Making Technology Purchases? 2 Questions to Consider

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A different way to approach the purchase of new technology.

By Susan Brooks-Young

Fourth-graders need to take photos for a presentation. The Chromebooks they are using have built-in cameras but are clumsy to use for this purpose.

An eighth-grade U.S. History assignment includes writing and publishing a newspaper that might have been produced on a specified day during the Revolutionary War. The school-provided tablets are fine for research, but they present challenges as students work on writing and formatting the newspaper.

First-grade students use laptops during reading centers, playing online games to practice early reading skills. The games are designed for use with touch screens, but because the laptops lack touch capability, the children use a mouse instead. Most — but not all — of the game functions work with a mouse.

Scenarios like these unfold daily in schools across the country. Students are given access to one device, then asked to complete assignments using the device in ways for which it was not designed. Limiting classroom technology use to one platform may have made sense early on, but in today’s world of interoperability, this practice restricts access to the various digital tools educators and students need to complete their work.

Purchasing and supporting multiple platforms does present challenges. Instead of being able to pick one and be done, using more than one platform requires staying up on multiple new devices, new or upgraded operating systems, and the various apps and other digital instructional materials available for each. It means thinking about digital devices in terms of a range of capabilities. It also may mean upping the ante in terms of technical support (depending upon how the school’s network is structured) and professional development for teachers and staff.

These challenges are not insurmountable, but they can stop technology-supported instruction in its tracks if ignored or handled ineffectively. One device will not be able to meet the needs of all educators and students; multiple technology tools enable users to select the best tool for specific tasks as needed. I’m not proposing one-to-one access for every device chosen. It’s likely that younger students will be just fine with 2:1 or 3:1 access to tablets, a classroom interactive whiteboard (that’s actually used by students for interactive activities), a few class laptops, and occasional access to special-use technology such as programmable robotic devices. Students in grades four through eight might need 1:1 access to Chromebooks or laptops, supplemented by a few tablets, cameras, or special-use technology such as digital science lab equipment, also on an as-needed basis.

Educators need to stop initiating the conversation about instructional technology with the question, “What’s the right platform for my school?” and begin by thinking about academic goals and critical soft skills (working collaboratively, problem-solving, and the like) and ways technology might be used to support these areas. When reviewing current and proposed use of classroom technology, carefully consider two questions.

Question 1: What are the strengths and challenges of current instructional programs?

Technology purchases are often motivated by buzz about a new “hot” device or the donation of equipment or digital instructional materials from a parent group or other organization. But this puts the cart before the horse. Educators first need to consider how well existing programs are meeting specific student needs and what role instructional technology might play in bolstering students’ success both academically and in mastering life skills — and this initial planning process doesn’t focus on technology use at all.

Ideally every school makes a practice of reviewing the strengths and challenges of its instructional programs annually to set schoolwide goals and objectives for the upcoming year. A great deal can be discovered by reviewing attendance registers, students’ grades, discipline records, teachers’ lesson plans, classroom observations, or satisfaction surveys completed by educators, students, and parents.

It may be necessary to create surveys for educators, students, and parents, but a quick online search will result in multiple examples. Use an online tool like Google Forms or Survey Monkey to create and deploy the surveys. Such tools also facilitate tabulating and analyzing results.

After reviewing survey data, educators can engage in purposeful discussions about which programs are working well for students and where they face their greatest challenges. Honest conversations about what is working and where there is room for improvement form the basis for goals and objectives designed to improve students’ academic and personal growth. Choose two or three areas of need and one “stretch” area that calls for expanding or enhancing a program that is working well. Develop schoolwide academic goals and objectives that are realistic and measurable.

Question 2: Which technologies can be used effectively to support identified goals and objectives, and how?

It’s time to think about technology and how it can support teaching and learning — but don’t jump to the platform question quite yet. Along with having a clear picture of learning needs on campus, understanding effective strategies for technology-supported instruction is essential before buying anything. Look at information related to the impact of technology use on student learning. A growing body of research in this area indicates that when instructional technology use is confined to low-level thinking activities such as drill and practice or answering comprehension questions after reading selected texts, the return on any technology investment is very low. However, research also shows that when students engage in technology-supported activities that require higher-order thinking skills that enable students to solve problems or create some type of product, the return on investment is high.

It’s important to identify technology-supported instructional strategies that will support the school’s goals and objectives in effective ways. Here are three curated resources readers can use to review important research-based models and frameworks:
Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Resources: Includes links related to technology use and the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.
SAMR Resources: Shows why simply automating existing tasks has little value when it comes to learning and ways to make activities more effective.
TPACK Resources: Helps educators develop technology-supported learning activities that truly impact student learning.

Think about the last time you were in a meeting or other public gathering where adults were using technology of their choosing. Did everyone have the same type and model of device? Probably not. People have personal preferences when it comes to the technologies they choose to use. So do students, but schools don’t always allow for these differences. Some schools do acknowledge personal preference by providing some devices on-site and also allowing students to bring devices from home that meet certain basic specifications. Others offer access to more than one type of school-owned device.

Along with personal preference is the reality that no one device is going to be well suited for every assignment. Refer back to the scenarios presented at the beginning of this article. Yes, students can snap photos with a Chromebook or lay out a newspaper using a tablet or use a mouse to play some games intended for touch screens, but just because they can doesn’t mean they should. Technology should facilitate the learning process, not make it more difficult. Students need to be able to choose the device that will work best for them from at least a modest assortment of options.

To get an idea of the different kinds of devices educators might want to consider making available to students, look at the pdf documents posted in the Learning Activities Website (TPACK Resources collection or Organized by content areas, these documents identify effective instructional strategies and list multiple technologies that can be used effectively to support each.

Finally, remain flexible when it comes to choosing technologies for classroom use. Remember when flip cameras were an optimal solution for shooting video or iPod Classics were the device of choice for recording and listening to audio files? While each device can still get the job done, new technologies handle these tasks more easily and efficiently than their predecessors. That doesn’t mean that educators need to get rid of older technology each time a new device hits store shelves, but when it’s time for those older devices to be replaced, it’s important to be aware of current options so wise decisions can be made.

Start making decisions

Armed with knowledge of the school’s goals and objectives and best practices for using technology to impact student learning, explore the options in terms of devices and digital instructional materials.

  • Do all students need 1:1 access or should there be different configurations for different age groups?
  • What devices will be available to different age groups and why?
  • Will every classroom house devices for that class or will hardware be stored centrally?
  • If not in the room, what will be the process of getting the technology to the students in a timely way?
  • Is the school’s infrastructure robust enough to handle additional devices or will it need to be upgraded?
  • What professional development will teachers need to use the technology appropriately?

The answers to these questions (and others that may arise) can be used to identify the specifications that hardware or digital instructional materials must meet to be considered.

Durability, warranties, ease of use, anticipated device life expectancy, availability of quality digital instructional materials, pricing, customer support, and manufacturer reputation and past track record are all factors to consider when reviewing devices for purchase. Ask for contact information for current customers and interview them. Include educators and older students in the review process — end users will offer different insights than technicians or administrators would. Ask companies under serious consideration to offer test hardware that can be tried out on campus by staff and students.

Choosing the right technologies for a school is not a quick process, but the time spent is well worth it. And the good news is that the process does become easier with practice and experience. The next time you hear the question, “What platform is right for our school?” you’ll know how to respond: “It depends.”

Susan Brooks-Young, a former Catholic school teacher, spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author.

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