Crowdsourcing Professional Development: Six Tips From Tech-Savvy Teachers

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Nearly all teachers are now using digital tools in the classroom, but according to a recent study from the Gates Foundation, most aren’t satisfied with the effectiveness of those tools. That’s not entirely surprising: the edtech community hasn’t historically been intentional about giving teachers a seat at the table. Rather than spending time in the classrooms or designing tools that respond to the needs of teachers, edtech giants design solutions that “work great, if only we could get teachers to use them properly!”

But teachers aren’t waiting for the tech industry to play catch-up. We’re witnessing the birth of “crowdsourced PD” as tech-savvy teachers share millions of resources online, exchanging tips and techniques to make edtech work for their kids and classrooms—and solving a few real-world challenges along the way.

Since launching our marketplace earlier this year, we’ve had the chance to meet dozens of inspiring, innovative teachers. We asked them for recommendations on how to best find and deploy tech in the classroom, and their responses could prove useful to other teachers and edtech companies alike. Here are some of the highlights:

Start with Your #1 Challenge

Rachelle Poth, a high school teacher in Pennsylvania, had this advice for tech developers: there is no point in tech for tech’s sake. Instead, start with the biggest—often overlooked—challenges like parent engagement, student engagement or classroom management. For teachers: Focus on integrating something new to address a challenge or opportunity in one area, then fully explore its capabilities before adding another tool. It's easy to become overwhelmed if you try too many things at once.

Rachelle has seen this work first-hand with Celly, the first tool she integrated into her classroom. “Initially, I wanted Celly to eliminate the disconnect I often felt with students. I used the tool to send reminders to students about what they needed for class, or, if students were absent, to tell them what they missed.” Over a two year period, Rachelle’s use of Celly expanded. Today, she uses the tool to “answer student questions, send images of text and worksheets, provide helpful links, take a poll, organize activities and even have a scavenger hunt.” By starting with a specific challenge and expanding over time, a tool identified to address a communications “disconnect" wound up playing a much larger role in her classroom.

Safety First

Teachers are telling us that data privacy is a critical priority. Rachelle’s guidance: “Whenever I look for online resources I always ask myself two questions: is the resource secure and private? Can I monitor the activity of my students?” Look for the privacy policy, and don’t ignore the fine print. Ed tech privacy policies should be written in plain English. Freemium tools should not require detailed information, or a credit card up front. And if the website displays inappropriate advertisements, that’s clearly a red flag. Once the technology is implemented, many teachers work with students on using pseudonyms when they create logins and create a regular habit of resetting passwords.

Beta Test on Yourself

James Cho, a fifth grade teacher from New Jersey, told me that before he implements a resource, he always creates a student account first and interacts with the product as if he were a student. Cho gauges how user-friendly the product is by trying various settings and scenarios on different devices. When using something new, it’s important to understand how it can benefit all types of learning styles.

Ask Students for Input

If the resource passes your test, it’s time to ask the toughest judges: the students. The most successful tools are ones that engage and excite students, prompting them to ask if and when they can use them again. Joe Fosum, a seventh grade teacher in California, has nominated a small group of students in his class called "tech gurus,” who try new tools and provide feedback. This can be a great way to help teachers decide between two similar products, since students often give honest insight into what best helps them learn.

Consider the Long-term Cost

To make an impact, tech should not only work within a classroom or school budget--it has to work at scale, without imposing massive time or financial costs.

Cost-conscious teachers often take advantage of free trials, which buys them time to explore, research, and collect student feedback. Jessica Cobin, a third grade teacher in California, encourages teachers not to get discouraged if a company’s website doesn’t promote previews or free trials. She recommends emailing or calling customer support to ask for one; chances are, they’ll be eager to oblige.

Jessica also encourages teachers to scrutinize user reviews of new technologies, which could reveal hidden costs or fees over time and help you better understand if cost will be an issue in the future. Do products offer discounts as the number of users increase and usage scales? Or, are there hidden costs that kick in as more teachers get on board? Some products appear to have low costs but require an upfront investment in “systems integration” to upload the data that makes them useful. Don’t forget that your time has value as well – ask vendors whether their products can communicate with your student information system, or if they’re reliant on manual data entry to scale. Save yourself time by asking questions early. What might work well in one classroom might not work district-wide if the time or financial burden for teachers is too great.

Fail Early, and Often

Even if you do everything right, experimentations with technology could still fall flat. James Cho is a risk taker like so many tech-savvy teachers that we’ve met, and he told me that greatness can't be achieved without a tremendous amount of trial and error. He believes that “failure should be seen as a wonderful opportunity for learning rather than a hindrance. True learning happens when students move beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone, so teachers should constantly find new ways to challenge students with the technology at hand.”

Understanding the education technology landscape can be a full time job—not easy when you already have one—and it involves changing lives in the classroom. As technology evolves and improves, I expect the education community will also find ways to streamline the research and implementation process. Meanwhile, teachers should continue leveraging the greatest tool in their arsenal: one another.

Rob Grimshaw is the CEO of TES Global. You can find him on Twitter @r_g.

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