Research to Support Educational Technology Development

Student working on computer

This post is the first in a series on WestEd’s research on education technology products. It is written by Bryan Matlen and Michelle Tiu, Senior Research Associates in WestEd’s STEM program.

Thirty years ago, technology in education was reserved for only the wealthiest schools in the most innovative districts. Today, education technology (EdTech) is ubiquitous. In 2016, EdWeek estimated that there is one computer for every five U.S. students and that U.S. public schools spend more than $3 billion a year on digital content (Education Week, 2016). An Educational Leadership article from 2012 estimated annual technology spending in K–12 to be around $400 per student (Johnson, 2012).

Entrepreneurs have seized on this tech boom. Across the United States, tech startups have begun to offer tools that claim to transform education. “Smart” tutors, adaptive assessments, and digital dashboards are just some of the high-tech tools that have started to populate the education market.

The hype around EdTech is well deserved. Technology has the potential to transform the classroom experience, for example, by offering real-time data on students’ learning, providing individualized feedback on student problem-solving steps, and strengthening teachers’ capability to shape lesson plans or monitor student progress. The idea of these products is not to replace teachers, but to support them in their efforts to facilitate learning in the classroom.

However, while tech companies are brimming with great ideas, effective and useful products that can be easily adopted in real-world classrooms are less common.

Flexible application to classroom formats remains a persistent bottleneck in the success of tech tools. Teachers and students can’t use what they can’t figure out, and they don’t have time to use what isn’t relevant or intuitive. Moreover, classrooms, teachers, and students vary, and products need to be responsive to this variability if they are to impact a range of real-world situations. Great ideas can be stifled by a failure to understand the classroom context.

This is where WestEd comes in.

WestEd’s STEM Program is supporting EdTech startup efforts by using our research and development expertise to help develop practical, high-quality products. WestEd provides startup partners with the learning science, content, and classroom practice expertise they need to transform ideas into effective, research-based education improvement tools. Learn more.

WestEd’s approach to this research involves developing a working model of how a specific product achieves its intended outcome (Kao, Matlen, Tiu, & Li, 2018). For example, what features of a mathematical computer app support which aspects of mathematical learning? This structured description forces companies to make explicit assumptions about the problem to be solved, their targeted users, their product features, and their implementation — as well as how they all connect — leading to testable hypotheses that can then be rigorously evaluated.

Using this approach, WestEd has partnered with more than 50 EdTech companies. Our work helps ensure that their products are easily understood by users, responsive to classroom needs, and more competitive for the education market.

This post is the first in a series highlighting WestEd’s collaborations with EdTech companies. Upcoming posts will present case studies of these collaborative efforts, document how research shaped the development efforts, and detail how these particular products showed evidence of effectiveness for student outcomes.

In the end, WestEd and EdTech companies share the same goal: to develop effective products that positively affect the student learning experience. Through meticulous research and development efforts, we hope to make incremental improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency of classroom learning.

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