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Ed Tech Moves Into the Spotlight for Education Beat Reporters

OK, true confession:

When I accepted an offer in 2013 to cover education technology for Education Week, I had never heard of the federal E-rate program. I had never covered student data-privacy. I knew nothing about adaptive learning software, wouldn't have known a makerspace if I was standing in the middle of it, and had never used an iPad.

I was an education reporter covering one of the country's largest districts, but ed tech simply wasn't part of the beat.

So I was greatly interested this week when I saw my former colleagues at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook release an entire edition on the subject. Chromebooks, bandwidth, blended learning, "innovative" school models, it's all there.Notebook-ed-tech-cover_330.jpg

I wondered: Has covering ed tech suddenly become more central to the job of being an education beat reporter?

"It's definitely moving more into the spotlight," says Emily Richmond, the public editor for the 3,000-member Education Writers Association, based in Washington. "Everyone can tell you what a flipped classroom is now, and people are starting to understand blended learning. That wasn't the case two years ago."

There are numerous recent examples of education beat reporters producing aggressive, illuminating, high-profile coverage of ed tech. The work of the Los Angeles Times, KPCC radio, and the Los Angeles Daily News in covering L.A. Unified school district's ongoing tech meltdowns comes immediately to mind.  So does the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's coverage of corruption in their state's cyber charter sector, and the work of the Hechinger Report (an online news organization that isn't exactly a local outlet, but has a regional focus) showing the difference technology can make in rural schools.

And the Notebook isn't the only publication to give the subject dedicated thematic coverage. Check out this comprehensive package on ed-tech from California's Fresno Bee, published last June.

In states such as Florida, where lawmakers have pushed hard for more digital learning, ed tech has been a big issue on the beat for a long time. 

"We have covered this issue for at least a decade, to differing levels," wrote Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solochek in response to a query I sent out over the EWA listserv.  

"The issues began with teachers trying to figure out how to use computers, with kids egging them on and promising to help," he said. "Florida began talking about computerized testing in 2007, and more recently mandated [that] schools adopt digital classroom plans and move large portions of their curriculum and materials to computerized format."

That trend towards more and deeper ed-tech coverage can also be seen in a (decidedly unscientific) survey of ed-tech stories from across the country, as shared via the EWA listserv.

Solochek rattled off links to recent Tampa Bay Times stories about online testing disruptions, flipped classrooms, and district struggles to provide students with adequate hardware.

A story in the Telegraph from Macon, Ga. featured a local teacher that had been recognized for her classroom work with technology.

A piece in the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune described the gamification of classroom learning in local schools.

The San Antonio Express-News took a look at the growing use of digital textbooks.

In fact, the trend is so far along in some places that coverage of ed-tech has become almost passé, wrote Linda Vanderwerf, a staff writer for the West Central Tribune, which covers rural Minnesota.

"I wrote a lot about the first couple districts that went one-to-one," Vanderwerf said via email. "But most of the rollouts have been so smooth, it's become a non-issue in our area, and we've moved on with other coverage."

Tech issues that seem to be of common interest to education reporters include online testing, data privacy, and the classroom impact of new digital learning tools, said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school technology officials.

"We saw a diminishment of education coverage in general over last 15 years," Krueger said in an interview. "But for ed tech, we've seen a real increase over the last year or two."

That's a good thing, said Richmond of EWA, in part because it will help with both awareness and accountability for the $8 billion-per-year K-12 ed-tech industry.

Despite the endless product pitches reporters receive, our work is not usually about covering the latest apps and software and devices, but instead the processes by which districts select them, where district are coming up with the money to pay for them, and how the tools are actually impacting teaching and learning in the classroom.

That can be a big challenge for beat reporters who are already stretched thin.

Take Sharon Noguchi, a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News, who has covered complex ed-tech topics like the rise of open educational resources. The fragmented nature of her beat and a lack of time present real obstacles, Noguchi wrote via the EWA listserv.

"Although we are in the heart of Silicon Valley, use of ed tech varies widely among school districts," she said. "I'm the only ed writer covering two-plus counties, so while ed tech is important and my editors are very interested in it, it's certainly not the focus of my beat." 

Writing about these issues can also present a steep learning curve for the many of us who are non-techies. My own Ed Week experience trying to understand, for example, the ins and outs of laying a fiber-optic cable network comes to mind. Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times relayed a similar dynamic in his attempts to understand the cyber attacks that recently halted the administration of Florida state tests in some of the districts he covers.

Given such barriers, the expanding scope and quality of the local coverage of ed-tech issues has been great to see.

Reading over the Philadelphia Public School Notebook's new edition, for example, I learned a lot about a district I thought I knew well — including a great partnership with a local nonprofit that has allowed the cash-strapped district to make effective use of old and donated computers without overtaxing its bare-bones IT department, and the disruption experienced at one of the city's high-tech schools when it was forced to receive hundreds of students and staff from a shuttered school nearby that didn't share its technology-focused philosophy.   

When I called up my former editor (admittedly, partly just for the fun of making her squirm while doing an on-the-record interview), she described the publication's rationale in turning its focus to ed tech.

It was important to raise awareness of the Philadelphia district's growing adoption of Chromebooks, and its creation of new, tech-reliant school models, and even its exemplary fiber network, said Dale Mezzacappa, the Notebook's contributing editor.

But it was also important, she said, to put those things in the context of the instability and underfunding and bureaucratic dysfunction that parents and teachers and students experience everyday.

Technology "is an important issue and a huge expense [for the district] that has mostly been getting attention in peripheral and scattershot ways," Mezzacappa said. "But the real issues of how schools are using technology hadn't been covered that well."

Image courtesy the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 


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