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With ESSER funding expiring, districts need to align their edtech decisions with new budget realities and determine if tools meet their needs.

Why experts say now is the time to assess your district’s edtech use

With ESSER funding expiring, districts need to align their edtech decisions with new budget realities

Key points:

For much of the past 12 years, Casey Rimmer sometimes felt like a “dream killer” when it came to the edtech tools used in her district. As the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Union County Public Schools, a district of over 41,000 students outside Charlotte, N.C., she was often tasked with letting teachers know why a potential new tool wasn’t approved for use.

Lately, though, the district has flipped the script. Now they ask teachers to check the tool’s data privacy policy and age requirements when making a request, so they have a better understanding of why a tool is—or isn’t—a good fit. When teachers feel part of the discussion, it often leads to productive conversations, she explains. 

“We’re doing a lot of work around helping teachers to understand the different processes and what they need to do if they want to bring something into their classroom. Whether it’s a free resource or an edtech product, there’s still some kind of criteria” that needs to be met.

The new policies are part of a wider effort to strengthen and streamline the district’s “edtech ecosystem,” the collection of core and supplemental tools that teachers can use. And Union County is far from alone. In the coming months, many districts will be taking a close look at the edtech they use, especially as it relates to current budget realities.

Making tough choices

Later this year, the final round of federal pandemic funding, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), will expire, leaving school budgets uncertain in many districts. Funds they have come to rely on for staffing and technology will end in September if not allotted. (If funds are allotted, however, districts can request an extension to use them through March of 2026 in some cases). 

For many districts, the relief funding was significant. San Antonio’s district has received $100 million over the past three years, which it used to boost staffing and help combat pandemic-related learning loss. 

Given that schools were forced into online learning, many districts used those funds to invest in edtech—in hardware like laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots but also in edtech software. The most recent Edtech Top 40 Report notes that districts access an average of nearly 2,600 edtech tools annually, a number that has swelled in the past few years as companies offered free access to their tools during the pandemic and districts spent their relief funding. 

With these funds drying up, districts may face some difficult choices. But they may also see it as an opportunity to reassess their technology use and how to maximize the resources they do have, according to education experts speaking on a recent webinar, “Take Control of EdTech: How to Manage an Effective Digital Ecosystem,” put on by Instructure, the company behind both the Canvas learning management system and the edtech evaluation and management tool LearnPlatform.

“School districts are really having to take a hard look at what the critical parts of this ecosystem are,” said Tal Havivi, the managing director of research and development at ISTE, on the webinar. One way to think of it is as a “strategic culling,” he explains, as districts square budget realities with whether tools are truly meeting their needs. 

How to assess your edtech

Assessing whether a district should continue using—and paying for—a tool is dedicated work involving backend data collection and surveying teachers and students for their thoughts. But both practices can reveal useful insights. 

Core curriculum products can be quantitatively assessed by looking at whether they are helping meet district goals around student learning. In other words, can you tie the tool’s use to improved reading or math scores?

But “there’s also a qualitative piece around each of these tools,” said Melissa Loble, Instructure’s chief academic officer, speaking on the same webinar. “Is this the right experience that represents our district and our goals? Does it help teachers create a deeper connection with their students, address areas of deficiencies, or engage students in new areas that they might be interested in?”

Crucially, collecting good data around edtech use can help districts see the overall picture, she said. And feedback from teachers and students can help contextualize these patterns even further.

That tracks with what Union County has found. Rimmer explains that the district uses LearnPlatform to keep track of its tech use and start conversations. “As a district, we can monitor what our top 10 [most used] products are,” she said. “I want our top 10 products to be those products that we invest in: We invest money, we invest time, we invest in professional learning. Sometimes, I can see maybe some free products creeping up there.”

When core tools aren’t getting used, Rimmer digs in and finds out why. Teachers might not feel comfortable using the tool with students yet, or it could be that they haven’t had enough training. That’s a simple enough fix. But other times, teacher avoidance can signal larger questions about whether the tool is a good fit overall.

“Sometimes they’re great products, and we have to say the product—even though it’s an amazing, robust tool that does amazing things for other schools and districts—maybe it’s not doing that for us,” she said.  

The good news is that teachers are more invested than ever in the edtech they’re using with students, and more willing to experiment with new tools, adds Loble. 

“I still see investment—districts wanting to build ecosystems—but they need to do it where they can have the most effective or the largest return on investment, with reduced funding coming in,” she said. “We use dollars to try everything. We’ve tried it out. Now we’re going to pick what’s going to be the most important [for us].”

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