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Opinion: Test Driving the New ‘Buyer’s Guide’ for Ed Tech

To meet the growing need for unbiased ed-tech product evaluations, five nonprofit groups have joined forces to build and support the EdSurge Product Index, a purchasing resource for educators.

Flikr.Robert Couse-Baker
Through various forms of new federal funding, school districts have received sizable allocations to address their pandemic-created needs. And this is especially true for educational technology, allowing schools to upgrade their technology infrastructures, replace student and teacher devices, and purchase new tech-based curricular resources.

And with districts’ recent (and, sigh, perhaps future) move to remote learning due to the pandemic, educators have leaned on ed tech in new and significant ways. But when it comes to buying ed tech — and especially tech-based instructional tools — schools too often fly blind in making their purchasing decisions.

As a result, poor choices are made that lead to expensive instructional applications being seriously underused in classrooms, if used at all. Or perhaps teachers use them as intended, only to discover the resources are of little consequence in meeting the particular needs of their students.

It’s not an altogether fair comparison to my former work as a district ed-tech director making purchasing decisions, but I’ve recently been preparing to buy a new automobile. Based on my needs, I’ve narrowed it down to a few good options and will soon be in the test-drive phase of the process. I’m not a motorhead, but in doing my vehicle research I have easy access to a number of reputable expert sources that can help inform my decision. When I do finally put down the money to buy, I’ll be confident I’ve made a well-informed choice.

This hasn’t been the case with buying ed-tech learning resources. One can find product reviews, and perhaps some research, though it’s often vendor-funded. But unbiased, fact-based information from educators who have actually used the tools with students is a rare commodity. Given that billions of dollars are now being spent yearly in the U.S. on ed tech, and COVID-19 student learning losses are real and growing, poor purchasing decisions are even more untenable than before.

So, stretching my vehicle-buying analogy, we have lots of expensive cars sitting idle, along with some lemons we ditched by the roadside, while countless young people still need to learn to drive.

I’ve written about this issue before, and last summer I touted the promising work being done to address it by the Ed Tech Evidence Exchange at the University of Virginia. Since then, to meet the challenge, EdSurge, the ed-tech publication now owned by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), joined a consortium of respected nonprofit entities including the EdTech Evidence Exchange as well as Digital Promise, The Center for Education Market Dynamics and Project Unicorn.

These groups have banded together to turn the EdSurge Product Index — a purchasing resource first developed for educators 10 years ago, now combined with ISTE’s Learning Technology Directory — into a retooled and more robust EdSurge Product Index (BETA).

Though several elements important to the new EdSurge Product Index’s success are tagged as “coming soon” (more on that later), if EdSurge/ISTE and the other four groups can pull this off, their tool should benefit educators in making better-informed purchasing decisions. Curious to try it out, I took the new EdSurge Product Index for a quick test drive, and here’s what I found.

Acting as a fourth grade teacher scouting for English language arts curricula in both English and Spanish, I found the product filter interface to be thorough and easy to use. Beyond the basic grade level and subject area info, it delves into learning interactions, either synchronous or asynchronous; teaching and learning approaches, focusing on innovative examples like blended, cross-curricular, differentiated or personalized learning; and then tech specifications and purchasing plan types, including customized, flat-rate subscriptions, free, and others.

My EdSurge Product Index search netted 21 results, from which I selected six for My List. I then did a comparison between these based on six particular focus areas — audience and users, product categories, subjects and standards, features, price, tech specs — before clicking through to learn a bit more about my selections.

There’s also a helpful Decision Guide and Rubric included with the index to assist users in making their final selections, but it’s three of the “coming soon” areas in the Product Validations section that I expect will be the most valuable parts of the EdSurge Product Index:

  • Digital Pedagogy. Products that align with ISTE Standards will receive an ISTE Seal of Alignment validation.
  • Usability. Products deemed to have an effective user-centered design for both teachers and students will be awarded a Digital Promise Learner Variability Certification.
  • Research and Evidence. Digital Promise will also grant a Research-Based Design Product Certification for those products that meet their criteria. Ed-tech developers who have invested in quality research can share evidence on a tool’s full learning potential, as well as its potential flaws.

I was fine with the Digital Pedagogy and the Usability validation criteria, but I was skeptical of the Research and Evidence validation’s expectation that ed-tech developers will conduct their own research or hire a third-party organization to do so. Further, I’m skeptical these entities will be forthcoming about their products’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s a very big ask for companies to be so transparent. And it’s been done before, albeit poorly.

Educators and purchasing decision-makers need the kind of unbiased data about ed tech products that we can’t reasonably expect vendors to provide, so I reached out to the Ed Tech Evidence Exchange for some additional information, and what I learned was heartening.

Despite what’s currently stated on the new EdSurge Purchasing Index’s Product Validations page, educator input will, in fact, play a key role in product validations. And that’s further corroborated by a news release issued by Digital Promise in September 2021 that outlines the roles of the five nonprofit entities involved in this work, emphasizing the importance of educators’ voices in the product evaluations.

Likewise, when I posed my concern to ISTE, I received this clarification: “While vendors will be supplying basic information about their products and are welcome to submit evidence of effectiveness, ISTE reviews every submission and further validates it with information pulled directly from independent third-party sources such as Digital Promise, Project Unicorn, EdTech Evidence Exchange and others. We feel that the information available in the index must be as reliable and accurate as possible, which is why verification is so important.”

As for the EdTech Evidence Exchange, having assembled the evaluation instruments needed to gather input from educators on their classroom instructional tools, the nonprofit will continue on with their work, summarized in their 2021 EdTech Genome Project Report. And to that end, I’m told they’re currently seeking philanthropic support to further these efforts, while also building partnerships with state education agencies on a coordinated approach to reach individual school districts.

So, having taken it for a drive and kicked its tires, do I think the new EdSurge Product Index will become an important, one-stop shop purchasing tool for educators, especially once the validation portions are completed? Yes, I do.

Notwithstanding Consumer Reports or Edmunds Car Buyer’s Guide expanding into ed tech, or the U.S. Department of Education stepping up to help fill the void (as they should), the new EdSurge Product Index is our best shot. Here’s hoping the five groups involved can summon the resources, time and educator buy-in they’ll need to make it a success.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.