Would you hire IBM’s Watson as a teacher’s aide?

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Does being a “Jeopardy!” champion make you an education expert? Not necessarily.

But, in the case of Watson, the IBM computer platform that famously knocked-off trivia phenom Ken Jennings from his record-breaking quiz show pedestal, the notoriety doesn’t hurt.

According to a recent New York Times report, Watson’s next role could be as a virtual assistant to America’s school teachers.

Over the past two years, the IBM Foundation has worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build Teacher Advisor, a program that uses Watson’s artificial intelligence to answer teacher questions and help them develop personalized lesson plans.

The IBM Foundation plans to release a version of the program for third-grade math teachers by the end of this year.

Proponents say the program marks a big step toward strengthening the relationship between technology and teachers, some of who are still reluctant to embrace new innovations in the classroom.

As the relationship between technology and teaching evolves over time, school district leaders must strike a balance between the pressure for change and the due diligence needed to ensure that every investment has a positive desired impact on student learning.

Teaching coach of the future?
The hope is that IBM’s Teacher Advisor and other fringe AI innovations will help teachers navigate the vast amounts of available education information for different grade-levels and subject areas and help them craft customized lesson plans that fit students’ needs.

As IBM Foundation President Stanley S. Litow told the New York Times:

The idea was to build a personal adviser, so a teacher would be able to find the best lesson and then customize the lesson based upon their classroom needs. By loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, you’d actually make Watson the teacher coach.

In some cases, educators and administrators say the new technology could aid teachers in complying with their state’s Common Core standards.

Remember, before the Common Core became a pariah to…pretty much everyone, it was, at its core, a set of standards for the lessons that students need to learn at the end of every grade level. Watson aims to not only help teachers understand what skills they’re required to teach, but also what prerequisite lessons students will need to foster those skills.

Teachers who’ve piloted the program tout its time-saving potential and its ability to constantly adapt, the New York Times reports.

As more teachers use the platform, the Teacher Advisor algorithm will adapt to better answer teachers’ questions and to provide more customized content. In other words, Watson learns.

Make an informed decision
It’s an exciting time for education technology. New initiatives like Teacher Advisor give us an eager glimpse into the future.

But no matter how exciting the possibilities, it’s important to step back and ask that all-important question: In the end, will Teacher Advisor and other solutions like it help students learn?

As you consider the answer to that question, don’t forget to ask students and teachers and parents what they think of the idea.

Do they think it’s worth it? Are parents equipped to support students when it comes to integrating these solutions in schools? What does your staff think about being asked to embrace an entirely new way of working?

Once you have made an informed decision, make sure your students, parents, and staff understand the path you’ve selected and they have the skills and resources to make it work.

That means comprehensive training for each new program as well as ongoing support from content experts.

There’s great technology on the horizon. Watson is one shining example. The question is now: “Are we ready to move forward?”

How do you engage your community before high stakes technology deployments? Tell us in the comments.

Planning a digital transformation in your schools? Here are a few ideas to consider first.

Why online learning doesn’t work for the disadvantaged

Since the first dial-up modem blinked to life, the internet has helped shatter information hierarchies the world over.

Schools are no exception.

Free, easy access to online learning in schools has helped educators roll back the have, have-not culture that has for too long plagued America’s poorest classrooms.

But there’s a catch, as a brilliant new article in the Atlantic points out. While access to educational technology has done its part to eradicate long-held inequalities in the classroom, the advantages of online learning do not always extend beyond the school building to homes, where they can ostensibly do the most good.

Perhaps even more frustrating, it isn’t a lack of access that’s often the problem.

Instead, researchers point to a lack of “digital readiness” among disadvantaged families as the main roadblock to widespread student adoption of online learning inside and outside of school.

As online resources become a more familiar ingredient of classroom and take-home work, educators must do their part to ensure students and families have both the technology and the digital know-how needed to excel.

Are they ready? Get them ready.
“The data show that there are real barriers to drawing people to use digital resources for learning,” John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center told the Atlantic.

Horrigan is the lead author of the Pew study that first introduced the concept “digital readiness.”

The study found that more than half of Americans with internet access still aren’t equipped to use the internet for learning. Not surprisingly, the study found that the unready majority consisted primarily of disadvantaged populations, including minorities, women, and low-income households.

When it came to online learning, these groups often lacked key digital skills and confidence in their ability to find accurate, trustworthy information online.

