When Technologies Collide: Consumer, K-12 and Higher Ed

| April 17, 2012 | 19 Comments
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By Frank Catalano

Schools have been adopting iPads with lightning speed  — more than 1.5 million have already been distributed to students, a mere two years after the original iPad launch. But beyond Apple’s influence in education, the high-profile tablet appears to be the poster child for a different trend.

Call it the consumerization of education technology.

What the iPad’s rapid incursion into the classroom masks is that the walls that used to slow new instructional technology’s adoption in education are falling. And when walls fall, what’s inside can spill out in any one of several directions.

A lot of teachers, administrators and even education policy makers carry the same tech expectations as their students.

A decade ago, the standard education technology adoption cycle was pretty straightforward. Cool tech was traditionally seeded in the consumer market. If the technology could be useful enough for teaching, it might be adopted in higher education where older students and their parents were the consumers. Then, after being thoroughly vetted and validated, it might eventually work its way down into K-12 classrooms where schools and districts bought the technology.

It was a long process, one that itself might take a decade — and for good reasons.

First, relative to today, technology was expensive – in 2002, a laptop with 512MB RAM, a 30GB hard drive and 15” screen running Windows XP or Mac OS X, sporting a not-so-fast 802.11b Wi-Fi connection and modem, cost about $3,000. For the most part, with the exception of these heavy laptops and some not-so-smart phones, mobile technologies were relatively unfamiliar in education.

Internet infrastructure was also a challenge. If any Web connections were prevalent in schools, they were rarely wireless. It really hasn’t been so long since NetDay, a grassroots volunteer effort, physically wired 75,000 classrooms for Internet access in 40 states between 1996 and 2001.

Yet the old evaluation cycle would work, haltingly. Online classes and distance learning began in higher education, as did digital textbooks, before filtering though the adoption strata into K-12 education.

Other times a technology might stall or dead-end. While consumers were buying multimedia CD-ROMs for home educational use in the 1990s, for instance, schools were still investing in libraries of LaserDiscs.

But in the past handful of years, this traditional adoption cycle has been compressed – if not completely overturned.


The iPad is just one example, as it moves from the consumer market to both higher education and K-12, not trickling through the former to reach the latter. A survey released in March by Harris Interactive and the Pearson Foundation found that 25% of college students own tablets (63% of those are iPads), tripling from 7% in a single year. At the same time, 17% of high school seniors own tablets, quadrupling from 4%.

Another instance: Online learning is bubbling back into consumer from higher ed. MITx, an online-only initiative of MIT open to learners outside of the physical campus, attracted 120,000 students to its first course this spring – and could lead to an optional, official certification of completion for many. Even K-12 participates in this blurring: interactive whiteboards, a staple of many school classrooms, have made inroads into colleges and universities with 38% of college students recently telling a Book Industry Study Group survey that they use them “to a large extent.”

On one hand, this decade-long lag allowed for thoughtful analysis, planning and observations of technologies that worked and were not just passing fads. On the other hand, it let educational institutions get horribly out of sync with the rest of students’ lives. But that time lapse has apparently become an adoption lag of two-to-three years. Or less.

A good chunk of the reason for the change is rational. Technology, now, is increasingly cheap. That $3,000 laptop is now about $500-700 – plus it’s far more powerful, and could be a netbook or a tablet with an optional keyboard. Upfront purchase instructional software is now supplemented or replaced entirely by individual apps, digital subscriptions or “free” Open Educational Resources.

And the required infrastructure has moved from wired and plugged to wireless, cloud-based and battery-operated, leapfrogging the earlier NetDay efforts.

But an equally large part of the reason for the acceleration may be both biological and psychological: Technology’s presence is familiar, almost expected, to accomplish a task. It’s not just students who are “digital natives” these days. No one under the age of 30 knew adolescence without a Web browser, let alone a personal computer (introduced, respectively, in 1993 and 1977). That means a lot of teachers, administrators and even education policy makers carry the same tech expectations as their students.

Flickr: OrangeFred

Finally, layer on three outside forces that are caffeinating the bees in this consumer/K-12/higher ed cross-pollination. Venture capitalists see K-12’s Common Core State Standards leveling the playing field by potentially lessening the cost for entrants to be “standards aligned,” and able to sell into one nearly 50-state market rather than up to 50 individual state-standard specific markets. Foundations consider tech a lever for education reform.

And don’t forget there are the non-edu technologists, who see an unmet need and are being propelled into ed-tech through competitions such as Startup Weekend EDU, SXSWedu’s LAUNCHedu, and at three years old, the comparative granddaddy of such events, the Software and Information Industry Association’s Innovation Incubator.

