UC Davis and Digital Promise Report on How To Run Better Ed Tech Pilots

Before the education technology purchase comes the pilot. But how schools and districts run their pilots varies widely, and school administrators and IT leaders may have different ideas about pilot process, what's worth measuring and overall goals.

The University of California, Davis School of Education and Digital Promise recently ran a research project to better understand how districts conduct their pilots of ed tech products and the challenges they face in doing so. Digital Promise is a Congress-funded non-profit focused on uncovering innovation in education. The results of the pilot research are contained in a lengthy report and online resources that offer best practices and guidance to help districts make optimal procurement decisions.

Researchers enlisted six school districts from across the country to participate in the "Pilot-to-Purchase Project":


Data collection for the study was done through interviews, focus groups and surveys among district and school administrators, teachers and students. The districts also provided documentation of their pilot processes. And Digital Promise collected survey data from 1,200 students in grades 4-12 specifically to evaluate student participation in school technology decisions and to understand how they respond to ed tech.

One common finding across districts was the need for "positive communication and relationships between all involved stakeholders." That includes getting feedback from students and teachers, two groups who are rarely part of the formal pilot process.

According to the researchers, frequently what happens is that principals ask teachers for their opinions about products informally. A more effective approach is to create "formal opportunities" to allow teachers to give their feedback, through surveys, interviews, focus groups or team meetings. Districts also need to make sure teachers receive support during the pilot "to enable a strong implementation." As the director of technology in the Pennsylvania district explained, "I think every district needs to make sure they give complete support to anyone piloting a new product, meaning that when they have an issue, it should be addressed immediately. That helps the project go smoothly so you know if you're actually evaluating what you think you are."

Student feedback played varying levels of importance in technology decision-making. As one student from the Idaho district pointed out, "Our opinions are kind of key in it because we are the ones using it." The survey found that non-white students reported being more excited about and more motivated by the use of the ed tech products they were piloting than white students did. Higher-performing students were more likely to report that the ed tech products resulted in them becoming better problem solvers.

In addition, those students who had technical problems gave feedback that the ed tech was less beneficial to them, and those who considered their teachers more knowledgeable when using the program found the ed tech more beneficial. The researchers advised schools to pull together "a representative group of students with a variety of backgrounds" when they gather input from pilot programs.

While all of the researched districts used data during the pilot to consider product effectiveness, great variation showed up in the types of data being emphasized within the district and the type of analysis each district performed. Some districts conducted quantitative analysis to examine impact on student learning; others sought qualitative feedback from users regarding product effectiveness. As an example, the report profiled a pilot in D.C. in which the district worked with the developer of the product under consideration to generate weekly customized usage reports by school and also worked with the school system's own office of data and strategy to analyze data from the developer and Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores to identify teacher and student usage and changes in student Lexile scores. A summer analysis of spring pilot data determined that more usage would be required to "detect" differences in learning outcomes, so the district continued its pilot into the fall.

The report's findings also recommended:

  • Designing a structured pilot process;
  • Setting specific pilot goals;
  • Matching the pilot with timelines connected to academic, budgeting and purchasing calendars; and
  • Collaborating with developers and researchers to help them understand the district and provide a forum for giving feedback and receiving support along the way.

The report, "Pilot-to-Purchase Project," is available on the Digital Promise Web site. Digital Promise has also published a checklist and a goals worksheet to help districts plan their pilots.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.