Digital Education Needs More Accountability, Researchers Say

Associate Editor

As the use of education technology in U.S. schools continues to grow and evolve, district leaders are purchasing products that have thus far not been held to the same standards as educators and schools are, argue Patricia Burch and Annalee G. Good in their new book, “Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education.”

equal-scrutiny-280px.jpg“In the public eye, it’s education officials and educators who make the important instructional decisions about what happens in schools and classrooms,” Burch remarked in an email exchange. “In an age where curriculum and teaching are moving online very rapidly, contractors of digital services and products are making many of these decisions instead—whether we like it or not.”

To hold the market “more accountable to outcomes like greater equity and more equal distribution of digital education resources, we need transparency,” wrote Burch, who is an associate professor of education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and Good, who is the research director for the Multistate Evaluation of Supplemental Education Services at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

For their research, co-authors Burch and Good examined three types of digital education: digital courses, blended learning, and online tutoring. Education Week recently interviewed the authors to learn more about what they learned from their discussions with vendors, educators, administrators, and policymakers. Here’s an excerpt from that phone conversation.

EW: In your book, you write, “Digital education can be an asset for public schools, and can even do the work of addressing educational disparities for disadvantaged communities.” How so?

Annalee Good: One of the potentials of digital education is access. It can bring advanced course content to classrooms and schools that might not have access to it, such as rural or urban communities. For students, just learning how to navigate the technologies that are embedded in education is an important skill to become college and career ready, and also to navigate the world.

Alone, it can’t eliminate these disparities. It’s a tool that can be helpful when it’s used in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the digital divide.

EW: What kind of accountability would you like to see from the providers of digital education?

Patricia Burch: You can’t be an education company without addressing—as part of your central business model—the fact that those with economic privilege have technological privileges. You can’t call yourself an education company unless you’re going to take that seriously. It means a broad distribution of more resources for those who have less.

Without any government intervention, it means accountability to those populations. It can mean investing in a live tutor/teacher who is trained to work with English-language learners or students with disabilities. It means not assuming students have Internet access—and not waiting for government to [provide it]—but making sure they have Internet access cards. It means training for teachers, not as an add-on cost but as a central part of any package.

EW: Wouldn’t that be pretty expensive for companies?

Burch: The fact is, all of this costs companies’ money. Maybe they could spend less money on sales and marketing, and more on R&D [research and development.]. If you’re a company, don’t work out the quirks of your model on our most vulnerable population. If you say you have a product that’s going to provide data in real-time, then have that product ready on day one.

There are big players out there, like Pearson, that could certainly take the lead in modeling this. They have the resources and public funds.

Good: Ultimately, let’s ask the same level of accountability for vendors receiving public funds that we ask of school districts, states, and educators themselves. On instructional quality, what are we making schools accountable for in that, and why aren’t we making vendors as accountable—to give access for instruction for all student needs?

EW: Do you see any movement in this area?

Burch: I’ve gotten a number of calls over the past several months from companies saying, “I want to talk about what a serious research agenda would be to see how I’m doing in these areas. What would it take to do that?” Ultimately, it’s good business practice [to do this in education.]

Good: These are providers who see it as being good instructional practice, by being proactive about access to the instructional setting, and not waiting for a policy mandate or a contract to [specify] it. They see it as improving the quality of their program.

EW: What kind of transparency would you like to see in digital education?

Burch: You can’t have accountability without transparency. We want to know where the money’s going. Is it going into sales, into development, into curriculum for ELL? We don’t see that out there.  How about the class size, student-to-teacher ratio? How many hours of instruction are included? What’s behind this product or service?  Is there a political agenda, or a political group, that’s backing it?

When we’re talking about selling instruction, knowledge and information, who are the big political players behind this? What’s driving measures of success? If you say you’re common-core-aligned, what does that mean? Where else are you working and what are you charging? If you’re in Chicago and New Orleans, are you charging a higher rate in New Orleans or Chicago? We have evidence of that kind of disparity, charging a higher hourly rate in one area than another, so kids get fewer hours of instruction.

