Unused: Instructional Software's Dark Secret

A new report shows that almost 98 percent of the software and apps purchased by some school districts are never fully used by students.

by / December 12, 2018

A recent report from the Penn Center for Learning Analytics, funded by BrightBytes, a K-12 data and learning analytics company, offers a glimpse into U.S. schools and their students’ use of instructional software and applications. The report’s findings should give pause to any school leader responsible for purchasing instructional applications.

I recommend reading a Hechinger Report article for its overview of the Penn Center work, which included these findings: Of the 48 school districts whose data was used in the analysis, it was found that a median of 97.6 percent of their apps weren’t used to their intended levels, and 70 percent of their districts’ student app licenses weren’t used at all.

I’ve written before about the flawed processes school districts frequently employ to make instructional software purchasing decisions, and I’ve been guilty of leading such selection processes that weren’t based on solid research or adequately inclusive of teacher input. I’ve also fallen short on evaluating usage data once the applications were purchased and implemented. So I’m not too surprised by the report’s findings, and believe they may partially explain why educational technology isn’t paying the dividends in students’ academic growth that many of its champions have hoped for. But there’s more to it than that.

I see four major components that contribute to the Penn Center’s findings on the marked underuse and ineffectiveness of instructional software and applications in schools:

1. Lack of research. Frequently, districts’ software and application purchasing decisions are made without the benefit of unbiased research on the products’ effectiveness. This happens because either good research exists but is overlooked by the districts’ purchasing authorities, or because unbiased research, not funded by the application’s parent company, hasn’t been conducted. Addressing this issue, a new group out of the University of Virginia, The Jefferson Education Exchange (JEX), is working to conduct and promote rigorous educational technology research. Additionally, JEX is committed to including strong teacher input in the JEX review and evaluation processes.

2. Lack of teacher input and investment. Too often, digital resources are purchased by school districts on their teachers’ behalf, but without adequate teacher input. It’s no small feat for districts to get a significant number of teachers meaningfully involved in the software evaluation and selection processes and to also have them field-test the applications in their classrooms with students. But, unfortunately, the alternative solutions may lead to the kind of low-use issues identified in the Penn Center report.

3. Lack of ongoing teacher support. It’s important that teachers’ use of purchased software and applications are well-supported by instructional content-area experts. However, “buy it and they will come” is a common unwritten theme in districts’ software deployment strategies. But this approach is rarely successful, even when good research and teacher input drive the purchasing decisions. Teachers need support — both initially and over time — to determine why and how they should incorporate new digital resources into their instruction. Some especially recalcitrant teachers may also require the encouragement of their supervisors to ensure they get on board.

4. District-wide licensing issues. Buying district-wide or volume licenses is an expensive proposition. Even though school district leaders know the applications won’t get used by all teachers in all schools, they nonetheless go ahead and buy volume licenses. And they do this because the vendor makes bulk license pricing especially attractive, or to ensure all schools get equal treatment, or perhaps because it’s just the easiest thing to do. But going this route, for whatever reason, guarantees many licenses will lie fallow. And considering the 70 percent unused license figure from the Penn Center report, districts must find better ways to allocate their resources, and also pay closer attention to their applications’ usage data.   

The Penn Center’s report reveals some uncomfortable truths for many school districts investing in educational technology applications. But these findings will hopefully prompt districts to hit the “pause” button on further purchases; to reconsider their application selection, implementation and data monitoring procedures; and determine what they must do to improve their practices.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.