I went to a workshop recently that mentioned the concept of “shelfware”–software you buy that ends up on a “shelf,” not used. Of course, these days that shelf might be virtual.

This got me to thinking about iPad apps I’ve purchased and then minimally or never used, and why. About a month ago, I bought a password-manager app. I searched for recommendations and reviews, decided what functionality I was looking for–ability to backup information and access it from multiple devices–and I made a purchase. I probably spent an hour or two deciding on the perfect app on which to spend my $10 dollars, then I spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out how to use it, and I’ve barely touched it since. Why? So far, the app just seems inefficient and cumbersome. It’s quite possible that there are elegant ways to use it that I’m not aware of, but I suppose my need or desire for this tool is so far not sufficient to make me invest the time in figuring it out, or looking for tutorials or videos that might help.

On the other hand, I purchased a recipe box app last week that I’ve spent hours with already, and it’s been well worth the $4. In this case, I had a pile of recipes clipped from cooking magazines, and nowhere to put them. I could go buy another journal like I’ve done before and tape them in, but instead, I’ve invested time into retyping them into this app, and now I can search by ingredient or course, email myself a shopping list, and so on, and I use it often. What was so different about these two apps? Part of it was about the usability of the apps themselves, and part of it was about my commitment and need for the tool.

Also in the workshop, we discussed the differences between “buying criteria” and “using criteria.” Both of the apps I’ve mentioned met my buying criteria–for example, they held the data I wanted, there was a way to back up my data, they were priced reasonably, and there were good user reviews. However, only one satisfied my using criteria, of being immediately easy to use and convenient.

This is relevant to educational technology too, of course. Recently a coworker visited a school and showed The Geometer’s Sketchpad to a technology manager. He said, “looks cool, I’ll download the trial and play with it for 15 minutes; if I can’t do something useful in that amount of time, I won’t buy it.” Related, we’ve come across many teachers who have access to Sketchpad at their schools, but don’t know how to get started using it. Many of them have never opened the software, and if they did, they weren’t sure where to start. I don’t fault them for this–in my experience, to use technology, I first must see a need for it, and then I will invest time in learning it proportional to my need for the tool. (Assuming there’s any time available, which is in short supply for teachers!) If you happen to be one of these teachers, you should know there are resources to help you–Sketchpad comes with a Learning Center full of tutorials, videos, and activities, which can be accessed via the Help menu.

As we continue here at Key to develop our technology tools and resources and optimize them for use in classrooms, I’ll be keeping in mind my recent app purchase experiences. If you’ve had similar experiences with your educational technologies, of the encouraging or discouraging variety, let us know! What helps you get started with a new technology tool, or dissuades you from even trying?

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