Today’s students have never known a time before broadband Internet or palm-sized mobile devices. They’ve grown up in a world of nearly ubiquitous network access, allowing them to build an atmosphere of continuous sharing and interaction among friends.

Social networking is evolving into social learning. Near real time access to classmates and educational resources across the globe makes acquiring information much easier for students – perhaps shifting teachers from the role of orator to that of discussion facilitator, encouraging a deeper level of learning than previously possible. Clearly, administrators and faculty are being challenged to rethink traditional learning paradigms and to utilize technology to expand traditional classroom and campus boundaries, making learning more engaging, responsive and individualized.

Below, I highlight a handful of technology trends impacting education today, and that we should continue to watch in 2014.

Learning and mobile devices

It’s no secret that today’s students are never more than an arm’s length away from their mobile devices. As such, schools are looking to smart phones, tablets, and accompanying mobile broadband access as a way to make learning more dynamic, interactive, and personalized. 1:1 programs can breathe life into age-old curricula and re-energize students and faculty alike, while providing families with valuable connectivity they may not otherwise have had at home.

Not only does mobile network access extend the reach of on-campus files and systems, making them available well beyond the traditional school day, it can level the playing field for students to explore (at least virtually) places and concepts they otherwise couldn’t. Mike Berg, superintendent of Fresno’s Central Unified School District notes, “We believe that if we can close the experiential gap through technology, every student can learn and can come to school more prepared — [gaining] exposure to a broader array of experiences through technological access. It is the closing of the experiential gap that will facilitate the most rapid closure of the achievement gap, and will enable students to reach their highest potential.”

Parents are on board as well. The 2013 survey, Living and Learning with Mobile Devices: What Parents Think About Mobile Devices for Early Childhood and K-12 Learning, by Grunwald Associates discovered more than half of K-12 parents surveyed believe schools should make greater use of mobile devices. Some 45 percent of parents said they had already purchased, or planned to purchase, a mobile device to support their child’s education. And 56 percent would be willing to purchase a mobile device if their child’s school required it.

But it seems that many districts are taking a wait-and-see attitude. By contrast, Grunwald reports that only 17 percent of parents said their children were required to use a mobile device – owned either by the school or the student – as part of their education.

Customized mobile applications

Mobile applications are playing an increasingly important role on campuses, providing vital communications links between the school and students as well as with alumni and the general public. “When talking about the value proposition of a mobile app,” advises John Hermes, vice president of information technology at Oklahoma Christian University, “I think the most important thing we are trying to do is create and maintain a conduit of communication with our constituents. Having a mobile app presence has become just as important to us as having a website – and, you could argue, maybe even more important.”

While the convenience of mobile enrollment and access to assignments and grades seems like a natural for those on campus, the ability to engage potential donors and prospective students can also make mobile apps beneficial for a school’s bottom line. Surprisingly, the expanded reach of these platforms is causing departments outside of IT to become increasingly interested in their school’s mobile presence. Last summer, the office of enrollment at Maryville University in St Louis began considering an upgrade to the school’s existing mobile app, as a way to attract a broader range of students from across the country and to engage applicants in school news and activities before setting foot on campus. Shani Lenore-Jenkins, Associate Vice President of Enrollment notes, “I think when a student has a really great experience, whether it is physically in our office or online, you can’t put a dollar amount on it. It translates into happier students and happier alumni.”

As a result, schools have begun migrating from what may have been somewhat basic first-generation apps deployed a couple years ago, to highly-evolved versions integrating functionality from a variety of legacy campus platforms and systems. And while some schools continue to develop applications in house, many are purchasing open-source based platforms that easily adapt to new mobile operating systems as they are released, but still allow campus programmers the flexibility to customize features.

Hosted & cloud-based Infrastructure as a Service  

The buy-it or build-it debate in technology is nothing new. But as demands increase to integrate mobile access and applications with existing educational systems, online assessment requirements place exponential pressure on campus networks, and technology takes more of a leading role in a school’s educational and development objectives – IT personnel are becoming overloaded.

Consequently, IT leaders are looking for ways to free staff from the responsibility of legacy infrastructure platforms like telecommunications and storage, along with the capacity and maintenance concerns which accompany them. Demand sensitive, cloud-based storage and hosted voice platforms can offer advantages, by reducing investments in physical hardware.According to Michelle Dirksen, director of technology at Hancock Place School District in St. Louis, “Having [hosted voice service] means that we don’t have to worry about any maintenance issues. It’s like having a huge weight lifted off our shoulders.” And by shifting ongoing management headaches to service providers, schools allow existing departmental resources to focus on strategic initiatives which directly impact learning outcomes as well as incoming student and donor revenues.

Education is undergoing a revolution, driven in part by student expectations for increased mobility and adaptive learning environments, and by mounting expectations for operational efficiency and enhanced learning outcomes. At the end of the day, leveraging technology to advance the educational process and maximize student learning is what it’s all about.
This blog was originally published in the Education Technology Special Issue of the CIO Review.