The EdTech ecosystem – the educators, administrators, entrepreneurs and investors – spends a significant amount of time talking about specific technology innovations, solutions, platforms, and possible disruptors. We assess and debate fit, interoperability, price points, scale, pedagogy, and a hundred other things about each product that finds its way to market.
We never discuss how many products are in the market or how we are collectively dealing with them, or what we should do with all of them. Frankly, it’s an overdue conversation that’s steadily growing into a need for hard truths and intervention.
Our inability to take our eyes off the shiny new toy, the technology breakthrough that is promised to change everything, has blocked our view of the obvious - there are far too many education technology products. And with the recent influx of ESSER funds, there is a bundle of money with which to buy them in an ever-shortening window to secure the products. The result is a panic-driven buying spree where we may not be able to adequately understand, assess, and deploy these products, let alone achieve all the benefits they offer.
Last year, media reported that the number of EdTech products a school district accessed in a month grew by nearly 300% between 2017 and 2021-22. Now, the monthly number of edtech products used every month is more than 1,400. Yes, fourteen hundred. Every month.
In my company, which helps schools and IT professionals see and monitor their technology systems, we have first-hand confirmation of these statistics. Among our partners in the United States, Canada, and across the U.K., the number of EdTech products in any given school has more than doubled over the past four years.
It’s beyond unmanageable, it’s incomprehensible.
And maybe it’s obvious that if the number of installed and utilized education technologies keeps increasing, they can’t all be successful. If they are, why do we keep buying more?
As it is, the solutions that work are being strangled for air and sunlight in our overcrowded technology gardens. To compound the problem, simply knowing what’s working is much more easily said than done. Not only is assessing learning outcomes a difficult task on its own, the sheer numbers mean that evaluating them is next to impossible. To prepare for the evaluations and choices that absolutely must be made; I have some suggestions.
The first seems easy – find out what technology products your school or district is paying for and using. They may not be the same. Simply create a list of the apps, software systems and add-ons embedded in or connected to your infrastructure right now. If you’re feeling ambitious, add a column about its chief purpose and whether you’re paying for it. No judgment, no evaluation – just a simple list.
I am sure you’ll be surprised by the number. Perhaps you’ll even be shocked to learn how difficult it is to find this basic information.
Second – and I know this will be unpopular – institute a moratorium on buying or adding new technology products unless it comes with some clear evidence-informed backing and you have undertaken a full evaluation cycle. Plus, ensure you plan a district-wide audit of those identified solutions so you can review and specify the impact. The audit should confirm if the schools’ technology is up to current and future needs and/or whether a new approach or direction is needed.
Schools can then either invest only in the technology already on hand, upgrade, add new licenses, buy add-ons or purchase complementary and integrated solutions in ways that build on the capabilities of products already in place. That’s it. Any solutions where a clear purpose and intent hasn’t been defined – go on hold until the audit is complete.
The first rule of holes, as they say, is to stop digging. No one can reasonably make good purchasing decisions until the baseline has been set. Stem the tide, then assess the flood.
Finally, even though every school or jurisdiction is different, in most districts, the job of running and managing all these technologies falls to IT departments. That’s probably not surprising.
The challenge is that while IT teams are well-educated, brilliant, and dedicated, they’re usually not trained at all in evaluating teaching outcomes or pedagogy. In fact, they seldom get to see the products they are tasked with managing in action in the classroom. Moreover, IT departments also tend to be chronically under-resourced and tasked to triage outages and address help requests instead of being asked to contribute to evaluation or strategy from the perspective of learning outcomes.
Districts and schools can fix that. Or at least they can start to.
About the author
Al Kingsley is an author, podcaster, chair of Multi Academy Trust cluster of schools in the UK, an Apprenticeship Ambassador, chair of his regional Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Board, and chair of his Regional Employment and Skills Board. He is also a 30-year veteran of the EdTech industry, is CEO of NetSupport, and author of My Secret #EdTech Diary.