How to Evaluate EdTech Tools that Support Teaching & Learning

Jan 08, 2024
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Modern classrooms are being transformed by technology. Recent, dramatic increases in student access to technology through bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and 1:1 initiatives have provided teachers with blended and virtual learning opportunities for their students that can fundamentally change how learning occurs. As the traditional classroom evolves into an environment rich in technology, educators are looking for guidance on how to choose the best educational technology (edtech) solutions.

Ask educators about best practices in teaching, and they will often discuss a short list of widely accepted frameworks for effective instruction, such as Charlotte Danielson’s framework for teaching and the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. They will reference widely accepted research from the likes of Marzano and Hattie. Now, more than ever, educators can say with confidence: “We know what works.”

The same best practices apply in the digital space. Here are some research-based guidelines for choosing edtech tools for use in the classroom:

Whether learning is digital or traditional, standards matter

If a tool is delivering course content to students, it should be built on a foundation of clear learning objectives, aligned to state standards. Courses should be competency-based and should frequently assess student progress until mastery is attained. Edtech providers claiming to meet career-readiness standards or support career and technical education (CTE) pathways should clearly document the alignment of their courses to those standards and pathways in your state. Because of the importance of aligning digital courses to standards, many states require edtech providers to submit their online courses for approval.

Tools should engage students

Technology offers the opportunity for a visually and auditorily rich experience for students, and there is no question that it is important that students enjoy learning in the virtual environment created by an edtech tool. Yet, tools need to engage learning at a deeper level. Effective edtech tools should engage students by providing them with a choice of when and how they learn. Tools designed to deliver content should pre-assess student knowledge and use that knowledge to construct learning activities at the student’s zone of proximal development—the “sweet spot” where the level of challenge in the learning task is just right.

When students have choice and content is at the correct level of difficulty, learning is more enjoyable and, therefore, more engaging. Student engagement is also fostered when students can collaborate with other students during the learning process. Digital learning that allows students to co-engage with others leverages the theory that learning is socially constructed, and it provides opportunities through interaction for the tool to elicit higher-level cognitive skills through discussion, debate, and collaboration.

Tools should support teachers and inform classroom instruction

Edtech tools might be implemented as part of classroom instruction in a blended model, be used a supplement for students when they are at home or be centered at the core of pure virtual learning. No matter what the implementation, edtech tools exist to serve learning, wherever it occurs. Teachers should consider several important questions when evaluating edtech tools:

  • Do the tool and information I get from it help me meet the needs of my students?
  • Is the tool simply a digital version of an existing lesson activity, or is it providing new avenues for learning?
  • Does the tool integrate easily into my classroom?
  • Does the professional development available with the tool prepare administrators, teachers, and support staff for successful implementation?
  • Does the tool meet students at their current skill level and respond and adapt with a customized path for learning?
  • Does the tool provide valuable reports on student progress and performance that inform my teaching?

When considering the effectiveness of an edtech tool, teachers should observe the outcomes of the use of the tool and ask, “As a result of implementing this tool, do my students seem to have a deeper understanding of the content as measured by my own observations/assessments?”

Tools should leverage technology for effective assessment

The same technology that can makes edtech tools visually appealing and engaging also can provide teachers with real-time data on student performance and progress and give meaningful feedback to students as they learn. Technology-based assessments can also provide detailed data that drive an individualized learning experience for students. Many tools support teaching in the classroom by helping teachers collect data on the progress and performance of their students. Integrated formative assessments give teachers and students quick, predictable feedback using fixed-form assessments targeting specific skills or knowledge that teachers can use to inform their instruction.

Another way technology-based assessments can shine is in their ability to be adaptive—using computer-adaptive testing (CAT) to adjust the type and difficulty of questions presented to students based on the knowledge and ability of the test taker. The results of adaptive tests provide accurate assessment data on students from a wider range of abilities by eliminating ceiling and floor effects inherent in fixed-form tests and can be used to provide customized learning paths that meets student more precisely at their instructional level.

Decision-makers should consider ESSA requirements

If technology-based interventions are to be used as part of a school improvement plan, then they are subject to the evidence-based requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2016. Interventions that are implemented in the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I schools, as well as high schools with a graduation rate below 67 percent, must meet one of the top three evidence tiers (strong, moderate, or promising evidence) and must align with the school’s improvement plan.

Many competitive grants that fund interventions at both the state and federal levels also require a strong, moderate, or promising level of evidence. Grants for interventions demonstrating a higher level of evidence may take priority over grants with interventions supported at a lower level of evidence. For higher-performing schools, ESSA language strongly encourages state and local education agencies to prioritize evidence-based interventions or strategies as they develop improvement plans. For more information on choosing evidence-based interventions, see this document from the U.S. Department of Education.

Supporting sound teaching should matter most

Choosing the right edtech tools in the constantly changing technology landscape is definitely a challenge. It’s important to tie the decision-making progress to sound foundations of teaching. Digital learning is subject to the same pedagogical best practices as traditional classroom instruction, and the edtech tools you implement should serve the students and teachers who use them, fostering an engaging, differentiated learning experience that connects with students and helps increase their knowledge and skills.

For more resources that can help with the selection of edtech tools, consider our buyer's guide to edtech.

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