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5 ways to give teachers and principals more say in ed-tech buying

By Bart Epstein and Phyllis Lockett
February 19th, 2016

ed-tech-procurement

Teachers and principals should play a greater role in selecting tech for their schools

Today, we’re seeing a growing number of new ed-tech solutions being adopted directly by teachers, prompting an opportunity to revisit who should be making decisions when it comes to which technologies are used in schools.

A recent Digital Promise report found that, for the most part, teachers and principals play a modest role in needs assessment and procurement, and that district administrators serve as the gatekeepers for school-level technology.

We recently spent the day with 100 leading district leaders, principals, and teachers to discuss the ed-tech decision-making process. Although they explained that district administrators played the most significant role in tech decision-making for their districts, more than half (55 percent) believed that principals should have the most significant say in purchasing decisions for tech in their schools. Only about a third (32 percent) favored decision-making by the central office.

These results mirror a recent national survey of more than 4,300 teachers, in which 63 percent of teachers said they believe they should be the primary decision-makers for tech in the classroom, while only 38 percent said they are even consulted on the decision.

District-level leaders have historically been in charge of these decisions, and with good reason. They’re charged with considerations like scale, compliance, and student data privacy. They are also the ones most likely to be held accountable for how districts spend public dollars. Many products, digital resources and tools weren’t designed for teacher-level purchase and use. In most cases, district hardware and broadband infrastructure don’t support site-level decision-making or deployment.

But technology is changing — as is the promise of what it can provide for schools, teachers and students. With the emergence of adaptive solutions, real-time data, and broadband mobility, we are now able to provide anytime, anywhere access to learning that is personalized, and engaging to students.

Overwhelmingly, we hear from educators that they want tech solutions that empower them and help them engage students in deeper learning experiences — and that they would be good judges of what tools would fit the bill. Procurement processes that encourage district leaders to select one-size-fits-all solutions may not take into account individual schools’ infrastructure or student needs.

Through our work with some of the most innovative districts and schools, we’ve seen what can happen when teachers and principals are better engaged in the process. Here are five ways districts can bring school-level leaders and educators to the table when it comes to making ed-tech decisions for the classroom:

Set clear expectations with your stakeholders

Some district leaders are hesitant to seek input from principals and teachers because they worry about being criticized if they make a decision those stakeholders do not like. This risk is most acute when district leaders aren’t clear about who is making the final decision. If you are taking input from a group of stakeholders and then you are making the final decision, it is best to make that clear in well advance of your decision. On the other hand, if you’re seeking buy-in from a group and you intend to let them veto your initial choice, make that clear as well.

Crowdsource needs assessments

Top-down technology decision-making can result in misaligned solutions and unintended consequences. Districts can ask schools to conduct formal needs assessments with administrators and teachers to clearly define the challenges they’re facing, and ensure the district is sourcing tools that solve the right problems. Of course, it’s also critical to explain the role the needs assessment will play in the decision-making process.

Encourage innovation

Eighty-four percent of the educators we spoke with said teachers should be given greater flexibility to innovate. Sometimes, the most entrepreneurial educators shut their doors to focus quietly on what’s working in their classrooms. Create a culture in which teachers feel they have the autonomy to create or adapt their own solutions, and can also admit when a new idea or tool isn’t working as planned. Innovation requires tests and iteration. Get comfortable with pulling the plug on tools or strategies that aren’t panning out as expected.

Pilot solutions, pilot roles

Pilots are a great way to test out new ways of soliciting school leader and teacher feedback. When asked about what leads to successful pilots, those we surveyed said that buy-in from all stakeholders is most important, followed by good planning, teamwork, and a strong focus on outcomes. Based on our experience, we suggest engaging school teams in semester-long professional development training before pilots even begin, so that principals and teachers can work together, with expert support, to design their pilot and select the ed-tech tool that best meets their need

Engage educators in evaluation

By committing resources to evaluating the efficacy of technology solutions and tools, district leaders are able to ensure the tools they purchase are used by teachers and have an impact on student success. As part of formal evaluation, district leaders can build in teacher surveys and interviews, creating a valuable feedback loop and giving teachers a say beyond the initial decision-making process. Districts can also encourage teachers to do their own research and evaluation, providing forums for teachers to share their findings with peers within and beyond the district.

Smart district leaders know the success of technology relies on good implementation and assurance that it’s solving a problem that a school or teacher wants help solving. Getting teachers and school leaders’ input through the procurement, implementation, and evaluation processes is critical to that success.

About the Author:

Bart Epstein is Founding CEO of the Jefferson Education Accelerator and a Research Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that works directly with educators and innovators to discover, pilot and scale personalized learning technologies and practices in the classroom and beyond.