Technology In K-12 Education – New Challenges, New Opportunities
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Technology In K-12 Education – New Challenges, New Opportunities

Deepak Agarwal, CIO, The School District of Palm Beach County
Deepak Agarwal, CIO, The School District of Palm Beach County

Deepak Agarwal, CIO, The School District of Palm Beach County

I continue to be amazed at both the pace and breadth of innovative technologies available to school districts and professional educators that allow customized learning and the promise of better educational outcomes. Along with these opportunities come significant challenges related to the cost, infrastructure, support and deployment of educational technology, especially for large urban districts.

This time, it’s Personal!

Trends in education have a tendency to come and go, but Personalized Learning is one that looks like it’s here to stay. Supporting initiatives like 1:1 device(s), digital classrooms, immersive learning, etc. hold tremendous potential to allow teachers to design a custom curriculum—complete with course materials, real-time analytics and outcome-based results. The Digital Classroom opens up new opportunities to replace printed books and source materials with their digital equivalents, leading to cost-savings on printed materials but adding cost on the technology side. Backed by cutting edge technologies like Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence using adaptive software, the latest Personalized Learning model seeks to provide teachers with a set of tools to allow them to truly provide a 1:1 teacher/ student relationship.

Another strong trend in educational technology is the “builder” movement—whether it be robotics, games, mobile applications, 3-D printing, immersive technologies (VR) or Lego. The satisfaction of seeing the tangible results of their efforts can excite and motivate students to greater achievement.

 The pace of change for cutting-edge technologies also presents the likelihood of a shorter product lifecycle 

The common factor all these exciting trends share is that they are not cheap—increased hardware, support, maintenance and infrastructure costs to accommodate these have to be factored in to any purchase decisions. The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) can often greatly exceed any preliminary cost estimates. The pace of change for cutting-edge technologies also presents the likelihood of a shorter product lifecycle. Since the majority of districts are unable to fund every new trend, doing the upfront research and due diligence to pick the best fit for the district’s educational goals is extremely important.

The Power of Analytics

While analyzing results has been around as long as teaching has, the ability to collect data, analytics and metrics around educational outcomes is faster and more powerful than it’s ever been. The sophistication of these tools, often powered by neural networks using deep learning allows for much quicker results, the ability to spot weaknesses early on and mid-course corrections leading to better outcomes. While the richer the data, the richer the result, privacy and security concerns also have to be vetted and mitigated.

Full STEAM Ahead

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts+Design & Mathematics) initiatives are taking education by storm. These initiatives have proven very successful in helping shrink the gap among US students for these critical skills. While lauding their effectiveness, it’s also important to note that they don’t come for free – the need for more computers and computer labs, server & disk space, networking & internet bandwidth means greater outlays for equipment, support & staff. Moving to virtualize as many servers as possible, an in-progress hybrid SAN upgrade and aggressive expansion of high-speed access to all schools and facilities allows us to be nimbler and responsive to the ever-changing technology landscape.

Organizations like Hour of Code seek to demystify the process of designing and writing code. With activities starting as early as 2nd grade going through HS and beyond, students will be exposed to the concepts surrounding application design and development. As eager participants in the Hour of Code and other STEAM-based initiatives, we’re embarking on a long-term strategy to engage students early in these critical skills and keep them engaged through graduation.

Looks Phishy to Me!

As the rate of technology use and ubiquity increases, so do the challenges of keeping our systems and data secure and private. The importance of understanding outside threats and being able to respond quickly cannot be overstated. The increasingly inter-connected nature of devices and move towards everything being internet-capable, or the Internet of Things (IoT) greatly broadens the landscape of potential threats. When everything is a computer, everything is also a potential threat that needs to be managed and mitigated. Add to this is an expanding Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy in response to needs of the schools and community and the situation becomes even more complex for school districts.

The increasing frequency and sophistication of phishing emails, Distributed Denial-of Service (DDOS) attacks, port scanning and other attempted breaches require constant vigilance and aggressive response. The trend towards Cloud-based technologies for application hosting and SaaS provides an additional complication. Beyond using best-of-breed tools and products to identify, respond and stop malicious attempts before they become a breach, on-going user education is paramount to limiting these potentially devastating attacks. In a district of our size and diversity, the technology IQ varies greatly across our user base requiring a least-common-denominator approach to training and education on suspicious or malicious activities.

In Closing

All CIOs face some of the same challenges—cost-cutting pressures, timing of large-scale deployments, rising infrastructure demands, security and privacy considerations, etc. The educational space provides its own unique set of challenges & opportunities for technology professionals, with the additional mandate of being good stewards of the taxpayer’s money. Every company or institution has a mission – for K-12 school districts it’s to provide the best possible tools and environment to prepare the youth of today for success in the area of their choosing. It’s a mission we take very seriously and strive to achieve—the strategic planning and use of technology plays a large role in our ability to fulfill that mission.

School districts across the country, like other taxpayer-funded entities have certainly felt the impact of the current anti-tax sentiment. Here at the School District of Palm Beach County, we have been fortunate to have passed two major referendums in the past two years to address long-standing maintenance and technology issues. These were successful in large part to our ability to convey how students would benefit directly as well as transparency in how the funds would be used. The community’s trust in and support for our mission and purpose is satisfying and reinforces our belief that we’re on the right track.

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