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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

When Does Ed Tech Actually Help?

By Rick Hess — September 14, 2020 4 min read

I hope you all enjoyed our recent guest-blogging stint as much as I did. I spent the stretch wrapping up my forthcoming book Common Schooling (with Pedro Noguera), prepping for the September release of my volume Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, and polishing a new report on ed tech with Emiliana Vegas of Brookings and Alejandro Ganimian of NYU (which prompted today’s post). It’s good to be back. — Rick

It’s been quite a year for education technology. Not a good year, mind you, just a year when ed tech has been omnipresent—with its strengths and weaknesses on neon display. After all, if it weren’t for 21st-century ed tech, learning during the pandemic would mostly be a matter of students hunching over textbooks and watching TV programs, teachers making the occasional phone call, and parents driving by school to pick up work packets. On the other hand, even with all our miraculous advances, that’s probably not a bad description of remote learning for many (or most) students.

What’s the point of this little soliloquy? Well, it’s nothing new really. As Bror Saxberg and I argued years ago in Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, the power of technology is less in the gadgetry than in how it’s used. And the frustrating reality is that even now—when it’s sorely needed—most schools and systems still don’t have a clear sense of what technology is good at, how it can complement good teaching and learning, or how to provide students and teachers the supports they need.

On that count, I want to take a moment today to touch on a new report I just published with Emiliana Vegas and Alejandro Ganimian. A part of Brookings’s “playbook” series, the report, “Realizing the Promise: How Can Education Technology Improve Learning for All?,” is intended for developing nations—but I think the takeaways translate pretty cleanly to the U.S.

In what I think was an exceptionally smart approach, Vegas organized the review of evidence around the potential uses of technology to support learning. That’s an unusual tack, but I think a quite useful one. We focused on four uses of technology in the report:


  1. It can make it possible to deliver standardized, quality content at scale. Teachers typically have considerable discretion over what and how they teach. This enables teachers with strong disciplinary and pedagogical training to innovate but also allows for weak instruction to remain unchecked. Ed tech can enable the kind of consistency and quality control that’s just not feasible when instruction is delivered by dozens of teachers in egg-crate classrooms.
  2. It can facilitate the delivery of differentiated or individualized instruction. Most developing countries massively expanded access to schooling in recent decades. This has rapidly increased the number of students, while also boosting the variability in students’ preparation for schooling. Ed tech can make school systems better able to deal with growing numbers of students with diverse needs.
  3. It can provide students with additional opportunities for practice. In many developing countries, lesson time is primarily devoted to lectures during which students passively copy explanations from the blackboard. This setup leaves little time for in-class practice. Ed tech makes possible endless opportunities for practice in a whole host of different forms.
  4. It can boost student engagement. In many nations, instruction prioritizes time for teachers’ exposition over opportunities for students to ask questions or engage. This is especially problematic in developing-country classrooms with large numbers of students who are far behind expectations. Technology enables teachers to present information in more engaging ways, provides new avenues for communication, and thus permits the more thoughtful use of in-person class time.

Building on the back-breaking working of Ganimian, the report walks through what the most credible evidence from low- and middle-income nations tells us about the ability of ed tech to deliver on these various potentialities. He discusses what we know about the efficacy of prerecorded lessons (mixed), preloaded hardware (it rarely gets used), computer-adaptive learning (highly promising), live one-on-one online tutoring (sparsely studied), additional opportunities for student practice (depends on how they’re used), video tutorials (little evidence of effectiveness), and gamification (impact isn’t clear). Check out the report for an infinitely more thorough—and eye-opening—assessment of the evidence.

As schools, students, and educators wrangle with remote learning amidst continued school closures, it can be hard to find time for reflection or reassessment. But the key to doing better is our ability to honestly assess what ed tech is doing well and what it isn’t and figure how to do more of what’s clicking—and less of what isn’t. That exploration has too often gotten lost in the back and forth between ed tech’s evangelists and its skeptics, but at a time when it looks like virtual learning may be here to stay for a while, it’s suddenly taken on newfound import.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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