Research and Innovation: Ed-Tech, Personalized Learning & the Digital Divide
Technology is developing at a breathtaking pace, and it’s fundamentally changing the way teachers, policymakers, and researchers think about education. On March 31st. J-PAL North America hosted a conference at MIT to discuss the role of research and evidence in education technology, bringing together a diverse group of leaders across academia, education companies, education practice and administration, and philanthropy to share their experiences implementing and evaluating technology both in and out of the classroom. Throughout the conference, speakers and participants advocated for rigorous evaluation to advance our understanding of how technology can help students—regardless of income level—learn. Watch videos of each speaker here and check out the conference agenda.
Technology—an Opportunity, a Challenge, and the Need for Research
Quentin Palfrey (Executive Director of J-PAL North America) and Phil Oreopoulos (Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto and J-PAL Education Co-Chair) discussed the transformative promise of education technology and some of its most exciting uses, including approaches to personalize learning and scale instruction to learners across different contexts. However, they warned that rapid advances in education technology create the risk of leaving those without access behind, exacerbating already stark inequalities between affluent and low-income students—a public policy problem known as the “digital divide.”
“Emerging fields like machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence will likely compound the influence of technology even further, increasing the range of tools that ed-tech can draw on and speeding up cycles of learning and adjustment…[but] these technologies are arising in a context of persistent inequality. Despite expanding access, the digital divide remains very real and very big. If ed-tech practitioners and researchers don’t pay close attention to equity of access and tailoring programs to the needs of those at the lower end of the income spectrum, there’s a risk that the growing influence of technology will aggravate the educational inequalities that already exist.” – Phil Oreopoulos
Oreopoulos set the stage with a review of the current evidence on what works, what works best, and why in education technology, drawing on over 90 studies across economics, education, and social psychology. Technology-assisted personalized learning programs emerged as an especially effective approach from the review, which stems from an upcoming education technology literature review. However, many open questions remain about how to leverage technology to help disadvantaged learners, which technologies are the most cost-effective, and why successful approaches work.
Kumar Garg, a former White House advisor who spearheaded President Obama’s efforts to improve STEM education, underscored the tremendous need for investment in education research to help us answer these questions. In 2015, only 0.4 percent of the federal education budget was spent on research, compared to 6.3 percent in health and 12.3 percent in defense. By increasing investments in rigorous research, we can better understand how to use technology to truly transform education, Garg stated.
Not a Silver Bullet for Education
Despite the excitement around education technology, a consistent theme throughout the conference was how technology alone will not serve as a panacea. Rather, it’s best used as a complement to good pedagogy.
"Technology is not a silver bullet, but education is," said Karen Cator, the CEO of Digital Promise and former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education. During her keynote address, Cator highlighted the need to produce and use evidence to understand how we can make the most of technology both within and outside of the classroom. She went on to discuss educational equity, technology, and the profound impact of education on social justice and economic development.
Dr. Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown City School District in New York, shared his personal experience with innovative approaches to improving high-poverty schools in his home district. In his experience, “pedagogy and the art of teaching trumps technology every time,” and emphasizing complementary professional development is key to optimizing technology in the classroom.
Working at the Intersection of Policy, Research, and Philanthropy
Alongside practitioners and researchers, the conference featured philanthropic leaders like Emary Aronson, the interim Chief Program Officer of the Robin Hood Foundation. Aronson spoke as part of a panel focused on improving access to education in the 21st century. “Technology enables access to information, and access to information is a poverty issue," Aronson said of the Foundation’s role in the education technology space.
Speakers also addressed the challenge of translating research into policy action. Tom Kane (Harvard Graduate School of Education), a leading education scholar, discussed how he aims to keep the research process and results localized and timely in order for evidence to be actionable. Former U.S. Chief Technology Office Aneesh Chopra and former White House advisor, R. David Edelman shared their perspective on how research can impact large-scale federal policies.
Additional speakers from academia and education companies discussed diverse strategies to embed rigorous evaluation in the rollout of new education programs—such as former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative—to better understand how real-world policies affect student outcomes. Building off the lessons from the conference, J-PAL North America looks forward to catalyzing new research and promoting evidence-based policymaking in the education technology space.
- Opening Remarks: Quentin Palfrey (Executive Director, MIT J-PAL North America)
- Defining the Landscape of Education Technology Policy: Kumar Garg (Former Senior Advisor, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy)
- Current Evidence on the Impact of Education Technology: Philip Oreopoulos (Professor of Economics, University of Toronto, J-PAL Education Co-Chair)
- Perspectives on Personalized Learning and the Power of Rigorous Research: Kenneth Eastwood (Superintendent, Middletown City School District), Thomas Kane (Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics, Harvard Graduate School of Education, MIT JPAL Affiliate), Vijay Kumar (Associate Dean & Senior Strategic Advisor for Digital Learning, MIT), Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami (CoFounder & CEO, Cell-Ed), Moderator – Mary Ann Bates (Deputy Executive Director, MIT J-PAL North America)
- Blending Research and Innovation to Transform Student Learning: Keynote by Karen Cator (President and CEO, Digital Promise)
- RCTs in Education - When and How to Use Them: Peter Bergman (Assistant Professor of Economics and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University), Benjamin Castleman (Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, University of Virginia), Sally Hudson (Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics, University of Virginia), Hussham Khan (Director of Research, PowerMyLearning), Moderator – Vincent Quan (Policy Manager, MIT J-PAL North America)
- Improving Access to Education in the 21st Century: Emary Aronson (Interim Chief Program Officer, Robin Hood Foundation), Robert Fairlie (Professor of Economics, UC Santa Cruz), Hal Friedlander (Co-founder & CEO, Technology for Education Consortium), Leah Gilliam (Vice President of Strategy & Innovation, Girls Who Code), Moderator – Rohit Naimpally (Policy and Research Manager, MIT J-PAL North America)
- How Data and Evidence can Transform Education: Aneesh Chopra (President, NavHealth; Former Chief Technology Officer of the United States)
- Closing Remarks: Rachel Glennerster (Executive Director, MIT J-PAL, Scientific Director, J-PAL Africa, J-PAL Education CoChair)