Balancing Freedom and Control in EdTech Isn't an Allor- Nothing Approach

Greg Gazanian, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Arcadia Unified School District
Greg Gazanian, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Arcadia Unified School District

Greg Gazanian, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Arcadia Unified School District

When I took on my first management position in a K12 school district, I was given an assignment that had been passed down from tech manager to tech manager for as long as anyone could remember. What was this rite of passage that was so essential to the workings of our district? I was handed a copy of the seemingly ancient yet somehow evolving list of approved district software and escorted to the new teacher orientation where I would share the boundaries of what was permissible. The list was met with a modicum of appreciation, so a lingering question haunted me. If we were only going to provide a strict list of limited options, what other possibilities were being left behind in the name of security?

Freedom vs. Control

The battle of freedom versus control is one that has occupied my thoughts over the years. There are strong arguments on both sides as to how tightly the technology available to students and staff should be restricted. On one side, technology can expose students to all sorts of content that they may not be ready for. On the other, it can move students towards amazing learning opportunities and inspire them to have more agency, voice, and choice when it comes to their education. While few schools or districts respond to this balancing act with austerity, it helps for us to explore the extremes so we can recognize the full range of possible responses.

  When teachers are empowered to make decisions that are right for their students, amazing things happen​  

Options that Falls Short at the Extremes

Two flawed options can be found at the extremes when it comes to controlling educational technology:

1) “You are only allowed to use the technology and apps found on this list. We are monitoring you and will know if you try anything else. So don’t.”

Harsh, right? While it was never quite that bleak in the districts that I’ve worked with, the spirit of the rule can often be found in the world of IT. Narrow options are defined with the intention (though never a guarantee) of a safer network and experience for students.

Often times when an organization tires of such restrictions they may find the temptation to “pendulum swing” to the other side:

2) “It’s too hard to get everyone on the same page, so everyone, just do whatever you want!”

While this kind of wild-west attitude might seem appealing to some, it is an approach that has its own set of limitations. Without a shared vision or thought framework around edtech, gaps can emerge in the process for selecting classroom technology. For example, a lack of common structure around data integration and synchronization might make it nearly impossible for teachers to update their apps with appropriate student data. Even if the data can be synchronized, it begs the questions, who is actually running the app and are they as serious about student data and privacy as the organization is? Finally, without a conversation about what content and activities are appropriate for students at different developmental levels, staff are left to guess which can lead to a lack of alignment across grade levels.

On this end of the spectrum, we have maximum freedom but a lack of shared values and understanding when it comes to goals and safety. So what might we find if we tread towards the middle?

A Balance

One of the best edtech models that I’ve had the opportunity to work with when trying to balance freedom and control comes down to two simple questions combined with a few follow-up questions. Whenever our teachers are considering using a new app or service with our students, we ask that they consider the following:

1. Is it legal?

2. Is it good for kids?

If the answer to both of these questions is “Yes”, then our teachers know that they are allowed to use the technology or app in their classroom. So what is involved with each of these questions? Here is a basic framework that can guide people in evaluating the apps and resources that they use:

Is it Legal?

Do you (the teacher or student) have a proper license to access this resource? Perhaps it is open source or free. Perhaps you’ve purchased a classroom license or the district has a license that covers multiple teachers. In either case, is it being accessed legitimately?

Does the publisher of the app put proper safeguards into place when it comes to student data? Are they willing to have a conversation about that?

Are there any laws (including but not limited to CIPA, COPPA and/or FERPA) that are applicable to the use of the app? If so, are all requirements met?

Is it Good for Kids?

Does the app or resource lead to encouraging students to exercise more voice and choice in their education?

Does it allow for more latitude and connection in how teachers can interact with and inspire their students?

Does it increase student agency and help the student plan and organize their own learning?

Is it appropriate for the student’s age, developmental level, and educational needs?

The Result

Watching different groups move towards this kind of balance between freedom and control has been very rewarding. When teachers are empowered to make decisions that are right for their students, amazing things happen. All the while, the key questions regarding edtech are being asked and considered across the district in a way that can most positively impact students.

Beyond even the impact of teachers being able to choose new apps on the fly for their students, our students are increasingly taking control of their own learning. Several years ago, I was with a group of administrators who had come to visit an elementary school classroom, and we noticed a student who was using a math app that seemed to be working especially well. We asked the teacher where they had found the app and the teacher responded “That student actually found it and thought that it could help her. Other students are using it now too.” Soon after that, information about the app was shared with others classrooms and ultimately other schools. The agency of one student and teacher ultimately grew into the district-level use of a new app.

While there will always be a temptation to polarize to one end or the other of the freedom versus control spectrum, finding a balance that highlights empowerment and responsibility through the use of key questions can result in amazing gains for staff, students, and the edtech community as a whole.

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