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Professional Learning

Finding the Value in Edtech Certifications

Many popular tech tools offer online training to help educators learn the features. But is the training worthwhile?

October 23, 2023

There’s no shortage of edtech applications for teachers to choose from these days—the thing most teachers are short on is the time needed to learn how to use all these tools.

To help them get up to speed, many edtech companies offer certification programs that walk users through the various features. This can help time-pressed teachers quickly understand the best way to, say, build a quiz in Kahoot—which may be particularly helpful if they need to know how that differs from working in a tool they already know, like Socrative, or Quizizz, or Quizlet.

I asked Tolu Noah, formerly a senior professional learning specialist at Apple and now the instructional learning spaces coordinator at California State University, Long Beach, whether certification programs are worth the time commitment for teachers. “I don’t think you could learn everything on your own,” she told me. “For example, with the iPad, you might know how to take a screenshot, but there are actually several ways”—once you know a single method, you may not be inclined to keep looking, but the different methods are handy in different situations. “You get a more in-depth look at the tools than what you would discover on your own,” Noah added.

Enrolling in an edtech certification imposes an external deadline, said Laura Bradley, a middle school ELA, digital design, and broadcast media teacher. Even if she could learn the material on her own, she told me, “having a deadline and a goal is what gets me to do the work.”

I spoke with more than a dozen teachers who have a high degree of edtech expertise to get their best tips for vetting certifications. 

Even Simple Modules Can Help Teachers Learn the Ropes

The simplest certifications have a set of modules to work through. The tool Formative, for example, has a set of videos about its features that take about two hours to watch. The value of programs like this, according to Rachelle Dené Poth, a teacher and edtech consultant, is that they guide you through the essentials.

“You may not have access to someone who can teach you, so having those modules available is good,” Poth told me. “I’m a person who just likes to dive in” and play with a new tool, she said, but working toward certification “makes you accountable to yourself that you’re growing and learning. And now I know all these things—not just bits and pieces.”

One downside is that courses often follow rigid required steps, even if an educator is already familiar with the tool, says Aisha Atkinson, a former high school teacher and current administrator. The tools “have a set course—not personalized—so you have to start from the beginner level and go through each rudimentary step,” Atkinson said. “There’s no differentiation, and there should be.”

How can you tell whether a program will be useful to you? That depends not just on the quality of the program but also on your familiarity with the tool and general comfort with learning new programs, and also to some extent how you like to learn. For example, Katie Nieves Licwinko, a former middle school special education teacher and current educational technology coordinator, told me, “I’m big on just exploring to learn a tool myself, so if a certification is nothing but ‘here’s where to click,’ then I don’t find it to be valuable”—but, she added, “I know some people really love that type of training.”

More Complex Programs Usually Generate More Learning

The more elaborate certifications typically require teachers to create a learning product that the company will assess. Several educators told me that this process can be very fulfilling—a powerful learning experience. Stephanie Rothstein, a teacher on special assignment in edtech, told me, “I really love the Google Coach application because it actually guides you through the year-long process for your portfolio. I found so much value in that application and grew and learned from that process.” Bradley told me that this kind of certification—which includes several of the Google and Apple certifications—has “more rigor because you have to create or produce something.”

How can you determine if a certification process is rigorous? Nieves Licwinko told me that she wants to see “some real applications and ideas for how to innovate and integrate that tool to use in the classroom.” Her certification as a Google Trainer required her to submit a video of herself delivering a professional development session, and her Google Innovator certification led her to develop a problem statement and final product that grew out of her work with students with disabilities. “Everything I was doing in both certifications really did immediately apply to my job,” she told me. “In the case of the trainer certification, that also helped prepare me for the job I wanted to get.”

Rothstein vets certifications by checking in with her professional learning network. She also noted that “most of the certifications that I am part of have their materials openly published, so you can see the training available before deciding to embark on the goal.”

Sometimes, even after vetting materials and expectations, and checking in with colleagues, some certifications fall short. Bradley started the certification for Adobe Creative Educator but found the coursework to be “thin”: “Once I completed a task and submitted it, there wasn't any feedback…. The work just didn't seem to go anywhere and didn’t challenge me or make me feel like I had learned much.” So if a certification requires turning in work to demonstrate learning, Bradley suggests verifying in advance that you’ll receive worthwhile feedback.

‘Now You Have a Network’

Learning the ins and outs of a tool that you’re using every day is clearly useful, but several educators told me that the most meaningful part isn’t the learning, or being able to show off a certification, or the swag many companies send out, but rather getting connected to a community of educators who use the same tool.

“The process is great, but the community is where the value is at,” said Tricia Louis, a district technology integration professional. “Facebook communities, Google groups, etc.—a built-in set of colleagues that can help answer questions or inspire new learning.” Poth agreed, saying, “The learning is good, but the bigger part is the community—it helps educators feel less isolated. PD can be rough, especially when it’s not personalized, but now you have a network.” In a similar vein, Rothstein said that certification “allows me to set my own learning goals, and the best value for me is it connects me to a community where we have access to more resources and support.”

Access to a community is in fact an important deciding factor for Rothstein, and Nieves Licwinko as well. To be worth the time investment, Rothstein said, a certification “needs to connect me with a community or lead me to a larger goal.”

This point about community initially surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even after going through a certification and gaining more expertise with a tool, teachers can still have questions. Being connected to a community of folks who have put in the same kind of work means they can very likely quickly find an answer. “Previously you had to go to workshops, but since the pandemic with things moving online, getting a certification is just so convenient”—except that teachers miss out on that human connection they got from being at a workshop with others, Noah pointed out. An online community is at least a partial substitute for that.

Whether a particular certification has value for a teacher winds up being an individual judgment call. But if the tool includes a way for teachers to connect with each other, that alone is a huge bonus and may be the factor that makes the certification process worthwhile.

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