When a school or district decides to cut a check for an edtech product, the end goal isn’t about owning a shiny new piece of hardware or app. The administrators who sign off are thinking about how students will benefit long-term from more support in the classroom.
But where in the conversation are the people implementing those tools: the teachers? And how much say do they—or should they—have in edtech decisions?
For both questions, as it turns out, it depends on who you ask.
In a survey released earlier this year, the edtech company Clever found that 85 percent of administrators say teachers are involved in choosing tools. When the company asked teachers, more than 60 percent said they were hardly ever—or never—involved in those choices.
As we started asking educators, administrators and experts about the issue as part of an investigation into how teachers inform the development of edtech products, everyone agreed: teacher voice should be part of edtech decisions.
So what explains the disconnect?
Getting a Seat at the Table
For Joseph South, chief learning officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (the parent organization of EdSurge, though we operate with editorial independence), the short answer to whether there’s enough teacher voice in edtech decisions is “no.”
He points to two reasons for the disconnect. The first is that the people inking deals with vendors are not the teachers, so “there is just a fundamental structural distance between teachers and procurement.”
“Second, when people think about an edtech purchase, people focus on the tech part and not on the education part,” South adds, “so districts always involve their technology people in those decisions, but don’t always involve their teachers.”
That’s been changing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when virtually every school and teacher were thrust into the edtech landscape. South says that “exponentially increased” the amount of edtech feedback teachers were sharing with their districts.
“Even if a district wasn’t intentionally seeking out educator voice, they got a whole lot more than they ever had in the past,” he adds. “And that was a wakeup call for some districts … just to have a very visceral experience of the impact of the purchasing decisions.”
Striking a Balance
So how should districts weave teachers into the edtech process?
That can become a complicated question as institutions balance teachers’ requests with bird’s-eye view concerns like data security.
That’s been the experience of Bill Bass, a former English teacher and former president of the ISTE board of directors who now serves as an innovation coordinator at a school district in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s his job to make sure edtech is successfully integrated into schools there.
“If a teacher brings a tool to [a district], they should pay attention,” Bass says, “because [teachers] are the ones in the classrooms and understand the impact those tools can have on kids.”
Thinking as a district leader, Bass says he turns to questions about student privacy, how a new edtech tool fits into an existing ecosystem and whether there’s already an existing tool in the district’s toolkit that could get the job done.
“We spend a great amount of time at the district level looking at usage, privacy and looking at the return that we get on the investment that we’re making—because we are actually spending real money,” he says.
Running pilot projects should be a key strategy for schools, according to both Bass and South, to make sure an edtech tool suits the needs of teachers and students before a school or district commits to an expensive purchase. That approach puts more power in the hands of teachers, but it’s also a process that requires significant time and effort to pull off.
But South says the end result is worth it for districts.
“What they’re preventing is the waste of an order of magnitude more money by buying something that doesn’t get used,” he says.
Bass says there’s also a difference between adopting edtech and allowing individual teachers to use free tools they like (provided the tech meets curriculum and privacy standards). Districts can allow some edtech to be used on a small scale rather than adopting it for every class, he says.
“With niche tools or content areas, maybe it doesn’t need to be for everyone,” he says. “Maybe we know it will support our students and our teachers, so we provide access to it—but that doesn’t mean we’re going to provide that district-wide.”
Who Gets a Say?
Alicia Sewell, a middle school teacher in Alabama, has made a job transition that’s essentially the opposite of the one Bass made. During the pandemic, she moved from a district-level position in instructional technology back into the classroom.
After she took a position teaching 6th grade English, she says she faced a stark attitude change toward her edtech opinions. Suddenly, she says, no one seemed to care what she thought about the tech tools the school adopted. It was especially frustrating, considering she had spent five years helping teachers weave edtech into their lesson plans and had earned an educational specialist degree in education technology before returning to teaching.
“When I was out of the classroom, there were more people listening to me, and more people willing to take what I said as truth,” Sewell says. “Once I went back to the classroom, my voice went away.”
