The promise of technology in the pursuit of learning is vast -- and so are the profits. The SIIA valued the ed-tech market at $7.5 billion. With daily launches of new products promising to solve all manner of problems -- from managing classrooms to engaging bored students with interactive content to capturing and organizing data, to serving as a one-stop-shop for every necessary service, choosing from the dizzying number of products on the market can be confusing.
But when it comes to the specific task of helping students, what's the best app in education? "A web browser," said Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, a school that's embraced technology for years. "Or a Google Doc, or anything that gives you the ability to make a film, or to research, to create, to connect or collaborate," he said.
Lehmann is famous in progressive education circles for his quote: “Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible." His point: The best technology allows students to explore and create "artifacts of their own learning."
"The question is, how will technology allow students and teachers to network their learning, to collaborate with each other, to extend the reach of what kids can learn beyond the walls of the school," he said. "How can technology be used to unlock what hasn't even been thought of yet?"
These questions are more difficult to answer, and less tangible to measure, than improving test scores, which is what typically draws the attention of educators. But placing too much emphasis on raising test scores will eventually backfire, according to educator, author, and consultant Will Richardson, whose book Why School, was recently released.
"Technology can be an amazing thing for learning, but the way we’re looking at isn’t amazing at all," Richardson said. "If all we're doing is valuing test scores, then we're just using technology to deliver the same traditional curriculum. We have to be thinking about what’s the goal of using technology. What do we want to have happen?"
The premise for using products and software that claim to raise test scores is appealing to lots of educators: leave the "drudgery" part of learning -- drill and practices exercises -- to software and games, which will then free up teachers' time to take on more interesting tasks, like applying the knowledge they've gained to projects that can lead to deeper learning.
"But my fear is that we’ll never get to that second part," Richardson said. "As much as we would like to see the opportunity to spend time with kids, and see learning dispositions, we’re not going to value it as much as test scores, because we're not assessing for it. It's not showing up in our comparisons, our scores, our grades."
Richardson, who has embraced the use of technology for learning for many years, says we must ask the question: What’s the goal of using technology? What do we want to have happen? "I’m not inherently against any use of technology, but want us to really think about where it’s going. If it’s about efficiencies of scale, or something more."
WHERE TO FIND INFORMATION
Currently, schools and educators can look to the Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse for some types of information, though it's been criticized for not being comprehensive or current enough in its coverage of product reviews. In more recent events, just last week, two economists from the Hamilton Project proposed creating a nonprofit called EDU STAR "that would provide the technology and reporting resources for schools looking to quickly and cheaply test education technology products," according to an EdWeek article.
For thorough online research, there are sites that offer useful reviews of products, such as EdSurge, which is building up a comprehensive repository of up-to-date product information, including things like how the product works, how it's used, which school districts use it, what platforms it's available on, price and more. EdShelf, another excellent product information site in Beta, is also a good source, as is ClassroomWindow.
For schools and educators considering tech purchases, there are guiding questions that can help make sense of the ed-tech market, and get to the heart of what matters: reaching students. Hack Education has created an excellent list of questions for ed-tech entrepreneurs to consider when creating products for educators, as well as a list of concepts and ideas that educators should know about technology. And there are countless news outlets and teachers' blogs that dig into many of these ideas, too.
DEFINING THE CRITERIA
At the ISTE conference in June, where thousands of ed-tech vendors showcased their products, Karen Cator, Department of Education's Technology Director, talked to educators and helped create the following list of questions to ask when considering tech purchases.
- WHAT DOES IT PROMISE TO DO? Is the main purpose to build students' knowledge of content, or is it to develop skills and dispositions? Are there meta-cognitive strategies or learning strategies associated with the product?
- WHAT DO YOU EXPECT IT TO DO? Do you expect the product to raise students' test scores? To grab students' attention? To flip your classroom? To open up dialogue? To help students' inquiry process? Be clear about your goals.
- WHAT CRITERIA WAS THE PRODUCT DEVELOPED AGAINST? How was the product conceived and who designed and built the product? What classroom experience does the designer/entrepreneur have? What research was done during the designing process? Was it piloted in schools? Is this a rapid prototype with the flexibility to change and improve?
- HOW WILL IT HELP OR CHANGE TEACHERS' ROLES? Will the product keep the teacher in the center of the action in class, or will it give more control to students? Does it help the teacher meet the needs of the students, and if so, how? Does it augment teachers' performance?
- HOW WILL IT CHANGE WHAT HAPPENS IN CLASS? What kind of class environment does it create? Does it encourage collaboration, risk-taking, and student control? If the product is software that allows kids to do practice exercises, how will classroom time be spent on that subject? Will a different kind of curriculum be created, and who will create it? Can hands-on projects be incorporated into class time that build on what students have practiced on computers?
- HOW DO OTHERS RATE THE PRODUCT? Just as you would do with a personal purchase, checking Amazon reviews, Consumer Reports, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter recommendations, asking friends, do your due diligence and research to find out what other educators like and don't like about the product. For example, some schools have already experimented with certain kinds of software that's billed as adaptive, or encouraging critical thinking skills, and found that some are much better than others, and have switched. Sharing this knowledge can help educators root through the overwhelming number of choices, and find products that deliver what they promise.
- HOW WILL IT SCALE AND GROW IN THE FUTURE? If the product is going to be used systemically, how sustainable is it? What are the chances that the company will stop providing this service, or start charging or raising fees? What's the ease of adoption and use? Are there built-in ongoing improvement processes?
- IS PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT NEEDED TO USE IT? If so, how much does it cost, and how much time will it take? Too often new technologies are not used to their maximum potential, or are left completely unused. Educators should make sure they have the time and budget allotted to ensure smooth transitions, and that the principal will make professional development a priority.
- IS IT A NATURAL FIT? This question is also quite subjective. The best product should be like electricity, Kator said -- there's no question whether you should or should not use it. There should be an intuitive need that the product fulfills, rather than having teachers tangle themselves into knots trying to find ways to use it.
- IS IT WORTH THE INVESTMENT? This is the most complex question to answer. How much is the cost compared to the amount of time and effort it takes to train staff to use it and to implement it system-wide? Based on what other educators have said, is it worth the time and effort?
What other questions are important to ask?