Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This appeared in Education Next November 30, 2018.
Earlier this month, education news outlets buzzed with a frustrating, yet unsurprising, headline: Most educational software licenses go unused in K-12 districts. The source of the headline is a recent report by Ryan Baker, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. Baker analyzed data from BrightBytes, a K-12 data management company, on students’ technology usage across 48 districts. That data revealed that a median of 70% of districts’ software licenses never get used, and a median of 97.6% of licenses are never used intensively.
The findings unveil a clear disconnect between district software procurement and classroom practice. To be clear, not all software is high quality, which means teachers may have good reason to not adopt some software products that fail to deliver positive student learning outcomes. But for quality software tools that can yield breakthrough student outcomes, underutilization is a huge missed opportunity.
So when districts license high-quality educational software, why might teachers still choose not to use the software at their disposal? Some of our latest research at the Christensen Institute offers answers to this question.
Understanding teachers’ ‘Jobs’
In September, my colleagues and I released a research paper that explains what motivates teachers to change how they teach. Drawing on the Jobs to be Done Theory, we interviewed teachers to discover the ‘Jobs’ that motivate them to adopt blended learning or other new approaches to instruction.
According to the theory, all people—teachers included—are internally motivated to make changes in their lives that move them toward success or satisfaction within their particular life circumstances. The theory labels these circumstance-based desires as ‘Jobs.’ Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise in their lives.
Through our interviews we found four Jobs that often motivate teachers to adopt new practices. Three of these Jobs seem relevant for explaining why licensed software often goes unused.
Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. These teachers will be interested in using district-licensed software when it 1) seems like a viable and worthwhile way to improve the school as a whole, 2) seems simple and straightforward to share with their colleagues, and 3) offers them an opportunity to help shape the direction of school improvement efforts.
Job #2: Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students. Teachers with this Job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen in their classrooms. But they have a few students each year who they struggle to reach. They are often open to software as a way to engage those students. But that software must not only be worthwhile for their students, but also practical to incorporate into their current practices and routines.
Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues, or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. For these teachers, software can be a powerful resource for helping them transform their instructional models. But that software needs to offer new approaches to teaching and learning, not just new takes on traditional textbooks and worksheets.
Accounting for the 70% of unused software licenses
We suspect that in many cases, quality software goes unused because it either fails to align with teachers’ Jobs or fumbles at delivering a good solution for meeting their Jobs.
For example, teachers who are looking to lead the way in helping their schools improve (Job 1) likely don’t look first to software as a way to fulfill their Job. Their school improvement instincts typically orient them to look for new instructional programs, not silver bullet software. To meet their Job to be Done, software providers need to start by offering an evidence-based set of practices that will help schools improve on key metrics. Then, once they’ve made the case for new instructional methods, they can discuss how software tools help to facilitate those methods.
As another example, teachers in search of manageable ways to engage and challenge more of their students (Job 2) could find a lot of benefit in the multimedia-rich and game-like aspects of many edtech products. But software platforms that are great for engaging students may yet fail to get used because teachers find them hard to incorporate into daily lessons. Software developers, hardware suppliers, and district technology teams all need to consider things they can do to make it easy for teachers to incorporate software into their lesson plans and then manage devices during class.
As a third example, consider a teacher who is frustrated by a sense that he is failing to meet the needs of most of his students because he feels stuck teaching to the nonexistent middle of his class (Job 3). The right software could be a powerful platform for helping him create individual learning pathways and mastery-based progressions that meet each of his students where they are. But if the software available from his district just supplements whole-class, direct instruction, that software won’t fulfill his Job.
Explaining why 97.6% of software licenses are never used intensively
One significant finding from our research illustrates another potential pitfall for software utilization. When new software licenses come down from the district office without clearly communicated benefits for teachers or pedagogical support, many teachers likely take a quick look and conclude that the software doesn’t fulfill any of the first three Jobs for them. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to use the software, at least occasionally, so as to not set a bad tone with their administrators. They do what they need to do to check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics, but they don’t actually use the software enough for it to make a difference for them and their students. The new Job that the software creates for them amounts to, “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” This insight likely explains why even though 30% of software licenses that get used, only 2.4% are used intensively.
In education, money isn’t easy to come by, which makes it especially frustrating to learn that many districts spend money on software that doesn’t get used. The district staff members who make software licensing decisions surely don’t intend for their purchases to go to waste. But yet, as Baker’s report illustrates, there is a disconnect between software purchases and classroom adoption. A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office’s front door. But only by helping teachers fulfill their Jobs can high-quality educational software make it through the classroom door and into the hands of students. In short, software only gets used in classrooms when it meets a Job to be Done for teachers.