School & District Management

Digital Learning Tools Are Everywhere, But Gauging Effectiveness Remains Elusive, Survey Shows

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2019 5 min read
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Educators are using digital tools to boost student learning more than ever. But few believe there’s good information available about which resources are going to be effective in the classroom.

That’s the takeaway from a survey released last week by the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit venture-philanthropy firm that works with K-12 schools, and by Gallup, a polling organization.

The survey found that about two-thirds of teachers—65 percent—use digital tools every day and about 53 percent say they would like to use technology more often. (Those findings present something of a contrast with an Education Week survey conducted earlier this year, which found that only 29 percent of teachers felt strongly that ed tech supports innovation in their own classrooms.)

Despite the enthusiasm for technology found in the NewSchools-Gallup survey, teachers and administrators also reported that they don’t have as much information as they’d like about which digital tools actually help students master content.

Wanted: Proof of Effectiveness

A new survey shows the percentages of teachers in specific subject areas who report having a lot of information about the effectiveness of the digital learning tools they use.

Reading: 35%

English-language learning: 31%

History/Social Studies: 28%

Math: 27%

Special education: 27%

English/Language arts: 25%

Science: 21%

Source: The Education Technology Use in Schools report, NewSchools Venture Fund/Gallup

In fact, only about a quarter of teachers—27 percent—said they had a lot of information about the effectiveness of the digital tools they used. And only about 25 percent of principals and 18 percent of administrators say there’s a lot of evidence-based information available about the effectiveness of digital-learning tools used in their districts.

‘A Healthy Dynamic’

More than a third of teachers cited a tool’s ability to provide “actionable data on students’ progress” at the top of their list of criteria in selecting digital resources for the classroom.

And nearly two-thirds of the educators who took the survey—65 percent—said they’ve jettisoned a digital tool that they had initially piloted or adopted. Forty-one percent cited lack of improvement in student learning outcomes as a primary reason for ditching a digital resource. And 27 percent mentioned cost.

That’s not necessarily all bad, said Stacey Childress, the chief executive officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund.

“You could be of two minds about this,” Childress said. “In many ways, [it’s] a good sign that folks aren’t locked in to things that aren’t working well. That’s a healthy dynamic.”

On the flip side, though, 65 percent is “pretty high,” she added. “We need to ensure that by the time the tool gets to the classroom, the product-development process and small-scale evaluation process have made sure the product works for the situation in which it’s being implemented—so that more of these are likely to work by the time they get to classrooms.”

And she said teachers and administrators need more specifics about what context a digital tool might be suited for.

“There are big gaps between teachers’ optimism about what technology can bring to the classroom and their desire to use it even more—and the information that is available to them,” Childress said.

In the absence of clear evidence, though, educators say they are testing out digital tools largely through trial and error.

“We end up just kind of trying them out to see if they are going to be a great tool,” said Jamie Richardson, the principal of LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, Ore. “You have to get in there and try it out and see how easy or functional it is.”

He asks his teachers to regularly share resources that have worked for them. And he speaks often to other administrators to get their advice on the best tools available.

Lack of Training Is a Problem

In fact, 94 percent of teachers say they are most likely to get information on digital-learning tools from other teachers. Eighty-five percent get the information from their school or district. Nearly half choose from a list provided by their district. And 58 percent say they get input on new tools by looking at social media.

“I fall down that rabbit hole of Twitter way too often,” said Kristina MacBury, the principal of Sarah Pyle Academy, a public school in Wilmington, Del., that offers a nontraditional dropout-prevention program and is part of the Christina school district. Seeing how other schools are using new technology “build[s] a snowball of excitement.”

Substantial barriers to using technology in the classroom still exist, the survey found. More than half of teachers—56 percent—cited lack of training as a “significant” or “extremely significant” problem. Nearly half say that some teachers believe nondigital tools are more effective. And 46 percent said the problem was that they weren’t sure which tools to use.

“We do believe the survey results show, overall, a very positive view among educators about the current use of technology and optimism about using it in the future. It’s higher than what was expected,” Childress said. “The real story in the survey is a little deeper, in the way that teachers are using it in classrooms. There are things they wish digital tools were better supporting them on.”

Still, educators are optimistic about the potential impact of education technology. Ninety percent of teachers say that it’s helpful in doing research or searches for information. And 71 percent of teachers, and 78 percent of principals, view it as a good tool to get students to work on projects with others.

“Technology helps kids collaborate and think more creatively,” said Darren Ellwein, the principal of South Middle School in Harrisburg, S.D. “It really helps facilitate creativity and innovation.”

Educators are ponying up their own money for digital resources, too. In fact, more than 4 in 10 teachers reported that they had used money out of their own pockets to cover the cost of classroom technology, according to the survey.

That’s happened at Sarah Pyle Academy.

“I always say no, let me reimburse you,” MacBury said. But sometimes teachers will “get excited [about something] and say, ‘I want to try this out,’ or they want to bring it to me with some solid evidence that it’s working or why it’s working.”

The NewSchools-Gallup survey was generated from a sample of 3,210 P-12 teachers, 1,163 principals, 1,219 district-level administrators, and 2,696 public school students. The surveys were conducted from Jan. 29 to March 25 of this year. The survey has a margin of error of 2.1 for teachers, 3.5 for principals, 3.2 for district administrators, and 2.3 for students.

EdWeek Market Brief Managing Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Digital Tools Are Everywhere, But Evidence of Impact Is Not

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