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Stumped by How to Best Serve Students With At-Home Learning? Follow the Evidence

Not All Ed-Tech Interventions Are Equal
By Philip Oreopoulos — April 20, 2020 5 min read
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Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series on the practical takeaways from research.

With schools around the country closed and reopening dates uncertain, education leaders are being asked to support at-home learning on an unprecedented scale. Rising to this challenge will require tremendous leadership from schools and districts.

With an overwhelming number of opinions on what to do—from encouraging teachers to host live virtual classes to partnering with private companies to distribute technology—how can schools and districts best serve students who are stuck at home for the indefinite future? Fortunately, rigorous evidence points to a number of effective uses of technology, sometimes combined with low-tech activities, that can help educators and learners adjust to this new normal.

Among the higher-tech approaches, some are clearly better than others. Last year, my co-authors and I conducted a systematic review of 126 rigorous studies examining the effectiveness of different kinds of “ed tech” interventions. Computer-assisted learning (CAL) programs—software students use to develop and practice reading, math, and other skills—stood out for improving academic achievement across a wide range of programs and settings. Almost all of the 30 studies of CAL programs we examined found positive effects, some of them impressively large.

Schools can provide effective computer-assisted learning programs to help fill the gap when parents have limited time or taste for directing their children's learning at home."

Based on these findings, school leaders should adopt CAL programs now more than ever because they are a way to foster learning from home. The most effective CAL programs allow students to watch digital instructional videos and proceed through exercises at their own pace, much like students would with a tutor. The programs also provide immediate feedback, letting students know when and why they’ve answered a problem incorrectly.

Schools can provide effective CAL programs to help fill the gap when parents have limited time or taste for directing their children’s learning at home. Teachers posting school assignments on Google Classroom and hoping they get done is not enough to make learning happen in many households at this moment. CAL is more interactive and more motivating.

One promising program we studied is ASSISTments, which resulted in impressive academic gains over different grades, based on multiple studies comparing gains of students randomly assigned to ASSISTments or some other program. Through this free online platform, teachers can assign customized math homework and assess student progress on assignments remotely. Students also receive immediate feedback as they solve problems, which may be particularly useful when teachers can’t look over students’ shoulders or call them to the board in classrooms. One randomized study found that even using the program for less than an average of 10 minutes per night, three to four nights per week, led to substantial learning. Two others also found large effects from using the program regularly in class and at home.

Khan Academy is another free CAL program that provides children with personalized feedback. Featuring a library of courses across subjects and levels, Khan Academy enables students to practice and receive feedback on a range of subjects at their own pace before moving through new content. One randomized evaluation found that a summer program for middle schoolers that incorporated one hour of Khan Academy each day alongside traditional instruction boosted math scores. In response to school closures, Khan Academy has released daily schedules for students and resources detailing how to use its platform. School leaders can consult these resources to provide structured guidance to educators and families.

About this series

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This essay is the seventh in a series that aims to put the pieces of research together so that education decisionmakers can evaluate which policies and practices to implement.

The conveners of this project—Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Harvard education professor Heather Hill—have received grant support from the Annenberg Institute for this series.

To suggest other topics for this series or join in the conversation, use #EdResearchtoPractice on Twitter.

Read the full series here.

CAL programs can help build literacy and language arts skills as well, though the evidence base is less substantial.The ITSS (Intelligent Tutoring System for the Text Structure Strategy) program, which teaches students a technique for breaking down texts, significantly boosted middle school reading comprehension scores. The program features the same key elements as other successful CAL programs: it allows students to move at their own pace and provides feedback and help when prompted. These patterns suggest that if learning can be broken down into manageable parts and incorporate regular feedback, many subjects can be effectively taught through CAL platforms.

While CAL programs can be effective, simply requiring students to watch online educational videos is not likely to help. Our research review suggests that students typically do worse in courses that are delivered entirely online. No matter how great the video content, students retain very little from watching instruction without interaction. To the extent possible, teachers (and parents) should instead monitor and reward active progress.

Not everyone can access these effective CAL programs at home, unfortunately. In the United States, about 9.4 million children between the ages of 3 and 18 are without internet. Especially likely to lack connectivity are low-income and rural homes. Policymakers, philanthropies, and corporations must quickly mobilize resources to expand access to much-needed technology, and district leaders should be proactive about establishing partnerships with these entities. Google’s plan to offer free Wi-Fi to 100,000 households and donate 4,000 Chromebooks to improve access for California’s rural students is an encouraging start.

There are other strategies to support home learning that are backed by evidence and do not require expensive technology. For parents of young children, this can be as simple as setting a goal for the number of books to read with their child per week. My co-authors and I ran a randomized study in Chicago and found that goal setting combined with daily text reminders more than doubled the amount of time that low-income parents spent reading to their children.

Educators could help parents create weekly goal sheets identifying the number of books they hope to read with their children in a week. For each book read, parents and children can place a sticker on the goal sheet that they’ve hung on the refrigerator. School leaders could supplement these efforts by sending parents automated, actionable text reminders related to at-home learning activities.

At-home learning is not the first choice for most families, and it can’t fully replace a child’s classroom experience. In the face of these unprecedented closures, however, innovative home and online tools can help school leaders ensure that students continue to learn. These times call for flexibility, and we must celebrate successes both big and small.

With the right evidence-based approaches, a regular routine, and a healthy dose of patience, we have reason to believe that students might still learn a thing or two during these uncertain times.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Best Research on Online Learning

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