Parents are key
We often think of K12 students as being digitally savvy.

But it’s the digital readiness of parents that often dictates how prepared students are for online learning.

Betsy DiSalvo, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took a look at low-income families and their interactions with online learning.

DiSalvo found that the challenge of providing for their families precluded a lot of parents from getting more actively involved in their child’s education.

When parents were actively engaged in their child’s education, many simply were not equipped to support or encourage online learning from home.

“Their first priority is getting their kids to do well in school,” DiSalvo told the Atlantic. “They’re so focused on that that they aren’t necessarily focused on looking at what’s fun engagement, or what’s going to spark their interest.”

Supporting parents
To encourage more productive digital learning, our schools have to give parents the skills and confidence to support that learning.

How’s that going to happen?

The Atlantic suggests that makers of online resources and policymakers start by ramping up outreach to low-income families.

What steps does your school or district take to include parents from disadvantaged or low-income households in critical discussions about online learning? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for feedback ahead of your next online learning pilot or programs? Here are three ways to start a conversation about the importance of digital transformation in your schools.

We’re still chasing the broadband dream

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission expanded the federal E-rate program to help schools provide students with access to high-speed internet.

One of the main goals as part of that expansion was to help states get broadband internet to rural schools and those that need it most.

Depending on who you talk to, those efforts are starting to pay off. Education Week reports that Wyoming, one of the most rural states in the nation, is just the second state to achieve 100-percent high-speed connectivity across all its schools.

A glass is half-full person might say, “Well, if Wyoming did it…”

On the other hand, it’s a little disheartening that just two states have achieved total broadband access.

Indeed there is plenty of work still to do, especially if you believe a new report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

The report, The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, is a  sequel of sorts to two previous reports—one from earlier this year and another from 2012. It rightly acknowledges the strides that have been made to close the broadband gap in schools, while calling for expansion of high-speed internet both inside and outside of school.

In the report, SETDA makes four recommendations:

Increase infrastructure to support Student-Centered Learning
The report makes specific recommendations, including for service provider speeds and network sizes. But the most important piece might be SETDA’s call for schools to look ahead.

“SETDA discourages schools and districts from developing broadband expansion plans simply based on current usage,” according to the report. “Usage data may be skewed to limited digital learning experiences for students or teachers and/or minimal usage of advanced tools and resources for school administration.”

In other words, schools should think about the future of education technology and plan accordingly. Any plan to develop or to expand broadband access should first consider what’s best for students and the different ways they learn.

Design infrastructure to meet capacity targets
In many cases, schools need to rethink why and how their networks are being used in the first place.

There was a time several years ago when broadband networks were largely reserved for processing heavy backend administrative functions, such as grading or attendance systems. These days, the lion’s share of broadband demand comes from the classroom and in other places built to support student learning.

“As districts and schools move to seamless digital learning environments,” the report’s authors write, “the importance of designing high-capacity and widely available networks, including the utilization of wireless networks is essential.”

Leverage state resources to increase broadband access
According to SETDA, at least a third of U.S. states don’t provide direct funding to help schools improve broadband access.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SETDA recommends that states exhaust all available resources, be it direct funding, state-level and federal programs, or other means to support district-level broadband expansion.

Ensure equity of access for all students outside of school
Even when schools do everything they can to ensure students have access to high-speed internet in the classroom, far too many students still encounter substandard access at home.

This “homework gap” will only continue to widen as schools migrate to digital curricula and devices, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the attendees at the International Society for Technology in Education conference last year.

While schools can’t provide internet directly to homes, forward thinking educators can help parents identify creative solutions to ensure students and families get the broadband access they need.

SETDA suggests three ways for states, districts, and schools to promote the extension of broadband access outside school:

  • Provide outreach and education for families—particularly low-income families—on the importance of high-speed internet access.
  • Work with community organizations to provide more robust connections.
  • Make sure that community members and families know and understand every option for acquiring affordable high-speed access at home.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure its students have equitable access to high-speed internet? Tell us in the comments.

Are you planning a digital expansion in your district this year? It’s a good idea to see where your community stands on the idea. Here’s a few ways to start that conversation right now.

The robots are coming: What’s next for education technology

Reaction to new technology can sometimes be a bit, well, over-the-top.

Did you catch Apple’s iPhone 7 and wireless headphone release? How could you not, right? The blogs and videos and commentaries are everywhere. Everywhere!

