How I Stay Up on EdTech Tools


This post started life as a response to a question on Reddit and grew into a far-reaching manifesto on my approach to staying current in edtech. The question is reprinted at the top and my remarks follow.

In Response to: Hi teachers, how do you normally find out about new edTech products?

Hi all, I’m working on a school project around the edTech purchasing process and am doing research on teachers feel about the whole process. I’m wondering about the whole process from how you first hear about a new edTech product to how it gets purchased by the admin. Would you mind answering a few questions =)?

  1. How do you go about discovering new products to test out in the classroom? Does this take a lot of time?
  2. Do your admins normally pick it for you?
  3. Do admins ever pick edTech you don’t want to use?
  4. How do you trust an edtech product? Do you read reviews?
  5. Do you actively enjoy seeking out new products to test and use?
  6. Would you ever pay for a product yourself with your money? If yes, what qualities would this product have to have?

Hi Jeff– Your school project is probably long gone by now, but your questions are good ones for anyone trying to get a handle on the huge variety of EdTech tools available. I’m an Instructional Technologist now, but I’ve been building my online learning chops over a 15 year career teaching in charter high schools, administering learning technologies in higher ed, developing edtech apps, all while developing a well-rounded set of skills in web development, design, pedagogy, communication, and social media. I thought your questions were a good jumping off place where I could try and unpack the practices I’ve used to stay up on developments in edtech, and how to choose which tools will add value to your teaching practice. I hope this helps you become more empowered in your career supporting effective teaching and learning.

Questions 1, 4, 5, 6 : Understand tech broadly, Explore Deeply

  • How do you go about discovering new products to test out in the classroom? Does this take a lot of time?
  • How do you trust an edtech product? Do you read reviews?
  • Do you actively enjoy seeking out new products to test and use?
  • Would you ever pay for a product yourself with your money? If yes, what qualities would this product have to have?

Your EdTech Personal Learning Network

I have made a daily habit of consuming news about education and technology as part of my overall news diet, so I have a basic background awareness of what’s new and interesting in consumer tech. Yes, I commit a fair amount of time to it, but it pays me back tenfold in my deep understanding of the issues that surround technology, culture, education, and human collaboration. I think developing a Personal Learning Network is an essential habit for lifelong learning, and here’s a little about mine:

RSS Feeds – News Your Way

As I drink my coffee in the morning, I thumb through my lovingly curated RSS feeds about

These feeds are my secret weapon for getting a broad overview of a variety of fields that help me make sense of issues in EdTech. The links above are RSS feeds that you can subscribe to in your own RSS reader to jump-start your own edtech feed collection.

Podcasts for Passive Learning

Most mornings when I’m walking the dog, I listen to podcasts like Daily Tech News Show and Tech News Today that provide both a broad overview of the major developments in consumer technology, as well as deep context and insight from people who follow the field carefully. These shows do a great job of making deep “inside baseball” technology issues fun and interesting to think about.


I also make it a habit to actively explore and follow interesting people and ideas on Twitter – even if I don’t fully yet understand what they’re talking about – in the hopes that I can eavesdrop into a conversation where I can learn something completely new. Check out my profile and lists, if you like.

Reflect on Problems in Your Workflows and Experiment to Fix Them

I make it a habit to actually download and play with as many free tools as I possibly can, constantly evaluating them to see what problems they solve in my workflows. With all the free cloud apps, smartphone apps, and self-hosted open source tools available, you have a huge variety of things to play with, and actually doing the playing is both empowering and instructive.

Give Yourself Problems, then Solve them

My interest in education technology really grew up when I was an overwhelmed young charter high school teacher, confronted with a limitless deluge of work to do and possessing very few organizational skills of my own to help me manage them.

Whenever I would encounter an organizational challenge with my students where it was clear that they needed information presented a different way or shared a new way, I would try to imagine a tool that would do that. As a reader of LifeHacker, I got caught up in the “productivity porn” fetish that tends to proliferate there, and used it to explore different ways of staying organized, productive, and empowered with digital tools.

As you get “stuck” with your students, take a moment, step back, reflect, and try to state the problem clearly so you can identify what your current approach is missing. Often, what you need will correspond to the strengths of a specific tool that you can experiment with to create a workable solution.

What EdTech Tools are Worth Paying For?

Through all that experimentation, I found certain tools came and went, while others formed a strong personal cyberinfrastructure that have supported me, my students, and the institutions I’ve worked at to meet a variety of challenges over years.

Read about my “Can’t Live Without” Apps for Mac and Windows and My Favorite Multi-platform Tools for I

nclusive Collaboration. These two posts summarize the tried and true tools that have been useful to me over years in both my personal and professional work.

Roll Your Own

My experimentation with free edtech tools took a grown-up turn when I decided to get my own cloud hosting account at BlueHost. I learned to install and run my own WordPress installation, and found a whole new universe of free, self-hosted apps that I could install on my own server and run in my own personal cloud for free.

