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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Free Virtual Tools for All Teachers! They Won’t Be Free Next Year

By Peter DeWitt — April 22, 2020 6 min read
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As we’re sitting at our computer navigating our way through all of our social-media platforms, we will no doubt see a plethora of teachers and leaders engaging in dialogue around which virtual tool to use with students and how to best use them. I have found myself sitting and voyeuristically reading important conversations between educators and leaders.

Over the weeks we have been experiencing virtual learning, I have been spending quality time on educator community pages. One of the actions I have taken is to cut the comments from some of those pages and paste them into an Excel spreadsheet so I can code the comments for my own action-research project. It may sound boring, but to me, it’s fascinating to code whether a comment may focus on instructional strategies, student engagement, collective efficacy, or a few other components.

However, there is another reason I have been spending hours coding questions and comments. Personally, I need to learn how to use these tools in my own work. I have learned so much about Zoom, Google Classroom, and a variety of other tools that I can bring into the workshops and webinars I facilitate.

For full disclosure, I am not a virtual learning guru. As a principal, I used tablets early on for observations and flipped my faculty meetings to engage staff in different ways. I also wrote a principal blog in the early 2000s before I ever imagined writing this blog for Education Week. However, I still have a lot to learn about how to engage participants virtually. I need to explore whether my Kahoots are fun and engaging or just fun.

Before the coronavirus, my work took me on the road almost every week, and it was a 90/10 split between in-person workshops and coaching, as opposed to webinars and virtual coaching. After the coronavirus and social distancing, my work has turned upside down, and it is now nearly 100 percent virtual. Most days I like the learning curve.

Most of us have been hit lately with email after email offering me tools to use for virtual learning that I have never heard of before, and I feel like a kid in a candy store. It’s exciting and a tad bit overwhelming. Which ones will I use? How can I use them in workshops? How will these engage participants in new and impactful ways?

Then I had to stop and think about one more important question. Will I use these tools when I have to start paying for them?

Free Won’t Always Be Free!
One of the behavior changes I began to notice is that people were shifting from the anger stage of being at home, forced to teach virtually, and moved to the acceptance stage where they began to look at different ways to engage students and began thinking long term. So, I wanted to explore what the tools provided when it came to learning because they seemed engaging and I wondered if I could use them for virtual workshops.

As I started to provide my email address for some freebies, I was then asked for a credit card number and began to feel like thousands of teachers going for a free Draper Dress. I realized free will not always be free. If it will always be free, then why do those organizations need my credit card number?

It’s not that I’m surprised. So many companies truly want to help teachers, students, and families navigate their way through this pandemic by offering their tools for free. But let’s face it, free isn’t a good long-term financial plan for organizations. At some point, they will have to begin charging customers. Other times, organizations offer free in a bait and switch scheme. They offer free now, but when customers want the good stuff, they will be asked to pay. What we find these days on social media is a combination of both approaches and everything in between.

It’s a good time for teachers and leaders to begin thinking about long-term options and not just about the here and now. Personally speaking, I cannot possibly pay for every tool I have been trying and,, therefore I need to figure out which tools are the best ones to use in my workshops. The reality is that there will be school districts that have to cut budgets, and teachers cannot continue to pay for these tools through their classroom budgets (as a teacher, my district gave me a $45 budget for the year!) or out of pocket.

The following are some areas to consider:
Think long term - Will this tool continue to be as impactful when students are back in the classroom? Will we, as teachers, use this tool when students are back in our classrooms with us? Basically, is the tool Mr. Right ... or Mr. Right Now?

What’s the cost? Some of these virtual tools are either free or offering massive discounts. In the next school year as we blend what we’ve learned about virtual learning with our in-classroom experiences that WE WILL get back to someday, will our school still be able to afford the tool? There are usually different levels of cost depending on how many students will use it ... or the companies offer additional resources to go with the tool (i.e., grading options, upload options, etc.) depending on how much we pay.

Are you a hoarder or minimalist? Do you really need all of these tools? Some tools are really fun and engaging. The reality, though, is that teachers are trying to find numerous ways, to not only educate their students but also help parents/caregivers entertain their children at home. BUT, from an impactful and deep-learning perspective, is this tool one that is practical? I have created a half- day or full-day webinar around instructional leadership, but I have also created a virtual university course on the topic that I will be teaching in the fall. I wanted to find some tools that I can use for all purposes to keep it simple and engaging. Less is more for me.

What are other teachers using? A few weeks ago, I did a Facebook Live interview with Alisal High School Principal (Salinas, Calif.) Ernesto Garcia. When the pandemic hit, and school closed for students, Mr. Garcia and his outstanding leadership team worked with teachers to create a survey for all teachers to fill out. In the survey, they were asked which virtual tools they were presently using. The team found a lot of uniformity, which was a good thing because that consistency made it easier for students to continue the learning they had been experiencing at school.

What’s the Impact? Yes, I may have said this a few times before. However, just because teachers find a tool fun to use doesn’t mean that it’s impacting student learning. Before we buy, we need to make sure students are learning. And I’m not talking about just surface-level learning; I’m talking about deep learning, too.

In the End
Free tools are fun, and there are so many popping up on social media every day. I feel like every time I get on Instagram and Twitter I see an advertisement or suggestion about a new virtual tool that will be life-changing. In the moment I get excited and feel like I want to use it forever, but then when they ask for my credit card number, I realize that I need to step back and reflect a little more about it.

This is the time to expand on our virtual teaching and learning, but we have to make sure we don’t break the bank in order to do it. Those tools won’t be free forever.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.