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Where Does Edtech Investment Go?
Leadership Insights

Does Ed Tech Investment Result in Better Learning for Students?

By Monica Fuglei April 8, 2015
Where Does Edtech Investment Go?

Gone are the days of chalky hands and noisy slates. Though dry-erase boards remain, many students and teachers use interactive whiteboards, Chromebooks, and Wi-Fi. Investment in educational technology, or ed tech, is at an all-time high, with numbers reaching $1.36 billion in 2014.

Ed-tech investments are high, but most of the money doesn’t go into K-12 classrooms

This reflects an upward trend; 2013 investments were nearly as high, with $1.2 billion recorded investments. The significant amount of funding flowing into educational technology could have tremendous influence on primary- and secondary-education classrooms. However, due to traditional ed-tech constraints as well as district and school budgetary issues, the likelihood that these investments will fundamentally transform K-12 classrooms is extremely low.

In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Dr. Keith Devlin determined that while ed-tech investments are at an all-time high, the relatively small percentage directed toward primary or secondary education — as well as the low number of individual corporate investors — indicated a disinterest in primary or secondary education technologies. Devlin opined that despite the growth in K-12 investments, chances were low that any of the resultant technologies will actually make it into the classroom.

Classroom programming is not a big enough revenue stream for schools

K-12 ed-tech investments rarely, if ever, target the classroom itself. Free-market investment into educational technology is increasingly devoted to potential revenue streams, and K-12 classroom programming is not one of them. Shrinking school budgets are particularly pressed to keep up with technological costs. So instead of classroom technology, schools invest their ed-tech funds into administrative programs such as student performance dashboards, learning management systems and data collection and analysis tools.

By surveying teacher conference presentations, Devlin reported that coverage of technology in the classroom is not rising, but dropping. Affordability and access constraints mean that the teachers who are able to use such technology do so using free online services. In order to spur long-term trends toward a classroom design that embraces technology, Devlin suggested that governmental investment is necessary.

The E-rate Modernization Order helps with costs, but doesn’t get education technology infrastructure where it needs to be

To some extent, it appears that the federal government is aware of the need for this investment in education technology and has made moves, through the E-rate Modernization Order, to help offset some technological cost. This program allows for government rebates for some of the most expensive technology services: Wi-Fi connectivity and broadband access. This is a good start to meet the growing demand for new technology services, but it will not be enough, particularly for increasingly strapped school districts, to create a viable market for K-12 education software.

The National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE) study “Born in Another Time” emphasizes the importance of school district planning to make access to technology a priority, but states that “almost 80 percent of schools that receive federal E-Rate funding for broadband say their Internet connection does not fully meet their needs.” In addition, new data from the Center for American Progress shows that school districts with the highest rates of poverty tend to have lower-than-average rates of funding.

These gaps in funding have a negative impact on the availability of technology in districts with high numbers of students who live in poverty. As lower-socioeconomic districts struggle to adopt and apply technology in their schools, the digital divide will widen. While the government has secured commitments from the private sector to ensure discount programs for schools, this is unlikely to completely supplement the financial need in all school districts; even schools in middle-class areas are scrambling to cover costs.

Using technology to improve learning is a complicated task

Of course, even absent hardware and broadband needs, in order to make ed-tech innovation a smart investment for schools, educational software must enhance learning. It’s also crucial for both educators and students to be able to apply technology effectively.

In addition to access, students need the knowledge to apply ed-tech resources

In his 2014 column “3 Myths About EdTech and Equity,” Cary Kelly warns that simply giving students access to educational technology hardware and software will not close the digital divide. Kelly cites research that shows that students must not only have access to ed-tech resources, they must have the knowledge on how to apply them effectively. He refers to a Hechinger Report column that says, “schools in low-income neighborhoods are more apt to employ computers for drill and practice sessions than for creative or innovative projects.”

To support student learning, educators need ed-tech training, too

In order to do this, it seems logical for educators to receive training in the use of educational technology — both in the classroom and to understand and interpret student data. However, the NASBE study found that “only three states have implemented policies and practices, including professional development and credentialing, to ensure educators know how to access, analyze and use data appropriately.”

Closing the K-12 digital divide: Create better market incentives?

To truly reform our schools and give students of all socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to embrace technology and close the digital divide, it’s going to take innovation and investment for which there is not currently a significant market incentive. While the small market share of ed-tech investment in K-12 teaching software is certainly something to recognize, it is clear that, for a variety of reasons, the billions of dollars flowing into educational technology aren’t being aimed at public school classrooms.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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