By Keith R. Krueger
For the past ten years, CoSN—the premier K-12 EdTech leadership professional association—has conducted a national survey of school district technology leaders to assess key challenges and trends. Where do we stand today according to EdTech leaders? How has this changed over the last decade? And how might the present inform our approach to the future of K-12 learning and the role that technology should play?
Today vs. Yesterday
In this year’s survey, modernizing Network Infrastructure was ranked as the second-highest concern, closely followed by Data Privacy & Security. Surprisingly, these topics were not even included in the survey ten years ago. Over the last decade, IT Crisis Preparedness has shifted from being a low priority to becoming the fourth-highest concern.. Additionally, this year introduced a new concern to round out the top five priorities: Parent/School Communications.
Meanwhile, topics that were hot a decade ago, such as mobile learning, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), Online Assessment Readiness and Broadband Access have now become low priorities. Many of these initiatives have either been completed or are no longer relevant.
What hasn’t changed in the past ten years is the ongoing struggle with insufficient resources. Budget constraints remain the number-one challenge facing EdTech Leaders. Although budgets have increased over the years, the IT areas that these budgets must fund have also expanded.. Districts’ funding formulas have struggled to keep up. The difficulty in hiring staff with the right skills is, in part, due to the inability to offer competitive IT salaries compared to the private sector. Lack of professional learning opportunities for current staff is also likely tied to budget constraints as well, although survey respondents indicated that time was the biggest challenge in upskilling and reskilling IT staff. Whatever the cause may be, training is an ongoing problem for EdTech Leaders, consistently ranking as one of the top three challenges since 2017.
The Cybersecurity Challenge
Despite ranking as the top concern, only one-third of districts have a full-time equivalent employee (FTE) dedicated to network security. Two-thirds of EdTech Leaders believe their districts lack the necessary resources to effectively address cybersecurity issues, including the 12 percent of districts that allocate no funds for cybersecurity defense. Concurrently, as K-12 cybersecurity practices gain traction, so does the number of malicious actors specifically targeting K-12 schools.
Across the board, there is a noticeable year-over-year increase of districts employing practices to improve cybersecurity. For the past two years, training has consistently ranked as the top strategy. The most prevalent cybersecurity practice is IT staff training, with 76 percent of respondents implementing it this year, a significant increase from last year’s 65 percent. End-user training has also risen, going from 63% in 2022 to 74% this year. Notably, the use of two-factor authentication has seen the most substantial increase – over 20 percent increase in just one year. This significant rise is likely tied to insurance requirements, as “MFA [Multi-Factor Authentication] has become a minimum necessity for obtaining cyber coverage.” This year, 61 percent of respondents require two-factor authentication for district accounts, compared to 40 percent last year. Given that K-12 institutions continue to be prime targets for cybercriminals, we can expect further adoption of cybersecurity practices in districts.
The AI in Schools Debate
The 2023 CoSN survey concluded just as ChatGPT, the first widely recognized Generative AI application, was entering public discourse. As a result, we have limited data on the impact of AI in K-12 education and how district technology leaders perceive it as an opportunity or challenge. However, it’s evident that significant discussions are taking place regarding AI in K-12 education. There are instructional concerns, including issues related to academic integrity, commonly referred to as “cheating,” which are currently being addressed as K-12 schools continue to evolve. CoSN is engaged in a debate over what constitutes cheating, referred to by one author as “post-plagiarism.” And, many advocates believe that generative AI holds great promise for streamlining tasks and improving efficiency for teachers and administrators.
Initially, there were calls to ban Generative AI applications, but this approach to dealing with the new technology has encountered hurdles in its implementation. New York City Schools, for instance, reversed its ban and is now embracing the potential opportunities presented by generative AI.
One of the challenges for any EdTech leader is prioritizing which technologies are most important. Yes, many parents and superintendents ask their EdTech leader to “predict” the future.
At CoSN, we believe that attempting to predict the future is likely to lead to failure. Even those who invented breakthrough technologies couldn’t foresee how those technologies would be used in the future. For example, Thomas Edison once remarked, “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time.” And Marty Cooper, the inventor of cell phones, stated, “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.”
Instead of trying to predict, CoSN believes educators should focus on inventing the future we desire. To assist in this process, we have for the past fifteen years produced the annual Driving K-12 Innovation report. This report is the result of collaborative efforts involving over 100 global Advisory Board education and technology experts. Through extensive discussions, they identify the most critical Hurdles (challenges), Accelerators (mega-trends), and Tech Enablers (tools) that are driving innovation in K-12 education.
As educators and technologists, it is crucial that we collaborate to establish ecosystems that are not only technologically robust but also conducive to meaningful human interactions. In this new world, fresh innovations and purposeful actions are required to effectively serve the learners of today and tomorrow.
Ruben Puentedura (Hippasus, Massachusetts, United States) summed it up best: “The world that students are and will be living in is changing in ways that educators and school system leaders have never known. Giving learners the tools they need to engage with this world will require fundamental redesign of both content and practice — neither alone will suffice.”
So, what did our global experts think are the most important trends that educators need to focus on?
TOP 3 HURDLES
ATTRACTING & RETAINING EDUCATORS AND IT PROFESSIONALS
Hiring and retaining school staff poses a significant challenge for school systems; many educators grapple with issues such as low pay, stress, and emotional burnout — in some cases causing them to set aside their passion for teaching and abandon the field. Additionally, educators often contend with a lack of trust and respect from society and the educational system. This includes a lack of trust in teachers’ expertise and their genuine concern for their students’ well-being.
