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A Checklist for Doing Classroom-Based Ed Tech Research (Part 1)

It’s no surprise that classroom-based educational technology research is hard to do. In the hope that others can learn from our experiences, we present a checklist of tasks that need to be done in order to actually carry out classroom-based, ed tech research. This post is Part 1 of our guide for aspiring researchers, since it only covers the “setting up” phase. Part 2 will cover actually carrying out the research, while Part 3 will discuss what to do after the classroom intervention is over. There's a lot to learn and, while we don’t mean to scare all y’all … classroom-based, educational technology research is not for the faint of heart!

Let’s start with a cornerstone issue: As a researcher, when you're talking to educators about possibly working with you, you should ask yourself this question: “What’s in it for them?” After you've given your elevator pitch about how wonderful your technology is and what wonderful gains in student achievement will be observed, if you don’t see the listener (superintendent, principal, teacher, IT director, IT specialist, etc.) jumping to sign up, clearly your elevator pitch didn’t answer that question. So, in addition to the actual checklist, we will provide hints at answering the “What’s in it for me?” question for the various individuals who need to sign off on your research project.

One more point: In our research, we have focused on K-8. High school is another planet as far as we are concerned. Our advice, then, is limited to working in K-8 classrooms.

Step 1: Find a teacher who can and will let you into their classroom.

With schools and districts busy aligning themselves with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), finding a teacher who is willing to allow researchers into his/her classroom is no mean feat. And without a teacher willing to let you into the classroom room, you have bupkis. We have employed several strategies to find a welcoming teacher:

  • Talk to teachers with whom you have worked in the past. Frankly, this is the best strategy, since there is already trust in the relationship. But for researchers who are just starting out, that strategy won’t work!
  • Talk to a superintendent or a principal. Easier said than done. They are busy. The key is this: Get someone to introduce you. For example, the dean of your college or the chair of your department — or the parent of a student in the school. In our experience, that introduction is absolutely critical. What’s in it for an administrator? Many want to be seen as having vision, of being willing to explore the future. If you can convince the administrator that what you have to offer is good for his/her children — and paint a picture of the future — than the administrator will set you up to talk with teachers in the school/district. 
  • Talk to early-adopting teachers. Teachers who will try your innovation are driven, first and foremost, by wanting to do good for the children in their care. And those teachers are willing to take some risk by exploring a new idea if they feel it will help their children. But, remember: It’s scary to let someone into the classroom! Be candid and direct; lay out the benefits and the challenges.  

Step 2: Prepare the technological innovation.

Know this: your technology will crash at some point, usually at the worst possible moment. That said, the more upfront preparation you can do, the less those totally embarrassing moments should happen. Test, test and test.

It would be best if you could provide actual instructional materials to support your technology, such as a concrete lesson plan that is aligned with something the teacher is doing. How many posts have we written stressing the need to make it easier on the teachers, to take burdens off their back!

We will be the first to admit that our technologies, from the earliest Palm apps to today’s iOS apps, haven’t had curriculum, haven’t had instructional strategies provided. Teachers with whom we have worked and continue to work not only take on the task of using the technology with their children, but also take on the task of  adapting their curriculum and instructional strategies for use with the technology. We are the luckiest educational technology researchers in the world to have found such amazing classrooms teachers!

The technical issues associated with preparing 95 or so tablets for classroom distribution can also be daunting.

  • Deboxing 95 tablets is very time consuming. And invariably some of those tablets won’t work and they will need to be reboxed and sent back. And the serial number stamped on the device must match the serial number on the box. 
  • Installing software on those tablets requires that the tablets’ batteries have juice. Generally, devices come out of the box completely depleted, so they need to be charged before they can be set up. Having enough power strips is key. It’s all about the details!
  • Creating 95 Gmail accounts at one sitting? NOT A CHANCE! Understandably, Google has various limits and tactics for preventing easy wholesale creation of accounts. Does Apple make it easier to set up 95 iPads at once? (Write and tell us, please!)
  • Finally, put a label with the e-mail address of the device on the back of each device; we use the same password for all the e-mail accounts. Risky, yes, but the logistics of password management are a nightmare.

