Don’t Ignore Teachers in Evaluation Studies of Education Technology

Opinion | Efficacy

Don’t Ignore Teachers in Evaluation Studies of Education Technology

By Stephen Newton     Jan 8, 2017

Don’t Ignore Teachers in Evaluation Studies of Education Technology

As a researcher, I recognize the appeal of “gold standard” research that uses random assignment to find out just how much a given digital courseware product helps improve student learning. At the same time, my experience doing research in an urban district suggests that education technology evaluations need to go beyond this focus if they are to be most useful. Specifically, if we consider that education technology products are not so much “stand alone” interventions but tools for helping teachers personalize their learning environments, then the centrality of teachers becomes apparent.

The Basic Issue: Personalizing vs. Plugging-In

A basic issue in any program evaluation is to define the program. Is the program an opportunity for students to sit in front of a computer screen and use software, or is the program a new model of teaching empowered by digital technology? Recent thinking on personalized learning suggests that the power of instructional technology derives not from merely putting students in front of computers but from the way that it allows teachers to reshape their classrooms into personalized learning environments.

Based on this, we need to study not only software, but what teachers are thinking and doing to make use of the software in their classrooms if we want to understand what important changes are taking place for students.

How Can Teachers Affect Usage?

In our research in an urban school district, teachers shared their thoughts in weekly logs, interviews, focus groups, and surveys and we observed their classrooms. In these ways, we were able to identify how teacher thinking and practice shaped the use of software products. First, we found that teachers’ technology experience mattered. Those with prior experience with tools were more likely to have high-use classrooms than those without, even if their prior experience was only OK or even negative. We also found that teachers with greater usage and more personalized instruction were those who showed evidence of more extensive planning and reflection throughout the school year.

Teacher ratings of technology products also affected their use. Teachers tended to be more frequent users of products they like and believe would engage students and enable them to learn. On the other hand, teachers who struggled with classroom management, specifically keeping students on task, tended to have greater difficulty in using instructional software at the desired levels. Thus, teachers made a big difference in how, and how much, instructional technology was used in the classroom.

Teachers Key to Usefulness of Findings

Share research-based practices with almost any educator and the first thing he or she will ask (either to themselves or aloud) will be: Will the same thing work with my students? Given that educational technology use depends so much on teachers, we can expand this perspective to say “Will it work with my teachers and students?”

As we explore how to best apply useful technologies in a variety of learning environments, it will be important to pay careful attention to teacher mindsets, experience and instructional planning. That is, school leaders would be wise to consider factors such as teachers’ experience with technology, their buy-in to the new tools, instructional use cases that surround the product’s use, and whether other products are also being used at the same time.


Our experience studying instructional technology has continually brought us back to the key role played by teachers. Useful research should continue to develop an understanding of what it means for teachers to incorporate technology in their classrooms. We’ve seen teachers use tools to conference with students for more personalized instruction, for instance.

Ongoing research will benefit from understanding more about the role of teachers, and this understanding will be necessary as we try to create useful and generalizable findings about the effectiveness of instructional technology products.

Stephen Newton is Research Director of Learnlaunch Institute

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