How Can We Make Edtech More Effective? Focused Content

How Can We Make Edtech More Effective? Focused Content

Teacher and student working with edtech

April 9, 2019 | By

Oh, the dreaded question… “What other content do you cover?” asks the district curriculum director, or even worse, “Do you cover all of ____ ?” (Fill in the blank with a huge quantity of content, like all of K-5 math.)

Argh! Coverage!?! As cofounder of Teachley, a small company developing research-based math software for K-6, this question demonstrates a problematic market preference for products that “cover” a lot of content, but do not support deeper thinking. I imagine the overextended curriculum director on the other end of the call with a clipboard and a checklist: “Check, check, check, check, ah no coverage, that’s too bad. Sounds like a great program, but we need a broader solution.” [end of call]

Why the demand for coverage exists

Despite all we know about the inherent complexities of teaching and learning, a desire for coverage still rules many educational technology (edtech) selection and procurement decisions. Why? From an administrative perspective, implementing a new product at the district level can be a tremendous burden, so curriculum directors are often wary of investing time for supplemental products with limited scope. Directors are often in charge of purchasing for the entire K-12 population across multiple subjects, both core and supplemental programs, so sourcing and vetting edtech is time-consuming work. They also need to protect themselves against potential push back from superintendents, families, and teachers.

Administrators are not the only ones who value coverage. Many teachers appreciate digital busywork because it gives them time to focus on small group work. A curriculum director recently confessed to me that she’d love to get rid of a terrible software that “covers” everything, but that some of her teachers who have grown to rely on it would strongly object.

The problem with broad coverage in edtech

What comes to mind when you think about the word “cover?” I think about hiding the junky mess in my garage under a big tarp or putting a fresh coat of paint in the hallway to cover scuff marks. The problem with coverage is that the junky mess is still there, and I’m going to keep making new scuffs every time I carry my bike down that hallway. The coverage didn’t fix the underlying problems. It couldn’t, because it wasn’t designed to. Coverage-based solutions are a thin veneer that neither address structural problems nor provide a strong foundation. We know that in order to be a mile wide, “solutions” tend to end up only an inch deep, typically to the detriment of students’ learning.

Developing educational software that promotes deep thinking and learning requires careful focus. However, school districts tend to want one solution that is expansive and covers the entirety of the content. To meet this coverage demand, edtech developers often end up reducing rich, difficult, complex content into short, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank questions, or mini video lectures. That’s how they “cover” lots of content quickly. The instruction essentially becomes a worksheet in digital format in which, if you’re lucky, there is an algorithm that provides the right question in the right sequence. But, at their core, these programs are little better than the worksheets they are designed to replace and continue to fail to meet the diverse needs of our students.

Focus on content for deeper learning

At Teachley, we instead focus on addressing content that is really difficult to teach and learn. Then, we build technology that goes deep into that area to help students engage deeply with the most challenging concepts.

Take, for example, the distributive property in third grade, helping kids to understand that you can think about 6 x 7 as 5 groups of 7 and one more 7. That is a really difficult concept for many kids to grasp. It is really hard for kindergarten students to understand—and many adults forget this was once hard—that when adding 5 + 2, I don’t need to count the 5 again. I can trust that it’s 5, then count on 2 more from there. What’s really hard for fifth graders to understand? When adding fractions, some fractions I can combine easily and some I need to reconfigure before combining. So, we built games focused on each of these challenging concepts.

Benefits of a targeted approach

By focusing our development efforts, we are able to connect with the research on how students learn these complex topics and design software that builds upon this strong research foundation. We have also demonstrated through randomized controlled trials that our approach is more effective than typical software.

Going deep into a particular topic gives software room to be responsive to learner variability and provide students with many different solution paths. When we create software, we think about how different learners can approach a problem and how teachers can use that experience to spark sharing and discussion. Coverage-based products will never meet the tremendous variability in students’ strengths and needs.

Additionally, since teachers know how difficult it is to go deep and tackle complex content, they quickly understand the benefits of our approach. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare for a teacher, who recognizes our unique value, to have a voice in the discovery, selection, and procurement of edtech for her district.

A different approach to discovering and vetting edtech

We have been lucky to work with several districts who have developed strong mechanisms for discovering and vetting edtech products. Liberty Public Schools (Liberty) in Missouri created a testbed school whose mission is to be innovative and try new things, and teachers from all twenty schools within the district participate in ongoing curriculum committees. By leveraging Open Educational Resources, the district has been able to repurpose large budgets away from textbooks.

We are able to give these budgets to teaching teams to spend on PD, collaboration, and digital tools. Over time, the teachers have become very savvy consumers of product.
Dr. Jeanette Westfall
Executive Director of Curriculum, Liberty Public Schools

Marde Mason, a kindergarten teacher at EPiC Elementary in Liberty, explained that the curriculum committees are powerful because they have built a lot of trust amongst the schools: “We talk with each other about what we’re using and what we should try.” When the kindergarten team was looking to address the standards relating to addition strategies, they found Teachley, piloted it, and the adoption soon scaled district-wide. Ms. Mason went on to explain, “The district really listens to us, and it takes the burden off the district office in finding all these different solutions.”

Rolling out new programs this way has also been easier as adoptions are not mandated, the schools trust each other, and teachers already using the programs are able to share their experiences and offer support. If a product does not work out, together, they will find something else that does.

Takeaways

While Liberty has the advantage of being large enough to create a testbed school yet also small enough to include representatives from every school on their curriculum committees, both small and large districts can learn from their example. Districts of all sizes should consider:

  • How is innovation encouraged and formalized in your district? At particular schools? In individual classrooms?
  • How do you support collaboration and trust amongst teachers and schools, so that good ideas are shared?
  • Is there a process for allocating funds to address very specific problem areas through PD, collaboration, and/or edtech?

And most importantly:

  • How can we value and celebrate depth and complexity over surface-level coverage?

Keep up with the Edtech Marketplace Today blog series to hear voices from the field share important perspectives on challenges and strategies to improve the edtech market. Visit the Edtech Pilot Framework to learn more about the edtech marketplace and subscribe to Digital Promise’s Action Report to stay up-to-date on their work.

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