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Classroom 2.0: Can Teachers Take Advantage of the Ed-Tech Boom?

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Dave Wallis / ASSOCIATED PRESS

If Silicon Valley builds it, will educators come?

Developers are getting mountains of cash to create digital tools for the classroom and teachers are eager to incorporate technology into their lesson plans. But school districts only have so much money to spend and teachers only have so much time to discover and learn how to use new software, raising questions about whether an ed-tech bubble is forming.

In 2013, venture investment in K-12 education technology jumped 6 percent to $452 million, according to statistics from the New School Venture Fund. Google's products are especially popular with teachers, which would explain why the company on Tuesday launched Google Classroom, which ties together Docs, Drive and Gmail into one student-friendly package.

Developers might be flush, but only 54 percent of teachers think the most popular ed-tech tools are effective, according to a survey of 3,100 educators released in April by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers were able to recognize less than half (47 percent) of the 964 educational programs mentioned in the survey.

"How many of those companies actually have teachers helping them design the software and hardware they are creating?" Michael Berman, vice president of technology and communication at California State University Channel Islands, asked NBC News. "They will create something and sell it to school administrators without an idea of how it will work in the classroom."

How a wired classroom should look

Teachers might use only a fraction of the tools launched by Silicon Valley, but some are using them very effectively.

There are no computer labs at Philadelphia Science Academy. Instead, high school kids carry Dell Chromebooks around with them and even have their own school email addresses.

It’s all part of the school’s strategy to make technology “ubiquitous, necessary and invisible” in the classroom.

“It shouldn’t be, ‘Ooh, we are doing a technology project now,'” Chris Lehmann, principal of the Philadelphia Science Academy, told NBC News.

“Technology shouldn’t be something special,” he said. “It should be a deeply embedded, essential part of the way we learn today, which is how we treat technology in every other aspect of our lives.”

His kids use Google’s suite of free, cloud-based apps to turn in work. So do the students in Katharine Giertych’s high school English class, at Antioch Community High School in Antioch, Illinois, where turning in essays is a thing of the past — at least ones printed on paper.

Instead, the kids simply upload them to Google Drive, eliminating that bane of teachers everywhere: piles of papers to grade. (An app called RemindMe lets students know, yes, that essay on Shakespeare is due tomorrow).

“I found that grading online is actually a lot easier for me,” Giertych told NBC News. “I can be a little clearer in my comments because I don’t have to fit them into one-inch margins.”

Marielle Sallo, assistant principal of curriculum and math teacher at San Gabriel Mission High School, in San Gabriel, California, uses Google’s software as well, plus other apps like Notability, a note-taking app, and Splice, for video-editing.

Edmoto
The Edmoto app for Android. Edmoto

Other popular tools include Edmodo, a school-friendly alternative to Facebook, and ELMO video projectors, which have replaced messy whiteboards and overhead projectors in some classrooms.

Needs improvement

Few teachers would disagree that students need a firm grasp of technology to succeed later in life. They also love software that makes their job easier.

But for both public and private schools, money is a problem. Many public schools already have to fight for funding. Teachers are sometimes forced to spend part of their own salaries on basic supplies, which does not leave lots of extra cash for new apps.

When it comes to what programs schools adopt, Giertych said, a district's "finances is one of the biggest deciding factors," probably a big reason why Google Apps were mentioned by every teacher interviewed for this story.

"That is just the reality when you’re working in education," she said. "We tend to use the technology that is free."

Software and hardware are not the only things that cost money. Sallo told NBC News that her school would not have been so tech-savvy had it not received teacher training from a pilot program run by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — one that is slated to end this year.

Those obstacles could leave a lot of ed-tech companies on the outside looking in.

“The whole model of venture capitalism is that most of the stuff that they make doesn’t work,” Justin Reich, a Harvard education researcher, told NBC News. “There are a million Friendsters for every Facebook.”

For the general consumer, downloading and discarding a new app is no big deal, but “schools have a special social responsibility, and that effects how much experimentation they are willing to tolerate,” he said.

Teachers concentrate only on a few popular programs, usually discovered through word-of-mouth, the Gates Foundation survey found.

"It's a little hard when you have new things introduced all of the time, because it's a little overwhelming," Giertych said. "You want to use everything, but you already have things that are working well, so it's hard to find that balance."

Educators want new technology, with many aspiring to become "one-to-one" schools, where every student is given a laptop or tablet. But without cheaper, more relevant software, training and guidance through the crowded marketplace, many teachers and students could get left behind.