What to Look For When Selecting The Right Edtech Tool

A teacher recently asked me, “What are things to look for when selecting the right tool?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times and I’m constantly evolving the answer. I hope by sharing my current answer here, I can get some feedback and evolve it further.

Like many questions, I believe the answer ultimately depends on one’s situation and goals. Here is a broad framework that may encompass a variety of situations and help narrow down one’s selection. This is written from the standpoint of a classroom teacher, though it can apply to any kind of educator.

Ask yourself:

  1. What are my goals?

    If this is for my students, what are my instructional goals? What kinds of outcomes am I seeking? If this is for myself, what am I trying to achieve? What problem am I trying to solve?

  2. What kinds of activities do I want to do?

    If this is for my students, am I looking for a solo activity or a group project? Should this be interactive or is it more about rote learning and drills? Will this take place inside or outside of the classroom? Should they make something or consume something?

  3. Who will be involved?

    Will my entire class be participating, or just a subset? What are the grades/ages of my students? Are there any special needs and concerns? Will parents or other individuals be a part of this too?

  4. What are my device constraints?

    What kinds of technologies do I have on hand? iPads, Chromebooks, an interactive whiteboard, a shared computer lab, students’ own devices, etc?

Steps 1 and 2 can be broken down into many sub-steps, such as alignment with Common Core State Standards and fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy, TPACK, SAMR, etc, depending upon your preferences. Going through these steps will progressively narrow down your choices from thousands of tools to hopefully a more manageable number.

Once you have that, here are some ways to help you decide between the final choices. Look at:

  • Expert and peer reviews

    What do experts think about these tools? What do my colleagues think about them? Which opinions are most relevant to me? Which opinions do I trust?

  • Ease of use

    Can I use it easily? Can my students use it easily? Is there a demo I can play with right away?

  • Support options

    If I need help, are there tutorials or guides to help me? Is there a way to contact customer support?

  • Security

    For websites, does the URL start with https://, with the s there? A lack of this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad site, but having it is a strong plus – with one exception: if the site has a page that asks for a username and password, that page MUST have an https:// in the URL. Otherwise, don’t use it.

  • COPPA compliance

    If my students are under 13 years of age, is the tool COPPA compliant? Does it ask for parental consent before my students sign up?

  • Data ownership and portability

    Will you and your students own your data, or does the company own it? Will the company use your data in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? Can you export your data from the tool? Does it integrate with your school’s student information system?

If your school is fortunate enough to have a dedicated technology team, they can help you with all of this, and much more. If not, I hope this broad framework can help you.

What things do you look for when selecting the right educational tools?

CSS Humor

You can blame Hacker News. Specifically, this discussion thread on sarcastic CSS3 Rainbow Dividers. Here’s the sequence of comments that got the ball rolling:

lol at #tongue{position:cheek;}

Did you know that CSS caused one of the big disasters?

How about
.einstein {position: relative;}


I thought it was all so hilarious. Sucker for cheesy geek humor I am. So naturally, I tweeted it. (I wonder if that word is going to make it into the dictionary one day.)

A bunch of friends chimed in with more CSS humor. While my geek funny bone was being thoroughly tickled, my pattern recognition bone wondered, “Is csshumor.com available?” And indeed, it was!

I purchased it, installed WordPress as a quick & dirty CMS, set up some random theme, and invited some friends to submit more CSS humor. I got a bunch. Most notably, nine from the generously hilarious & prolific Groxx, who would later submit a total of thirty-one entries to date. It’s enthusiastic users like this that make small projects such a pleasure. Eventually, I redesigned the UI and made it mobile-friendly.

And that’s how CSSHumor.com got started. As Gary Larson once said, “I don’t know how interesting any of this really is, but now you’ve got it in your brain cells so you’re stuck with it.”

A Modified Active State for Some Other Awesome CSS3 Buttons

Catalin Rosu just published the article “Just some other awesome CSS3 buttons” that showcases some cool image-less CSS3-only buttons. This article made it to Hacker News, where elii had this comment:

From the technical aspect this is well done because it shows the power of CSS. From a designer’s point of view it is quite far from perfect. The icons look weird and the active state looks quite uninspired with only showing an inner shadow.

