Should You Use That EdTech?


When deciding whether to use a particular educational technology, consider whether the educational benefits are justified by the effort required to make it work.


The peer-review tool in the Blackboard learning management system should be buried in cursed soil, have hexes placed upon it, and never be spoken of again. I came to this conclusion within the first few weeks of a new online course offering.

Peer review—when students evaluate each other’s work—has been an effective way for students to check whether they’re on the right track mid-way through their course projects. In and of itself, peer review is a great idea. My students like it and find it helpful. The problem is in the execution.

This was all my own fault, really. Normally I approach these things with a large dose of skepticism regarding how well the student-tool interaction will go, and have multiple back-up plans. I don’t know what happened this time—my money’s on possession by a diabolical entity—but I decided to trust that everything would go smoothly. Dear friends, it did not.

First, the tool won’t accept late work. Someone is always late, whether due to leaving assignments to the last minute, or not understanding the process, or both. In this case there were several someones.

Second, students didn’t know how to access the tool. If they read the instructions and followed them exactly (not a safe assumption for a variety of reasons including some perfectly legitimate ones) they might have understood that the link saying “View/Complete Assessment” was what they needed to click on to submit their work for review.

Third, they made errors in the submission process. There was a how-to video, but in my experience those are ineffective for at least 10% of students. In this case it was worse thanks to a confusing and difficult-to-navigate user interface within the peer-review tool.

In the end I had to come up with workarounds to ensure everyone had a chance to give and receive feedback, and now I just use a streamlined version of those workarounds instead of the tool itself.

This experience, and my folly in trusting that other Blackboard tools would also function as advertised in that same course, have led me to outline some general rules surrounding whether you should use a particular learning technology or not:

  • First and foremost, if you’re working with an edtech fiend and see a manic gleam in their eyes as they enthuse about a new learning tool, you need to back away.
  • If your idealistic inner teacherperson is considering the use of a new tool and casually dismissing the amount of work it will take, this is a bad sign.
  • If students must get every step exactly right to make the thing work, proceed as with the first bullet point.   

As a handy reference, print out the diagram at the beginning of this post and display it wherever you usually contemplate the pedagogical decisions you ultimately regret.