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Resources to Help You Choose the Digital Tools Your Classroom Needs

By Karen Johnson

For educators, the growing number of digital tools for the classroom is something of a mixed blessing. “There are so many digital resources out there, I am lost as to which ones are good,” one teacher told us. Said another, “I am always excited to learn about new technology, but overwhelmed at how much there is out there. It is hard to find time to research it all, especially all the new education apps.”

At the Gates Foundation, we are seeing growing confidence in the quality and usefulness of digital tools as more teachers tap into technology, as well as an increasing need for information that helps educators wade through the many options available to them. In our most recent survey of 3,100 K-12 teachers, nearly six in 10 believe that the digital tools they use frequently are effective, an increase of 5 points in two years. Almost as many believe using digital tools make them better teachers.

Like the majority of teachers surveyed, we believe that technology has the power to improve teaching and learning, but that there are still plenty of needs to be addressed. The teachers we surveyed identified these key needs:

  • Tools that offer students a clear view of what skills they’ve mastered and what they still have to learn, such as digital resources that allow them to track their progress through a unit or course.
  • Integrated data that gives teachers a broader view of each student’s progress quickly enough to modify instruction, such as dashboards that automatically pull information about student performance from multiple sources without requiring teachers to engage in time-consuming data entry.
  • Resources that automatically tailor instruction to meet the needs of each student, including digital tools that adapt activities in ways that serve both high- and low-performing students.

But how will teachers know when new digital tools that better meet their needs become available? While schools and districts sometimes have dedicated staff to select and integrate technology, teachers are actually slightly more likely to work in schools where they alone hold the responsibility for doing so (31 vs. 29 percent), according to our most recent research. Nationwide, 51% of teachers select up to half of the education technology they use.

And when that responsibility falls on them, teachers often struggle to find information about digital tools. More than half of the teachers we surveyed said they rely primarily on recommendations from other teachers to choose technology. “I usually try things that some of the more technology-knowledgeable people I teach with [use],” one teacher told us.

Nothing matters more than the experience of other teachers, but moving beyond word of mouth allows educators to learn from peers across the country—and to develop a collective sense of which technology is working in the classroom and which isn’t. We found that fewer than 2 in 10 teachers currently use educator-specific online resources to learn about digital products. Even so, a growing number of online communities focused on rating digital tools are drawing thousands of teacher reviewers. Below are four of the most promising. 

1. EdSurge Product Index. The community-driven database of educational technology products on the EdSurge site allows teachers to search for products by category, grade level, and learning needs. Teacher recommendations discuss strengths and weaknesses—and, importantly, often include suggestions to the developer for improving the product. School leaders can also tap Edtech Concierge, a service that connects schools with developers who submit tailored proposals.

2. Graphite. Common Sense Media’s Graphite combines ratings from educators with reviews from its own expert team of editors and reviewers. Graphite’s reviewers, who collectively have more than three centuries of classroom experience under their belts, evaluate each tool using a research-based, 15-point rubric to assess each tool’s engagement, pedagogy, and support. Teacher reviews detail in specific terms how each tool is put to use in the classroom. New this year is Graphite’s Teaching with Tech series—bite-sized professional development lessons to help teachers evolve their practice with technology.

3. LearnTrials. LearnTrials provides teachers and districts a way to grade digital tools using a research-based rubric, then applies algorithms to provide additional context for each tool and how it is used, providing differentiated ratings based on a specific classroom setting or instructional need. Districts can also integrate student-level product use, achievement and pricing data to analyze impacts on outcomes and budgets.

4. Learning Assembly. This collaborative network of educators and innovators focuses on piloting and scaling education technology solutions in schools across the country in ways that can transform teaching and learning. Equally important, it’s building a credible collection of evidence that these tools can—and do—have an impact on learning outcomes.

Through sites like these, teachers and the schools they work for can become more informed users of digital tools. Just as importantly, through our work at the Foundation, we know that the developers of these tools are listening to educators’ conversations—and are eager to improve their offerings. By sharing what we know and what we want, we can improve the digital tools available in the classroom for all teachers.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s and are independent of this article’s sponsorship; all four resources listed above have received grants from the Gates Foundation.

This article was sponsored by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.

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