What all these external efforts have in common is that they don’t necessarily respect the traditional separations between types of education markets. So what results is often a Dr. Doolittle pushmi-pullyu-esque mashup of ideas that could play in one or more of K-12, higher education, continuing/professional education, lifelong education and direct-to-parent. All of which will cause the walls to crumble even more.

Project Tomorrow, in last year’s Speak Up National Research Project report, summed up a key facet of the change: “Today’s students are functioning as a Digital Advance Team for the rest of us, scouting out these new technologies, adopting them for use in their personal lives and then effectively adapting them for education purpose….”

Except now, those digital scouts could be anyone who brings an outside device or app into a school or college.

The result? Something different, fluid, with less domain separation and more immediate influence. Altogether, it likely represents an unprecedented convergence of K-12, higher education and consumer technology – or a collision, one in which no tech, person or preconceived notion is just an innocent bystander.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He tweets @FrankCatalano, consults as Intrinsic Strategy, and writes the regular Practical Nerd column for GeekWire.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TL3ZO7RR5ZEOCC3VYUCNX55FQQ M Peyer

    So, how long does it take for the obvious next step where the teacher changes roles and the bricks and mortar are irrelevant? What is the 5 year impact on such schools? Will we really need them any more?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’m not sure bricks and mortar will ever be irrelevant, but its importance may diminish and role may change just as teachers become less fonts-of-all-knowledge and more guides-to-and-through-knowledge (and some have always acted that way, even with less sophisticated tools). An awful lot depends on the instructor and the informal learning that takes place even within a school or higher ed campus.

      • Anonymous

        I’ve been teaching on-line in Sweden for many a year now (just taught my 8000th student on an on-line course …), although I work at a campus university. The situation we’re facing is that Sweden removed the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles which made it difficult for students to get credits from one university credited by another … and on-line education just exploded! I’ve had several students this semester, for example, who’re at Stockholm University full-time, according to their computer records, but they’ve actually been on the beach in Phuket in Thailand studying on line for me (at a different university) – the weather’s nice in Thailand in the winter and their student loans just go so much further out there!

        A conclusion I’m coming to is that any theoretical element on a course is much better taught and learned on-line. The difference between the amount of involvement by a group of campus students on my Sociolinguistics course which I taught from Minsk in Belarus most of the time (I was on an exchange) and the way they behave when they’re in the rest of their campus classes was marked.

        We’ll always need some kind of physical plant somewhere for things like lab work and, say, teaching sports teachers. They’ll probably be collected together on campuses, which will largely, though, act as ‘theme parks’ where young people gather to meet their future mates, so that we can propagate the species! (We work with a college on the Faeroe Islands and this is a big problem for them – the women leave the Faeroes to go to university … and don’t come back!). On our campuses, the student apartments are always full – and buzzing with life – whilst the lecture halls are increasingly empty. Plays hell the finances of the university!

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  • OberonViking

    Don’t forget that as teachers we have been actively exploring edtech in the classroom for a decade (I’ve had IWBs in my classroom for 9 years, and saw laptops bought by yr7s 7 years ago). In this time we have been evaluating we we’ve got, and what was available. We’ve been sharing ideas and writing wish lists. Perhaps someone was listening, because it seems to me that the iPad was what I was writings on my wish list. It is now quite cheap (iPad 2 for $300), has great battery life, and is supported by tonnes of free or cheap apps that actually help with education, many that help with regular practice, some that provide instruction, others that help with providing education.

    It’s not so much that we are adopting tech so much more quickly, as the available tech meets our requirements, and the slow start gave us time to work out exactly what it was that we wanted.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      The change in the traditional evaluation/adoption cycle really is more about what has happened at the state, district or (sometimes) school level, more so than with individual teachers. Teachers straddle both consumer and K-12 worlds and, as I note, an increasing number are now themselves digital natives and have consumer-like digital expectations. 

      In many cases, I think it’s institutional policies that are feeling the acceleration more so than individual teachers.

  • http://www.mindfulstew.wordpress.com/ Paul B.

    Having such incredibly access to information to the internet certainly challenges the notion of an “academic canon” or traditional skills and knowledge that students should acquire.  Who defines what students should know and and how they should demonstrate what they know when technology applications are changing so rapidly?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I think it depends on the level of education (early grades vs. higher grades). Access to information is not the same as learning it, putting it into context and applying it. Kids will still need to learn reading, mathematics, writing (whether it’s on a keyboard or by hand) and all the core skills. So I’d argue the traditional canon doesn’t change as dramatically as how it’s taught and learned. 

      And the standards being taught are already undergoing a separate transformation in English language arts, mathematics and science to start – and in part, some supporters of the new standards argue, you can teach them more effectively by applying technology in an intelligent way. 

