Free Isn't a Feature -- Deploying Ed Tech in the Age of Coronavirus

Reposted from her LinkedIn post of 4 July 2020, Jennifer Carey's thought leadership assesses the value of "free" tools offered to technology leaders during the coronavirus pandemic. Carey, Director of Technology & Innovation at Temple Beth Am Day School in Miami, FL, and member of the ATLIS Board, provides guidance for a community that has been deluged with complications from the numerous offerings of online tools made to teachers and schools. [10-minute read] -- SD

Jennifer Carey
When Coronavirus first impacted US Schools in March, educational institutions scrambled to deploy distance learning with little to no planning or training for faculty. During the rash of school closures, numerous technology companies stepped forward to offer their services for "free."

Initially, many viewed this as a generous, self-sacrificing offer to help schools over the hump of going virtual. Many schools, driven in desperation, quickly took these companies up on their offers, rapidly (often without vetting) deploying numerous new resources to teachers and students. However, the results of this haphazard deployment resulted in numerous problems that at best created confusion through new complexity and at worst, created a privacy and data security nightmare for schools.

The most publicized of these challenges was the rapid deployment of Zoom's "free" features to schools. After numerous public gaffes, the FBI issued a warning to schools and government entities and its own stakeholders sued the company for lying about the software's security features. While Zoom has vowed to fix these problems, they have publicly stated that these "fixes" won't apply to free accounts leaving the impact on education ambiguous at best.

Now, numerous software companies are ending their "free" software for schools. It's time for schools to re-think their software options in the likely event of temporary or long-term distance learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Now, allotted with the privilege to take a breath and dive deeply into educational technology resources, I encourage schools to delve into their reasoning as they assess tools. Here are some guidelines they may find helpful:

  • "Free" is not a feature: All companies must draw in revenue. If any tool offered to you is "free," then explore how they are financed. For example, Zoom's "free" features are paid for through data mining. Some free educational resources are supported through grants or institutions that support education (e.g. the Sesame Street foundation). However, it's important to know what they monetize (is it you or your students)?
  • Sometimes less is more: You may have heard that "there's an app for everything." However, apps are not a replacement for curriculum, lesson planning, and effective pedagogy. Before deploying a new tool, assess whether or not you already have something in your arsenal that accomplishes the same objective and if this truly enhances teaching and learning (or is just flashy button pushing).
  • Read the terms of Service: Yes they are long, full of legalese, and kind of boring. However, there is a reason companies make these inaccessible - you won't like what you find in them. It's important to understand: how and what data is collected, how data is stored, who owns the data (no it's not always you), and who can access it. The Student Privacy Pledge has been ramping up its resources to help parents and educators navigate these challenges as more software is being deployed en masse.
  • Think about Training: What will training look like in the fall? Will it be in person? Will it be behind a screen? When looking at new tools and resources, try to find those that are easy to deploy, have robust training resources (documents, videos, and more), and can be done remotely. Also, go back to "less is more" here, it's easier to train and support 3-5 new tools rather than dozens!
  • Think about Integration: Is your school a G-Suite for Education or O365 for Education school? If so, look for integrations - single sign on, inter-operability, and support. Be sure to read what integration looks like. I've seen more than one reputable software company advertise integration, which simply meant you could share resources via a link.
  • Flash is Dead (but no one has told ed tech): Flash was once the darling of cool online web features. However, flash is dead... but no one seems to have notified some ed tech developers. Flash has numerous security issues, requires multiple updates, and has been panned by reputable programmers everywhere. However, it still shows up in "educational games" and other resources. Note that multiple developers have stopped supporting flash on their products. If software requires flash, give it a pass.
  • Personnel is more Important the Tech: Technology cannot replace teachers, teaching assistants, administrators, or support technicians. It may make their jobs easier and more effective, but the backbone of any system is the people behind it. This is the most important thing for anyone in or supporting education to know and understand. Invest in human capital be it hiring more personnel, training your faculty and administrators, or just investing in their social and emotional well being.

This fall is going to be challenge for administrators, teachers, parents, and students. It's tempting to look at technology tools and features as our saviors. However, it is not a panacea to the challenges awaiting us. While technology can help our schools as they operate in a new, untraversed terrain, it's important to understand that it's still a tool and dependent on those driving it.

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