Some educators believe that if you simply drop new technologies in the hands of teachers and students, amazing things will happen. Sometimes this approach works. But in most cases, investments in edtech are either underutilized or misapplied. I trace this persistent problem to two fundamental issues that are on opposite sides of the same coin:
- Administrators rarely engage school staff in blended instructional design prior to making major tech purchases.
- Most edtech companies do not offer schools the flexibility to make field-tested, integrated technology investments.
Without greater intentionality and cooperation on both sides, the returns will continue to be limited, leaving the bold promise of blended learning largely unfulfilled.
Schools: It starts with instructional design
In observing trends across 20+ tech-enabled classrooms using at least 3 digital content providers or tools, I’ve found that implementation fidelity (i.e. usage in accordance with recommended guidelines) is shockingly low. Each product might have one or two power users in a school, but the average usage per product across all staff is about 10-15 minutes per week. For all the hype around blended, that’s pretty insignificant.
Yes, teachers should have the flexibility to use edtech as needed, but when each digital solution costs $20 to $30 per student, fidelity matters. Lower fidelity also means fewer opportunities to discover innovative instructional practices. Why is usage so low? It comes down to a lack of intentionality. If I buy an online adaptive reading program, but also have a set ELA curriculum, only 50 minute periods, and a set assessment schedule, I cannot offer students consistent, self-directed online learning time and still meet accountability expectations. No amount of product training is going to change that reality.
Aspiring blended schools can remedy the fidelity issue in two ways:
1. Prioritize time for blended instructional practice design prior to selecting new tech products
Resist the urge to jump to a product as a solution. Start with practices. During the instructional design process, ask questions such as, “how might we increase students’ ownership over their learning?” or “how might we deepen collaboration?” Once you prototype these practices, only then look for tools to drop into your model--which may be different than the ones you expected. For example, instead of buying a comprehensive learning management system for collaboration and sharing, you may find that a simple micro-blogging tool will do the job.
If you end up needing more than one tech product, create an architecture map that explains how all of your solutions work together to support your design objectives. The feature sets of most edtech products overlap in two to three areas, but most products do one thing really well. Defining the most effective use case for each product improves fidelity as teachers have a better understanding of when to use a product.
2. Set fidelity targets for your design implementation
Most innovation purists might reject this idea, but temporary fidelity targets create the baseline for an authentic implementation of new practices and technology. For example, if you design a blended collaboration pilot, targets could include posting at least 5 pieces of peer feedback per unit, contributing to discussion forums weekly, or attempting at least one project-based assignment per quarter. Next, track the usage of the online collaboration tools that support the implementation of each target (e.g. logins, active usage, number of posts). Compare fidelity to performance, and calibrate what level of usage is ideal for meeting your learning goals. Once new instructional practices and technology become an authentic, symbiotic part of the learning environment, the targets will become an afterthought.
Edtech Vendors: Flexibility is not a zero sum game
I find it odd that school districts often get thrown under the bus for “failed tech implementations” while providers like Pearson and Apple walk away unscathed. In such cases, limited pre-purchase transparency from vendors and rigid post-purchase training requirements greatly handicap a school’s ability to implement effectively.
1. Practice-Product Fit is the Top Priority
Over the past two years, I have negotiated with dozens of edtech vendors on behalf of my clients. When asked to test drive the product prior to purchase, most vendors respond with a vendor-led demo or a highly-restricted freemium version. Can you imagine buying a car after a test drive in which the dealer has to drive or you can only take a loop in the parking lot? If the vendor truly felt their product offered features the customer would love or need, why would they hide them? (Just ask LAUSD school board member Monica Ratliff, who struggled to get full access to Pearson’s iPad curriculum prior to finalizing a contract.)
Schools need to pilot the entire product, possibly in a live classroom, and possibly for a few months, prior to making a large purchasing decision. If schools have taken the time to design their blended instructional approach in advance, they can quickly determine if a tech product is a good fit. Focusing on a short-term sale versus a genuine practice-product fit will cost the vendor more in ongoing customer service and technical support costs, as teachers may demand customizations when the product does not meet their needs.
2. More Product Training Helps No One
Edtech product trainers are like Will Ferrell armed with a cowbell. “More!” is always the answer.
Unfortunately, it’s not true. While it may seem counter-intuitive, rigorous vendor training requirements often hurt implementation fidelity. I have had vendors quote anywhere from four hours to four full days of all-staff training. It is often live, one-size-fits-all, and typically focused on click-by-click product navigation. Multiply this experience times the four other products a school is using, and you are now talking about weeks of instructional time lost. The costs are baked into the product price, making it difficult to opt out.
In the end, schools end up paying for costly training but never find the time to use it. We all use tech in our personal lives with no required training; why should it be any different in schools? I commend products like Google Apps and Khan Academy that offer thousands of online videos and self service tools focused on use cases and instructional practice. Neither company has the resources to offer site-based teacher training, yet their fidelity rates are arguably higher than any other edtech products available.
3. Acknowledge Your Place in the Ecosystem
Even if schools need deep product training, vendor-led trainings often fail to acknowledge or understand the broader technology ecosystem in which educators must function.
It goes something like this: the teacher will ask, “Does this online assessment tool mean we still have to use our online gradebook?” The vendor replies, “Sorry, I do not know anything about that product, you will have to ask your administrator,” to which the administrator says, “Uhh, yes. You still have to use both. Enter your scores twice.”
In the absence of an integrated understanding for multiple edtech products, teachers either lose the efficiency gains that often come with technology, or arbitrarily abandon one overlapping product over another. This results in tech fragmentation across the school where teachers silo off into their preferred product camps and administrators struggle to draw trends or capture economies of scale.
As opposed to siloed product training, educators need blended training built around end-to-end instructional scenarios, where multiple tech products come together to create a cohesive user experience. For example, if teachers want to administer blended project-based lessons, they might receive a flowchart of practices and tech tools that facilitate the entire lesson. Teachers might then receive training only on the features of each tech tool that support completing the lesson, e.g. creating a survey, assigning a video, collecting research, or displaying presentations. It will instantly make tech feel more relevant and helpful.
Ultimately, edtech consumers and vendors are equally responsible for successful blended implementations. The policies and practices they follow should encourage open experimentation and instructional intention.
Many school systems have developed the internal capacity to manage the shift to blended learning, and they have been incredibly thoughtful about making practice-driven tech investments. If you have the budget to deploy an in-house team focused on implementing edtech with intention, do it now. Otherwise, hire objective service partners to support the design effort and request that vendors give you the flexibility to make smarter decisions. Parents, students, and teachers are anxiously awaiting the shift.