Edtech purchasing a guessing game for schools, but new data could help

Computer lab (Mary Ross / Flickr)


To help schools make sense of the overwhelming number of educational technology products available, a team of education experts have developed an evidence-based resource that will improve the process of edtech acquisition and implementation, a nonprofit group announced last week.

The EdTech Genome Project, coordinated by the Jefferson Education Exchange, aims to help schools minimize this financial waste and enable educators to support student success with informed edtech purchases by identifying and collecting data on implementation factors like “teacher agency” and “quality of professional development.”

Each year, schools in the U.S. spend an estimated $13 billion on more than 7,000 different education technology tools, according to the Jefferson Education Exchange, a nonprofit working on edtech procurement and research. Yet, the group estimates 85 percent of these products are either a poor fit or implemented incorrectly for a particular school, presenting educators and administrators with an immense challenge in deciding what technology will work best in their classrooms.

“The data is pretty clear that the overwhelming majority of edtech is selected without access to and use of rigorous data,” Bart Epstein, president and CEO of the Jefferson Education Exchange, told EdScoop. “We have schools that are purchasing products right now that will never work.”

Not only does this mean schools are wasting billions of dollars a year on edtech, he said, but there is a tremendous missed opportunity for students who get left behind or miss out on enrichment opportunities.

“This isn’t just low-hanging fruit, this is fruit laying along the ground,” Epstein said. “That’s why we’re doing this. Everybody wants better information. Everybody wants to use that information to make better decisions.”

Organizing the edtech landscape

Epstein compared the current process that educators must go through in selecting edtech solutions for their classrooms to a disorganized course catalog.

“Imagine a course catalog that has 7,000 courses in it and they’re not in alphabetical order, and there’s no numerical ratings so you don’t know if something is a 101 or a 404 or a senior level seminar, and nothing has prerequisites listed,” Epstein said.

The lack of quantitative data available to evaluate the fit of an edtech product in a particular classroom environment means that, for the most part, educators are blindly selecting which solutions to implement and realizing too late that they have picked a product that doesn’t best fit their students’ needs or can’t be implemented effectively or efficiently by teachers.

“That’s the situation we’re in now,” Epstein said. “People with the best of intentions are selecting products without understanding whether they are likely to be a good fit in their school, and if so, they don’t have access to the experience of those who have gone before them to learn from.”

The EdTech Genome Project, he explained, is creating a framework to help educators navigate that confusing space. Over the next 14 months, the project’s 30-member steering committee — made up of leaders from education and research organizations including the State Educational Technology Directors Association, the International Society for Technology in Education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, Gallup, and the American Institutes for Research, as well as teachers and technology leaders from seven public school districts across the country — will conduct and examine extensive research to identify up to ten contextual variables associated with edtech implementation success or failure.

“We will be agreeing on definitions for each of these measurements, variables and we will be agreeing on instruments to use to detect them,” he said.

‘A highly fragmented system’

Once this data is collected, Epstein said, schools will be able to make careful, informed decisions on which products should they consider and which they should avoid. They’ll also be able to learn from their peers to better implement the things that they do buy.

To ensure that the edtech community continues to contribute to and improve the database as time goes on, the EdTech Genome Project will give educators cash stipends as an incentive for educators to document their work and contribute data from their own edtech implementation experiences.

The future success of this initiative relies on continued data contributions from educators, administrators and edtech experts, Epstein said.

“Collaboration is exceptionally important,” he said, “but it’s unbelievably difficult in a highly fragmented system.”

It would be logistically impossible and overwhelming to have 100,000 or a million teachers each contacting 50 other teachers to ask each individual for their feedback on a particular edtech product, Epstein said. But without understanding why a product was purchased and whether the teachers were involved in the decision to bring it in or what the training and professional development requirements are like, making a decision on what tool or service will best fit and support a particular school becomes very difficult.

To address this issue, the Jefferson Education Exchange hosted an academic symposium in 2017 where educators discussed the benefits of an evidence-based framework to evaluate edtech products against. But the challenge was getting someone to spearhead the initiative.

“The word that kept coming up over and over was ‘somebody,'” Epstein said. “Somebody needs to define these variables. Somebody needs to do this research. Somebody needs to build the system.”