A wish list for education technology

Given that I’ve been writing about technology in education for some time, I’ve come to think an awful lot about how kids these days can have it so good. Graphing calculators that actually make math beautiful? Digital notecards that can figure out my biggest knowledge gaps? Easy access to information, people and tools that cater to my interests — whether that’s music, programming or stop motion animation? Count me in.

This week in particular, at the SXSWedu ed tech conference in Austin, I happily geeked out in panels and conversations about data science, makerspaces, online learning and other movements angling to remake education. But, impressed as I was, I still found myself looking for more conversation and answers to questions about a few themes.

Much like the SXSW Interactive conference that’s just getting underway, SXSWedu is a choose-your-own adventure experience — there’s another option around every corner and you’re always wondering what you missed. It’s possible other participants got their fill on the following topics, but here’s a wish list of what I hope to hear more about in ed tech — in the year to come and in Austin in 2014.

Digital equity

Technology (especially mobile) is marching its way into communities across the country. But, obviously, that doesn’t mean penetration, quality and connectivity are evenly distributed. When I spoke with Edmodo’s VP of engineering Dimon Sicore a few weeks ago, he emphasized the need (and challenge) to develop for the lowest common denominator in schools because while some school districts might have the latest iPads and Macs, others are using outdated technology. In his keynote speech, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton cautioned the crowd to be mindful of the potential for technology to exacerbate the gap between kids in richer and poorer communities. And Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in his speech, made the important point that uneven access to the Internet needs to be addressed. But, amid presentations from Silicon Valley startups and discussions about pilot programs with the Palo Alto Unified School District, I didn’t hear digital equity issues echoed widely throughout the conference. I wish I did.

Digital report cards for students

Data, data, data. Between presentations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed inBloom and panels on personalized learning and analytics, it was a common refrain. But one of the most compelling ideas I heard all week was about a digital student report card that, like an electronic medical record, would give parents and students a digital record of academic progress. Stephen Coller, a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, first raised it during a panel on the future of student data, making the point that education could follow health care’s lead when it comes to opening up access to data. But later in the week, I heard Dale Dougherty, founder of MAKE magazine and advocate for more hands-on learning in schools, draw a similar parallel between education and health data. If presented in a meaningful way, data could give parents an unprecedented window into their child’s learning and, while a digital report card seems like little more than idea now, I hope the concept takes off.

The Four C’s

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects get a lot of attention in education — and they should. We’ve all heard the reports about how U.S. students lag the world in those areas and how desperate businesses are for skilled workers. But real-world success doesn’t just come down to the mastery of those subjects, and technology is starting to play an interesting role in encouraging and tracking progress in “softer skills,” like the “four C’s”: creativity, collaboration, community and critical thinking. Scoot & Doodle, a social creativity site that blends the video conferencing capabilities of Skype with the playfulness of Draw Something, and school Makerspaces are starting to give students and teachers opportunities to exercise these skills. Class Dojo is another in-class tool that helps teachers promote and measure non-cognitive skills.  Startups and educators seem to be paying more attention to this area but it seems ripe for so much more.

More teacher involvement

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 percent of this year’s 5,000 attendees came from higher ed, 30 percent were from K-12 education and 30 percent were business folks and policy wonks. But it didn’t feel that way to me (or to others at the event). Most of the people I ran into in lines or who stood up to ask questions during panels seemed to be more technologist than educator.

This could certainly be because I chose panels that attracted a non-educator audience. But even if the group was 60 percent educator, I’m sure many of those people were not the teachers who will be using this technology in the classroom. As I wrote earlier this week, it became increasingly clear to me during the week that the composition of the conference attendees, like the composition of the ed tech world in general, is varied. The technologists and the educators have different perspectives, different information contexts and different interests. I spoke with a few teachers at the conference (mostly local) but would love to see more at conferences like this and involved in online and offline communities in general.