Cool Tool | Desmos 

CREDIT Desmos.pngAiming to help every student love math, Desmos’ free tools allow students to easily connect, visualize, and grasp concepts more easily. Demos’ digital calculators can be used during math lessons and include basic, scientific, and graphing calculators. Recently, Desmos partnered with Promethean to make more than 100 graphs available to teachers for free through ClassFlow, a free lesson delivery software for any brand of interactive panel display. Whether teachers use ClassFlow to choose ready-made lessons or customize their own, they can use Desmos graphs to learn how to create a reflection of a point across a line or create Pac Man. Desmos’ software is compliant with the WCAG 2.0 accessibility standard, allowing students with visual disabilities to participate fully. To discover the math tools that Desmos and Promethean have made available for teachers, learn more here.

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Where’s My Billion Dollars?

Watch out, Hal Friedlander is bringing transparency to the edtech procurement process.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT TEC Hal Friedlander.pngWhat better credentials than having been CIO of New York City schools, America’s largest school district with over 1 million students, 100,000 employees, and 1800 schools? Hal Friedlander (pictured, left) was that, and is now CEO of Technology for Education Consortium (TEC), a nonprofit bringing transparency, efficiency, and collaboration to K-12 schools engaged in evaluating and purchasing edtech products and services. His experience as CIO of New York City Department of Education provided the motivation to start TEC. “Procurement is impossible,” he says, “there are thousands of instructional technology products and almost no standard market information about them.” And that’s a problem. “There is almost no way for a technology leaders in a school or district to make good decisions about which products fit a districts needs and budget,” says Hal, who adds that district leaders are left to rely almost exclusively on marketing and sales info from companies. “Even when an RFP process is used, the districts rely on the submissions of companies – which are usually cut-and-paste marketing material.” Hal is passionate about this issue.

Imagine if you had to buy a car based only on an advertisement and with no way to know how much it will cost until you visit the dealer. That’s what buying edtech has been like for years.

“Imagine if you had to buy a car based only on an advertisement and with no way to know how much it will cost until you visit the dealer. That’s what buying edtech has been like for years,” he says. His group, TEC, has reported that school districts could save more than $3 billion if vendors charged customers at consistent, transparent rates. In this exclusive, Hal talks about this problem, his solution, the real challenge with transparency, the role of technology in education, and the future of education.

Alright, let’s start with: what problem in education were you trying to solve? (And weren’t there some other existing solutions out there that resembled your vision?)

Hal: Technology can be a powerful tool for educators but in order for them to pick the right stuff, they need solid information about the available products including price. There are many organizations looking to help resolve various problems with procurement. One of those organizations, EducationSuperHighway, is working on network and bandwidth product pricing transparency. TEC is the only organization working on edtech product pricing transparency.

What’s the real challenge with transparency in education these days? 

Hal: Districts can’t forecast real costs. So they do a combination of buying less than they need and then impulse buy to lower surpluses at the end of the school year. The lack of transparency blocks districts from buying technology strategically and they end up with a hodgepodge of software that doesn’t work for them.

How does TEC platform and LearnPlatform come together, work together?

Technology for Education Consortium LOGO.pngHal: Learn has made a huge investment in building a robust edtech data platform. The LearnPlatform has over 4,000 products already cataloged. TEC has added a simple way for districts to enter pricing and other data about products and see national pricing reports.

What is the state of education these days?  

Hal: People often speak negatively about education in this country and point to test scores as evidence. But everyday tens of millions of kids go to school. Most of those kids have a good experience, graduate high school and go to college. Many kids don’t have that same good experience. The challenge is to improve the experience of the kids who are struggling without taking resources from the kids who are doing well. Technology can solve that problem.

What is the role technology can or should play in education? 

Hal: Technology should give educators and students tools they need to constantly reinvent education. One of the biggest problems we have conceptually in education is the bad idea that there is some ideal destination vs. the ongoing need to always improve, learn and grow. In most other domains, like medicine or finance, technology is used to discover and innovate not just to produce diagnostics.

What experiences from your background inform your current approach? 

CREDIT TECHal: When I discovered that despite the enormous buying power of NYC DOE, we did not always get the most favorable prices. Other much, much smaller districts got better prices for smaller buys. Of course that same small district is paying much too much for other products. That kind of erratic behavior is a sure sign of market that is not working well for anyone.

What do you see in the next few years in regards to the platform? What’s the future there? 

Hal: The platform will become a clearinghouse of procurement documents of all types like contracts.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, transparency, the edtech sector, or anything else for that matter? Isn’t a few billion dollars something that some might wish to protect?

