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Edtech playground: Helping teachers choose better tools

By Nicole Krueger 4/3/2018 Leadership

A virtual reality headset can take students on an immersive journey to another world. History students can tour ancient Rome, science students can travel to another biome, and biology students can explore the inside of the human body.

But no matter how cool it is, if that $3,000 piece of equipment enters a classroom and doesn’t provide any real instructional value, it can quickly become a very expensive paperweight.

It happens more often than you might think, especially with hot new technologies like VR and 3D printing. A teacher might see a 3D printer in a conference vendor hall and decide it’s a must-have. But this approach to procurement often leads to disappointment — and wasted money, says Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer at Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina.

“Most schools don’t do edtech procurement really well yet,” he says. “Sometimes we buy products that end up in closets because they don’t fit the instructional needs of students, and we end up not being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t want teachers just buying this thing; I want them to play with it first.”

To that end, Smith has created an edtech playground where teachers can try out the latest technology before they buy it. Located in the district’s central office, where hundreds of teachers and staff members stop by each week for professional development, the playground offers a creative space that encourages teachers to explore new tools that have been vetted and approved by the district’s tech department.

The playground’s museum-style design includes several “exhibit” areas showcasing a variety of different tools, from virtual reality headsets to 3D printers to iPad apps such as Osmo. Smith regularly cycles in new tools to keep the space fresh and exciting for teachers.

“No one ever goes in and says, ‘I‘ve seen all of this,’ ” he says. “A ton of people in our district had never seen a 3D printer in person. They’re almost like kid in candy shop, and they leave with a sense of curiosity. They want to learn more.”

With student interns on hand to help teachers experiment with the latest technology, the space has become a collaborative effort between educators and high school students who are interested in computer science or game design. The students get to spend time doing what they’re good at, while the teachers get to sample the goods without any pressure to buy.

“In this space, the pressure of buying doesn’t exist,” he says. “Instead, they get an open space that allows for thinking creatively and purposefully about the products. Does it meet students’ needs, or is it just really cool?”

Smoothing out the procurement process

In the United States, K-12 schools spend more than $13 billion a year on edtech — often without any idea whether it will make a difference in learning outcomes. Part of the problem is that most current purchasing practices were designed for print-based resources rather than modern technology, says Digital Promise.

“School districts have been making purchasing decisions without reliable information about whether those products lead to desired educational outcomes,” says the Technology for Education Consortium. “Products are often misused or underused, breaking the feedback loop necessary for improvements.”

In a recent workshop at SXSW EDU, the presenters asked more than 100 educators about what makes edtech tough to implement. Two of the roadblocks that came up include:

  • An overabundance of choices
  • A lack of time, space and permission to try new things

The edtech playground solves both problems by giving teachers access to a curated selection of tools they know will work on the district’s networks. It also encourages them to get involved in choosing technology for their classrooms — something 60 percent of teachers believe they should have but only 38 percent actually do.

All in all, the playground “makes for a much smoother procurement process,” Smith says. “We’ve already done the essential procurement. We can immediately tell teachers the price and installation cost. Because we already have a vendor relationship, we can tell teachers, ‘Here are exactly the steps you need to follow.’ It speeds up the procurement process on our end.”

Giving teachers a voice in edtech development

Educators aren’t the only ones who find school procurement challenging. On the vendor side, an overwhelming 96 percent of edtech companies cite similar frustrations, in part because they have trouble figuring out what teachers really need.

A secondary goal of the edtech playground is to allow teachers to give feedback on the tools they sample so developers can deliver products that genuinely meet students’ needs. Teachers from Rowan-Salisbury School District have met with developers from several companies to help them refine their products, and so far many of their suggestions have been implemented.

“If a company changes its program to better match what teachers need in classrooms, there’s a real power,” Smith says. “The teachers get really excited. They like to have influence on the products in their classrooms.”

Smith’s long-term vision for the playground is to use it as a testing and launching ground for new products.

“We are bridging the gap between the public and private sectors in our own mutual space,” he says.

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

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