Educational technology

Throughout history, there have been prospectors for gold, oil, and many other commodities. In 2015, the rush will be for a market share in educational technology.

It’s important to note there are organizations devoted to promoting learning for free. The two that quickly come to mind are Khan Academy and Gooru. Helping students and educators at no cost is an extremely noble endeavor, and I hope Khan and Gooru thrive during the upcoming year.

However, for most who have tossed their hats into the fray, it’s a fact that they’ve gotta hustle if they wanna make a dollar. On one hand, I have a lot of respect for companies such as Edmodo, Illuminate Education, LearnZillion, and the many other entities who are hustling for a foothold in districts across the nation. They’re all fulfilling niches that may very well be needed as schools adopt personal devices for students. On the other hand, if I worked for a company that wanted to service school districts, I would feel constant unease due to the fact that educators usually want (or need) services for free, and districts are continually looking for the cheapest alternative–many times at the expense of quality.

But, as we all know, there’s high risk in all business endeavors. I’ve stated the obvious in the above paragraph, but it’s a good way to frame an educational technology conversation in which the following three questions are discussed:

1. For what purpose does an educational technology company exist? 

2. What do schools and districts need? 

3. What do teachers need in their classrooms? 

These questions may seem simple, but their answers are fraught with a high degree of complexity. Too often school districts follow sales representatives down a rabbit hole that leads to nothing but unused products and wasted money. To compound this reality, many companies are trying to find success through a grass roots campaign of making their services free for teachers but not free at a school and district level. This creates a disunited educator base where every teacher finds her favorite platform and fights for its adoption because it’s the ‘right’ choice.

I’d like to address the three above questions. It’ll be an incomplete analysis, but at least it’s a start in the edutech dialogue.

For what purpose does an educational technology company exist?

All great organizations have members who are introspective and want to exist in order to bring value in a field in which their services are needed. It’s also important for school districts to ask what the purpose is for a service. Finding a product’s necessity is only possible after a district has already answered many important questions, such as: Do we want fully digital curriculum? What, exactly, is a learning management system (LMS)? Do we want our LMS to house student information, take attendance, function as a grade book, and contain district made curriculum? Does the same LMS need to perform all these functions? Is there a difference between an LMS at the school and district level compared with the classroom level? (I’d answer with a resounding ‘yes’ to this last question–more on that in a bit.)

A district can probably grasp why an educational technology company exists, but it’s hard to figure out if the service is necessary, which leads me to the second question:

What do schools and districts really need? 

At a school or district level, the technological services most in need are on four fronts: how to house digital curriculum, how to track student performance on formative assessments, attendance, and a grade book. (I will leave out programs used by payroll and special services, mainly because I’m not familiar with these divisions.)

Digital curriculum: To the chagrin of many, digital curriculum is coming. Districts need to figure out whether they will continue the traditional textbook adoption or transfer to a service that provides content in a web-based solution. Also, will districts create their own curriculum and publish it with the web 2.0 tools that are available for free, or will they pay for curriculum that is created by an outside company?

Student performance: The importance of formative assessments within education may be unparalleled, and it would behoove the school or district that promotes this type of checking for understanding by finding a service that not only assesses students quickly and efficiently, but also provides teachers and principals with easily discernible data that can drive instruction. There’s a lot of wasted PLC hours every school year, and a way to gauge whether or not students are learning is in high demand (or at least should be).

Attendance and grade book: These two are much more straightforward than how to solve the digital curriculum and gauging student performance quandaries. The hard questions lie in how students will be assessed, especially when studies show that grades hinder student learning. (Feedback, on the other hand, it extremely important and not the same as a traditional grade.)

Schools and districts have their work cut out for them. There are no easy answers, but fortunately, I think the answer for what’s needed in the classroom is a lot easier to solve.

What do teachers really need in their classrooms? 

Simply put, they need ‘digital infrastructure’. What I mean is teachers need a way to assign assignments digitally, collect assignments digitally, flip the classroom with video, and administer efficient common formative assessments with an LMS that provides easily discernible data for student achievement. So, if you’re a teacher who’s wondering what’s needed in an LMS, follow this checklist:

  • Does the LMS assign assignments easily?
  • Does the LMS collect assignments easily?
  • Can you provide the students with links to videos–especially videos that can be watched at home?
  • Can you administer common formative assessments easily and share data painlessly with colleagues during your PLC meetings?

