And asking the right questions to help build an effective way forward.
GUEST COLUMN | by Amy Gensemer
Like educators across the country, I have seen exponential shifts in teaching and learning over the last few years. Accelerated by districts’ investment in technology to support instruction during COVID, edtech ecosystems have blossomed in school systems around the country and become an integral part of every school’s infrastructure and every student’s learning experience.
Illustrative of this fact is a recent report from Instructure, which shows that in 2019, school districts were using 895 edtech products, but in 2023, that number has ballooned to 2,591 edtech tools. As school systems nationwide continue to navigate the post-COVID landscape and as budgets regress to the mean from pandemic-era highs, districts leaders and teachers are closely evaluating and analyzing the edtech resources available to teachers.
‘As school systems nationwide continue to navigate the post-COVID landscape and as budgets regress to the mean from pandemic-era highs, districts leaders and teachers are closely evaluating and analyzing the edtech resources available to teachers.’
While I currently serve in a leadership position at a leading education company, my previous role as a curriculum director for a large-suburban school district has given me unique insight into the world of edtech acquisition.
Moving forward into this new era for edtech in the classroom, I propose school leaders consider the following questions as they evaluate edtech to help the district build an effective toolkit of resources capable of supporting improved student learning outcomes.
Those questions are:
1. Is this resource designed to maximize student engagement? Students deserve products that inspire them to love learning. Programs focused on these three components are built to drive student engagement 1) allowing for student choice 2) age-appropriate, relevant content 3) tools for collaboration. Student engagement is a critical priority in my current role designing resources for K-12 students. For example, when students need to learn, in kindergarten science, about how organisms have multiple functions that help them survive, we present them with images and media of babies crying, recognizing they may have younger siblings in their household or have observed this behavior at school. Then, we provide guided teacher questions that allow students to share their experiences with crying babies with one another, as well as guides them to begin to ask curiosity questions about how this behavior may help a baby survive. These questions are the launch point to dive deeper into a variety of experiences on how other organisms behave that help them survive. In this way, we are deeply engaging kindergarten students in a fun and likely relatable way.
2. Does this resource maximize instructional time with measurable learning goals? Emphasized with loss of learning in the aftermath of COVID, instructional time is a precious commodity and educators need tools and content that directly contributes to moving student learning forward in the shortest amount of time. Engaging students is a high priority, but engagement without learning, does not help fill content gaps or build the required new knowledge educators need to prepare students to be college and career ready. When selecting technology products for the classroom, the program needs to not only engage students but measures their learning against the defined learning goals and/or standards. No longer are detailed reporting and just-in-time data on student learning a nice to have, but they are essential to educators. Alignment to standards and an easy-to-use system of data and reporting helps educators meet the needs of students who had various experiences of learning during COVID. Students should also be an active participate in the data and reporting structures, by reflecting on their own progress and rewarded when they achieve their learning targets.
3. Does the resource easily integrate within district technology system? Requiring educators and students to navigate various technology platforms to find the tool they need for a specific task is not only overwhelming to teachers and students, but also a waste value instructional and professional learning time, “shopping for resources” has no direct connection to student learning. New tools and edtech providers need to offer products and systems that easily integrate within district technology frameworks. The integration needs to allow educators to share resources with students, parents and provide consistent data on student performance that can viewed at the classroom, school and district level.
4. Does the resource offer accurate, unbiased, and reliable content? Educators have a responsibility to emphasize to students the importance of vetting and citing the source of digital content they use. As educators and students gravitate towards third-party, curated collections of content, it is critical that school districts ensure the use of unbiased and evidence-based information in designing and delivering instruction. Transparency in how and why instructional content is constructed and sourced allows for districts and community members to feel confident that students are experiencing learning that aligns to standards.
5. Does the resource offer opportunities for educators to continue their professional learning? As education providers include a range of instructional designs and integration of research-based practices embedded into products, there is a real opportunity to support teachers with the why and how related to the effective use of each tool to support students. We often expect educators to select and use new tools, with minimal onboarding of the most effective methods of implementing the tool in the classroom, therefore missing a critical opportunity to maximize learning with students. Funding and resourcing for professional learning, outside of built-in professional days at the district level, are difficult for districts to provide when substitute teachers are in high demand. Teacher shortages across the U.S. highlight the importance and need for professional learning supports within products. Professional learning embedded in a product should allow a new teacher to easily implement the tool in the classroom, but also push them to understand best practices that can support the same students across additional subject areas and grade levels.
By asking these critical questions before purchasing or renewing edtech resources, districts can sift out the digital resources that will not help educators improve student learning and keep those critical resources that will support the success of all learners.
Amy Gensemer is Senior Director of K-12 Instruction at Discovery Education. Her experience in public education as a senior curriculum leader for a large suburban school system in Maryland informs her work to create powerful and engaging digital resources such as the Science Techbook for Florida and Texas.