Voice from the Industry
Collaborative Tools Designed for Education: Maximize Learning and Cut District Costs
Tim DiScipio, Co-Founder, ePals — Friday, July 27, 2012
As more schools move to embrace collaborative social learning, mainstream tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly finding their way into classrooms. At any given education industry trade show conference, there are dozens of workshop sessions showcasing speakers, authors, and consultants, touting the use of such general market tools as a result of their ubiquity in popular culture. It’s understandable that in today’s tightened-belt climate, educators might turn to the free resources and social networks they use in their personal lives as a matter of convenience and familiarity. Unfortunately, though, many school technology administrators are finding these mass-market tools have extremely limited curricular functionality, don’t enable ideal classroom collaboration, stress school networks, offer no protected legacy of schoolwork or integration with school information systems, and are potentially more costly than education tools in the long run.
Rather than empowering teachers and learners to create, collaborate, share, and store in a digital classroom eco-system, mainstream tools are having the opposite effect. When we don’t use tools specifically designed for education, we’re relegating students and teachers to modern day “digital detention” as they attempt to perform tasks and activities the 21st century expects of them.
Our Responsibility to Digital Age Classrooms
For those of us steeped in the education technology industry, the issue of what learning or school should look like in the next decade is something we live on a weekly basis. I think few would disagree that as we move deeper into technology-enabled learning, our mandate is to enable teachers and students with a full array of high-quality digital content, tools, virtual work spaces, third-party applications, and global experts to supplement the in-classroom environment, even under circumstances of reduced financial resources. We do a grave disservice to education institutions and students’ futures when we rely on mass-market and mainstream consumer tools that lack new era task-driven learning applications, support for information discovery, and storage of student work.
The Learner-Centered Classroom
Social learning networks designed specifically for education offer unprecedented opportunities for teachers to manage and students to participate in collaborative experiences and learn independently at their own time and pace. Vetted online core curriculum resources—not easily available or discoverable through mainstream tools—can provide users with immediate 24/7 access to libraries of English/language arts, STEM, foreign language, math, and other specialized content—such as Smithsonian museum objects--that can be quickly pulled into the classroom learning space with huge time savings and content integrity.
Students cannot easily learn independently beyond the school day if they’re forced to figure out how to perform a unique collaborative learning task using Facebook or Twitter with their teacher when no feature application exists to guide them. Additionally, many students indicate they don’t want their teachers in their personal friends’ network and would rather have a school-based solution just for school purposes and work flow.
The mastery of cutting-edge virtual work space tools for schoolwork plays a significant role in how well students will adapt to diverse workplace situations and teamwork in future digital job roles. Authentic project-based learning experiences that train students to communicate and collaborate effectively with others result in their becoming informed and creative global citizens with a mindset for innovation. And when students can safely collaborate with peers internationally, they gain the broader perspective and empathy that Fortune 500 Company CEOs are now saying is a leading character trait for ensuring workplace success in the “flat” world economy.
Ongoing Teacher Support
Ongoing, sustained, high-quality professional development remains another advantage of education social learning platforms whose creators recognize the challenge for cash-strapped districts in supplying the kind of continuous training teachers need to be effective. When classrooms nationwide or globally can be matched for projects through search criteria with targeted teacher-coordinated best practice templates, professional communities of learning develop organically. Solutions designed for classrooms also save time by making materials easily customized and personalized to students and shared across a vast global network of professional colleagues.
Technology Directors Weigh In
As do others in our industry, I travel extensively and have many opportunities to speak with school technology directors and administrators. The impact of technology on core curricular learning, safety, privacy, and legacy of work are high on the list of concerns for today’s schools, so technology directors are understandably focused on the integration and interoperability of products. Some education platforms, including ePals, have open architecture systems that enable integration with third-party applications, policy management to assign roles and authenticated environments for younger users, and the ability to integrate with district student information systems to make account setup and deletion easy and automatic. Single sign-on capabilities also eliminate the time and energy-sapping headaches associated with students and teachers having to remember numerous user names and passwords.
Cost Savings to Schools
Savvy administrators are realizing that social learning tools specifically for K-12 education also open doors to savings in ways that mainstream tools can’t. Many collaborative educational resources, such as ePals, offer a high percentage of their tools and content for free and have very low annual fees in the general range of $2 to $3 per teacher-student account for premium work space access. These nominal annual fees are also eligible for reimbursement through government E-rate funding, as well as local and national education grants many foundations and agencies will support if schools approach them.
Green and paperless, such online work spaces can easily save districts up to 60% a year on paper, copier lease, and toner costs. One technology director of a 5,000-student district in New York State indicated that his district may anticipate a cost savings of $250,000+ per year by moving to an online platform-based environment where documents and schoolwork are stored and shared and not printed off physically unless needed. Some have estimated a potential $3 billion nationwide U.S. cost savings by moving schools to a digital environment.
Education’s Mandate to Students
The bottom line is that while the Internet is increasingly blurring boundaries between school and life outside the classroom, education institutions still retain their singular mandate to prepare students to the best of their ability. School leaders need to look at what technology tools represent the greatest impact to their long-term learning objectives and the degree to which such tools are cost-effective in terms of both district dollars and students’ futures.
Tim DiScipio is the Co-Founder of ePals, a leading K-12 collaborative learning platform and global classroom network reaching 29 million teachers and students in 200 countries and territories. Tim is recognized as a pioneer in education technology and curricular social learning. ePals was one of the first social networks on the Internet, created in 1996, which enabled schools to connect, collaborate, and share their work for cross-cultural or curricular project-based learning. He works with country ministries of education and has visited over 800 schools worldwide to tour and evaluate their use of technology for 21st century learning.