Technology, in its many forms, has been present in the classroom since the introduction of the blackboard, followed decades later by the overhead projector. Now, in our digital age, classroom environments can always be connected to the internet, and educators need to make choices about both hardware and software.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for students to be digitally fluent and have adequate access to devices and broadband internet at school and at home. The pandemic certainly fuelled the market for educational technology providers to market their hardware and software to Canadian school boards.
Schools make considerable financial investments each year in technology. Each contract has its own terms and conditions which must be accepted for teachers and students to use the devices or services. My research focuses on how educational technologies make their way into classrooms, and the decision-making processes school boards use to select and implement technologies.
For the sake of quality education, student safety and well-being it’s important that school administrators and parents or guardians are in dialogue about basic frameworks and guiding principles related to selecting technology for schools. Many of these principles about technology and learning are also applicable for parents who may be considering purchasing technology at home for student learning.
Here, I propose four considerations when selecting technology to support teaching and learning.
1. Why technology?
Consumers experience relentless pressures to purchase. Commercial and marketing events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday contribute to creating an appeal for new hardware. Thoroughly considering why technology should be chosen and how it integrates with learning can help decision-makers choose which technology is most valuable or crucial to teaching and learning.
One model that can help these decisions is developed by education and technology researcher Ruben Puentedura. His SAMR Model stands for substitution (Does the technology act as a direct substitute?); augmentation (Does it augment existing learning?); modification (Does it modify existing learning?) or redefinition (Does it redefine what happens in classrooms?).
For example, collaboratively working on a cloud-based document in groups that are in different locations could not be done without technology. This example shows modification or redefinition as it shifts how students collaborate.
Identifying if the technology is critical to the learning and how exactly it fits is a good first step in determining if there is a need for it.
A vast variety of hardware devices run different operating systems. There are also many different software options. These factors, together, increase the potential of incompatibility.
When selecting hardware, one crucial decision is choosing between a hand-held or portable device, such as a tablet or a laptop computer. It’s important to note that tablets and laptops use different operating systems. Not all pieces of software will work equally well on all devices.
In efforts to overcome this potential incompatibly, many tools are now browser based. For example, web and video math tutorial systems can be accessed via a web browser rather than downloaded and installed on a device, reducing their dependence on certain types of hardware. This can increase their compatibility but there may still be limitations on some platforms.
Knowing which software and tools educators plan to use use, and investigating their requirements, can help when choosing devices.
Another compatibility factor to consider is the integration with the school’s existing technology infrastructure. For example, a Chromebook running Chrome OS is heavily reliant on the Google Apps ecosystem. It wouldn’t be well-suited to an environment that is already using Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams for the collaborative environment.
Likewise, a school board which is using the Google Workspace for Education (formerly G Suite for Education) will benefit from devices and software designed to work in the Google ecosystem, which include options like signing in with your Google account.
There are many factors to consider with access. A key one is how people can log in and connect to services and networks whether at school or at home: Will the learners have to create accounts to access a tool that is being used? Can they access the tool using their existing school credentials?
In the classroom, logging in to a tool can be time consuming, especially for younger students. At home, if the student doesn’t know their username or password for a particular tool, this becomes a barrier.
Tools that don’t require users to log in are potentially easier to use and more accessible. But they are much less useful for teachers for tracking individual progress and assessment.
Tools that require credentials to be accessed should ideally use a single set of credentials or single sign on process.
Not having access to a physical device and broadband internet are also potential impediments. Some school boards have tried to equalize access by providing devices to all students. This can help in the schools but it doesn’t overcome the inequitable access to broadband internet across Canadian communities.
4. Data privacy and security
Mitigating all potential vulnerabilities and data breaches should certainly be a leading factor for school board administrators. As with all things digital, there are concerns over privacy, ownership of and access to data.
Studies suggest that very few of us read the terms and conditions that come with new software or platforms. However, when it comes to consenting for minors and entering minors into relationships with software companies, a more critical eye is required.
It is important to be aware of who has access to the information learners create and to have a clear understanding of who the students can communicate with and how. Always check if there are any moderation or filtering settings available. Students shouldn’t be using platforms for education that allow uninhibited communication with other users outside of their classes or schools.
While there are many factors that can influence how educators decide what technology to implement for students, these four key considerations are a place to begin.