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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

A Hack Education Project


This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 9, 2013. Part 6 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

We spend a lot of time in ed-tech talking about the Internet, about the Web, about software. But it all relies on hardware. And I think this was a year in which we saw schools really (re)embrace and (re)up their hardware procurement. I add the re- prefix because this effort isn't new. I often exort folks to read Papert's Mindshift. I should add: read Cuban's Oversold and Underused.

Beyond "The Year of the iPad"

Way back in 2011, I chose the iPad as one of the top ed-tech trends of the year. I noted that I’d penned an op-ed in The Huffington Post in January, proclaiming it would be the year of the (educational) tablet. But I was wrong. It was the year of the iPad.

And arguably, 2013 was more of the same. During October’s quarterly earnings report, Apple CEO Tim Cook bragged that iPads have 94% of the education tablet market share. But Apple’s continued dominance in the tablet market is just one feature of the educational hardware market in 2013 – one that was fairly lively in part because of several headling-grabbing hardware rollouts. Hardware was interesting this year too because of rival tablet makers that are still trying to unseat the Cupertino giant, because of other education hardware makers that are still trying to sell their wares to schools (interactive whiteboards, for example, just won’t die), and because of a number of small and cheap computing devices that are part of the burgeoning “learn-to-code” and “maker” movements.

Hardware and the Maker Movement

As I noted in the previous post in this series, there was a surge this year in organizations, companies, and initiatives pushing computer science education. And while the emphasis of many of these is on learning to build software, there are a growing number of hardware offerings too. These include Raspberry Pi (one of my favorite ed-tech startups from 2011), Makey Makey (another one of my favorites), littleBits (another one of my favorite ed-tech startups – note the pattern here?), and LEGO Mindstorms (which I wrote about here).

Although the Maker Movement is probably most associated with learning outside of formal institutions, it is making inroads into schools. For example, MakerBot, 3D printer manufacturer, announced MakerBot Academy, its effort to help expand the number of 3D printers in schools via a partnership with the crowdfunding platform DonorsChoose.org. Google provided a grant in January to provide 15,000 Rasperry Pis to British schools.

Language arts teacher Chad Sansing argued in The School Library Journal that Raspberry Pi might be a key to “a school coding revolution.”

“With its astounding price and flexible capabilities, the Raspberry Pi has the potential to challenge the digital divide and make coding in schools as commonplace as textbooks. Computing could truly become about what kids can make rather than what schools can buy. And making coding affordable for all students could foster creative, independent computing in a way that downloading the latest app does not.”

That distinction between computers as consumption devices and computers as creative ones isn’t new, of course. Nor is it likely to go away with the massive purchases schools are making, particularly since many of these are associated with the Common Core State Standards’ requirements for computer-based testing and with a push by politicians and publishers to move textbooks from print to screen.

The Competition for Computers in the Classroom

Despite all the hype and hoopa about iPads “revolutionizing” education, it’s probably worth noting that interactive whiteboards remain on or near the top of many teachers’ list of what ed-tech they have and want in their classrooms – yes, higher in some cases than iPads or tablets. While an op-ed in Edsurge proclaimed “the downfall of whiteboards” and argued that teachers are no longer interested in them, a survey by PBS at the beginning of the school year found otherwise (perhaps because interactive whiteboards don’t really demand that teaching practices are transformed by technology, although interestingly that same survey found that teachers said IWBs would be the most transformative). Regardless whiteboard maker Promethean has continued to post losses over the last year or so, with demand for the devices shrinking.

No doubt, schools are now investing in other sorts of computing hardware, well beyond the interactive whiteboard, and doing so despite budgetary shortfalls. There are more and more options in how to do so.

Some districts opt for BYOD (equity issues remain here, however, as just 23% of teens own a laptop and 78% a cellphone). Some try to make do with refreshing and refurbishing their old tech. New York-based startup Neverware helps schools improve the performance old hardware with a virtualization appliance called the “juicebox 100” (the startup raised an additional round of funding this year). And some districts are turning to private funding to help with their tech procurement efforts – or San Francisco is at least, with a multimillion donation by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to the district so it could buy iPads for the city’s middle school students.

What are schools buying?

iPads. iPads. iPads. Apple said at the beginning of the year that it had sold over 8 million iPads directly to schools globally, and as I noted above, the company recently boasted 94% of the educational tablet market – something that education writer Anya Kamenetz called “a scary stat.”

Oh sure, it’s not like other companies aren’t trying. Heck, even Nintendo is hinting at getting into the education tablet market.

Undaunted, Google continued its hardware push into schools (one that accompanies its software offerings, Google Apps for Education) this year. I predicted once upon a time that Chromebooks would get the axe, but they seem to have found a niche within schools who see them as a cheaper laptop alternative. (21% of all notebook sales are now Chromebooks.) Google unveiled a couple of hardware upgrades to the Chromebook in 2013 and expanded the number of countries in which they’re available. It also won a high profile deal with Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, which switched from MacBooks to Chromebooks. Covering all its bases – the laptop and the tablet market, Google also launched Google Play for Education, its educational app store for Android. I reviewed Google Play for Education in November, noting that it has a number of administrative features that are far superior to Apple’s iOS device management and app purchasing procedures.

Microsoft too tried to compete in the education hardware market, although with much less success, particularly when it came to its tablet offering. The company gave away 10,000 of its Surface RTs to attendees at ISTE this summer. But the devices weren’t well received – by reviewers or consumers – and the company posted a $900 million loss in July due to “inventory adjustments” related to its tablets. Microsoft has tried to offer free tablets to schools who signed up for its ad-free version of Bing, but some things you can’t even give away.

