizes your classroom into a digital hub. You can post assignments, assessments, content, and more so students can access it digitally from anywhere. Almost everyone in education needs a space like this so that if a student gets lost, doesn't know where to go, is absent, or just generally confused they know where to start.
I think when you look at the LMS space there are four distinct categories: the big boys, the upstarts, the virtual school platforms, and the build your own with a website. From a death standpoint, I think the one that is in real danger are the upstarts, but the virtual school platforms could also be a development in the future. Let's look at each category to understand the space.
The Big Boy Group
The big boy group is the newest category, and it's the scariest for the upstarts. Basically, it's Apple, Google, and Microsoft's solutions for an LMS, and they are scary to the upstarts because they can offer total solutions that districts seem to be moving in droves.
Google started the trend with Google Apps for Education, but they soon realized they need a simple LMS type solution. This brought about Classroom. Smaller LMS companies struggle to compete against it because it integrates everything on the Google side: email, drive, and the LMS. It makes it easy to turn in assignments and deliver feedback. That ease of use is always a winner.
Microsoft soon realized Google's lead, and they began pushing out their own with the 365/One Note Universe. When you look at their LMS, it revolves around One Note. One Note is a Note taking an app that syncs across multiple devices, and teachers can also set up Class Notebooks within the system. It's adoption hinges on the fact that many schools are moving to Office 365 to provide their employees access to email and Microsoft Office in the cloud.
This is a space that Apple falls a little bit behind the others, but you are starting to see Apple have signs of life. The closest thing they have to an LMS type system is Itunes U. It gives the teacher all they need to set up an online class, but their format to switch classes can be a little different from the typical LMS. Their advantage over the little guy though goes back to their hardware. Itunes U works incredibly well on Ipad, and if that's the avenue a school goes it's likely that's what they will pick.
The Little Guys
There are lots of little guys out there, and I think with Apple, Microsoft, and Google's entrance into the game you are starting to see signs of death. When we talk little guys these are your platforms such as Edmodo, Schoology; It's Learning, Canvas, and a host of others. I think you see many schools who would much rather pick the all in one solution that also provides things like email and office rather than one that is just an LMS.
The interesting one of the bunch is Canvas. Canvas started as an answer to the problems of the others. Canvas is an open-sourced platform that is both feature packed and integrates well with other apps. Schools are seeing those integrations and jumping on board. They also market the product almost like the virtual school versions do which has allowed them to sit in a nice sweet spot between and LMS and virtual school platform.
Canvas seems to be growing, but are they soon going to be come tapped out thanks to the big boy solutions? Solutions from Microsoft and Google give you more then just the LMS, and I always wonder if schools will just use their versions to accomplish that digital hub. I think we already see the decline of some of the others because of the "Big Boy" versions. I have seen several schools in the past couple of years shift from one of these little versions of One Note or Google Classroom, and I think that trend is bound to continue. The little guys seem to be doing everything they can to hang on to their existing user base, but growth is a slow go. If you are thinking about one of the Little Guy solutions, I would proceed with caution.
The Virtual School Platforms
The Virtual School Platforms are a whole different ball game entirely. Many school districts are being virtual school programs that are fully online for students to do things like summer school and grade recovery. To do so, they need to have platforms which are not just supplements but are the full class online. This has led to a rise of feature packed platforms such as Blackboard, D2L, Edgenuity, and more. The interesting thing is watching districts try to adopt them to regular classrooms. The thought is that if we are going to spend a whole bunch of money on a virtual school platform, then why not have a uniform LMS across a district. Almost universally, this has been met with pushback from teachers, and in many instances rightfully so.
The differences between these platforms and an LMS is all about features. Most LMS platforms are meant to be supplements to class instruction, while these are supposed to be the entire class. Typically, it means these platforms have features and integrations that others don't. Things like having a virtual conference, email, and gradebooks come with these, but don't typically come with an LMS because there are usually other solutions for that. You are also starting to see some of the platforms come with pre-loaded content so that a virtual class is standardized.
While these features may be great for virtual school, they can overwhelm teachers.
They are so feature packed that teachers get lost. They also can be convoluted when it comes to students finding things within the platform.
From a leader standpoint, I think I would have to go with D2L. The interesting thing is that I might have said Blackboard less than a year ago. D2l has made inroads in the avenue by starting with Universities and expanding out. They are my graduate school platform, and now I am starting to see them move into K-12 school districts. They are gaining traction because they have easy integrations with other apps. That easy integration is the real key to making these platforms stick.
These platforms are also in an interesting place in the grand scheme of things. Lots of districts are starting virtual schools, and they see these platforms as a need. Will it continue? I don't know. I think asking these platforms to transfer over to everyday use is a major stretch, and are virtual schools going to stick to being a major district thing? I also think you might see the virtual schools switch to something like Google Classroom as it adds more features. That all in one solution may end up winning out if the features come up to the Virtual School Level
The Build Your Own
Personally, my preference to the digital hub solution is to build your own website. I think it's the most customizable, and it allows you to get the most out of learning tools by using HTML to embed them. To use websites as solutions though, you run into two major issues: 1) It's hard to standardize 2) It's not an easy entry.
The idea behind a website is that you take one of the free builders like Weebly or the New Google Sites, and you design what your digital hub looks like. You can then customize it by adding other learning apps such as Padlet, Nearpod, Touchcast and many others through the magic of HTML embed.
The issue here starts with the fact that this is a hard entry. For many teachers, asking them to build their own website is a lot. It takes planning and a deep understanding of the website platform. This typically is a project for the "techie" teachers, but I think you could implement school-wide with high expectations.
The other issue that comes with a website is that it is hard to standardize and control from a broader perspective. Many districts are so freaked out by laws relating to student digital use that they want you to be on the district level domain. Websites might be the best solution for kids, but other factors mean that you may never see a wide spread use.
The LMS question is going to be an interesting one for years. It's one that as of now looks like it's going to go similar to smart watches. Startups start the movement (like Pebble in Smart watches), but when the Big boys get in (like Apple and Google), the little guy dies. What we know more than anything though is that the need for a digital hub is just going to increase. Every school and every teacher needs to have a solution. Schools just need to have high expectations for them.