Veteran teacher and technology enthusiast Heather Esposito watched her colleagues scour education technology tools for anything that would make the intimidating world of virtual learning easier to navigate back in 2020.
Educational technology companies were happy to comply, offering teachers free trials of their products.
“People were just finding ideas and sharing them like, ‘I’m trying this and trying that’,” said Esposito, who became the first-ever technology coach for the Cherry Hill, N.J., school district in July of 2020. “We didn’t really have to purchase much because all the companies were seeing this as an opportunity to offer everything for free, get you hooked, and then eventually say ‘It’s not free anymore,’ and get you to want to buy it.”
Now, the cost of that expansion of tech tools is literally coming due.
Cherry Hill, like other districts around the country, has only about one more school year to spend the bulk of its federal COVID relief dollars, which were aimed in part at helping schools improve their digital capacity.
That means some tools teachers embraced over the past couple years could gain a firmer foothold in the suburban Philadelphia district. But many more will get the axe, at least in the form of no districtwide funding.
We want teachers to experiment, try things out, see what works for them. Oftentimes, I see a technology department take a very hard line and say everything has to fit within [certain parameters]. And then what happens is we start to see people adopt things in the shadows.
Even before starting the culling process, Esposito spent a chunk of the past summer buried in a spreadsheet, getting her arms around the myriad of tech tools that sprung up in the district over the past two years.
She and other ed-tech leaders across the country have a big job ahead: The average number of tech products school districts access in a given month has almost tripled over the last several years, from 548 during the 2017-18 school year, to 1,417 during the 2021-22 school year, according to a report released in August by LearnPlatform, an education technology company that helps districts measure the use and effectiveness of their digital products.
What’s more, nearly 60 percent of educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center this summer said teachers in their district adopted at least three new tools when vendors made them free at the beginning of the pandemic, with nearly a quarter of those surveyed—23 percent—saying teachers tried more than five new tools.
But district leaders are finding that there can be too much of a good thing.
Even if a program is free—or if a teacher is paying for it out of their own pocket—having such a wide array of products can complicate professional development and parent outreach, and force students to master different products as they go from class to class. The use of a wide array of products also has huge implications for student data privacy and cybersecurity. Plus, digital tools need to be accessible for students with a range of abilities and learning needs, and that is not always the case with every product that comes off the shelf.
“I will tell you that school districts are absolutely saying ‘we are overwhelmed,’” said Karl Rectanus, the co-founder and CEO of LearnPlatform. Most “no longer believe letting a thousand flowers bloom is the path to success,” he added.
Instead, district leaders want to know how to understand what’s being used, and how to make evidence-based decisions about which ones to keep.
At the same time, tech leaders are wary of discouraging discovery and innovation or of sending teachers who have become fans of unapproved products underground.
“We want teachers to experiment, try things out, see what works for them,” said Mark Racine, the chief information officer for Boston Public Schools. “Oftentimes, I see a technology department take a very hard line and say everything has to fit within [certain parameters]. And then what happens is we start to see people adopt things in the shadows.”
Districts have a lot to consider before approving a tech tool
Every district has its own particular set of rules and procedures for deciding which ed-tech products to allow teachers to use, buy districtwide licenses for, and prohibit entirely. Often, schools purchase their own products, with the principal’s approval, bypassing district-level evaluations.
The reality is that most districts don’t require teachers and principals to choose from a list of approved products in order to use them.
More than one in five educators surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center said teachers in their districts are encouraged to use any tool they want, and that districts try to find a way to cover the cost, if there is one. Only 14 percent of those surveyed said their districts discourage teachers from using tools not officially approved by the district, and only 5 percent said that teachers are prohibited from using tools that aren’t adopted by the district.
No matter what their rules are for using tech products, ed-tech leaders should ask a host of questions before they approve a platform for district funding, or even for individual teacher use, educators and experts said.
Those questions include:
- Does it meet state privacy laws, which have been changing around the country?
- Does it have features, like closed-captioning or text-to-speech, required to make it accessible to students who might struggle to hear or see, or have particular learning needs?
- Does it mesh with the district’s approach to teaching a particular subject? For instance, if a school or district follows the “science of reading,” the platform should support that approach to the teaching of reading in practical and meaningful ways.
- Does it replicate a tool the district already has? And will it work with the district’s hardware and software?
For instance, some of Cherry Hill’s teachers swooned over a literacy program that was at odds with the district’s focus on helping students think analytically about what they read. While the tool does a good job of customizing texts to students’ reading levels, it spits out pre-fabricated questions that do little more than check for understanding, Esposito said.
Some “teachers get married to things,” Esposito said. “They fall in love with things, even though they may not serve a really great purpose.”
She ultimately told teachers they could use the free version of that reading program in a pinch, but added, “I can’t justify purchasing it because it’s really lacking in the area of higher-order thinking, critical thinking.”
In examining Cherry Hill’s tools, Esposito has been on the lookout for ways to be more efficient. Is there a platform out there she and the tech department can recommend that could eliminate the need for, say, three or four other tools?
For instance, Esposito convinced the 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.
Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, Racine sought to track districtwide trends in product adoption. He saw a lot of interest in communication tools for families who speak languages other than English, and began to look for something the entire district could use.
Having high-quality districtwide options can help “push away the smaller tools that people were adopting that were duplicative. Because why get a free trial of something when the district has provided a full-fledged product?” Racine said.
Being strategic about what the district adopted over the past three years has “allowed us to, as much as possible, squelch individual classroom adoption and really focus our efforts on the small number of tools we knew had the most impact in our classrooms,” Racine said.
'I'm really sorry. You went rogue. This is on you.'
Some districts take a more systemic approach. In North Carolina’s Union County, if a teacher wants to use a particular tool that’s not on the district’s approved list and it uses student data, Casey Rimmer, the district’s director of innovation and education technology, will check to see if Union County has a data sharing agreement with the company.
If there’s academic content, she’ll check with the curriculum team to make sure it’s aligned with the district’s goals. She also has the tech team look at the technical specifications: Will the program work with the district’s tech infrastructure?
Tools must clear those hurdles even a teacher is going to pay for something out of their own pocket, or by using a crowd-funding site like DonorsChoose.
Even green-lit programs are put in multiple categories. Some are approved and supported by the district, meaning a teacher who runs into trouble using them can get technical help. Others are approved, but not supported. That generally means the program meets basic criteria when it comes to privacy, curriculum, and technical specs, but teachers are on their own for technical troubleshooting if they want to use it.
There are also tools that are totally off the table, including a teacher-student communication app that doesn’t allow the district to access a record of the conversations educators have with their students.
To be sure, Rimmer and her staff can’t police every classroom, cracking down on teachers who use something on the prohibited list. But if teachers have problems with those tools, Rimmer will tell them “‘I’m really sorry. You went rogue. This is on you,’” she said.
Even if a district doesn’t purchase or subscribe to a tool, anything that gets used will still require an investment in teacher and student time and effort.
That’s why Rimmer encourages teachers to treat choosing a product for their classroom just like they would buying a washer and dryer or a refrigerator for their home: Do your research.
“My role is not to limit what teachers can and can’t use, but to better educate them about what good products are,” Rimmer said. “Rather than us saying, ‘We’ve evaluated this product and it’s trash,’ we say, ‘These are some questions you should ask when you’re thinking about using a product.’”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Trim Number of Tech Tools They Use