Overwhelmed by Apps, Districts Urged to Reduce Redundancies

Staff Writer

App usage has skyrocketed in the past few years as vendors have pushed products to facilitate remote learning.  

Oftentimes, companies introduce teachers to apps in order to get them into classrooms at the ground level, bypassing the formal approval process. That can result in so many products ending up in schools that district technology and instructional administrators aren’t aware of which tools are in place, or how they’re being used. 

With such rapid growth in such a short time frame, the number and types of apps in play in districts need to be reevaluated — not just to save districts money and resources, but to assess security vulnerabilities as well. 

Lightspeed Systems, a Texas-based company that provides software services to 28,000 schools globally, recently published its 2022 EdTech App Report, detailing app usage data from 108 districts with different levels of student enrollment. 

Data was collected using a system that tracks app usage at the device level, offering visibility into the types of apps being used – even those that have not received district approval. 

Minimizing Redundancies 

According to data from the report, most of the districts evaluated in the report have more than 2,000 apps in use by their students across schools. However, only 300 of these apps account for almost all (99 percent) of student usage from those included in the report, and are usually well-known by the district.

Within this pool, 20 apps are consistently the most commonly used, data shows. The Google Workspace suite is by far the most popular, a level of takeup that aligns with the widespread adoption of Chromebooks in K-12 education. The next most used apps include YouTube, Clever, and Kahoot.

The top 20 most commonly used apps, in order of popularity, are:

Several apps on the list of the 20 most-used apps, including YouTube and Kahoot, are free or have free versions.  

Leaders at Lightspeed Systems advise district tech leaders to whittle down their app catalogs, saying that if money is being spent on redundant applications, districts could consider free alternatives as a cost-saving opportunity. 

Districts across the country have many apps that are supposed to do the same things, and the overly crowded space does little to help student learning, said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a professional association for school system technology leaders.  

56 percent of students spend more than two hours per day in active digital learning, data shows.
It also creates potential data privacy risks and raises questions about whether the apps are doing anything to improve student achievement, or just cluttering the landscape, he said. 

“My bet is that a lot of CTOs are shocked when they see all the things that are running on their network that they didn’t know about,” he said. 

During the peak of the pandemic, many vendors offered free trials for the first few months as teachers sought out new technology to aid in virtual learning.  

This strategy was a way to appeal directly to teachers and to get them interested in those products, Krueger said. But it created a “Wild West” of apps that made it difficult for districts to support, he added. 

“Having a lot of solutions that only a single or a handful of teachers use may not be the best way to focus priorities for the district, and it becomes a cost burden when they’re paying for these things,” he said.

An Emphasis on Security 

As apps and technology are increasingly relied on for teaching and learning, students are spending more time online, the report cites. 

According to Lightspeed Systems’ report, 56 percent of students spend more than two hours per day in active digital learning, defined as having the browser window open to an education app at a particular time. The report also notes that students are also likely engaged online in non-educational apps at other times each day. 

Protecting students’ personal information is more important than ever as increased app usage adds more potential for data risks, experts say. 

“Our data supports the assumption that there will be exponentially more [app] options, and thus more risk for student personal identifiable information to be shared with unapproved apps who do not have students’ best interests as part of their design,” said Lightspeed Systems’ Chief Product Officer Brook Bock, in an email to EdWeek Market Brief. 

She advises districts to improve visibility into app use – for both approved and unapproved apps – allowing IT leaders to take the driver’s seat in identifying redundancies and security vulnerabilities. With this information, there will be opportunities to consolidate apps, and for an increased focus on teacher training to ensure the greatest impact on learning and strongest data protection, she said. 

“Having a lot of solutions that only a single or a handful of teachers use may not be the best way to focus priorities for the district, and it becomes a cost burden when they’re paying for these things.” Keith Krueger, CEO, CoSN

The responsibility falls on district leaders to have processes in place to pick through the hundreds of thousands of apps, Krueger said, to know what teachers need and what’s safe and practical to use. 

“This is an important area for the technology and curriculum departments to be leading on,” Krueger said.

Understanding more about app usage also gives districts more power to negotiate more favorable terms in their dealings with ed-tech companies, Krueger said.  

“If you pay for licenses for 10,000 people, but only 5,000 of us use it … it’s about writing contracts in a smart way to say, ‘We’re paying for this the first year, but we have the right to cut it back if we’re not seeing the usage,’” he said. 

Nearly all apps – 91 percent – had at least one change in their privacy policies last year, report data shows. The media number of changes was three per app. These changes vary from significant data sharing practices – from “will not sell” to “may sell” data – to small grammatical or address corrections. 

IT leaders need to do their due diligence in reviewing the data privacy of vendors and investing in tools to understand these changes in accordance with state and district policies, experts say.  

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