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Ed Tech Conversations Are a Chance for Democracy

August 29, 2014 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

With the news that the Los Angeles superintendent has canceled the district’s contract with Apple and Pearson—due in part to concerns about how the contract was awarded—it’s a good time to reexamine district-level decision making about technology in education. In particular, here are three questions that families, teachers, and community members generally might want to consider asking of district leaders who are considering major technology purchases.

Who’s selling this?

Education technology is a large and growing industry, to the tune of roughly $10 billion. Sometimes that money goes to smaller providers or local opportunities. More often, however, it’s large companies who already serve most of the market expanding their reach. That’s certainly the case with Apple, which commands 94 percent of the educational tablet market. The L.A. difficulties also include the testing and publishing giant Pearson, which is one of a tiny number of companies who supply most of the tests, curriculum, and textbooks in the country.

There have been some moves to open up the educational marketplace to smaller competition. That was one of the arguments Bill Gates offered in favor of the Common Core, for example, since a uniform set of standards makes it much easier for, say, an Iowa-based education technology company to sell the same product to schools from Maine to California. It’s also part of the reason why GlassLab, an educational game company, has made many of its resources available to other companies to help the market improve.

However, most of the move to increase technology spending has benefited the big players who are always in a better position to take advantage of big changes in the marketplace. Districts need to remember that every company will make a sales pitch emphasizing the shiniest parts of their product, so someone else needs to ask if these are the right people to partner with. Certainly there were reservations in Saint Paul about the district’s choice of Dell as a major technology vendor, and the switch to Apple won’t do much to allay those.

How will you prepare and support students, families, and faculty so that this will actually change learning?

As always, new technology only matters if it changes how teaching or learning happen. There are many great success stories of teachers—like White Bear Lake’s Ananth Pa —using technology as part of a larger redesign of their classes. It is important for students to be conversant with technology, and districts must make sure that all of the people who will be close to that technology will in fact use it to accomplish new things.

Unfortunately, some districts can fall prey to a self-inflicted sense of pressure to make technology purchases quickly to demonstrate that they are with the times. As we see more and more districts reconsider their purchases, though, it’s become clear that it’s important for districts to take the time to work with all the people who will be working with the new tools every day.

How will you involve those same important community members in making the final decision?

When it comes to major purchases of technology coordinated with big changes to pedagogy, it’s not enough for districts to simply call a community meeting and tell their constituents and employees what the new arrangement will be. Instead, districts must involve all of those important people in the final decision making process as well as the planning process. This may be a slower process politically (democracy can be messy like that), but the end result is likely to be a broader sense of investment in the ultimate decision and a greater chance of seeing the intended changes play out as planned.

The decision making process also serves as a chance to share more information with those community members and educators. More information cuts down on miscommunication and misunderstanding during the roll-out of the new technology. It also creates another opportunity for district leaders and educators to engage with families about what schools’ priorities should be when working with the particular students and families in the community.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing we can learn from the past few decades or more of education reform, it’s that schools need to be responding to the needs, strengths, and interests of the communities they serve and not just responding to top-down incentive systems and market forces. Empowering families to leave and seek out other schools may make for a better market, but it doesn’t make for a better democracy. Public schools should be responsive to the public, and major decisions about technology are one route to increasing democratic engagement with our schools.
 

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