The flood of edtech tools that teachers are presented with has been staggering over the last several years, and continues to be this way. A quick glance on Twitter or any edtech conference program shows this. In fact, just typing “edtech industry” into a Google search can show the magnitude of the edtech business world.
In my experience, edtech tools tend to revolve around the 4Cs of 21st century skills: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. I would argue that there is not “one tool to rule them all” in education. (In fact, looking for one of those is like looking for a unicorn. Good luck.) Any tool that is worthy of consideration by a teacher should first clearly represent how it will impact student learning: What will my students be able to do when using XYZ? How will using XYZ in my classroom create a richer learning experience for my students?
While it’s great to have so many choices, this is also what can hold a teacher back from trying something new in their classroom—especially if the tool is cumbersome or does not show meaningful purpose in students’ learning. But, it’s also up to the educator him or herself to decide how best to integrate the 4 C’s into daily lesson plans. It’s safe to say… both educators and companies can do their part.
And so, let’s start by looking at strategies educators can try when exploring new edtech tools.
What Educators Should Do
Don’t try to use a dozen edtech tools at one time. Don't even try tackling all 4 Cs at the same time. Pick one or two of these 21st century learning skills to focus on during the school year and then ask which tools help students develop those skills. Here are a few that I support:
- Collaboration: Padlet, TodaysMeet, Educlipper
- Creativity: Google Draw, Canva, Pixlr Express
- Critical Thinking: Kidblog, Breakout EDU
- Communication: Remind, Google Classroom
If you try to use too many tools at once, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and become frustrated. Get really good at using one and then continue on from there. As long as you’re moving forward, don’t get caught up on how fast you’re moving.
Don’t Try to Stay on Top of it All—And Have ‘Sandbox Time’
Teachers, you know the name of the game in education is “flexibility.” Edtech tools come, they go, they’re free, then they’re not. It’s the nature of the beast. This is one of the many great reasons to have a personal learning network (PLN) that you can tap for advice, resources and ideas. This also means that you have to keep a “learner first” mindset with all of these tools that come your way.
Make the time for “sandbox time” with a tool you’re thinking about using in your class. Get together with other teachers and practice using it before you try it out with kids. Then, be sure to get back together with your colleagues to share your classroom experiences with one another. You’ll grow, your students will grow and everyone will win.
What Companies Should Do
When It Comes to Pricing, Be Upfront
This is always a popular topic with edtech companies, isn’t it? If a tool is “free,” does it offer teachers and students enough capabilities that they can do something useful? If teachers only have a “freemium” option, is that useful? Will they only get to enjoy, say, 30 days of using the tool before they are expected to pay?
Look, I get that at the end of the day, edtech companies are businesses that need to make money. Teachers and administrators get this, too. Just make it easy for teachers to understand what they’re getting when they click that sign-up button. I have seen some edtech tools that make it ridiculously difficult to locate pricing/trial period information. Don’t make it a guessing game.
Teachers and administrators—at least the ones who are paying—don’t have time for this. My personal opinion on this is that if you want to have a pay version, then great—have it. However, please offer teachers and students a decent free version to use, too. I’ve found more often than not that the free version does just fine for most students and teachers.
Please don’t make your premium version a budget buster, either. Administrators are the ones having to constantly find ways to do more with less. Make it a reasonable annual price and make it clear exactly that the teacher gets (and how it will benefit student learning). A student tool that I believe does this well is Kidblog. Yes, they recently started offering a 30-day trial of their premium version. But even the premium version is affordable at $29 per year per teacher. For what you get, I think this is a very good value.
Understand Needs By Having Teachers as Advisors
If an edtech company is 1) not hiring people with education experience and/or 2) not listening to the direct needs of teachers and students, then they’re missing the boat. This is the only way that a web tool or app is going to have an adequate pulse on the true needs of teachers and students.
Many companies have had great success by creating an advisory board of educators, an ambassador program, or something similar. It ensures that teachers and students have a voice within the organization and it is an effective, efficient way to continually iterate impact on classrooms.
I can’t think of a better way for a company to measure their impact on the 4Cs by seeking opinions and evaluations from teachers. Invite teachers to try a beta version, participate in virtual focus groups, and create pilot groups to try out specific components with their students.
Get Out of The Way
I have always said, the best web tools do a great job at getting out of the way of student learning. This means they just work and do exactly what the company says they’re going to do. The login/signup process is simple (hint: let teachers and students use their Google accounts), it’s seamless for teachers to manage and share student work, and it’s easy to learn how to actually use the tool.
For example, my students shouldn’t have to click six times just to get started on collaborating with a classmate online. I think of my own children in this situation: It has become totally normal (not to mention easy) for them to share a story with me that they’ve written or an illustration they’ve created in Google Draw. They share it, I leave them comments, and they keep working. It’s quick, efficient and it’s become the norm. This should be the case no matter which of the 4Cs the tool is focusing on.
Again, if you read the point I made before this one, then this should not be an issue.
Whether you’re a teacher giving some new edtech tools a spin, or a creator of an edtech tool, I charge you with a great responsibility. If you’re a teacher, it’s about remaining a learner first and taking some risks. If you’re making an edtech tool, it’s about truly understanding what teachers and students need. After all, we’re all in it for the same reason—student success.