Trimming Educational Apps and Cutting Costs

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Many districts admit they have problems figuring out what to do about unused software.

Kimberly Clemmons, the instructional-technology supervisor for the Wilson County schools near Nashville, Tenn., decided to do something about it. She enticed master teachers to spend a year cataloging and evaluating all the district’s digital offerings, with an eye toward saving money and teacher time. The benefits have been striking: nearly $2 million saved. But getting to that point wasn’t easy.

Education Week spoke with Clemmons about how she made this initiative happen, what she learned along the way, and the lessons other ed-tech leaders might take from her experience. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Education Week: How did you identify that there was a problem with software usage?

Kimberly Clemmons: There are so many resources available now, more than ever, for a teacher and students to access. It came to a point where our teachers were extremely overwhelmed. You could walk in one classroom, and they would be using one piece of software, and then you could walk in another classroom, and they would be using something totally different.

Why Ed Tech Is Not Used and What to Do About It

This special report—the first in a series of three special reports for the 2019-20 school year that Education Week is producing for K-12 ed-tech leaders—examines how schools track tech usage and what steps they should take to make better use of educational technology tools. Read the full report here.

How much were you spending?

I would say we were spending 4 to 5 million dollars on digital textbooks, annual renewal fees for software, and more.

How many apps and software programs were you using?

Oh my gosh, it went over 10,000. That was a staggering amount. From an instructional-technology viewpoint, it was unmanageable and unable to support with training our teachers.

So how did you tackle the problem?

Clemmons said the district asked master teachers—those who had done well on the state’s evaluation system—to spend time away from the classroom and go through the myriad of digital resources. They tagged those resources and categorized them, carefully analyzing which content standard they actually lined up with. In the process, they narrowed down the resources to those that seemed valid and likely to contribute to student learning, she said. The teachers then came up with “instructional guides” for their colleagues.

Following the state textbook-adoption schedule, the district began with science, then moved on to social studies, and will be moving on to English/language arts this school year.

It’s helping our new teachers when they are coming in to know exactly what they should be teaching at what time and how to teach it and what resources [to use]. It has helped our veteran teachers, because we highlight and use what they recommend. When you get that buy-in [from] teachers, then they know locally that this is important and valued.

The downside? Principals weren’t exactly thrilled to have their top teachers taken out of the classroom for a full year, she said.

They were like, “Uhhh.”

How many digital resources have you scrapped so far?

They ended up getting rid of about three-fourths.

And how much money did that save you?

About half. We’re at about $2 million now. We were [also] able to alleviate an estimated 25 percent of the time our educators were spending on trying to locate, and vet, and build content. This has given them more time for enrichment and supplemental instruction in the classroom.

What stage is the initiative at now?

We’re still in the process of narrowing down all the resources. Websites are popping up. New apps are coming out.

“Start small. Take slow steps. And as you’re taking those slow steps, make notes. Get teacher buy-in. To me, that’s the key of having successful digital content in the classroom.”

Having a commitment to continually vet digital resources has really helped our teachers to be able to focus more on what’s going on in the classroom without having to worry about what’s the latest and greatest resources because we are actively trying to vet those resources for our teachers. We’ll just continue to fine-tune what our resources are.

What was the biggest challenge in pulling this off?

I believe in the quote, “Begin with the end in mind.” It is so important to make sure that the vision of where you want to go is clearly understood and defined at the get-go. And I believe our first year—because there were still so many unknowns about what was the best way and how to approach things—it was a roller coaster ride. It was a nail-biting experience. But you live and learn.

What’s your advice for other ed-tech leaders? Any lessons learned?

Start small. Take slow steps. And as you’re taking those slow steps, make notes. Get teacher buy-in. To me, that’s the key of having successful digital content in the classrooms.

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