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Maximizing your education apps

Districts must maintain security while giving teachers and students freedom to explore
An image on the Common Sense Graphite landing page, above, illustrates how educators might search for content.
An image on the Common Sense Graphite landing page, above, illustrates how educators might search for content.

Getting the right education apps into classrooms isn’t as easy as reading reviews, doing a quick download and making a link available to staff. Because there isn’t a standard rating system to verify whether an app will live up to its educational claims, there’s no single best approach to matching student needs with new programs.

Some CIOs and educators have cobbled together review systems for their districts. Many share the same concerns about apps—efficacy, privacy, security and support, says Bob Moore, director for CoSN’s privacy initiative. But he doesn’t know anyone who has balanced all of the issues while also meeting state regulations and district standards.

A former CIO with 20 years of experience in public schools, Moore helps district leaders get a handle on their technology options. Schools need security and reliability, but CIOs—not wanting to stifle students’ and educators’ curiosity—are resistant to lock devices down too rigidly. “Especially in those schools where they’re allowing more freedom, there’s more exposure to risk,” Moore says.

Evaluating apps

The best approach depends on the level of technology restrictions imposed by the district, money available for purchases, the number of tech support staff, and how often teachers use apps. The more technology teachers use, the faster the approval process needs to be. But a longer approval process makes following security protocols and documenting effectiveness possible.

There are a few methods schools are using to select education apps:

  • Custom “Apps store”: An internal site or list of pre-approved resources that teachers can use freely. These are chosen by a committee, an administrator or tech-savvy educators charged with matching student and teacher needs with available apps. Many schools don’t have dedicated staff for this labor-intensive effort.
  • Internal review: Apps must be reviewed against certain standards—such as rubrics developed by Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helps educators evaluate instructional materials. Achieve’s Open Educational Resource Rubrics provides criteria against which an app can be evaluated for efficacy.
  • Limited freedom: Teachers are free to download and use any apps that meet a set of criteria, such as those created by companies that have committed to the “K-12 School Service Providers Pledge.” This pledge means in part apps will meet federal requirements regarding privacy.
  • External review: Vetting services can be used to choose apps and guide teachers’ selections. One nonprofit doing this is Common Sense Media’s Graphite. Standard criteria—such as engagement, pedagogy and support—are used to evaluate an app. Then it’s given a rating such as “excellent,” “good” or “not for learning.” Teachers can look up the rating on a specific app or search apps for a particular need by subject, grade or skill. Several for-profit companies are also developing resources for schools, such as AssertID, EdProtect and Balefire.
  • Lockdown: CIOs install a set of pre-approved apps on all school equipment, with nothing else allowed. Operating systems, malware/firewall requirements and limited access to school servers (usually through an internet web portal) restrict the use of personal devices.

Freedom for teachers

As New Canaan Public Schools in Connecticut began providing educators with technology resources about 12 years ago, it created a “technology integrator” position to be a full-time tech expert. The district has two integrators at its high school and two at the middle school.

Apps’ best practices

Lessons from past technology integrations might help districts develop best practices for apps. After working with many IT people in K12 districts, Bob Moore, director for CoSN’s privacy initiative, suggests a possible approach for identifying and leveraging this growing resource:

  • Teachers need to 1) understand how web-based resources will impact the speed/reliability of the school network, 2) use technology to support the curriculum, 3) work with technology staff, and 4) help administrators and technology staff understand teaching needs
  • Administrators must 1) understand technology will only continue to advance and offer more resources to education, 2) know the ways teachers are using technology to further education, 3) develop and support effective policy, 4) provide appropriate training, and 5) continually provide the leadership necessary to bring educators and technology staff together to keep them working as one unit.
  • Technology staff members must 1) see the network as an education resource rather than an IT resource, 2) understand how technology supports education, 3) teach non-tech-savvy people what they need to know to use and maintain the resources they rely upon, and 4) be realistic about balancing technology and education priorities.

“The decision was to put the resources in terms of people, so teachers would have the instruction support on how to use technology,” says Robert Miller, the district’s director of digital learning. “If they had pedagogy and the background in how to use the technology to support instruction, they would use it effectively.”

The integrator works with administrators, teachers, students and curriculum at every grade level. They’re also well versed in the federal and state student privacy laws. Having comprehensive knowledge reduces the risk of choosing a bad app.

The district has an online request form that educators can use to request apps. The approval time can be as fast as 30 minutes or as long as weeks; it depends on how long it takes the app provider to call back to respond to privacy questions, Miller says

Ed tech businesses aren’t always well-versed on FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which makes app approval more difficult, he adds. “We have teachers who are very innovative who want to try new things and we want to make it as accessible as possible for them to get started on working with the new things,” he says.

The New Canaan district has chosen the least restrictive approach it can by using student privacy as the minimum requirement. Teachers decide which apps have the most educational value—for example, they might explore Twitter for apps that other educators recommend or search for a program to help a student struggling with a specific skill.

Supporting educators

But such freedom is uncommon. Moore worked with a middle school teacher serving as a technology integration specialist to assist other educators with classroom technology. It was frustrating because teachers had little control over how to use technology provided by the school, and their students were equally limited. Teachers believe as if IT teams do not understand that they want to show students how to manage and care for their tools.

Resource box

Lan Neugent, interim executive director for SETDA, says his members focus on training IT staff to keep infrastructure (such as broadband access and security) up to standards. But what districts do for teachers’ IT training varies greatly.

As assistant superintendent for the Virginia Department of Education, Neugent oversees data collection, reporting and educational technology. He points to Fairfax County Public School’s eCART (Electronic Curriculum Assessment Resource Tool) as a means of providing apps and other resources.

A web-based portal offers approved curriculum, assessments, tools and resources to support state curriculum standards. Teachers can submit requests to get an app reviewed and approved for use. Extensive training for teachers using these materials does not cover the devices they and the students use, Neugent says.

Challenges for CIOs

Outside their educational value, apps pose plenty of challenges for CIOs, including:

  • Internal hacking: Tech-savvy teachers and students can get around internal security and inadvertently upload apps infected with malware.
  • Educators going rogue: Teachers frustrated by internal reviews do what they want to. This leads to privacy, device management and network challenges.
  • Privacy: Most districts don’t allow teachers to enter into legally binding agreements, including app user agreements. And teachers might not be versed in language regarding data usage, marketing specifications and other privacy issues, which opens the district to potential legal liability.
  • Device management: Unknown to most users, mobile devices run dozens of apps in the background. This strains school networks, dramatically slowing access and speed. Most teachers and students aren’t taught to manage their devices by closing apps when not in use.
  • Network management: Multiple devices running multiple apps can crash a network. But CIOs can’t prevent or troubleshoot this when there’s no way to know the number of devices and apps accessing the network at any given time.

Leadership leads to solutions

Solutions will be largely dependent on the way in which districts use technology. One solution is being open. Keep an open mind and embrace all kinds of technology in education, including apps, says New Canaan’s Miller.

“You have to be willing to be innovative and try new things,” he says. “A lot of this is not about teacher control anymore. It’s about student control and students having a voice in the curriculum of learning.”

CIOs and district leaders must build infrastructure that supports integrating apps into education, Moore adds. Leadership is key in eliminating the fear of apps, and recognizing their value in instruction.

“Until there can be some consensus in a district as to how much freedom teachers should have and how locked down the devices should be, you really can’t implement a solution,” he concludes. “The issue results from a lack of leadership, not lack of technical solutions.”

Margo Pierce is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati.