In a time of budget cuts, funding restrictions and limited staffing, education leaders often struggle to select the best quality resources. Attempting to provide high-quality, safe technologies for student use is an overwhelming and costly initiative that includes determining what technologies are being used in the classrooms and if the various tools contain security layers that protect student information.
Houston ISD has over 200,000 students enrolled in more than 280 schools that use a variety of technologies every day. As with all education professions, in an attempt to save time and energy, instructional staff had been using free resources without taking into consideration any safety concerns or risks.
As a result, Houston ISD staffers developed evaluation processes and weighted rubrics to evaluate and select technologies such as mobile apps, websites and software. Now, the education technology department completes the evaluations and maintains a digital library of approved resources. This digital library, the HISD App Toolbox, provides an approved list of more than 200 technologies available for classroom use.
Following a multistep evaluation process, education technology staff members are able to determine which resources align with the district’s safety standards, and how tools can be used—including grade-level appropriateness, rostering or other data integration requirements, and, if necessary, technical support methods.. Using the HISD App Toolbox, users can locate information about the technologies, learn how to access the resources and find support documentation that covers basic to advanced tool functionality.
Houston’s evaluation rubric has 11 elements, which include data safety compliance and user experience. On the rubric, the word “tool” is understood to include mobile apps, websites or software applications. The evaluation elements are weighted and scored for significance, and contain several secondary items under each category. The evaluation elements are:
- Review the acceptable use policy or privacy statement to determine how accounts are created, what data is being collected, if there is third-party account access and if the tool is compliant with safety standards.
- Evaluate the content and purpose of the tool to determine if it is appropriate for the K-12 academic environment.
- Determine if the tool contains content created by other users, and if that content is visible and searchable by others.
- Identify if the tool provides feedback to the user and if it saves the user’s content for future access.
- Predict the engagement or interaction that users will have with the tool, and what level of support, if any, users will require.
- Review any advertisements or pop-up content within the tool or website. Determine if the advertisements are static or nonstatic.
- Identify any accessibility features or functionalities that are available within the tool.
- Score the data encryption provided through the tool.
- Determine if the tool has built-in communication features such as chats or user boards that allow teachers to moderate or archive them, if necessary.
- Evaluate the tool for customizable features.
- Score the usability of the interface to determine the level of support or training that users may need.
Over the past two years, staffers at Houston ISD have successfully used this evaluation method to select the best free, high-quality digital resources for classroom instruction while continuing to align with the district’s safety standards. The work is ongoing, and approved tools are reevaluated annually to determine if product changes or upgrades were made that would alter the district’s approval status.
Houston ISD leaders are pleased with the App Toolbox and the progress toward digital safety, and will continue to evaluate mobile apps, websites and software applications to ensure that digital safety and security are emphasized. This evaluation method allows the district to save time and ensure that any digital resources used in the district are cost-effective and support district initiatives.
Kristy Sailors is the director of education technology for Houston ISD.