At SXSWedu, Two Ideas for Helping Districts Choose the Right Ed Tech

Managing Editor

Austin, Texas

School districts are constantly bombarded by pitches from companies for impressive-seeming ed-tech products – and many are being marketed here this week at SXSWedu. If K-12 buyers choose the wrong one, by the time they realize it, it may be too late. 

One of the most basic and most important questions up for discussion at SXSWedu: How can administrators and teachers be encouraged to look at tech products with a critical eye, so they aren’t making decisions they later regret.

Richard Culatta, the former director of the office of ed-tech at the U.S. Department of Education, was asked that question during a wide-ranging panel discussion at SXSWedu on Tuesday, and he put forward two policy ideas, which come at the issue in different ways.

Idea #1: Improve Teacher-Preparation Programs

Today’s teachers-in-training are tomorrow’s consumers of classroom technology, Culatta explained. And many teacher preparation programs need to be doing more to help districts make smarter choices about which products and platforms are the best fit for their classrooms.

“We are not preparing teachers effectively to make the right kinds of decisions about technology. We’re just not,” said Culatta, who’s now the chief executive officer of ISTE, a major K-12 technology organization. “Teacher prep programs need help. We hear this from schools and districts around the country every day.”

Others have voiced similar concerns about schools of education, and their ability to not just introduce future teachers to relevant K-12 technology, but give them solid grounding in how it can be used to enrich instruction.

A wide pool of academic research, in fact, shows that teachers tend to use tech for relatively rote tasks, or to make their jobs easier, rather than trying to create more personalized, and challenging lessons for students. (See my colleague Ben Herold’s story, “Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach.”)

States have a primary role in overseeing teacher-prep programs, and they should be leaders in asking schools of education how they’re preparing teachers to use ed-tech, Culatta said.

It’s true that many teachers develop expertise using specific tech products, Culatta said. But it’s about more than just being a Google- or Apple-certified teacher, he explained.

“It’s about how do teachers know what questions they should be asking when they’re deciding what tools to use,” he said. “And that has to start long before they enter a classroom.”

Idea #2: Improve the Procurement Process

Not the jazziest topic, Culatta acknowledged to the audience.

“I know I say the word ‘procurement’ and I just watch the neurotransmitters shutting off in your brains,” he quipped.

But Culatta suggested that K-12 officials (possibly at the state level) could experiment in ways that encourage smart buying decisions by school districts. For instance, public officials could set up purchasing guidelines in which ed-tech products that are shown to reflect current research about best classroom practices and school improvement, “get an accelerated path through the procurement process.”

“Procurement is actually a really powerful tool, a lever, to make improved decisions, if done right,” he said, adding that it’s worth exploring how to use the “bureaucracy of the process as an incentive to actually choose better tools.”

Many observers of the K-12 process for buying ed-tech believe it is deeply flawed.

School officials often struggle to judge the quality of products peddled to them, and so they tend to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from peers. Vendors, on the other hand, complain that school procurement is too slow, and that the cautious approach taken by many schools, and their reliance on RFPs, tends to favor big, incumbent companies, at the expense of smaller, potentially innovative providers.

Culatta spoke at a SXSWedu session called, “Examining Our Faith in Educational Technology.” His fellow panelists were MaryEllen Elia, the commissioner of the New York state department of education, and the former superintendent of the Hillsborough school system in Florida; and Hugh Norwood, the CEO of Trinity Education Group, an ed-tech company.

Elia said her experience in Hillsborough reinforced her belief that giving teachers professional development focused on improving the “appropriate use of technology” is a sound investment.

The success of ed-tech projects often hinges on how they’re implemented in classrooms, but educators need help in getting that right, Elia said.

When technology works well in classrooms, “the teacher becomes the driver,” she said. Digital tools shouldn’t detract from good instruction, but act “as an expansion of the teacher’s time,” Elia said. When that happens, teachers see [tech] in a very positive way.”

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