As teachers, coaches, and administrators being to wrestle with the idea of how to evaluate the use of technology in classrooms, there are a number of models that can be used as a guide. SAMR and TPACK are two commonly referenced frameworks. These focus on the depth of the experience, not the minutes logged. Anyone who has worked with students, or even observed their own children, can agree that screen time does not necessarily equate to learning!
I have developed my own framework that I use to evaluate and recommend digital tools and resources. It stems from a classic commercial from Wendy’s in the 1980’s where the sweet old woman would continually ask the question, “Where’s the Beef?” In that context, she was asking this question to the person taking her order at other fast food restaurants, referring to the small size of the hamburger that was on her sandwich. In some ways, we can use this question to investigate how technology is being used by teachers and students, and to assess the depth of understanding that comes as a result.
To further apply this phrase, I converted the word “BEEF” into an acronym. My message to teachers and students is that if technology doesn’t make the experience Better, the job Easier, the workflow more Efficient, or allow the process to be completed Faster, it need to be sent back to the counter. My rule of thumb is that a tool or resource needs to address two or more of these to make it into my arsenal.
Now I realize that better, easier, and efficient are all pretty subjective terms and are difficult to quantify, unlike faster, and they are all going to be relative to how fluent a user is with technology. There is also value in giving a new tool an adequate trial period. Then again, sometimes we just know it’s a frog, right? Not every new technology turns into a prince!
What are some ways that we can characterize the term “better?” One way that I applied this trait can be found in my adoption of using Symbaloo as a bookmarking tool. I started using an online bookmarking tool called Delicious a number of years ago. I used this for my own convenience as I bounced from device to device. I then began using it to provide a dynamic resource for my students to easily access, for guided research and supplemental instructional support. Then, Symbaloo entered my life. Honestly, the first time I saw it and tried it, I did not like it. I didn’t see the power of it until revisiting a few months later. Yes, in its most basic form, it was still an online bookmarking tool that I could share with my students. The feature that put it in the “better” classification was that I, and my students, can now search for other people’s Symbaloo pages based on topics. If I want to see a list of (presumably vetted) assistive technology resources, I can search for it. Perhaps I am looking for a collection of OERs (Open Education Resources) or computer science and coding websites. One search takes me directly to someone else’s Symbaloo that they have chosen to create and share. Aesthetics can play a role in “better” as well. The versatility and ease of use of Symbaloo as compared to other similar tools knocks it out of the park for me!
I prefer to expend my brain power researching, solving problems and developing work flows. I don’t like using it to complete cumbersome tasks or difficult processes to simply use a tool. As an example, I don’t characterize myself as overly talented when it comes to graphic design. I sometimes spend too much time trying to visualize what I think something should look like and try to make the product match my vision, only to find that the finished product had the opposite impact on the audience. I have used everything from the “Paint” application in Windows to Publisher to Google Draw and the steps involved in creating a visually appealing product always resulted in low-quality or were never finished. I learned about a few user-friendly, professional grade tools called S’more and Canva at a conference a few years ago. Within seconds, I was able to create rather amazing designs that could be used as publications, within Social Media, or for advertising. I lack the design vision, and these tools fill in those gaps. These tools allow people like me (or anyone for that matter) to get the message across using more effective layouts and styles. Tools like these allow users to focus on the ideas, information, and message without having to go through the cumbersome process of creating the product from scratch. Now, I know that there are many critics out there that may feel that shortcuts, templates, and head starts are the easy way out and that it stifles creativity. I agree, however I know my own limitations and I know how to appropriately choose tools that are easier and allow me to better execute other jobs, such as problem solving, researching, and developing work flows.
This is sometimes a difficult word to define. I see it as a combination of faster and easier. Sometimes it can be more of one than the other. At the heart of the idea of efficiency is minimizing the steps in a process, not necessarily skipping steps. If I were baking cookies, leaving out the sugar, flour, and not mixing it does not make the process more efficient, even though I eliminated steps. A key characteristic of efficiency is that the end product is as of equally high quality, if not higher. That can only be done by revising the process or the steps within. In the cookie analogy, it means preheating the oven before starting, gathering all of the ingredients and putting them in the area that you will be working, and having easy access to the utensils and pans you will need. It means putting the cooling rack and bowl of batter next to the oven, so that when you take the cookies out you can remove them from the pan, put them on the rack, and immediately spoon your next batch of cookies onto the pan. Eliminating the unnecessary steps of moving around the kitchen, and constantly relocating the pans and bowls makes it a much more efficient process. How does this relate to blended learning? All I can think of now is that I want a cookie….oh yeah, now I remember!