The icons don’t bother me as much, but the active state could certainly use a rev or two. Here’s my attempt at a revised active state. Building this solution required me to swap out Red’s use of em units for px units, so I could alter the padding of the active state to give it an “activated, pressed down” look. It’s not quite perfect, but feels better than an inner shadow to me.

Add Edit Delete

And here’s the modified CSS code:

  display: inline-block;
  white-space: nowrap;
  background-color: #ccc;
  background-image: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#eee), to(#ccc));
  background-image: -webkit-linear-gradient(top, #eee, #ccc);
  background-image: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #eee, #ccc);
  background-image: -ms-linear-gradient(top, #eee, #ccc);
  background-image: -o-linear-gradient(top, #eee, #ccc);
  background-image: linear-gradient(top, #eee, #ccc);
  filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.gradient(startColorStr='#eeeeee', EndColorStr='#cccccc');
  border: 1px solid #777;
  padding: 0 30px;
  margin: 10px;
  font: bold 1em/2em Arial, Helvetica;
  text-decoration: none;
  color: #333;
  text-shadow: 0 1px 0 rgba(255,255,255,.8);
  -moz-border-radius: 4px;
  -webkit-border-radius: 4px;
  border-radius: 4px;
  -moz-box-shadow: 0 0 1px 1px rgba(255,255,255,.8) inset, 0 0.5px 0 rgba(0,0,0,.3);
  -webkit-box-shadow: 0 0 1px 1px rgba(255,255,255,.8) inset, 0 0.5px rgba(0,0,0,.3);
  box-shadow: 0 0 1px 1px rgba(255,255,255,.8) inset, 0 0.5px 0 rgba(0,0,0,.3);

  background-color: #ddd;
  background-image: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#fafafa), to(#ddd));
  background-image: -webkit-linear-gradient(top, #fafafa, #ddd);
  background-image: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #fafafa, #ddd);
  background-image: -ms-linear-gradient(top, #fafafa, #ddd);
  background-image: -o-linear-gradient(top, #fafafa, #ddd);
  background-image: linear-gradient(top, #fafafa, #ddd);
  filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.gradient(startColorStr='#fafafa', EndColorStr='#dddddd');

  background-color: #ccc;
  color: #f93;
  text-shadow: 0 0 2px rgba(255,255,255,.8);
  background-image: -webkit-gradient(linear, left top, left bottom, from(#ccc), to(#eee));
  background-image: -webkit-linear-gradient(top, #ccc, #eee);
  background-image: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #ccc, #eee);
  background-image: -ms-linear-gradient(top, #ccc, #eee);
  background-image: -o-linear-gradient(top, #ccc, #eee);
  background-image: linear-gradient(top, #ccc, #eee);
  filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.gradient(startColorStr='#ccc', EndColorStr='#eee');

  outline: 0;
  background: #fafafa;

  background: #ccc;
  background: rgba(0,0,0,.1);
  float: left;
  width: 28px;
  text-align: center;
  font-size: 1.5em;
  margin: 0 25px 0 -29px;
  padding: 0 3px;
  -moz-box-shadow: 1px 0 0 rgba(0,0,0,.5), 2px 0 0 rgba(255,255,255,.5);
  -webkit-box-shadow: 1px 0 0 rgba(0,0,0,.5), 2px 0 0 rgba(255,255,255,.5);
  box-shadow: 1px 0 0 rgba(0,0,0,.5), 2px 0 0 rgba(255,255,255,.5);
  -moz-border-radius: 4px 0 0 4px;
  -webkit-border-radius: 4px 0 0 4px;
  border-radius: 4px 0 0 4px;

/* Hexadecimal entities for the icons */

  content: "\271A";

  content: "\270E";

  content: "\2718";

  content: "\2714";

  content: "\2709";

  content: "\2764";

  content: "\279C";

  content: "\2605";

  content: "\2737";

  content: "\25B6";

If you’ve got some suggestions for a better active state, let me know. Thanks!

Quora Surfing

First, there was Wikipedia Surfing. Now there’s Quora Surfing.

