Students need twenty-first century skills to be successful, but what is not so transparent is the best method for imparting those skills. Across the country, schools are in a race to integrate technology into the classroom, but simply buying software and equipment isn’t enough. And now, schools are coming under scrutiny for failing to deliver results despite spending large sums to implement online learning and other education technology solutions.
Recently, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) released “Six Common Pitfalls of Ed-Tech Programs (and How to Avoid Them),” a brief on lessons learned from two large-scale technology initiatives. The brief’s authors concluded that common pitfalls encountered early in the implementations of both programs resulted in major barriers to continued funding and public support later on—despite the fact that both initiatives were moderately successful. The authors’ insights aren’t especially revelational. And the pitfalls highlighted in their evaluation are the same challenges schools have been warned about time and again when it comes to technology initiatives. So why are these pitfalls so common and so hard to avoid?
With the right planning and coordination, schools and districts can implement new educational initiatives like a well-oiled machine. But implementing a new technology program isn’t as simple as just giving students computers, and presto! Your district is an innovation paragon. To do it right, you have to disassemble the machine completely and rebuild the engine from the ground up. That means administrators will have to touch a lot of small moving parts, which is why it’s so important to get stakeholders involved and invested from the start. With more eyes on the project, you’re more likely to have your bases covered.
Let’s take a closer look at each pitfall and examine where the breakdowns happen:
EdTech Fail #1: Insufficient infrastructure and in-person support
When implementing new education technology, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of what new possibilities it will open up. But there are practical considerations that have to be made. Administrators need to think about the physical site where the technology will be implemented. Are there enough electrical outlets to support a one-to-one initiative where students bring laptops into the classroom? Does the school have adequate Internet access? Many rural communities still don’t have access to high-speed broadband. If something isn’t working, who will provide on-site support or coordinate with service providers? It’s important to look at all these factors so that you can plan and budget appropriately for any facility or infrastructure upgrades. Most successful technology initiatives start out small, then gradually grow and scale their programs. This gives them time to work out kinks and address specific issues as they arise rather than having to face multiple hurdles all at once.
EdTech Fail #2: Rolling out technology before software is fully functional
No matter how good your software is, you need beta testers, or teachers and administrators who can use the software the way it’s intended for your particular program. The reasons for this are numerous, not the least of which is to look for any snags or errors. Your beta users will need to ensure the software works on the devices being used, that it’s compatible with other software platforms you might already be using, and that it will work as intended in a variety of different scenarios that are likely to come up throughout the school year. That means your team of beta testers will need to be given hands-on experience with a fully functional platform.
EdTech Fail #3: Technology that does not address educators’ instructional needs
It can’t be overstated how crucial it is to get stakeholders involved in planning for your implementation, especially teachers. These are your boots on the ground, and they’re going to know best how technology can serve their needs in the classroom. Involving teachers and incorporating their feedback ensures that your implementation will enhance learning rather than hinder it. So get a thorough understanding of exactly what teachers need and try to not make assumptions about what you think they need. This will make it easier to narrow down potential vendors. And by including teachers in the initial planning phases, they’re more likely to be supportive of the program and take ownership of ensuring its success going forward.
EdTech Fail #4: Lack of coordination among education stakeholders
So you’ve gotten your stakeholders on board with your plan to implement a new edtech program, now what? To get all those moving parts working together smoothly, you must outline and prioritize a set of common goals and clearly define who will take ownership of which aspects of the implementation. There also needs to be plenty of visibility and communication between stakeholders to ensure things like instruction, curriculum, and assessment are all aligned, not only to each other, but also to your goals. In fact, AIR states that “technology implementation requires the same level of coordination and communication as other education initiatives.” All of your stakeholders need to be mindful of how their contributions will fit with the greater whole.
EdTech Fail #5: Too little support for educators to develop concrete plans for new technology
While successful edtech implementations require the collaboration and participation of a variety of stakeholders in multiple areas, there still needs to be one central vision for what you want to accomplish. True innovation doesn’t come from simply using technology in ways that fit in with preexisting practices. It comes from leveraging the power of technology to implement new, more effective methods of teaching and learning. Be sure to communicate that vision, set specific objectives, and outline how you plan to achieve goals. Don’t leave technology implementation completely open to interpretation, but also be sure not to micromanage your stakeholders. Leave room for choice, and don’t rely on turnkey training either. Give stakeholders time and space to experiment with the new technology and develop new standards and practices. Also be sure to provide teachers with tools and resources for communicating the vision and goals of your technology implementation to parents, students, and other external stakeholders.
EdTech Fail #6: Insufficient user training
It’s essential to ensure teachers are not only trained on how to use educational technology, but also that they’re comfortable using it. Training should align to the vision and goals that have been communicated for your edtech initiative, and it should closely simulate the practical application of the technology in the classroom. Educators need to be provided with hands-on experience, contextual training, and opportunities to ask questions and get individualized professional development. Training should also focus on uses that are aligned to educators’ specific instructional needs. AIR recommends that schools identify local “technology champions” who can help colleagues. Remember, the more confident educators feel about using the technology you intend to implement, the more successful your program will be.