IT Infrastructure & Management

New Sites Aim to Help Pick Best Ed-Tech Tools

By Michele Molnar — August 27, 2013 6 min read
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Educators struggling to choose the best technology products face a mind-boggling array of decisions, a challenge that is spawning a growing number of ed-tech product-review sites.

Such sites—sometimes compared to Consumer Reports, Angie’s List, or CNET in how they use ratings and recommendations to evaluate educational technology—are now operating or are launching soon, with educators themselves assigning the grades.

The effectiveness of such review sites is still a big question mark. But their existence comes at a critical time, as schools face a multitude of decisions about laptops, tablets, smartphones, digital curricula, video, apps, and other technologies.

Quicker Searches

About one-third of teachers spend an hour or more each week searching for educational technology they can use in their classrooms, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on children and media issues.

The same survey found that 92 percent of the 764 teachers who responded would like to use more educational technology in the classroom, but—on a weekly basis—only 19 percent use subject-specific digital-content tools, and only 14 percent use digital curricula.

Into that void step a number of websites that seek to help educators make smarter and faster choices—including edshelf, Graphite, PowerMyLearning, and emerging sites like EduStar (based on PowerMyLearning) and Learning List.

Intelligence Gathering

The effectiveness of review sites is still a big question mark, but they are emerging at a critical time for students.
Creator: Common Sense Media
Purpose: To help educators find the best apps, games, websites, and digital curricula rated for learning
How it works: Graphite reviewers base their ratings on a rubric that evaluates the learning potential of ed-tech products. Teachers can enter their own “Field Notes” about how best to use the technology in a K-12 classroom, and create Pinterest-type boards of their top picks to share with peers. Users can search by type (apps, websites, etc.), subjects, grades, and price. A blog offer pointers, like how to find the best math apps aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
Launched: 2013
Creator: Adam Bellow, educator and education technologist
Purpose: To give educators and students a social learning platform into which they can “clip anything, share everything”
How it works: Often likened to Pinterest, eduClipper gives educators and students a site where content can be saved and added to a clipboard to share. It can be sorted by websites, documents, videos, and images. The site relies on social curation and personal sharing of resources, projects, and content to enhance what users create and/or contribute. eduClipper allows teachers to differentiate instruction and for students to create personal learning portfolios with examples of their work.
Launched: 2013
Creator: Mike Lee, internet entrepreneur and former software developer
Purpose: To help teachers find the right educational tools for their needs
How it works: Educators can recommend what works in the classroom. Using a “star” system, they assign ratings based on learning curve, pedagogical effectiveness, and student engagement. Teachers can also compile collections of tools and share them with colleagues and students.
Launched: 2012
Creator: CFY, a national education nonprofit
Purpose: To take the work—and guesswork—out of finding and using K-12 digital learning activities.
How it works: A team of educators curated thousands of academic games, videos, and interactive software, tagging them by subject, grade, Common Core State Standard, and more. Users can search, browse and filter to find content, then create “playlists.” Reporting features help differentiate instruction and support learning in and out of school.
Launched: 2011

The only one of those sites that will charge for access is Learning List, which provides in-depth analysis of digital and print educational resources and their alignment with the Common Core State Standards.

PowerMyLearning, features free digital resources that have been reviewed, tagged, and verified for compliance with common core alignment by educators who are using digital learning to implement the common core in their classrooms.

Jami Domeny, a 5th grade teacher at Lime Creek Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., learned about Graphite when she attended the International Society for Technology in Education conference this summer in San Antonio.

“As a 21st-century educator, there are just so many resources out there,” she said. “I will definitely use it throughout the year.”

“What I’ve appreciated about Graphite is that it’s helped me narrow the search,” said Ms. Domeny.

Graphite was created by Common Sense Media, whose resources on digital citizenship she also uses to teach in her classroom, where each student has a laptop provided by the school to use for learning every day. On Graphite, a team of professional educators vets the tools featured, and classroom teachers who use the products can weigh in as well.

