Edtech Should Be More Evidence-Driven

By Fabio Segura and Simon Sommer

The $300 billion global edtech industry is full of promise – but its non-empirical approach has prevented true success

Over the past decade, global investment in edtech has soared to new heights. The urgent need to educate children at home created by COVID-19 lockdowns turbocharged already existing momentum, and analysts now expect edtech expenditure to reach an eye-watering $300 billion globally this year.

But the sudden reliance on edtech during global school closures also painfully exposed some of its current weaknesses. Teachers often found it hard to monitor attendance and assess students’ understanding: one study found that the impact of the pandemic left students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. A joint report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank stated that the share of children in lower- and middle-income countries who are living in “learning poverty” (a lack of basic literacy by age 10) was over 50 percent before the pandemic and could rise to up to 70 percent, due to school closures and the relative ineffectiveness of current remote learning models.

These issues should be addressed urgently to stop undermining edtech’s vast potential to improve learning—whether in day-to-day school settings, or during humanitarian emergencies, such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. In schools, teachers deploying edtech could be freed up from routine tasks such as grading papers, which technology could do automatically, allowing teachers more time to focus on the creative and interpersonal aspects of teaching students. It also has the potential to bring quality education to remote areas of the world, helping to address critical problems, such as illiteracy (a World Bank study showed literacy improvements within days when quality edtech is employed).

Perhaps most critically, edtech also has potential to provide children with a personalized learning experience tailored to their own context, interests, and abilities—something that a new UNESCO report calls a human right. Indeed, AI-driven edtech is particularly suited to personalize learning because it can monitor a child’s responses to educational material, analyze their strengths and alter its approach in real time.

So why has edtech so far largely failed to deliver on its vast potential? A key challenge is the fact that robust scientific evidence does not presently play an integral part in how most edtech products are designed, deployed and evaluated.

Many edtech start-ups, in their desire to leapfrog into the future, haven’t put enough focus on the evidence for their products. For example, a recent report by Edtech Impact, a U.K.-based independent review platform for edtech, found that just 7 percent of edtech companies used randomized controlled trials to find evidence of impact. Instead, the most frequently cited benchmark of evidence were customer quotes and school case studies.

This deficit is not limited to edtech companies and developers; it affects the whole edtech ecosystem. Perhaps surprisingly, many institutional edtech buyers don’t demand rigorous evidence demonstrating the efficacy of what they purchase. A national survey of 515 school and district leaders who make edtech purchasing decisions, conducted by a working group convened at the EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium, found that just 11 percent demand peer-reviewed research. This must change.

For consumer behavior to shift and for these new technologies to be accepted at the level needed to make a real impact, they must be rigorously tested and assessed, just as we do with medical products that affect our health.

Considering the vast amount of capital pouring into edtech and the increasingly high stakes, it’s essential to finally put robust science at the heart of the sector. This would help investors identify solutions that deliver long-term growth, ensure that products will stand the test of time and allow consumers to benefit from innovations that genuinely transform learning.

This type of shift however, will require the edtech sector to undergo a dramatic culture shift. Bridging the divide between science and the industry will be essential in ensuring that robust evidence drives how edtech is developed, used and evaluated. In particular, the use of evidence in investment decisions needs to become a priority if edtech is to fulfill its impact potential.

By engaging with the investment community in this way, we hope to meaningfully contribute to this conversation and encourage others to move in this direction. We have also seeded a $10 million research facility housed at University of California, Irvine, called CERES, to bridge the divide between science and industry and help close a key gap that inhibits progress on promising edtech models.To help advance this, the Jacobs Foundation, which is focused on child and youth development and learning, and which we co-lead, has deployed $30 million through leading edtech venture funds—including BrightEye Ventures, Learn Capital, New Markets Venture Partners, Reach Capital, Rethink Education, Owl Ventures and others—that are committed to investing in projects backed by research.

Today’s students are the most connected, most stimulated generation in history, and they will face enormous challenges, from climate change to inequality to pandemics. But they are digital natives who need new types of tools to realize their full potential, which is the ultimate purpose of education. They need edtech that helps them understand the world.

As we emerge from the pandemic, leaders of the edtech sector should join hands and focus on long-term change rather than short-term gain. If they succeed, they will not simply have transformed education or technology. They will have given young people a real chance to develop their individual talents and face the future with confidence.

Fabio Segura and Simon Sommer are Co-CEOs of the Jacobs Foundation.

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