EdTech Developer’s Guide – 10 Opportunities
The Office of Eduational Technology just published a developer’s guide on behalf of US Department of Education, it’s called “A primer for software developers, startups, and entrepreneurs”.
Opportunities abound for software designers and developers to create impactful tools for teachers, school leaders, students, and their families. This guide for developers, startups and entrepreneurs addresses key questions about the education ecosystem and highlights critical needs and opportunities to develop digital tools and apps for learning. Crowd-sourced from knowledgeable educators, developers, and researchers who were willing to share what they have learned, this guide is designed to help entrepreneurs apply technology in smart ways to solve persistent problems in education.
Ten opportunities for technology to transform teaching & learning
- Improving mastery of academic skills
- Developing skills to promote lifelong learning
- Increasing family engagement
- Planning for future education opportunities
- Designing effective assessments
- Improving educator professional development
- Improving educator productivity
- Making learning accessible to all students
- Closing opportunity gaps
- Closing achievement gaps
The demand for high-quality educational apps is increasing as communities become more connected, devices become more affordable, and teachers and parents are looking for new ways to use technology to engage students. —Richard Culatta
Citation: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, Washington, D.C., 2015.
What would work?
Improving mastery of academic skills
Create apps to teach academic skills in more meaningful ways than traditional textbooks and lectures. Give learners an opportunity to practice in realistic settings. This might be done through interactive simulations (e.g., models of ancient cities that allow students to experience history or virtual chemistry simulations that might be unsafe to reproduce in a classroom). Think beyond delivering content—are there tools that enable students to build and create projects that encourage deeper exploration of a particular topic? Consider merging teaching and assessing to pinpoint knowledge gaps along the way to mastery through probes of understanding or by identifying competencies through formative assessments that are seamlessly embedded in the learning materials. New forms of media such as educational games can break traditional molds, allowing students more freedom to explore, create, and collaborate, and can open the door to more immersive learning experiences. While research has been conducted to identify effective teaching methods for just about every subject, those methods don’t always make it into practice in the classroom. Creating apps that put research-based methods into practice can greatly impact instruction and learning.
Developing Skills to Promote Lifelong Learning
Identify which non-cognitive skills and behaviors you are trying to develop and build opportunities to do so into your apps. Growth mindset, for example, is more likely when students believe they can achieve and when they believe that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed (see Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth intelligence mindsets). Accordingly, an app might frame mistakes as opportunities to learn and reward students who persist through solving difficult problems. It might also support goal setting, allow students to choose learning activities, and encourage achievement against objective standards. To improve self-regulation, students may be asked to reflect on their effort and to consider how difficult they find the material. Apps that reward hard work and tenacity should be favored over those that reinforce simply getting the right answer in order for students to advance to a new level. Game designers are particularly adept at motivating persistence, and much can be learned from the methods they use to inspire players to persevere in the face of difficulty and frustration. Finally, behavior management is an important non-cognitive skill. Teachers, especially those new to the profession, may need help establishing a productive classroom environment and climate (see this article on Classroom Management from the American Psychological Association), and classroom management apps could reward positive behaviors, potentially decreasing unwanted behaviors.
Increasing Family Engagement
Familiarize yourself with ways to engage families (some ideas are provided by the Response to Intervention Action Network article) and then think about how to apply those principles to engage families through technology. For instance, could your app provide information to caregivers about student progress and homework in near real time and in languages spoken at home? Can your tool be used on a smartphone or in an offline mode for homes without an Internet connection? Does it help parents stay involved in their children’s school activities while balancing work or other responsibilities? For parents whose first language is not English or who may come from cultures outside the United States, can your app better help them understand and navigate the K–12 school system, including their local school?
