When school districts made the rapid shift to online learning due to the pandemic, many educators scrambled to find the right mix of learning tools, apps, and platforms to support instruction.
As a result, more and more companies began offering online learning apps and products for free–often for a limited trial period. While free online resources can be useful, if left unvetted they can pose data security and privacy risks.
Evaluating the products, tools, and resources being used by staff and students is important, however time is not always on our side (as was the case at the beginning of the pandemic). My district, Mashpee Public Schools, leverages data to assess the safety and efficacy of free resources and identify what’s worth investing in. Here’s how we navigate the decision-making process.
Tip #1: Take an inventory of products and evaluate usage.
Over the past year, teachers have stepped up in enormous ways to support students, including finding new, creative ways to engage learners virtually. Parents and educators alike were interested in finding online resources they could use to support online learning.
Before investing in any new products, I recommend taking an inventory of the resources currently being used by every teacher, at every school site, and evaluating the usage. It’s also important to do a security check to make sure the product is safe to use.
Our teachers have taken advantage of the free versions of products being offered throughout the pandemic, and I have remained diligent in using CatchOn, a data analytics tool, to monitor the efficacy, safety, and usage of technology being used within our district.
Through digital dashboards, I’m able to keep tabs on what products are being used as well as the products that teachers are interested in purchasing. I also use this information to flag any discrepancies, like a teacher who might still be using the free version of a product even though we invested in the full, paid version.
Using this proactive approach, we’re able to assess online student engagement, identify what products are (and aren’t) working for our district, and identify new opportunities. As an example, our teachers loved using the free version of Gimkit, and based on their usage data and advocacy, we were able to budget for the premium version.
To achieve this within your own district, start by reviewing technology usage by school site. Consider what products are being used the most, and what products are the most expensive.
Tip #2: Collaborate with teachers and staff.
As free products and resources have become more prominent in education, our district has worked to avoid introducing programs that we aren’t already paying for. However, due to the sudden onset of the pandemic, we needed to rapidly transition to remote learning and didn’t have time to vet each product according to our internal processes.
Beyond using data to assess what’s worth investing in, you need to listen to your staff about what products resonate well with them and their students. As an example, we knew that teachers needed to be able to easily call parents from their cell phone, so we purchased a new voice solution to facilitate those conversations. We also invested in Zoom to facilitate remote classes.
Collaborating with teachers and other staff members can help ensure that the products you’re purchasing are needed – and that they’ll be used.
Tip #3: Determine your district’s priorities.
To find the products that suit the specific needs of your district, you must first determine your priorities. Before making the jump from “free” to “premium,” ask yourself some questions to determine what features best meet your district’s needs.
- How important is data privacy? What district, local and national standards need to be accounted for?
- Do you need the product to integrate with something else?
- How will you track, measure and analyze when/how often users are engaging with the product?
- Is teacher training or professional development important for a successful product implementation?
By asking these questions, you’ll be able to create a list of what you’re looking for in a product, and then align it with what’s out there. As an example, our district needed a video conference product that would enable us to record meetings, so we invested in the pro version of Zoom.
Tip #4: Monitor what is (and isn’t) working.
To understand how well products are working post-implementation, you must remain diligent in monitoring when and how teachers and students are engaging with them. Having a detailed overview of what’s being used, as well as usage data to back up your decisions, supports the work of administrators and teachers alike.
I find it helpful to identify what “prescriptions” (best practices) are encouraged by a product, and monitor usage data to make sure those prescriptions are being filled. If products aren’t used as prescribed, you’re unlikely to experience the results you were originally promised.
Knowing what’s happening throughout the district helps to prevent surprises down the road and can be a huge help when budgeting season rolls around.
Free, or not free? An important question.
There’s a vast number of free products available in the education market – a trend that isn’t going away any time soon. Districts must remain diligent in monitoring not only which free learning tools and products are being used, but also why they are being used, how often and by whom.
It’s also important to consider why a product is being offered for free. Sometimes the free version has fewer features or offers less usage capacity, but other times, the free version collects user data that should remain secure.
Consistently monitoring how you are leveraging these learning tools can help determine what’s worth investing in, what teachers and students need to be successful and ultimately, can drive your district’s overall decision-making process.
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