It's Not About the Device, It's About What You Do With It

Technology Tips

It's Not About the Device, It's About What You Do With It

By Daniel Owens     Nov 28, 2015

It's Not About the Device, It's About What You Do With It

Education technology devices have become symbolic of the efforts to transform US education through blended and personalized learning--and desktops, laptops, and tablets are quickly becoming ubiquitous in education.

These tangible examples are, with the exception of few dazzling products, nearly indistinguishable. When we are shown images of technology enhancing education, it is rarely a picture of particular software or data systems--it is a student with a device.

Devices are crucial as a conduit for content; however, they do not directly improve learning outcomes.

John Hattie, an expert education researcher, conducted a meta-analysis of over 500,000 studies on student achievement. The chart below is an excerpt of the top ten influencers from Hattie’s study, accompanied by a relative interpretation of the data for education technology.

Influence* Effect Size* Source of Influence* EdTech Translation
Feedback 1.13 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Students’ prior cognitive ability 1.04 Student NOT A DEVICE
Instructional quality 1.00 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Direct Instruction .82 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Remediation/feedback .65 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Students’ disposition to learning .61 Student NOT A DEVICE
Class environment .56 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Challenge of goals .52 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Peer Tutoring .50 Teacher NOT A DEVICE
Master learning .50 Teacher NOT A DEVICE

Though the “translation” column viewpoint may come off as a little extreme, it serves a purpose: illustrating that devices alone won’t improve student learning.

Devices do, however, enable teachers and students to improve upon many of these influencers. They allow students to access a vast body of content and knowledge, as well as a variety of games and learning resources that meet students needs and interests in a more personalized way. They provide teachers with more data than ever before, allowing them to better understand each student’s needs.

A teacher’s access to relevant tools and resources that can meet those needs has grown immensely. Adopting this viewpoint, the interpretation column becomes much more applicable for education technology.

Influence Effect Size Source of Influence EdTech Translation
Feedback 1.13 Teacher Enabled by devices
Students’ prior cognitive ability 1.04 Student -
Instructional quality 1.00 Teacher Enabled by devices
Direct Instruction .82 Teacher Enabled by devices
Remediation/feedback .65 Teacher Enabled by devices
Students’ disposition to learning .61 Student Enabled by devices
Class environment .56 Teacher Enabled by devices
Challenge of goals .52 Teacher Enabled by devices
Peer Tutoring .50 Teacher Enabled by devices
Master learning .50 Teacher Enabled by devices

So, how do we make devices truly relevant and usable?

Placing devices within the context of learning theory can help schools and districts prioritize around education technology. One of the most common questions asked when a discussion turns to education technology is “What device should I buy?” For all of the reasons aforementioned, the answer is always “the one that does what you need it to do.”

This answer is less than satisfying for most, who have hundreds of priorities and just want to ensure they get the right device for their students. The thought process is important, however, as the device question should be one of the last ones asked, not the first.

Districts should start with asking themselves how they want to improve learning. A good starting point might be the top ten list provided above, the complete list from Hattie’s meta-analysis, or any other evidence-based research that provides actions influential to student learning.

The next step is to determine which technology resources are available to assist in attaining these goals. Though the market is vast and growing at a fast rate, there are a variety of software and content offerings, as well blended learning models that can improve at least nine of the top ten learning influencers (and many more further down the list). As goals are established and resources are matched with needs, a cohesive strategy will start to come together.

The final piece of this strategy, after ensuring there is sufficient Internet connectivity, is to determine which devices can allow for meaningful instruction with the resources and systems identified.

How do I choose a device?

The list of devices that can enable most learning resources and blended systems is almost endless. But keep in mind: management and maintenance costs can more than double the cost of a device over its entire life, and hardware that is continually buggy or breaking down will sit on a class shelf collecting dust (and wasting dollars).

The decision becomes more complex as districts factor in their wants. Many districts have certain needs, such as absolute minimum specifications for things like security, management systems, etc. Many of these districts also have perceived needs (translation: wants) of the fastest processor, the sleekest designs, etc. Separating needs from wants can translate into hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars saved on devices for each district.

But once the district’s device needs are established, here comes deciding what should actually be purchased. Start the device selection conversation with the lowest cost devices. It’s important to remember that no device is perfect: some require Internet connections to function, others are less user friendly, and too low of a cost can simply mean “cheap.”

By starting the conversation with the lowest cost devices and having to justify additional expenditures, districts have a better shot at spending the right amount of their limited capital on technology hardware. Most districts spend between $300-$800 per device (though some go as high as $1,500). The closer a district is to the low cost side of this range, the more resources they have to reallocate capital to education resources that will directly improve learning outcomes.

What’s next? A full rollout?

Even after simple strategic planning, a large-scale device rollout can be daunting. Starting small and gradually, scaling can help overcome this hurdle. The information gained by piloting devices for a couple of weeks will far outweigh several months of crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” of a large-scale plan. Too much time in the strategy and planning phase is nearly as wasteful as buying higher priced devices. Lessons learned from the pilot will help inform whether the device is the right one, and how to grow the program in a way that works for schools’ and districts’ students, teachers, leaders, and IT systems.

By asking the right questions in the right sequence, a district can realign its priorities to ensure it is spending the right amount of resources on education technology devices. While strategy and planning are crucial, they become wasteful if priorities are misaligned or the process is over-engineered. With the right framing and approach, schools and districts should be able to minimize the time and money they spend on devices, and focus their attention where it matters most.

Daniel Owens is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. The post originally appeared in THE Journal; re-posted with permission.

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