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Right, Not More: Going further with the right tools

Modern learning is messy, but it doesn’t have to be unmanageable. In this ongoing series, I am inviting you to question the kind of experience technology is providing you and your school community.

The goal is twofold: 1) To offer a framework for evaluating your school’s technology use 2) To provide some processes for maintaining a progressive technology policy. The last post offered some framing thoughts on how to find technology that fits your school's unique culture. This one will focus on going further with the right ed tech.

Everyone needs a chef’s knife. Over the last several years, I have been on a journey to build and expand my cooking skills. No matter which book you read or YouTube channel you follow, the list of essential tools always includes a chef’s knife. You don’t need a complete knife set to start; a chef’s knife will do 90% of the regular slicing and dicing most recipes require.

However, this is a blog about educational practices and while I would happily discuss what I’ve been learning as a cook, I want to co-opt the chef's knife imagery to draw out some parallels in ed tech adoption.  

Getting a chef’s knife didn’t make me a better cook, just as ed tech won’t make better teachers. It also won’t “make” students learn. The chef’s knife is really just a well-suited tool for me to cut more food more effectively. It’s adaptable. It didn’t just allow me to slice chicken fillets better. It gave me better control and allowed me to execute preparation techniques with ease and versatility.

I think the same principle can be applied to educational technology solutions. Used correctly, a few tools can go a long way. I am not advocating a “do more with less” mind set; cheap and limited is still cheap and limited. Instead, I want to propose the mantra: go further with the right tools.  

Hopefully, the benefits are clear: teachers do not have time to know all the features of numerous tools. Time lost to “trying to remember where that one setting is” is a real peril. I lost more time than I’d care to admit trying to learn Adobe Premiere on the go in order to incorporate it into a unit I taught last year. There’s also practical considerations when it comes to data privacy. Remembering which tool you used to create a particular assessment or finding a way to bring all of the tools used in a given unit together also present some tactical difficulties. I don’t want to only present problems or a generic, trite solution. Here is a straightforward process for getting the most out of a few tools and discovering the right tool.

Prioritise Your Top Activities

What are your top three to five teaching activities?  In other words, what tasks do you complete most frequently? As a teacher, my list might look something like this: 

  1. Teaching lessons
  2. Planning lessons
  3. Assessing student work
  4. Communicating with others (staff, parents, etc)

These top activities likely occupy what feels like 99% of your time as well. It’s making time for the rest that keeps teachers giving 110%. I haven’t necessarily ranked the items in my list. The exact ranking is less important though. Regardless of ranking, my day will be spent between some combination of these activities.

My suggestion: find a tool that will help you accomplish most if not all of these in some manner. Think chef’s knife. What technology might allow you to accomplish most, if not all, of these activities?

 

 Option A  

 Option B  

 Option C  

 Top Activity 1    

     

 Top Activity 2

     

 Top Activity 3

     

 Top Activity 4

     

 Top Activity 5

     

Before you start to think of this approach as a “silver bullet” hunt, let’s use Firefly as an example. How many of those top four activities could I accomplish? Using the planner, I can jot down a few notes for myself to guide each lesson. I can easily prepare in detail and teach those lessons from the variety of page types available to me. I can centralise my content into one location and embed activities. The single sign-on partnership with Google and embeddable tools like Quizlet, Youtube or Kahoot! simplifies this task immensely. With the range of native and embeddable tools, I can also flexibly collect, assess and feedback on student work. Assessment could be accomplished through traditional assignment submissions or through student-created blog portfolios.

Lastly, I can keep parents in the loop on most topics; parents can access student lesson content and academic progress as well as essential school forms and other tactical information through the parent portal. To varying degrees, I can address all of my top four activities. In other words, my energy would be well spent learning to use Firefly.

Firefly doesn’t solve all of my problems though. For instance, I still need to communicate privately with parents and other school community members. Email is likely best suited to that kind of task given its functionality. I now have a clearly defined purpose for adopting my tools though. As a teacher, I know when and why I am using Firefly and when I need to use other tools. My point is simple: using one tool streamlines or enhances the majority of my working day. What does your “chef knife” need to do for you?      

Do Your Homework

If you think you have some new ed tech in mind that will support your top activities, you are well on your way. It’s worth doing your homework though to ensure you can make use of the tech in the long term. Cost, data management, communication and time investment are my essential criteria when making the final call. A word on each: 

Cost

What will it cost to purchase?  If there is a free version, is it functional enough? Some of the best tools (or their best features) often have recurring costs such as monthly subscriptions. If it really is your all-purpose chef’s knife, it probably is worth an investment. Be sure you know where you’ll find the funding.

Data Management

What information does the technology store? How will the information be used? This an exercise in personal safety as well as GDPR compliance. Can you, other staff, parents and students collaborate, comment on or message using the tool? Where is that information recorded? How long is it held? These kinds of questions caused my most recent school to change some of its policies on collaborative tools; to avoid issues of cyberbullying, student interactions on a site had to be stored long term somewhere for teacher access. These kinds of questions might seem out of your comfort zone, so don’t hesitate to enlist your IT manager or other technicians to assist you.

Platform Communication

Does the tool work with other tools? For instance, Firefly integrates with your school’s MIS and a host of other tools. As needed, does the tool allow you to engage critical parts of the school community - teachers, students and parents? While you are in the market for a chef’s knife, you still have to keep the kitchen in mind.

Time Investment

The thing about chef’s knives is that a little technique goes a long way. A change in my hand grip and cutting motion allows for a variety of cuts. Applying this analogy again to educational technology. Knowing your tech allows you to get more out of it. That said, some tech takes more time to learn. You want a tool that is powerful but easy to get going. The more intuitive, the better. Think about how many hours you would need to feel comfortable.

Your criteria might be a little different or more comprehensive than what I’ve identified above. By identifying these criteria, you will be making sure there aren’t any barriers to long term use.

One Final Thought

I bought a paring knife several months after purchasing a chef’s knife.  A chef’s knife can’t do everything after all. When I bought the paring knife, I knew exactly what it would help me do. Finding your “chef’s knife” ed tech not only helps you with most day to day tasks. With a bit of implementation, it also pinpoints exactly what you will need to look for when adopting more specialised tools. The result: purpose-driven tools rather than tool-driven strategies and implementation.

In this blog series, I’ve written a lot about strategy and tool selection. In a few weeks, I’ll turn the corner to answer a final question: How do we adopt new edtech without it just becoming window dressing?  I’ll be unpicking the work habits and expectations that maximise the potential for technology to impact your school positively. 

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