Educators Spend $13 Billion a Year on Ed Tech for K-12 Classrooms. EdTech Genome Project Is Looking to Help Them Make Better Choices

Updated Aug. 18

Educators in the United States spend $13 billion annually on ed tech but have no way to collectively track the success of those technology tools. That’s why the EdTech Evidence Exchange, part of the University of Virginia, has launched the EdTech Genome Project — to create a framework to give K-12 school and district decision makers a tool for making more informed choices when it comes to purchasing and implementing classroom technology.

The project, which began late last year, includes a 27-member advisory board of academic researchers, educators, technology investors, union leaders and representatives of philanthropic organizations. “There’s nothing more powerful than an accomplished teacher with access to the best tools,” says Peggy Brookins, CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and an advisory board member. “For too long, though, educators and school leaders have operated without a clear framework to understand how best to choose and implement technology that fits in the classroom and actually elevates great teaching and learning.”

Project leader Bart Epstein, president and CEO of the EdTech Evidence Exchange and a research associate professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development, says the effort is more important now than ever. “The impact of COVID-19 on schools has made the work of the EdTech Genome Project more critical,” he says. “This fall, even if schools completely reopen and stay open, and all students and teachers return, it will likely be impossible for educators to teach an entire year’s worth of new material while simultaneously catching up huge numbers of students who will have gone six months without a single lesson.”

Epstein says the effective use of education technology represents one of the few possibilities for saving these kids from being permanently left behind. “Until we know what works, where and why, we won’t be able to realize that potential,” he says. “Once the education sector has coalesced around the framework being created by the EdTech Genome Project, we can use it to collect data from tens of thousands of educators around the country and finally begin to learn from each other at scale.”

Valerie Truesdale, assistant executive director for The School Superintendents Association, says the project’s ultimate goal is to create a toolkit for educators. “For some systems, it can come down to, ‘I want to buy this package because I like the salesperson,’” she says. “Educators, instructional material software companies, publishers, hardware manufacturers and resellers would benefit from access to better understanding of what educational technology, systems combinations and implementation plans work, where they work and why they work.”

For this year, project staff hope to make headway on establishing a list of variables — from cost and how long the technology takes to learn to how well it aligns with curricular standards and teachers’ attitudes toward tech in the classroom — that might influence a successful ed tech experience.

“The bottom line is finding what is helping students learn,” Truesdale says. “How do you know this or that instructional material is going to work? There is really no guidebook. Whether a small or large district, there is no guidebook and it is an expensive undertaking to figure it out.”

Tom Kane, Walter H. Gale professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an advisory board member, says he believes the project can help identify the classroom-level factors that determine whether or not teachers even use products.

“Once we know there is a tool districts could use to decide if a particular product is a good match for their classroom teachers, procedures and instructional style, that is useful for future research,” he says. “The tangible result I hope to see is a survey tool that software providers and school districts can use for identifying which products will be well matched to which district and schools.”

With support from a mix of philanthropies including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Strada Education Network and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the project’s 30-member steering committee and staff can “tackle the field’s most pressing collective action problem,” says Epstein.

Truesdale says she’s excited to see if they can pull off the “mammoth” project, with its many complexities. “It is not a simple matter of drawing a road map and saying, ‘Follow this,’” she says. “It is really nuanced, so I think it will be interesting to see how it shakes out.”

Says Kane, “Whether it becomes the industry standard or not will be up to how easy they can make this to use and how it is administered,” he says. “I think the goal is to not just generate a measure, but a measure widely used.”

Disclosure: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Carnegie Corporation of New York provide financial support to the EdTech Genome Project and The 74.

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