Getting to Effective Ed-Tech

This Chronicle article discussing the Jefferson Education incubator at University of Virginia has been rolling around in my head the past couple of days as I’ve been part of a number of conversations about education, computing, and classroom technology. The problem Jefferson Education says they are setting out to solve is that the ed-tech industry is light on efficacy research for the technologies they are selling, and “”universally, everyone thinks it’s not their fault or not their problem” that the research isn’t a bigger part of the purchasing equation.” So their group will study “the political, financial, and structural barriers that keep companies and their customers from conducting and using efficacy research when creating or buying ed-tech products”.

A chain of reactions that I have to this:

  • Of course technology companies sell products that they claim will make your lives better, faster, easier without any proof or research evidence. I’ve had a conversation with a vendor where I raised a question about the underlying assumptions of their product, citing relevant literature, and not surprisingly the sales team didn’t engage in the question of whether we should want to do what their technology did, instead returning the conversation as quickly as possible to how well their technology does what it does.
  • Educational institutions may suffer if their purchasing processes for ed-tech are the same as their purchasing processes for infrastructural tech. Researching the best balance between cost and quality for wifi routers for the campus is not the same process as researching the best balance between cost and quality for an LMS, not least because there are understood benchmarks for wifi routers than can be independently tested fairly easily.
  • It’s almost a hopeless project to come up with one objective evaluation of the effectiveness of a piece of ed-tech as a stand alone artifact to purchase or not, because its effectiveness is entirely related to how an instructor uses it and, prior to that even, what the goals are in using that piece of technology in the first place.
  • The availability of funds to press innovative ed-tech into classrooms likely as a role in where we’ve ended up, because institutions have been financially rewarded for taking big steps quickly, I suspect often having purchases of technology occur before conversations about how it will be used. This incentivizes ed-tech companies to move quickly and market the novelty of their technology rather than move judiciously and market the proveness of their technology.
  • We should all keep in mind that this experimentation is taking place in classrooms where the individual students are getting their one and only education. If ed-tech companies are following the same trends as other startup tech companies, there’s a lot of advice out there to “fail fast” on the way to innovation. But “failing fast” in ed-tech means that not only did a school spend money poorly, a group of students may have been deprived of the effective education they would otherwise have received.

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