Ms. Domeny provided two “field notes,” or her own evaluations for Evernote, an organizational tool that creates a digital notebook, and Edmodo, a platform that allows teachers and students to collaborate on classroom work, after learning that Graphite was offering a $25 Amazon gift card for teachers who completed two such reviews this summer during its beta test.

While Graphite is review-centered, edshelf wants to be considered “more of a discovery engine,” said Mike Lee, a former software developer who is the company’s co-founder and CEO. Teachers will find a curated list of free resources, ranked by “meaningful use or behavior” data programmed into the site. As teachers create collections, for instance, their selections are scored as part of rankings.

Edshelf is now used by educators in 4,000 school districts, and Mr. Lee has been invited to present at conferences this fall to introduce it to more schools.

Lack of Awareness

Indeed, an ongoing challenge for the companies and nonprofits creating and running such review sites is simply making educators aware they exist and then getting educators to take test drives on the sites.

Joel Malley, a 9th grade English teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School near Buffalo, N.Y., has been using educational technology in his classroom since 2002, when he began using iMovie for digital film projects. Yet until Education Week contacted him recently, he had not heard of any of the review sites, but plans to give Graphite a try now.

“The way I decide on using technology in my classroom is by hearing about things on my personal learning network—word of mouth, so to speak. I hear about tools on Twitter, at conferences, from colleagues, on Facebook … then decide if they fit my kids’ needs,” he said. “If I see it filling a niche, I’ll check it out. If I think it will be easy to integrate and worthwhile, I take the plunge.”

Maps to Curriculum

This school year, two levels of educational technology are particularly worth evaluating: the apps a teacher might use in the classroom and what schools will want to adopt as part of their curricula, said Karen Billings, the vice president for education at the Software & Information Industry Association.

“There’s a need for leaders at the district level to see how [a curriculum solution] maps to their framework and standards,” she said.

One company working to address that need is Learning List, whose online library of professional reviews draws from educators trained to verify—or rebut—publishers’ claims about their alignments with the common-core standards. The publishers themselves can comment on how educators have assessed their products.

After starting with math and English/language arts, the subjects covered by the Common Core State Standards, the company is moving to the separate Next Generation Science Standards, said Jacqueline Lain, Learning List’s founder and president.

It will also align reviewed materials to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards.

What they’re trying to do is a noble goal, because I do believe that teachers have an overwhelming number of choices in the marketplace."

The company, which is subscription-based, charges $75 for an individual, and has a sliding scale beginning at $195 for districts.

Another review project under development is EduStar, which will conduct online rapid-randomized-controlled trials of digital learning activities with students via New York City-based CFY’s platform. CFY, a national educational nonprofit, was founded as Computers for Youth, but later abandoned that name as too hardware-focused and limiting. A research advisory board of experts in psychometrics, research design, and economics has developed the methodologies that will be used for EduStar, and prototype trials are expected to begin this fall.

“Random-control trials cost $2 million and take a minimum of two years now,” said Elisabeth Stock, CFY’s founder and CEO. “To do a random-control trial [this way] would be much faster. It might be two weeks long, you could see the results, and repeat it again.”

Evaluation results will be made widely available online in a format that educators will find easy to understand, according to Ms. Stock.

CFY and the organization’s collaborators are waiting for another round of funding to advance the project, which is a team effort with former White House economists Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Aaron Chatterji, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

‘The Gold Standard’

As the review sites evolve, observers are watching to see which will emerge as the “go to” resources for educators making decisions about technology tools.

“What they’re trying to do is a noble goal, because I do believe that teachers have an overwhelming number of choices in the marketplace,” said Rob Mancabelli, the co-founder and CEO of BrightBytes Inc., a San Francisco-based learning-analytics company.

“One of the things the review sites need to do better is to base the reviews on data,” he said—for instance, matching a student’s areas of deficiency with technology proven to address those shortcomings.

Mr. Chatterji, who is working on EduStar, agrees with the need for more data.

“We’re all chasing after the same North Star, which is to raise educational outcomes with technology,” he said. “In the ecosystem of [review-site] players, the gold standard is evidence.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Sites Designed to Help Choose Best Ed-Tech Tools


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