Sure, there will be new apps, devices, and gadgets in schools across the country this year. But deeper forces are also at work: Dozens of states are in the midst of adding an entirely new academic discipline, computer science. Sensing schools’ safety fears and the possibility of a new market, security companies are making a strong push to get into K-12. Online threats such as the spread of misinformation and cyberattacks are spreading, presenting new challenges for educators and administrators alike. And it doesn’t look like the craze of Fortnite, an online shooter game, is going away anytime soon.
Panic buttons. Facial-recognition systems. Anonymous tiplines. Social-media monitoring services. Name the technology, and a company somewhere is likely trying to convince schools that it can be used to help prevent the next school shooting. So far, adoption has been spotty. Critics have loudly raised worries about privacy and civil liberties. And those who know school safety best say that school shootings remain rare, and following existing guidelines (lock the gate!) will likely be more effective than huge new purchases. Still, the pressure on schools to take visible steps to improve safety is immense, and the lure of new technologies could prove difficult to resist.
Here’s what to watch in 2018-19.
The changing face of gaming
For the moment, at least, Fortnite shows no signs of going the way of Pokemon Go and fidget spinners. The game, in which 100 players compete to be the last one standing, remains hugely popular, with an estimated 40 million logged-in users each month. Many educators view the game as a headache or threat, saying it taxes school internet connections and teachers’ classroom-management skills. But some argue that Fortnite (and similar games) can be a powerful tool for learning. And don’t look now, but competitive e-sports are already a thing in hundreds of U.S. high schools.
Thanks to a big push from Silicon Valley and statehouses around the country, 70 percent of K-12 principals now say computer science education is on their radar screens. For districts that have already started down this road, the challenge now is to expand beyond after-school programs and introductory courses to create multiyear computer science pathways for students. Schools just jumping on the trend, meanwhile, will have to contend with a flurry of pitches for products purporting to teach coding in a few easy steps — a very different strategy from the more conceptual “computational thinking” approach that many experts recommend.
With recent tweets lambasting everything from Google search results to CNN to social-media companies, there’s no end in sight to President Donald Trump’s ongoing war on what he calls “fake news.” And the digital-information landscape is changing at warp speed, with new voices, content, and formats further blurring the boundaries between fake and real, news and entertainment, and authenticity and artifice. In response, a wide range of groups — including Common Sense Media, Facebook, and the News Literacy Project — are unveiling new or updated media-literacy and digital-citizenship resources for the classroom. Even so, do schools have any chance of keeping up?
Schools’ back-end IT systems don’t often get much attention — until a district is being held for ransom by hackers, students are caught changing grades, or the personal information of thousands of teachers is compromised via a phishing scheme. All of the above generated negative headlines for schools last year. Still, it’s not clear if districts are taking even basic steps to better protect themselves, such as implementing password-management systems and two-factor authentication. Despite having little money to throw at the problem, will 2018-19 be the year that school technology leaders finally take cybersecurity threats seriously?