Edtech in K-12: Assessing the impact

Initiatives that expand students' access to computers and the internet do not automatically improve K-12 academic outcomes, according to a survey of 126 edtech studies from J-PAL.

Initiatives that expand students’ access to computers and the internet do not automatically improve K-12 academic outcomes, according to a recent survey of 126 edtech studies. However, such exposure can increase computer usage and proficiency, according to researchers at the The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a research and policy center based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers examined four broad categories—access to edtech, computer-assisted learning, technology-based nudges and online learning—to determine how edtech can help disadvantaged students, says Vincent Quan, senior policy manager and manager of the initiative.

“There’s a debate where sometimes folks think that simply providing education technology can be a silver bullet,” says Quan. “We want to continue evaluating innovations because some may just be hype, and we want to go beyond the hype and find the ones that are truly moving the dial.”

Implementing edtech in meaningful ways

Educational software designed to let students develop skills at their own pace of progress has shown tremendous promise at improving educational outcomes, particularly in math, according to the research. In some cases, software and online programs can boost scores by the same amount as a tutor, possibly because math involves more rote practice than other subjects, says Quan.

Technology-based nudges that encourage specific one-time actions, such as a text message reminder to complete a college application, also have shown to improve outcomes. Launching a text message campaign on a per-student basis can be done at a very low cost, which makes it highly scalable, says Quan.

In addition, research shows that combining online and in-person instruction works better than traditional in-person-only classes. This suggests the cost-effectiveness of blended learning, says Quan.

The report’s findings also emphasize the need for technology leaders to collaborate with academic departments, says Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer for CoSN, a professional organization of school district technology leaders.

“Education leaders need to start with: What am I trying to accomplish by bringing technology into the classroom?” says Bearden. “And then it should become: What do we really want our students to be able to do when they graduate?”

Professional development should focus on teaching teachers how to implement edtech in active, practical and meaningful ways, Bearden says. Active use involves employing edtech to create, design, build, explore or collaborate—in short, to use higher-order thinking skills.

Edtech is a tool

The 126 studies that provided a tremendous amount of data about edtech also raised more questions, says Quan.

“With some of the new innovations being tried out in classrooms, such as augmented or virtual reality, we don’t know yet whether any of them are actually helping students learn,” Quan says.

“At the heart of the matter, technology is a tool,” Bearden adds. “It’s not a substitute for good teaching.”

To access the full publication, visit DAmag.me/jpal.

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