Education companies promise the world on their websites. The dissonance between hype and reality, however, reveals itself in the classroom.
Often, the success of any edtech product hinges on whether it can be integrated into the everyday operations of a district, school or classroom. But the process presents a wellspring of difficulties and questions: Do educators know what the technology does? Do companies understand what teachers need? What kind of training is necessary?
To understand what implementation looks like, I went to a technology training session. Piedmont Unified School District, which comprises seven schools in California, had just purchased a license for Illuminate Education’s Data and Assessment software, which collects and summarizes student data for the district's math instructors, science teachers, guidance counselors and special educators.
In a fifth grade classroom at Havens Elementary School, where decorative pink flamingoes graced the teacher’s desk, fifteen educators and I learned how to use Illuminate throughout the day. It was a holiday Monday—a testament to the the profession’s dedication and the amount of time teachers spend learning about new tools.
Our guide was Jennifer Kalis, a first-year Implementation Manager for Illuminate. She is a former Nashville teacher and District Data Coach and most recently served as Assessment Functional Lead at Portland Public Schools in Oregon. Kalis manages many of the trainings of the Bay Area, driving from her home in Walnut Creek as far as Santa Cruz.
The company treats implementation as a science, defining it as an “ongoing and recursive” process that is inseparable from the product itself. In practical terms, this means that representatives from Illuminate train and retrain their customers, attending to their questions again and again.
Illuminate’s aggressive approach to customer service requires that all employees understand even the newest and most obscure features of the product to be able to help customers. The company claims no phone call goes unanswered; even the CEO will pick up. While most companies request that teachers ask questions through a district’s Instructional Technology Specialist, Kalis invited each teacher at the training to call her personally if they encountered any issues.
The biggest snag in any implementation starts with poor vision and a lack of communication. Without teacher interest and adoption, chances are slim that the product will work.
“If there’s no clear picture from the district, if there are no specific goals,” Kalis said at the beginning of the day, “then there’s no possibility of success. We end up presenting required and unwanted tech.”
Piedmont’s Director of Instructional Technology, Stephanie Griffin, addressed this concern before the training started. She shared what she envisioned Illuminate could do: it would be a holding tank for all teachers’ assessments—state-issued and teacher-designed. The guidance counselors would have access to students’ full profiles to track their progress and needs.
After vision, the second biggest snag is technology malfunction. A server may be down from the company’s end. The school’s Internet may cut out. “Hopefully the tech works today,” Kalis began. “You never know.” Today, the technology cooperated after some wrangling. Looking at a washed out projection screen under a bright light, she asked, “Are you guys going to fall asleep if I turn out the lights?”
Throughout Kalis’ training session, teachers learned how to navigate Illuminate’s Data and Assessment system. She would demonstrate an action on the projector and task the teachers with doing the same. But even the first step—logging in—proved troublesome. A few teachers got into the system immediately. But many did not have the right login credentials, and Griffin had to go into the school’s system to reactivate their accounts.
After logging in, teachers saw a dashboard comprised of tables and cells that hold a variety of student information such as test scores, class demographics or performance on exit tickets. Each group of information, called “widgets,” can be added or removed as teachers desired. Kalis showed how to create widgets that appeared as graphs, pie charts, spreadsheets and downloadable reports. For example, she pulled up a table that tracked an imaginary class’s performance on a test and organized it by score, from lowest to highest. One of the most popular widgets, she noted, was the birthday calendar.
Following the demonstration, Kalis gave teachers time to play around with their dashboards and ask questions. Some spotted technical problems: not all the student data was available from Infinite Campus, a student information system, which caused some agitation for one special education teacher who needed it for an upcoming state assessment. Other teachers could see only half of the their classes. Griffin said that the data would be available soon, and Kalis continued the demonstration with proxy student data. The teachers grumbled but went along.
Others had more theoretical questions. Gail Scruggs, a middle school math teacher, interrupted Kalis to ask, “What would I use Illuminate for?” After learning more about how Gail ran her classroom, Kalis showed her how to make exit tickets and track test score trends, which had taken up a lot of her time before.
After speaking with Scruggs directly, Kalis asked the group: “When might you use the features I’ve modeled?” She encouraged them to imagine themselves in real situations using Illuminate with their own students’ data.
This training also involved testing new features that the company’s developers just added.“This is the first real time we’ve had multiple eyes on the data,” Kalis said. “So let’s catch any small errors.” One new tool was a hybrid assessment: teachers upload a PDF of their test, and students take the test online. Kalis asked each teacher to simulate a student by filling out a bubble sheet and holding it up to the MacBook’s camera to scan. The answers were automatically input into Illuminate’s gradebook and scored.
Feedback from teachers was mixed. They seemed invested throughout the training, but each had reservations. “Technology has to come into play with what teachers want and need,” said Stephanie Roth, the Math Department Chair at Piedmont Middle School. “The one thing teachers always need is time, so the acid test for new technology is: Will this tool save time?” She was skeptical of the gradebook and camera-scanning feature, which doesn’t allow for free response questions.
“There’s ‘what’s possible’ with technology and ‘what’s practical.’ Right now we’re seeing the former,” Roth said. “In my classroom, math isn’t multiple choice, but I hope I can find a way to use [Illuminate]. You just have to use the tech and then think about what you want it to do.”
Several of her colleagues were hopeful. Logan Medina, a middle school science teacher who had used Illuminate before, admired how quickly he could see trends in student scores. He said tracking students’ progress already seemed much easier than with Data Director, the school’s previous assessment software. Dan Kessler, a sixth and seventh grade science teacher, was cautiously optimistic: “The biggest problem that I’ve run into is data compatibility,” he said. “We have to integrate data from too many sources. I do like using new tools, though.”
The success of Kalis’s training session will be measured by how many teachers can use the tool without delays in their classrooms. But some factors are beyond her control, especially as other new tools are also competing for teachers’ attention. Roth mentioned that her school had just began transitioning to Common Core curriculum and that her teachers were slammed with new materials.
“Are you overwhelmed?” Kalis asked the teachers at the end of the training. They answered in unison as they left: “Yes.”