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So, you want to evaluate a technology tool?

By Darryl Joyner
April 22, 2019
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In the world of instructional technology, evaluating tech tools is widely misunderstood. School districts are under pressure to quantify the impact of technology integration on student achievement.

And that can lead to districts trying to draw a direct line between student achievement and a tool. Community members often ask, "Where is the data that shows that this works?" or "How do these devices raise test scores?" 

These questions are certainly important, and I understand that parents and school leaders want to see their children meet their highest potential. However, there is this inconvenient truth: That is not how tools are measured.

Let me explain.

Imagine that you go for a walk in your neighborhood and you choose a street you’ve never been on. As you turn a corner, you see a house that makes your heart skip a beat. In fact, you've never seen a house so exceptional. You decide then and there to sell your house and build a new one.

With reckless abandon, you head for the front door. You ring the bell, and when the owner answers, you ask: "What kind of hammers, saws and drills were used to build this home? I need to know what tools to buy so I can build a home just as beautiful as this one."

The homeowner gives you a confused look and slowly closes the door.

Tools are ancillary

Undaunted, you go out to dinner to celebrate this exciting event. After a delicious meal, you have the most incredible chocolate soufflé. You see the head chef in the dining room talking to guests and wave her over. "I absolutely loved the soufflé, and I'd really like to make one at home. What kind of pots, spoons and measuring cups did you use to make it?" The chef gives you a look that’s oddly familiar and slowly backs away.

Now these examples might seem silly, because hammers and pots are merely tools, and tools aren’t directly responsible for an outcome. Tools don't work like that. 

So, now imagine the average school classroom. You will find tools like pencils, paper, books, rulers, all the way up to interactive whiteboards and laptops. It is impossible to draw a direct line from any of those tools to student achievement.

The reason lies with two very important words: "primary” and "ancillary." In the examples above, the craftsmanship of the architect, builders and chef is primary in that the outcomes are a direct result of their ability to use various tools. The tools are ancillary in that they merely support the craftsmanship and skill of the individuals.

They don't serve a purpose until they are incorporated into a well-designed task. OK, I can hear your frustration. "Are you saying that there is no way to truly evaluate a tool?" 

Absolutely not. However, it's important that you are evaluating the correct criteria. Tools are measured by a very simple guiding question: To what degree does it perform the task that it is made to perform? 

It's just that simple. To what degree does the architect's adjustable triangle help to draw straight lines? To what degree do the chef's pots efficiently conduct heat? To what degree do digital devices help students to collaborate? To what degree do they make it easy for teachers to collect formative data and  give students choice when learning new content?

Tools create new possibilities

You should never ask, "To what degree do adjustable triangles and nail guns create beautiful houses?" Nor should you ask, "To what degree does a digital device lead to student achievement?" Again, that's not how tools work.

Simply put, all tools help us create new possibilities. Those possibilities are either in the form of something that would not exist without the tool, like high-speed travel that sprang from the combustion engine, or they are a new efficiency that improves on an existing solution, such as the transition from typesetting to the typewriter to the word processor.

For students, new possibilities create a ripple effect. And this effect is clearly represented in the ISTE Standards for Students. Digital tools are so flexible that they can help students become empowered learners who can demonstrate content mastery by creating a video, programming an animation or sharing their artwork with the world.

Digital tools also provide such multi-modality allowing students to be creative communicators and share their thoughts and ideas with a global audience.

What’s more, imagine the innovative designer who uses CAD programs to design prototypes as part of a cyclical design process.

And consider the knowledge constructor who can use digital tools to curate endless amounts of digital content and test for accuracy, credibility and relevance.

Teachers, not tools, drive learning

In short, when integrated properly, technology tools can fundamentally transform the learning experience for students.

Student achievement is vitally important, and we should be constantly evaluating everything that has an impact on it. But make no mistake, when you are measuring student outcomes, you are in fact evaluating the teaching.

You are evaluating the degree to which the curriculum, teaching strategies and overall pedagogy resulted in students' ability to grasp new content and display new mastery. Frankly, this is the discussion that we should all be having.

If you are looking for a direct link between instructional tools and instructional outcomes, I urge you to shift your thinking. Instead, ask these questions:

  • To what degree is the design and implementation of teaching and learning best meeting the needs of my child?
  • To what degree can my child's learning environment allow her to have choice in deciding her own learning path?
  • To what degree is my child able to leverage his strengths in demonstrating his understanding of new content?

If we can shift our thinking to analyzing what directly impacts student achievement, we will be one giant step closer to ensuring that all students are able to achieve to their greatest potential.

Darryl Joyner is the instructional technology integration analyst with Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. He has over 20 years of experience in the edtech field.