Does it Work? Will it Help Students? Is it Any Good?

It’s time for a better conversation about what works in education

How can teachers know which digital tools actually work to improve student learning?

As a teacher, I was constantly inundated with fads, trends, and innovations for my classroom. Notable amongst these were digital tools. The product names changed, but the pitch was basically the same — “Buy our app or software and teachers will be more effective, students will learn more, parents will be happier and your school will save money.”

The one thing I didn’t have enough of, though, was evidence to show that any of those innovations worked any better than what I was already doing. As a classroom teacher, I often felt like a boat captain navigating the murky and dangerous Amazon river — in the dark, without a guide, or even a compass.

In the past five years, that feeling has only been exacerbated. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into finding “the next big thing” in ed-tech, but you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere as much funding or attention directed towards helping teachers make decisions informed by evidence.

The market for education technology is undoubtedly crowded. Comparing one product to another is nearly impossible. So, when I see headlines like “Technology in Classroom Doesn’t Make Students Smarter” (referencing the OECD’s recent report), read Fast Company’s “We’re Spending $10 Billion on Kids’ Classroom Technology — But Does it Help Them Learn?” or listen to organizations argue “Schools Should Stop Wasting Money Buying iPads and Shiny Gadgets”, it doesn’t shock or surprise me.

So, here’s a question for us all:

Properly used, digital tools can help drive student engagement, encouraging “visible learning” and prevent students from tuning out instruction

We all agree on a few things.

First, we know that most educators now see the potential for technology to transform their practice.

Second, we know smarter digital tools are already helping increase access and success for students globally.

Third, we know that student learning is enhanced when technology supports a capable instructor.

And, finally, we also know that to serve students more effectively, we need to do a better job.

So in the spirit of a constructive dialogue, here are three ways that we — as an education community — could do a better job, and what’s already happening to answer those questions.

1) We need better evaluation of digital tools

Static measurements can’t effectively evaluate dynamic, evolving tools. Richard Culatta of the US Department of Education (USDOE) noted that longitudinal research may take up to two years to evaluate an app, but by the time that research has finished, that app may have changed over 20 times.

Going forward, we must encourage rapid cycle trials to evaluate the effectiveness of new technologies. New research methodologies will need to be developed with the teacher as the end customer. The goal of these evaluations should be to allow a teacher to ask, “How well will this work in my classroom?”

The Gates Foundation, Digital Promise, USDOE, Education Endowment Foundation and other groups are exploring how tools like rapid cycle evaluations, school partnerships and better links with the classroom can quickly and accurately evaluate the effectiveness of digital tools. Our own efficacy program at Pearson is starting to uncover these questions and we are openly sharing what we are learning.

2) We Need Better Ways to Find Out About Great Tools

Evaluating and building great products is important but teachers and parents need easy and accessible ways to find out what works. Just think about where you turn to find a great restaurant or doctor? Nearly 80% of US teachers believe “it’s at least somewhat difficult to find out about high quality educational technologies” and think schools could be purchasing more effective digital tools.

Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want from Digital Tools, 2015

The sector needs dynamic sites where results from these studies and feedback from teachers and parents can be brought together. These hubs need to be built for teachers to uncover solutions for specific challenges they are facing in their classrooms.

Groups like Edsurge, Graphite and Digital Promise are making a start and, at Pearson, we are trying to do our part. Over the coming few months and years, we will publish transparent reports on the efficacy of all our products. These results will not be based on lab trials, but on what happens when tools are placed in the hands of teachers and learners.

3) We need to help educators get the most out of digital tools

With textbooks, teachers need very little support from the publisher on how to use the books to enhance their instruction. Education technology changes the relationship between teacher and tool-provider and raises the bar for what infrastructure is required in schools for tools to work.

The challenge is summarised well by the OECD,

There are sadly far too many examples of technologies that work in the lab, but not in the context of the classroom. Or, even if technologies are effective, they can still get stymied by schools that don’t have bandwidth or infrastructure to support them.

Building better tools for teachers might involve edtech startups asking questions like these

My colleague, Katelyn Donnelly, worked with Professor Michael Fullan to write , a report on what ‘good’ looks like for digital education innovation.

The report introduces a framework to evaluate innovations on their alignment with pedagogical theory, system change, and technology requirements. Frameworks such as this can and must be adopted by school and system leaders to help teachers get the most out of digital tools.

Better learner outcomes start with better instruction and smarter products. To build better products, we will all need to ask better questions such as, “Does this work? And, in what circumstances?”

Teachers already do this. It’s about time the rest of the education community started providing meaningful answers.

Take this post as the start of a constructive conversation . I’m eager to hear and respond to your thoughts — here or on Twitter — on the hard but vital challenge of how best to help students learn.

Founder, KaiPod Learning. Dabble in educ investing. Passion for turning ed into outcomes. Former teacher, principal, consultant & coder.

Founder, KaiPod Learning. Dabble in educ investing. Passion for turning ed into outcomes. Former teacher, principal, consultant & coder.