The combined efforts of the Federal Communications Commission's 2014 E-Rate overhaul and the Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative have motivated school districts across the country to embrace high-speed Internet access. This shift in access is bringing U.S. schools closer to a transformative moment in education.
But that's where some districts can get themselves in trouble — by making the wrong decisions about how to utilize that technology.
Katrina Stevens, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, says that realizing the potential of technology depends on the availability of effective apps. Stevens has been spearheading the development of an online tool to help guide education leaders through their decision-making process.
When district leaders are diving into the world of ed tech, they often don't go in armed with the right questions or expertise to select the app or app environment that's perfect for their needs. Instead, they rely on what they're told.
“They need to make good decisions based on evidence, as opposed to relying on marketing hype or the buzz among a small group of peers,” she wrote in a 2015 post on the U.S. Department of Education's Homeroom blog.
After working in a school district and seeing what was missing in tech decision-making, Stevens joined the Education Department in 2015, in large part to launch this app-development project. They're preparing it for a launch in early 2017.
"We recognized that in the field, there was a large gap. New ed tech was being created, but there were a lot of school leaders trying to make decisions about what to bring in, and there wasn't a lot of evidence to do that. The process in some places was simply broken," she says.
The online tool being developed by Stevens and her team is designed to help educators and district leaders design a rubric for their needs before making major tech decisions.
"We talk about it being like Turbo Tax; a school can come to [the tool] and walk through how to set up a series of research questions," says Stevens. "It empowers educators to ask some questions about what they want a particular ed-tech tool to do for them."
The tool will not make recommendations about particular apps. Instead, it will guide educators and district leaders to discover what their needs are, so they can ask the right questions before making their next big ed-tech purchases.
“If you’re using something for a week in a class, and it costs $1, then you don’t need the same level of evidence,” says Stevens. “But if it's something you’re using across disciplines, for a multimillion dollar contract, you’ll want a much higher level of evidence before you decide what you’re using.”
The code for the tool will be made freely available so that others can take the department’s work and build on it.