‘Evidence-led edtech is essential for the new school year’, say education experts

Is edtech fit for purpose and the new school term? Dan Sandhu, CEO of Sparx, and Dr Alison Clark-Wilson, principal research associate at the UCL Institute of Education, offer their insights

For hundreds of edtech companies, the past few months will have seen jumps in demand,  rapidly shifting customer needs and the accelerated development of new features and products. For many schools there has been a shift in attitude around edtech; a recent survey by Tes Global found that lockdown had increased school staff confidence in using technology, with 79% reporting they were more likely to use technology in their teaching practice.

As we approach a new academic year where remote learning will play a key role in helping children to learn, edtech companies need to pause for thought. Are they gathering the insight, analysing the data and collating the feedback they need to ensure their products are delivering provable impact? Are edtechs investing in the necessary research to enable schools  to feel confident that their products and tools will enable children to learn and progress as effectively as possible, wherever they may be?

Addressing the challenges of gathering evidence

Being ‘evidence-led’ is bandied around a great deal in edtech circles, but it’s easy for this phrase to  feel like something of an albatross. Popular belief is that large-scale experimental studies involving randomised control group methodology to provide the efficacy of edtech are the gold standard. However, this is not practical for many edtech companies; the challenges of finance, time and fast-moving technology can mean it is unviable. The good news is that a great deal of effective, insightful research is possible within achievable timescales, without breaking the bank.

For example, smaller, exploratory studies that involve users and aim to try and understand if, and how, an edtech solution ‘works’ can provide valuable insight. Collaborating with schools and teachers is essential and provides useful feedback – if this feedback is collected using some basic (systematic) research methods. Understanding how a solution works in a range of contexts can be very helpful to improve both edtech product design and its effectiveness.


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Company culture and being evidence-led

But an evidence-led approach needs to be at the heart of an edtech company for it to become embedded in its culture. Founders, senior management and investors need to buy into this vision and accept that there will need to be a budget line for research alongside things like sales, marketing or product development.  There’s a balance to be struck, but to create an ethical edtech product, it must be accepted that there will be pauses to conduct essential research along the way.

Once there’s strategic commitment, it’s important to ensure founders and other senior leaders have some basic research knowledge and skills. Broad understanding of educational research methods ensures that any research done is valid and useful. Writing a research development plan, just as you might write plans for sales or marketing, is a good idea.

Of course, it’s easy to interpret positive testimonials and growing sales as proof that a product is effective, but it’s a risky strategy. Long term growth needs to build on firm foundations and if a product isn’t effective, schools will stop using it. Previous research by Sparx found that more than three quarters of teachers and school leaders (79%) want to see clear proof that edtech works in the classroom.

Show schools the evidence

Published evidence, gathered through carefully conducted, transparent research about a product, is actually the strongest marketing asset an edtech has, and cuts through any marketing puff. Research provides the insights that support marketing messages – not the other way around.

A recent webinar, run by the Edtech Evidence Group, discussed the idea that edtech companies might include an evidence page on their website as standard, where they might publish all research results (whether positive or providing pause for a rethink). Sparx, and other members of the group, already do this. This approach has the potential to become something that schools and trusts might routinely look for, just as parents might check a prospective school’s Oftsed report.

The past few months have put edtech in the spotlight and, at the moment, its scorecard is leaning towards the positive. Companies committing to being open about evidence and impact would build on this, and ultimately provides a more sustainable future for edtech companies.

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