In a recent interview for EdWeek about education-technology problems and solutions, and again in a follow-up panel in Denver, I gave a terse answer to the question, “What is the most common mistake educators make when using a new learning technology?” I responded, “Finding a new tool that does the wrong thing more efficiently.” Apparently, I touched a nerve. Good! As much as that may have felt like a mic-drop moment, it shouldn’t have. I think we need to look much harder at this issue.

Changing Your Approach

The key to untangling this challenge is to understand exactly what the wrong thing is, and then to understand why we keep doing it. According to the National Equity Project, the wrong thing is using the same practices that do not interrupt the predictability of success and failure in our students. Teaching practices that dismantle creativity and engagement foster disinterest, low attendance, and low student outcomes. (Tools that convert below-grade-level books into PDFs, turn worksheets into digital worksheets, or optimize the grading of standardized tests are not the best ed-tech tools.)

To begin with the right approach, we need to look at our data to find the most marginalized students. Organizations have a habit of rounding off those that look least like the typical or successful students. After a few iterations of this rounding effect, you will see only successful schools allowed to lead with new initiatives, while other schools must wait to earn, if ever, that privilege. Look into those “successful” schools. Are they successful for all students, or are they composed of simply more socioeconomically advantaged students? What are the success rates for English-language learners, students receiving special education services, and students of color? What about kids who might match two or three of those categories? From this, you can craft the much touted and crucial “Why?” for your initiative.

Successful Initiatives

Consider the progression of three projects I have shepherded. The first was a tablet computer initiative—when it wasn’t cool to do. While the initiative ultimately spread to all students, it began in our special education department. We learned from those 50 students that a single tool could serve a multitude of different purposes for different students and that it was easy to see the benefits with this group. But we also learned how it could benefit all students.

This learning continued in another school district a few years later. While we knew that tablet computers could be successful, we wanted to do more than simply increase access and opportunity. Our special education leader championed the universal design for learning educational framework, which was crucial in helping teachers make a pedagogical shift. We were able to show teachers that shifting from teaching to a single success level of learners among a classroom of 30 students did not require 30 different lesson plans but only one lesson plan that worked well for 30 students. So began the notion of giving students more opportunities to personalize their learning and the introduction of student agency through flexible lesson plans. The school with the most-documented success was the alternative high school—the school with the most high-needs students.

Fast forward a few more years to a third district and another initiative with a 1:1 capstone. In a large urban school district such as Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Austin, TX, you will nearly always find schools on a spectrum of success. We aim to reinvent the urban education experience. In technology, we began with technology design coaches who, through nonevaluative coaching, meet teachers where they are in their learning and transformation. This is a monthslong and yearslong process. As our superintendent Paul Cruz says, “It’s hard work, and it’s heart work.” This effort began before we introduced a learning management system or 1:1 computers. In AISD, we selected Canvas by Instructure, but we call it “BLEND”— because it’s not about the tool, it’s about what you can do with it. We are on a mission to spread blended and personalized learning to all our classrooms.

BLEND Learning Management System (LMS) is a way to streamline teaching and learning by connecting all of the digital tools that teachers, students, and parents use in one place.

Teachers can use BLEND to:

  • Personalize learning for students
  • Receive and grade student assignments, discussions, and quizzes
  • Easily align assignments and rubrics to standards and/or learning objectives
  • Provide students with written, audio, or video feedback and multiple revision/submission opportunities
  • Organize all work and course-related events into one calendar
  • Push course notifications to students via email and text

Students can use BLEND to:

  • Access class materials—calendars, assignments, and quizzes—online using any device
  • Track their progress through ongoing teacher feedback tools
  • Receive course announcements, grade notifications, etc., instantaneously on their preferred device(s)
  • Easily collaborate with peers and teachers

Failure Warning

I had one (nearly) epic fail during the launch of BLEND. I had planned to first fully deploy the LMS at the school that had been piloting it before I joined the district. However, I had not checked the data, nor the history of the district. Deploying at this school would have been a blunder that would have not only perpetuated inequity at schools that didn’t receive the program, but also would have reopened a significant racial wound in the district. Instead, we concurrently launched this program at multiple schools, accelerating the preparation at schools where students had traditionally been underserved.

After 10 years, we applied for and received Verizon Innovative Learning grants for five of our middle level schools—not just any five schools, but ones where data showed us that we could “interrupt the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor.” We reviewed the success of the students and the traction we were receiving with BLEND. We found a profound correlation between economically disadvantaged students and limited-to-nonexistent usage of the LMS tools and coaching opportunities.

Predictable thinking would have directed us to go to the schools with the most usage. Instead, we worked with five willing principals and bet on five of the schools with the lowest usage of tools and highest economically disadvantaged student percentages. We added coaches to these schools, and the Verizon grant provided computers with high-speed internet access and more. I am beyond #AISDProud to say that in just three months, these five schools have vaulted to the top of the usage charts for BLEND, which we know is an early indicator of the transformation to blended and personalized learning.

What students have now is a set of tools that let them research, ideate, create, collaborate, iterate, and present their learning. These are the types of tools that can transform learning.

Ed tech will amplify whatever is going on in classrooms, good or bad. When you give all kids the same access and opportunity through ed-tech tools with no other supports, it may be equal, but it is not equitable. It exacerbates the disparities when implemented in this way. Products must be paired with bold and persistent work to undo and redirect decades of well-intentioned but traumatic deficit thinking that impacts the same kids.

Out of necessity, we tend to look for tools that tweak or slightly improve what we are already doing. We must back up and do some root-cause analysis. We must look at the data and find the most marginalized students. What do the district strategic vision and plan really tell us? Who will benefit, and who may be harmed? Undoubtedly, the problem to solve will present itself. Once the problem is clearly identified, build the systemic support. Then, and only then, should school leaders procure new technology tools. Ensure that your implementations allow for the change and results to occur over time, because Amara’s Law tells us, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” You will be amazed at the difference this approach makes for your students.

Kevin Schwartz is the chief technology officer for the Austin Independent School District in Austin, TX. He also serves on the board of directors for the Consortium for School Networking and is a member of several technology industry advisory panels.