Many of the ed-tech product providers who have swarmed the ASU+GSV Summit this week vow to bring groundbreaking products into schools.
But the promises and buzzwords often far outpace the reality of how those tools can be used to help teachers and students.
As stakeholders across the education and technology space gathered at the annual conference held here, one of the sessions sought to bring clarity to how school district leaders will evaluate the next generation of ed-tech products.
A group of superintendents talked about the opportunities that ed tech can provide in their school systems, and how they judge the value of potentially cutting-edge tools.
The standards they’re setting for ed tech have particular relevance now, as school systems are attempting to find tech- and non-tech-based strategies to help students recover academically from the pandemic. The discussion also played out as school systems are entering an era where they will have to be increasingly discerning about the products they invest in, and whether they decide to keep them, as the flood of federal stimulus aid runs out.
The Importance of ROI
In the Stafford County Public Schools in Virginia, one of the key factors that superintendent Thomas Taylor looks at in judging ed tech is return on investment, both in operations and in academic impact.
He evaluates ROI with data. He wants to work with companies that provide verifiable information that shows the money his 30,000-student district has invested into the product will improve student academic achievement.
Products must also take something off teachers’ plates, rather than adding to the long list of responsibilities that educators already manage on a day-to-day basis, he said.
As part of that, he puts a focus on tech interoperability – making sure that various forms of software can talk to each other, without creating additional burdens on teachers, students, and staff.
The panelists said it will become increasingly important for companies to prove they drive ROI, as the federal funding cliff – districts must obligate stimulus money by September 2024 – comes closer.
“We’re reaching a point financially in the next couple of years where superintendents, as consumers, will have to be way more selective in what they purchase,” Taylor said.
Avoiding ‘Career-Ending’ Data Breaches
The district leaders were also adamant about the importance of protecting student data privacy in the wake of a continued string of breaches in schools systems.
With the number of data breaches that have increased over recent years across both districts and companies, education leaders are cautious in making sure that companies they partner with can prove that they protect student data.
“We are slower on the uptake [of technology] because a data breach is career-ending,” said Christina Grant, D.C. State Superintendent of Education. “Your ability to show that you can protect the data and information for students and the school is critically important.”
Your ability to show that you can protect the data and information for students and the school is critically important.Christina Grant, D.C. State Superintendent of Education
There’s a balance between districts wanting platforms powerful enough to use data to drive innovation and unintentionally creating new vulnerabilities, Grant said. She offered a hypothetical example of a product that could allow parents to track their child’s journey when they take the school bus, but she also saw a tension between promoting student safety and putting too much information in the hands of vendors.
“I want to be able to track my kid on the bus, but I don’t want [companies] to be able to,” she said.
Equity in AI
Artificial intelligence capabilities are developing at a rapid pace. Ed-tech companies need to drive innovation, but help districts think about the implications of breakthrough tech.
Doing that work includes considering all populations early on in the process, said Iranetta Wright, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, Ohio’s third-largest public school district, with about 36,000 students enrolled.
“We have to think of AI, and all the elements that come with it, in terms of equity,” she said. “How do you make sure you’re being equitable in the information that’s being provided — and teach the children the best way to use these resources and to connect them to overall access?”
And as AI technology becomes more prevalent, the risk of equity gaps will increase, the district leaders predicted.
Students in under-resourced communities could be left behind if the supports aren’t in place to teach them how to use emerging technologies properly in academic settings, and if educators aren’t equipped to incorporate those lessons into their classrooms.
Heather Tow-Yick, superintendent of Washington’s 21,000-student Issaquah School District, said she looks to work with companies that design products with every student in mind, especially those from historically and systemically marginalized communities.
“I need my service providers to think about equity as a core value as they design a product,” she said.
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