Epstein: Tidying Up Education Technology — 6 Things School and District Leaders Can Learn From Marie Kondo

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Organizing guru Marie Kondo’s relentless approach to “tidying up” has taken the world by storm. Her foundational principle has already become a cliché: Keep only those items that “spark joy.” Throw away everything else.

It’s an approach that school and district leaders should take to heart as they consider the potential — and pitfalls — of education technology.

Technology’s promise to improve student outcomes has sent schools and districts on an ed tech shopping spree. As a nation, we spend more than $13 billion per year on education technology, with the average school district (of 1,000 students or more) now using 548 ed tech apps each month.

This glut of technology has dramatic consequences. Nearly 100,000 K-12 schools across the country make decisions about technology largely in a vacuum, with virtually no communication about which tools work and under what conditions. Tools are often selected without an understanding of whether they are likely to be a good fit or how to properly implement them. And educators are often overwhelmed with technology they are not using properly, if they are using it at all. The results are all too common: Student outcomes stagnate while millions of dollars are spent on technology tools that are barely used. This does not spark joy.

Can Marie Kondo’s approach to decluttering enable schools to use technology more effectively and fulfill its promise of helping students succeed?

Here’s how Kondo’s six “basic rules” of tidying can apply to ed tech.

1 Commit yourself to tidying up

Cleaning well takes time and effort, but the reward is worth it. In the case of ed tech, this should start with a commitment to discover which tools should be eliminated and which merit further investment to ensure they are being used properly.

How to decide which to cut and which to keep? Every school needs to develop a system for keeping tabs on its technology usage, and each ed tech company a school uses should be able to provide regular reports. Services like LearnPlatform, Brightbytes, Paperbasket and Glimpse K12 can track ed tech usage and provide cold, hard numbers to show how often students actually use various tools.

If a school doesn’t have those services, it’s even more important to make the tech providers do some of the work. They must make sure during the purchase process that it’s clear how a school will receive usage data, and in what form. At minimum, companies should provide monthly reports that show how many times each student used the product, for how long and what the student accomplished. The most effective companies often provide access to usage data on the fly, helping schools understand how students are using a given tool and where they might need guidance or support to use it better.

2 Imagine your ideal lifestyle

The allure of education technology has always come from its bold promises of transforming student outcomes. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that in the right contexts, and when used properly, education technology can be a powerful learning aid.

Other studies show, though, that when technology goes unused, or is used improperly, students are deprived of important learning opportunities — and both dollars and time are wasted.

When it comes to ed tech, imagining your ideal lifestyle means developing a vision of how well, and how often, students use technology to materially support their learning. That means keeping in mind the unique context, constraints and opportunities of their school and district environment.

3 Finish discarding first

Marie Kondo is adamant that before starting to organize and store your belongings, you must first get rid of all the junk. Before looking for new technology to buy, educators and administrators should first consider what tools and devices they already have, and then make the difficult decisions about what to keep and what to give up.

A school or district may have purchased many more things than it can implement and support properly. Don’t dwell on this problem or worry about having been overly ambitious. Review the definition of the sunk cost fallacy — money spent is already gone, so don’t fixate on it — and move on.

4 Tidy by category, not location

Don’t go classroom by classroom, or even app by app, when cleaning up ed tech clutter. Think in terms of the categories that actually matter: subjects, for instance, or grade levels. That will help ensure both consistency and efficiency.

5 Follow the right order

For Marie Kondo, tidying up starts with clothes, then books, all the way down to sentimental items. The point is that you can’t get to the really challenging work until you’ve gotten the hang of the process.

The same principle should hold true when it comes to education technology. Some tools may have been in use longer or have more loyalty among teachers. Others will likely be less popular or familiar. Start by identifying the least entrenched (and least used) tech tools in the school or district and make the hard decisions about those before moving on to the more popular ones that may require more inquiry and discussion.

6 Ask if it ‘sparks joy’

Marie Kondo’s most famous mantra is the one that school and district leaders should apply to every technology product.

But there’s one huge caveat.

Seeing that students enthusiastically use a tool is cause for optimism — but engagement does not necessarily equal outcomes. Some ed tech tools bring students joy without leading to meaningful improvement in learning (some call them edu-tainment).

What should really spark joy for educators is seeing evidence that the tool is driving gains in students’ academic skills. That evidence is the crucial missing piece to help schools and districts tidy up their ed tech. Until they have it, teachers and school leaders may not possess all the information they need to make fully informed decisions about which tools to keep and which to discard.

But that shouldn’t stop teachers and school leaders from starting to tidy up their education technology. And there’s no need to wait for rigorous research to begin the process. Leaders should tell ed tech vendors they’re auditing usage and impact, and make them provide information about what’s getting used and how. Ask teachers which tools students use most often, what the impact appears to be and why. These initial steps can shed light on which products are being used more effectively than others and which need to get cut.

Simply starting the decluttering process can help educators think critically about which products have been most impactful, which merit more training and support, and which should be culled — so schools can focus on getting the best of those that offer the greatest promise.

Bart Epstein is CEO of the Jefferson Education Exchange, a nonprofit committed to helping teachers and school leaders make informed decisions about education technology.

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