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The Five Biggest Ed-Tech Themes in 2011

We at the Digital Education blog have tried to process a busy and pivotal year in the world of education technology. But in case you haven't read every single entry during the last 12 months (for shame!), here's a wrap-up of what we think were the five biggest ed-tech themes of 2011.

In no particular order:

State Policy Pushes

Across the country, we've seen a rush of state policies designed to give students more access to digital learning opportunities and particularly online learning. Idaho last month approved a law mandating high school students to take two credits worth of online courses to graduate, and before that, Florida passed a similar law requiring high school students to complete one online credit, as well as allowing public school students to be enrolled fully online into the Florida Virtual School without going through their home districts.

Meanwhile, the Digital Learning Now movement, the brainchild of the bi-partisan team of former Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Wise that has drawn so much attention and criticism, has focused most of its work around driving policy change at the state level.

Federal Funding Battles

Meanwhile, on the national level, ed-tech advocates have lamented the loss of the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology fund, and both praised and criticized developments with the E-Rate program that subsidizes school and library technology purchases.

Further, we learned about plans for a new education technology research agency, ARPA-ED, that would be modeled after the national-defense oriented DARPA model, but have yet to see work on it take off.

Investment from Private Sector

In the wake of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. purchasing Wireless Generation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launching its Next Generation Learning Challenges program in 2010, both ed-tech and business analysts agree 2011 was an unprecedented year for investment in digital education ventures.

While big-money transactions have (rightly) drawn the biggest headlines, it was also a year for smaller investments and public-private collaborations between businesses and local, state, and federal governments. Perhaps this has been nowhere more apparent than at the Federal Communications Commission, which has used its leverage as controller of the E-Rate program and giver of approval for telecommunications contracts to enlist corporate partners in national infrastructure efforts.

Pushback from the Public

Not everyone has been thrilled with the amount of private dollars being funneled into education technology ventures. The activities of News Corp. drew significant skepticism from some education advocates, especially in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World, one of the conglomerate's British newspapers.

Others have been wary of initiatives such as Digital Learning Now, which critics have said are meant to push reforms that would benefit big business interests. And virtual schools—especially those run by for-profit companies—are facing increasing criticism for what some see as inferior performance to brick-and-mortar alternatives.

iPad is King

Last but not least, while other devices such as smartphones and netbooks have inspired some educators to think about technology in new ways, no device in recent memory—if ever—has gained the same popular appeal among educators as Apple's iPad tablet computer.

Whether it's because of the combination of a larger screen with touch-screen capabilities, its durability and battery life, or the zeal that some Apple devotees have for the brand, educators in unprecedented numbers—and especially those of students with disabilities—are pledging allegiance to the device. We'll see if it continues in 2012.

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