Few unbiased evaluations have been available for schools purchasing tech-based tools and curricula. That may change, but the challenge remains in getting these resources used effectively in classrooms.
Due to pandemic-induced remote learning, K-12 educational technology use by teachers has accelerated at a significant rate over the past year. But questions remain about whether this pace will continue once schools are fully reopened, and if these ed-tech resources teachers have adopted are effective in advancing student learning.
Defining what’s “good” has long been a challenge for technology-based curricula. And given the large sums of money schools have spent on ed tech — estimated at between $26 billion and $41 billion a year — there’s a serious need to know what works and what doesn’t. With the additional one-time money coming to schools via the American Rescue Plan that can be spent on ed tech, the stakes for schools to make well-informed purchasing decisions have never been higher.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
A primary issue in buying ed tech is a lack of thorough, independent product evaluations. Some nonprofits, like Common Sense Media, gather helpful application reviews from teachers, but they don’t go to the depth required for school or district-wide decision-makers.
Vendors marketing tech-based curricula have also sponsored research on their products. But as a Hechinger Report article from last year points out, these findings are suspect. So educators need more and better sources to determine what really works.
ENTER THE EDTECH GENOME PROJECT
To address educators’ need for unbiased ed tech evaluations conducted in real-world settings, the EdTech Evidence Exchange, a nonprofit research organization at the University of Virginia, hopes to fill the gap.
I’ve been following this group’s work since they emerged as the Jefferson Education Exchange (JEX) in 2018. And though the project’s scope is ambitious, if it attains its goals it should be of real value to educators. According to their timeline, the EdTech Genome Project plans to have data and analytics available by 2022 to assist educators in making better-informed purchasing decisions.
Driven by data gathered from classroom teachers evaluating specific technology products used in their classrooms, the project intends its Exchange platform to make this information accessible to educators. For example: A third-grade teacher in a diverse urban area is looking for a tech-based reading program. She could enter some specific parameters into the Exchange tool and gather field-tested results from teachers in schools with similar student demographics.
Participating teachers will receive a stipend for their work — an important feature for teacher buy-in — but the project’s overall success will depend on the number of participants; as will the depth, breadth and currency of the products they test and review.
Recruiting and sustaining a critical mass of EdTech Evidence Exchange participants will be no small feat. But given the need for sharing such information among educators, one hopes the project gets the necessary support.
THE CHALLENGE OF TEACHER BUY-IN
However, finding and buying the best ed-tech tools is only one of the challenges schools face. Getting teachers to use them with efficacy is a whole other issue. Per some recent reports, upwards of 70 percent of schools’ purchased ed-tech curricula is never used at all. And though businesses have emerged that allow districts and schools to track product usage, and presumably to address the issues, the problems persist.
Some of this poor teacher buy-in may change due to their increased use of ed-tech tools during the pandemic. But the fact that so many teachers have been uninformed or ambivalent about district or school-purchased ed-tech tools speaks to some larger issues.
While running the educational technology department of a large school district, when I spoke with teachers, I’d ask their opinions on particular software applications we’d licensed for district-wide use. Their answers echoed the national data and typically broke down something like: 35 percent had never heard of it, 35 percent had tried it once or twice and put it aside, 15 percent used it occasionally, and another 15 percent liked it and made it a regular part of their instruction.
There are many reasons why this was the case. In my district, ineffective teacher training, coupled with competing curricular priorities, were two of the main culprits for our poor software adoption rates. And also — to the chagrin of central office ed-tech staff — when it comes to ed tech, teachers often prefer their own solutions (usually free or inexpensive) or defer to ones recommended by colleagues, rather than use district-purchased applications.
If schools are going to change this ineffective model and work toward ensuring their students are getting the best of the best, something — like the EdTech Evidence Exchange — needs to come to the fore. And then, once high-quality and well-aligned tools are purchased, district and school leaders can marshal their troops to ensure the products are used well in classrooms.