The Three Big Edtech Problems in Alabama—And How Schools Are Fixing Them

School Infrastructure

The Three Big Edtech Problems in Alabama—And How Schools Are Fixing Them

By Donna Williamson     Jan 20, 2016

The Three Big Edtech Problems in Alabama—And How Schools Are Fixing Them

This article is part of the guide: Going Back to School With the 2016 EdSurge Fifty States Project.

There are certain criteria that have long been established for instructional software or applications. The product should be designed for K-12 students, user-friendly, address curriculum standards, and provide for differentiated instruction and assessments to personalize learning and meet individual student needs.

Before adding a new application to the toolbox, curriculum or area specialists, local school administration, teachers, and technology staff should be in agreement that the tool is designed to have the desired outcome on student learning—and of course, work in the available technology environment. But for many years, this didn’t takes place. The Curriculum side did not work with the technology side, and the desired results were not attained, due to a lack of functionality and performance. Even today, if the technology staff makes the purchasing or product decisions alone, the product implementation is often unsuccessful and the product goes unused. Staff and students become frustrated quickly.

In Alabama, particularly in Mountain Brook Schools, we realize that collaboration between the two groups—curriculum and technology—is critical. To meet this new norm, instructional technologist have adopted the only feasible solution, which was to move to the cloud.

The movement to the cloud has highlighted three major needs:

  1. With this movement, the concern for data security and privacy has been exacerbated.
  2. As paper textbooks decrease and more online applications take their place, keeping up with various usernames and passwords is a major deterrent for students, teachers and the technical staff.
  3. With a device in the hands of every student, classroom management and keeping students on task has taken on a different look. It is no longer a matter of simply making sure the student is on the right page. With clicking on a different tab in the browser or blanking the screen by the student so unnoticeable, teachers are often concerned at their ability to monitor students effectively.

To meet these new challenges, Alabama educators are seeking applications that address those three issues—and here’s what we’ve come up with so far.

Data Privacy and Security

The Problem: In Alabama, every school system is required to have a Data Governance policy. Training for all staff is part of state monitoring as is a MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) on file for each application. But it is almost impossible to obtain a signed MOA from every vendor. Many of the resources currently used were purchased or adopted prior to the recommendation of an MOA.

An Answer: Several districts are using the Student Privacy Pledge as a possible equivalent to an actual signed MOA. The current number of signatories is at 216 and growing—but more software companies should take an initiative in this area. And to provide much needed support, the Alabama Department of Education has scheduled regional meetings for district staff in the areas of data privacy and security. The February 2016 meeting will feature a presentation by a representative from the Regional Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).

Usernames and Passwords

The Problem: With data security in mind, technology departments are looking for single sign-on (SSO) options that work for a majority of the online applications used by K-12 students. The solution must be secure, easily managed and maintained, have a simple setup process, and preferably interface with the student information system (SIS).

An Answer: Cost is always a factor for the tight K-12 technology budgets. This includes soft costs that are passed on to the district from the various application vendors that are paying the SSO company, or hard costs that are charged directly to the district from the SSO vendor.

Several Alabama districts have signed on with Clever. But others are signing on with products like Classlink that have more features, and there are pockets of use of other products sprinkled across the state.

Classroom Management

The Problem: Many teachers have expressed concern over the fact that students that may have issues staying focused on instruction with the distractions so easily accessed through technology. The list of products in this area is extensive, but not without issues. Does the product interface with the SIS to assist with setting up classes? Does it allow the technology staff to regulate what teachers can see such has what screens and when? Does it zap bandwidth?

An Answer: To curb students’ straying tendencies, Alabama technology directors have selected technologies such as—but not limited to—Watchdog, NetSupport, and Hapara. These technologies allow teachers to easily view the screens of the student devices in real time.

This author (yes, me) decided to go with Hapara, a product that indeed interfaced with my district’s SIS, Chalkable’s InformationNOW. It provided for easy set-up of groups and classes, allowed the district to set limitations on access, and assisted with the dissemination of files, web links, and assessments.

Another feature that teachers are requesting for classroom management is a “lockdown browser” (or a browser that locks down when the teacher needs an exam environment) for Chromebooks. Products such as Respondus boast that they work with multiple LMSs (Learning Management Systems) and device types. But unfortunately, Respondus has its limitations. For example, Respondus works with Canvas, a popular LMS in Alabama, but not when used on a Chromebook.

Ever Vigilant for New Solutions

Keep in mind: we are still in the testing phase for some solutions to these requests. For example, Classroom Management software is often dependent on the type of device and the operating system of the device, windows size, etc.—it is not a one-size-fits-all scenario! The important thing to remember is that the solutions to these new challenges require extensive research and trials. But we are grateful in Alabama that we have such a strong technology leader group and active AETA listserv—and hopefully, more entrepreneurs that read this article and heed our call.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Donna Williamson (@dwmtnbrook) is a technologist with Mountain Brook Schools and wrote this in collaboration with AETA (Alabama Education Technology Association) and CALL (CoSN Alabama Leaders) members.

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of Alabama). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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

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