What Claims Should We Expect from Educational Technology Vendors?

There’s been some strong journalistic probing going on over at E-Literate the past couple weeks, aimed at an education technology vendor’s overstated marketing messages. The messages have repeatedly claimed or implied that their technology has a direct, positive impact on student outcomes. Seeing as I work for an ed tech company, and am in the position of continually talking with our sales, marketing, and product teams on what our technology might or mightn’t do for education, Phil and Michael’s posts definitely caught my attention.

One of the most important recurring threads in education technology research is this: We should default to skepticism that technology is a causal factor in improved learning. The foundation for this skepticism was set well over two decades ago by Dick Clark, who disputed any unique power in different instructional media, and substantiated when Thomas Russell found “no significant difference” in research on mode of delivery

Instead, the best starting point to understand the value of a given education technology is to look toward efficiency (especially cognitive efficiency) and cost-savings. These values may not seem paramount for all educators or learners (though I would argue cognitive efficiency should be), and so we also look for technology with affordances that best fit our desired learning outcomes and instructional philosophies. Again, that places the emphasis on instructional methods as the catalyst for change in student outcomes.

This doesn’t mean all educational technology is the same, or even “just as good”. Technology is built by different designers, with different beliefs about what people are good for, and what computers are good for. Some technology emphasizes automation of the learning process; some technology emphasizes personal interaction between learners. Some technology is easier to use. Some technology is more reliable. Or more adaptable. Etc.

I’ll stop here before this turns into me pitching our technology.

But I will say that in my current role I am often asked by prospective clients, “Can you prove that your product improves learning outcomes?”

The answer isn’t simple, as much as we both may want it to be.

So, I see these questions (and the discussion at E-Literate) as a chance to not only reach back to re-discover what historical research has shown about the impact of technology, but also to think about our own expectations for technology — and our expectations for the people who use it. It’s a chance to figure out how technology can support or amplify the roles that teachers, administrators, and students each have in creating educational change.

The credit, then, goes not to the technology, but to the people who employ it.