Wikipedia Surfing is where you start with one topic, see an interesting link, click on it, see another interesting link, click on that, and after a few hours, you’re on a completely different topic and full of interesting trivia. Quora Surfing is pretty much the same thing.

Some have questioned whether or not Quora will replace Wikipedia (on Quora, no less). I agree with the common sentiment: No. The two tools are distinctly different. But the wealth of fascinating information and ease of navigation are shared traits. It’s easy to get lost in either one as you follow the rabbits of information.

Quora’s buzz is largely due to the people on it. You could ask a question about Adobe Photoshop and get an answer from one of the designers of Adobe Photoshop. You could ask a question about venture capital and hear from one of Silicon Valley’s prominent venture capitalists themselves. This star-studded cast has given birth to a plethora of insights you can’t get elsewhere, though it’s decidedly biased towards the high-tech industries at the moment.

Fortunately, there are outliers. One particularly fascinating set of answers comes from Mark Hughes, a screenwriter. I’ve spent hours on his answers alone. Although I’m not a movie buff and don’t follow Hollywood closely, reading his answers has filled my brain with all sorts of interesting tidbits. Such as:

Okay, perhaps that wasn’t of interest to you. Hughes also has a number of articles of interest for aspiring screenwriters. Each is a mini novel, a meaty fruitcake of information. Each is also a time sink that will lead to new drains in which your hours will drown. And if you don’t like those topics, there are a gazillion more. That, in a nutshell, is Quora Surfing.

Biz Idea: Real-Time Brainstorm Note Taker

There is often a need to record the notes from a brainstorming session. Haven’t had the pleasure of doing one before? I’ll explain.

What Happens in a Brainstorming Session

If your organization hasn’t done a brainstorming session before, it’s essentially an open-ended meeting where ideas around a particular topic or problem are dreamt up and recorded. There is usually a facilitator to keep the meeting going, and to remind participations that there are no bad ideas. All ideas are accepted and no idea is judged or evaluated during these meetings. The facilitator may clarify, but that’s about it. Idea evaluation happens later.

The Problems Around Brainstorming Sessions

The notes from these sessions are typically transcribed and/or photographed. Then they are stored on an internal repository or simply emailed to each other.

Recording these sessions is just the first step too. After that, someone has to organize the information so it can be properly evaluated later. It also needs to be retrievable. Since brainstorms aren’t generating formal product specifications, some teams aren’t sure where to store these notes. As a result, sometimes they get lost in an abandoned email thread or text document on someone’s desktop.

The tools of choice? Some kind of text editor on the laptop, like an email client, online wiki page, or word processor. For photos, a smartphone with a camera or digital point-and-shoot are usually used. If the photographer forgets to share the photos, however, the team may forget and they are never seen again.

Seems like an awful wide range of tools and hurdles for such a seemingly simple task, huh?

A Potential Solution

So how about an app that allows participants to record notes in any media they choose – be it text, photograph, video, or audio? This app could be both a mobile and web app. Notes taken in one app would show up in all of the others in real-time. One participant could be typing in the ideas while another is taking photos of the session. A third could be recording audio or video as well. It would be like a collaborative, real-time Evernote.

The text interface would look like Google Wave (GOOG) – which basically is a rich-text, real-time, multi-user editor. Several participants could be adding notes all at the same time, while photos and other media appear as they are recorded. The media assets could be annotated and tagged for better organization as well.

All of this would be recorded in a single destination. Everyone would know where to look if they wanted to dig up some idea that was passed around. Since note taking happens in real time, the chance of someone forgetting to share a note is decreased as well.

Here’s another way to envision this product. You’re in a brainstorming session as a participant. You have your iPad (AAPL) out to jot down some notes. A coworker is taking photos with her iPhone of all the diagrams on the whiteboard. Each time she uploads one, you view it on your iPad and add some notes to it for context.

The facilitator is recording the audio for this session on his Nexus S sitting on the conference table. Another participant is on her laptop, with several tabs open in Chrome, adding URLs of articles mentioned in this meeting too.

