The education technology stack is a complicated mish-mash of applications, languages, systems, and equipment. In this post, we look at what it takes to get them all to work seamlessly together and its importance for teachers, schools, and districts. We also offer tips on selecting the right technology and, hopefully, reaping the maximum possible return on investment.
The global pandemic has had a significant impact on the classroom. Concepts like hybrid learning have been fast-tracked into educational settings and, sadly, the disparities caused by socioeconomic status have never been more apparent. Teaching has also become more complicated. As schools moved to online learning, teachers were suddenly tasked with finding ways to hold students’ attention when they weren’t actually in the same room.
As a result, the Education Technology (EdTech) stack has never been more important. The right technology is a real enabler; it’s what makes many of today’s education strategies feasible. Without it, social learning would be little more than small groups of students working together in the classroom, and hybrid learning would be a distant dream.
The education technology stack is a collective term for the end-to-end systems that deliver reliable apps and services to teachers, students, and administrators right when they need them. It’s the combination of computer frameworks, languages, and software applications that sit behind the day-to-day interface used by all those across the school.
These include School Management Systems (also known as SIS—Student Information Systems), timetabling applications, Learning Management Systems (LMS) reporting and assessment tools, school communication and engagement platforms, classroom management tools, and VC systems.
By its very nature, the EdTech stack is a complex web of systems, many of which are unrelated. Typically, it will consist of:
Some, like core data infrastructure, are fully embedded into the school or district’s operation. As enterprise-level applications, they are rarely changed and, as a result, there are relatively few solutions on the market. At the other end of the scale, as many as a thousand learning applications can be used in a particular school district.
Consequently, the EdTech market is relatively fragmented. There are plenty of products out there, each focused on developing specific skills. In the main, this is a good thing—when students finish their education and enter the workforce, they are likely to be exposed to programs and applications that are designed for specific purposes. There is, however, one key challenge; the expectation among all users is that they are fully integrated into the school or district’s learning stack. Making that happen is no easy task.
In today’s classrooms, technology is an essential component. On a day-to-day basis, teachers access the following tools from the EdTech stack to impart learning and track progress.
With such a complex mesh of technology, plenty of things can—and do—go wrong. Teachers regularly have to deal with applications and equipment that don’t work and can have trouble logging in to their various systems. Wasting ten minutes at the start of a class trying to log in or get a particular piece of software to work can throw all the planning out of the window. As a result, most have a backup plan they can turn to if need be.
The fact is, the more often a system is unavailable or unresponsive, the less likely it is to be incorporated into the teacher’s learning style. They are time-poor. Each lesson lasts for a finite period. Therefore, it is imperative that the applications, links, or equipment they need to access in the classroom are easy to access and reliable. Remember, there are also other calls on their time—they have to help students access programs and, on occasion, have to distribute equipment and passwords to those students.
From a student perspective, technology enables collaboration in the classroom and helps to improve their engagement—it gives a sense of community, accessibility, support, motivation, interest in learning, and self-regulation. Technology allows for content to be adjusted to suit each student’s skill level and for students with similar abilities to be grouped. This kind of personalized learning ensures that students are able to learn in different ways and at a pace that suits them.
Schools and districts have a responsibility to report on the progress of their students and also their access to technology. The US Department of Education recommends they create equitable and accessible learning ecosystems that make learning possible everywhere—and at all times—for all students.
The Department also recommends that all learning technology resources should be aligned to intended educational outcomes and that all districts should design, develop and implement learning dashboards and response systems that give all those involved actionable feedback about student learning.
The upshot is that data is critical. The Student Information Systems implemented by the districts must be able to produce data and reports at an individual school level to demonstrate compliance and assure the school’s ongoing funding. At the district level, that’s a significant amount of data. In the New York City district alone, more than 900,000 students are enrolled. With such large numbers, it’s vital that the information is easy to access and reports can be produced at the touch of a button.
With more than 1,000 applications in use each month in the average district, demonstrating that each is aligned to specific learning outcomes—and providing actionable feedback about student learning—would be a challenge without access to the right data.
Technology is also an essential component in keeping students and teachers safe. For example, tools like digital signage are a valuable way of communicating and launching emergency management plans. The school or district’s systems also help protect against online criminal activity, including phishing and ransomware attacks that can place confidential information at risk or even bring the entire network to a standstill.
Without a coherent strategy, technology can become a bit of a tangle. As the requirements from teachers, students and administrators evolve over time, the users may have to make compromises about the way they use existing technologies or source add-on solutions to solve problems they have identified. Both of these issues are a sign that either the technology implanted wasn’t sufficiently future-proofed or, worse still, wasn’t the right option in the first place.
One problem usually associated with implementing technology that does not have the necessary APIs to interface with other programs and systems is the need to log in separately to every application. That can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience for students, teachers, and administrators alike.
Quite simply, technology has to work for all parties—for as long as possible—in order to maximize the return on investment (ROI). The earlier teachers or students are forced to compromise the way they use the system or explore alternatives, the worse the return on investment for the school.
Building the right ed-tech stack can be a little like completing a jigsaw puzzle. Each component connects to others in different ways, but some are also more compatible than others.
The key to choosing the right EdTech platform is to understand the impact of any decision you make on those who will be using it. It’s important to remember that every solution is different and will therefore address the schools’ requirements in a unique way. For example, what a teacher needs and what an administrator needs are two very different things.
During the process, you’ll have to compromise functionality and usability. After all, a solution that’s perfect for the network may feel clunky for users. And one that excites all who see it may be incompatible with every other application the school is running.
You’ll also want to create a platform that is scalable, reliable, and can adapt to changing needs. The components of the stack need to evolve as the school’s requirements change and new technologies—and approaches—are developed. Investing in a platform for the present rather than the future could prove to be an expensive mistake.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure you source a solution designed specifically for use in education. While the technologies used in schools may be similar to those used by businesses, the way in which they are used is very different.
The EdTech stack is a complex web of software, languages, systems, and programs. The more each can be integrated, the better the user experience and the more robust the network. Before making any purchase decisions, make sure you understand exactly what each user is likely to need and that enough time is devoted to training.
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