In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District began handing out iPads to its 650,000 students. This program was heralded as a great success for educational technology. Two years later, the massive school district halted the program and demanded a refund from Pearson and Apple. The program was not just a failure; it was a debacle. The curriculum and apps from Pearson were worthless in most cases, according to many of the teachers who tried to integrate the tools into their lessons, and the program’s failure highlighted just how difficult Edtech really is.

Photo by Lexie Flickinger/Brad Flickinger via Flickr Creative Commons

This story can be heard in many places, though few had the $1.3 billion price tag attached like it was in LA. Schools rush to buy laptops or tablets, through on some nanny software to keep the kids from looking at porn or playing League of Legends too easily, and hope their teachers can find some use for them. This is Edtech for tech’s sake. A principal or school board wants to not be seen as behind the times, to keep up with the charters, to help disadvantaged students. The reasons range from the banal to the saintly. But no matter how good your intentions are, if you haven’t approached the situation correctly, you’re joining the road crew paving the way to Hell.

Any use of Edtech, or just about any innovation or change, needs to start with identifying a need. What are the students missing? What are the holes in the curriculum? Where are the teachers struggling? If the answer to those problems is Edtech, then mazel tov. But far too often, the answer is going to be whatever pet project some stakeholder is trumpeting, regardless of the problem that may or not have been identified yet.

I’ve seen it several times in my program. A teacher will give a workshop on a cool app, and several of us might try it. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes, meh. More often than not, they’re bookmarked and forgotten about. In an ideal environment, we would start with some problem and search for the best answer, which may well be an Edtech one.

googledocsI recently began to have my students submit their weekly writing assignments to me via Google docs, a service I’ve been using for years. My decision to integrate this tool into my class had to do with a hole I’ve noticed. The students do their writing, but we only give quick, mostly general feedback on content and grammar/vocabulary errors during their tutorial time, assuming they actually come. This level of feedback wasn’t sufficient, I felt, and the students probably forgot most of it as soon as they left the lesson. With a tool like Google docs, I can make in-line edits and give comments which they can see easily whenever they review for the writing tests.

So far, I would say that it is a not-unqualified success, but it is still early in the module. Some of the students have definitely indicated that they like the comments; on the other hand, it’s added a time burden to my workload, somewhat off-set by the ease of which it is to use Gdocs anywhere anytime. The first test for my efforts will be next week when they have their first of four writing tests. I don’t think this is going to be a panacea. My group of students began with rather below writing skills for the Intermediate level, and giving feedback with Gdocs isn’t going to work miracles. If it helps them to stop making subject-verb agreement errors and capitalizing words after commas, I’ll be happy.