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When the coronavirus pandemic first hit in March 2020, the research unit inside the U.S. Department of Education, called the Institute for Education Sciences, commissioned a report to wade through all the studies on education technology that can be used at home in order to find which ones were proven to work. The goal was to provide a quick guide for teachers and school leaders during remote instruction. 

Almost a year later, in February 2021, the results are in: a mere three online learning technologies have clear evidence for improving student achievement. One helps middle schoolers with math homework. Another improves reading comprehension among older elementary school students. The third is an online algebra course for eighth graders. 

All three were developed at universities and have no flashy graphics, animations or games. None uses especially sophisticated algorithms to tailor the instruction to each student, known as “adaptive” learning, but they do give instant feedback, letting students know what they’ve gotten right and wrong. 

“We don’t have flying frogs and leaping lizards but we do try to teach kids how to understand what they read,” said Kausalai (Kay) Wijekumar, a professor at Texas A&M University who developed the reading comprehension program ITSS that made the list of three. ”It’s systematic direct instruction, using evidence-based practices. No glitz or gimmicks.”

This doesn’t mean that everything else is bad or ineffective but it does mean that very little education technology has been rigorously tested in the way that pharmaceuticals or vaccines are. The Department of Education insisted upon high research standards for this report, “A What Works Clearinghouse Rapid Evidence Review of Distance Learning Programs.” Classrooms or individual students had to be randomly selected to use the education software, with researchers comparing those students’ test results or grades with students who didn’t use it. No small studies were allowed. Programs had to be tested on at least 350 students and in more than one school. 

These tough requirements whittled down an initial list of more than 900 studies to just three remote learning programs. 

“Things like Google Classroom, or Zoom or whatever your child’s teachers are using, it doesn’t mean that they’re not effective,” said Sarah Sahni, lead author of the report and a policy researcher at the nonprofit research organization, American Institutes for Research, which was hired to conduct the analysis. “It means that there is no published study that uses a randomized design showing that it’s effective. We haven’t done the study yet to understand. And that’s really one of the big findings that we have here, that there isn’t enough rigorous research on these kinds of programs.”

Because the government wanted to focus on what works, Sahni only analyzed studies with positive results for students. This analysis didn’t point fingers at which education software hasn’t been properly evaluated or which education technology has been proved in studies to be ineffective or harmful. 

Sahni and her colleagues didn’t test any of the ed tech themselves or conduct any experiments on students, but tracked down studies that were published in the past 10 years. All of the studies took place before the pandemic. Much of the educational software was actually used inside school buildings, not only at home. But if it could easily be used remotely, the researchers considered it. Researchers focused on learning programs that students could access through a computer, not learning games on a smartphone app. 

Of the three programs that rose to the top, one of them — an online algebra course — doesn’t exist anymore. It was developed at the University of Nebraska and the company that marketed it, Class.com, was acquired by Cambium Learning, which mothballed it. It had been effective at teaching algebra to eighth graders who were strong math students but attended middle schools that didn’t offer algebra to eighth graders, according to this 2011 study. (Another company, Class Technologies Inc., uses the class.com domain, but isn’t selling this algebra course.) 

The other two do exist. ASSISTments is an online homework site for middle school math, currently used by more than 500,000 students. Teachers assign students practice questions on the free website, developed by Neil Heffernan, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. In addition to immediate feedback, like an answer key, there are optional drills and hints to show students how to solve problems step by step. A large study in Maine found strong results for students who spent only 10 minutes a night three or four times a week on the software. 

Teachers don’t have to change their existing lesson plans or textbooks to incorporate it. Other education software, by contrast, often imposes its own curriculum or requires teachers to make major changes to the way they teach.

The reading program ITSS stands for Intelligent Tutoring using the Structure Strategy and is used by about 150,000 students, mostly in grades three through five. It encourages students to make sense of nonfiction passages by first identifying how the writer structured the piece and then summarizing the main point. Before the pandemic, it was typically used during English class once or twice a week for a total of 30 to 60 minutes.  Fourth and fifth graders demonstrated improved reading comprehension from spending time on the software every week in two separate studies. The software is free but teachers and principals are required to attend a few days of training and coaching, which costs a school thousands of dollars. 

I’ve heard a lot of grousing by ed tech and curriculum developers that the Department of Education’s standards for what works are impossibly high. Some jokingly call the Department’s What Works Clearinghouse the “What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse.” But I think there is value in getting unvarnished evidence reviews from the government to help teachers and school leaders put the hyperbolic claims of ed tech marketers into context.

However, the department might reconsider its own hyperbolic terms. This “rapid” review of the research to help schools during the pandemic took more than nine months to produce, arguably too late for educators to make much use of it. 

Lead researcher Sahni told me that her team rushed the review out in less than a third of the usual time frame of three years. That might not have been fast enough to save students who slipped behind this pandemic year. But it could help guide educators when they turn to remote learning in the future. 

This story about remote learning research was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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