Mobile Ed Tech

It's Not the Device; It's What the Device Can Do

When choosing the right computer for your district, our expert suggests focusing on what you need rather than what you want.

mobile devices for k-12 education

The potential for technology to improve K-12 education in the United States is immense, though this change can only happen at scale with a focus on the right priorities.

Devices for eduction have become symbolic of the efforts to transform education through blended and personalized learning. Desktops, laptops and tablets are quickly becoming ubiquitous in education. They are tangible examples of change and, with the exception of few dazzling products, nearly indistinguishable. When we are shown images that are supposed to reflect how technology is enhancing education, they are rarely pictures of particular software or data systems. They are students smiling and holding devices. Devices are crucial as a conduit for content; however, they do not directly improve learning outcomes.

How Can Technology Improve Learning?
John Hattie, an education researcher, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 500,000 studies on student achievement. The analysis in his paper, "Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence?," which was presented at the 2003 annual meeting of Australian Council for Educational Research in Melbourne, Australia, is considered leading research on what actually improves learning. The chart below is an excerpt of the top ten influencers from Hattie's study, accompanied by a relative interpretation of the data for educational technology.

Influence Effect Size Source of Influence Ed Tech Translation

Feedback

1.13

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Students' prior cognitive ability

1.04

Student

NOT A DEVICE

Instructional quality

1.00

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Direct Instruction

.82

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Remediation/feedback

.65

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Students' disposition to learning

.61

Student

NOT A DEVICE

Class environment

.56

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Challenge of goals

.52

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Peer tutoring

.50

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Master learning

.50

Teacher

NOT A DEVICE

Though the "translation" column viewpoint may come off as a little redundant, it clearly illustrates the point that devices alone won't improve student learning.

Devices do, however, enable teachers and students to improve upon many of these influencers. They allow students to access a vast body of content and knowledge, as well as a variety of games and learning resources that meet students' needs and interests in a personalized way. They provide teachers with more data than ever before, allowing them to better understand each student's needs. A teacher's access to relevant tools and resources that can meet those needs has grown immensely. Adopting this viewpoint, the interpretation column becomes much more applicable for educational technology.

Influence Effect Size Source of Influence Ed Tech Translation

Feedback

1.13

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Students' prior cognitive ability

1.04

Student

-

Instructional quality

1.00

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Direct Instruction

.82

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Remediation/feedback

.65

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Students' disposition to learning

.61

Student

Enabled by devices

Class environment

.56

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Challenge of goals

.52

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Peer tutoring

.50

Teacher

Enabled by devices

Master learning

.50

Teacher

Enabled by devices

An argument could be made that various technology resources can help with prior cognitive ability through remediation, retention, etc. Even leaving this influencer out, devices can still affect nine of the top 10 influencers of learning outcomes.

Where Do I Start?
Placing devices within the context of learning theory can help schools and districts determine their educational technology priorities. One of the most common questions educators ask when a discussion turns to technology is "What device should I buy?" For all of the aforementioned reasons, the answer is always, "The one that does what you need it to do."

This answer is less than satisfying for many who just want to ensure that they get the right device for their students. The thought process is important, however, because the device question should be one of the last ones asked, not the first. Districts should start by asking themselves how they want to improve learning.

A good list of criteria might be the top 10 list provided above, the complete list from Hattie's meta-analysis or any other evidence-based research that provides actions influential to student learning.

The next step is to determine which technology resources are available to assist in attaining these goals. Though the market is vast and growing at a fast rate, there are a variety of software and content offerings, as well blended learning models, that can improve at least nine of the top 10 learning influencers (and many more further down the list). As districts establish goals and match resources with needs, a cohesive strategy will start to come together. After ensuring there is sufficient Internet connectivity, the final piece of this strategy is to determine which devices can allow for meaningful instruction with the resources and systems identified.

How Do I Choose a Device?
The list of devices that can enable most learning resources and blended systems is almost endless. Education's technology needs are relatively simple when compared to those of other industries, and almost every device has the functionality to facilitate blended learning. The most important district need in narrowing down the field is deciding on a device that will work well in an IT system. Management and maintenance costs can more than double the cost of a device over its entire life, and hardware that is continually buggy or breaking down will sit on a shelf collecting dust (and wasting dollars).

The decision becomes more complex as districts factor in their wants. Many districts have certain needs, such as absolute minimum specifications for security or management systems. Many of these districts also have perceived needs (translation: wants) for the fastest processor or the sleekest designs. Separating needs from wants can translate into hundreds of thousands — or millions — of dollars saved on devices for each district.

Once the district's device needs are established, start the device selection conversation with the lowest-cost devices. It's important to remember that no device is perfect: Some require Internet connections to function, others are less user-friendly, and too low of a cost can simply mean "cheap." By starting the conversation with the lowest-cost devices and having to justify additional expenditures, districts have a better shot at spending the right amount of their limited capital on technology hardware.

Most districts spend between $300 and $800 per device, though some go as high as $1,500. The closer a district is to the low cost side of this range, the more money it has to re-allocate capital to education resources that will directly improve learning outcomes.

What's Next?
Even after simple strategic planning, a large-scale device rollout can be daunting. Starting small and gradually scaling can help overcome this hurdle. The information you gain by piloting devices for a couple of weeks will far outweigh several months of crossing every "t" and dotting every "i" of a large-scale plan. Spending too much time in the strategy and planning phase is nearly as wasteful as buying higher-priced devices. Lessons learned from the pilot will help you figure out whether the device is the right one, and, if so, how to build the program in a way that works for schools' and districts' students, teachers, leaders and IT systems.

By asking the right questions in the right sequence, a district can realign its priorities to ensure that it is spending the right amount of resources on education technology devices. At the most fundamental level, time and money are our schools' main resources, and there is a great deal of each to be saved when dealing with devices. When choosing hardware, a mediocre device implemented well will always beat out top-of-the-line devices implemented poorly. And while strategy and planning are crucial, they become wasteful if priorities are misaligned or the process is over-engineered.

With the right framing and approach, schools and districts should be able to minimize the time and money they spend on devices, and focus their attention where it matters most. The more our schools and districts can prioritize the education element of educational technology, the greater the chance that technology will improve education in the United States.

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