Identifying Effective EdTech: Certified Products Are the Way to Go
Keep these tips top of mind during your edtech search: Just because tools are pretty doesn’t mean they correlate to academic achievement. Student engagement with a product does not equal learning. Research should inform any edtech selection.
Good advice, but not easy to do. It’s difficult for teachers and school and district leaders to identify effective edtech that meets the broad needs of diverse students, explained educators and technology experts in the edLeader Panel, “Quality Control: Why EdTech Product Certifications Should Matter to District Leaders.”
That’s where certification comes into play. Industry standards, urged the panelists, are critical to measuring the trustworthiness of product claims and completing product comparisons.
EdTech Selection: The Obstacles
There are thousands of edtech products marketed to schools and districts every year, with the constant push for educators to use more and more technology. Teachers and educational leaders are hard-pressed to decide what to choose from the glut.
Part of the selection challenge is limited product information—companies aren’t typically transparent about the theories and practices that shape their learning efficacy claims (usually, data are focused on engagement but not academic outcomes).
There is also a lack of a common language beyond the marketing spiel to highlight a product’s effectiveness rather than its “bells and whistles.” Educators tend to find themselves guessing about the ideal tool and its potential educational value without the guidance that could help them make informed decisions.
Compounding these obstacles is siloed school districts—especially large ones and particularly those seeking to enhance their MTSS/RTI systems—with decentralized processes for identifying student needs and appropriate interventions.
Certification: What It Means
The ideal edtech product is research based. This means its design reflects a theory of action; it’s focused on a specific learning perspective; it addresses learner diversity and variability (socio-emotional, learning differences and disabilities, ways of learning, ELL, racial equity, etc.); it’s backed by peer-reviewed research studies that support its effectiveness claim; and it demonstrates product transparency—creating public awareness (i.e., published on a company website) of a product’s evidence-based design.
These are among the comprehensive credentialing factors of Digital Promise’s edtech certification process that help districts and schools choose quality tools to benefit teachers and students nationwide, explained Vic Vuchic, Chief Strategy Officer at Digital Promise.
The process takes a multi-step approach to product certification (a solid model by which to measure other certification entities), working across the product development ecosystem (practitioner, researcher, and developer) toward effective design.
The organization partners with educators, educational leaders, and learners to document edtech selection, usage and impact. It assesses product developers who seek an area of certification and must collect research and evidence-based artifacts and then demonstrate how their tools reflect the research.
Assessors review the materials to determine whether products meet standards to merit certification. They also determine whether companies’ data platforms are about engagement (i.e., how many times tools were used or logged into) rather than gathering data about how the tools influence learning. Approved and certified products gain an “open badge” (open-source format) in various product indices.
Ideally, when districts and schools select certified products, the vendor should work closely with educators and leaders to identify and target student needs to offer the proper tech intervention. For example, Branching Minds, a certified provider, gives districts, schools, and teachers learning science-based insight into why students struggle and then helps shape personalized learning through enhancements to existing MTSS/RTI practices toward more definitive impact and outcomes.
Maya Gat, Co-founder and CEO of Branching Minds, said that such customized engagement highlights the role of an edtech product as a collaborator and partner in solving real problems and finding solutions for schools and districts, rather than an eager vendor simply marketing wares to capture money.
Making the Decision: Strategies and Considerations
Even though certification has narrowed the range of edtech options, school and district leaders must discover students’ academic needs to align them with appropriate technology.
Dr. Ann White, Associate Superintendent for Student Services in Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (NC), described her district’s approach to the process. Based on her experience, here are a few steps districts might put in place:
- Centralize the intervention process by establishing a district standard treatment protocol aligned with student need areas across schools.
- Issue RFPs to find a vendor. Establish a cross-functional team of principals, teacher leaders, and district staff to review and discuss products. It’s a lengthy process, but these conversations can lead to discussions about instructional planning and equity that addresses achievement gaps to help all students succeed.
- Once a vendor is on board, collaborate to monitor the process of identifying learner needs and appropriate interventions. It is a layered conversation that takes time.
- Recognize that there is no dream product. Vendors often must convince districts that their edtech choices must be guided by research and evidence.
- Accept that digital is not always the right approach to learning and teaching.
Vuchic underscored the importance of learner variability in edtech—it should address the whole learner. Product designs should not be focused on the average learner but provide supports that can move all students along, regardless of their competency levels.
The more the product can include learner variability, the less need there is, for example, to provide remediation for learning differences. A product that can adapt to multiple learning needs will reach many students with positive outcomes.
Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “Quality Control: Why EdTech Product Certifications Should Matter to District Leaders,” co-sponsored by Branching Minds and Digital Promise.
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Branching Minds is a leading K-12 education technology company that leverages the learning sciences and technology to help school districts effectively personalize learning through enhancements to their MTSS/RTI practice. Working with hundreds of districts across the country, we bring deep expertise in learning sciences, data management and analysis, software design, coaching, and collaboration. Combined with our extensive toolkit of resources, PD, and technology, we provide a system-level solution. We are more than a service or a software provider, we are partners who deliver sustainable results for educators and a path to success for every learner.
Blog post by Michele Israel based on this edLeader Panel