Four ways to manage the influx of learning apps in the classroom

Districts creating app stores and review policies to ensure effective usage of ed tech tools
By: | Issue: April 2020
March 12, 2020
Managing the abundance of learning apps in the classroom means ensuring curriculum compatibility and Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) compliance.Managing the abundance of learning apps in the classroom means ensuring curriculum compatibility and Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) compliance.

When Steve Langford realized that his employer, Beaverton School District, needed a process to manage the abundance of learning apps in the classroom, he asked teachers to submit help desk tickets through the IT department to help vet the learning tools. Within weeks, more than 1,600 tickets had been submitted.

“We looked at that and said, ‘Oh, this is a much larger problem than we realized,” says Langford, CIO for the Oregon district. “I’ve heard it said that the district knows about 5% of the apps that are used … and those are the ones that we pay for and manage. What we learned was there were a vast multitude of apps [in Beaverton schools] that we just had no visibility into.”

A 2018 BrightBytes report of app usage in 58 school districts found that students logged almost 30 million hours on 177 learning apps.

As app use becomes ubiquitous in schools, administrators are faced with the challenge of managing all aspects of usage—from ensuring tools are compatible with curriculum standards to confirming compliance with the Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).


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When it comes to mobile device management, adopting these four strategies can help streamline app purchases, vetting and compliance within the district.

1. Create a learning apps decision-making system

Not long after Beaverton teachers began submitting help desk tickets, Langford realized the district needed a more formal review process that included a working group with stakeholders from the curriculum and IT departments.

“It was much more complex,” he says, than what might be collected on a simple spreadsheet. “Each one of those decision points takes a group of experts to do that work.”

Officials at Lewisville Independent School District in Texas created an app store to provide elementary teachers with access to almost 200 vetted apps that can be used in their classrooms. Teachers can submit requests to have additional apps added to the store.

A team from the digital learning department reviews the apps twice each year to ensure each aligns with the curriculum and that the data and privacy policies remain compliant with district, state and federal standards.

Students can log into their iPads and launch apps, but the account provisioning is done on the back end, says CTO Bryon Kolbeck. “If we have a resource that a student is not in the right class or grade level to access, they might see an app but they’ll never be able to log in.”

2. Review app usage analytics

Once apps are vetted, school district staff are charged with making sure the licenses are being used, not uploaded and forgotten.

To combat the issue of unused licenses in Boston Public Schools, CIO Mark Racine started using tools like Clever and GoGuardian Director to capture metrics and drawing on that data to guide decision-making.

Unused licenses, he explains, could be a sign that a teacher needs an alternative tool or training to implement the app in the classroom. It might also be a chance to redistribute licenses.

From idea
to approval:
Determining the ROI on an app

Before approving an app for a classroom, administrators should ask six questions to ensure it is a smart investment:

1. Will it fill a gap in the curriculum or complement a resource currently being used in the classroom?

2. Is there a district-approved app that currently meets a similar need?

3. What are the system requirements and can the app be easily integrated into the existing infrastructure?

4. How does the cost of a district license compare to the cost for student or school site licenses, and which option makes more financial sense?

5. Will teachers require training to use the application, and when/where would that training occur?

6. Are data privacy agreements in place with the app vendor?

“In some cases, it’s worked to tell the vendor, ‘I’ve got a school over here that wants to buy licenses and a school over here has too many licenses. Can we shift some back and forth?’” he says. “We’ve had some success with partners that have allowed us to redistribute licenses to where they’re needed rather than who bought them and may not be using them.”


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The data might also point to worthwhile investments, says Pete Just, CIO and CTO for Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township.

Administrators at the Indianapolis district began gathering data about app use through the CatchOn platform in 2019. Although Just had wanted to use the analytics to cut underused apps, he discovered that knowing the numbers had an additional benefit.

“When we learned that 30 of our 40 second grade teachers are using a version of a free app, we could say, ‘Maybe we need to look at upgrading to the paid version,’ ” he says.

3. Ensure seamless integration of apps in the classroom

In Beaverton, mobile device management helps teachers integrate digital learning tools into the curriculum. Langford works with the IT department to manage all 60,000 devices within the district network, installing apps and handling updates.

In addition to saving teachers from devoting countless hours to updating apps on their classroom sets of iPads and Chromebooks and then needing to monitor for regular updates, Langford explains, the centralized process allows IT staff to test the apps and work through any problems.

“Sometimes we will catch an update that blows up and we’re able to prevent that from happening before it gets to students and teachers,” he says.

Although Boston teachers can make autonomous decisions about which apps to use in their classrooms, Racine often provides guidance about easy-to-use tools and integration practices.


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“We can show them applications that have been rolled out with single sign-on, automatic rostering and privacy agreements that can be up and running the next day,” Racine says. “We want to jump in when we’re worried that teachers are going to have an enormous amount of manual labor because they’ve chosen an application that does not have any integration with our systems.”

4. Prioritize student privacy

Guarding student data is paramount and districts take different approaches to ensuring classroom apps are compliant with FERPA guidelines.

As members of the national Student Data Privacy Consortium and Oregon Student Privacy Alliance, Beaverton School District has common privacy contracts for both national and state learning apps. The district maintains a page on its website where parents can see which vendors have signed contracts to protect student data.

”We want to jump in when we’re worried that teachers are going to have an enormous amount of manual labor because they’ve chosen an application that does not have any integration with our systems.”
—Mark Racine, Boston Public Schools

Lewisville ISD IT leaders, meanwhile, spend a significant amount of time working with vendors to ensure data privacy agreements are in place. If vendors refuse to sign, Kolbeck looks for comparable apps that are in compliance.

In rare cases when an app is essential and a vendor refuses to sign a data privacy agreement, the district requires parents to sign consent forms allowing their children to use the app.

“We’ve had a couple of situations where a vendor has declined, and we’ve actually blocked access for our students and our teachers to that product,” says Lewisville ISD director of digital learning Michele Jacobsen.

Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, has witnessed an “explosion” of concern about student data privacy and works to educate districts about their federal law compliance responsibilities. At the most basic level, he says, “Districts have to balance the educational opportunities of apps with privacy concerns—and there have to be intentional policies about their use.”

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer.

Related: See BrightBytes report here


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