Friday / December 8

Neat, Nice, and Need-to-Have Technology in the Classroom

Neat, Nice, and Need-to-Have Technology in the Classroom

We have a created a monster. This was my conclusion after wandering another vendor floor at a recent education conference. A corporate monster that offers us solutions to issues that we didn’t even know that we had. It offers solutions for engagement, organization, literacy, numeracy, software, hardware, data privacy, and more. Too many in education are becoming convinced that forces outside of schools can solve the achievement issues inside their learning spaces.

While we need partners in learning, rarely do we need the latest technology to make our schools whole. So how do we digest the e-mails, phone calls, webinars, white papers, and vendor halls that claim to be the Oz of educational solutions? It is nearly impossible to keep up with the latest ideas in educational technology. Even those of us dedicated to bringing innovation to the classroom can get swallowed by the noise of the new in the market. Having a system for noticing, reviewing, storing, retrieving, and using all of the elements that are available is essential.

With this in mind, consider that there is a natural life cycle to the multitude of education technology solutions that have existed and do exist today, and understanding this natural journey for tools, tips, and tricks can help to make sense of things.

Lots of education technology elements enter the market with a splash. There is a wow factor that surrounds a new product with marketing that claims it is revolutionary, better than a competitor, or unique in the market. This can cause early adopters to purchase these items and post about them on social media, creating a buzz that ripples into classrooms and schools. This creates a reinforcing loop which gives companies testimonials that they can use to market their product and create a second layer of penetration into the market.

This cycle continues until there is a realization that the current version of this tool, tip or trick is in the NEAT-to-have phase of education technology implementation. This can be seen with items like 3D printers, robotics, personalized learning software, and learning management systems.

This NEAT-to-have phase is where some pieces of the education technology peak, and it is where others make a transition. If you want to know if something is in this phase, ask yourself three questions.

  1. Have you actually seen it used for learning?
  2. Is there a connection to deeper learning principles?
  3. Are students and parents talking about it?

None of these questions is perfect, but they give you a sense about whether a product is stalled in its NEAT-to-have phase or whether it has started to move into a NICE-to-have phase.

There are tons of tools, tips and tricks that are incredibly nice to have in schools. They are the elements that students and teachers use each day to allow students to create, make, and design. They are the elements that make communication more efficient. They are the things being used to raise engagement, provide enrichment, and grow excitement about learning.

NICE-to-have items are spreading around schools. They become a teacher’s favorite. They are in toolbox ready to pull out in different situations. NICE-to-have educational technology is often used by both the innovators and the early adopters. Depending on the school, NICE-to-have items begin to saturate into a school at levels over 50% over the course of two years.

NICE-to-have technology tools, tips, and tricks still have some blind spots even though they can become blockbuster revenue generators for companies. These elements may help teachers teach, grow, or get excited about their work (all of which are truly important), but they may lack the ability to truly move the needle on learning. It is important to note that moving the needle on learning isn’t about old, legacy success metrics like test scores either, but focused on a variety of data points that can showcase growth in students to be more college, career, or citizen ready.

Ask yourself these questions to see if you are dealing with a NICE-to-have education technology element or a NEED-to-have element.

  1. Is using this element a true amplifier of learning?
  2. Do students request to use this tool because they recognize how much it supports learning?
  3. Are you seeing a wide range of people showcasing how they are using this tool in the classroom during excellent learning moments?

The final stage for educational technology tools, tips, and tricks is NEED-to-have elements. These are the gold standard pieces that have been forged by fire in classrooms, used consistently to change learning, and continue to be iterated by the companies that created them.

There are very few NEED-to-have items. In some cases, there are multiple items in the same category that get over the bar, and in these cases, schools have to think about partner relationships with companies as well as the fit and needs of the district. NEED-to-have items are sensitive to feedback loops. They are usually made by companies that understand the difficulties of teaching and leading in a digital age. Most need-to-have items age into their quality over time and make steady penetration into the market until they become the standards upon which the next innovators are building their product.

NEED is a scary label to place on any items as the speed of change in the market can bump many of these high flying options off their perch quickly. Ask yourself these things about NEED-to-have tools, tips, and tricks.

  1. Has this element significantly changed learning in classrooms around the country?
  2. Are there products better than this one on the market that you have seen?
  3. Will this product continue to change the way that learning happens?

The speed and pace of change will not be set to slow very soon. As stewards of excellent resources, think about how recognizing where tools, tips, and tricks are in the journey of education technology integration. Having a sense of whether they are NEAT, NICE, or NEED will allow you to prioritize, prescribe, and prepare to use the right items at the right maturation for the right types of learning for all students.

Written by

Dr. Robert Dillon serves the students and community of the Affton School District as Director of Technology and Innovation. Prior to this position, he served as a teacher and administrator in public schools throughout the Saint Louis area. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. He looks for ways to ignite positive risk taking in teachers and students and release trapped wisdom into the system by growing networks of inspired educators. Dr. Dillon serves Secretary of Innovation for Connected Learning, a Saint Louis based organization designed to reshape professional development to meet today’s needs. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak throughout the country at local, state, and national conferences as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is supported by his wife and two daughters, and spends the remainder of his time running and cycling.

Bob is the author of Leading Connected Classrooms: Engaging the Hearts and Souls of Learners and Redesigning Learning Spaces.

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