What Tech Works for Students?

by Anna Ly
October 22, 2013

In late September, more than 60 constituents from various sectors including research, policy, government, technology and investment gathered in Washington, D.C. for the “What Tech Works for Students? Using Data to Determine What Technology is Driving Outcomes” symposium hosted by the Department of Education, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Tucker Capital. Groups like the Gates Foundation, The White House, Common Sense Media, as well as the Joan Ganz Cooney Center were part of the lineup — all of these organizations have an interest in leveraging technology and data, to help bring transparency to K-12 technology acquisition practices, and to fundamentally drive student outcomes. This is especially significant in today’s environment where Big Data is getting significant attention in the educational space. In the 2013 K-12 NMC Horizon Report, learning analytics, education’s “approach to Big Data” (Johnson et al., 2013) is listed as one of the six emerging technologies likely to have a huge global impact in the next five years.

This gathering was especially appropriate given that schools currently spend about $20 billion on educational materials per year despite a lack of efficient methods to link learning outcomes to these resources. With a slew of educational technology products popping up every day, it’s not a surprise that school districts, teachers, parents and students need more assistance with choosing what is best to maximize learning outcomes. Over a day and a half in the nation’s capital, the symposium became a working session where attendees put their minds together to figure out how data analytics and technology could help address this grand challenge that education faces today. To help contextualize the situation, the hosts broke up the symposium into two key sections: Ignite Sessions and Breakout Sessions.

Ignite sessions brought together all of the attendees to hear from stakeholders and experts about the challenge since not everyone in the audience was extremely familiar with the full context. These sessions aimed to raise awareness of the challenge from different perspectives: the district administrator, charter school administrator, teacher, parent, and school principal. Some key takeaways include:

From the district administrator:

  • Decision committees don’t know what to do – Those choosing the technology tend to be committees filled with non-active teachers who are wary of technology. Furthermore, interactivity and product qualities are not top of mind and committees lack non-biased opinions from qualified advisers.
  • No awareness of the top technology – Looking across the popular tech conferences such as SXSWEdu and EdNet, there tends to be a lack of attendance by districts. Most of the attendees tend to be techies rather than teachers.
  • Brand and Marketing > Quality – Those with large sales tech teams are at an advantage. Think of it as an “old boys network” where friends of friends are referred without any consideration for efficacy studies.

From the charter school:

  • We’re no different – Although charter schools are not as constrained, they still make mistakes.
  • Go below the surface – If you look at charter schools on a bell curve, those in the center are doing the same but under a different governance model. The long tail end is providing technology but not products of high quality.

From the teacher:

  • Accessibility – This is not about individuals having access. It is about how there is just so much out there and way too much to choose.
  • Assessment – There is very little formative testing. If there’s no goal then teachers are losing time they can’t afford to lose.
  • Audience – Keep the teacher voice. Producers need to get constant feedback from students since they are the ultimate users.

From the parent:

  • Discrepancy hurts the student – Parents and teachers need to complement each other. If they are not on the same page, it affects the student negatively. Integration, synthesis and alignment on all levels are key.

From the principal:

  • Time is currency – Because a teacher’s time is so valuable, evidence that the product works is key to making it into the school.
  • Inexpensive, adaptive and non-prescriptive products are crucial – Educational technology needs to be flexible so that it can address a range of students and teachers.
  • Usability is king – A product must work as easy as turning on a light bulb. Innovation tends to fail because it is so hard to use.

The challenge of how to better use data analytics, research and technology to help those key stakeholders with choosing educational materials for students essentially broke down into four different areas:

  • Challenge #1: Provide an easy to use, accurate, and timely tool that impartially takes into account multiple considerations to help the decision making process.
  • Challenge #2: Bridge worlds of development and research, which traditionally sit separately
  • Challenge #3: Produce more exemplars of quick, well designed inexpensive studies of effectiveness that doesn’t take 5+ years
  • Challenge #4: Create incentives for developers to create products elevated for effectiveness

After these Ignite Sessions, there were Breakout Sessions, which brought together representatives from the various sectors to discuss, debate, and ideate. To help address those challenges, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center has already taken a number of steps including the Games and Learning Publishing Council, the multi-sector alliance that brings together leaders and investors in game-based learning to “raise the sector” and encourage responsible and effective deployment of powerful digital, educational games. We also strive to catalyze change by disseminating thorough yet comprehensible research to all different audiences with the purpose of informing the national debate and stimulating investment. Lastly, our research methods for several of our studies include Quick Studies, rapid field studies designed to explore learning through digital media.

As a result of the Breakout Sessions, five teams made commitments to further develop the ideas and projects that address the challenges. Over the next few months, the hosts will track progress, share results and highlight those who made the most significant progress to encourage further collaboration. Stay tuned to hear more about our involvement in this grand challenge!