We’ve all read the news over the past year, and it’s no longer a surprise that many schools around the country were woefully unprepared for COVID-19. According to one recent survey, nine in 10 educators expect technology to play an increased role in the coming years. But the pandemic made clear that despite dramatic increases in the amount of technology used in schools, all those new tools fell short when it came to actually maintaining an effective learning experience during a global crisis.
As a country, we’re now staring down the barrel of unprecedented learning loss—and grappling with the reality that switching to remote learning was much harder, and much less effective, than we had hoped it would be.
But that hasn’t been the case everywhere. At my own public school district in central Ohio, we’ve been able to keep up a hybrid instructional model since August that has maintained some degree of steadiness amid the chaos. We’ve hit far fewer bumps in the road than many of our peers. And we are often asked: “How did Pickerington manage to weather the storm so well? When did you start planning for this?”
Our Cost-Saving Approach
The answer might sound disheartening at first: Our ability to use technology and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic is no fewer than seven years in the making. But it’s not too late for other schools and districts to start the process themselves.
Our approach to choosing and implementing technology didn’t appear overnight. It started, as good ideas often do, with a mistake.
Several years ago, we spent tens of thousands of dollars on a fancy technology product that, as it turned out, didn’t work very well. It was a gamified math program for our middle schoolers, and on its face, it was a homerun—engaging content, high-quality instruction and a guarantee from the vendor that it was compatible with the network and devices our district was already using. Only after it was too late did we realize we had bought the tool without clearly mapping out how we would use it and determining whether it would actually work with our Chromebooks (it wouldn’t).
We vowed that would never happen again and began brainstorming and building out a solution that would work for us.
We wanted to develop a process that would do two things. First, we wanted to save money. That meant not purchasing software licenses or technology equipment that was incompatible with other products and tools we were already using and planned to keep. It also meant we had to ensure every new purchase was aligned with our curriculum. Second, we needed our technology and curriculum departments to be on the same page, sending the same message to our community of educators, students and families and pursuing the same goals. We had to establish trust and collaboration between the two departments; as part of that, our technology department agreed it would not purchase digital content programs without the approval of the curriculum office.
Now, our instructional technology department and our curriculum department join forces to begin the tech planning process in February for the following school year. Using a detailed process we developed in-house, the two departments get feedback from all stakeholders—classroom educators, IT infrastructure leads, purchasing decision-makers—which helps them decide whether to keep or scrap a given tool. Our teachers will evaluate the technology they’re currently using, propose new software and tools, and then evaluate the new programs that have been proposed. It is critical to the success of this approach that every element—old and new—is reviewed each year.
By the spring, our teachers are already piloting new tools in the classroom to get direct feedback from students and understand whether the new technology does what it says it will—both in terms of student outcomes and interoperability with our existing programs. Come summer, our departments are ready to pull the trigger on actually purchasing technology, and say goodbye to the tools that didn’t make the cut.
It’s a time-consuming process, and one that requires input and collaboration across all sectors of the district. But since we put it into place, we haven’t wasted a cent on education technology.
How It Can Work For You
As we collectively chart a path to recovery from the pandemic, what can other districts learn from Pickerington’s work?
Our success isn’t due to any secret sauce. It’s the result of years of hard work and collaboration—arguments, debates, imagination and discussions that enabled us to get to the heart of what works for our school, in our unique context.
We encourage other districts to start that process themselves, as soon as they’re able. It won’t be easy, particularly with the urgent needs of the pandemic still taking up valuable time and effort. And it will depend on plenty of communication and information-sharing, like the work we’ve done with the EdTech Evidence Exchange to help more schools understand what technologies work in their specific contexts.
The reality is that COVID-19 won’t be the only crisis that schools and districts face in the years and decades to come. And when those new challenges arise, districts that started the process sooner will be ready to rise to meet them.