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How Schools Can Avoid Wasting Money on Technology

Early in Brian Seymour’s technology director career in the Pickerington schools in Ohio, the district decided to spend $50,000 on a product. As soon as the district got the product, it didn’t work, and the company didn’t want to give any money back.

Plenty of other K-12 district technology leaders have had that problem, too. The average number of technology products that districts access in a given month has almost tripled over the last several years, and school systems collectively spend billions of dollars a year on ed tech. But oftentimes, the effectiveness of those products is not clear.

In a June 28 presentation during the International Society for Technology in Education conference here, Seymour—who is now the assistant superintendent of academics and innovation for the Whitehall City schools in Ohio—discussed strategies to ensure other districts don’t make the same $50,000 (or more expensive) mistake that he made.

The most critical strategy is creating a plan to evaluate any digital tool that districts are using or thinking about using, Seymour said.

For his district, he created two flowcharts—one for evaluating digital tools the district is currently using and another for evaluating any new digital tools being considered. For each flowchart, there are questions for the curriculum department and for the technology department.

For instance, when evaluating current tools, the curriculum department needs to answer questions on whether the tool is aligned to the district’s teaching and learning priorities and if it provides appropriate and usable evidence of that learning. The technology department answers questions on whether it works effectively with current devices and features a good, strong student data-privacy policy.

“The biggest thing that has made this [process] successful is there was alignment between the tech department and the curriculum department,” Seymour said. “Your tech director and your curriculum director should be best friends. If they’re not, you’re going to have some problems with [this process].”

Districts should have a guide for examining different components of an ed-tech product, such as its data-privacy policy, whether it has advertisements, how much it costs, and how much customization it allows, Seymour said. Along with examining those components, districts should ensure that there is independent research that shows the tool works.

There should also be pilot programs and a committee of stakeholders, including teachers and students who will be using the digital tools, who provide feedback on whether the technology is working for its intended purpose.

The message: Decisions about what technology products to use in schools shouldn’t be made in isolation, Seymour said.

“I’m not in the classroom,” he said. “I don’t know how this program works when it’s actually put in the classroom. So I want feedback from teachers. I want feedback from kids.”

When it comes to working with ed-tech companies, make sure that it’s a partnership, Seymour said. Vendors shouldn’t just sell you their product and then disappear until it’s time to renew the contract.

He added that his district doesn’t sign multiyear contracts with vendors, because he doesn’t want to be “locked into something” and “dread having that program” that doesn’t work.

And lastly, districts should start this evaluation process early. Seymour said he starts in February because he wants to ensure that teachers know before the summer what products they’ll have the following school year so they have time to prepare.


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