6 Things I look for in Educational Technology

Photo by William Iven

As a professor, my students’ learning is at the front and centre of each decision that I make. While there may be some advantages to entertaining or flashy pieces of technology, entertainment and show is not the reason why I’m an educator. I need to ask myself the question my students ask all the time (out loud or to themselves): why. This means taking into account both my students’ needs and my own — if I am more efficient, I am better able to teach my students.

Therefore, when I think about adopting a piece of technology for my classroom, I want it to invisibly enhance learning. Here are six specific questions that I ask to see if it passes this test.

1. Is intuitive to use?

Having tools function how we expect them to is something we require in new technologies. This is particularly important for pieces of technology that I share with students: often my view (as an administrator) is different than the student view and I don’t want to have to explain to students how to use it.

I recently looked at adopting a new online platform, but found that I needed to create multiple fake student accounts to understand how to use it. I quickly realized that adopting it would be more effort than I (or my students) would be willing to give it.

2. Does it require any additional purchase for full functionality?

I find in-app purchases extremely frustrating, particularly if I don’t expect them. If a potential app lists something vague like “pro version” or “full functionality” in its list of in-app purchases, I am far less likely to purchase it. If the list of in-app purchases is simple and clear, I might give it a try. For example, Doceri clearly told me what the difference between its full and free version is, as did a visual translation app I recently used for a trip to China.

3. Is it affordable for me and free to students?

I have very limited funds for classroom technology, so when I pay for a piece of hardware or software myself I need to know that it is worth it. My institution does not have a culture where students are used to paying for pieces of classroom technology, so suggesting that students put out money for technology is rare. I try to provide open-source alternatives to students whenever possible. As a math professor, I am constantly monitoring the functionality of graphing and computer algebra software. For example, when the open-source Geogebra introduced 3D capabilities a few years ago, I started recommending that over more expensive alternatives.

4. Does it require students to create an account?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try out an online system to help manage groups of students. I didn’t realize that students would be prompted to create an account as soon as I uploaded the class list until I started receiving questions from students. They found the sign-in process frustrating and it didn’t seem to work well on all platforms. Needless to say, I decided that the hassle was not worth the effort for me, and backed out of my plans to use the system.

We can all get overwhelmed with managing multiple online accounts. Students feel the same way, and it can be frustrating for them to maintain accounts on websites for a specific class. I am also aware of privacy concerns related to sharing and entering student information on external websites.

5. Does it have multiple uses or solve a very specific problem?

It is easy for us to forget that over the course of a year most students are taking 8–10 courses, each of which might have its own menu of educational technology. While we often think of our students as “digital natives”, they have at least the same number of challenges in adapting to new technologies as we do (there are several great episodes of the podcast Teaching in Higher Ed that discuss these challenges, for example see Episode 144).

Therefore, I am more likely to use a piece of technology that studnets will use in other classes. This means that I talk to my colleagues about what tools they use in the classroom, and ask students what technology they are familiar with.

One exception to this rule is when I need a tool that solves a very specific problem. For example, in my Cryptology course this block, there are many online tools that work in very specific situations. In this case, I look for web-based tools and provide a clear inventory for my students.

6. Does it integrate well between mobile and desktop platforms?

I find myself increasingly doing work on my mobile devices, and I know that most of my students use their phones more than their laptops. If I want my students to actually use a tool, I need to make sure that they can move between their devices easily. This is also important to me. For example, if I’m grading something on my iPad, is it easy to pick up the work on my laptop later?

To Share: What are your favourite pieces of classroom technology? Do you have any specific recommendations for iPad apps that I might find useful?