When it comes to purchasing new technology, today’s K-12 leaders face a delicate balancing act. On one hand, their communities expect them to provide mobile devices and digital content for all students. On the other hand, budgets are either flat or up only slightly. Here, a supervisor of curriculum and instruction and an IM-IT coordinator share their perspectives on how cross curricular digital resources can save money and help teachers.
Daniel O’Keefe, Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction
Haworth Public School (NJ)
We generally purchase new curriculum products every 3+ years given the cycle of rewriting. Our budget has more or less stayed the same for several years, so cost weighs heavily in our purchasing decisions. We try to consider the scope of our programming: What can we reduce? What can we share? Does a service truly meet our needs and represent where we want to go as a district?
These days, curriculum products and technology are really intertwined. STEM, for instance, should be embedded; and embedded in standards for social studies and ELA is digital literacy.
So when I am looking for new curriculum products, I do my research, ask key teachers their thoughts and needs, and try a pilot. I’ll also ask my colleagues in peer districts if they have any experience with it or what they are doing. If the pilot team’s consensus is positive, then we try to see if there is budget for it.
When I’m looking at hardware to use in the classroom, the evaluation process is similar. I couple my observations with teachers’ reports and experiences. I also try to ask students’ impressions of any hardware they may be using.
Whether looking for hardware or software, I am always looking for vendors that offer PD for teachers that is sustained, embedded, and measurable. Any kind of support that is continuous but also targeted is always positive.
I am HUGE on interdisciplinary and cross-content connection. It is not just “nice to have,” it is essential because of the way our kids’ brains are wired. For this reason, any product that makes connection across traditional subject boundaries as one of its guiding principles automatically gets my attention! For example, right now we are piloting Kids Discover Online, an interactive, digital library of science and social studies content. This pilot is significant because, as we move towards Next Generation Science Standards and a potential pilot of a new middle school social studies, there are going to be points to discuss where the connections between science and social studies are, both in terms of skill and content. Kids Discover Online has played a valuable role in our discussions because its platform features a visual web that shows how topics are connected to different areas. Any technology that facilitates cross-curricular thinking is highly useful in promoting those discussions and in turn helps teachers plan with connecting to other areas in mind.
When evaluating any purchase, I tend to think of the long term, especially if the benefits are projected to be lasting. Good instruction doesn’t change with the times as technology does, so as long as the tools stay true to what good teaching is and always will be, I will push for it.
Daniel Sitter, IM-IT Coordinator
School District of North Fond du Lac (WI)
Library budgets in Wisconsin are funded through Common School Funds (CSF). For the last few years, CSF have actually increased slightly, after staying stagnant or slightly declining in previous years.
Still, cost is always on my mind. The cost-to-usage ratio for many products in curriculum is not always easy to determine, especially in larger districts. For small districts as well, finding the sweet spot between what is cost-effective and how well the tools are implemented is a challenge that I think many coordinators/libraries/administrators struggle with. That being said, if a product costs us a lot up front but can provide a better learning experience for staff and students, we’ll find the money.
We utilize devices in a 1:1 setting here in North Fond du Lac, so there really isn’t much in curriculum that we can’t support with some form of technology. I prefer products that can be used across the curriculum. Having something that only works for math is fine, but the more the product can do, the more likely I’m going to give it a try.
I really prefer products that are hosted on the web. Anything that requires me to run a server to host the service somehow limits what I can do on a district scale most of the time. I prefer to let the IT department keep up the network and machines, not worry about curriculum products.
We buy new products perhaps one to two times a year. When evaluating new curriculum products, I ask four key questions:
- 1. What’s the ease of setup?
- 2. Does it function as a tool for teachers to quickly and easily implement into their classrooms, making it better for staff and students?
- 3. Is there much of a learning curve in utilization? No matter how great the tool, if an average teacher cannot quickly grasp the utility of it, it won’t get used in the classroom.
- 4. Does it integrate into our current systems, especially Google Apps for Education? Single sign-on is integral to letting our students and staff manage just one account to access all of the services provided by the district.
On the hardware side, the four questions are different:
- 1. Can it stand up to kids’ abuse? We use iPads and Chromebooks, so the top item we look for is durability, as well as parts and repair costs when something breaks down.
- 2. How’s the battery life?
- 3. Can it run the programs we need it to run?
- 4. If two items have similar features, which is going to cost the least to procure and maintain?
Once I’ve made a purchase, I look to vendors to check in regularly to make sure things are running smoothly. For example, they should have a usage report available so I can easily track how much the product is being utilized and determine its long-term effectiveness.