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What Makes a 'Smart' Classroom?

"Smart classroom" is a common term in the ed-tech lexicon, but educators and tech developers say it has more to do with how teachers use emerging technologies than the sheer amount of tools at their disposal.

Students sitting at desks in rows in a classroom with computers in front of them. A male teacher stands at the front of the classroom instructing. The camera angle is from the back of the room.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate digitization in K-12 schools, the market for “smart classroom” ed-tech tools is estimated to be worth more than $117 billion in 2022 and nearly $260 billion by 2028, according to a recent report from Absolute Reports. With schools ramping up their adoption of emerging tech tools for instruction, the question of what makes a classroom “smart” tends to vary between educators and with time.

But for many teachers and other professions connected to the ed-tech space today, it’s all about how technology is used rather than the fact that a classroom adopts a wide array of tech in and of itself.

According to CIO Steven Langford of Beaverton School District, Ore., a smart classroom is defined by a variety of hardware and software tools that can be used to enhance teaching and learning.

Langford said he can’t remember exactly when "smart classroom" became a buzzword in the ed-tech lexicon, but the definition has evolved in recent years as a means of describing how schools use technology for instructional planning, as well as how teachers are trained to use new tools to enhance learning.

“It is critical that educators have the knowledge and skills to be able to integrate those hardware and software tools into learning experiences for students. This could look like students being able to cast their work on their device to a display to show their learning to classmates, students able to work individually or in groups on projects using a learning management system (LMS), or use of augmented reality or virtual reality for simulations,” he said. “A key component of a ‘smart classroom’ is the flexible use of technology hardware and software, coupled with teacher professional development that allows learning in a variety of ways.”

Langford said that years ago, interactive displays and audio systems would be examples of technologies used to describe a smart classroom. He said that’s starting to evolve as the ed-tech market develops a plethora of new tools using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

“I think now — and this might be due to our learnings from the past two years — there is more than just hardware that contributes to a smart classroom,” he said. “Smart classrooms now need to be thought of as a combination of hardware, software applications and educator professional development to provide a variety of methods to learn and demonstrate learning.”

Joel Kupperstein, senior vice president of curriculum management at the ed-tech company Age of Learning, said smart classrooms should aim to provide personalized learning experiences for specific student populations, among other aims.

“It’s great to know what is working in other places, research studies are useful, but you have to know yourself to know how well a product is going to integrate into your ecosystem," he said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey Alexa, turn on my smartboard,’ but give me information on what my student knows and doesn’t know and is ready to learn right now so I can make instructional decisions based on that.

“I think [the smart classroom is] one of those terms that means a lot of things to a lot of people. The pandemic had a ton to do with this, because as we became more dependent on technology, we actually realized this stuff can do a lot more for us than we used to think, and it can make us more effective as instructors,” he continued. “The smart classroom is defined by its ability to transform the way teachers provide personalized learning experiences. Technology for technology’s sake is not the goal.”

David Jarboe, a director of Instructional Technology and STEAM at Colorado Springs Harrison District 2 Schools, and emerging-tech chair at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said the “smart classroom” really comes down to the efficacy of tools being used. As for when the term came about, he believes it goes back to when schools first adopted smartboards years ago, before the pandemic.

In today’s smart classrooms, Jarboe said audiovisual tools can be used to make lessons universally accessible for students with visual and hearing impairments, as well as to bolster student engagement generally. He added that schools must have a strong vetting process to determine whether those tools are useful in the first place, as well as a focus on sustainability to maintain new devices as part of 1:1 programs.

“It’s really looking at the instructional goals in the classroom, because that’s what’s more important than the tech itself,” he said. “There’s a temptation to put things out there around technology and ed tech without really determining the true purpose and benefit and testing it out with students … You can have a great piece of technology but it’s not enhancing the instruction, it’s just the next shiny thing.

“Business talks about return on investment, and we talk about return on instruction,” he continued. “If it’s extremely expensive, that might not be the best investment, even though it might work. But at that price point today, that might not be the best solution.”

In terms of tech itself, computer science professor Neil Heffernan of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, also a lead developer of the AI-based student feedback program ASSISTments, said much of the work of ed-tech developers focuses on AI-driven platforms. More specifically, educators are interested in AI’s role in data management for instructional planning, he said.

“Right now, we are trying to get them to be smarter based upon the data we see,” he said. “You want those curriculums to get smarter by looking at all this data … We’re trying to learn what types of feedback are most effective.”

Jarboe said the role of AI in functions such as data management for instructional planning based on measuring student performance metrics may be central to tomorrow's smart classrooms.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on the use of data to inform and improve instruction, and so that’s one area of tech that’s embedded in your systems. We have more data than we know what to do with, so for me, the idea is to figure out how to leverage that data so that it’s useful data,” he said. “I think that’s where AI has the potential to be a powerful tool — to really sift through that data and do that manual crunching and look at different patterns ... There’s potential to take some of the load off teachers and give them a virtual assistant that can help them in the classroom to manage some of those things.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.