If there is a ‘no’ to any of these question, look for another LMS.


This post barely scratches the surface for what’s facing districts, schools, and teachers in regard to educational technology. Nevertheless, the questions posed are necessary when evaluating nascent services that are attempting to capitalize on 1:1 devices trickling into classrooms. There’s a lot at stake, and as always, we need to offer more questions than answers before making big decisions regarding how students will learn and produce work in 2015 and beyond.

LMSs (continued)

I’ve written about Learning Management Systems (LMSs) recently here and here. Both entries contained well-intentioned advice for the makers of LMSs. To round out this LMS trilogy, I’d like to emphasize an aforementioned point, which is again directed at those creating LMSs:

LMSs must be simple to use.

Here’s why: 

  • Teachers are learning a lot this year; the necessary professional development is unprecedented. Common Core, 1:1 implementation, new textbook adoptions (with obligatory technology components), and the many other programs and apps are overwhelming. Throwing a complicated LMS at teachers will only add fuel to a very hot fire.
  • Students are less distracted when the LMS they’re using has fewer embellishments.
  • Many components are unnecessary; believe me when I say no one needs another digital calendar.
  • Fewer bells and whistles means there’s less to add to the mobile or tablet app. This is good because most LMS apps are medicore. Hopefully fewer accessories will make a lot of apps easier to create.
  • Your product will sell better if it’s simple. Less is more. The venture capitalists and technology conglomerates will be happy.

Here’s how LMSs can be simple:

  • When showing information concerning student performance on formative assessments, use a dashboard model. (Personally, I like the doughnut infographic–Edmodo Snapshot seems to be one of the only LMSs that’s gotten this right.) Teachers need a common and simple way to compare student performance. Too many ways to manipulate data–while exciting for data nerds–is anathema to teachers who have just taught a full day.
  • Create a lot of white space and pick good typography.
  • Don’t make it possible for people to do everything on every page. Embed intuitive movement within the LMS’s layout.
  • Make it easy to import students. Easy import makes curriculum and technology specialists happy, which in turn will only benefit you.
  • Create tutorial videos; then be generous and share them on YouTube. In addition, hold weekly webcast seminars. Don’t worry if they’re poorly attended.

If you’re staring an LMS, remember this: It’s easier to start simple and build more features than it is to throw in many features and then slowly take them away. (Google exemplified this well with Classroom, but they caught hell from a lot of people when they discontinued Google Reader.)

LMSs (continued)

Google Classroom is here.

In the world of Learning Management Systems (LMSs), that’s a statement. It’s like saying, “LeBron James is on the court,” or, “Stephen Hawking is in the lecture hall.”

Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken schools by storm, and this is because GAFE consists of free tools that are amazing for completing work. GAFE is a dream for educators everywhere: Students can write essays in Docs. They can take tests in Forms. They can make interactive reports in Slides. They can create graphs in Sheets. They can chat, email, keep a calendar… the list goes on and on.

Did I mention it’s all free? I think I did.

So it’s only natural that Google create their own LMS–and why not? Teachers and students around the world are using GAFE, so it totally makes sense for Google to provide a way for teachers to easily share copies of documents, presentations, spreadsheets, etc. with their classes. Classroom cuts out other middle men (LMSs) and provides a much needed service, which is the infrastructure that classes need for assigning, collecting, and assessing work.

It must be said that Classroom has a bare bones beginning. There’s no assessment tools (I’m not accounting for Forms, of course), there’s no social media component (although Google+ exists for students who are old enough), there’s no “professional feed” to communicate with other teachers around the world, and there’s no common drive to share stuff with Professional Learning Communities. The lack of these features could look like a weakness, but it’s actually a smart move by Google because one of the things teachers in my school district are telling me is that they love Classroom’s simplicity.

This is not a time to overwhelm teachers. With Common Core, 1:1, new curriculum adoptions, and the plethora of teaching websites and apps available, Google was very prudent to keep Classroom simple. What Google can do now is slowly attract teachers who are already using Classroom as their LMS, while in the meantime keeping an eye on the right things other LMSs are doing. Then, Google can slowly adopt those successful strategies within Classroom, which will delight current users and attract new ones. It’s a logical scenario for Google.

