K-12 schools spend billions on edtech tools, but often, many of the tools go unused or aren’t evaluated for effectiveness. So how can district technology teams ensure an effective evaluation and purchasing process for digital content and new software?
The Pickerington Local School District in Ohio has done just that, with a carefully-honed process that ensures communication and transparency between its curriculum and technology departments, as well as with teachers.
“The big problem is that we spend a lot of money on edtech,” said Brian Seymour, PLSD’s director of instructional technology, during an ISTELive 21 session. “Now, with everything that happened with COVID, so much more money was invested into edtech so much more quickly than in the past, because we had to adapt. The problem is that we’re spending a lot of money, and are we really doing it in a wise way?”
For the past four years, PLSD has had a system in place to ensure it is making good choices with its digital content purchases. That system focuses on the ability to evaluate if purchases are making a difference in the classroom, because while a digital resource may be shiny and new, that doesn’t mean it is truly having an impact.
A bad experience is a big part of what led PLSD to implement its purchasing system. “We got burnt really, really bad. It was a $50,000 program. It didn’t work on our Chromebooks, it didn’t work on our network, and it was just a horrible experience because we didn’t ask the right questions,” Seymour said. “We asked the questions of the salespeople that should have been asked of a technical person. We asked educational questions of a salesperson that we should have asked of an education person.”
This experience moved the district to create a process to make sure the digital content it buys will really and truly work with its network and its devices.
PLSD spends about $1.5 million per year on technology programs, and “we want to make sure that what we’re doing is really well-invested,” Seymour said.
The district’s digital content purchasing process starts in February of each year and wraps up in May, so that teachers also know what knew edtech tools are coming their way in the fall. The process always begins with a digital content purchasing flow chart, along with a rubric to guide purchasing decisions along the way.
“It’s a long process, but it’s worth it every step of the way,” Seymour said.
Existing programs are evaulated every year to ensure they’re still impactful and worth the continued investment. The district’s technology and curriculum teams work together to ensure the needs of all departments are being met.
“The biggest thing that I think has helped Pickering Schools get to where we’re at now, from where we were mayne 10 years ago, is that technology 10 years ago was doing its own thing and curriculum was doing its own thing,” Seymour said. “When I was brought on board I was asked to combine those two [departments] together. We have worked really closely together to foster this same direction-type thing. So if you’re not doing that right now, I’d really encourage you to make sure your technology department and your curriculum department are working together.”
A detailed look at the district’s process is available here, and some of the major components of its digital content purchasing process include:
1. Look at what’s grounded in research. “We’re always looking for how your piece of software truly impacts teaching and learning. And I want to see it from an outside company coming in so I can see that it’s truly vetted,” Seymour said. Resources for product vetting include: edshelf.com, learninglist.com, id.iste.org/membership/edtechadvisor, and edcredible.com.
2. Focus on data security. “We want to make sure our student information isn’t going somewhere where it’s going to be hacked, or lost, or sold to other companies,” Seymour said. Once PLSD’s team has made purchasing recommendations, Seymour contacts those companies asking them to sign off on the district’s own data security policy. He also encourages other school technology leaders to become familiar with privacy policies. “About five years ago, I sat down with our school lawyers and they walked me through what to look for. We had a few products we shouldn’t have ever been using.” Websites to help with data security and privacy information include projectunicorn.org, studentprivacypledge.org, fpf.org, and privacy.commonsense.org.
3. Include as many voices and as much feedback as possible. These purchasing decisions will, for the most part, fit students throughout the entire district, with the exception of students with special needs and English language learners, who will likely have additional or differentiated products targeted to more individual needs. “We want to make sure we have many voices in there and we want honest feedback. We truly want to know if something isn’t working in your classroom,” Seymour said.
4. Is it really worth it? “Is it worth the amount of money? Are we getting feedback out of it? Are we getting the data out of it? What data is being sent to teachers, what usable data do we have? Is it helping us reach our goals?” he said.
5. Pay special attention to what vendors say. “I love our vendors, I’ve got some great relationships, but you need to make sure you’re sure of who you’re talking to when you’re asking questions,” Seymour said. “[Vendors] should have a minimum of three people–a sales person, a technical person, and an education person who has been an educator at some point–available to answer questions. Make sure you’re asking the right questions to the right people.”