Education Funding Opinion

How School Leaders Can See Through Ed-Tech Hype and Make Smart Choices

By Contributing Blogger — June 20, 2016 5 min read
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A few weeks ago in a New York Daily News op-ed, University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham offered this tweet-provoking headline: “The false promise of tech in schools: Let’s make chagrined admission 2.0.”

The piece offers two related arguments: First, that administrators are not thoughtful about why they purchase one piece of technology or another. Willingham writes: “The problem is that tech purchasing decisions are usually not much better informed than your decision about whether or not to buy a smartwatch,” he wrote. Second, he contends that no one understands the unintended consequences of using technology—instead of traditional practices—on learning. (Willingham is a cognitive psychologist who studies learning styles and media.)

Now for the most unfashionable viewpoint of all: There’s nothing black and white about the use of technology in education. Technology will not save us—nor will it likely destroy us. It’s far more nuanced than catchy one liners make it out to be.

Marketing Instead of Analysis

Willingham is right when he asserts that many schools have failed to make thoughtful edtech purchasing in the past. (He reemphasized this point in a later blog post.) Harold O. Levy, former chancellor of New York City’s schools and a cofounder of the Technology for Education Consortium (TEC) has made the case that “too many school districts buy ed-tech products on the basis of good marketing rather than careful analysis.” Sad but true: for decades, many edtech sales keyed off of relationships between vendors and districts leaders. There was no corruption involved—district leaders simply had “to-do” lists jammed with scores of more immediate problems: managing teaching staffs, grumpy parents, volatile school boards, unpredictable students, leaky roofs and so on.

And there’s been a second problem, too: Once a purchase decision was made, school administrators gave short shrift to lining up the essential resources—from infrastructure and bandwidth to teacher training and ongoing support—to implement a technology program with fidelity.

So, what should guide edtech purchasing?

The most thoughtful practitioners start with developing a vision for where they want to take their district and schools rather than picking a piece of technology and wedging it into existing environment.

What is the challenge or the issue that school leaders are trying to address? How does district and schools tackle that problem right now? Why or in what ways does the current approach fall short? What would “success” look like?

To Achieve Vision...

Next, district and school leaders need to ask what they—and their communities—are willing to do to achieve that vision or address the challenge: Do they want to change teaching and learning practices? For instance, should teachers have more autonomy or students have more agency? Would different practices lead to different outcomes?

Running through those questions is another critical issue: How willing is the community to change? Do teachers (or even the students and parents) share leadership’s vision? Do they agree with the articulated problems? Have their perspectives been factored into any decision to change practice?

Once school leaders answer those questions, they can thoughtful explore whether available technologies might help. We’re beginning to understand when and how technologies can support student learning. Once again, there are no magic wands. After a yearlong investigation, Chicago’s nonprofit LEAP Innovations observed that the practices that a school community puts in place are as fundamental as the technology it selects.

...Ask Questions

As administrators consider specific technologies, there is a battery of questions they can ask to assess whether the environment and the practices they have (or want to see) are in synch with the technology they’re considering. For instance, SRI International has shared a framework for describing online learning. Liz Arney, formerly director of innovative learning at Aspire Public Schools, describes some of the checkpoints she used to guide Aspire’s use of tech in her book, Go Blended!

Sound like too much work? Would a district be better off staying the course with pencils and blue books?

In some cases, the answer may be “yes.” But for millions of students and teachers, traditional approaches simply aren’t working: Students are not learning; nor are they engaged. Teachers feel overwhelmed by the needs of the students or demands of their environment. They want and need more support. And then there’s that pesky problem of preparing students for the world outside of school. Students need to know how to control the tech—not the other way around.

Link Tech To Problems

In every other part of our world, we’ve invented tools to help us travel further, communicate more easily, cure ills or even feed ourselves. But in all cases, success comes when we figure out how to build tech that matches the problems and then spend enough time and attention to use that technology with care and reflection.

Administrators can’t select technology the way they once did. Emerging groups can help, including the Future Ready program, Digital Promise‘s research map, and others mentioned in this piece. EdSurge, too, has been committed to helping educators make better decisions for the past five years, through our “index” or catalogue of products and most recently with our Concierge program—which includes free videos and a workbook—to help schools work through these questions independently.

There’s no theoretically “right” choice of technology; there are only choices that fit the vision, teaching approaches and needs of a particular school and community of teachers and students. We tell our students that thoughtful, reflective work will pay off for them. The same holds true of how we choose technology programs to support them.

Betsy Corcoran is CEO and cofounder of EdSurge, which is a news and community site, devoted to helping school find, select and use the right technology to support all learners.

Image: courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The opinions expressed in On California 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.