In my nearly 15 years of teaching in Philadelphia, I have seen technology introduced into schools and classrooms in myriad ways. I have spent the last 13 of those years as a technology teacher and coordinator, and an informal technology coach, in three different schools. When I first started teaching in Philadelphia in 2004, teachers were lucky if they had one desktop computer in their room for students to use, and students attended weekly computer lab classes. Now, while computer labs still exist, there are many more opportunities for students to use technology in their own classrooms. In partnership, education leaders and educators should prioritize strategic decisions to ensure the technology they introduce to their students is a powerful learning tool.
In my experience, some approaches to choosing and purchasing technology are intentional and others situational. In some cases, technology decisions are made by school leadership in-step with a plan developed with educators and an accompanying budget. In others, there is a tremendous lack of funding, poor technology planning, and a leadership vacuum that creates huge barriers to effective technology integration. No matter the approach, schools often struggle to find the perfect technology that will meet the needs of their students and help them achieve their academic goals.
When schools or districts purchase new technology, they enter into a relationship-building process with the vendor. Both the school and the vendor have needs and expectations for each other. The relationship that develops not only has the potential to benefit students and educators, but it also has the potential to improve the technology itself through feedback, collaboration, and consistent communication.
In the world of edtech, the process for finding and purchasing new software or devices can sometimes feel like an app-based dating experience, with schools making quick decisions based on little information. On the other hand, it can also feel like a classic matchmaking site experience, with schools conducting research and gathering evidence in the hopes of making a meaningful, long-term relationship with a compatible vendor-partner.
The process of purchasing new technology and forging these relationships depends on a number of factors. What is driving this new purchase? Is there a process in place with specific guidance for best practices? Who are the stakeholders making the decisions or informing them? How are schools researching their options?
Aside from varying technology needs, educators’ comfort with technology ranges significantly. As they build relationships with vendors, district leaders should work closely with educators to understand staff needs and better support educators in choosing and using new technology in the classroom.
Early in my career, I taught elementary students in a computer lab and served as the Technology Teacher Leader (TTL) for the school. This meant I attended occasional meetings with my regional technology specialist and other regional TTLs. At one of these meetings, myself and 15 TTLs were given a surprise “gift” of an iPod Touch. For me, coming from a school with more than 500 students, maybe one first generation iMac desktop in each classroom, and weekly lessons in my computer lab, I wasn’t sure how I could leverage this single tool with my students—and it seemed like many of my colleagues felt similarly. Often, hasty, “swipe right” type decisions such as these are made when there is a surplus of money dedicated to technology and a tight deadline to spend it.
While perplexed, I was also up for the challenge. I had a strong educator network on Twitter and read blogs constantly to stay on top of new technologies in the classroom. I ended up using the iPod to create podcasts after school with a few of my students. Although I found success with the technology, I have no idea how the devices were used in other schools across the district as we were never offered any specific training to aid us in that process.
For schools implementing a more casual relationship-building approach, like app-based dating sites, the driving force behind a new technology purchase may be a perceived pressure that the school needs some shiny new objects in their classrooms. There may also be a tendency to follow the current fads or a sense of competition when a neighboring district implements a new technology. These superficial reasons rarely lead to meaningful relationships with vendors aimed at meeting students’ authentic needs.
In the case of the iPods, there was a missed chance for the TTLs to take advantage of numerous workshops and training opportunities available to learn how to best leverage the device in our schools. At the time, I was teaching in a computer lab strung together on discarded desks, daisy-chained power strips, and gobs of switches maintaining internet connection from a few network drops. Yet, my district gave us a shiny, new object rather than asking us what we needed to make technology integration successful in our schools.
Schools who leverage a classic matchmaking-style approach often know the needs of their students and teachers, and where technology can fit. They have thought deeply about their community’s needs and budget while working to achieve their vision. They take time to research important aspects of a potential vendor partner through conversations, networking, and requests for proposals and efficacy studies. Edtech companies may even seek out these schools because they have a very clear mission and framework for implementation.
Before selecting an edtech product, these schools often go on multiple “dates” with potential edtech partners in the form of in-person meetings and phone conversations, and they also check the partners’ references. Through this process, edtech companies learn more about the school, its leadership, and the community, and can make an informed decision about whether the school is the right fit for them. This has been my experience working with our current LMS provider. There are lines of communication both ways and the company evolves its product based on input and feedback from teachers like myself.
So what should leaders do? Plan ahead. Look to the next three to five years, decide where the school or district should be headed, and set goals. Build a vision and set a specific technology mission that is connected to the school mission to base all of your decisions on. Implement the long-term, matchmaking type of approach to edtech decision making. Plan for funding your vision and include all stakeholders (e.g., parents, teachers, students, community members) in your plan.
School and district leaders should consistently visit classrooms, talk with students and teachers, and observe how technology is (or isn’t) being leveraged. Edtech vendors, too, should collect feedback from end users to improve the technology and learn how to better support implementation. If it isn’t, find out why: Is the network too slow to run the website or app? Is there a misunderstanding of the purpose of the technology? Is there an issue with the software or device that should be communicated directly to the company? Can the vendor provide professional training sessions for your teachers?
In classrooms where teachers are using technology to create a huge impact on student learning, invite those teachers to present at staff meetings, district meetings, and with the company who created the technology. Provide them with (paid!) opportunities to coach others or attend conferences. Share these successes with families and with other schools so they can see what is working well.
As we learn from these best practices and refine our own decision-making processes around technology, we can look to Digital Promise’s Edtech Pilot Framework as an excellent jumping-off point for looking to implement new technology in our classrooms. By applying these best practices, you take a more careful approach and increase the likelihood of successful implementation of new technologies in the classroom and meaningful relationships with the companies that make the technology.
Explore the Edtech Marketplace Today blog series to hear other voices from the field share important perspectives on challenges and strategies around technology use for learning. You can also 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.