Tales from the Field: Tips for Choosing K-12 Online Content Providers

Tales from the Field: Tips for Choosing K-12 Online Content Providers

Participants at iNACOL share real-life lessons with tech

By Katrina Stevens     Oct 30, 2013

Tales from the Field: Tips for Choosing K-12 Online Content Providers

What happens when you pack a small room with cutting-edge education practitioners and solution providers? A serenade, of course, followed by a game of “guess-the-provider.”

Too many conference sessions are “sit ‘n git” formats. But this interactive 2-hour session at this year's iNACOL conference was run entirely by practitioners on the front lines of making decisions about which K-12 online content providers to purchase. After Anirban Bhattacharyya, digital learning director at KIPP Foundation, sang an original diddy to open the K-12 Software/Online Provider and Implementation Roundtable session, each panelist described the structure of their blended programs and what they needed to purchase.

Under the aegis of guessing which anonymous solutions were in fact purchased by which schools, many in the audience used the discussion time to speculate on identifying the anonymous providers. Was the "Universal Studios" profile really Dreambox? Was "Magic Kingdom" actually Read 180? (Yes and no, respectively, as revealed in the last few minutes of the session.)

For those who missed the enlightening entertainment, here are some take-aways:

'Not No How, Not No Way'

The practitioners had a short list of elements that an edtech product must include to warrant consideration. A solution must:

  • Be web-based;
  • Be standards-aligned;
  • Have easily exported data that can be shared in multiple formats;
  • Allow students to be self-directed;
  • Include a responsive representative who will answer the phone quickly to provide support.

What else do practioners want?

  • One platform that integrates easily, not multiple platforms. Really, they want a single sign-on.
  • Edtech startups take note: teacher-facing data must be easy to use. The data only helps drive instruction if a teacher can easily access it in a format that allows her to make quick decisions about next steps. Seems obvious but a surprising number of products don't deliver here.
  • Excellent references, particularly from schools similar to them. In addition to relying heavily on the other panelists, the group routinely interact with a community of 30-40 educators in similar roles at other schools.

Though the panelists primarily represented public charter schools, they raised issues raised pertinent to any school seeking to identify the most appropriate blended or online content to meet its needs--and, as a consequence, for edtech startups wanting to understand the purchasing decision process.

The panel echoed a recurring iNACOL theme: define the school model and student experience first. Create a list of characteristics desired in a content provider. Then shop for the solution. Don’t simply buy technology or programs and then figure out how to use them effectively.

But What About High School?

Several audience members noted they have difficulty finding strong online high school content, a sentiment quickly echoed by the panelists with secondary school programs. One panelist even shared that if he could, he’d “fire what they have and hire something better.” He followed up with this challenge: “Someone in the audience needs to create high school solutions—this is a real gap in the market.”

Any takers?

What’s a Beta?

Who’s in "beta"? When asked to clarify what classifies a product as beta, panelists’ definitions varied as did their tolerance for adopting early-stage products. Rafael Gallardo, learning technology manager for the Highline School District, considers any product that’s been on the market for less than a year as "beta" and is understandably cautious. Caryn Voskuil, manager of school model innovation at Rocketship Education, assumes that a "beta" product will come with a list of unfinished features still in development; Voskuil also assumes that she’ll provide feedback and that her feedback will to lead to changes in the product.

By contrast, Liz Arney, director of innovative learning at Aspire Public Schools, bases her purchasing decisions on what a product looks like and can do now—she simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to pilot early-stage products. Her team is too small and is juggling too many programs to pilot many, if any beta products, though Arney acknowledged that Aspire made an exception with Bloomboard. Arney cited a history of “having her heart broken” in past relationships with early-stage products. Chris Liang-Vergara, director of educational technology for personalized learning at FirstLine Schools, makes sure to manage the expectations of his teachers by warning them that if a product is marked "beta" it means it could go down at any time. Forewarned is forearmed to handle surprises.

Liang-Vergara, echoed by other panelists, further cautioned that especially with early stage products, schools need to begin with small pilots. "You might trust a new mom-and-pop restaurant to host a family birthday party for 20," notes Liang-Vergara, "but you’re not going to hire them for a large-scale wedding.” Start small, foster the relationship. Kick the tires in a real-world environment. Schools need the freedom to abandon a product that is not functioning as expected.

Audience participant, Melissa Young, from Florida Virtual Schools, astutely acknowledged that any program that has truly embraced the Common Core and has not simply reshuffled existing material is essentially close to being a beta solution because the standards are so nascent. Particularly telling was the room’s full agreement that everyone was claiming to be CCSS-aligned. Educators have become more savvy, no longer simply accepting that programs that claim to be aligned to CCSS truly are.

Engage Me… For a Year

Long-term student engagement became a strand in the conversation. Many programs are initially engaging in the traditional sense--they’re gamelike and designed to entertain; however, the real trick is keeping students engaged for the long haul. Students will buy a highly developed game that they’ll abandon after a month. How can education solutions compete when even the games built using the highest budgets eventually lose their luster?

Several audience participants stressed the importance of including meaningful incentives outside of the purchased providers to keep students moving forward and engaged long after the novelty has worn off.

This is the kind of session we need more of--authentic dialogue that addresses real decisions and challenges in real schools with real decision-makers.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up