Software Development
COVID-19 / Data / Education / Software

Here’s what school admins should ask when choosing edtech software

Jarvus cofounder and CTO Chris Alfano gives a rundown of why software should align with schools' needs, especially as they transition to virtual learning.

Screen time. (Photo by Jessica Calarco, used via a Creative Commons license)

Chris Alfano thinks the demand for online learning right now is more like a scramble: Schools are figuring out how to carry out instruction and get online more aggressively since the switch to virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the cofounder and CTO of dev firm Jarvus, Alfano runs a tech effort that focuses on community engagement and open-source principles. One of his jobs is building Slate, an open-source education integration platform provided by Jarvus that helps schools, as he says, “get online and stay online.” It allows teachers and students to monitor skill growth, learning portfolios and daily tasks, as well as “own their own data” and access new edtech tools.

Slate was developed at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in 2010 when Alfano was working as the high school’s in-house tech support and saw firsthand how the school’s software wasn’t aligned with its needs. Jarvus launched and picked up Slate soon after. In addition to SLA, the platform is now also used at Building 21 and the Spark program, as well as elsewhere around the county.

“We are at a time where we’re asking schools to do more with less constantly, and technology is one of their only opportunities to do that,” Alfano said. “The way we build technology isn’t giving them as much as it could.”

Alfano is currently working to spread the message that schools should use “ethical software” — software offered under terms that align with the user’s needs — in the switch to online learning. Following the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s announcement to close schools for the rest of the academic year, schools should be especially conscious of selecting software that will be responsive to their new needs, he said.

Adding software to a school’s ecosystem is a big investment, so it’s important to find a program that will improve how the school works. So, what does good diligence look like when selecting software? Here are the questions schools should ask, according to Alfano:

  • Can you upload and download data in bulk?
  • Does it support standards-based Single Sign On? — “Can you hook up the tool so that users are signing in with your existing central identity provider?” he explained, suggesting that school ask about SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) which is a standard way for a tool to plug into any other tool.
  • What’s the business plan? — Make sure the whole company isn’t a free trial. “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” Alfano said.
  • Is there a user community? Does the vendor support it and engage with it?
  • Is the tool incorporating user feedback to further develop the product? — It’s a good sign if the company is adding new features to the program and listening to feedback.
  • Is there an API (Application Programming Interface)? — An API will allow tools and technologists to move data and integrate it into the school. A tool without an API will suck up data.
  • Is there an exit strategy? — In the case of a vendor closing or a program getting bought out, a school should make sure it’s able to transition to another tool.

If schools ask these questions, the program they select has a better chance of serving their workflow rather than capturing it, Alfano said.

Companies: Building 21 / Jarvus Innovations / Science Leadership Academy

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