This feature is part of a series focused on education technology. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
As the summer months get under way and the K-12 tech buying season picks up steam, it can be easy for administrators to get inundated with a flood of pitches from vendors. These decisions — and, perhaps more importantly, the strategies around them — can be costly, especially if they end up not panning out as expected.
For more insight on navigating the buying process, we spoke with Tustin Unified School District Chief Technology Officer Robert Craven, Future Ready Schools Director of Innovation Thomas C. Murray and former Howard-Winneshiek Community School District (IA) Superintendent John C. Carver, who recently joined the Maury County District in Columbia, TN, to work on its "Diploma" digital integration program.
Get teacher input — and ask for a trial
In education, decisions tend to come from the top down, with Murray noting that there's often less decision-making the further toward the classroom you go. It's a reality he says needs to be flipped.
“Districts really quite often don’t leverage teacher voice and high-quality pilots before investing massive amounts of money into things, as they should," said Murray. "Quite often, technology decision-making may be in the hands of only a handful of stakeholders; whereas to really do it well, you need to make sure you’re having a pilot at the ground level … with a very solid feedback loop coming from teachers on what works, what are frustrations, what are roadblocks, and ultimately how can these devices serve kids better than we currently are.”
Adding to that, Craven noted, "Everybody comes in with the newest, greatest product of idea that’s going to ‘save’ education, and it definitely takes some picking through. I think for a site-level administrator, one of the best things is to talk with your teachers and see what your teachers are asking for and looking for."
At the end of the day, administrators and other stakeholders should take into consideration the thoughts and first-hand experience of those who will have to implement new tools. For Carver's former district, Howard-Winneshiek, this meant offering educators three different kinds of interactive whiteboards to test at the elementary, middle and high school levels. They ultimately found that one type worked better in lower grades, while another best served the needs of high-schoolers.
With apps, he also suggests looking for free alternatives to paid apps when possible. But barring that, administrators should also request trials of any product.
"Any product that you’re out there looking at, [vendors] should be willing to let the school or district go through a trial or demo to see if it works, see if it delivers on what they promise," said Craven, adding that educators also shouldn't "be an island," but should talk to their peers in the district and beyond about what worked for them.
Understand what’s worth the money from the research end
“It’s imperative that school leaders, as they’re making purchases, understand what’s truly worth the money,” said Murray, who addresses this and other issues in a recent book co-authored with the International Center for Leadership in Education Senior Fellow Eric Sheninger, "Learning Transformed."
To this end, he lays out a handful of strategies.
- Is the learning going to be interactive for the child? “When we look at things that are interactive, we look at things that are actively used. An example might be a technology that adapts to a child’s needs — so as a child gets more and more correct, the difficulty level increases. If the child’s not getting it correct and doing poorly, the difficulty level decreases a little bit until they reach a certain percentage and kind of navigates them through that pathway. It becomes more of a personal experience for the kid because it’s interactive.”
- The technology is used to explore, design, and create. “With that, what’s happening in those cases is students have the ability to reach, essentially, higher levels of learning. Whether you’re using Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, you still want to get to that creation in the design. The opposite of that, the research has also shown, is not worth the money. This is also where districts are spending a tremendous amount of money and not getting a return on investment for it. That would be known as what’s been coined ‘the digital drill and kill,’ where essentially we take the worksheet packets of paper of yesteryear, we digitize them, we put them on a device like a Chromebook or iPad, and often celebrate that we’re all digital — but from the pedagogy end, you’ve shifted nothing. It’s probably, in my opinion, the most prevalent practice that we see out there.”
- The right blend of teachers and technology. “Ultimately, what’s right for one student is gonna be different than what’s right for another student. It’s something differentiated that we’ve known for a long time. There’s not really a new concept there, but it’s understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work with kids.”
Have a systemic plan in place before you buy
Perhaps the most crucial piece of the puzzle is ensuring you have a plan for what exactly you want to do with the hardware or software you plan on buying, from both operational and/or pedagogical standpoints. Stakeholder buy-in can help better inform this strategy, and it also necessitates an audit of whether the infrastructure is in place to support it.
Citing ISTE CEO and former U.S. Department of Education Office of Ed Tech director Richard Culatta, Carver said: "You can bring in the technology, but if you don’t have the apps or the broadband to support it and the teachers are just going to teach the same way they’ve always taught, then you’re not going to get any kind of deep, systemic change."
Districts should also plan extensively around professional development and how it's offered. Avoiding a typical one-size-fits-all, top-down, sit-and-get approach with hours-based accountability is key. And the focus should be on the deeper pedagogical end of how to use the tech to transform teaching and learning, rather than simply how to use the tech itself. "The technology is a tool in the process," said Murray. "Sometimes, I think districts make the mistake of looking at professional learning like the technology is the end result as opposed to looking at the technology as a tool to get to the end result of learning that we’re looking for."
And on a final note, Murray said schools and districts should consider the total cost of investment, including things like warranty, repairs and recurring ongoing costs in the overall longterm price of the purchase, as opposed to the initial starting price. In some instances, leveraging networks and regional purchasing power to get the best use of funding can be especially beneficial.