NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Technology and education are the two things that I have always been passionate about. Over the past decade I have been privileged to have had a role in not only both areas, but more importantly I have been able to conduct an extensive study on how each has evolved.
However, no lesson was more potent than what was learned at the height of the recession when schools districts all over the country were adversely impacted by budget reductions resulting in mass layoffs. All of this as the future of millions of students depended on schools that were able to maintain the focus on the business of teaching and learning.
It was evident that it would require technology -- or, more importantly, its efficient use -- to come to the rescue of education and restore some semblance of normalcy. This in a financial environment that, for many Americans, was anything but normal.
Names such as
are corporate rivals on Wall Street. But they became silent partners in education in the areas of virtualization, analytics and device engagement. Those areas allowed educational leaders all over the country to execute their missions in the face of uninspiring circumstances.
Old Barriers Falling
When it comes to technology in schools and in the classrooms, the biggest impediments were costs and comfort -- the latter referring to a constant unwillingness to change. However, as it seems that the technology industry as a whole has finally started to provide affordable options, school districts have reached a point where they are being forced to not only embrace change but also adapt to the unique needs of students, while also figuring out ways to strategically leverage their growing interest in mobile devices.
Not only does that present an interesting balance, but it is unchartered territory as these same devices were once considered public enemy No. 1 in the classrooms all over the country. I still haven't gotten back my beeper from the principal's office while in 11th grade. So this time, will it work?
The growing popularity of Apple's iPads and the proliferation of various mobile devices and tablets have caused schools to rethink antiquated approaches. Today, these devices are not only more student-centric but are also high-quality models. These include the Kindle Fire by
, e-readers such as the Nook from
Barnes & Noble
as well as Web-based devices such as the Chromebooks by search giant
. Not only are these able to deliver high-quality and low-cost computing functionality, but more importantly, they offer a glimpse into what the 21st century classroom will look like.
The Good Student
No school district has demonstrated a better understanding than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools out of North Carolina, a recent winner of the prestigious Broad Prize, awarded annually to urban school districts that demonstrate not only the most gains in student performances but also closing achievement gaps -- also known as the digital divide. The district has recently partnered with Microsoft to assess the future of learning and computing, while also having recently adopted a program of offer iPads to every principal and administrator at each school. So once again, technology is meeting education to address another challenge. But what does it mean for the current learning environment?
In sustaining its lead in education the CMS district is now in the process of implementing BYOT (bring your own technology) building on the rising trend, known as BYOD (D for "device") in corporate enterprises. Students and teachers will be encouraged to bring their own tablets, smartphones, multi-functional handheld devices as a way of getting some 140,000 students up to speed on digital learning.
This puts the Charlotte-Mecklenburg well ahead of the curve, as most states have begun to adopt online assessments or have plans in place to fully embrace the online strategy during the course of the next three years.
The success of this initiative will help the district adapt blended learning models that extend the benefits of personal digital learning to every student.
The Strain on Publishing
I think there is also an investment opportunity here as the writing on the wall has scripted the fate of the traditional textbook -- particularly as Houghton Mifflin recently
. I have started to wonder, what does it mean for traditional rivals such as
One prominent publisher,
is starting to take notice by having recently exited its publishing division when earlier this year Apple announced the availability of its popular iBook to a wide range of authors and to students - one that includes the U bookshelf from its iTunes store.
The idea is that schools will be able to purchase books in similar fashion to how music is sold. So in essence, with the use of a couple of apps, Apple has (somewhat) addressed the concerns surrounding the digital divide while introducing several advantages in cost, interaction, size, as well as functionality.
Education is always going to present some challenges. But as with anything else a challenge is always one good idea away from being met. No industry has been able to come up with more good ideas than technology, so it makes for the perfect partnership.
Technology giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google realize that in order to further their own corporate mission, they will need to make important early investments in education; they are training the next generation of talent needed to compete effectively within emerging markets.
The Bottom Line
The dark side of technological evolution is the business aspect, what is effectively known as survival of the fittest -- hence, the pending demise of some of the most prominent publishers. From an investment perspective it is hard to be bullish on names such as McGraw-Hill or Pearson and say with any degree of certainly that they have a future -- particularly for McGraw-Hill which has traded flat on the year and is down 40% over the past five years.
The industry has to contend with budget-conscious school committees who find it hard to justify buying more print books while introducing tools such as Moodle, FlexBook and Blackboard that help trim costs for paper and toner and are more eco-friendly.
For publishers, I suppose it is fair to say that the environment is no longer suitable.
At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and MSFT.