My most widely applicable example of efficiency made possible through technology is the spirit of collaborative documents. Whether you’re in the Google camp or Microsoft Office 365 camp (or like me, a member of both) you know exactly what I mean! Here is an example that paints the picture:
A building principal has taken the lead in the development of a School Improvement Plan. Let's assume that he is starting from the ground up, although the same concept applies if the building is revising an existing plan. He creates the master version of the plan and puts the headings in for each area, such as School Technology Plan, Parent Involvement, Facilities, Emergency Plans, etc. He sends the original document in Microsoft Word as an email attachment out to each of the lead contributors for each section, with instructions to fill our their part and then send the document back. The Principal receives eight copies of the original file. He must then open each individual file and copy and paste each section back into the original. The next day, the head of the Emergency Plan committee realizes that she left out critical updates to the plan. She must either email those to the Principal and he will add them to the master, or, maybe there were significant changes, so he sends her the whole document and she downloads it, makes the changes, and emails it back. I think you are beginning to see the issues. Without a doubt, one of the biggest problems is with redundancy. How many individual versions of this document are in existence? There would be way too much wasted time and energy trying to find the right version and effectively communicate about it.
With collaborative documents, such Google Docs or Word Online, the Principal could create the document, share it with the committee heads, and allow them to edit it to add their sections. When the needs arose to edit and revise, this is done on the live document, not a copy. It would be accessible from any device by anyone who was given access. If the team wanted feedback from the rest of the staff, they would be invited to access the document. They could pose questions, make comments, and provide feedback using the comment tools. My contention is that this is a better use of resources, specifically time and energy, and would result in a higher quality product.
Faster does not always mean better. It may not be easier or more efficient. But if you find that a tool allows you to more quickly get the job done with a end product that has the the same, if not higher, level of quality, you may be onto something. Speech-to-text, automatic citation service like Cite This for Me or Easy Bib, and Google Translate make the underlying processes faster. I also place formative assessment tools such as Quizizz, Socrative, and Kahoot in this category. By assessing student comprehension using these tools, I can more quickly gauge the need to reteach, intervene, or extend. I don’t have to wait to grade traditional assessments to get this information. The same is true for the feedback cycle. By providing high-quality feedback to students via comments on digital assignments or messaging within an LMS, student are receiving actionable feedback sooner. As we know is often the case with students, once they are done with an assignment or even an individual problem, they have likely moved on. If we can leverage technology to provide real-time feedback, we stand a better chance of students actually making adjustments based on the comments.
As you have probably seen, these four traits are similar in nature and interconnected in many ways. The reason I share this evaluation framework with teachers and students is to allow them to reflect on and evaluate their current practices to identify areas that technology may stand to provide improvements in one of these areas. It is also important to think of technology, instructional technology in particular, as fluid. The only way to keep from being swallowed up by digital quicksand is to resist stagnation. We must always be moving. We need to know how we are going to deal with obsolescence, because it is inevitable. This framework can be used to help us decide if the next new tool (or even old ones) are helping us to be more effective by either making the product better, the job easier, the workflow more efficient, or the process faster. If it’s none of these, send it back. If it does one, give it a chance. Two or more? Now you’ve got a Wendy’s Double Cheeseburger! What? McDonald's has a “Grand Mac???”
Today's ideas come to us from Mr. Kevin Schamel. Kevin began teaching in 2006 and become one of RCS’s eLearning Specialists, where he has been helping to support and coach teachers, students, and administrators since 2014. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from Miami University and his M.Ed from IU East. Kevin comes from a family of educators, is married to a middle school math teacher, Kristin, and has two wonderful boys at home, Jaxon and Greyson.