Experts gather at MIT to explore new research in education technology

Technology is developing at a breathtaking pace, and it’s fundamentally changing the way teachers, policymakers, and researchers think about education. On March 31, J-PAL North America hosted a conference at MIT to discuss the role of research and evidence in education technology, bringing together a diverse group of leaders across academia, education companies, education practice and administration, and philanthropy to share their experiences implementing and evaluating technology both in and out of the classroom. Throughout the conference, speakers and participants advocated for rigorous evaluation to advance our understanding of how technology can help students, regardless of income level, learn.

Technology: An opportunity, a challenge, and the need for research

Quentin Palfrey, executive director of J-PAL North America, and Phil Oreopoulos, J-PAL Education co-chair and professor of economics and public policy at the University of Toronto, discussed the transformative promise of education technology and some of its most exciting uses, including approaches to personalize learning and scale instruction to learners across different contexts. However, they warned that rapid advances in education technology create the risk of leaving those without access behind, exacerbating already stark inequalities between affluent and low-income students — a public policy problem known as the “digital divide.”

“Emerging fields like machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence will likely compound the influence of technology even further, increasing the range of tools that ed-tech can draw on and speeding up cycles of learning and adjustment…[but] these technologies are arising in a context of persistent inequality,” Oreopoulos said. “Despite expanding access, the digital divide remains very real and very big. If ed-tech practitioners and researchers don’t pay close attention to equity of access and tailoring programs to the needs of those at the lower end of the income spectrum, there’s a risk that the growing influence of technology will aggravate the educational inequalities that already exist.”

Oreopoulos set the stage with a review of the current evidence on what in education technology works, what works best, and why, drawing on over 90 studies across economics, education, and social psychology. Technology-assisted personalized learning programs emerged as an especially effective approach from the review, which stems from an upcoming education technology literature review. However, many open questions remain about how to leverage technology to help disadvantaged learners, which technologies are the most cost-effective, and why successful approaches work.

Kumar Garg, a former White House advisor who spearheaded President Obama’s efforts to improve STEM education, underscored the tremendous need for investment in education research to help us answer these questions. In 2015, only 0.4 percent of the federal education budget was spent on research, compared to 6.3 percent in health and 12.3 percent in defense. By increasing investments in rigorous research, we can better understand how to use technology to truly transform education, Garg stated.

Not a silver bullet for education

Despite the excitement around education technology, a consistent theme throughout the conference was how technology alone will not serve as a panacea. Rather, it’s best used as a complement to good pedagogy.

“Technology is not a silver bullet, but education is,” said Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise and former director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education. During her keynote address, Cator highlighted the need to produce and use evidence to understand how we can make the most of technology both within and outside of the classroom. She went on to discuss educational equity, technology, and the profound impact of education on social justice and economic development.

Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown City School District in New York, shared his personal experience with innovative approaches to improving high-poverty schools in his home district. In his experience, “pedagogy and the art of teaching trumps technology every time,” and emphasizing complementary professional development is key to optimizing technology in the classroom.

Working at the intersection of policy, research, and philanthropy

Alongside practitioners and researchers, the conference featured philanthropic leaders like Emary Aronson, the interim chief program officer of the Robin Hood Foundation. Aronson spoke as part of a panel focused on improving access to education in the 21st century. “Technology enables access to information, and access to information is a poverty issue,” Aronson said of the foundation’s role in the education technology space.

Speakers also addressed the challenge of translating research into policy action. Tom Kane, a leading education scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discussed how he aims to keep the research process and results localized and timely in order for evidence to be actionable. Former U.S. Chief Technology Office Aneesh Chopra and former White House advisor R. David Edelman shared their perspective on how research can impact large-scale federal policies.

Additional speakers from academia and education companies discussed diverse strategies to embed rigorous evaluation in the rollout of new education programs — such as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative — to better understand how real-world policies affect student outcomes. Building off the lessons from the conference, J-PAL North America plans to catalyze new research and promote evidence-based policymaking in the education technology space. 

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