Are Expenditures for EdTech in K-12 Education Wasteful?

Author 
Wally Boston
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In a recently published EdSurge article, senior reporter Emily Tate reports that the edtech industry in the U.S. is massive. In 2020, edtech startups and existing companies raised $2.2 billion from investors. Despite the continuing investment of capital in the industry, no one knows what the aggregate industry revenues are.

Ms. Tate reports that the EdTech Evidence Exchange, a non-profit research organization located at the University of Virginia, estimates that $26-41 billion a year was spent by K-12 schools during the year before the pandemic. Bart Epstein, an associate professor at UVA’s School of Education and Development and CEO of the EdTech Evidence Exchange, said that he would not be surprised if spending in the K-12 sector ranged between $60-75 billion in 2020.

There is a need for transparency around edtech spending and results, according to Mr. Epstein. He states that the real question isn’t how much we are spending, but what are we getting for how much we are spending? Without this transparency, schools and states can’t share their mistakes and successes.

With transparency, a school district evaluating a product to improve reading would know that the same product is being used in a neighboring district and that it has not improved student reading outcomes.

While transparency may initially trigger a reduction in the number of licenses and products utilized by a school district, Mr. Epstein believes that edtech spending would increase over time. One area of spending that the EdTech Evidence Exchange would like to see increase is professional development spending. Too often, districts purchase edtech solutions but skimp on the training necessary to use those solutions, according to Mr. Epstein.

If school districts shared spending and usage data, everyone would benefit. If the districts also shared what training looked like, how much training was done, and how it impacted student performance, they would know how much to incorporate in their planning in order to effectively train all teachers. Perhaps districts that had limited success with the product would find out that their training time was significantly less than those districts that achieved success with the product.

The frustration expressed by Mr. Epstein regarding planning and funding of training for new educational products is understandable. His last comments to Ms. Tate were that “there is no reason to believe any of this will change soon.”

Having purchased a number of technology solutions over the years in higher ed and in healthcare, the vendors selling solutions are not necessarily going to provide any potential customer with the right estimate for training. There are a few reasons for this way of thinking. First, the vendor wants to emphasize how their software is designed to be “user-friendly” and “intuitive.”

Second, every customer has a different mix of employees, so estimating how long the training will take is difficult. For that reason, many companies offer a “train the trainer” approach.

Third, training all employee users takes time and costs money. Agreeing to train everyone could reduce the profit margin on the transaction. Transferring the risk to the client is most likely preferred.

At the same time, no software product should be purchased without asking the vendor for customer references. Since no vendor will provide a reference from a dissatisfied customer, the school district should assume that the two or three references could be the customers whose performance was the best.

Ideally, the potential buyer should ask each of the references about the implementation and training time required as well as for the performance. If the answers given do not seem aligned with expectations, the buyer should ask to meet with individuals who have used the product.

It appears that the EdTech Evidence Exchange has created a project named The EdTech Genome Project. The number of researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, investors, and advocates who are participating in the initiative exceeds 100. The project is funded by Strada Education Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There are three phases to the project. Phase 1 objectives are to discover and define the key variables that affect implementation success. Phase 2 objectives are to create methodologies to support educators and incentivize them to share information about their implementations at scale. During this phase, a platform will be built to allow decision makers to access data about EdTech implementations from contextual peers.

Phase 3 objectives are to collect data and analyze the outcomes, so that future customers can understand the quality of software tools selected and vendors can understand the factors that influence an implementation failure or success. Ultimately, the EdTech Evidence Exchange believes that billions of dollars will be saved through better software tool implementations and the recovery of instructional hours wasted with a poorly selected or implemented product.

I hope the Genome Project succeeds in accomplishing the first two phases. If this distinguished group successfully discovers and defines the key variables affecting implementation success, they should communicate those findings throughout U.S. K-12 school districts.

One of the Phase 2 tasks — incentivizing educators to share information about implementations — is going to be very difficult for implementations that are not successful. No one wants to be brushed with the red badge of shame. And that’s not the only issue: if the implementation was really bad, it’s likely that some of the project managers won’t be around to collect the data and publish it.

If Phase 2 only succeeds in publishing good to excellent outcomes, the impact of Phase 3 may or may not be diminished. I can see a scenario where only publishing implementations with excellent outcomes could lead to a preferred vendor for that particular software or technology.

Vendors not on the platform with good outcomes might pay for the successful districts to collect, analyze, and publish the data. Let’s hope that all reporting and analysis is done with integrity.

Lastly, Ms. Tate writes that the CEO of Baltimore City Schools, Sonja Santelises, told Mr. Epstein that nearly 100 percent of students in her district use technology due to the pandemic. Furthermore, she doesn’t see a reversal after the pandemic is over. If this change for students is true nationwide, perhaps the greatest immediate impact for this project will be Phase 1.

If the Biden infrastructure bill passes and provides $100 billion for broadband installation, I believe edtech spending by K-12 districts will increase, not decrease. Helping districts understand the key measures for a successful implementation will be more important than ever before.

Will wasted expenditures continue? Sadly, the answer is yes, particularly where districts are understaffed and under-resourced. That’s not likely to change for a long time.

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