The number of educational technology products in schools exploded over the past two years, due in part to free trials from companies during the pandemic and billions in federal COVID relief cash.
Now ed-tech leaders around the country are taking stock of which tools their teachers are actually using, with an eye towards figuring out where to invest increasingly scarce tech dollars.
Heather Esposito, the technology coach for the Cherry Hill, N.J., school district, has been working through that process in her district. She suggests ed-tech leaders “really sit back and say ‘what is it about this platform? Is it fulfilling a need or solving a problem?’ And if it is, then it’s worth exploring,” she said. “If it’s not, then maybe your teacher is just caught up in the hype.”
Here are seven questions district and school leaders should ask when deciding whether a tech product is worth keeping or trying for the first time, according to educators and experts:
1. Does it meet state privacy laws, which have been changing around the country?
In most districts, if a tool uses student data without appropriate safeguards, it’s a no-go. Districts like Los Angeles Unified and Union County, N.C., track which companies have a data-sharing agreement with the district that ensures student and employee data is properly protected. If a product is not part of a data-sharing agreement, the district discourages educators from using it.
2. Does the technology have features that make it accessible to students who might struggle to hear or see, or have particular learning needs?
These features are becoming increasingly important and ed-tech companies are taking note. Features like closed-captioning or text-to-speech have become “table stakes” for some school districts who plan to use a tool with groups such as English language learners and students in special education, said Karl Rectanus, the co-founder and CEO of LearnPlatform.
3. Does it mesh with the district’s approach to teaching a particular subject?
In Union County, for instance, literacy tools need to be reviewed by the curriculum department to make sure they dovetail with the district’s approach to teaching reading. Products for other subjects can be vetted by the appropriate department too.
4. Does it replicate a tool the district already uses widely?
For instance, Esposito convinced her district’s middle schools to jettison their own tools for formative assessment in favor of one in place at both of the high schools, in part to make life easier for kids transitioning from one level to another.
5. Will it work with the district’s hardware and software?
Interoperability may be the kind of techy word that makes teachers and even school leaders eyes glaze over, but it’s a necessary part of the picture when deciding if a tech tool is the right fit. Schools need to have ed-tech tools that can interact and share data with each other. Otherwise, things get very messy and confusing.
6. Do teachers like the ed-tech product?
Individual teachers—or even entire departments—can let school and district leaders know if they’ve found digital learning tools they are especially excited about. In the Cherry Hill, N.J., district, a few schools bought a virtual program after science teachers raved about how much more they were able to do with students using the tool.
7. Is there clear evidence to show that the technology helps improve student learning?
Teachers, principals, and school district leaders need to keep their eye on the goal of advancing students’ academic progress when they pick a learning tool to keep or try for the first time, Esposito said. “If a platform is not promoting increased student achievement, why are you picking it?” she asked. “Certain things are fun, they’re gimmicky, but gimmicks aren’t going to help students learn.”