Schools are not immune to the fanboy (or girl) culture that follows some technologies.

But that enthusiasm needs to be tempered with a solid dose of reality.

Recently, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the New Media Consortium (NMC) released their annual report highlighting emerging trends in education technology. The report outlines both opportunities and challenges facing school technology users in the not-too-distant future.

The list is broken out on a timeline that projects when different emerging technologies will be widely adopted in K12 schools.

It’s a fascinating list—and one that gives some insight into what’s possible, provided the technology is integrated with the right goals in mind.

Here’s a few of the highlights.

Widespread adoption within one year

The underlying philosophy of the maker movement is to offer physical, tactile environments as well as real and digital tools that encourage hands-on learning.

“School leaders are incorporating making into the curriculum to encourage students and teachers to bring to life ideas and explore design thinking approaches,” the report’s authors write. “Makerspaces are also increasing student exposure to STEM subjects and technical disciplines.”

Online learning
While schools have made progress in digital communication, many still do not offer online learning materials or lessons. That’s about to change, according to the report.

Students and parents are used to accessing everything in their lives online. Why should education be any different? In an increasingly competitive education environment, the schools that adapt to this trend stand a biggest chance of success. Those that don’t will likely fall even farther behind.

Widespread adoption in two to three years

With the amount of robots worldwide doubling to 4 million by 2020 and transforming industries and economies, schools will have to adapt to this emerging technology. In some places, that work is already happening.

“Classes and outreach programs are incorporating robotics and programming to promote critical and computational thinking as well as problem-solving among students,” according to the report.

Virtual reality
As gamification makes its way into K12 classrooms, it’s only natural that educators will turn to emerging technologies, such as VR, to enhance student lessons.

These fully immersive experiences are intended to help students better understand and appreciate the subjects they learn in class.

When a trip to the pyramids isn’t feasible, the promise of virtual reality offers the possibility to experience the sights, sounds and wonder of Egypt and other exotic locales from school.

Widespread adoption in four to five years

Artificial intelligence
If robots are on their way, AI can’t be far behind.

“In the field of artificial intelligence (AI), computer science is being leveraged to create intelligent machines that more closely resemble humans in their functions,” according to the CoSN and NMC report.

Does that mean teachers will soon be replaced by cyborgs? Hardly. But AI will help teachers engage students in ways we might not yet understand.

Wearable technologies
Think of the FitBit. Then think smaller.

Devices integrated into clothing and other wearables will make interactions between students and learning technology seamless (pun intended).

But don’t get too excited
Before you get swept up in all the potential of these many fringe innovations, ground yourself with these questions:

Is this technology actually going to help my students learn, or do I just like it because it’s “cool”? Will this solution enhance my learning strategy, or is the technology itself my learning strategy?

A bit of advice: Don’t invest in a single innovation or idea until you talk to students and teachers and parents first.

What innovations most excite you on this year’s emerging technology list? Tell us in the comments.

Is your school or district poised to adopt a new technology or classroom innovation this year? Here’s a few ways to better engage your community to ensure the transition goes smoothly.

Without training, ed-tech is useless

Technology has the power to transform learning, but only when it’s done right.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Adopting technology for technology’s sake is not a recipe for success.

Yet it continues to happen. Every. Single. Day.

You can purchase the very best learning technology, steeped in the deepest education research. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t implement the tools effectively, and in the context of clear academic goals, all the tools in the world simply won’t make a lick of difference in the lives of students.

The key to that success starts up front—by getting buy-in from and effectively training your staff.

Educators at Calcasieu Parish in Lake Charles, La., have been implementing education technology for more than three decades.

District CTO Sheryl Abshire is a legend among school technology leaders. In an interview with Ed-Tech Focus on K-12 recently, Abshire attributed her district’s successful track record to strong training and professional development programs.

“We always select technology that supports our learning goals rather than building curriculum around technology,” says Abshire.  “And we don’t put any technology in classrooms without first giving hands-on training for teachers.”

But not all professional development is created equal, as any school administrator or teacher can attest.

Looking to improve technology training in your school or district to get more out of your investment this school year? Abshire and other ed-tech experts offered these tips to Ed-Tech.

It’s got to be about more than just technology
Teachers are busy. With lessons to teach and plan for, extra-curricular activities to coach, and continuing education to pursue, adding ed-tech training to their busy schedules can feel like piling on.