  • Mark

    Hi, but to be honest, are ipads or tablets a full replacement for textbooks, pen and paper? when it comes to national tests and exams, they need the ability to write legibly and in the timed essays, FAST. Im only just out of school and i found the years below me had trouble writing a 6 page essay in 1hr, since they did most of their schoolwork on ipads and typed documents, hardly any brought a pen and their handwriting was not the best. Shouldnt they only be used as a replacement for textbooks, english books ,or a gateway to research?


    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I agree that tablets by themselves aren’t full replacements for pen and paper — without a keyboard. But there are many add-on keyboards available for them that essentially turn tablets into clamshell computers which can be used for assessment and report writing.  (Comparability across paper and tablet is a unique issue for assessments that psychometricians are still sorting out.)

      But the point here isn’t that tech replaces other instructional approaches. It’s just that tech is making its way into education in ways not before envisioned, to bring K-12 and higher ed tech up to the same level as the consumer tech experience. How that tech is then applied is a different and equally important matter.

  • Dr S

    I read with interest your recent story about Littleton tech initiative.   I have been following similar happenings around the country. 

    As background to this evolving story, please look over these links that can help you and other reporters and stakeholders about maximizing benefits to kids and teachers.

    I am a child psychiatrist committed to help in this area, so please feel free to contact me. 


    Eitan Schwarz MD
    Northwestern U Medical School

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Interesting, in that the word or location “Littleton” appears nowhere in my story, nor have I ever written about it. However, since you’re clearly simply promoting your own iPad browser, that appears to matter, well, “little.”

  • Jessica A.

    As someone who lives in the edtech world as an edtech product developer, I am both excited and alarmed at the rate at which things are changing in regard to technology in education. I fear that so many new devices and “apps” are entering the market, that it must be incredibly difficult for teachers and school systems to navigate the good from the bad. I am also afraid that this flood of edtech will lead what *could be* a nice shift to giving teachers more control to one of districts and states cracking down on what tech tools can be used in the classroom (in which case we may see a repeat of districts and states exerting control as they have done in textbook adoptions and I’ll leave the readers to speculate on the good, bad and evil that can become of this).

    Jessica A.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Agreed. There’s an awful lot of cacophony as the different markets and tech clank against each other. I think the dollar cost of trial is low, in terms of piloting something in a limited way to see how well it may work, especially for cloud-based software/apps. But the time and opportunity cost of trial may increase as the market crowds — and good advice, whether independent or from peers, will be needed. 

      To say nothing of making sure teachers fully understand how best to use any new hardware or software tech to support learning. That’s the long-standing elephant in the classroom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Keller/1214146120 Harry Keller

    As CEO of a company that has been recognized by the SIIA as one of the top ten ed tech innovators in the world (see http://siia.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=990:siia-announces-top-innovators-in-education-technology-&catid=62:press-room-overview&Itemid=1036), I think that this article makes some great points.

    The impact of the common core standard should not be overlooked.  I’ve seen quite a few educators rail against it because they say it takes away local control or just puts more dollars in the pockets of greedy companies.  Wrong on both counts.  In my case, they have no impact because they don’t address science.  However, a different group is working on that.  Common core standards are just core guidelines with optional adoption by states et al.  They make entry into education easier for smaller companies and so increase competition, which should cut into big company profits.

    I like the comment about laser disks because it highlights a feature of the education marketplace.  They don’t change very fast (compared with most other markets — law being another exception).  IWBs should be obsolete by now but are still being purchased.  They’re a large investment in hardware when a little hardware and software can accomplish the same thing.  Moreover, the mobile learning revolution will make them relatively useless — dinosaurs occupying classrooms across the country.

    Look at Alabama’s distance learning initiative that uses television to bring standard classroom fare to smaller remote schools in the state.  That’s a large investment in the about-to-be-bygone days.

    The impact of online education and online education resources is just beginning to be felt.  Many students now take online courses to fill in where their school is unable to offer a given course.  If the school has insufficient numbers of students for these courses, it can now outsource them to online institutions.  Expect the magic number of students counted as too few to have a local course to increase over time.  Next, others will be outsourced because the number of students is 20% more than will fit in one classroom.  By going to online, the school will accommodate all students AND save money.  Not as many subject experts will be required in schools because these classes only require someone to oversee a room full of computers.

    This trend will accelerate over time until only a modest number of core subjects are being taught directly by teachers in classrooms.

    The idea of flipping classrooms is catching on too.  Kahn Academy just publicized the idea and accelerated its adoption.  Many teachers do their own Kahn thing.  I think this is a passing phase, and so does Salman Kahn.  Online can do much better than passive lecture viewing.

    I see a bright future for flipping the science labs in courses, and my own technology innovation focuses on that aspect of technology.  It provides online science labs with real experiments instead of simulations and interactive data collection instead of merely choosing an experiment and watching.  The future of education will be different than most realize.

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