It’s the waning days of August, and many K-12 students,  parents and teachers are preparing for the start of the 2017-2018 school  year.  The other day my wife and I  attended a “meet the teacher day” for my daughter’s fourth grade class.  I was totally blown away by the array of  education technology that these elementary students will use on a daily basis.  From streaming video and augmented reality,  to interactive online textbooks and a new “assignment reminder” app, it made me  wonder just how pervasive digital EdTech will become over the next several years,  and how it will impact student performance.

My interest stemmed from two key perspectives, one  personal, one professional.

From the personal side, I wanted to understand some of  the short-term and long-term evolutions of the K-12 learning experience, whether  they will adequately provide my daughter the skill sets that will be required  by employers in 2025.  Also, on the heels  of a humbling experience last year with 3rd grade algebra, I wanted  to know much time I’m going to have to invest to come up to speed on the  tech-heavy curricula if I am to have a hope in helping her with homework.  From a professional perspective, I was  interested in whether K-12 network infrastructure is keeping up with the fast  pace of evolution in EdTech.

What I found after several hours of research and talking with K-12  educators, technologists and consultants, was both heartening and  disconcerting.  I was heartened to see that  around the world, K-12 districts are seeing positive results from the proper integration  of digital curricula and EdTech; and they are tightly linking digital learning  environments to forecasted skill sets of the future.

However, my research was also disconcerting from the standpoint of how  districts will be able to fund the huge increase in bandwidth capacity required  to support the short, medium and long-term evolutions in education. One district CIO related how his  district’s bandwidth requirements quadrupled as he began distributing Chromebooks just to begin getting closer to a 1:1  device to student ratio.

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From my research, I’ve identified four trends that are changing the way  students learn and engage, while also changing the game for how school  broadband networks must keep up:

Greater Emphasis on  Collaboration

In many countries throughout the world, K-12 districts are shifting away  from theory-based approaches in favor of approaches that emphasize real-world  experiences to better prepare students for the workforce. These strategies  often involve projects in which students collaborate online with peers in  different countries to solve a local or global challenge.

Traditionally collaboration has involved video  and online sharing tools.  Researchers in  Japan are taking the idea a few steps further by experimenting with collaboration  in virtual worlds as a medium for solving project-based tasks.

The collaborative learning approach is quickly  gaining acceptance in classrooms around the world, based upon its success rate  in improving student engagement and achievement across the spectrum of student  populations.  Often that success is  closely linked with the right EdTech, which, per the World Economic Forum, “expands the  reach of cooperative learning strategies by furthering the communication and  collaboration competencies that affect how students approach complex challenges”.

The link between EdTech and cooperative  learning was also demonstrated in a 2016 study of 400 educators by SMART  Technologies.  The study showed that student success is 3.4 times more  likely to occur when collaborative learning practices and technology are used  frequently together in the classroom.

21st Century skills

The World Economic Forum's list of 16 key skills needed to  thrive in today’s innovation-driven economy.

Deeper  Learning Through Technology

The concept of “deeper learning” has many  meanings.  In K-12 it refers to the use  of EdTech to shift from passive to active learning, and to challenge students  to develop ideas by themselves from information they obtain from multiple sources.  This puts more control in the hands of the  student, and allows them to experiment with a variety of platforms and tools  depending on the scope of the project.

For example, educators have found that popular  social media platforms can allow students to connect with peers in other  countries to exchange perspectives on current issues.  Content creation tools enable students to  create, edit and present video content to the world and incorporate responses  into their project.

Districts are finding that the right  technology paired with a deeper learning approach to teaching can boost the  quality, breadth and reach of student work. Research by the Education Policy  Center found that schools incorporating deeper learning concepts  produced better academic results, stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal  skills, higher on-time graduation rates and higher enrollment in four-year  colleges.

Schools incorporating deeper learning concepts produced better academic results, stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, higher on-time graduation rates and higher enrollment in four-year colleges.

Integrating  Coding Early

As coding has been found to strengthen  problem-solving and logical thinking skills, more K-12 districts are  introducing coding both inside and outside the classroom.  This new interest in coding stems from  studies that link economic growth to programming and the development of new  technologies.

In addition, organizations like the European  Commission have determined that the ability to code helps spur the acquisition of  in-demand 21st century skills such as creativity and computational  thinking. This has led many countries, including the UK,  Estonia, Finland, Australia and Tasmania to enshrine coding within the national  K-12 curricula.

Learners  as Creators

Another shift occurring in many districts  throughout the world is encouraging students to learn by creating educational  content rather than passively consuming it.  Many educators believe that by nurturing  creative skills, students can better achieve mastery on subjects through investigation, storytelling,  and production.

Access to internet-enabled technologies allows  students to create videos, games, and other media products and share them with  peers around the world.   This shift is  also driving changes in how mastery is assessed, leveraging built-in analytics  and adaptive learning platforms personalize the learning experience to the  individual student.

But Is  Bandwidth Keeping Up?

Classroom activity bandwidth tableThis is  the more difficult question to answer, as each district’s situation is  unique.  For example, one CIO I spoke  with recently deployed a brand new fiber network that provides multi-Gigabit  connectivity to each school.  His  challenge is that he cannot afford to provide each student with a device, and  the majority are not able to purchase for themselves.  They also lack broadband access at home,  which given the digital-rich curricula, just exacerbates the “homework  gap”.  Other districts have achieved a  1:1 ratio, but now find that they lack the bandwidth capacity to enable access  to the online content.

In the NMC/CoSN 2016 K-12 Horizon  report, a body of 59 educators from around the world agreed that  despite the ever-increasing amount of learning materials and resources  available online, access to high-speed broadband at school and at home remains  a major problem.  They expressed concern  that the lack of access to broadband will result in a greater rift between the have’s and have not’s.

So what are school districts to do to ensure  they can support the influx of devices and new learning applications that have  been proven to increase learning, engagement, and ultimately student success?  That very topic was discussed on a recent webinar Getting Your Network Infrastructure  “Back to School” Ready. I moderated this session, which featured four expert panelists driving the  EdTech revolution in today’s classrooms.

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