Hal: Most companies are rooting for us. They want schools to be successful and realize that price transparency is a big, big problem. They want to be transparent with their prices but can’t due to their own internal bureaucracy or fear of shedding their old school sales structure or distribution channels. They are all waiting for us to get the truth about their prices out in public so they can become more responsible organizations.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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Cool Tool | PhET Interactive Simulations

CREDIT Phet Interactive Simulations.pngThis is a project from the University of Colorado Boulder. By engaging students in exploration and discovery, the simulations provide an interactive experience that taps into students’ curiosity and helps all students understand key ideas. To-date, PhET Interactive Simulations has delivered more than 360 million simulations since its inception that has been translated in more than 80 different languages. Recently, PhET Interactive Simulations partnered with Promethean to make various math and science simulations available for teachers through ClassFlow, a free lesson delivery software for any brand of interactive panel display. Whether teachers use ClassFlow to choose ready-made lessons or customize their own, they can use engaging simulations, like learning the basics on the states of matter. To discover more simulations that are available for teachers, click here.

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Technology with a Purpose

How to help students use technology to make learning meaningful.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gerry DiGiusto 

CREDIT Motivis Learning.pngAt my son’s kindergarten orientation, the school’s teachers and principal—skilled, passionate, dedicated educators one and all—seemed most excited about the new iPads for the classroom. They were all eager to use the new devices with the students, making them part of their literacy, mathematics, and social studies curriculum. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The classroom didn’t look much different than the one I attended as a kindergartner in the 1970s—it was brightly colored, full of blocks, books, and arts and crafts supplies, and even had a central carpeted area for morning group discussions. But, it also felt like we’d gone from Flintstones to the Jetsons, thanks to a handful of tablets. The great educational technology revolution had arrived, and our children would be its great beneficiaries.

The Revolution Has Been Postponed

As the year progressed, however, it became clear that our enthusiasm was misplaced, or at least premature. The revolution had not quite arrived.

In the buzz of using new technology and meeting the expectations of young digital natives, there was never an explicit discussion of goals.

This technology worked as advertised, but it had not proven to be a catalyst to better learning. Though the iPads were chock full of content and engaging supplemental activities, and the students were immediately comfortable using them, they quickly became little more than a fancy classroom accessory. The students read books on them, and the software helped them learn new words, but because they used them only at the “iPad station” with headphones on—to prevent them from becoming a classroom disruption—it became a solitary experience. For all the potential of technology as a disrupting force, my son’s classroom had squashed it. The device removed the student from peers and from the teacher, and any enthusiasm about what they were learning was left unshared, unaffirmed, and unrecognized.

In retrospect, it’s apparent there was never a plan for using the technology. The implementation plan focused on critical issues like security, support, and infrastructure, all designed to protect students, enforce appropriate usage, and ensure the devices were maintained properly. Training seemed unnecessary because the iPad is a mainstream device that nearly every student had used at home, and students were able to use them from day one.

My Kindergartner Constantly Asks Why, but The Adults Forgot To

But it seems no one ever asked why the iPads were so important. In the buzz of using new technology and meeting the expectations of young digital natives, there was never an explicit discussion of goals. What aspects of learning could be improved? How would technology enable this progress? Could that success be verified? The adults failed to learn from inquisitive kindergartners, who seem to ask why ten times in every conversation.

In my experience as a teacher and as an edtech professional, this approach to technology is typical. While schools tend to be intentional about technical details, they can be surprisingly cavalier when asking the more fundamental questions about how technology can further learning. We assume the why is implicit, an understanding everyone shares, but that’s rarely the case. It should be explicit. By failing to make it so, it becomes an ironic situation everyone dreads: the technology becomes the end goal, rather than one tool (among many) that students and teachers can use to drive success.

Purposeful Technology, Purposeful Learning

This notion of student choice is crucial to success when incorporating technology into the classroom in an effective and meaningful way. As educators, we must have a justification and a plan for what role we want the technology to play, and then design the student experiences accordingly. Unless the objective is to learn to use new technology, the activity should not be reducible in any way to “use this technology.”

This approach to technology aligns with what is often called “purposeful learning.” Purposeful learning embraces the idea that students should be at the center of the educational experience. Rather than focusing on specific tasks or milestones, students and educators emphasize the end learning goals, and work collaboratively to navigate the steps to achieving them. This purposeful approach paves the way for greater personalization and student voice. Because students understand and help define their end goals, and why they are important, they are more likely to be motivated toward mastering and retaining the skills and knowledge they learn.

