The Bottom 5

Everybody loves a list, or so I’ve heard. Most are happy, top of the charts list. Slipping into my devil’s advocate outfit for a bit, I would like to take the opposite route today and give you my Bottom 5 list of educational technologies. All of these, incidentally, are extremely popular and have made their respective companies more money than some countries. For each, however, I would assert that there are better, wiser, or less expensive alternatives. The list:

5. Microsoft Office. I really do consider myself an Office fan, at least for my own, personal use. I love the bells and the whistles and all that comes with Office. However, the question needs to be asked, “Do our teachers and students need all of those bells and whistles at that price?” Office licenses can cost schools and districts easily tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for each new adoption. Free alternatives such as Open Office or Libre Office get more Office-like with each new release. Google Apps for Education, also free, has significantly fewer features, but the core tools are there, it can be accessed anywhere a computer meets an internet connection, and it is a collaboration godsend. The more we look at how our teachers and students use these productivity apps, the harder it is to justify the expense of full-blown Office. (Note: I understand that moving to a free alternative incurs some initial costs, particularly related to professional development on the new tools. Long-term, though, it pales by comparison.)



4.Desktop Computers. In the past, desktops were the most common and attractive classroom computer option. This was largely due to the very significant expense associated with laptops. Today, however, there are very affordable laptop and tablet devices all over the market. Not only do thse give students and teachers largely the same capabilities, they can move with the student. This promotes a modern learning environment, where students can engage in projects and problem solving in flexible arrangements that are determined by the demands of the task, not the location of the desk/table. They are also much easier to take home in a backpack.

3. Document Cameras. I know teachers whose document cameras are easily the most cherished piece of technology they’ve ever had. Many of them say the cameras, teamed with their digital projectors, of course, have revolutionized the way they teach. I could get into the generally VERY teacher-centric practices I’ve witnessed involving teaching with document cameras, and probably should. However, I’ll just offer for now that there are better alternatives that accomplish the same things and much more. A teacher equipped with an iPad, display software such as Reflector, and an iPad display stand, such as a Juststand, can use their device as a document camera. They can easily record, show websites, display apps, and more. And, of course, they can disconnect the iPad from the stand and take it across the campus, out of the building, or place it into a student’s hands. All of this is possible at a price generally less than most document cameras models out there.



2. Interactive Whiteboards. IWB critics are not hard to find. One of the most vocal, Gary Stager, famously describes IWBs as “a terrible investment that breathes new life into medieval educational practices.” He criticized the boards for their support of a teacher-focused teaching style and IWB curriculum that centers “on low-level repetition, memorization, and discrete skills devoid of any meaningful content.” His main argument, though, and the one that I have come to appreciate most, is that these devices are insanely pricy and take away dollars that could (and should) be used in a way that directly benefits students, such as the purchase of student laptops. When we focus on student needs over teacher needs (wants, in this case), IWBs cannot be the choice.


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1. Student Response Systems. Perhaps no other device offers as little power and educational value for the dollar as the student response system, or “clicker”. Clickers save teachers from the arduous, tedious tasks of counting raised hands or actually listening to student thoughts and responses. They provide detailed insights into almost exclusively superficial questions and low-level understanding.  Meanwhile, they set back campuses thousands of dollars per classroom set. As alternatives, schools might consider investing in tablets such as iPads and feedback apps like Socrative, Nearpod, even the Forms tool in Google Drive. They’d be able to get the outcomes they wanted from the clickers but also have the potential to use the devices for endless, more powerful applications. Of course, feedback could come via direct observation or conversations with students, but that’s probably just crazy talk.

What are your thoughts? Am I way off? Are there other technologies that deserve less respect and less money?


  1. Jeff Samuelson

    April 7, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    I don’t think you are way off on your list, but I will defend the use of IWBs in schools. Just like the desktop computer, laptop, iPad, clicker, and software packages (both hard drive based and cloud based), the IWB is a tool for teaching and learning. Some tools are costly…some are not. What is priceless is a teacher who has been properly educated for the position, has a crystal clear understanding of the curriculum and best practices to deliver that curriculum, and has received meaningful training on the teaching tools available to them. And it is this teacher that pours over the available data for their students and determines how best to deliver the curriculum to meet the needs of the students. And then it is that teacher that chooses the tools. Will it be cloud based tools, paper/pencil tools, some hand held devices, or just simple ‘feedback that could come via direct observation or conversations with students’? The IWB when properly trained and utilized demands that teachers move away from ‘medieval educational practices.’ Students will demand it once they see that the IWB was created for them…not the teacher. The same could be said for the other tools you mentioned. Those amazing tools have a time and place in teaching and learning…but only when properly trained and utilized. So is the issue of the IWB the ‘insane price’ or the the way in which the IWB is being utilized?

