Friday, December 28, 2018

Why Teachers Don't Use The Software Their Districts Paid For

Ryan Baker (University of Pennsylvania's Center for Learning Analytics) unleashed a small surprise last month with a report indicating that the vast amount of software licenses purchased by school districts are simply never used. There are points on which we might quibble, including the smallish sample size of districts (48) and the very small sample size of data management companies (1). But the results still feel correct, and worthy of discussion. Schools spend a great deal of money on software that is barely used, if at all. Why does that happen?
Thomas Arnett at the Christensen Institute took a stab at explaining all that unused software, using the Institute's Jobs To Be Done Theory. We could call it Perceived Utility or Does This Actually Help Me, but the idea is simple. Teachers have an idea of what their job is, and they will evaluate software based on whether or not it helps do the job.

Arnett's team talked to teachers and uncovered three "jobs" that they believed were relevant:

Job #1: Lead way in improving my school.

Job#2: Find ways to engage and challenge more students.

Job #3: Replace broken instructional model so I can reach each student.

Software rarely helps with the first, can occasionally help with the second and might help with the third, says Arnett. I'm not so sure. It's hard to believe that in 2018, we still have folks who think a computer program will be engaging just because it's a computer program. But students are no more excited about computers than they are about pens.
On top of that, software has a very short interest life. In the last decade of teaching, I repeatedly saw the short lifespan of cool new apps play out with my students. First the new app is discovered, then it's shared, then everybody has to use it every day, then it loses its shine, then we're on to the next one. That process generally plays out in two-to-four weeks.  The odds that software that is engaging in September will still be engaging in May, or even December, are slim-to-none.

Arnett's basic insight is sound; teachers don't use software that isn't useful to them, particularly if the time involved in setting it up, getting it to work and getting students comfortable with it is just too big a chunk of the limited teaching time in the year.

There are other issues that Arnett doesn't look at. A huge factor is time--how much will it take the teacher to learn the program, and how much preparation will the program require for use. There are, for instance, programs that allow for game-like quizzing and questioning, but which require hours of physically entering the questions into the program. A good review idea would be to have students write questions on note cards, and then the teacher can enter all of those questions into the program, requiring an hour or two of prep time. Or the teacher can just use the note cards, requiring zero hours of prep time.

The problem at the root of much unused software is the district's procurement process. The surest way to keep software from being used is to keep the teacher--the actual end user--locked out of the procurement process. When the software is purchased by people who aren't going to use it, it almost always turns out not to be useful. As Arnett notes, "A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office's front door," but it won't get the software used in a classroom.

Note: a quick peekaboo session does not fix this. It takes time and use to determine if software is really useful or not. Having teachers "look this over" for an afternoon, or even for a week, is not good enough.

If your district is going to purchase software, it needs to be software that teachers will actually want to use because it helps them do their jobs. The only people who can make that determination about the software is the teachers themselves. If they aren't involved in the procurement process, and if that doesn't include time for training and use of the software, you are wasting a ton of taxpayer dollars on software licenses that will gather a bunch of cyber-dust.
Originally posted at Forbes


  1. The surest way to keep software from being used is to keep the teacher--the actual end user--locked out of the procurement process. When the software is purchased by people who aren't going to use it, it almost always turns out not to be useful.

    PEC 8th Class Result 2019

  2. Canned instructional material, be they textbooks, e-books, software programs, or kits are generally worthless because they are never tested and proven in real classrooms with real adolescents - not young children. At the very best, canned programs may provide a seed of an idea. Mostly not.

  3. All of this unused technology is a colossal waste of funds that could be used to actually improve schools. I have a friend who has actually made a financial killing taking school's old computers and technology and recycling them. His job would not be possible if the school districts were not wasting so much. Then, on the other hand, we have schools in the Philadelphia School District literally falling apart. It's such a shame.

  4. More times than not I've been introduced to "new" software/technology that hasn't been vetted by actual teachers. Same goes for purchasing new technology or devices for classrooms.

  5. Excellent article. This software should be like a Christmas present, and be given to teachers with the receipt, so they can return it and get something they actually want.

  6. Why not use the free Khan Academy program? It's a much maligned resource. It's free and can be used anywhere. Students will be taking Algebra 1 ready in 8th grade. That's the great divide.

  7. Well-meaning administrators, ineffective results. Premature purchasing, costly mistakes.