Tech Talk: Why the ‘next big thing’ in edtech is already a thing 

Despite the furor over AI and chatbots, it’s not the tools and devices at the cutting edge of edtech that are of greatest concern to K12 IT leaders as they look ahead to the 2023-24 school year. 

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” says Susan Bearden, the longtime edtech thought leader who is now president of Bearden Education Tech Consulting. “If you get past the bright and shiny of what’s next in edtech, like artificial intelligence, what keeps IT leaders up at night are the same things they’ve always been worried about.” 

In this edition of FETC Weekly’s Tech Talk, Bearden scans the horizon of K12 technology to help CIOs and their teams gain some perspective on the challenges ahead.  

If what’s old is new for edtech in 2023, you’re saying the “next big thing” is already here, right?  

CoSN just released their State of Edtech Leadership survey and since 2018, cybersecurity continues to rank as the No. 1 concern for tech leaders. It’s also something that edtech leaders are interested in in terms of their own professional learning. Ransomware attacks on school systems have skyrocketed in the past couple of years. CIOs are always looking to learn more and improve their cybersecurity posture as district leaders. 

What new cybersecurity solutions are emerging?  

There are lots of things IT leaders can do to help improve their cybersecurity posture that don’t cost a lot. For instance, implementing multifactor authentication, especially for key accounts—IT administrators or HR or finance, people who are accessing really sensitive information. That’s huge. Another way is using network segmentation to segment off internal school network resources from internet access that is provided to students and faculty on their personal devices.  

Provide cybersecurity training and always make sure that every member of the school community is aware that cybersecurity is not an IT problem; it’s everyone’s problem. A significant percentage of IT incidents are caused by ransomware, where someone clicks on a bad link. 

What’s next on CIOs’ list of concerns? 

Digital equity is a big challenge. There’s a lot more awareness of the challenges faced by students who don’t have reliable internet access at home. The temptation would be to say, ‘We had the pandemic; we fixed that problem.’ But It’s not fixed. I think school systems are actually less likely to be providing wireless hotspots or other forms of internet access to students at home now that the pandemic is over. 

Has online learning gotten a bad name from the pandemic?  

Emergency remote learning is not online learning—they are very different things. But there is something of a backlash, and that is all the more reason for IT leaders to be very thoughtful about their use of technology and to work closely with curriculum instruction departments to make sure technology is being used meaningfully as opposed to just as an emergency stopgap.  

One of the challenges edtech faces is people are attracted to the new, bright and shiny but sometimes making sure that teachers are making meaningful use of the tools that they have is the best strategy for implementing technology well. 

With home internet access still an issue, are school district networks in good shape?  

Budget constraints and lack of resources continue to be a significant challenge for IT leaders. IT infrastructure is kind of like water or sewer or electricity infrastructure, you don’t notice it when it’s working but the minute it’s not working you most definitely notice it. That’s another challenge—the ongoing evolution of network and device infrastructure, and how to make sure districts are staying on top of that. 

It’s not a one-and-done—people think ‘Oh, my infrastructure is finished,’ but it’s not. Network infrastructure has to be upgraded on a regular basis as do devices. The pandemic hit and districts had access to additional federal funds, now there’s is going to be a sudden drop in that funding so planning for the sustainability of edtech initiatives is really important because the costs don’t end. Devices have to be refreshed, networks have to be upgraded, and that’s something a lot of districts struggle with. 

What’s your forecast for edtech in the 2023-24 school year?  

We had the pandemic, we’ve had a transition year, and I’m hoping that in the coming year districts will be better able to look at using technology, not through the lens of the pandemic but how technology can create meaningful learning environments.  

The surgeon general issued an advisory about the risks of social media use among teens. That’s not the same as edtech use, but I think the general public can conflate the two. The focus needs to be on how technology is actually making possible learning experiences that were not previously possible; how it is enhancing student skill development; how it is helping students be prepared for the jobs of the future—half of which haven’t been invented yet—how technology is being used in positive ways, and how that’s different than students spending hours after school on TikTok.”