Blended Student

by Rebecca Tomasini, Founder and CEO, The Alvo Institute

A recent EdWeek article K-12 Publishing, Ed-Tech Markets Seeing Sales Increases reports that ED-Tech and online content providers are posting record sales. As a champion of tech-enhanced classrooms, I am excited.

I will be really excited when I see a report that shows a correlation between this increase in sales AND an increase in student achievement. I fear that report is a long way off, if it materializes at all.

I am still thrilled by the headline. I am also just as nervous.

While the promise and potential of personalized learning experiences with real-time data collection is everything this constructivist trained educator has been waiting for, some of the online content and ed-tech vendors promise much more than they can deliver and focus heartily, as they should in a free market economy, on their bottom-line. A smart consumer base will ultimately drive quality.

So, how do we make sure that the students – and not just the vendors – also make headlines in this booming market?

Become an Educated Consumer: Define Your Academic Goals and Needs Before Vendor Discussions

I worry that some of that increase in revenue has come at the expense of relevant and effective purchases. Despite good intentions, without experience in emerging technologies, school leaders may be vulnerable consumers in the new market. And, sadly, some vendors are more than eager to take advantage of the new consumers entering into this booming market.

As sales increase for vendors, schools are finding out the hard way that in fact you don’t always get what you pay for. Or, worse, they get plenty, but not what is needed. So, my team works to help schools define their academic needs to determine and define what technology they need. That way, schools pay for what they need, not what vendors want to sell.

Determine When to Spend and When to Go with the Free Option

In our practice at The Alvo Institute, we have yet to see a correlation between spending on online content and student achievement. In fact, some of the highest performing blended schools in CA, like Summit Public Schools and High Tech High, use mostly free content housed in the free, foundation-sponsored tool Activate Instruction. (And by high performing I mean high student achievement data, strong graduation rates, high student, parent and teacher satisfaction.)

We recommend that schools evaluate new free online content and curation options. There are many options that are low or no cost options with great content and lessons, like Khan Academy, CK12, Brain Pop and teacher-created content from high performing schools in Activate Instruction.

Within the last two years, the quality of free online content and free ways to curate—that is to bring multiple kinds of content into a single digital place—, has increase dramatically. To support this trend, Alvo was on the founding advisory team for the foundation-sponsored and maintained tool Activate Instruction. We joined the effort because we saw schools paying as much as $55 a student for single-sign on tools pointing to a handful on fee-for-service online content providers. We believed, and still believe, it is possible and critical, to offer schools no-cost, high quality curation tools allow school leaders to invest in data systems and building teacher practice.

Our two biggest guiding factors to keep in mid as you consider online content: Invest money only in online content that 1) can easily export data into a single data management tools and 2) has functionality unlikely to be replicated in teacher-created or free sites—functionality like the automatic Lexile reading level adjustments in Achieve3000 or the modified activities based on student results (adaptive release) in DreamBox Learning or ST Math.

Follow These Best Practices for Buying Online Content

Below are some of the practices Alvo uses to help schools evaluate before buying from Online Learning Providers (OLPs):

1. Define your school’s instructional model and the functionality needed to support that model BEFORE talking to vendors.
2. Make sure you can extract the data easily from the OLP for upload into your central data management system; you should be using multiple measures so the single online content providers dashboard will not suffice.
3. Make sure there is not a free, high quality option available.
4. Don’t be lured by “vapor wear”-the promise of what a tech vendor will have “just around the corner.” This is often a promise too often unfulfilled.
5. Invest in change management support for faculty, students and parents to make sure your investments take root.
6. Make sure you follow the money—especially with new tech companies that have debt or millions of investor $$. We have seen too many emerging ED-tech companies unable to deliver on their services because they were financially over-extended, or had fiduciary responsibilities to their investors that lead to acquisitions, or revenue-focused marketing versus high quality research and development.
7. Engage a wide range of stakeholders while defining end user needs.
8. Document the criteria or process for the tech selection—use it as an on-going evaluation tool as well as documentation to develop institutional memory.
9. When replicating the online choices of another school, make sure what “they” use is really a fit for your school.
10. Sign short term (1 year or less) agreements. Unlike textbooks, you don’t need to stick with the same online content providers for several years if the solution is not working or relevant to your student population/needs. Remember, sales reps are often deeply rewarded for signing multi-year contracts.

*For the record, Alvo does accept neither payment nor endorsements for any products we mention which is an important part of our commitment to providing schools with objective recommendations about a range of tools. Alvo is a proud founding member of Activate Instruction. We did advise on the development of Activate, and for that work we were paid by the sponsoring foundation, but we receive no financial compensation whatsoever from user adoption or activity.

Before launching Alvo in 2009, Rebecca Tomasini was the Senior Director of Instruction and Evaluation at K-12, Inc. She has been a classroom teacher in a traditional public high school in the East Los Angeles city of Bell Gardens, CA and was the founding director of a statewide data program for the CA Charter Schools Association. Before teaching, Rebecca working in banking and finance in New York City at Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and Cushman & Wakefield. For more about Rebecca, the Alvo team, and Alvo’s work please visit

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