6 One person’s guide to evaluating educational technologies

This post is intended to get us started thinking a little more broadly about technologies for the classroom. While we should never get to the point where we simply pick a technology and then go about trying to fit it into our practice, one does need to get some sense of what is available in order to be able to make good choices. Learning by exploring is one thing, reinventing the wheel is something else.

So far
This course is premised on working with three of what I consider to be the most important technologies you can use in education – blogging (wordpress) for reflection, a networking tool (twitter) for connection, and googledocs for curation. There are other uses for these technologies and lots of other technologies that you could choose to work with, but these three themes, reflection, connection and curation are key to understanding the challenges and opportunities the web presents for education.

By exploring our own reactions and following along with those of our colleagues, we get a fairly broad sense of how people respond to the use of collaborative technologies in the classroom. The general response is usually somewhere between ‘i’m overwhelmed’ and ‘wow, there’s so much out here’. In some sense it’s almost the same response.

There’s also another critical lesson you’ve probably come across – the technology is going to fail on you. Login problems, mail problems and twitter problems. These will happen. You just need to accept that and not get flustered. Fifty years ago flat tires were an accepted part of travel… think of this the same way… and bring a spare.

A networked beginning
My favourite way to look for technologies is to ask my network. I’ve had my network for a fair while now, and many of them are professionals that use a fair number of technologies, so that is going to be easier for me at the outset. These are the points where your investment in building a community really come to help.

It is much easier to find a suitable technology for any task when you have the name of a specific version of that technology to start with. If you can get someone you trust to tell you that they have a technology that they feel comfortable to recommend, you have an anchor to do the rest of your searching.

Let me give you an example. Lets say you want your students to blog and you don’t know what specific technology you should choose. Imagine a googlesearch

educational technology blog

Now try another google search

educational technology blog wordpress

I feel pretty comfortable recommending wordpress. It’s excellent software. Including it in your search is *likely* to bring up better results. Having an anchor to start your search, a point of trust, can be extremely useful. It will not always workout perfectly, but networks can be a great way to get started looking for information on choosing technologies and looking for tips on using them well.

But, in this case, it’s probably still going to get you a bunch of wordpress blogs about education. You might try to add a few more keywords. ‘Review’ is a good keyword. When all else fails, try to add the full thing your looking for “choose a blog for the classroom” to the end and see what comes up. Try things like ‘is awesome’ or ‘sucks’ or ‘for teaching’. Use your imagination… what might someone want to say about it… and they probably have. This can also be an EXCELLENT way of building your own network. Add keywords relevant to your field to the search, and you may find people like you out there doing similar work.

The ‘top five/ten/100 best list’
While many people scoff at top ‘whatever’ lists there are some excellent ones out there and they can be very useful places to start. I can’t be mean enough not to give you my favourite one – check out Jane Hart. Finding a list like this can be an excellent way to start, and then using a few of the keywords from that list can allow you to connect to people’s personal reflections on how they used them in their classroom. So… no. 1 is twitter… go to google and say

using twitter in the adult classroom

You may need to play around with the language… but these kinds of journey’s both serve to allow you to find new people and see what other people’s experiences are. Get used to using the ‘more search tools’ button on google. You might only want results from the last year for instance, to save you getting information from outdated software.

Getting ‘good at the internet’ takes time. But the investment is worth it when you’re in a hurry and need to get your job done properly.

Evaluating them for yourself
At the end of the day, a piece of software has to work for you. Dean Shareski, who is awesome, loves Prezi. I hate it. I know that he’s wrong about his love of prezi, but he doesn’t seem to understand it. In this field (as in many others) one expert’s love is another’s nemesis. We are all different and our styles suit different approaches. As you go on, you’ll get a better sense of what you like and don’t like, but my advice is that you shouldn’t use something in your classroom if it doesn’t suit you. Play with it first, try to do something useful with it, but if it doesn’t work for you… don’t use it… even if other people like it. Keep an open mind, but understand, that like most things, you have to please yourself.

I’ve been practicing software evaluation for 12 years or so, and I often have strong feelings one way or the other just by looking at it. Like anything we learn by experience, it can sometimes be difficult to explain what we’re noticing. Here are some of the things i like to think about when i consider a technology:

  1. Does it look scary? Will my students find it intimidating?
  2. What happens to the work in this technology when the course is finished? Will I have it, or will the student have it?
  3. How long will it take someone to learn it? Will I have time during class for them to learn it? Is it worth my student’s time to learn it?
  4. Does the technology have other practical benefits for my students? Does it have broad applicability?
  5. Are there privacy concerns that we should be worrying about?
  6. Do I know other reputable people who have used it? What are they saying about it?
  7. How stable is it? How easy is it to ‘do the wrong thing’?
  8. What does it ‘do to the work’? Does it force us to think/work in an ‘unnatural’ way?

Nasty answers to any of these questions aren’t necessarily deal breakers, but two or three bad answers probably is.

Final note
Common sense, as always, is the best guide. If a piece of software promises too many things – distrust it. DO NOT allow students to put information into software you don’t trust!