6 questions to ask when looking for the right edtech tool

Here are the most helpful questions to ask when determining which education technology tools will help address specific challenges
By: | December 3, 2020
Photo by AHMED HINDAWI via Unsplash.
Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading education technology company.

Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading education technology company.

Due to COVID-19, there has been a massive shift in education around how students are learning and how educators are teaching. This transition has led to the rapid adoption and deployment of technology tools among teachers, schools, and districts across the U.S. and the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, research showed that the downloads of education technology tools in the U.S. surged by more than 120% — above the worldwide average of about 90%. And, this trend continues.

When used effectively, education technology tools can be extremely beneficial for teachers, schools, and districts, and research has shown that it can help improve student outcomes. In fact, the right tools can help resolve the challenges facing students today, such as motivation and engagement, and help ease teacher’s workloads, enabling them to spend more time with their students. It is important to be thoughtful when choosing which tools will most effectively address classroom needs.

Having worked with teachers, schools, and districts for more than 20 years, I have identified some of the most helpful questions I believe school and district leaders should ask when determining which education technology tools will help address the specific challenges of their teachers and students.

Question 1: Does it employ bite-sized exercises and lessons?

Student engagement is a key indicator of overall academic success. When lessons are broken up into small units with micro-assessments, research shows that we can better engage students in online and hybrid learning environments. This research also demonstrates that shorter exercises and lessons can enhance student motivation in terms of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and improve student learning performance in relation to factual knowledge.

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Question 2: Does it apply elements of gamification?

Studies have suggested that platforms designed with properties of gamification can help drive motivation among students. While not every lesson can be set up as a “game,” the right tool can help teachers incorporate game-like aspects into lessons, such as leaderboards, badges, or point systems, to help students feel externally rewarded. When students feel rewarded for their work, they are more likely to feel motivated to engage in the classroom, whether it is virtual or in-person.

Question 3: Does it deliver timely feedback?

Immediate and constructive feedback can act as a strong motivator for students. However, feedback is often delayed. For example, in a subject like writing, students may not receive feedback on a writing assignment for days, if not longer. By the time the feedback is given, students have already focused on their next assignment and the feedback is not as valuable as it could be. Timely feedback is even more important now given many students are not face-to-face with their teachers in the classroom and learning is happening asynchronously.

Question 4: Does it address a specific domain?

Tools should be domain-specific. Not all subjects have the same challenges and any tool chosen should specifically address the particular challenges of each subject. Reading and math are often key areas of focus. However, achievement gaps in writing are also a particular challenge for educators given their scale, and writing itself is a subject that requires a significant amount of the teacher’s time. As such, it is important to look at solutions that address these particular issues related to writing through automated performance feedback and motivation techniques. Education technology tools that incorporate these can not only encourage students to write more but save valuable teaching time.

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Question 5: Does it lighten a teacher’s workload?

Freeing up the teacher’s time to actually teach is critical. The impact of COVID-19 has placed a burden on teachers to quickly and successfully adapt their lessons and curriculum to three different environments: remote, hybrid, and in-person. At the same time, they are expected to still engage with students meaningfully. The right tools will help alleviate time-consuming tasks and enable more one-to-one personalized instruction.

Question 6: Can it prove it makes a positive impact on student outcomes?

With so many options out there, educators and administrators need to be able to ‘filter out the noise.’ The best way to do that is by seeking out and selecting education technology tools that can demonstrate proven and positive impacts on learning. Asking for usage cases or efficacy studies that demonstrate positive results can be extremely helpful when navigating this.

I have no doubt that educational technology tools for the classroom — whether the environment is remote, hybrid, or in-person — will continue to be adopted throughout the remainder of the school year and beyond. Selecting the most effective tools to address the particular challenges and needs of teachers and students is important and possible. By asking smart questions, schools, districts, and teachers can identify the tools that will work best for them and that can have a positive impact on student learning and outcomes.

Martin McKay is the founder and CEO of Texthelp, a leading education technology company focused on helping learners of all ages and abilities improve their reading, writing, and math skills. Martin has spent his work life developing education technology. His current areas of R&D include learning analytics and the automated assessment of writing and oral reading fluency through products such as WriQ and Fluency Tutor. Martin currently serves in an advisory capacity on the Universal Design for Learning council, and has previously served on the Assistive Technology Industry Association Board as well as the NIMAS board for the USA Office of Special Education Programs.

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