Federal government must devote more resources to edtech research, study says


The federal government needs to invest more money and resources in edtech research so that schools can adopt new products that are proven to work, according to a new study from the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

The Curry School of Education, Digital Promise and the Jefferson Education Accelerator, which is run out of the university, hosted a symposium in May that focused on the role of research in the development, adoption and implementation of edtech. The organizations recently released the final results of the study, which stems from a yearlong collaboration between several stakeholders.

Investigators found that school leaders around the country face a mixed marketplace of technology products, with only a small amount developed by researchers using federal dollars. Most of the money that backs edtech comes from start-ups, entrepreneurs and other companies seeking a profit.

“There is a strong identified need to [repurpose] federal funding to recognize this need,” Bart Epstein, CEO of Jefferson Education Accelerator, said in an interview. “If you have a popular product that is used in 50 different institutions with a wide variety of success, we need research to help understand what the factors are that make it more or less likely it’s going to succeed in a certain place.”

“If the federal government doesn’t help fund this type of research, it’s very difficult to see how it ever gets done,” he added.

There are federal grants and competitions that produce research-based edtech tools, including the Small Business Innovation Research program, as well as money for technology funneled through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Between 2002 and 2014, more than 400 federal grants were made to edtech researchers to develop, test and disseminate technology-based pedagogies, practices, tools, games and programs for students.

But the report’s authors note there is still a “gap between the products that emerge from funded research products and widespread adoption in schools,” and Epstein said schools are typically left to cobble together technologies based on word of mouth.

“What we hear from educators is they want a good product — they need a tool to help their struggling readers who are bilingual, and they go out and look for information, and there’s hardly anything credible or reliable,” he said. “So they wind up talking to some friends in other institutions or read Yelp-style reviews and they all basically reinvent the wheel.”

Another part of the problem is that school leaders and teachers often do not care whether the products they purchase come with a seal of approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the study, 57 percent of survey respondents said the cost of a product is important, and 65 percent said the product has to fit within existing district initiatives.

This data serves to “corroborate our major finding, that school-based personnel are making decisions based on local conveniences and perceived needs, and not giving the same weight to the existence of high-quality, peer-reviewed research that flows from grant dollars awarded by the federal government,” according to the report.

“No one can see a way forward,” Epstein said of the findings. “The entire process is such a mess that, in many ways, it’s
unsurprising that decisions are made overwhelmingly on factors such as brands, sales relationships, word of mouth from peers. And the
thing that surprised me most was that everyone agrees that we must do better,
but everyone also agrees that it’s not their responsibility.”

The working group of this study surveyed superintendents, assistant superintendents, technology leaders and specialists, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches and teachers from 17 states.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.