By about now, your Count Day figures have been finalized and sent to your ISD or to the state. That means you have a pretty clear idea of what to expect in terms of education funding from the state of Michigan and other federal income sources. We know that most of your budget is occupied with salaries and benefits, building costs, and other routine, monthly expenses. Those are committed costs. You can’t operate without them. It’s the special projects budget that is most influenced by the final Count Day totals. The special projects must fit into whatever is left after the mandatory costs are funded. So only now do you have a clear idea of how much money is available for investment in strategic priorities like classroom technology.
But the question remains, “what do I spend it on?” And “how do I get the biggest return on my investment?”
Selecting New Education Technology
“How do you select new education technology?” If we had a dime for every time someone asked us that question we could start a new school! The answer depends on the size and structure of your school or district. Are you an independent traditional public school or charter school, or are you part of a large district? Is your school allowed to purchase its own technology or does the district administration mandate district-wide implementation? These are important factors to consider because they will strongly influence the selection process.
Assess Your Needs
The first step in any technology selection process, should always begin with the “why.” In fact, the “why” should be the most important factor in every stage of technology selection, implementation, and evaluation. Without a good “why,” you may select the wrong technology, your teachers and/or administrators won’t use it up to its potential, and you won’t know how to measure its effectiveness. So always start with the “why.” Some important questions to consider are:
- Are your teachers actively asking for solutions to specific gaps in instructional tools or classroom management?
- Is this need already being filled by an analog solution or different technology?
- How often would it be used?
- Is this a need or a want?
Researching Potential Solutions
Once you have a clear idea of why you want to invest in new technology, you can start your research. In this step, you will accumulate a list of potential solutions. Many times, teachers will begin the conversation with a specific solution in mind, skipping the “why” and the critical research step. Our team here at Macro Connect feels that this the wrong way to go about selecting any new technology. It leaves too much room for wasted time and wasted money, both of which, once spent, you can’t get back! Instead, consider spending a little extra energy on the front end. Conduct a rigorous assessment and research process so that you can make an informed decision.
The lowest hanging fruit is to consult any of the EdTech clearinghouses that are available online. There are many tools out there to conduct your research that don’t even require a login – think of Yelp but for school technology. Most come with reviews, either by actual users or by a team of experts, sort of like Consumer Reports.
Research Tool 1: Common Sense
A common research tool we recommend is called CommonSense.org. This is a fantastic resource with a very intuitive interface that helps you either search their library of EdTech tools or browse their curated lists. On the Reviews & Ratings page, you can sort tools with different filters including the Subject, Grade Level, Price, Platform (e.g. Windows, Mac, iPad, Xbox, etc.), Skills, and Purpose. Each product has a dedicated profile page with screen shots from the tool, answers to commonly asked questions, and a link to the product website. The profile also includes two different ratings on the 5-star scale. One is a rating based on actual teacher reviews. Teachers who have used the product in their classrooms. The other is a rating by the Common Sense team. These EdTech experts evaluate each product based on Student Engagement, Pedagogy, and the Tech Support provided. Give it a try as you research your next project.
Research Tool 2: EdSurge
A second research tool we regularly recommend is called EdSurge.com. This is another well-managed platform that provides detailed product information as well as reviews and news about the products. The Product Review section of the site divides products by Curriculum, Teacher Support, Operations, as well as Collegiate products and a catch-all “Everything Else” category of other EdTech tools. Within each category, you can set filters, just like Common Sense, for Age, Cost, Use, and Tech Platform. Each individual product page includes all the relevant details, with room for things like Product Demo videos, Teacher Reviews, and even Case Studies. There aren’t many Case Studies but the ones that are available give you a great look at how well they work in the classroom.
Technology Selection Committee
After your needs assessment and research are complete, it’s time to narrow down the choices. It is important to remember that this phase of the process should include a wide variety of faculty and staff. Any new technology will impact those beyond the classroom itself. Make sure to get their perspective, input, and buy-in because you will need their help to effectively implement and utilize the new tool. Some people to consider when assembling this cross-functional review team are:
- Multiple Teachers – You never know who will teach your 4th graders in two years so make sure your teacher sample size is broader than the ones using it this year or next.
- Technology Hardware Lead – If your new EdTech is software, it will need to be installed on hardware. Their perspective on compatibility and usability will be invaluable. You may not be set up as a 1-to-1 school, so you’ll need to reserve or request the devices periodically. Make sure the person, whether they’re the Media Center supervisor or someone else, says it’s reasonable to request laptops or tablets as often as you would need them to use the product effectively.