  2. Hi, Jeff. Great to hear from you, my friend (and not surprising, given the topic). I appreciate your dedication to IWBs and, particularly, trying to educate teachers to put them under students’ control. That is a positive step, absolutely. However, I don’t see your vision as what is actual classroom practice. I would like to know where the data that teachers are meticulously pouring over that leads them to conclude that an IWB is the way to go. We know what the reality of the classroom IWB is–the teacher or, at best, 1 or 2 students, standing in front of the room delivering a colorful, perhaps animated lecture. It isn’t discovery learning, it isn’t constructivist, it isn’t creative, it promotes no 21st century skills, it isn’t collaborative, etc. So, to answer your question, it is both–the price and the way they are used (and designed to be used).

  3. Jeff Samuelson

    April 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Hmmm…guess I didn’t realize the criteria by which you were judging the value of an educational tool. I must have missed that in your post:) So I’m guessing that unless the tool meets one or all of the criteria you listed, it should have a spot on the Bottom list… no matter the positive impact IWBs are having in classrooms that utilize them in ways other than ‘colorful, animated lecture.’ I’m saddened that I must inform a Kinder teacher of her erroneous judgment when she exhausted all the traditional ways of teaching a particular skill to one of her students and choose to create a Notebook file that engaged that student and lit up his world. I should also let a 4th grade teacher that used a combination of Notebook and SMART Response (also on the Bottom list) know of her misjudgment when she taught her math lesson utilizing these tools. It apparently was not a stellar day for the student in her room that received instant feed back on his response pad during that lesson, asked to stay in at recess to receive further instruction, and mastered that skill well enough to motivate him to higher scores throughout the rest of the year in both Math and Reading…where she utilized Notebook/Response as well. I must also inform an entire middle school Math department at one of our middle schools that they should cease using Response pads at the beginning of their lessons to focus instruction for the day, assess learning during the period, and adjust instruction accordingly. But perhaps saddest of all, I need to email an incredible teacher near and dear to your heart that being an early adopter of a Bottom list technology and ROCKING it in both 1st and 4th grades just did not meet the needs of her students.

    My friend, you and I will likely not agree on this topic, but IWBs are not the issue. The way in which they are utilized are. And when they are utilized in the right way, learning happens. And the learning is magnified more so when used in conjunction with other tools that do meet your criteria. I appreciate the opportunity to share thoughts on your blog.

    • Thanks again, Jeff. I do agree that you have a tough task telling these folks that there are much better, wiser, and forward-thinking ways for their schools to spend their technology dollars. It is also a challenge trying to get many teachers out of the front-and-center of the classroom, but it can be done, and it should be done. Times and needs change. You share wonderful and persuasive stories–probably should be paid by an IWB company (Er…wait…). A few years ago, I likely would have agreed with you, too. However, I’ve run out of patience waiting for technology to start truly empowering kids to do things they would otherwise be unable to do, and the fascination with teacher-centric devices are a significant part of the inertia. You will never be able to convince me that schools, with their limited technology funds, can get worthwhile bang for the edtech dollar out of any of the technologies I’ve listed. For the price of one IWB, 5 or 6 iPad 2s could be put into student hands, 7 or 8 Chromebooks. These devices move students into the role of creators, communicators, researchers, etc. That’s what I’m aiming for–not just high test scores (Which are a likely side effect, anyway).

      BTW, flash forward to today, and that “teacher near and dear” to me would receive significantly different advice. 😉

  4. The magic is never in any tool but the way it is used. Every tool has a time and place and is as unique in its functions as students are in their needs. We are charged to meet student’s needs whatever they may be using whatever strategies, tools, or methods enables them to make meaning of information that they will be able to apply in creative and constructive ways.

    • Hey, Cheryl. You make good points. My point of contention is that some technologies hit the brakes at the understanding level and are incapable of doing more, while others can accomplish both. Is understanding critical? Obviously it is, but it isn’t enough. Using the SAMR model, at what level does a student response system or IWB reach its limits? Augmentation is about as high as can be expected. You are an expert with iPads. What levels can they achieve? I think that the redefinition level can easily be envisioned. I understand the devotion Jeff and many other teachers have to IWBs, and I acknowledge that there are a small percentage of teachers using them to their fullest capacity. However, I agree with Gary Stager that this is the exception, not the rule, and schools have unwisely rushed out and equipped every classroom in sight with a very pricy projector screen or dry erase board, in many instances.

  5. Randy
    You have made some valid points here. I will agree that it is in how you use the tools as well though. Much of the problems is that one teacher cannot learn all things technology. While some school districts give teachers a choice, other will hand out technology and expect the teacher to learn it on top of other responsibilities.

    Take for example iPads. My school offered me one so I took them on the offer. As it turns out, I am glad I did not get a classroom set of these since they are awful for what I teach and they way I teach. I would hate to have been forced to use these in the classroom.

    However, keep MS Office. There is so much more you can do I with it than Google Docs plus most major businesses use MS Office

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