From virtual reality to ebooks, the future of digital media in schools is a total toss-up

Robots were more visible than a single digital content trend for schools. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

The future of content in education is … robots?

Well, not really. But it was easy to get that impression if you were walking the exhibit hall at the huge International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Chicago this past week. One long-time industry exec told me he counted more than five dozen companies, from startups to established firms, touting coding and robots.

If our robot overlords were looking for a beachhead before taking over completely, education clearly was welcoming them.

Less clear was any dominant trend in digital content for K-12 schools. Despite a common assumption that it’s primarily a tablets versus textbook debate, digital content in classrooms can take many forms. And it faces many obstacles that may not be obvious from outside the school campus.

While there was no dominant digital media aha moment, there was movement to be found among the hundreds of exhibitors — ISTE is the largest education technology event in North America. Content developments came in formats ranging from video and VR to audio and ebook.

zSpace showed its first Windows 10 laptop for AR/VR content. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Virtual reality tech remained a holy grail that is slowly coming within more schools’ grasp. Microsoft continued its steady drumbeat for Mixed Reality (in addition to announcing a new grant program for school and public libraries). zSpace showed its first Windows 10 laptop for schools that integrates elements of augmented and virtual reality, letting students lift and manipulate images from the screen with a stylus. All this while wearing special, un-tethered glasses instead of an enclosed headset. Both companies emphasized the importance of curriculum content that supported the use of extended reality.

Pretty much every traditional “textbook” company, from Scholastic to Pearson, appeared to now offer digital video. Digital audio, too, is routine, though there are improvements. Children’s book publisher Capstone, for example, expanded Spanish audio in its PebbleGo online collection of articles on varying subjects for grades K-2. Spanish language support in digital media is increasingly important to a large number of schools with English language learners.

OverDrive’s new Sora mobile app for school ebooks and audiobooks. (OverDrive Images)

Even ebooks got an upgrade. OverDrive, which provides and manages ebook collections for both public and school libraries, unveiled its new Sora student reading app. Much like OverDrive’s Libby app for public libraries, Sora lets students browse, check out, and read books within the app itself. However, Sora has unique features, such as keeping of reading time, and letting kids export their notes and highlights from a book for use in reports and classwork. Sora also has an audiobook player.

But these improvements, cool and incremental, came against a backdrop of five major hurdles to more digital media adoption by schools. These go beyond budgets and the availability of technology. They were discussion topics not just for the exhibit hall, but conference sessions nearby.

Not every school, or student, has high-speed internet, even now. (Education Superhighway Image)

The fearsome five?

Equity. Not every student who uses a computer and the internet at school has access to one or both at home. And increasingly, homework requires being online. The Consortium for School Network (CoSN), an organization of school district technology leaders, released an updated Digital Equity Toolkit to help address what’s been called the “homework gap.” In doing so, CoSN cited a U.S. Department of Education finding that 80 percent of 8th graders used a computer at home for school work on a weekday — putting those without home internet access at a disadvantage.

Infrastructure. Even inside schools, the quality and speed of internet and WiFi connectivity can vary widely. Education Superhighway, which tracks and advocates for classroom connectivity, recently estimated there is a “connectivity gap” leaving 6.5 million students in more than 40 states, especially in rural schools, without access to high-speed internet.

Training. Teachers still frequently are not trained by colleges of education, or by their school districts, on how to integrate new digital media and technology into their lessons and classrooms. So many reports have documented this that it’s become a truism. It’s also why tech giants like Microsoft and edtech vendors provide lesson plans that suggest digital content. But it’s clear that “buy it and they will teach” is not much of a digital media integration plan.

Project Unicorn promoted interoperability with an appropriate display. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Privacy. As more education content is available online, issues of student privacy and data security are coming to the fore. Common Sense Media made a point of checking out 100 popular edtech applications, including those for digital media content, and said only 10 percent met its minimum criteria for transparency and quality in privacy policies.

Interoperability. Once student data gets tied to digital content, usually as a kid’s account for a learning product, getting the data out so it can be used by teachers for grade books and other software remains a hairball. Project Unicorn is a non-profit initiative to get both districts and vendors to pledge to make education data interoperable. Its staff told me at ISTE it’s now signed on nearly 70 edtech companies, including major content providers like Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. That’s double the number it had when it announced the initiative in late April.

So there is progress in getting more digital media into schools and in front of students. But digital expectations of exhibitors — and, dare I say it, kids and parents — may still require some remedial work before they can graduate into the real world.