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Education Technology Leadership: 9 Questions District Tech Directors Should Ask About Any New Program

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 -- Sean McDonough

District and school technology administrators are asked to fill many roles in leveraging technology in schools. In this series, we are taking a look at how edtech leaders are meeting behind-the-scenes challenges of digital learning. In the first installment, we introduced managing IT concerns in education.

When it comes to selecting and implementing edtech, there’s a long list of important considerations to take into account. And, every stakeholder in the process has a different priority list. Teachers are concerned with making sure that the program will hold students’ interest and save them time in their day-to-day process; your superintendent and school board members are all about aggregated data on student progress; the curriculum director is wrapped up in standards alignment; and building administrators are thinking through the training and professional development that will be needed to make the initiative a success. As a technology administrator, all of these individuals will be looking to you for answers once implementation is in motion (whether or not they’re including you in their conversations now). Here are nine of the most important questions you should be asking now to make sure that your district is selecting the right program—and that you and your IT team are well-prepared to support the implementation.

1. What technical requirements does this program have?

While a vast majority of programs are now completely web-based, it’s still important to confirm that there is no need to install software or hardware. Keep in mind that many web-based programs do require plug-ins like Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, or Java or Microsoft Office–compatible software for optimal functioning. Also, make sure that web-based solutions are compatible with the operating system(s) your district uses.

2. How does this program’s vendor approach data security?

Hand in hand with a commitment to student data privacy, programs and vendors must also take data security very seriously. Ask about what kind of data center vendors use—do they manage their own center or outsource to a cloud provider? How often do they conduct data backups? What kind of data-encryption practices do they follow, what kind of firewalls protect the data, and what kind of antivirus measures do they take? Do they work on redundant networks to protect against data loss due to Internet outages? What kind of disaster-recovery plan do they have in place? How do they approach data exports? Asking detailed questions up front can greatly reduce your (and your students’) exposure to security risks.

3. Is the program fully mobile optimized?

Even if your school or district keeps most technology use to a lab-based setting, I’m willing to bet there is at least one tablet cart or teacher with a BYOD policy. So, taking mobile optimization into account is key. Find out if the program is fully optimized for mobile devices, including tablets and phones, and if it is mobile-platform agnostic or favors a specific operating system. Some online programs also have mobile apps for easier login and use.

4. Does this program offer single sign-on?

As online programs become more engrained in all aspects of the school experience, managing login credentials is becoming an important issue. Juggling multiple usernames and passwords can easily cause delays in the classroom that take away from critical instruction time. More and more identity providers, like Edmentum partner Clever, are entering the scene to offer services that allow every student and educator to access all school programs with a single set of credentials. Selecting online programs that work with one of these identity providers can save lots of time and headaches in the long run—just be sure to vet the identity provider used for security and data privacy best practices as part of your evaluation process.

5. Has this program’s vendor signed off on the Student Privacy Pledge?

Student data privacy is a critical concern for all school and district technology administrators—and with good reason. Mishandling of student data can have long-reaching consequences, including identify theft and fraud. The federal government has enacted COPPA and FERPA legislation to ensure that best practices are followed by companies interacting with student data, and the Student Privacy Pledge was created to provide additional insight into those requirements and give vendors an avenue to be more transparent about their methods and commitment. Looking for program vendors that have taken the pledge is a good starting point for ensuring that they will be a responsible partner when it comes to your students’ data.

6. How does this program integrate with other systems we already have in place?

Any education technology tool is just one piece of the complicated puzzle that makes up the classroom experience. So, a program’s ability to integrate with other tools being used is key to students and teachers being able to get the maximum benefit. Find out if the program you’re considering can automatically sync data from key solutions, such as your student information system (SIS) and learning management system (LMS), and if automatic nightly uploads of data to your SIS are offered. Ask about the program’s application programming interface (API) to find out if it is built on REST architecture to allow you and your team to easily write, test, and implement applications to allow communication with other tools. Finally, be sure to ask what setup and support services the vendor offers to help your team configure necessary integrations.

7. How will students use this program?

Technology is great, but in the school environment, students always have to be the primary consideration. So, whenever you’re looking at any kind of new program, it’s key to consider how relevant it is going to be to student learning and proficiency. This is not to say that absolutely every tool needs to be instruction focused—there is certainly a need for various productivity, organization, administrative, and other programs. But, knowing how students interact with a program does help you and your team prioritize technology issues when they inevitably arise. Understanding which systems really can’t be down in order for students to continue learning lets you know what tickets to address first.

8. What is the process for rostering new teachers, students, and classes in this program?

Much as with single sign-on and systems integration, a program’s rostering process can make it a real success or a real hassle. The goal of educators is to make learning a seamless process so that, when it’s the start of a new term or when a new teacher or student is added to a class, getting their data uploaded to a system and visible in reporting should never be a barrier to learning. Ask about the efficiency of the rostering process for any program you’re considering and ask to see it in action. A slick process can give a significant amount of instructional time back to teachers—and that’s a powerful metric for you and your team.

9. What kind of support does the vendor provide?

When it comes to technology, bugs and roadblocks are a given. So, it’s important to look for programs and vendors that make outstanding customer support a priority. Find out what support channels are offered. Phone? Email? Live chat? A resource library? Is access to support offered 24/7? Are support representatives locally based, or outsourced? Quality vendors should be more than a vendor—they should be a partner offering support from implementation onward.

Be sure to check back in the coming weeks when we’ll dig into tips for bridging the divide between your IT office and the classroom and explore how Edmentum’s solutions are designed with IT departments in mind. In the meantime, looking for additional resources to help make sure that you’re selecting the right program for your school or district? Take a look at this this blog post on Edtech Evaluation and the 5 Qualities to Look for in a Provider!