(Endless) Summer Reading: 5 ways you can choose better learning software

This is part of a series of articles about how we can reimagine learning for next year and beyond. To get the next article delivered automatically to your inbox, click HERE.

Software defined

I searched the term “software definition” on duckduckgo and here’s what came up: “The programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.”

By that definition, our opinions, habits, morning routines, and the language we use are all software. These mental maps influence our decisions, drive our actions and behaviors, and create patterns – which in turn reinforce our mental maps.

Good news! We can change our mental maps. Neuroplasticity enables us to change our minds, adapt, and improve everything from our skills to our quality of life. That’s learning.


NOTE: If you’re a TL;DR type who wants the microwave version of a gourmet 5-course blog post, you can skip the context and get right to the 5 steps by clicking here:

  1. Clarify your purpose
  2. Locate your power
  3. Own your ID & data
  4. Make it easy
  5. Evaluate the costs


Selecting computer software to fit our internal software

People often select computer software – tools that amplify and accelerate our mental maps – based on feature sets and monetary costs. This is a perfectly reasonable, understandable mistake.

Organizations make the same mistake in selecting people to help achieve goals. Great candidates are often bad fits. The results are expensive and unpleasant for everyone.

Knowing what we know about organizational development and performance, we should be focused on fit. First, we’re going to need a mirror. What are candidates and software fitting in with? Ask:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • Do we need software to do it?
  • How will our organizational culture and working processes going to use the software to align with our vision and accomplish our mission?

Honest self-assessment is hard work. And you’ll be glad you did it.


Vince Lombardi was an insightful observer of people. In Coach Lombardi’s words, “Winning is a habit. Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”

In other words: Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Since school is the institution that is charged with helping people think, neuroplasticity should be baked into every policy and operational decision. Whether it’s held in-person or online, school should be a community where everyone practices mindfulness and observes their own patterns of thinking and behavior.

This is the environment that software should support. Neuroplasticity helps us understand new concepts and build skills. Neuroplasticity also highlights the value of our meta learning – i.e., what we learn about our learning. Often, the most valuable information is what’s not in the syllabus.

The Meta

Students’ meta learning may include:

  • how to navigate the personality of the instructor
  • the dynamics of interacting with classmates
  • how feedback gets provided and how performance/work is evaluated
  • a sense of workflow that supports getting things done

Students absorb this information in ways that change their minds. They use what they learn in ways they think will help them succeed. Their neurons fire together, and wire together, depending on the information they process and the patterns they establish.

Augmenting With Technology

This is our software: “programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.”

We have to update our own learning software. Analyzing and evaluating our experiences helps us learn more effectively.

Selecting digital software comes down to identifying the external tools that accelerate and amplify our learning.

Here are five ways to evaluate whether external software is a fit:

1. Clarify your purpose

On the screen in front of you is the greatest informational workshop in the history of the world. Every tool you could possibly need to conduct research and create content is right there in front of you. How will you select the best tools if you don’t know what you’re trying to build?

When a student wanted us to learn about environmentally sustainable engineering, she took us to it.

When a student wanted to fly, he got in a plane.

Even when the environment is harsh, we are better off when we know why we’re there and what we want to do.

What is your vision of success? What are you trying to accomplish? What story do you want to tell about it?

Your vision is essential to your success. As Jim Collins and others have shown, vision is the quality that distinguishes the excellent from the merely very good. Personal growth experts, management consultants, and hall of fame sports coaches like Mike Krzyzewski all cite personal and shared visions as foundational keys to achievement.

Clarify your purpose. Articulate your vision.

When you know the job, it’s easier to find the right tool for the job.

2. Find your power

Here’s how software selection works in most schools:

(Actually, hardly anyone knows for sure. And no one has any idea what the average LMS costs. Go ahead. Ask around.)

Here’s how software adoption works in most schools:

You don’t adopt the software. The software adopts you.

  • Someone in the district office buys a software license.
  • The district hosts a training. Or it doesn’t.
  • Campus administrators direct faculty to use the software.
  • Faculty direct students to use the software.

No one gets to say, “No thank you.” “Nope.” “Nuh uh.” “Not me.” “NO.”

As hard as this may seem, if you’re going to have any control over the way in which technology influences your learning, you need to become that person. Now. You’re not doing anything insubordinate or wrong. Your school’s vision statement probably says some very nice things about safety, learning, the future and success. It doesn’t say “We demand that everyone use the software we paid for under penalty of law.” Get your Nancy Reagan on and JUST SAY NO. This will make your “yes” more meaningful.

Setting a boundary is the first indicator that you have the power to choose.

3. Own your ID and data

Today’s students and teachers create a ton of content. Cui bono?

To preserve the value of their efforts, creators have to assert their rights of ownership. This is why Black creators on Tik Tok went on strike they are “tired of constant cultural and intellectual theft.”

Stealing from creators isn’t unique to the internet. However, digital technology has evolved faster than intellectual property law, so many people are confused about the ethics of practices such as remixing, sampling, fan fiction, and licensing.

Education software is uniquely positioned to prey on creators. Students don’t have a choice in the matter. They don’t get to go on strike. The school environment itself is a mandate: in loco parentis. Software developers profit from that mandate.

Think of how much data the average student creates on a learning management system. All of the responsive assignments. Research. Personal information. Original creations.

None of the data associated with a person-as-student actually belongs to her – not even her online identity. She logs into school email and the LMS using her student ID number, which is issued by the school.

What happens when the student graduates or leaves the school? She no longer has a valid student ID (read: identification). *Poof!* – she is locked out of seeing, using, sharing, or deleting the data associated with that ID.

Therefore, it is inaccurate to call that data “hers.” She owns neither the space nor the fruits of her labor that were created and saved in that space. She is an intellectual sharecropper. The value she creates accrues to the owners of the LMS, the textbook publishers, the testing companies, and the schools who contract with these vendors.

Social media may not require payment in currency, but they’re not free. Value is being created and monetized. Every “free” CMS has to be sustainable – someone is making money. And that someone isn’t you.

4. Make it easy

Many educators panicked when the coronavirus closed campuses. Suddenly, everyone had to master tools they hadn’t been trained to use.

These tools are logical. Most are simple. Software can actually be fun to learn or debug, if we have time, space, and/or understanding from other people.

However, school culture is built on pressure.

In a pressurized environment, where people are constantly hustling to have meetings and make reports and sit here and take attendance there and do whatever else David Graeber called Bullshit Jobs, it’s hard to think.

Software can be easy. Don’t use what you don’t need. Select only those tools that make your life easier. Here are some things software can help you do:

  • automate a function
  • organize and/or curate information
  • facilitate collaboration
  • visualize data

Pro tip: If you can’t easily learn the software during a few passing periods, or – worse – if the software necessitates the creation and full-time attention of bullshit job titles like “tech tosa” (Teacher on Special Assignment), it’s the wrong software.

5. Evaluate costs

Spoiler: this isn’t just about money.

It’s partly about money. Do you need to pay a fee or an annual/monthly subscription? Will your employer pay for it? What ROI do you anticipate?

More importantly, what are the hidden costs?

Your software is extracting value from you somewhere.

Do you know how the software makes its money?

What are you contributing to the software? Data? Metadata?

What else is required of you? How much time will you need to learn, maintain, and use the software?



EOF is early-days software shorthand for “End of File.” You don’t need to be an expert to choose software. But it helps to know a little about the symbolic languages that create programs to help us with our routines.

Taking a hard look at our purpose, managing our own data in ways that assert our ownership and align with our purpose, giving ourselves space and time to integrate software, and investing our resources wisely give us a better chance to avoid the panic game and support learning.