When parents or teachers hear the term “educational technology” or “EdTech”, they may wonder how the product will help their child and what the costs might be. As a researcher, I wonder how educational the technology actually is. Apps, e-books and online platforms often fall short of genuinely supporting children’s learning. Seemingly small design differences can make or break the learning experience.
E-books labelled educational are very popular and widely used by children across the world. A meta-analysis that my colleagues and I recently completed showed that well-designed e-books can outperform paper books in supporting children’s story comprehension. They contain prompts that engage the child’s background knowledge and guide the child through the story by posing structured questions.
“Seemingly small design differences can make or break the learning experience.”
However, apps and e-books often stimulate interactions that do little to promote children’s learning. Some of the most popular children’s apps in four European countries, for example, provide minimal learning value. They do not engage children in educational content, but rather distract them with mini-games, loud sounds, and many bells and whistles. While they might be entertaining, we found that poorly designed e-books diminish story comprehension and do little to advance vocabulary learning. Similarly, very few of the 124 most downloaded children’s apps go beyond repetitive and distracting stimulation. Furthermore, e-books sold for 0- to 8-year-olds in Hungary, Turkey, Greece and the Netherlands are mostly in English rather than local languages. This is a problem because books in a child’s first language strengthen native language skills, which is important for later school success.
Unlocking the potential of EdTech
EdTech could make education fairer and educational e-books could provide much needed diverse stories on a global scale. There are several things we can do to unlock the enormous potential of EdTech:
First, we need more independent app stores, and all app stores need to implement rigorous assessments of educational quality to drive competition and promote high-quality EdTech production. National and international regulatory bodies should support this process, to lobby for and monitor implementation of regulations that safeguard children’s digital rights.
“Educational e-books could provide much needed diverse stories on a global scale.”
Second, schools and educational procurement organisations need to press producers to supply them with quality content based on what actually works to boost children’s learning. Some already work with teachers (and many scoop them up as product ambassadors), but such partnerships need to be less commercially driven and more focused on evidence.
Third, research funding bodies are also in a unique position to push for change. Strategic funding motivated by the popularity of EdTech could support more partnerships and long-term collaborations between researchers and EdTech producers. National funding organisations, such as UKRI in the UK, have already begun demanding that impact be embedded in research proposals, to transform practice through research. Funders are asking for real world impact to be a key component of the research, rather than an afterthought.
“All of us can contribute to less commercial and more educationally driven EdTech.”
In EdTech, I see two main strategies for embedding impact into research. The first is fostering direct dialogue between researchers and producers. This can be done through research training and mentoring for EdTech producers, bringing teachers, too, into the conversation. Together, teachers, producers, and researchers can combine financial resources with political, socio-cultural and moral thinking to create high-quality products. The International Collective of Children’s Digital Books that I founded in 2020 facilitates such three-way dialogue.
Impact can also be embedded into research by directly involving users in the production cycle, so that products are developed and evaluated according to users’ needs. StoryWeaver, for example, enriches children’s e-books by taking advantage of community-sourced digital assets such as parents’ or children’s illustrations and voice-overs. Researchers and teachers are using their expertise to help others choose quality products, by rating existing literacy apps on a National Literacy Trust platform called “Literacy Apps,” to which I contributed. It uses meaningful research-based criteria rather than the star rating systems commonly found in app stores. Teachers are even producing their own e-books with children, based on content that is relevant for their classrooms. Such initiatives are small ways of addressing a big problem, but they demonstrate that all of us can contribute to less commercial and more educationally driven EdTech.
“High-quality technology is imperative to address the uneven educations that children from diverse backgrounds receive.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how much children rely on technologies for both learning and entertainment. High-quality technology is imperative to address the uneven educations that children from diverse backgrounds receive. I am hopeful that by embracing these strategies, EdTech will soon be able to live up to its name.
Find out about the Jacobs Foundation’s initiatives to unlock the impact of EdTech to advance learning and development in a short video.
Through Project LEAP (Leveraging Evidence for Action to Promote change), a Jacobs Foundation initiative, a group of Social Entrepreneurship Fellows and Research Fellows are developing criteria for assessing the educational quality of EdTech for children. EdTech companies will be rated on their current impact and potential areas of growth, potentially informing investment decisions, and incentivising companies to perform rigorous in-house evaluation. The resulting evaluation framework will be a useful guide for estimating the educational impact of EdTech for children.