The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing school leaders, parents and caretakers to do what just a few weeks ago was unimaginable: deploy technology-driven distance education to tens of millions of students, many of whom lack the hardware, bandwidth, software, social and other supports necessary to effectively learn full-time from home.
Nobody will claim we were ready for this. Technology is already hard enough to implement in schools, even when students all have access to devices, bandwidth, and well-trained and supported educators. The Jefferson Education Exchange, which one of us leads, has been embarking on a multi-year effort to discover which edtech products appear to perform best in various environments.
Unfortunately, we all need information now, and any information is better than none.
Selecting and implementing technology to support students now is going to be as difficult as it is important. The time to carefully plan and design for the effective use of technology in remote learning is lost luxury. School officials and parents, together, now have to implement, learn, and improve distance education as fast as possible. But this means selecting products to implement on short notice with very limited information about what works and under what circumstances.
Now, the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education is playing a critical role in this live experiment—and edtech companies have a timely, and time-sensitive opportunity to get involved.
Over the past two weeks, IES has asked educators and families to share their questions about effective distance education tools. Their goal is to understand the specific challenges that teachers, students and parents have faced during the rapid transition to online learning.
In particular, they are most interested in “practices that seem especially relevant today, in which educators are called to adapt their instruction to online formats or send learning materials home to students, and families, not all of whom have internet access, seek to combine available technology with other resources to create a coherent learning experience for their students.”
Education technology developers are also invited to identify research that “evaluates the effectiveness of specific distance education practices or products on student outcomes.” This is a big deal. IES does not undertake research collection projects lightly, and this one has particular urgency because it’s designed to gather information as quickly as possible to respond to the immediate needs of schools and districts during the pandemic.
The request, which initially called for submissions by last Friday, has been extended indefinitely, and all submissions will be added to IES’ growing bibliography. It is part of a groundbreaking “cooperative rapid evidence synthesis” effort to help educators, parents and students quickly identify which education programs have some evidence of effectiveness. For the first time, IES will consider evidence even if it does not meet the rigorous standards for inclusion in the Department’s What Works Clearinghouse, the nearly 20-year-old organization that reviews and shares research about tools that can improve student outcomes.
While the urgency of this particular effort is new, the scope aligns with IES’s recent work. Over the past few months, IES has been digging deeper into the question of what edtech tools work, where, and why. It announced a research competition last year to determine how technologies that have been deemed “effective” in one setting might not work in others. The findings will be announced this summer.
Over the coming weeks, IES will continue to accept suggestions and submissions. In the words of Matt Soldner, Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation, “If ever there is a time for citizen science, it is now.”
As edtech companies and researchers submit research through this process, those materials will be evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education and shared over the summer with schools and districts, as well as state and local policymakers across the country.
As distance learning, in whatever shape and form, makes its way to more and more students in the coming months, this call to action is coming not a moment too soon. At a time of confusion and uncertainty, this project offers a chance for educators to help one another understand what works best in what contexts—in ways that can help us not just respond to the pandemic, but also create a framework for more effective technology use in the post-COVID classroom.