green question marksAccording to research, students whose teachers use technology effectively in the classroom have higher test scores than students whose teachers do not.

So schools purchase projectors, interactive whiteboards, response systems, computers, and tablets with the goal of using technology to reach 21st century learners and engage students.  

But as schools begin implementations, administrators discover that simply placing hardware in classrooms does not raise student achievement.  Teachers need help using this technology effectively.  And the primary assistance teachers need to use technology effectively is access to high quality digital content.

Unfortunately, most schools approach digital content as an unnecessary “extra” after they have spent tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on technology hardware.  Teachers are typically asked to create or find their own content.  This is equivalent to providing teachers with a DVD player but refusing to buy them DVDs and instead asking them to create their own DVDs or to search the internet for free downloads.  Seems like a stretch, but for some teachers, the task of finding or creating their own content is as difficult as creating your own DVD.

“Free content” is not a viable long-term solution.

SMART Exchange, Promethean Planet, mimio Connect and the eInstruction community are great places to start searching for content to teach effectively with interactive technologies; however, content on these sites can be difficult to sift through and questionable in quality.  Teachers will need resources in addition to the user generated content available in these libraries.  

In fact, 88% of educators said they would use IWBs, or would use their existing IWBs more often, if more digital content were available according to the “K-12 Technology Tools and Trends 2009” report produced by Simba Information and Market Data Retrieval (MDR).  Similarly, laptops and tablets can be effective tools for individualized instruction, but the hardware is only as useful as the content it presents.  Teachers can spend hours online searching for free interactive content when search time could be better spent planning effective lessons utilizing the content.  

Classrooms with tablets typically turn to apps as their sole source for content.  Apps are great for schools with limited bandwidth who need their students to be able to access content without an internet connection.  They are useful for students who are allowed to take their devices home but their home has no internet connection.  They are relevant in special education settings for students with highly specialized needs.   However, relying solely on apps for your content presents a serious challenge.  Free apps are not truly free.  Graphic artists and programmers spend countless hours designing and creating a single app.  That is why very few apps are truly free.  

Programmers make money on “free” apps in one of two ways.  They release a free version that contains ads.  Though the ads are more regulated for the iPad than they are for Android, it is never the best solution to have a child playing a game with a rotating banner ad in their face the entire time.  

The other option for programmers to make money from “free” apps is by releasing a lite version.  Lite versions give users access to a portion of the app and then require the user to purchase the paid version to access the entire app.  Lite versions may only contain a few questions or a few levels that can be completed in a few minutes and then the app is useless.  They may also pop up messages to the user periodically requesting them to buy the full app, which is very distracting to children.

It is also important for schools to realize that the marketing phrase “There’s an app for that” does not hold true in an educational setting.  There is not an an app for every curricular goal, and even if there were, teachers don’t have time to find, download, and install every app on every tablet.  The more schools can break free of the “apps” mindset and move to a library of online content the more sustainable and useful their tablets will become.  With the move towards digital content in education and the ability to individualize instruction with tablets and other mobile learning devices, we need to move beyond the idea of buying content peacemeal.  Digital content delivery has evolved and gone are the days we should be purchasing content for individual topics such as fractions, basic facts, reading comprehension, etc.  

When we allow singularly focused apps to be our only method of acquiring content, we will never be able to use our devices to their full potential. Use of the device shouldn’t be limited by the “apps” we can find.  So, what is a school to do?  Having a library of content available allows teachers to address individual student needs at any level with every concept they teach.

Inevitably, as schools continue to invest in technology hardware and begin to realize digital content’s role in effective technology integration, more and more companies will be offering content.  Creating quality, interactive content is an expensive endeavor, so most of these resources will not be provided for free.  So as the amount of paid content grows, how do you know what interactive digital content you should invest in.  Here are twelve questions you should ask before purchasing interactive digital content in all its forms from interactive whiteboard packages to individualized software programs.

#1  Are these resources already available in my interactive technology software?
There is content currently available for purchase that includes spinners, dice, currency, flash cards, and a host of other activities and manipulatives that are already located in interactive technology software galleries.  Take a few minutes to browse through the options available in the software you currently have.  And be sure you are comparing apples to apples.  A 6 sided die that rolls when you spin it is different than a 6 sided die that does the same but can be customized by the teacher with different numbers or words.

#2  Are these resources like a textbook online?  Could I create these resources myself?
If content looks like it is a scanned .pdf from your textbook, is similar to a Power Point slide with some simple text and images, offers no functionality beyond drag and drop, or looks like something you could create in your interactive technology software, you can save your money and most likely find comparable content free on any interactive whiteboard community site.

#3  Are these resources limited in number or comprehensive?
Some interactive content packages are grouped in large grade level bands.  For example, a math pack may include 100 lessons for K-5th grade.  Look closely at the number of lessons that pack includes for each specific grade level and consider the number of topics it covers.  If I am a first grade teacher, only 20 of those lessons may apply to my classroom, and they may only address 6 of the 15 math topics taught in my curriculum.  Since a single classroom includes students of widely varying abilities, it is important to have access to materials at other grade levels. 

Determine whether the content you purchase is comprehensive and will allow you to choose materials from different grade levels or whether you are limited to the content for your specific grade.  (This is particularly important when content will be used for individual interventions.)  If content is limited, investigate whether the resource points you to additional interactive activities either within the program or on the web.  For example, if you use two decimals lessons from the content but aren’t finished teaching decimals, does the resource continue to assist your efforts?  If students complete an activity but are still struggling, are there additional interventions available?

(This post is the first in a series of four.  Stay tuned for more questions to ask!)

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