Over the past year, many of us have been amazed by the effectiveness of the new COVID-19 vaccines. This development is a success story made possible by decades of careful, measured progress in microbiology and immunology, overseen by certain legal and regulatory structures.
The story of how educational technologies (edtech) make their way into our schools is very different. Understanding how these two approaches differ can help us see why our country urgently needs to change its approach to edtech if we expect this type of teaching and learning to succeed.
Let’s look at three key differences.
First, efficacy research in the development of drugs is required by law. Before pharmaceutical companies are permitted to sell their products to the public, they must run costly clinical trials to prove the products are safe and effective. No such requirement exists in education. Anyone can design and build a product, hire a former school superintendent, and start selling to schools. Many education companies collect tens of millions of dollars without ever performing a proper efficacy study.
Second, the federal government invests significantly each year to subsidize clinical trials of new medicines and vaccines, which help us understand which drugs work where, for whom, and under what circumstances. Our National Institutes of Health alone invests more than $40 billion annually in medical research.
But despite our schools spending between $26 billion and $41 billion each year on edtech products—even before factoring in pandemic-related spending—our federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has a budget of only $00.6 billion per year (about $600 million). According to its director, IES has properly studied approximately zero percent of the 9,000 edtech products on the market so far. What that means is that those in education have little visibility into how edtech tools and services work, where they work, for whom they work, and under what circumstances.
Third is the risk of lawsuits. If drugs cause unexpected harm to consumers, patients can often sue for damages. Meanwhile, education technology companies face no credible risk of liability for students “failing to learn.” This is one of several reasons edtech companies have little incentive to do efficacy research.
It’s worth noting, of course, that these are not apples-to-apples comparisons. A vaccine trial involves a more straightforward process to determine efficacy. By comparison, our nation’s schools and classrooms vary from each other in dozens of ways that we are just beginning to understand. These variations often cause edtech products to be highly effective in some schools, while being maddeningly ineffective in others.
As a result, despite the best of intentions, our schools spend tens of billions of dollars each year on edtech products that are barely used, used inequitably, or not used at all. In turn, students are collectively robbed of tens of millions of hours of meaningful learning opportunities, in a way that disproportionately impacts students of color. We should not be surprised that a prominent 2019 editorial found no evidence that our massive investment in technology for schools has yet to have any detectable impact.
When properly developed, implemented, and supported, edtech can support students and teachers in transformative and empowering ways. We see glimmers of this potential through case studies, anecdotal feedback, and the very small amount of research done so far.
If we want to see students and teachers meaningfully supported by edtech, our schools need reliable information about which products are most likely to work for their students in their unique environments. Schools also urgently need information about how to implement edtech products most effectively.
There is no shortcut to getting this information to our schools. Someone must perform and disseminate the necessary research. Given how different the legal and regulatory framework is for edtech as compared to pharmaceuticals, we cannot expect that individual edtech companies, school districts, or states can shoulder the burden of this type of research. It is highly valuable to society, but is also complex, expensive, and can require coordination across hundreds of schools per study. Only our federal government can properly organize and fund this type of research.
As Congress and the Biden administration continue to navigate the pandemic, more funding to research the role of technology in education must be a critical part of the equation. We are wasting tens of billions of dollars per year and losing hundreds of millions of student learning hours.
Our nation’s schools urgently need independent research to help them make better decisions. It is time to dramatically expand the mission and budget of the federal Institute of Education Sciences so we can start developing and evaluating edtech more like we do vaccines.