Teachers and students are turning to a staggering array of ed-tech products, even as school districts are trying to protect student data privacy, train teachers to use digital tools effectively, and make the most of dwindling federal resources for education technology.
The average number of tech products school districts access in a given month has almost tripled over the last several years, from 548 during the 2017-18 school year, to 1,417 during the 2021-22 school year, according to a report released this month by LearnPlatform, an education technology company that helps districts measure the use and effectiveness of their digital products.
It’s clear from those numbers that teachers are increasingly willing to experiment with a broad range of digital products to improve instruction. But if every teacher in a school or district has a different favorite product, it can be tough for district and school leaders to offer effective professional development and make sure student data privacy is protected, educators and experts say.
What’s more, this increasing use of more tech tools means students must interact with a range of different digital platforms that often serve the same purpose, like taking formative assessments or online quizzes their teachers have created.
Nearly a quarter of the tools districts and teachers use most often are aimed at raising student engagement, LearnPlatform found. Among the most popular: Kahoot!, Blooket, and Quiziz. Another 10 percent or so are study tools, such as Quizlet, Desmos, and Grammarly.
The data used to calculate both the rankings and usage numbers were collected using LearnPlatform’s Inventory Dashboard between August 1, 2021 and May 31, 2022.
“These numbers should prompt district leaders to ask not just what ed tech is being used in their schools or how often it’s getting used, but also whether it is safe, equitable, and positively impacting learning,” said Karl Rectanus, the CEO and founder of LearnPlatform in a statement. “With tech-enabled learning here to stay, understanding which tools are both effective and safe will not only improve teaching and learning, but help budget decisions as districts face a fiscal cliff” as federal COVID aid funds run out.
One possible reason for the explosion in tech tools: When the pandemic hit, many companies provided their products to teachers for free. And educators—many of whom had little or no training in virtual instruction—took them up on those offers, desperate to find something that would help engage their students.
Culling tech tools isn’t easy work
Since then, districts have been trying to scrutinize the tools their teachers are using, and, if necessary, slim their numbers to just a handful of high-quality ones.
North Carolina’s Union County school district started that work early on in the pandemic. Casey Rimmer, the district’s director of innovation and education technology, directed teachers to avoid the temptation to sign up for one of the freebies, and stick instead to a set of tools that had been carefully vetted and served a wide range of purposes.
“We really kind of buckled down as a district,” Rimmer said in an interview earlier this year. “We knew if we stuck with our core tools, we could support [educators] and sustain professional development on those.”
The school district in Rockford, Ill., revamped its process for choosing digital programs after returning from virtual learning.
Tech leaders told teachers: “‘If you’re going to use a software, it needs to be aligned with curriculum, it needs to be approved and accessible.’ From an IT perspective, we [need] to know where the student data is going,” Jason Barthel, the district’s chief information officer, said in an interview last spring. “We were able to really, really take [out] a lot of these free apps that we didn’t even know were being used.”