For IT Professionals, there are the added competitive factors at play. These include relatively low salaries compared to what private companies can offer, the allure of flexible work schedules and locations, and the prospect of having more time off.
DESIGNING EFFECTIVE DIGITAL ECOSYSTEMS
A digital ecosystem is a group of connected information technology resources that facilitate effective and valuable interactions and collaborations between students and teachers. . But what are the keys to developing a successful digital ecosystem? Interoperability, which refers to the ability of computer systems to exchange, interact, and utilize information, is paramount. Additionally, continuous improvement of efficiencies, the provision of data analytics, and ensuring data visibility all play crucial roles in achieving success.
Digital Equity comprises three interrelated components: digital foundations, conditions for learning, and meaningful learning opportunities. This nuanced Hurdle encompasses more than just equitable access to quality digital technologies, such as high-speed internet and powerful computing devices, both within and outside the school environment. It also involves ensuring that:
- students have the knowledge and skills to use technology in the service of learning;
- they interact with robust and accessible content and programs;
- students and their identities are both represented within and shaped by the technologies they utilize; and
- they experience meaningful opportunities as learners.
BUILDING THE HUMAN CAPACITY OF LEADERS
Strengthening the professional community of schools and providing opportunities for educators and all K-12 professionals to learn and master new skills can open the door to innovative practices that can enhance student experiences. When schools invest in their staff by providing opportunities to learn and master new skills, allowing them agency in their work, and giving them the freedom to make mistakes without fear, they create an environment that attracts innovative people.
Learner Agency is a combination of the will and the skill to learn. It is about students as active choice-makers in their education and about reconceptualizing their role from that of “student” to that of “learner.” Within a strong learning environment, students are able to transition from passive recipients of information to proactive innovators, experience the state of “flow,” and learn far more authentically. In order for schools to facilitate learner agency, they must also encourage educator agency. Learner agency is a cornerstone of lifelong learning and demands a shift in school structures and practices. This Accelerator is deeply intertwined with the concept of Personalization.
SOCIAL & EMOTIONAL LEARNING
A core function of education is building skills and understanding for mental, social, and emotional well-being, including empathy, flexibility, and adaptability. These capabilities shape mindsets and enhance successful learning, collaboration, problem-solving, and civic responsibility. In the wake of the transition to remote learning and the adaptations necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many learners, families, and educators are experiencing tremendous anxiety, loneliness, mental stress, trauma, and grief. In this moment, educators are challenged to think about how social-emotional needs can be enhanced or diminished through technology, and to reimagine school norms to better enable the well-being of staff, learners, parents, caregivers, and guardians.
TOP 3 TECH ENABLERS
Interfaces that mimic the complexity and function of human brain processes, such as decision-making, learning, evolving, problem-solving, perceiving, and demonstrating creativity. Their capabilities and intelligence processes may be quite different from those of humans (consisting of algorithms, rules, data sets, etc. related to specific domains), but fulfill similar functions — sometimes surpassing human capabilities and sometimes outmatched by them. These technologies encompass machine learning, natural language processing, deep learning, computer perception, and so on. As we move forward, we need to look at ethics surrounding the use of AI.
UNTETHERED BROADBAND & CONNECTIVITY
Ubiquitous broadband Internet and the underlying technologies that enable robust connected learning — without requiring devices to be physically connected (via cables, for example). These technologies enable mobility and learning anytime, anywhere.
RICH DIGITAL ECOSYSTEMS
Connecting systems or digital environments can form powerful digital ecosystems for enabling student learning and/or supporting education administration. These interconnected systems of online and virtual spaces can span formal school settings and beyond.
BE THE FUTURE INVENTOR
The value of the K-12 Driving K-12 Innovation series and other data points is not to give you all the answers for the future, but rather to spark conversation in your school or school district. What Hurdles are we trying to overcome? Are there Accelerators in the larger world that will impact the way education and learning take place? Finally, and only then, can we answer the question, “What are the new technologies and tools that can invent our future?”
As stated by one of our Driving K-12 Innovation collaborators: “It’s now the responsibility of every educator and school leader to leverage the technology and data that we have to foster meaningful relationships and create personalized learning paths that move each student forward. We have the power and tools in our classrooms to make a difference for each child. It’s not a matter of when anymore—the time is now.”
Understanding AI in K-12
Things are changing quickly with the evolving capabilities of AI, including in the K-12 sector. How can we begin to understand AI? What is “generative” AI? And why should educators care? Check out CoSN’s resources on AI at www.cosn.org/AI, including our Primer.
Why Is K-12 a Cybersecurity Target?
K-12 school systems are responsible for maintaining a large amount of data and are considered a “soft” target by cyber criminals. According to CISA, the government agency overseeing cyber attacks, K-12 is the most targeted sector for ransomware. Criminals understand that school districts are often the largest employer in a community, have large amounts of personal data on young persons who can later be targeted for credit card fraud when they turn 18, and have their reputations to uphold when data is hacked. One challenge is that schools have large numbers of under-age and untrained users of technology who may click on phishing emails that give criminals access to the education network.
About the author
Keith Krueger is the CEO of CoSN.