Eric Nentrup

Organizing a Modern Edtech Stack for Modern Pedagogy, Part III: The Learning Object

The EdTech Hierarchy of Needs - Eric Nentrup

By far, the most enjoyable segment of the edtech stack are those apps focused on specific content, skill development, and the means for communicating and engaging with each other’s learning. And it really is about learning together as teachers model exemplary or expert approaches to new ideas and problem-solving. Since there are scads of published pieces online listing out skill and content apps by topic or capability, this piece focuses on the framework we’ve discussed relative to the learning management system (LMS) and student information system (SIS), describing a bit about how that category at the top of the hierarchy should be supported by edleaders as they interact with teachers and the vendors who create the solutions. At the very least, edleaders can support their evaluation in a way that gives margin but with structure and Digital Promise’s Edtech Pilot Framework could help. But more strategic work can fold that evaluation into a larger context as seen in the diagram above. The pinnacle in the diagram above has similarities to Maslow’s “self-actualization” category. These pieces of edtech represent new content for the learner, new ideas that can enlighten and invigorate. It also refers to those apps that support organic creation of such learning experiences typically more than any feature in an SIS or LMS, whether the UI/UX is for the student or the teacher. Hence, considering it all as part of the “learning object repository” for developing skills and introducing content or the means to generate those intrinsically for those using the tools.

Developers contributing to the “learning object repository” rely upon those supporting the LMS and SIS layers of the edtech stack to see the student’s work reflected in daily efforts, periodic progress reports, and eventually the finalized gradebook and transcript. These software companies have the most leeway when innovating new approaches to learning and how they support insight into a learner’s journey for the teachers and administrators employing their tools in regular courses of study, no matter the learning model. They are also the most vulnerable companies in the space, nudged out by the vast number of competitors building upon their early successes. And while this offers a multitude of choices for teachers curating such tools, it can also lead to disruption to the continuity of learning when they can’t fund their apps past the startup phase. Yet many apps get acquired by larger companies, and folded into their suite of tools, receiving more stable development of the product roadmap.

Aside from the content/skill space, great communication tools facilitate sharing and discovery, whether teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-administrator, or teacher-to-student. Given that many of the vendors in the LMS and SIS space make some effort to afford real-time or near-real-time communication beyond email, this function may not necessitate adding a third-party communication vendor. In some cases, finding a better standalone communication platform could further knit together collaborative efforts throughout the edtech stack, and provide some flexibility for changing those platforms without disrupting the workflow.

So what are steps you can take to ensure your edtech stack is sound and operating optimally for the topmost layer of the stack? Here are some categories and prompts to spur some thinking as you and your team strategize for near-future grading periods.

Teacher Choice

  • Does your school’s tech policy allow teachers to choose apps to further personalize learning based on the needs of the student? For the sake of security across the edtech stack, there may be a “command and control” atmosphere to reevaluate to allow for more freedom without giving up security. We address that more below, but the first thing is to wonder about how you can increase the teacher’s presence in such conversations. If your district or school is on the other end of the spectrum, the question evolves into wondering how you can empower those “finders” in your midst and encourage them to teach others how to find the right tools for addressing common needs regardless of classroom or learning environment. Teachers are most often the ones that first encounter unique needs across their rosters and go on the hunt for solutions. If they do so in a vacuum, other teachers and administrators are at a potential loss for their discoveries. But if the culture supports finding and sharing internally, great content and skill apps can more quickly be vetted and implemented to support immediate learner needs.
  • What is your process for sharing these apps with other teachers and providing them to students? Depending on the complexity of your school’s edtech stack and culture of users across roles, departments, and even buildings, many rely upon a system to manage devices and push apps out to the appropriate users based on roles and permissions determined by the SIS, LMS, or communication platform(s). Such apps give control and a chance to test apps to prevent them from causing a break in interoperability, but if the vendors are adhering to common specifications like LTI, that risk is mitigated and users won’t have to wait to use the latest version of a single app.

Interoperability

  • Does the vendor participate in the LTI program or similar? This could be determined by the product literature on a vendor’s website, but it may also be a question to pose to your customer service or account rep, too. It’s not only a tell of their intent to “play nice with others” as often said but also their maturity as a software company if still young in their product offerings. This paves the way for interoperability requests that put the right information in the right place at the right time for the right people to reference without dual-data entry.
  • Has the vendor signed the Project Unicorn EdTech Vendor Pledge? One advantage here is that the Project Unicorn team can offer technical assistance to help translate between schools and the vendors that are participating in the program. Such advocacy can clarify needs and expedite the integration of content, skill or communication app with the rest of the edtech stack in operation at your school or district.

Security and Privacy

Without diverting into policy such as FERPA/COPPA or infrastructural choices such as firewalls that protect local data stores and processes to keep user accounts and passwords secure, there are a few subtopics relevant to the myriad apps we use in our schools to support an individual learner’s needs with confidence.  A student’s privacy in all ways should be protected and there is a certain assumption that we’re doing that. With an expanding footprint to a school or district’s edtech stack, most established vendors can prove their data security protocol in the standards their code is written to adhere to. Implementing these recognized standards should be advertised by the vendor. Some of the most common indicators of their intent to participate in-kind with their data security efforts include options from the following list:

Asking your provider or prospective vendors about such measures is always a good idea before you dig further into the details of a service level agreement or sign a statement of work to start migrating core data to a new platform. But in the content and communications space, which are more transient by nature of the types of problems these solutions address and the competition for these vendors relative to the LMS and SIS spaces. Still, here are the questions you might want to ask as you go to market to bolster your efforts to reach all learners with focused tools or to foster collaboration beyond what your enterprise vendors offer in their forums, chat, and messaging.

Who owns the data?

Given that we’ve quietly passed a tipping point for data to be stored in the cloud vs. on-premise, there may be a shift in the ownership of the data being collected by your users day to day. Posing this question to the vendor should always result in them assuring school professionals that though they host and store the data, it is owned by the school wholly.

How are the data stored?

This leads to another question that is correlative to the aforementioned topic of data interoperability and that is how do we extract the data in a consumable format? You may hear about the process for exporting a .CSV file that can be opened in your spreadsheet, text editor, choice, or some other “flat file” format that removes the native database’s infrastructure but leaves data in some other format for parsing by a replacement or augmentation tool.

Summary

When there is a discovered need and a promising piece of edtech to address it, teachers should be empowered as solution finders for their students. If it’s affordable and secure, edleaders should feel confident granting that capacity and learning from the outcomes teachers are able to generate when they apply their findings in their own practice.

For more on auditing and developing your tech stack see:


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Eric Nentrup

Eric is an avid writer and education evangelist. With experience in media, edtech, sales and the classroom, he shares a unique cross-section of interests and understanding.

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