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Considering a New Digital Learning Tool? 4 Questions You Should Be Asking

January 18, 2019 Allison Mortland

Image: Questions to ask about digital learning toolsLet’s be clear: Educators in search of new digital learning tools and platforms have no shortage of questions.

Will it integrate with my current system?

Is it mobile friendly?

What about accessibility?

And the list goes on – as it should.

But before getting into all those details, before creating a list of requirements or deciding which technology providers to ask for proposals, it’s important to know what foundational answers to seek out first. These questions are crucial, because asking the right ones early on can save time, headaches and even money later in the process.  

Some of these questions may seem obvious. Yet in working with so many educators on this process, we’ve observed that it’s easy to get wrapped up in evaluating the technology and features in a silo, while losing focus on other key components of adopting a new digital learning tool that can prove equally important.

  1. What problem am I trying to solve?

Often, educators exploring new digital learning solutions begin by educating themselves about the type of tool they’re considering, such as adaptive learning, learning management, or data and analytics platforms. Getting that baseline understanding of how these systems work and what range of features they offer is an important first step. Once your search progresses to researching individual tools, though, it’s time to get more specific about what challenge or opportunity you’re seeking to address.

It helps to start by clearly defining the purpose of implementing new technology. If you’re aiming to improve pass rates in specific courses, for example, that’s your goal – but what problem do you need to solve to achieve that goal? As you answer this question, it can be helpful to insulate the process from any initial product research to avoid defining your problem based on the solutions you’re seeing in the marketplace.

Narrow down what you’re hoping to achieve – as much as you can – so you can evaluate potential solutions against your specific needs. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but it’s worth taking the time early on to help ensure that you get the most relevant and helpful information when you begin to engage with service providers.

  1. How will this technology create value, now and downstream?

With your problem to solve clearly identified, the next step is understanding where and how a digital solution can deliver value for you. Think about how you’ll measure and demonstrate that value, starting with a clear understanding of the benefits you anticipate the technology will provide.

You’ll likely start with those benefits that directly address your primary goal – these might include expanded capabilities for students and faculty, improvements to the teaching and learning experience, and/or better student outcomes. Then broaden your examination to identify any additional impact beyond your core goal. Will you also see added value by gaining efficiencies or avoiding or replacing current costs? Where else might you see positive effects? If it’s a technology that you plan to pilot and then scale, consider how all these impacts will look different in those two phases. 

Your earliest evaluation of these questions will, of course, be projections, but as you begin working with the technology, you can develop a more definitive hypothesis to provide a full picture of the cost/benefit equation.

  1. What level of change will the technology require for my department or organization?

Any digital learning tool will introduce some degree of change into your current operations, whether you’re integrating technology where it didn’t previously exist or simply switching to a different solution. Even when these changes are positive ones, it’s helpful to understand ahead of time where and what that impact will be.

As part of this analysis, ask yourself not only what will need to change to successfully implement the new technology, but also to what degree you – and your organization – are ready to make these changes. If you’re not ready, what will it take to get there? Thinking about all these factors ahead of time can help avoid surprises and help your implementation run more smoothly.  

  1. What value does the service provider bring beyond the technology?

In many cases, when you commit to a new technology solution, you’re committing to a relationship with the technology provider as well. Consider what capabilities you’ll need on your side not just to get up and running but to have the best chance of achieving your goal. Will the service provider help manage any operational or process changes that come with the integration? Are there related services you’ll need providers to deliver, such as technical support or user training? Can they help you understand and manage any potential risks? Are the providers you’re considering positioned to not just solve your problem today but to grow and evolve with you in a sustainable way moving forward?

Then there’s the human factor. Are these people you like working with? Does the company culture and what they stand for resonate with you? The more significant the implementation, and the more deeply tied you are to its success, the more important these factors can be. Thinking beyond the technology itself will help you make sure you select not just the right platform, but the right partner.

Researching a new digital learning technology is a learning experience in itself. At the beginning, you likely won’t know all the important questions to ask – these will emerge the deeper into the process you get. Get off on the right foot by asking these four questions from the start, and you’ll already be ahead of the game.

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