- Department Heads – The tool may be for Spanish class, but many EdTech products offer multiple subject areas of instruction or support. Other departments could see a benefit from the technology and could increase the scope of implementation.
- IT Support or Help Desk – All products need support. Period. As a teacher, you don’t have time to troubleshoot things yourself so you’ll need to rely on your IT person or Help Desk. They may have experience with similar products and, despite the user reviews, know that it needs far more support than advertised.
In addition to these qualitative processes involving research and gathering input from staff, there are also many quantitative tools to help rank your options more explicitly. It’s great to get a good feel for the options, but sometimes you need to really go by the numbers. These planning tools help you maintain objectivity so you can take the emotion out of your decisions.
The Hexagon, which you can download here, is a six-category system which helps you look at, and weigh, the value of various aspects of the options in front of you. Each category is then given a numeric score from 1 to 5, with 5 being the strongest in any category and one being least. At the end, you total your score and whichever has the highest score should be considered much more seriously:
- Need: How badly do you need this? What data is available to suggest that you need it? Are parents asking for it? Does the community think you need it? Is it academically necessary? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, how much do you need it?
- Fit: Is this a good fit for your current initiatives? Does it fit with your school, district, and state education priorities? Does it fit in with your organizational structure? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, how good of a fit is it?
- Resources: Do you have the necessary resources and support to successfully use this? Do you have the right staffing and training? Do you have adequate coaching and supervision? What about IT support? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, do you have the right resources to use this successfully?
- Evidence: What evidence do you have that this will work? What kind of outcomes have others seen? Is it cost effective? Have similar schools in similar communities see success? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, is there evidence to support the idea that this would be successful?
- Readiness: Are you ready to implement this? Do you have access to an expert to help get it off the ground? Do you know others who have done it before? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, are you ready to execute?
- Capacity: Do you have the capacity to handle this? Have your staff met the minimum qualifications? Are you able to sustain this financially and operationally? Have the necessary people bought in? Consider these kinds of questions and then decide on a scale of 1-5, do you have the capacity to move forward?
After you’ve completed this exercise for each option on the table, see which one has the highest total score. If there’s a clear winner, you have good reason to move forward with that option. If it’s pretty much a tie, you can consider other factors.
Other Factors to Consider
We’ve talked a bit about the process for assessing your needs, researching potential solutions, and evaluating the options. Before making a final decision, you should evaluate other factors that will influence the usability of the technology and therefore its success.
- Durability – This is mostly for hardware, but it’s absolutely vital. Will this stand the test of time? Are you really committed to this manufacturer or platform? If your investment will only last 2 or 3 years before breaking down or you switch to a different device, it will be hard to justify the investment.
- Integrations – Does this tool or system stand on its own or can it be integrated into your other platforms and processes via APIs, plug-ins, etc.? If it’s separate, keep in mind that it’s another tool to learn and manage which will require diligent maintenance and ownership by a member of your staff.
- Training – For any new technology to be effective, users will need to be trained. Without adequate training, teachers won’t use it properly and they won’t use it enough to yield the intended impact. If that happens, any evaluation data becomes useless and your ROI will immediately suffer. Invest the time it takes to train your teachers so that this new technology will be worth the spend.
- Evaluation – How are you going to evaluate the success of the product? By measuring student engagement? Test scores? Just like jumping in feet first without the due diligence of research, investing significant resources in technology without deciding, in advance, how you will determine its success would be short-sighted. It prevents you from making any adjustments during the year and leaves its long-term prospects up to the whims of whoever conducts the evaluation. Set yourself up for success by defining what success looks like, ahead of time.
Another FREE Tool
One more free tool that could help add rigor to your selection and evaluation processes has been created by the US Office of Educational Technology. Their statistical approach to evaluating new or existing programs is called Rapid-Cycle Evaluation or RCE Coach. RCE walks educators through how to design evaluations, what data to collect, and how to utilize that data. You can create your free account and start using the tool by clicking here.
Preparing for Implementation
We could, and will, write whole separate blog posts about implementing new technology. But as you prepare and budget for a big investment, we hope that this post has given you some new ideas and perspective. You’ll be better prepared for a successful implementation if you have put in the legwork to identify the right product and have the support of your teachers and administrative staff. Just like an iceberg is mostly underwater, most of the work is unseen. It happens before any fancy new tools appear in the classroom, even if that’s the most fun part.
Of course, the Macro Connect team has a lot of experience helping schools and districts select and implement new technologies. If you’d like to discuss your approach, contact us to schedule a free product selection or ROI consultation. At very least, we promise you’ll walk away with a new perspective on EdTech evaluation.