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Five middle school students in this western Pennsylvania town stand in a darkened room over a pie chart projected on the floor. Using motion-sensor wands, they manipulate sections of the circle, making pieces representing 1/8 and 1/24.

At a high school in the same district, students sit on couches in the entertainment technology center and program video games and design 3-D models.

Last year, American schools bought $8.38 billion in software, digital content or training and assessments, an annual increase of over 5 percent.

In Roanoke, Virginia, high school students fly a drone over their school and through the hallways to map their campus with aerial video and still photos.

These technology-infused classrooms are popping up around the country.

And as school leaders buy new technology — devices and curricular programs alike — they’re seeking to do more than just replace paper with laptops. They want products designed to be part of a philosophical shift in education, one that enables students to direct their own learning and teachers to engage and encourage them in doing that.

A growing number of companies claim their products can fill this need. Yet school leaders on this new frontier face a daunting challenge: from the slew of highly touted new products, how do they pick the right ones?

“It’s hard for our people to know what all of the choices are,” said Penny Hodge, the assistant superintendent of budget and finance in Roanoke. “Maybe there were even better choices and we weren’t aware.”

School technology
Wednesday, March 19: At Ridley HS, students sit in the hallways tapping out homework assignments on their cell phones
to submit through cloud-based software. Here, in a hallway near the school’s main office. seniors Libby Alfieri , left, and Kellie O’Brien, right,
use their portable electronic devices i.e. iPad and iPhone as they complete school work between classes. Credit: Ed Hille/Philadelphia Inquirer

Today’s school leaders must navigate a market with little trustworthy evidence to show what works. Billions of dollars are being spent while educators try to untangle a maze of sales pitches.

“I’m faced with that on a regular basis now,” Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel said of the polished promises coming from ed-tech providers. She leads the Ridley School District in Folsom, Pennsylvania, which is an Apple Distinguished Program because of its innovative curriculum using iPads in all the district’s classrooms. “People know we have technology, so they say, ‘This is the solution that’s going to solve all your problems.’”

Even in the School District of Philadelphia, where a cash-strapped budget has leaders focusing on free technology solutions like Google Apps for Education, there must be evidence and thorough vetting before moving forward. Leaders offer a curated list of options for teachers and guidelines on how teachers should choose what apps to use for learning.

“If it was free and not high quality we would never bring it to teachers,” said Fran Newberg, Philadelphia’s deputy chief of educational technology.

Picking effective products is not just a Pennsylvanian issue, it’s a national one.

A national survey of 300 school leaders and technology executives by Digital Promise, a Congressionally authorized nonprofit that helps schools adapt to new learning technologies, found two persistent themes: schools need help finding the best technologies; and when good products are found, schools need a better way to share that information.

Related: Teachers figure out when to turn technology on, and when to turn it off

The stakes are high. If more efficient pathways don’t emerge, schools may spend millions of dollars and many valuable hours of staff time on the wrong technologies, while the best innovations may go undiscovered and opportunities to transform classrooms may be lost.

“Everybody’s on the losing end of the current system,” said Eileen Murphy Buckley, founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a company providing personalized learning technology to schools. “The innovation has been stifled … and school districts then don’t have the selection and competition that would help them get the best products.”

There’s no longer a question that schools want more digital resources and will spend heavily to get them. Last year, American schools bought $8.38 billion in software, digital content or training and assessments, an annual increase of over 5 percent, according to Karen Billings, vice president of the Software & Information Industry Association’s Education Technology Industry Network.

Money is also flooding into startups that are creating digital education tools. In 2014, education technology companies received almost $1.87 billion in venture and equity financing, an increase of 55 percent in one year, according to a CB Insights report.

The digital education movement aims to infuse technology into everyday teacher practices and to encourage student-driven learning, with teachers acting more like coaches. Technology is seen not only as an outlet for creativity, but also as a way to engage kids raised in a culture of YouTube and Minecraft.

Yet as school leaders struggle to create these new kinds of classrooms, many aren’t using empirical evidence to make technology choices. They’re using word of mouth, school visits and the results of “questionable” pilots, according to the November 2014 report, “Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing,” by Digital Promise and the Education Industry Association.

Part of the reason is that credible evidence often isn’t available. Only one-third of school technology directors surveyed said that education technology companies offer reliable data on their products, according to the survey.

Private companies hesitate to buy third-party evaluations of their products because of both time and money, said David Vinca, founder and CEO of eSpark Learning. Hiring an outside evaluator for a product is expensive, and valid results can require years of research. Startups can’t afford to shelve their technology while it’s being tested, especially not in a fast-paced market that’s constantly reinventing products.

Related: The Learning Accelerator on blended learning: `In the future, we’ll just call it learning’

Even if independent evaluators are used, school districts often don’t trust studies paid for by the company selling the product. Studies are also questioned if they don’t use several comparable school populations.

School technology
Credit: Elizabeth Forward School District

“We’ll come in with case study and achievement gains, and they’ll discount it if it doesn’t have the same [demographic] profile,” Vinca said. “Schools want to know: is it effective for districts just like mine, that are near me?”

Meanwhile, some educators get sold on a pitch alone.

“Educators don’t make strong, evidence-based decisions as much as they should,” said Thomas Ralston, superintendent at Avonworth School District, a small district near Pittsburgh. “I have teachers in the district who love a program, but when you tell them the data’s not showing results, they don’t want to see it.”

