Learning Resources

5 Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Online Materials

Online materials offer districts both great promise and great challenges. A product will not provide value to the district if it does not work on students' devices or is too challenging to implement. Its usefulness will be compromised if it is not compatible with the district's student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS) or other district software. Its impact on student learning will be diminished if teachers can't or do not use the material effectively.

Selecting and implementing online materials is likely one of the greatest challenges every district faces these days. As a mid-size suburban district, we are fortunate to have a robust instructional technology department; I know that many other districts do not. Protecting student privacy is undoubtedly one of the largest and most complex challenges inherent in implementing digital materials. Addressing privacy implementation issues could consume an entire article. Below are five other challenges we face when selecting and implementing online materials, and some of the ways we tackle them.

Abundance: Too Many Choices, Too Little Time
If your district is like ours, you are bombarded with an avalanche of instructional materials and apps to review. In any month, we are reviewing 30 or more online applications, tablet apps and other materials. We simply do not have the staff or time to review each material as carefully as we would like.

Some advice: This is where a service like Learning List is valuable. Their reviews of each material's alignment to state standards and technology requirements, including testing to see which devices, browsers and operating systems the material works on, saves districts hours of work. We find Common Sense Media's reviews of instructional apps helpful, too. Though these sites do not provide all of the information on our district's review rubric, they get us 75 percent of the way there, and that is worth at least one full-time employee.

User Provisioning: Onboarding and Managing Teachers and Students
The most significant hurdle to implementing digital materials effectively is rostering or onboarding students and teachers. Many materials ask you to upload a CSV file of users into their system. Given the constant movement of our students and teachers, uploading a CSV file does not work for us.

Some advice: Having learned from experience, we are moving toward online materials that are LTI/Common Cartridge compatible. This attribute allows the material to connect seamlessly with our SIS and LMS, which has the advantages of updating the list of teacher and student users automatically each time the LMS is updated and providing a single sign-on so that teachers and students can access the material directly through the district's LMS. Fewer passwords for them to remember mean fewer calls to us!

Compatibility: Supporting Use of the Material
Ensuring that a material will work with the district's technology and that the district has the bandwidth capacity to support simultaneous use of the product are two other important challenges, made exponentially more difficult if the district has a BYOD policy or provides different types of devices on various campuses.

We carefully read the publisher's technology specs for the products we are considering purchasing, paying particular attention to the bandwidth requirements given the number of students who will need to use the material simultaneously.

Another critical step is testing. We try to test each material on all of the devices available to students and teachers in the district because, even if the product is being purchased by or for a single campus, others may need to use it in the future. It is equally important to test the material's compatibility with any operating systems and browsers the district supports.

Some advice: When testing the material, make sure that animations, instructional videos, audio and plug-ins work with each device, browser and operating system the district supports. Here again, Learning List's review of each material's technology requirements can save hours of testing time.

Fidelity of Implementation: Ensuring Teachers Can Use the Material Effectively
Students will not benefit from digital materials that teachers cannot use or cannot use effectively. We examine the publisher's research-based standards and expected minimum usage (minutes per week). A material will appear not to be effective if the product is not being used as intended.

Once the number of products being considered has been narrowed to two or three, it is good practice to have a few of the district's most tech-savvy and least tech-savvy teachers go through a couple of lessons in the material. Their experience helps gauge the ease of navigation and amount of professional development teachers will need.

When reviewing online materials, we also look to see whether usage or progress reports are included. These features make it easy to see whether the material is being used, and if so, how effectively. Usage reports considered in conjunction with student progress reports may reveal when teachers need additional professional development. For example, if the usage reports show that a teacher is using the material but the progress reports show that students in the class are not keeping pace with peers in other classes, the teacher would likely benefit from professional development.

Some advice: Make sure you know how much and what type of training is included in the subscription, and which professional development (if any) would cost extra. Include the cost of any extra professional development in the cost of the material as you consider relative prices of materials.

Funding Source and Sustainability
Finally, finding sustainable funding is a key source of concern for our district. Having to implement a new material each year is generally not beneficial for teachers' morale or students' performance.

Some advice: Before we purchase a subscription for a digital material, we try to identify a multi-year funding source such as recurring local, state or federal funds as opposed to grants which expire or bond funds which typically are not allowed for subscription services. We can then budget accordingly.

Reviewing the technology attributes of digital materials is a time-consuming but critical part of selecting materials in most districts these days. Our colleagues in curriculum determine which of the materials will meet students' learning needs. Then we work to ensure the district can fully support the implementation of digital materials. After all, no matter how good the instructional content may be, teachers and students will get no benefit from a material if they cannot use it.

About the Author

Lannon Heflin is the director of instructional technology at Round Rock ISD in Texas.