Practical Tips for Vetting Educational Technology
Educational technology is an impossible-to-ignore phenomenon. However, trying to find an official definition for it is not easy, as you're likely to quickly get bogged down in potentially cumbersome terms. Consider this offering from EdTechReview, an online community devoted to supporting and nurturing the advancement of educational technology, which contends that educational technology is “a study and ethical practice for facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.”
Or this, as found on a website run by the International Society for Educational Technology: “Educational technology is a systematic, iterative process for designing instruction or training used to improve performance.” But most of us don’t bother with official-sounding definitions—we just know that technology is a growing and unavoidable aspect of teaching and learning, both now and moving forward. Of course, educational technology is about more than the use of technology in the classroom; it is a reflection of the rapidly changing world around us in terms of how people communicate, connect (or disconnect), and learn.
Educational technology is also an undeniably profitable business sector in both local and global markets. This has led to something of a “Wild West” situation for educators trying to wrestle with an increasingly intense onslaught of readily available apps and software programs, sometimes with little editorial oversight. Another challenge may come when teachers work to stay on equal footing with students, most of whom are digital natives who know their way around an app or two. A 2015 EdTech forum sponsored by Fortune magazine even included the shocking speculation that technological advancements in education will cause “disruptions so dramatic that many universities will cease to exist in the next few years.” This begs some important questions: What role are educational technology companies playing in the fast-changing world of education? Perhaps more significantly, what role should they play? And how can teachers navigate all of this?
As these are still emerging questions, answers can be hard to find. Here are a few clues about how the emerging field of educational technology has been disrupting business as usual in K–12 education.
It’s free! Or is it?
Technology—including devices, upkeep, and training—can be expensive, and most school districts are often cash-strapped. Moreover, most districts operate on a bidding system for new products and services that can make it difficult for new educational technology such as software to make it to the classroom. To get around this, some edtech companies are pitching their products directly to teachers and marketing these as being free to use.
Take Prodigy, a video game-like online math game geared for first- through seventh-graders and made by SMARTeacher, a Canadian company founded in 2013. Shortly after Prodigy was launched, SMARTeacher reported that product usage rates were going through the roof, with new users being added at a growth rate of 50 percent per month. According to a write-up in a Toronto newspaper, SMARTeacher was betting on the “disruptive power of technology in the education sector” to bring Prodigy into classrooms and schools.
Not so fast. While edtech can often seem like a fast-moving river that carries new products and ideas along with it, most school boards and districts still operate in accordance with traditional vetting processes. SMARTeacher knew this and came up with a seemingly simple solution: making Prodigy free…. mostly.
Tapping a consumer market
Prodigy can be used in school for free, making it an easy choice for teachers who want to adopt a math-based app for students without having to wait for district-wide approval. However, Prodigy also offers an additional fee-based experience marketed directly to parents and students. Here’s what that looks like: Students get introduced to Prodigy for free while at school, but when they use it at home, they are prompted to purchase either a monthly or yearly membership to access more of the app’s functions.
This is an example of a consumer-based business model found within the edtech sector. As an article on the website EdSurge noted, this approach relies on the creation of a “‘product loop’ between school and home where teachers use the product with kids in school and then also recommend to parents that students continue using the product at home.” This can be a successful marketing strategy, as parents will often listen closely to teacher recommendations.
The key for teachers will be to take time to closely evaluate not only the price (free!) of such products, but also what these may offer students in the way of content knowledge or an otherwise valuable academic experience. A 2017 article in the Economist tapped into the promise of edtech but also warned that any product or device “must be at the service of teaching, not the other way around.” According to the article, edtech can indeed offer a revolutionary learning experience by liberating both the pace and manner in which lessons are taught, but teachers—with their base of knowledge and experience—remain the core providers of the facts and content that students need to master.
Guides for teachers and tech leaders
Vetting educational technology may seem like an impossible task for time-strapped teachers, which is where the website Cult of Pedagogy comes in. Every January, website contributor Jennifer Gonzalez publishes a comprehensive Teachers’ Guide to Tech that offers an extensive manual meant to be used all year when questions arise. At $25, it may be a worthwhile expense for teachers seeking a practical, digital guide to the open frontier of edtech. Those looking for a more low-cost option may turn to Teachers College at Columbia University, which offers a free guide for educators published in conjunction with Teach Away, a company that recruits teachers for online and international jobs.
Those two entities also offer a digital learning course designed to help teachers navigate the brave new world of technology, while Common Sense Media provides a checklist for parents who would like to know more about the technology being used in their child’s school. The list includes many important categories to consider, including student privacy, the amount of time that will be devoted to online learning, and whether the school has a “digital citizenship curriculum” to help students critically assess what they are doing online.
This list could also be used as a baseline for teachers who want help making sound tech choices for their students in a climate where decision-making is increasingly landing in their laps. This goes hand-in-hand with another easily accessible guide for educators available at edmentum.com. The guide, directed at edtech leaders, presents an important list of questions to consider before bringing on any new apps or programs. The most essential point seems to be this: Think before you jump at the latest product that flies into your inbox.
When it comes to making technology a productive force in K–12 education, software and online curriculum companies may find themselves taking the lead from teachers and administrators—or, as writer Arun Lakhana put it in a 2014 article in the Canadian Journal of Technology and Learning, “Ideally, with the help of technology, we enable an ongoing ability to learn.” But Lakhana also included a note of caution: “To accomplish this effectively, we must consider the ambiguity of the concept—technology means far more than computers.” Rather, it is a “socially constructed” phenomenon worthy of careful scrutiny.
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