​Expanding Access to Edtech Isn’t Enough. We Need to Make Sure It Works, Too

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Edtech is a vital precursor to “work tech”—the tools that today’s students will need to leverage in college, career training and eventually the workplace. In an economy that is moving rapidly in the direction of more independent workers executing high-level projects for a variety of employers, navigating an ever-changing ecosystem of new technologies will be a fundamental skill for workers. Students need access to tools that work. But today, the decisions educators make regarding the tools they use with students are based on hypothesis rather than solid evidence.

School, district, and state leaders make technology decisions every day that will affect student tech fluency, not to mention learning outcomes. These decision-makers spend billions of dollars on equipment and resources to implement their decisions. The New Schools Venture Fund estimates that K-12 schools collectively spend about $9 billion per year on instructional software, digital assessments, laptops and tablets for students and teachers. But how do these leaders know whether their investments will lead to the student learning outcomes they desire? What methods of evaluating whether the tools work will lead to selection of the best tools for learning?

Unfortunately, many of them may never know because there simply is not enough rigorous research about what works—and good, existing research rarely makes it to the policymaking table. What’s more, high-impact practices and technologies remain comfortably at the “pilot” stage, never achieving the transformative scale they promise because little is known about effective scaling across diverse school and district contexts.

The time has arrived to dig in and empirically investigate what works. For much of the past year, approximately 150 researchers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, educators, investors, and institutional leaders have been collaborating in 10 working groups (each supported by a professional researcher) to study and discuss data, processes, and systems that show substantial promise.

This May, these leaders and another 150 or so stakeholders will come together for the first ever EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium, organized by The University of Virginia Curry School of Education, Digital Promise and the Jefferson Education Accelerator. At the symposium, we will continue to develop a shared understanding of the concrete steps we can all take to ensure that real research drives the development, selection, and deployment of education technology. We hope this will kick off a more intense effort to advance research that leads to better policy and practice in both adopting and using technology.

Five factors currently drive this demand for improving the quality and scalability of education technology:

  1. Higher academic standards nationwide
  2. A focus on college and career-training readiness
  3. The changing role of a diminishing supply of teachers
  4. Rapidly emerging technologies
  5. Static state budgets.

Rather than thinking of technology as a tool for implementing old forms of pedagogy, we must broaden the notion of what great teaching looks like—and the role of the teacher. Teachers aren’t becoming less important in the era of rapidly emerging technology; rather, they’re becoming the critical navigators of of newly available tools and information. Research and technology communities play an important part in helping teachers and leaders effectively serve that role.

The Alliance for Excellent Education has been addressing the challenge of leveraging new educational technologies to make education delivery better. Working with 60 education partners and the U.S. Department of Education, we at the Alliance for Excellent Education have created Future Ready Schools—a project that helps school district leaders implement digital learning strategies that personalize learning and better serve the future needs of students and the neighborhoods where they will live and work. So far, 3,100 school districts have taken the Future Ready pledge.

To best support these education leaders as they deploy proven digital learning strategies, we need to continue investigating effective practices and offer solid evidence regarding the fidelity of new tools and approaches that continually emerge. The EdTech Symposium is designed to jumpstart this process and inspire increased collaboration between tool developers who aim to create exciting, engaging technologies and educators who aim to ensure that every student has access to the high-quality education she or he needs and deserves. By starting the dialogue, we aim to spur deeper, more research-driven conversations that lead to the educational transformation our nation requires.

Editor’s note: EdSurge is participating in the EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium.

Bob Wise (@BobWise48) is the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

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