Planning for Future Education Opportunities
Financial aid navigators, course planners, remote college counseling, and college-to-career maps all can help students plan for and be successful in their future education plans. Additionally, new tools and apps targeted at helping school counselors could increase both the reach and amount of support counselors can provide students (on average, half the number of counselors are available to high school students as is recommended by the American School Counselor Association). Additionally, open state and federal datasets can be used to create apps for managing college finances and to identify skills needed for different types of jobs. Imagine a “jobs available at graduation” tool that uses labor statistics about job growth. Also needed are tools that interface with college course catalogs and let students interactively plan various paths to college completion. Imagine an app that lets students identify and communicate with alumni of the institution that they are attending (or plan to attend) in fields that interest them so they can gain perspective and advice.
Designing Effective Assessments
Technology provides a variety of new opportunities to rethink the way we assess student learning. Tools that help teachers create and share formative assessments, automate grading, and streamline providing feedback to students allow teachers to focus more of their time on instruction. Expanding assessment item types (beyond multiple choice questions, etc.) can provide educators with a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of what their students know and can do. Simulations, heat maps, and ranking are all examples of technology-enhanced assessment item types that are beginning to be incorporated into digital assessments. Traditionally, education has struggled to develop meaningful assessments that measure non-cognitive skills such as persistence, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. (For more information on these skills, see the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework for Learning.) Consider creating tools that help develop and assess these kinds of skills. Aligning assessments with learning goals is crucial to success. Make sure you clearly understand what you are measuring. It is crucial to measure what is important not simply what is easy to measure.
Improving Educator Professional Development
Tools to help connect educators to one another and to expert educational researchers are key to effective professional learning in a digital world. In addition, educators need job-embedded, differentiated, and on-demand access to content that supports their mastery of effective instruction. To be of greatest use, resources to support educators in their professional learning might include ones that:
• connect educators with each other and to educational experts
• help teachers reflect on their own practice
• provide educators support to master new strategies, techniques and tools
• are available on-demand
• differentiate for a range of levels of readiness and expertise
• curate content so teachers can find appropriate support and ideas quickly
• showcase content-specific best practices
Finally, any tools built for teacher professional development should be designed according to principles of adult learning and foster a growth mindset similar to the concepts explained above for student learning. The Connected Educators web page features several channels and tools for helping educators connect to colleagues across the country.
Improving Educator Productivity
Apps and tools to help teachers streamline workflow, personalize instruction, support needs of diverse students, create and share lessons, and communicate efficiently with parents and other stakeholders can all help productivity. To most effectively adjust instruction, teachers need to track student progress and identify areas of struggle. Student performance data are becoming increasingly available to teachers in real time, but without tools to help make sense of the data or quickly identify important trends, it can be too time consuming for teachers to find the value. Design tools that organize data visually for easier interpretation. Especially for new teachers, tools that make it easier to discover, modify, and share learning resources aligned with curricular standards would be a huge time-saver.
Making Learning Accessible to All Students
Think about the human-machine interface you are building. Are there multiple ways for users to interact with and respond within your app? Could a user control your app by voice? Will it interoperate with a screen reader? Does it take advantage of accessibility settings in device operating systems? Does your app support varying levels of complexity, interaction, and support? Making your content accessible is good. Solving fundamental access problems in communication, organization, and social interaction is better. Features that customize the delivery of learning must not clutter or confuse the delivery itself, and so developers may place such settings or controls within a separate functional area of the tool.
Closing Opportunity Gaps
While recent years have seen an increase in the amount of open education resources (OER), many teachers lack the training or time to comb through and evaluate them. The creation of pathways for the curation of content verified for quality and standards alignment and the sharing of curated sets or playlists would alleviate unnecessary stress on teachers and increase the availability of low-cost, high-quality learning materials for all. Additionally, tools designed to help students and teachers access expertise in all areas from curricular content to improved teaching practices could help better leverage the usefulness of Internet connectivity. Finally, be mindful of equity of technical accessibility when designing products. Users on slower systems should be able to access and experience an application or service with the same ease as those using more cutting-edge technology.
Closing Achievement Gaps
Everything we have discussed to this point can make a difference: helping teachers, involving parents, strengthening non-cognitive skills, targeting academic subjects, and improving accessibility help to promote equal education opportunities for all students. Illustrating how your product helps to achieve these goals while working to close gaps in achievement makes it more compelling to educators and more likely to succeed in schools.