It’s very empowering to know that, with one account, you can set up your own blogs, wikis, learning management systems, photo sharing, dropbox file sharing, music streaming, microblogging, social networks and more where you know exactly what’s going on with your data, your privacy, and the code that makes the tools run. Investing in that account was when I went from an edtech “consumer” to a legit “producer”, and it was a key stepping stone in my transition from a classroom teacher to an LMS system admin. I discuss my focus on taking ownership of your data and tools in depth in my post “Own the Means of Production: What Karl Marx Knew about Opportunity in the Digital Economy”.


Respect the Leaders

I have to give a special shout out to my edtech heroes Jim Groom, Audrey Watters, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill, David Wiley, all of whom use their deep education smarts to address the human problems that constantly pop up around edtech – protecting students’ dignity, autonomy, freedom, and personal empowerment while raising the standard for what education can be.

Favor Generally Useful, Adult Productivity Tools over specialty “EdTech” tools

As you educate students, you need to be thinking about introducing them to tools that will be useful to them beyond just the scope of your individual projects and class activities.

Instead, think about what a well-rounded set of communication and collaboration tools would look like for any connected, productive adult today, and then start to scaffold those types of tools into the very functioning of the way your course works.

School is supposed to closely replicate the authentic conditions of the working world that students will enter, so your edtech tools should resemble what real professionals use to stay productive.

For inspiration, check out LifeHacker’s How I Work series and the Mozilla Web Literacy Standards project. To the extent possible, coordinate with your fellow teachers so you can develop the same collaboration practices amongst your faculty colleagues that you are using with students. This helps keep the learning curve manageable for everybody and lets best practices proliferate.

What should students be able to do when your class is over?

To get a list going, I think that a student should walk out of high school with a personal toolkit of favorite apps they can use to meet the following challenges:

  • Personal Learning Networking (developing their own PLN in RSS or Twitter)
  • Content Management/ Blogging (WordPress, Blogger, self-hosted apps)
  • Collaborative Document Editing (with Google Docs, wikis, or the like)
  • Project Management Skills (using a To-Do manager or legit PM app)
  • Effective Presentation Design (using Keynote, Powerpoint, Prezi, or Reveal.js)
  • Visual storytelling (presentation software, slideshows, graphics, video)
  • Professional/Academic Networking (LMS, LinkedIn)
  • Web publishing skills & tools (Markdown, HTML, CSS, Javascript, self-hosting code)
  • Content Curation (social bookmarking, Diigo, Evernote, personal databases)
  • Data Collection & Interpretation (polling, surveys, “quantified self” apps, spreadsheets)

Looking at it through this lens, it becomes easier to weed out the cute, whiz-bang edtech tools that tend to dominate the edtech blogosphere, and focus in on the types of tools that students can begin to master now so they can use them with confidence after they’ve left your care. These types of tools are usually

  • free or cheap
  • used in a variety of real work environments
  • platform agnostic, allowing collaboration across Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and the Web (at least!)
  • Flexible enough to meet a variety of different real-world use cases
  • Able to import and export data in open, interoperable formats

Question 2 & 3: Dancing with Central IT

  • Do your admins normally pick it for you?
  • Do admins ever pick edTech you don’t want to use?

There’s always a tension between “top-down” edtech choices made by institutions and “bottom-up” ones made by teachers. Institutions have requirements they have to meet with regards to student privacy, safety, data integrity, reporting, cost savings, support, etc. – and they tend to choose tools that make it easy for them to support those requirements (even if they’re no fun to use).

Teachers and students want tools that are easy to use, flexible, and attractive, and the consumerization of IT trend in recent years underscores how much we expect our edtech tools and our personal tools to be closely aligned. As I said above, you should evaluate the tools in your school environment to see if they are a good match for the tools students will encounter in the workforce. You want them building skills that they can take with them into their later lives, and free Web 2.0 collaboration tools (as well as open source tools) are the two best types of tools I know to do that with.

Each school has to work out exactly where the line is between institutional control and personal flexibility. Ideally, you want a mix where Central IT tries to accommodate a good end user experience and teachers are also thinking about how to protect students’ learning, privacy, and lifelong learning practices. I’ve had a lot of success at Envision, Samuel Merritt, and Pearson by engaging these two groups in an honest and open dialogue towards the goal of helping everyone get their needs met. At best, you can actually influence the selection of tools that are rolled out widely at your school, or at least you can find a decent middle ground where you and your colleagues can experiment with tools that work for you within the overarching infrastructure that your IT department provides.
This report in EDUCAUSE underlines the need for cooperation between faculty and IT.

Thanks for Reading

This was a fun exercise to get all this out, so thanks Jeff, wherever you are! I’d love to hear other edtech professionals write similar reflections on their practice, so if you do, please leave a comment, tweet a link, or trackback to this post! Thanks!

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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