In her experience, edtech companies are focused on wooing the district leaders who can push through purchases. It’s incumbent on those leaders to get input from teachers, Sewell says, rather than relying on vendors’ sales pitches. The result of leaving teachers out is often a suite of edtech tools that will sit unused by educators because they’re not helpful—boring, even—to students, she argues. Some teachers might not even be aware that an edtech tool is available, she adds, if educators aren’t tapped for feedback on the product.
There are some district leaders who might believe that talking to one or two teachers is enough, Sewell says. But that doesn’t scratch the surface of the insight they would get, she says, if they had a more-thoughtful solution—like asking for opinions from a committee of teachers representing each grade level.
Sewell says the lack of teacher voice in technology decisions is part of a larger problem—that edtech and its role in the classroom are still widely misunderstood. And that includes by the people at the top.
“I think districts are just buying Chromebooks and buying software without the knowledge that educational technology is to enhance instruction and not to take over the educational delivery or instruction from the teacher,” she says. “Technology doesn’t replace the teacher.”
Feeling Left Behind
Another key challenge is that schools and districts often make purchases meant to support all teachers, even though the needs of teachers vary widely by subject matter and grade level.
Take physical education, for instance.
It’s decidedly more satisfying to teach physical education in-person than over Zoom. For Lesli Cheers, a physical education teacher who has about 400 students each year at a small Southern California elementary, the joy comes with coaching students and watching them improve under her direction.
There’s still grading to be done, though. Parts of her nuanced rubric for a sport like football might include judging a student’s stance before throwing the ball, or their follow-through. While students practice, Cheers is grading nine different skills per student.
“That’s a lot of assessment, and they think they’re just playing, which is great,” she says.
Cheers would rather be coaching the students, but she knows a huge part of her class time will be consumed by the process of transferring hundreds of grades from the paper form she carries during gym class to the Excel software on her computer.
There’s an edtech tool that could streamline that process, she says, and free up her time to focus on a dozen other tasks. But she gave up asking for that tool a couple years ago, when she says the IT department put the onus on her to get details about student privacy from the company offering the software.
It’s hardly an isolated incident, she says. For years she’s seen the school develop and purchase edtech for other subjects, while providing fewer options in her realm. So she’s bought apps for her classes with her own money because it’s more efficient to get reimbursed later (and risk footing the bill).
When the pandemic sent schools into remote learning, Cheers says her colleagues assumed the transition would be easy for her—that she could just lead workouts online. The reality, she says, is that she spent upwards of 15 hours a day at her computer doing research to develop a remote curriculum.
“P.E. is not core, so we don’t get as much attention,” Cheers says. “And that’s not just where I am, it’s everywhere.”
Collaboration From the Start
Chesapeake Bay Academy in Virginia is in a unique position when it comes to teachers’ role in edtech selection.
The private school is tiny, with just about 100 students in first through 12th grades. Forty-two of those students are in the upper school (the high school), where Jared Setnar is director.
All seven of the high school’s educators, including Setnar, take part in edtech decisions for their campus. And that’s critical to how the school functions, he says. When the school went remote at the start of the pandemic, it was the science teacher who found an online program that would allow his classes to do their labs online.
“When he found it, it was something that he wanted, and he believed in, and he was going to be using,” Setnar says. “It’s also important when you talk about teachers and their specific content—it can’t come from me downward.”
The academy has become home to the Center for Educational Research and Technological Innovation (CERTI). Through a partnership with three Virginia universities, the academy will become something of a lab where researchers can study how edtech can best serve students with disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD or developmental delays.
CERTI leaders are preparing to present at a conference in November about how the academy created a hybrid learning model that teachers could manage—and that has become a permanent option for students. Setnar says that approach has cut down on absences, since students can attend class remotely whenever they need—such as when they are home sick.
“Teacher buy-in has got to come from the ground up, and they have to believe in it,” he says. “I can find a great program and tell them how they’re going to do it, but if I’m not in the classroom, it’s just not going to work.”
This project is made possible with fellowship support from the Education Writers Association.