This article was originally posted on Getting Smart on October 9, 2012

postpic3When I worked in the high-tech industry, our products sometimes included what we called “check-box features.” These were features that would never, in reality, be used by the end customer but which purchasing agents would look at when they compared our product against our competitors. In many ways I think of classroom management software as falling into this category – with the fears about technology use that absolutely do exist among parents and educators, having a checkbox that says, “Don’t worry – we can control student technology use,” feels like a must-have.

In real classrooms, though, I’ve seen classroom management software made irrelevant by a culture of responsible use of technology. When teachers understand and are comfortable with technology use, and when students understand and take ownership of the appropriate use of technology in the classroom, a responsible use culture emerges. In a responsible use culture, students and teachers discuss together what kinds of technology usage serves learning, and what detracts from it. They agree on the apps that are appropriate for use in the classroom, which apps are allowable at recess, and which apps should be reserved for use outside of school. The students, themselves, monitor their own appropriate use and when mistakes happen or privileges are abused, these are treated as teachable moments and addressed with appropriate disciplinary measures, just as for non-technological transgressions such as passing notes or dipping pig-tails in inkwells.

That said, classroom management software could be useful in the development of such a culture. One case is when students are first being introduced to the use of technology in school – it’s not unusual for kids to want to explore and play with the capabilities of the technology and be distracted from what’s going on in the classroom or use the tech in ways that are not appropriate for school. In this situation, classroom management software lets the teacher see immediately if a student is using the technology inappropriately, and provide an immediate response. The tools might enable the teacher to restrict the student’s capabilities for a time, allow only a specific web page to be accessed during the lesson, or simply let the student know that the teacher is monitoring carefully. As the class becomes increasingly responsible in their use, the tools can be set to allow students a great deal of freedom and latitude. Such freedom makes it possible for students to learn how to choose the apps and technology uses that best support their own preferences and styles for learning and classroom work, e.g. choosing their favorite note-taking apps, recording lectures, or quickly looking up terms or related concepts that they don’t recognize.

Another valuable use of classroom management software comes when the educators are first being introduced to technology use. Educators who feel overwhelmed by the technology may welcome the ability to gradually add capabilities to the classroom as they become comfortable with the potential and limitations of the devices in their students’ hands. As they come to trust their own ability to navigate the technology, they can begin to shift to a culture of responsible use and the classroom management software can begin to become obsolete. In the one particular case where educators experience classroom management as an ongoing issue regardless of whether there is technology involved, however, it seems reasonable to expect that continuing to have tools to manage class behavior with respect to technology will remain helpful.

My aspiration for classroom management software is for it to ease the transition from low- or no-tech classrooms to classrooms characterized by the responsible use of personal learning devices – at least one (preferably two) devices per student. The most sustainable business models in the space will be the ones that plan for the obsolescence of their original value proposition. That is, those offerings that help address the fears of educators and parents in the early stages of transitioning to student use of personal devices and that seamlessly shift to support their best aspirations for supporting independent learners as this technology becomes adopted by the mainstream.

Some existing classroom management offerings have some of the characteristics that will make them sustainable through this transition. What would the most sustainable offerings look like?

  • They would have the ability to easily and intuitively dial down the level of control of student devices as the students become increasingly responsible digital citizens. For instance, teachers would be able to grant students the privilege of minimal filtering (perhaps only limiting things like hate speech and pornography). Teachers would be able to grant students the ability to download apps at will, using their best judgment, and so on.
  • Functionality that allows teachers to point all student devices to her screen would become readily usable by students to share their screens with another student or small group.
  • Reports that teachers use to see where students have gone on the Internet and what they have spent time doing with their devices would transform into data for students to use, themselves, to understand their own technology usage.
  • The security technology that allows student devices to be “locked down”, limiting where they go on the Internet and/or providing authentication for assessments could be repurposed (by device manufacturers) to provide students with the security and privacy needed for them to own their own data, on and off the device.
  • In short, they would support and advance moving from controlling student behavior to fostering student agency.

In not too many years, I fervently hope, controlling student behavior and Internet use will be a thing of the past, replaced with empowering students to be responsible, savvy, independent and self-directed learners using on-line tools. Well-conceived and well-architected classroom management offerings can support this transition, but only if they are willing to actively cannibalize their initial business models in order to evolve from catering to our worst fears to supporting our best aspirations.