That’s why helping teachers connect with the technology and buy in on a deeper, more philosophical level is critical to your success.

“The schools that do it well tie professional development around technology into a larger framework of learning goals and the mission of the school,” professional development consultant Alex Inman told Ed-Tech.

If teachers can’t understand how the technology and the training tie back to their work goals, they will dismiss the training as something they have to endure, rather than something they need to succeed.

Make sure your next professional development course clearly explains how the technology enhances their personal teaching goals. And include teachers and staff in future planning and training discussions, so that they can take ownership and innovate.

Make it personal and practical
At the end of the day, when it comes to new education technology, most teachers have one question: “What’s in it for me?”

This isn’t selfish; it’s practical. Teachers want to know how new technologies can help them and their students do more. Good ed-tech training illustrates the practical ways in which new school technology solves real, everyday problems.

There are basics that your entire staff will need to know. But, the more personal and specific you can get in your training regimen, the better-equipped, and enthusiastic, your staff will be.

For that teacher who experiences low in-class student participation, show her how tablet devices can be used to encourage student engagement. Or, for the math teacher who’s having trouble getting kids excited about Algebra, show him how an online game or app can introduce some fun into his classroom.

Make it ongoing
Technology training shouldn’t be a once-and-done event.

As teachers use new school technology, they’ll inevitably have questions. Make sure your school or district has a support system and an option for continued training. You might even consider hiring a training guru for in-person or online continuing education, or to field questions as they arise.

And don’t forget about collecting input and ideas from staff. Start an ongoing dialogue with teachers and others to gauge how the training is going and identify ways to improve.

What steps do you take in your school or district to provide effective technology training for teachers and staff? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for an easy way to engage your staff about professional development and new school technologies this fall? Here’s one way to start a productive conversation about professional development in your school community.

When it comes to technology, plan for failure

Despite best intentions and preparation, school technology integrations never go exactly as planned.

You’ve heard the horror stories—the large urban school district that bungles its multimillion-dollar 1:1 laptop initiative, the small rural district that invests in technology, but doesn’t have the network speed to deliver online learning.

Whether you’re introducing a new online curriculum or outfitting classrooms with rolling computer labs, problems will happen eventually. What matters is how you react, writes David Guerin, principal of Bolivar High School in Bolivar, Mo., on his blog.

“If you get frustrated every time you have a problem with technology,” Guerin writes, “you’re either going to be frustrated all the time, or you’ll just give up…So make up your mind before you start that technology failure is possible and prepare for how you will respond when it doesn’t work right.”

Easier said than done? Guerin outlines a few strategies to prepare for failure in your ed-tech integration:

Expect the worst
There’s a snowball’s chance that everything goes according to plan. That’s why you need to plan for the worst. Before you integrate a new technology in your school or district, make sure you’ve thought through the possible pitfalls and developed fail-safes and workarounds to protect sensitive information and keep things moving.

Become an expert
Technology continues to play an increasingly vital role in classroom education. Yet, many educators still don’t have even a passable level of expertise. To survive in today’s always-on, digital world, educators must become masters of classroom technology.

Prepare your community
Your next technology integration will fail spectacularly if the changes you decide to make catch your community by surprise. Before you undertake any new technology initiatives, prepare teachers, parents, students, and other community members for the changes you are about to make. By warning them to expect a rough patch here or there, you can more effectively manage expectations and limit unnecessary disruptions.

Don’t apologize
Writes Guerin: “Usually tech failures just happen and aren’t anyone’s fault. It’s Murphy’s Law, right? If it’s not your fault, don’t apologize to your students for the problem.” That goes for the rest of your school community. Assuming you followed the previous step, your community will be prepared for problems. Don’t run from the first sign of trouble. Make sure your community understands what’s going on and knows what to expect next.

Use failures as learning experiences
The best educators have a knack for turning even the most challenging situations into opportunities for learning. Is there a better way to teach perseverance than  to overcome a real-world failure in the classroom? Before integrating new technology in your schools, ask for input from your students and their parents. Let them help you plan. And, when that inevitable technology “issue” does crop up, invite them to help as you test and develop solutions.

As a new school year heats up, are you integrating new technology in your schools? Have you anticipated the inevitability of failure? You should.

Introducing new classroom innovations in your school this year? Invite students and community members to develop a plan for what to do when things go wrong.