Looking for Better Edtech Products? Why Developing Teacher-Company Relationships is Essential

Looking for Better Edtech Products? Why Developing Teacher-Company Relationships is Essential

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I am a technology nerd. At age ten, I saved allowance for a year to buy my first computer, an Apple IIe. I’ve owned a smartphone since 2002, way before it was cool. I’m also a teaching nerd. Throughout my twenty years as a teacher, I’ve looked for opportunities to merge these two worlds together—tech and teaching.

Today’s technology allows me to redefine my classroom in new and exciting ways. However, I am purposefully cautious about what tools I bring into my classroom. I don’t mind spending hours at night vetting edtech tools (actually I love it!), but classroom time is precious. I don’t believe in using technology for the sake of technology, and if it doesn’t make teaching and/or learning better, I’m not interested.

No tool is perfect. In order to be successful, I want something simple and intuitive—but at the same time, flexible and powerful enough to meet my needs. And most importantly, I want to feel confident that the company will take my voice seriously and address my needs if something about a tool isn’t working the way I’d like.

Identifying My Needs

This year, Barrington High School (where I teach math and support my staff as the Technology Integration Fellow) went 1:1 with Chromebooks, which were issued to every student before the start of the school year. This enabled me to go all-in with the integration of technology into my classroom. I use a playlist model, where students progress through a series of steps at their own pace. These steps include screencasts, skills practice, and deeper problem solving. (Here is a sample playlist). However I had a big need—and that was effectively using formative data.

There are plenty of tools out there that collect data. However, I found myself collecting a lot and then not doing anything useful with it. I needed a tool that was 1) easy to learn and use for both students and teachers, 2) offered automatic grading of not just multiple choice, but also short answer questions, and 3) offered open-ended, show-your-work questions that could easily be scored by the teacher in real time, with feedback getting to students instantly. Most importantly it needed to provide actionable data. Since most of the grading can be done automatically, or at least very quickly, more class time could be spent on intervention and support.

My dual role as both teacher and coach pushes me to determine needs and evaluate tools not just through my eyes, but also through the lens of my colleagues. When choosing a tool, I start by identifying a problem in need of a solution. Clearly, as demonstrated above, I had done that. But now came the hard part—actually finding the tool that I wanted.

Now, there are no silver bullets when it comes to technology products… but could I find something that somehow fit what I was looking for?

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

It was at ISTE in Philadelphia last summer when I first learned about Formative, a web-based tool which is designed for—wait for it—formative assessment. Craig Jones, one of the founders of the company, was hanging out in the Blogger’s Cafe when a colleague and I cornered him and picked his brain for about half an hour. When I first started playing with Formative, I must be honest, I found it to be a bit buggy. While it met most of the criteria outlined above, it was lacking in a few. For example, when the teacher provided written feedback to the student, the student couldn’t see the feedback unless they reopened the assignment and looked for it.

Now, to be fair, the company was only about six months old at the time. My initial opinion was that it had huge potential, but wasn’t ready for prime time. Had I not established that connection with Craig at ISTE, I would have moved on and not looked back. However it was clear that Craig and his company valued and understood classroom teachers.

Fast forward to the fall of this school year, and several teachers I’m supporting decided to try Formative. On more than one occasion, we discovered a bug or thought of a user interface improvement. After reporting our issues, I started a dialogue with Kevin, another one of the founders, via a shared Google Doc. He was incredibly responsive and thoughtful. More importantly, every bug I reported was fixed within a day or two, and most of the UI improvements have been implemented. For example, now when a teacher provides feedback on a manually scored question, the student sees it instantly, and is provided with a notification. That experience didn’t stop us from using Formative—in fact, it’s inspired and invigorated us.

Companies—We Love When You Take Feedback Seriously!

It is clear that the company is thinking deeply about the user interface, ensuring that it is simple enough for the novice, yet powerful enough for more tech-savvy users. However, there’s no way those changes would’ve happened had my teachers and I not shared our thoughts. I firmly believe that the relationship I’ve developed with Formative is absolutely essential in order for this company—and all other edtech companies—to thrive. If they don’t put the needs of the teacher above all else, they are doomed to mediocrity. As Craig said to me during a recent phone call:

“We get the best ideas from teachers. Companies will die if they do not have teachers supporting their product. It’s amazing how quickly teachers share products—at conferences, on Twitter, etc. Teacher voice is not only important in product decisions, but also in organically spreading the word.”

So why should educators care about who is running the companies whose tools you use? The answer is TIME. If we are going to invest our time and energy utilizing edtech tools to develop innovative lessons that redefine the classroom experience, those tools must evolve along with our needs. If the company behind the product doesn’t put our needs before all others, we will be frustrated and disappointed, and ultimately will move on to something else. So, give your feedback—develop that relationship!

And one last note. Edtech companies, beware: If you don’t put educator experience and the feedback you receive from us at the forefront of every decision you make, we will leave you behind! 


Jason Appel (@Jason_appel) is a Barrington High School math teacher and Technology Integration fellow in Rhode Island.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Rhode Island). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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