At the Arlington Independent School District in Texas, school leaders aren’t just interested in if teachers are using technology.

They want to know how it’s being used, and what kind of training their teachers need.

It’s a subtle, but significant, distinction. And it has become all the more important as modern Internet connections and computers are more common than ever in K-12 schools.

“Our tools that we had in the past didn’t do a lot of help in terms of measuring the effectiveness of teaching and learning,” said Barry Fox, director of instructional technology at the Arlington Independent School District.

Today, the district polls its teachers and students to get that information using BrightBytes, a tool that helps school leaders collect data beyond just how many computers the district has or how fast the Internet runs. Its surveys allow school leaders to gauge various other metrics, including how teachers are using classroom technology – and what their appetite is for innovation. This type of information helps leaders make decisions, such as what kind of professional development is most needed.

“We were never really able to peer into how somebody feels about technology before,” Fox said. “We could see how they did on an [math or reading assessment]. But this … tells us they are open to it. They are on board. It helps us get more aggressive with the steps forward.”

A co-founder of the company that makes BrightBytes, Rob Mancabelli, said that schools often collect a lot of data, but they struggle to make sense of it. “They were data rich but decision poor,” he said. As a former educator and school information technology leader, he was inspired to create a solution.

“They were data rich but decision poor,” he said.

More than ever, how to measure the success – or lack thereof – of educational technology is being debated among educators, policy wonks and academics. For instance, The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit organization that advocates for expanding blended learning, published an extensive report on how this can be accomplished.

“Discrepancies in the level of detail with which ‘blended learning’ and ‘effectiveness’ are measured and reported point to the dramatic need for a coordinated effort to measure if, when and how blended learning is effective in K-12 settings,” Saro Mohammed, a partner at The Learning Accelerator, wrote in a blog post explaining why the new report was important. “We don’t all need to agree on a definition of blended learning, or even effectiveness, but we do need to be consistently explicit, clear and precise about what and how we measure and report.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.