So what should other LMSs do? 

It’s a tough question to answer. For the other LMSs that I’ve previously written about, here’s what I’d tell them:

  • Don’t try to out-Google Google. GAFE is amazing, and no one is going to create a product that is anywhere close to its rival–at least not soon.
  • Carve out your niche. Edmodo has Snapshot, which was a great move; especially with the arrival of Common Core. Other LMSs have their specialties, and those need to be highlighted, promoted, and refined throughout this school year.
  • Keep it simple! Teachers are overwhelmed–more so now than ever. Every decision made that complicates a product might as well be a nail in a coffin. Also, keep the interface of your product as simple as possible, and by simple, I mean as few words and buttons as possible. The fewer, the better–follow Google’s lead with Classroom.
  • Create groups of certified teachers. And when you do this, make sure they’re really teachers. Teachers can smell non-teachers a mile away.
  • Engage teachers on Twitter. Combine your product with Twitter, if at all possible. An alliance with Twitter would be the Holy Grail.
  • Show how your product can work hand-in-hand with GAFE. If your product doesn’t work well with GAFE, change that ASAP. You’re not going to create GAFE, so you might as well learn how to dance with ’em.

All of this is, of course, is an extremely simple start.


It’s really important that there be competition in the LMS market; it undeniably benefits the students. Only good things can happen when a lot of smart minds are figuring out the best ways to bring digital infrastructure to 21st century learning.

Everyone who doesn’t have an LMS named “Classroom” has to bring their A game and work hard to attract and keep teachers using their products. As I said before, let the games begin.


Teachers are a loyal group. They find something that works–something they think is going to help kids learn–and they’ll stick with it for a long, long time.

I say this from firsthand experience. All educators want to use what’s most effective. It’s with this in mind, mingled with an interest in technology, that makes me really curious as to what will come out of the Learning Management System (LMS) competition.

My Big Campus. Edmodo. Haiku. Schoology. And, of course, Google Classroom. Mentioning these names one right after the other is like saying: Nike. Reebok. Adidas. New Balance. Under Armor. Etc. They’re all competitors. The difference between LMSs and shoe companies is that the shoe companies have already carved out their niches. New Balance is good for running. Adidas is good for soccer. Nike is good for basketball.

Right now, teachers are figuring out what Edmodo is good for. What My Big Campus is good for. What Haiku is good for. Flags will be thrust into the ground. Land will be claimed, and pretty soon, teachers will create alliances with the LMS of their choice.

Let the games begin.

Explorers and Curators

There are a lot of wonderful educational resources being created; especially now that 1:1 devices are becoming ubiquitous. I’ve spoken with many educators throughout this past school year who’ve been incorporating programs, learning management systems (LMS), websites, apps, and much more in their classrooms. Broadly speaking, I think many teachers can be included in one of two groups:

1. Explorers–These teachers scour the internet, App Store, and blogs to find the latest resources. They implement these new findings in their classrooms and share the results with as many people as possible. Explorers may not stick with a resource for very long, even if it’s good, because there’s so much more to be discovered and tried with the students. Strong allegiances can be made with certain LMSs, apps, websites, etc., but they’re few in number.

2. Curators–These teachers only look at a few resources at a time; then they decide which ones they’ll incorporate. Curators don’t see the need to always search for new programs to use with their students. An LMS, document creating program, and assessment tool are all that are really necessary. Curators become satisfied with a particular way of using technology and get really good at executing its use in the classroom.

Each type has pros and cons, but in reality, Explorers and Curators are both needed within a school district for growth to take place. Explorers find the good stuff, and Curators become really proficient at using the good stuff.

It’s important to avoid the pitfalls both groups pose. Explorers must understand that student learning may not gain traction if new programs are being implemented all the time. This is because instead of learning the subject matter content, students are constantly learning how to navigate new apps, websites, accounts, etc. Curators, on the other hand, need to keep in mind that better ways of doing things are regularly being created. 2014 is not the time to be connected to a handful of programs and cease trying new resources. Sticking with “best-practice” technology is wonderful, but so is switching to the best, most advanced tool of the time.

So, in a nutshell:

Explorers fill up the museum walls with as many pieces of art as possible.
Curators fill up each wall with only a few pieces of very valuable art.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an educator with an interest in technology. With which group do you identify?