In recent years, there has been widespread excitement around the transformative potential of technology in education. In the United States alone, spending on education technology has now exceeded $13 billion. Programs and policies to promote the use of education technology may expand access to quality education, support students’ learning in innovative ways, and help families navigate complex school systems.
However, the rapid development of education technology in the United States is occurring in a context of deep and persistent inequality. Depending on how programs are designed, how they are used, and who can access them, education technologies could alleviate or aggravate existing disparities. To harness education technology’s full potential, education decision-makers, product developers, and funders need to understand the ways in which technology can help — or in some cases hurt — student learning.
To address this need, J-PAL North America recently released a new publication summarizing 126 rigorous evaluations of different uses of education technology. Drawing primarily from research in developed countries, the publication looks at randomized evaluations and regression discontinuity designs across four broad categories: (1) access to technology, (2) computer-assisted learning or educational software, (3) technology-enabled nudges in education, and (4) online learning.
This growing body of evidence suggests some areas of promise and points to four key lessons on education technology.
First, supplying computers and internet alone generally do not improve students’ academic outcomes from kindergarten to 12th grade, but do increase computer usage and improve computer proficiency. Disparities in access to information and communication technologies can exacerbate existing educational inequalities. Students without access at school or at home may struggle to complete web-based assignments and may have a hard time developing digital literacy skills.
Broadly, programs to expand access to technology have been effective at increasing use of computers and improving computer skills. However, computer distribution and internet subsidy programs generally did not improve grades and test scores and in some cases led to adverse impacts on academic achievement. The limited rigorous evidence suggests that distributing computers may have a more direct impact on learning outcomes at the postsecondary level.
Second, educational software (often called “computer-assisted learning”) programs designed to help students develop particular skills have shown enormous promise in improving learning outcomes, particularly in math. Targeting instruction to meet students’ learning levels has been found to be effective in improving student learning, but large class sizes with a wide range of learning levels can make it hard for teachers to personalize instruction. Software has the potential to overcome traditional classroom constraints by customizing activities for each student. Educational software programs range from light-touch homework support tools to more intensive interventions that re-orient the classroom around the use of software.
Most educational software that have been rigorously evaluated help students practice particular skills through personalized tutoring approaches. Computer-assisted learning programs have shown enormous promise in improving academic achievement, especially in math. Of all 30 studies of computer-assisted learning programs, 20 reported statistically significant positive effects, 15 of which were focused on improving math outcomes.
Third, technology-based nudges — such as text message reminders — can have meaningful, if modest, impacts on a variety of education-related outcomes, often at extremely low costs. Low-cost interventions like text message reminders can successfully support students and families at each stage of schooling. Text messages with reminders, tips, goal-setting tools, and encouragement can increase parental engagement in learning activities, such as reading with their elementary-aged children.
Middle and high schools, meanwhile, can help parents support their children by providing families with information about how well their children are doing in school. Colleges can increase application and enrollment rates by leveraging technology to suggest specific action items, streamline financial aid procedures, and/or provide personalized support to high school students.
Finally, relative to courses with some degree of face-to-face teaching, students taking online-only courses may experience negative learning outcomes.
Online courses are developing a growing presence in education, but the limited experimental evidence suggests that online-only courses lower student academic achievement compared to in-person courses. In four of six studies that directly compared the impact of taking a course online versus in-person only, student performance was lower in the online courses. However, students performed similarly in courses with both in-person and online components compared to traditional face-to-face classes.
The new publication is meant to be a resource for decision-makers interested in learning which uses of education technology go beyond the hype to truly help students learn. At the same time, the publication outlines key open questions about the impacts of education technology, including questions relating to the long-term impacts of education technology and the impacts of education technology on different types of learners.
To help answer these questions, J-PAL North America’s Education, Technology, and Opportunity Initiative is working to build the evidence base on promising uses of education technology by partnering directly with education leaders.
Education leaders are invited to submit letters of interest to partner with J-PAL North America through its Innovation Competition. Anyone interested in learning more about how to apply is encouraged to contact initiative manager Vincent Quan.