In Philadelphia’s system of 214 schools educating about 120,000 students, leaders are studying how to give teachers and principals guidelines on choosing and evaluating the programs they use.

“We’ve been delving deeply into this; there’s not a clear-cut, easy answer,” Newberg said, noting that educators need to consider not only efficacy but also student privacy concerns. “We are talking to other districts. We are all asking the same questions.”

In this tricky environment, school leaders are doing their best due diligence by making school visits and by running their own trials. They face the pressure of tight post-recession budgets and the fear of negative headlines about failed technology programs.

“We can’t miss when we make a decision, because budgeting is a challenge,” said Roanoke County’s Hodge. “We’ve got to make sure when we make a decision, it’s a right one.”

In December alone, school leaders from 30 districts visited the Elizabeth Forward School District in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, to see technology initiatives there. The small, rural school district has been creating technology-infused spaces. In a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, it started an Entertainment Technology Academy with courses in video game design and 3-D modeling. The middle school was one of the first in the nation to have a Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, where students interact with digital games through motion-sensor wands. There’s also a Dream Factory, where students create and print 3-D models, and the Embodied Learning Lab, where elementary school students use body movement to control educational games.

“Everybody’s on the losing end of the current system.”

“We basically have really been a hub for helping other school districts launch initiatives in their schools,” said Bart Rocco, the Elizabeth Forward superintendent. “Over 200 school districts have visited us. Leaders want to go into schools and see it working. It’s boots on the ground, it’s having teachers in the room using the technologies. You can talk to the teachers and the kids and see whether they’re engaged or not.”

The Ridley School District also gives tours to other educators. But Wentzel always cautions: “It’s fine to see what we’re doing, but you have to know what you want to achieve. What’s your learning outcome for your organization and your environment?”

However, private vendors say that relying on peer recommendations can stifle the growth of new technology, especially if school leaders visit only neighboring districts. Small startups get pigeonholed into regions where one risk-taker has succeeded and has spread the word to nearby schools, Vinca said. For example, he said his company’s iPad app curation service is used in 100 districts in 21 states, but that every expansion has been tough. “It is very hard to enter a new state or a new region of the state,” he said. “It’s hard to get one person to take that first leap.”

Related: What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’

Being the first can be time-consuming and potentially risky. Rick Gay, the purchasing manager for Baltimore County Public Schools, explained that technology decisions there involve months of work by curriculum, technology, business and budget department staffs. Once a technology is chosen, the district starts with a small trial, then grows successful projects from there.

School technology
Credit: Elizabeth Forward School District

The School District of Philadelphia is now examining technology to support struggling students and options to allow teachers to do blended learning in their classrooms. Both searches involve teams of educators evaluating requests for proposals, interviewing vendors and validating data claims.

“It’s a very difficult process,” Newberg said.

Imagine that process happening over and over again in every school district in America. Educators say that many schools simply don’t have the resources for research and piloting. What’s more, some say that good technology shouldn’t need repetitive vetting — schools just need a better way to share results.

“Some of the efforts to help make visible what works can’t happen fast enough,” said Susan Adelmann, vice president of market intelligence for Follett, the former publishing company that now sells educational technology and services. “Those early adopters have been brave enough to try those new things, and educators need to see patterns of what works.”

School district leaders and private companies alike say they want to see a reputable curation website, with professional reviews and a social media component. They also need models for how to pilot products, since many current trials aren’t structured well enough to be trusted by other districts, according to the Digital Promise report.

Such things are in the works.

A website that collects third-party app reviews, called Graphite, was launched by Common Sense Media in 2013. There, teachers can find education experts’ reviews of thousands of apps. The site also lets teachers add “field notes,” telling others how they’ve used a particular app in their classrooms. More than 200,000 subscribers have signed up for the free website, said Mike Lorion, the general manager of education for the nonprofit, which is considering adding a site for district leaders, too.

In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded fast-paced technology trials, attempting to pave a new way to get reliable feedback from the classroom. The quick-evaluation pilots in New York City, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area are giving teachers products hand-picked by experts. Researchers then document, analyze and report on results in the classroom. So far, the schools have gone through two trials, one each in the spring and fall of 2014.

The Washington, D.C.-based Digital Promise is also researching best practices for pilots in schools. It will soon launch an initiative to study schools as they develop blended learning programs and then broadcast the results, said spokesman Jason Tomassini.

Though some might criticize such efforts as experimenting on kids, those convinced that technology will improve learning believe that taking risks is the only way to move schools forward. They say that the growing pains of the market are just that — kinks in an evolving system that will find its footing as the movement for education technology expands.

Inefficiency shouldn’t scare away educators or investors, because it’s all part of the learning curve, said Scott Ellis, CEO of The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit that works to speed the adoption of digital education programs.

“This is a journey of innovation,” Ellis said. “As a country, we are on a journey, and it’s exactly what should be happening. Why would we choose to deprive educators of innovation? You’ve got to have innovation and conversation to see what works.”

Elizabeth Forward’s Rocco believes that schools should become incubators for technology, helping develop what works in the classroom. Several of the district’s successful initiatives came into being because developers and teachers worked collaboratively on solutions.

“We’ve got to change the model and break down those walls,” he said.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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