How to pick an edtech partner for optimal student growth

Kate Mattison is the Vice President of IXL’s curriculum development team and is dedicated to creating inspiring educational experiences for each of IXL’s subject areas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago and a PhD in mathematics from Stanford.

How can you ensure that the edtech providers you choose are more than just vendors—that they will work with you as trusted, reliable partners in the educational process? K-12 edtech providers play an essential role in the education system by providing technology, resources, and services to support student learning. It’s crucial that they can back up their claims to ensure that your students get the utmost benefit.

After a rapid and often unchecked influx of new edtech products during the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools and districts are still auditing what works, what doesn’t, and which solutions are worth a long-term investment. But these high levels of edtech integration in the classroom are here to stay. Teachers and students have seen the benefits of effective classroom technology use and adapted accordingly. Schools have also experienced the growing pains of integrating different tech, however, and enough time has passed that the results of product use can be accurately assessed.

When deciding to adopt a new edtech product or assessing whether a current product is doing the most for students and teachers, what’s the best metric? When evaluating whether a product is the best fit for your school or district, consider how it will support improved student outcomes across grade levels. Ultimately edtech products and services need to be soundly backed up by research, their efficacy in promoting student growth needs to be backed up by evidence, and you need to be assured that your student’s growth and proficiency goals will be supported above all.

Growth versus proficiency

Student growth measures how much a student has learned compared to where they started at the beginning of the year, semester, or lesson. Proficiency, on the other hand, measures students against agreed-upon standards at the state or national level.

Both are crucial markers against which to judge the performance of an edtech product and are most effective when used in tandem. Growth measurements, especially, can also help schools address issues of equity: 

“Because of the well-documented correlation between test scores and students’ socioeconomic status and race, judging schools based on their average test scores will tend to penalize schools that serve large numbers of lower-income and racial minority students, even if those schools produce significant student growth on math and reading tests.”

When K-12 vendors validate efficacy with research, they provide schools and educators with evidence-based information to support their decision-making. This helps schools and educators decide which products and services to invest in and use with their students. Regular formative assessment can provide insight into students’ growth and grade-level proficiency.

Questions to ask when considering a new edtech product

  • Are the claims made by the provider backed up by research?
  • Can the provider show proof of improved student outcomes?
  • Does the provider demonstrate an ethical responsibility to put student learning first?
  • Does the product support the achievement of clear standards?
  • Does it also work with students where they are in order to help teachers provide effective, individualized, and differentiated instruction? 

Below we’ll address what these questions mean in practice.

Is the product based on solid research?

The data on the efficacy of edtech products in schools doesn’t paint a very encouraging picture. Regarding privacy, interoperability, and a strong research foundation, most products currently on the market fail short. That’s why it’s so crucial that vendors back up their claims when pitching you their products.

Research provides evidence of the impact that products and services have on student outcomes. By validating efficacy with research, K-12 vendors can demonstrate that their products and services effectively promote student learning and achievement. This can lead to improved student outcomes and increased student success. 

One way to check the efficacy of an edtech product is to break it down into its constituent technologies: “If the technology doesn’t do something beyond what we can do with paper and pencil, why bother?” But this educator notes that many edtech features have proven benefits for students, from skill mastery and greater comprehension to improved pro-social behavior due to time spent in VR worlds.

Is there evidence of successful student growth with this product?

There’s a reason schools and educators are more likely to invest in effective products and services—because when it comes to student learning, schools and districts have neither the time nor the resources to waste on something that hasn’t been proven to work. By providing evidence of the impact of their products and services, vendors can build trust with schools and educators and establish themselves as reliable and effective partners in education. 

One superintendent noted that when sizing up a new edtech product, she looks for evidence that the product has not only succeeded but that it’s succeeded in a market or district like hers. She goes on to say that edtech products need not just to help students grow but also help them meet and succeed at grade-level skills. Products like the ones from IXL—designed to meet specific grade-level standards nationwide—help ensure students are reaching the appropriate benchmarks.

After an edtech product has been implemented in classrooms, it’s important that the provider can provide ongoing evidence of efficacy in supporting growth. Compatibility with a wide range of assessment tests, easy-to-understand reports for teachers, and responsive in-classroom analytic tools are ways to provide ongoing evidence of efficacy.

Does your edtech vendor put student growth first?

K-12 vendors have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their products and services effectively promote student learning and achievement. Validating efficacy with research is an important part of fulfilling this responsibility. The right support systems, user guides, toolkits, and supporting materials make integrating the product into the classroom seamless. Teachers who are already balancing myriad demands and packed teaching schedules need products that are simple to understand. That helps educators keep their focus on teaching instead of on troubleshooting technology.

Edtech should be as adaptive as possible to different learning styles. It should be designed so that students with disabilities can use and benefit from the technology, as well. Consider the product’s collaboration abilities so students can share their work and correct their mistakes. How adaptable is the product to different settings, like at-home versus in-school learning? Another factor to consider is whether the provider can demonstrate that students actually like using their product.

Does the product help your schools advance in goals toward educational equity, or the “fair and just access to the support and resources necessary to achieve a student’s full academic and social potential?” To do that, tech should help teachers pinpoint where students need additional support, and then help teachers find the right resources to meet that child’s needs.

Finally, when considering a new edtech provider’s ethical responsibilities toward student learning, be aware of data privacy issues. What data is being saved, and who will it be shared with? Are there any third-party apps involved? Privacy concerns also extend to educator and family data, and a comprehensive and transparent privacy policy demonstrates that a company is aware of its responsibilities toward users.

Does the product provide clear instructional supports?

Responsive diagnostics help provide educators with up-to-the-minute data about their students’ progress. That information can then guide curriculum and teaching techniques, and extra assistance is given where it’s most needed—a process that “clarifies the expectations and identifies the principles that should guide the teacher’s future work.”  

But what comes next? Edtech that incorporates instructional supports means one less step for teachers as they look to provide appropriate, differentiated learning material. Those supports should also be based on the most up-to-date research in education, built on concepts such as the Science of Reading. Feedback and explanations, and the flexibility to administer lessons to individual students or the entire class can all help educators put data into practice more quickly in their classrooms.

Instructional supports should be backed up by research like every other part of the product and should serve to enhance existing pedagogy and let educators’ skills and expertise come to the fore:

[V]aluable teaching practices—differentiated instruction, data-driven instruction, higher-order feedback, mastery-based instruction, problem-based learning, project-based learning, small-group instruction, and relationship-building—predate most educational technologies. They don’t require technology, but technology can expand teachers’ capacity to adopt these practices in a manageable way.”

Moving forward with edtech 

The options can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing the best edtech product, and that’s before you move on to the task of implementation. As you weigh the research and evidence and decide, make sure to also ask about professional development opportunities from the edtech provider. Those, along with dedicated experts among the school or district staff, can help maximize the efficacy of a product both during its initial adoption and over the long term. When you first contract with a new edtech company, they should provide comprehensive training, and customer service should be available on an on-going basis.

More isn’t necessarily better when adding new educational technology to your school. The most effective way to help support student growth and proficiency is to find the product that best serves the needs of your unique school or district. Draw on evidence-based data about student growth and proficiency to make your edtech adoption decisions to keep the focus first and foremost on the students themselves.