Meanwhile, a coworker who’s sick at home is following along on the web app, watching the updates occur as they occur. He’s conferenced in via Skype. (I’m not sure this should be a feature of this app too, but who knows?) This way, he can see, hear, and even participate in the brainstorm.

All of the notes taken would be stored within the app and accessible at any time. Any note or media file could be emailed. Various levels of permissions could be applied as well. These session notes could be shared with other departments as a jump-off point for further brainstorms.

A Potential Business Model

And how would this service make money? By charging for storage. You could go with a freemium model and offer one brainstorming session free for 30 days. That ought to give users enough of a taste to purchase the premium plan. Or, forget freemium and just charge per session per month.

Potential Initial Target Market Segments

Creative agencies and technology startups could make a suitable beachhead segment to pursue first. They tend to hold such brainstorming sessions more often than other organizations. Once you’ve captured that niche, you can expand to other audiences.

And Beyond

And for future features? Why not hold a brainstorming session – using this tool, of course! What better way to improve your product than by using it yourself? The ideas you generate may be invaluable, and being able to record them in any form may spark other product ideas too.

Wikipedia Surfing

Has Wikipedia sucked hours out of your life, as it has mine?

There’s a dangerous new phenomenon out there. Wikipedia surfing. You start with one topic, see an interesting link, click on it, see another interesting link, click on that, and after a few hours, you’re on a completely different topic and full of interesting trivia.

Or, if you’re like me, you’ll open up multiple tabs, one for each new interesting link. And after a few hours, you’re on ten completely different topics and full of even more interesting trivia.

There’s even the Six Degrees of Wikipedia game, where you start with one topic, then find the shortest path to another topic. All you have to do is throw in some badges and you’ve turned a dangerous new phenomenon into a dangerous, yet fun new phenomenon. And that’s “dangerous” in terms of “OMG where did all those hours go?”, not the threat of harm or death, though if you don’t get up to pee and eat every once in a while, that may happen.

Why is it about Wikipedia this enables behavior? This fragmented attention, where curiosity follows a web of tangents just for the sake of curiosity?

I believe it’s because Wikipedia is hypertext at its best. It’s even the realization of Tim Berners-Lee’s origin vision of the World Wide Web – a solution to presenting and sharing massive amounts of inter-related information. Turns out, hyperlinks aren’t only a fantastic way of leading a reader to related information, but also a great enabler of tangential information surfing.

It’s arguably even a step better than the Web, because every Wikipedia page is a topic of potentially interesting information. I sure can’t say the same about every page in the Web.

There’s already the phenomenon of web surfing: viewing websites and following interesting links. Wikipedia just offers more educational value.

So perhaps Wikipedia surfing isn’t all that bad. At least I’m filling my head with interesting trivia. And perhaps one day, I’ll get a badge for finding out that in 2005, a gigantic 20-foot pink stuffed rabbit was erected on a 5,000-foot hill in the northern Piedmont region of Italy.

Facebook Like Fraud and Like Farms

It was only a matter of time. Give spammers an easy way to reach millions, and they’ll do it.

It is already pretty easy for a motivated spammer to commit Like Fraud: the act of creating a Facebook Like button for a URL other than the one on which users click.

In a similar manner, spammers have created sites that carry little else other than Google ads and funny phrases that users can “like” and share on their Facebook profiles. These sites are known as Like Farms. Many aren’t necessarily substituting a different URL, but theoretically, they could. This would give the target URL a lot of attention.

Seem like harmless fun? Sorry, it’s not. Here are some of the potential consequences of “liking” random messages from spammers:

  • Google (GOOG) has already flagged at least one as potentially carrying malware that may harm your computer. Be careful of clicking on the URLs of these funny messages. They may lead you to harmful sites.
  • You may be inundated with Facebook spam. By “liking” a spammer’s message, you are giving that spammer permission to start sending you Facebook updates. Lots and lots of them.
  • Although this doesn’t hurt you directly, these “likes” may make the spammer’s site seem more important to Google. Therefore, the next time you do a Google search, you may see that spammer’s site listed higher than a legitimate one with real information. I’m sure Google will correct this someday though.
  • Similar to gaming Google’s search results, this can game Facebook’s search results too.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that Like Farms have sprouted; it was only a matter of time. Now that they’ve blossomed, be careful where you tread and what you Like, for not all Likes are created equal.

