The education technology industry is booming, and it is revolutionizing teaching and learning. “Ed tech” has unleashed a new generation of products – backed by massive philanthropic and venture capital – that promise to promote actively engaged, socially connected and personalized instruction. The magnitude of this investment is staggering: The global ed tech market is expected to reach a value of $421 billion by 2032, up from $129 billion in 2022.
This is encouraging because the scale of the problem that ed tech aims to solve is also huge. Even before COVID, in the period from 2012 to 2020, low average test scores and the score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students were deeply concerning. Since the pandemic, these problems have worsened in math, reading and history, portending serious consequences for too many children.
Will ed tech have the hoped-for impact, substantially increasing student skills and closing income-based test score gaps? We need much more evidence, followed by thoughtful policy interventions, to answer this question.
A recent comprehensive report from a group of economists at Columbia, Northwestern and elsewhere summarizing experimental evidence on the use of ed tech for learning in the classroom shows wide-ranging benefits, especially for computer-assisted learning (so-called intelligent tutoring systems) and for math learning. But children’s skill development begins well before they go to school. The skill gap between advantaged and underserved children is also apparent before many of them enter school, and the disparity does not decline during the school years. So, it is arguably most important to understand the use and effectiveness of ed tech in families with young children at home.
Research at our Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab at the University of Chicago demonstrates the promise of ed tech for increasing both parent engagement in learning activities with their children and for increasing children’s skills. Field experiments found (as described in our recent publication) that providing low-income families with preschool-aged children access to math learning apps may increase child math skills when parents are also engaged in their child’s math learning.
This may be because, as other evidence from the BIP Lab shows, when children and their parents were given either math apps on a digital tablet or analog math learning games, kids provided with math apps heard more “math talk” and had more positive parent-child interactions compared to those given the analog games. For instance, children with math apps heard more praise like “great job” and “yay” and “you’re winning,” and fewer instances of negative correction like “that’s cheating” or “that’s wrong” or “stop it.”
Importantly, providing families with math learning apps designed for young children increased parent engagement with their children in learning activities even though the math apps were designed to engage the child alone without an adult. Using math apps may change the role of a parent from a teacher to more of a moderator during the child’s math learning process, which may, in turn, relieve the stress and burden on parents to have mastery of the material. All in all, such a process would require less effort from parents and increase enjoyment for both them and their children.
Despite these promising early findings, there is much more we need to learn. For instance, studies that identify positive effects of computer-assisted learning in the classroom show these tools only work when teachers spend time using them and when educators receive the proper training and coaching to use them effectively. Another study we did shows that when children have access to high-quality math apps at home, apps increase the time they spend in math activities but may also decrease the time they spend reading.
A key issue for ed tech is that home use of digital learning materials declines over time, reducing its potential effectiveness. Another BIP study in progress lasting 24 weeks that tracks early math app usage has found that such usage decreased on average by 54% by Week 10 and by 78% by Week 20 of the intervention. Rethinking the design of apps to reduce this “fade out” could greatly increase effectiveness.
Furthermore, instead of closing one gap, reliance on ed tech could contribute to greater inequality in education. If educational technology can, in fact, improve learning but disadvantaged students have less access at home and at school to the internet, to devices and to digital learning platforms, these students will lose ground relative to their more advantaged peers.
Getting at many of the lingering questions will require a serious investment in new research. Federal and state governments could incentivize ed tech companies to sponsor legitimate, external third-party research on their products and consolidate the collective findings about them so that schools and parents can easily access information on what works. Currently, there is little incentive for ed tech companies to pursue independent, rigorous research; often, small case studies or in-house testing is touted as evidence, with few market consequences. Making funding sufficient for basic research on learning through technology should be a clear federal and philanthropic priority.
Then, if evidence supports their effectiveness, we must find ways to equalize access to ed tech tools through the cross-sector efforts of the ed tech industry, philanthropy, community organizations and federal, state and local governments. It will be essential to provide proven tools for free or at a discount to disadvantaged populations to assure equal access and ensure that teachers, families and students have all the components they need to succeed in using digital platforms effectively. Success should be tracked with well-validated measures of children’s skills, and we should look not only for improvement overall but also narrowing of skill gaps between economically advantaged children and their less advantaged peers.
The tech revolution in education is here, and increasing use of ed tech is inevitable. We need to learn much more about the circumstances under which digital platforms optimize learning, impair learning or widen disparities across students. Today’s children are counting on ed tech’s promise.