The Secret Sauce to Choosing Edtech? Find Tools By Fit, Not Feature

Technology Tips

The Secret Sauce to Choosing Edtech? Find Tools By Fit, Not Feature

By Meg Hamel     Sep 24, 2017

The Secret Sauce to Choosing Edtech? Find Tools By Fit, Not Feature

Finding and selecting edtech products can be a lot like grocery shopping for your family. Walk in when you’re starving without a list and you’ll likely pick the items with the most attractive packaging, a suggestion from your seemingly healthy friend who only eats foods that start with the letter ‘P’, items that you’ve seen in commercials, or those that simply happen to be at eye-level.

At that time of need, buying $15 hazelnut-chocolate-almond butter seems enormously satisfying. (Why not throw in some frozen pizza bagel bites and a 5-pound bag of avocados, too?) Only when you’re halfway through your meal of avocado-topped bagel bites with dollops of chocolate nut butter do you realize that these elements aren’t adding up to a satisfying—or healthy—dinner.

The point: a simple plan can save money and prevent a lot of frustration. Over the past two years, EdSurge’s Concierge advisory system helped hundreds of school leaders find and select edtech products for their schools. And since July, we’ve talked to over 100 educators at our newly launched Tech Leader Circles. These conversations left us with a resounding message: proper planning and alignment are the keys to making successful edtech decisions.

There are many promising edtech products out there, and we’ve catalogued over 2000 of them in our product index to help guide your decision-making process. The starting point is to get familiar with the ingredients.

Planning the Meal: Ensuring goal and team alignment

To make a great meal for your family, you’ve got to factor in budget, individual schedules, food preferences or sensitivities, flavor, and nutritional value. The same kind of planning should happen when beginning a search for edtech products. Administrators and teachers must build a shared understanding of the specific goals for teaching and learning for their school. Too often, teachers are given a directive such as: “Find ELA tools to support the language arts teachers.” EdSurge has catalogued over 150 distinct ELA products; it’s the supermarket aisle problem all over again. Instead, whoever is charting the school’s edtech path must start by understanding the specific problems of practice faced by the teachers in that particular school.

Making the List: What you have versus what you need

Even when educators have shared goals, there isn’t a singular approach to teaching and learning to meet those outcomes. Authentic teaching looks different from one classroom to another, and understanding what works is an essential component in finding compatible technology solutions.

Ask: What teaching approaches have been the most successful in the past? What are the problem areas where technology might be able to support them? Consider the possibility that not all teachers need the same tools—it’s really about finding out what people need, not pushing a one-size-fits-all solution.

For example, one teacher might need a digital portfolio to holistically assess student progress on an inquiry project; another in the same department may use physical portfolios but would need a more robust tool to help grade formative assessments. A school’s budget may not allow everyone to get each item they need or want at the same time, but spending scarce funds on a tool that won’t be used is a double loss.

Fighting Temptation: Finding tools by fit not features

Have you seen some of these science tools? Seriously, I almost left EdSurge to become a science teacher because of how amazing they look! But this is not the way to buy tech for your schools. No one should pick software solely on its features—even if it is powered by artificial intelligence and facial recognition, or because you like pigs and other animals. Like other impulsive buys, a bright and shiny tool make compelling promises, but unless it aligns to the approaches and goals of the educators and students who will be using it, the tool will collect dust on the digital shelf. Educators and administrators may need to make compromises, and making a shared list of non-negotiable features is a must.

Non-negotiables are edtech product features that are required for proper implementation and comply with school or district requirements. Aim for about 4 to 5 specific features that will set the tool apart. Some educators we’ve worked with in the past look for alignment to Common Core Standards or reading passages that are leveled to a student’s lexile range.

Beware of listing vague terms and phrases like, “the tool must be engaging.” Rather, define what engagement means for the unique student body. It could mean that it is age-appropriate, has a game-like element, or allows for students to set their own goals. These are all very different features that aim to engage the user and will lead to a very diverse list of tools. The more specific the team can be about the shared set of features you can’t live without, the easier it will be to choose the one that has the best fit to your unique needs.

A note on money. While cost is an important factor when choosing tools, it should not be listed in the non-negotiables. Determining price is difficult without the help of an edtech sales representative. It’s also possible that funds will be available at the end of the search that weren’t there at the beginning. Ultimately, the cost of an edtech product should help the team make the final decisions on a tool, not start the search.

It’s likely that there isn’t a perfect edtech tool out there yet, but the landscape changes daily and programmers, entrepreneurs, and educators are working together to improve the ways technology can support education. In the meantime, EdSurge has developed a framework and a playbook for selecting technology that we believe can help educators and school leaders plan better in their search for the best edtech products.

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