Even companies don’t know if their Edtech products work. Can learning science solve this problem?

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At this point, calling the big companies edtech is probably an understatement. According to conservative estimates, the United States has spent $100 billion on edtech over the past decade, with companies raising as much as $8 billion in 2021 alone. But despite explosive growth in tech spending of education, we still know very little about the educational products that actually work.

“The marketplace is completely opaque,” ​​says Sierra Noakes, project director of the nonprofit Digital Promise’s marketplace initiative.

Over the past two years, several nonprofits, including Digital Promise, have attempted to collect data on edtech products to provide educators with a way to make smart decisions about technology. Without it, they fear that the billions of dollars invested in edtech will create a dysfunctional market where schools don’t know the effectiveness or usefulness of the products they buy.

The Digital Promise Solution: A certification for edtech companies that originally launched in 2020 to help educators determine which products implement research best practices. The process was relaunched this year.

But in the two years since its launch, many companies have been reluctant to go through the certification process. A common answer heard by Digital Promise is that companies cannot be both innovative and research-based. This raises “a huge red flag,” says Noakes. Without research, companies also ignore the effectiveness of their products.

According to Bart Epstein, CEO of Edtech Evidence Exchange, a non-profit organization that offers tools to help schools measure the effectiveness of edtech through its EdTech Genome project, companies simply have no incentive to perform research on the effectiveness that they do not control. Independent third-party research could still show that some of the most popular edtech products don’t work, which would be disastrous for the companies selling those products.

But maybe these companies don’t need to be so finicky.

According to a new report from Digital Promise, companies are finding that integrating learning research into the design process provides valuable insights into the design process.

The report inspected five companies that have gone through Digital Promise’s research-based design product certification process, which was originally launched in 2020 to help educators determine which products implement the best practices of research. The process was relaunched this year.

According to Noakes, Digital Promise has found that companies that have gone through their certification process report that using learning sciences in the design process helps their products to be more dynamic. Companies have also indicated that they can’t really know what results they want from a product unless it’s research-based, she says.

Beyond that, the report lays out some practical steps for companies to ensure they innovate and create effective tools. One of those steps: hold regular “cross-functional” team meetings to share research across an organization. “What we often hear with people going through the certification process is that one of the biggest benefits is creating internal processes for new communication channels to share research,” Noakes says.

Federal participation

Collecting information about edtech products is an issue that some people think the federal government should handle.

“I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that if the federal government doesn’t step in, this will never happen,” said Epstein of the Edtech Evidence Exchange.

Currently, the federal government views education as a state and local enterprise from which it has chosen to stay out of as much as possible, lest it be interpreted as sticking its nose where it does not belong. .

The federal government’s lack of involvement in obtaining information has led to a “huge information vacuum” for schools nationwide, Epstein said.

This leaves educators wondering if the educational technology they put in front of children is actually effective, and the fast-moving industry presents a difficult problem of how to empower these educators to make smart decisions about edtech. .

Without federal funding for effectiveness research, schools are on their own. The fact that they don’t vet edtech well isn’t surprising, Epstein says, especially since we’re in the midst of the worst crisis our schools have seen in decades. But in practice, this means that school purchases often rely on marketing and other imprecise and potentially misleading means to solve these complicated questions.

“If you don’t have a research base, you’re hanging on to straws,” says Digital Promise’s Noakes. “With no efficacy results at our fingertips, we need to find a faster way for education managers and educators to get information about product quality.”


Note: Digital Promise shares an institutional affiliation with ISTE, the parent organization of EdSurge.

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