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As of Nov. 4, the U.S. Department of Education has approved 46 state plans for the latest round of $122 billion in federal funds to help schools recover from the pandemic.

Education technology is a priority in many plans. But, states and districts often lack information about which edtech works, according to Bart Epstein, president and CEO of the nonprofit, EdTech Evidence Exchange.

Epstein and his team have spent years confronting what he calls a “collective action problem.”

That is, there is little information about what edtech works, where it works and in which contexts. The nonprofit launched a three-year study that brought together hundreds of researchers, educators, industry representatives, and policy makers in order to examine the problem. The EdTech Genome Project released its final report this summer.

A key takeaway: Many school leaders currently make edtech decisions “with almost no information about what is likely to work in their schools.” According to a separate analysis from the group, more than $20 billion is wasted on edtech each year because districts don’t have enough information.

This month, I sat down with Epstein to talk about edtech research, the Genome Project and how the unprecedented amount of federal funding being sent to American schools this year will affect edtech and public education.

Salman: Can you share some of what you been hearing from educators about edtech spending in the last year?

Epstein: A lot of district leaders and school leaders contacted me during the pandemic and said, ‘What should we buy? What should we do?’ And the answer is, unless you have a time machine, and you could go back at least two years to do proper requirements — gathering, analysis of your needs, understanding of what you’re using so far — it’s nearly impossible and often pointless to consider buying anything new or switching to something else without understanding what’s going wrong. Often what happens is things are not being used or having the impact that people hope for, and reasons [include] their contextual environment, implementation and selection process, training support, number of concurrent programs in use, understanding cognitive load and priorities.

S: How can educators make smart investments about edtech with this huge infusion of federal dollars?

E: The first thing is that schools should not rush into spending. Some of the best news in the stimulus and recovery money is that it doesn’t have to be spent quickly. There’s an understandable pressure to recover as quickly as possible. And that, to many people, means buying things. But the desire to buy and implement things needs to be counterbalanced with the importance of doing it right. A mediocre edtech product implemented properly is far superior to an outstanding edtech product that is implemented poorly.

S: The EdTech Genome Project is meant to helps school leaders make these decisions. Can you explain how?

E: The goal of the EdTech Genome Project over the long term is to help every school make dramatically improved decisions about what to buy, and how to implement it, by connecting them to the experiences of their contextual peers. And contextual peers doesn’t mean people who are in a district of the same size. The data shows [that] over the years other factors are far more important. Your district and my district could be the exact same size. We can have very similar demographics of our student population in terms of gender and race and poverty and English language status. And still, you could be doing 50 times better implementing and using certain technology products. So, the goal of the EdTech Genome Project was to try to figure out which factors matter.

S: Those 10 factors are included in the final Genome report, how can school leaders use them?

E: We feel pretty confident that of those 10, most of them seem really important. But we don’t know yet which ones are really important. We don’t know which of them are actually two sides of the same coin. Because they’re so closely associated that if you have a terrible culture, you almost certainly have poor leadership support. We don’t know yet how those different factors interrelate … Teacher agency, [for example], it may really matter if you have poor implementation processes, but it may not matter that much if you have great implementation processes. We just don’t know. The next step now is to go out and collect the data.

S: Why is it important to collect that research, that data, now?

E: Right now, every school that’s buying things on its own is engaged in organic implementations and we are not collecting the data. To me, that is crazy and wasteful, and it would not be tolerated in any other sector of our economy. Could you imagine if the FDA did not require drugs to be approved? And we just let people buy them? I’m not advocating for edtech products to be required to be studied before they can be sold. That wouldn’t work. My point is if we are not going to do that, it means it’s 100 times more important for us to study what’s being implemented.

S: What will we lose out on if we don’t collect data?

E: If this work had been properly funded and [had been] performed 10 years ago, the pandemic experience for 74 million students could have been wildly different. Our schools could have had better intelligence about what is likely to work in their environment. Instead, we had thousands of districts doing things from scratch with no preparation. It’s not fair to criticize or blame individual districts, when they lack the information they need to make decisions.

S: Why does edtech research matter now?

E: There are more than 9,000 products on the market now. Learn Platform’s latest data says something like there are more than 1,300 different things in use in the average district. There’s no possible way for districts to understand what to buy.

S: Where can school leaders turn as they make edtech decisions?

E: Schools should seek to understand themselves by looking at the factors in the EdTech Genome Report.

S: If educators are going through the process and finding it frustrating, what should they do?

E: Complain. Just say, why do I have to go through this? Where is the information? Nobody complains, and Congress doesn’t hear complaints. Everyone is used to muddling through. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, it becomes more and more important that we fix this problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This story about edtech was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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