When the Alliance for Excellent Education held its first Digital Learning Day in 2012, it included a small number of digital innovators, according to alliance President Bob Wise. At that time, students and teachers still couldn't use their devices in class. On Thursday, the alliance held its sixth annual event, and the situation has been reversed. “The norm is to provide students with devices and let them power up,” he said during a webinar that highlighted both the accomplishments and remaining challenges involving technology in public schools.

The alliance pointed out that nearly 1,700 events relating to Digital Learning Day were taking place across the country, a big increase from the handful of innovators who participated in 2012. Other factors illustrate the growing importance of technology in K-12 education as well. In 2015, spending on K-12 education technology rose after three years of recession-related declines, according to EdNET Insight. Overall, ed tech spending in 2015 for the K-12 market reached $4.7 billion, according to IDC Government Insights.   But the real impact of technology on education can be found in the accomplishments that are emerging on a school-by-school basis. Christian Johnson, a panelist on the alliance webinar and fifth-grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School in Baltimore, described how technology has enriched the educational process for both student and teacher.    “Technology has enhanced how we deliver instruction,” he said. “We can pinpoint what a student needs and when they should get the instruction they need. Students can now stay up with their fellow students; technology has made sure that all learning experiences are meaningful.”   Johnson said that technology allows him to work one-on-one with certain students as other students work in teams on digital projects. With technology, he can track in real time how each student is faring with lessons and gain better insight in terms of assessing whether they are understanding the course material.    He can find out when an individual student needs extra help in a particular area without having to take time away from other students. Gone are the days when he would stand at the head of the classroom and lead the students in unison. “I’m a facilitator, not a lecturer,” he said.   The Internet makes this rich learning environment possible. Johnson described it as vital to the success of the entire education program at his Baltimore school. Harrison Goodwin, superintendent of Chesterfield County School District in South Carolina and another panelist, echoed that view. When the first Digital Learning Day took place, Chesterfield County schools didn’t have an Internet backbone or Wi-Fi in the classrooms.    With 16 schools spread across a wide geographic area in a rural part of the state and with many of its 7,300 students living in poverty, the lack of connectivity and technology made a bad situation worse. Today, the school system now has broadband and Wi-Fi, funded through the federal government’s E-rate program. “It’s allowed us to bring in distance learning and to move to an online testing platform,” said Goodwin.
Persistent Digital Divide   While Chesterfield County students now have access to technology at school, the same cannot always be said about their home life. Goodwin said that access to the Internet at home remains a big challenge, with some families not even having mobile broadband.    Lack of technology at home is also a problem in Baltimore. There, the problem is both a lack of access and the lack of a proper device for doing homework. “We have students tell us they have access, but found out they were trying to use a cellphone to do their homework,” said Johnson. “That’s not going to meet the mark.”   What’s happening in South Carolina and Baltimore is a problem nationwide, according to the alliance and the Pew Research Center. Nearly 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service.   Last year, the FCC addressed the problem by changing the rules by which families could get discounts for voice and data connections, allowing them to use the Lifeline program to obtain discounts for high-speed broadband service as well. But the new FCC Chair Ajit Pai raised concerns when he changed the participation status of some of the more than 900 Lifeline-approved service providers.     “We have seen signs the FCC may be rethinking their policy around the expansion of Internet access, and some of the moves could undercut the FCC’s ability to close the homework gap,” said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations at the alliance. “This is a major problem that makes it harder to close the education achievement gap for low-income households.”   Besides funding and lack of Internet access in rural areas, schools face a range of tech-related issues as they ramp up the use of technology. Outside Pittsburgh, the Avonworth School District in suburban Allegheny County faces a different problem. While connectivity and digital devices are plentiful, the district struggles to find the right workers who have the talent and skills to manage the hardware, software and networks, said Superintendent Thomas Ralston.   “We have to have the right people in place with technology,” he said. “I need them to come to me with great ideas. Finding the right people for these highly technical positions and retaining them is really important. They have to be able to build positive relationships that increase efficiency and effectiveness of the people they work with, such as using technology for professional development.”   Having good talent is one way to ensure that digital learning evolves and grows in a productive way. Another is to make sure schools and districts have a good strategic plan that includes technology, Goodwin said. “Remember, technology is a tool. You have to master it. And don’t let it get in the way of good instruction.”