Given this potential to motivate learners, many educators are adopting a more purposeful approach to improve learning outcomes and student success. Technology can certainly facilitate such efforts, but only if its use is truly intentional. Without planning, technology can distract and disrupt students’ efforts to take control of their learning. To make educational technology an enabler of purposeful, more durable learning, the use of it should follow three simple but critical guidelines:

  1. It should be optional, not obligatory. If the goal is to motivate students intrinsically, they must choose to use available technologies because they see their benefits.
  2. It should be inherently social, not isolating. Technology can play a role in facilitating relationships among students, instructors, and support resources that increases learning quality and student success.
  3. It should be more than just a replacement communication channel. Instead, it should enrich the interaction, helping to generate better feedback between teacher and student and among peers.

iPads in The Classroom 2.0

In the case of my son’s kindergarten, a better designed initiative would not have put the iPads at a separate station where students could only use them for prescribed lessons, while wearing headphones. Instead, the iPads would be available to students as a resource for a wide range of activities, just like the pencils, crayons, and paper that are scattered around the classroom. Nor would the iPads be relegated to solitary work. We’d throw aside the headphones and have students use them collaboratively, to gather information, pursue answers to their questions, and find on-demand help with whatever skills they are learning. In this scenario, the teacher becomes a participant in a learning group rather than its leader, steering students in the right direction, offering timely prompts, and encouraging self-reflection on how and what they are learning.

In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been called the “iPad initiative.” We would have referred to it in terms of its desired outcomes—enhancing literacy, learning research skills, or teaching teamwork. Proof of success would have been the ability to use those skills independent of the iPad. The technology, used purposefully and allowing students to choose when, would have remained in the background and largely faded away. And, as a result, it would have been a far more effective learning tool.

Gerry DiGiusto has worked in higher education, both in the U.S. and in Europe for more than 20 years as a teacher, researcher, strategist, and consultant. He is currently Motivis Learning’s Vice President for Strategy. Previously, he was Director of Consulting Services at Pearson Education; Managing Vice President, Research & Data at Eduventures; and was a professor of political science and international relations at Bowdoin College and Princeton University. He earned his AB at Bowdoin College and his MA and Ph.D. at Duke University.

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Making a Larger Impact

Rethinking edtech and school partnership. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Evans

CREDIT Renaissance.jpgA close connection between schools and education technology companies is a formula for collective success. Moreover, that critical connection needs to consider one simple—yet important—point: school and district leaders are looking for opportunities to improve student outcomes.

If a company is truly outcomes-focused, it puts itself in the shoes of school leaders, and determines how to best help in meeting their goals. With that in mind, schools and their edtech partners benefit from ongoing student outcomes discussions. The best partnerships are the result of three main tenants:

  • Competency
  • Clarity
  • Synergy

Competency

Edtech companies typically have one or several core competencies—their special strengths. For example, a company’s strength might be assessment, as it provides data and insight to educators for the purpose of knowing where their students are and what needs to happen in order for those students to be propelled forward in their academic growth.

Schools and districts that capitalize on assessment data to develop a broader view of what’s best for their students and teachers want to choose partners that support the development of holistic perspectives. The goal is to provide a diagnosis and help educators in making critical choices for students—whether that’s through a new instructional program or a different way of approaching the teaching cycle.

If a company is strong in assessment, they may partner with a likeminded edtech partner who is strong in instruction. Ultimately, the aim is to come together to create the best possible outcomes for students—and the way to do that is to align with other providers who complement and interoperate, presenting an entire solution to a school or district.

Clarity

In developing software, edtech companies at times forget the classroom teacher—the person on whom a solution’s success most often depends. If you’ve spent any time in a classroom, it becomes quite clear that data-driven insights are about more than test scores. Teachers have to look at test data and beyond to understand their students holistically. Are they focused today? Are they having issues at home? Are there challenges around accessibility? Full insight is what teachers bring to the classroom each day.

Keeping the teacher and their relationships with their students in mind is critical to the success of any classroom solution. This means setting a high bar in terms of usability. Teachers’ user experiences should not just be easy, but also enjoyable. The use of any technology should be a natural act; one that changes for the better how they differentiate and personalize instruction for their students. This all comes back to why a student and teacher-centric view is so important. A view of product innovation that does not fully consider teacher and student dynamics often results in a seldom used innovation.

Synergy

Fundamental to a classroom solution is the connective tissue that ties individual pieces together to create a more powerful whole. As classrooms implement more data-driven instruction, choosing the right assessments, instructional resources, planning tools and practice applications is critical. However, combining those elements doesn’t automatically create a solution. Bringing them together into a seamless experience that fosters student success is the key.

Educators can further optimize the use of classroom technology by utilizing meaningful professional development in the forms that best meet their needs. Whether online and point-of-use, a personalized approach to coaching and implementation, or live-answer customer support, the best edtech companies are always available to their schools and districts as they help support teachers’ primary goal of helping every child succeed.

Mike Evans is the interim CEO and chief financial officer at Renaissance. He is a 20-year veteran of education technology and passionate about K-12 education.

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