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What Drives the Engagement Factor in Edtech?
By Henry Kronk
Many edtech developers say that their products foster student engagement. Research supports the fact that many digital edtech products have the ‘new and shiny factor’—they boost student engagement by virtue of their novelty. Others, meanwhile, aren’t flashy, but still promote engagement through their own unique functions and mechanisms. A white paper put out today by the L.A.-based edtech developer GoGuardian investigates student engagement in the classroom, what allows for it, what enhances it, and how it fits into current industry trends.
The first issue with studying engagement is that no one can say exactly what it is. GoGuardian researchers Mariana Aguilar and Kayla Sheldon write that, while there is no set definition, even among academic circles, “it is widely agreed that engagement is a metaconcept composed of multiple dimensions.”
Engagement Isn’t Easy to Define
To conduct their research, the authors reached 359 stakeholders—about 310 of whom were students—across K-12 levels at 19 districts in seven different states (Florida, California, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Washington). These districts were identified because they were existing GoGuardian customers, and that represents a potential limitation of the study. Besides students, the rest of the respondents were teachers, school leaders, and IT admins.
The authors took a qualitative approach to their research. They collected information via focus groups, interviews, and classroom observation. From these, they identified 43 different thematic elements that fall within four aspects of a conceptual framework surrounding engagement: 1) “contextual variables affecting engagement,” 2) “qualities of an engaging learning experience,” 3) “industry trends,” and 4) “indicators of engagement.”
To broadly summarize their findings, the authors found that, to boost engagement, both teachers and the edtech tools they use need to meet students where they are, and not the other way around.
In Edtech, ‘There Is No Silver Bullet’
The authors repeat the conclusion that many have come to before them: there is no silver bullet in edtech. In other words, there is no edtech solution or intervention that can effectively help all the students, all the time.
The authors identified numerous instances in which teachers created a more engaging learning experience with analogue technology compared to when digital entered the mix. For example, they sat in on one math class where the teacher got things started by asking students to do a short period of independent work on their Chromebooks at the beginning of class.
By contrast, as the authors describe a 10th grade history class, “in which students were instructed to work in groups to research the historic relationship between nationalism and violence in a given country and to collaboratively present their findings and perspective in a presentation. While both of these examples demonstrate the use of education technology, the methods of implementation resulted in significantly different levels of cognitive effort required from the students. These examples illustrate the importance of how the technology is used and its impact on student learning.”
There’s a much-repeated term that describes conforming to students’ needs: personalized learning. While many edtech products seek to personalize learning, effective teachers who boost engagement also do it on their own. Other qualities of engagement identified by the authors include: positive emotional experiences, interactivity and gamification, the social aspect of learning, and validation from teachers and peers.
Another quality they pointed out was blended learning. “[W]e noted that many of the digital learning experiences were supplemented by the offline processing of information,” the authors write. “For example, when observing students complete math problems on a web application, the majority of students were entering the answers on the computer while solving the problems in a notebook. A few of the students were even counting on their fingers! Enabling students to process offline was also observed as a technique for fueling stronger engagement.”
While edtech works with various effectiveness to promote these variables and qualities of engagement, stakeholders also described a few challenges when putting them to use.
Most stakeholders realize the benefits of creating consistency with the edtech used in a given school, but in most, the products and tools used vary widely.
The Struggle to Streamline
As one IT Admin said, “It has been like the wild west at times. They [teachers] are buying different products. One might buy this program and the other buys that one, and there’s been some slipping through some cracks.”
There’s also a huge discrepancy among teachers regarding digital literacy. That impacts both the tools that can be put to use, along with the data that can be collected about how well they work.
One leader said, “We have some teachers that are using technology and others not that much. But when it comes to tracking that piece of information—that becomes part of the problem. Some may be using the technology more than others.”
While edtech works with different degrees of effectiveness, most were adamant about one fact: “Technology will never be able to replace a teacher.”
“This comment came up again and again by both school leaders and teachers,” the authors write, “and it reflects a level of apprehension about the role of education technology. One middle school leader shared, “The teacher still plays a crucial role. We’ve seen those extremes. Neither are good. The successful classrooms are just the right balance. The digital platform should be a tool rather than the teacher.”
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