Although less well-known for this in the US than in other countries, Intel did continue its education hardware efforts too. Notably, the company acquired the digital textbook app-maker Kno in early November. Kno had at one time been working on its own hardware – hailed by investor Marc Andreessen as the “most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” (LOL) Intel had invested in Kno previously and with the acquisition gained a number of the startup’s patents.

Perhaps the most-anticipated entrant into the education tablet market this year was Amplify, the education wing of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Just in case you feared that iPad was the only device that could receive the silly “revolutionize education” headlines, Amplify had its share too. “News Corp’s Education Tablet May Be the Bureaucratic Fit Schools Need to Adopt Tech,” wrote Techcrunch’s Greg Ferenstein who authored one of those great “iPads will revolutionize education” stories way back in 2011. Amplify struck a number of content and tech deals with other companies this year. It also announced “one of the largest tablet deployments in K–12 education” in May – but more on that in “failures” section below.

One Laptop per Child unveiled new hardware this year too – a tablet which for the first time in the organization’s long history was made available via retail in the US. Yes, you can now buy a OLPC tablet at Walmart. There’s no mention of constructionism in the item description. But there is a learning dashboard so parents can track their kids data and their learning styles. And this kids, is why we can’t have nice things in ed-tech.

That other bastion of constructionism and ed-tech, you could say, has been the state of Maine which has had a one-to-one laptop program for over a decade. (You can trace the lineage here between the One Laptop Per Child project, its founder Nicholas Negroponte, his fellow MIT professor Seymour Papert – who happens to be a Maine resident.) This year, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative announced that it was going to expand proposals beyond laptops and allow companies to propose bids for tablet solutions as well. And in April, the state announced that Hewlett Packard, and not Apple, would win the contract for the program. But despite the official nod, most districts in the state stuck with Apple, although some did switch from MacBook to iPad.

The Troubles with Tablets

But with all the hype and all the hoopla and all the contracts and all the sales, I don’t think educational hardware ends 2013 on a positive note. Indeed, since back-to-school this fall, there have been a series of well-publicized failures in technology production and implementation.

In some cases, it was a matter of lousy devices. The Aakash tablet, for example, which promised a “game-changing” $35 tablet, still faces manufacturing issues. HP Chromebooks suffered from overheating chargers and were pulled from store shelves. Overheating chargers, along with quick-to-break devices, also plagued Amplify’s ballyhooed tablet rollout in North Carolina, and the district has put the initiative on pause. A principal at the Mountrath schools in Ireland called the move to HP tablets “an unmitigated disaster” due to technical issues including systems failures, tablets failing to turn on or leave sleep mode, and so on.

In other cases, the introduction of tablets caused problems that administrators and tech proponents should have planned for but clearly hadn't considered. (Ugh.) Many schools reported widespread issues with theft of devices and hadn’t really thought through who’d be responsible – the school or the student. Some schools realized that the lack of high-speed Internet at home was too big a barrier for digital textbook and tablet implementations.

And then there was the panic about “students hacking their iPads.” (Good for them, I say. But what do I know.) When students in Indiana received their school-issued iPads this fall, they quickly bypassed the security on the devices. Indeed, many districts said that this fall’s upgrade to iOS7 caused security and filtering issues.

With security issues and other problems making headlines, the Corvallis (Oregon) School District opted to delay its iPad rollout. Fort Bend ISD (in Houston, Texas) opted to scrap its $16 million iPad initiative. Miami-Dade (Florida) opted to delay its $63 million tech rollout. And then there's LAUSD...

LAUSD: Everything That Could Go Wrong With an iPad Implementation in One Ongoing Ed-Tech Disaster

Years from now, instructional technology students will read about the LAUSD iPad rollout as a case study in how not to implement ed-tech. Because even though districts across Maine (and elsewhere) have been managing one-to-one computing programs for over a decade now, LAUSD didn’t learn a single lesson from any of them. A few highlights:

In June, Apple issued a press release, announcing that it had been awarded a $30 million deal by the Los Angeles School Board of Education to begin “to begin a massive roll out of iPad® to its students across the school district starting this fall. The $30 million commitment for iPads is the first phase of a larger roll out for the country’s second-largest public school district.” Apple issued a press release, kids. For a company that rarely does so, it was a big deal.

That $30 million only covered the initial rollout – the first 31,000 devices. The district said it planned to give all 640,000 school children an iPad by the end of 2014. The cost of the entire project: an estimated $1 billion. (No wonder Apple issued a press release.)

But that estimation missed a few key line items. It didn’t include keyboards, something that could add another $38 million to the cost. The software licenses – special proprietary curriculum created by education giant Pearson – expire after 3 years and renewal could cost the district $60 million annually. A revised estimate of the price of each iPad in October: $770 per piece, some 14% above the initial bid and well above the retail price.

(Here’s a link to the contract with Apple and Pearson which you have to assume that no one on the LA School Board actually read.)

It also appeared that the school district hadn’t worked out who’d be financially responsible if a student lost or broke an iPad. As with the students in Indiana, high schoolers in LA bypassed security on the devices, allowing them to – gasp! – listen to Pandora and visit Facebook and freely surf the Web.

There are concerns too that the district will struggle financially to sustain the project, which is being funded overwhelmingly by school construction bonds. Because nothing makes more sense to pay for a device with a 12-month forced obsolescence cycle than using money set aside for building brick and mortar buildings. Nevertheless 90% of administrators surveyed by the district favor continuing the initiative. (Just 36% of teachers do.)

While there were hints that former Gates Foundation exec and now LA schools chief John Deasy would step down amidst the iPad disaster, he’s keeping his job.

The district ended the year saying it would delay the rollout of iPads to all teachers and administrators, but it does promise that the devices will be used for standardized testing in the spring.

iPads. Revolutionizing education indeed.