Evan Williams, The Man Behind Digital Publishing

“Simplicity is powerful.”
– E. Williams

Evan Williams What a lucky duck. Evan Williams, I mean. He was at the front of two digital publishing revolutions: blogging and microblogging (and almost at podcasting).

The way he developed his businesses and products is fascinating, for entrepreneurs, product managers, and 21st century writers alike. Here are some highlights that I consider particularly notable. Much of what I’ve gathered is secondary research from various articles, interviews, Wikipedia, and the great book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

In 1999, Evan Williams co-founded the company Pyra Labs. Their aim was to create online project management software.

During this time, the term weblog (remember that?) arose as a log (a “web log”) of a person’s activities, much like a journal. Many website owners began publishing weblogs, though it was a relatively cumbersome process that required technical knowledge. A few, like Williams, decided to write a simple script that allowed themselves to publish their thoughts without having to FTP or SSH into their servers and write HTML each time.

Then Williams had a shot of insight. He integrated that simple script into Pyra as an internal feature called Stuff. Later, it was launched as Blogger. Although it wasn’t an overnight success, this simple script eventually grew much faster than the project management software of Pyra.

For you younger readers, it may be hard to believe that blogging once wasn’t commonplace. But there was a time where pundits and journalists wrestled with its value. “Why would anyone blog?” they asked. And more importantly, “Why would anyone read a stranger’s blog?”

For writers, this opened up a whole new field of opportunities. Here was an easy way to publish your stories, your thoughts, and even your photos to the whole wide world. No technical knowledge needed; anyone could do it. The transformation was incredible.

Then, despite raising half a million dollars, Pyra ran out of money in January 2001. All of its employees left. Williams remained to keep Blogger running, striking life-sustaining deals and developing Blogger Pro, until Google (GOOG) purchased them in February 2003.

At the heels of the blogging phenomenon was podcasting, the publishing of audio content. People could now publish their writings or photos on a blog, or words as a podcast. A whole new class of publishers arose as a result.

Seeing the next digital publishing trend, Williams left Google to co-found Odeo in 2005, a podcast publishing and aggregation platform. It was like Blogger, but for audio.

Podcasting didn’t take off as vibrantly as blogging, but it’s still a strong phenomenon. There is definitely a niche of consumers who enjoy creating and listening to podcasts.

During one fateful brainstorming session at Odeo, Jack Dorsey introduced the idea of an SMS group messaging service. A prototype was built soon thereafter, then publicly released as Twitter on July 2006. Another new publishing platform.

Williams and team spun off Twitter as a separate company in July 2007. As of this post, it appears they’ve raised around $160M. $5M of that came from a series A round, perhaps buoyed by Williams’ track record.

You can imagine the immediate reactions to such a service, however. “Why would anyone tweet?” Pundits and journalists asked. “Why would anyone read a stranger’s tweets?” I wonder if Williams appreciated the irony and enjoyed it as deja vu all over again.

Although many use Twitter as a marketing vehicle (as they do with blogs and podcasts too), countless others see it as a publishing platform. It’s even known officially as microblogging in the industry.

That’s how I primarily use it too. Within its 140-character constraint is the ability to create a whole new class of art. Whether it be haiku, imagery, short stories, or even novels, there’s a lot of creative potential in Twitter as a publishing platform for 21st century writers.

Being a writer has never been more exciting. New technologies keep on revolutionizing the field and enabling new classes of creators and artists. It is easier than ever to publish a story, a thought, a song, a photo, a video, or any piece of art to millions of people around the world.

Sure, there are still questions of quality (how do I know if this artist is worth following?) and discovery (how can my art be seen?), but the tools are there. The means of publishing are there. Anyone can use them.

I sometimes wonder if the next company that revolutionizes the digital publishing world will be another Williams company. I’m not an EV fanboy, but I envy how he’s been at the forefront of two digital publishing revolutions so far. Being someone who loves this field, I gotta say: What a lucky duck.