Bottom line: Set aside at least 10 minutes minimum per device for set up. Oh, and if you can get a team to do the setup, it goes much faster.

Then test in the classroom you are going to be operating in. This is important, so we will say it again: Test in the classroom you are going to be operating in. The classroom you are planning to operate in is busy, so why not test in the room next door? NO NO NO. And schlepping tablets in and getting them onto the school network is time-consuming, so is it okay to just test with five tablets? NO NO NO. If you plan on 30 tablets being operational simultaneously, then test with 30 tablets going simultaneously.

And guard the password to the school network with your life.

Step 3: Get permissions.

OMG OMG OMG. From the university’s IRB to the parents’ sign-off, there is a lot of conversation and listening that needs to be done!

  • Parents: Tread very carefully here. The media release that you want signed is a potential landmine. Parents are worried that posting their child’s picture on the Internet will expose them to potential harm. In the media release, assure parents that no names of children will be associated with pictures. No names of children will appear anywhere, in fact! Some parents will not permit their child to be photographed. No problem. Some parents won’t allow their children to even participate in the technology-oriented effort. Now, that’s a problem. We have had a project nixed because one parent said no to a child’s participation. So, in the name of equity, the school principal canned the project. Talk and listen and try to remember that the parent, too, is asking, "What’s in it for me?"
  • IT Director: Tread very carefully here, too. The Achilles heel of K-12 schools is still the school network, and supporting 1-to-1 in a classroom can still be a challenge. So, what’s in it for the IT Director when she thinks your technology is going to bring her network to its knees? And what about security? Will the children be accessing the school network from home? You should live so long ….  Again, talk and listen: You need the full cooperation of the IT Director.

In our collabrified apps — apps that support two or more individuals, each on his/her own mobile device, co-creating a text document (WeWrite+ and Co.Write) or co-editing a concept map (WeMap and Co.Map) — each keystroke goes up to the Google AppEngine and comes back down to the other collaborators’ devices. Some schools have neither the access points nor the bandwidth to support this intense use of the network. Some schools won’t even allow access to the Google AppEngine! What have we done to get around these issues?  Yup, you guessed it: Talked and listened.

Step 4: Set expectations.

Before the innovation starts, everyone needs to know the following:

  • Who will be in the classroom during the use of the technology? At least for the first few days of the introduction of the technology, having one or two techies in the classroom is important. “Being available” is not good enough! Something will go wrong: The network will be slow, an app will manifest bugs, the interface will be confusing. Techies in the room can diagnose the problem(s) on the spot. Trying to explain how an app crashed over e-mail or over the phone is impossible.
  • What specific responsibilities should the teacher have during the use of the technology? For example, should the teacher lead a whole-class discussion at a specific time — or do the researchers need to give instructions to the class? Unfortunately, while this general issue is critical, it is hard to pin down before the innovation takes place. Trust is the key, as it is in this whole enterprise. When there is trust, a teacher and the researchers can work through an issue.
  • What are the researchers allowed to say when the study has ended? Everyone must understand that the researchers need to write up what went on in the classroom. Yes, but should the researchers have access to info about each of the student’s achievement history, for example? Will video of the classroom be posted on the researcher’s website? How many surveys can be undertaken? Pre and post are a minimum; how much class time is needed for taking a survey?  

There are no pat answers to these questions, but a frank and candid discussion is needed — and written notes need to be taken and shared. Talk and listen.

Summing Up

The information in this post came at significant "cost." We have made many, many, many missteps in classrooms all over the world! Fortunately, because there was a foundation of trust, we have been able to recover from those missteps — and we continue to do classroom-based research.

We very much welcome your comments on our steps. Tell us your experiences, please! Together, we can make classroom-based, educational technology research better!