Burch: The naysayers would say, how the heck are you going to get companies to share where they’re doing business, because they will argue that they can’t stay competitive then? I think there’s some things that we can never expect companies to fully disclose. It’s a paradigm shift.

If you [as a company] are really talking about quality instruction, you’re standing behind the model, and have a long sustained commitment to working in public schools, then there are certain things you’re going to do to be more transparent.

EW: Pearson announced last year that it would hold itself accountable by publishing “audited learning outcomes.” What do you think of that?

Burch: Better late than never. It’s great that a lead company would do that. But these questions still hold true: Who’s doing the research? What’s the quality of the research? What are the measures? What works, and for whom? Pearson can start to do this, it’s a good step, but the bigger question is: How do you start to do this when you’re not dominating the market like Pearson is?

EW: What surprised you most in your research?

Good: The wide gap in formats in digital education, and the wide gap in quality. The way we talk about digital education can be quite monolithic: is it good, or is it bad? Some very innovative, high-quality instruction is happening in the digital setting. That’s exciting and promising.

Burch: What surprised me most, in our first-level work talking to policymakers and executives, is how it is possible that, in this digital craze, we have somehow leapfrogged the centrality of the teacher.

There was all this talk about the seductive technology, about the iPads, and so on. Years and years of research show it’s the teacher who makes the difference. We know that teachers matter. Let’s put two and two together. The solution is multi-pronged. If you’re going to have iPads, then figure out how you’re going to invest in professional development so all teachers know what that means to integrate technology into the classroom.

Good: Our research tries to situate all this in the policy, economic, social context, which includes budgets. Part of the seduction is that purchasing an iPad, or purchasing thousands of iPads, can still be cheaper than human resource costs and staffing. It is seductive to think, when [you] have to lay off teachers, and someone is saying this will deliver instruction to students, in the context of the very difficult decisions district administrators have to make around the limited resources that they have, that this is a solution.

EW: How do you think equity should be ensured as schools increasingly incorporate digital education into their daily regimen for helping children learn and achieve?

Good: As with more traditional education, it requires an understanding that quality digital education costs money. It may be a different way of using resources. You can’t do this well on the cheap.

Burch: It was a big surprise that very little research has been done on the implementation of digital education in K-12. In most of studies we would consider to be rigorous, the reference point for technology was archaic. And, third, in all this talk about serving low-income kids and kids of color, there’s no research base to support that rhetoric—yet. If we’re going to make that a goal, let’s invest in some research to show those kid are actually benefitting.

EW: What could companies do to be the best partners in delivering digital education, while pursuing their for-profit business model?

Burch: At this point we think a lot of change here is local, regional. Companies can partner with proactive districts and think about them [the districts] not as places they want to avoid, but as good places they want to do business with.

Good: Part of our work was talking to vendors, and to employees of the vendors. The ones who feel really confident in their program look forward to working with districts that have a heightened level of expectation and accountability.

EW: What questions do you think schools should be asking of the providers of digital education?

Burch: Part of what we’re arguing here is that you ask questions before you sign the contract, and then continue to have a dialogue all the way through the contract.

Good: The first question is, what are they hoping to achieve by engaging digital education? Are you looking at digital education as a cost-saving measure? Are you looking at it as a way to inject higher order thinking? Are you looking to provide additional instructional opportunities to kids during study hall, where you have computers but not staff?

EW: You identify four fundamental questions to guide decisionmaking about digital education. What are they?

Good: We offer these four central questions about digital education:

  • What drives the curriculum?
  • What drives instruction and the role of the teacher?
  • What drives assessment, and access to data?
  • What is the role of the vendor in these dynamics?

Burch: We’re not anti-digital education. But there’s more rhetoric about it than evidence-based conversation. We really think there’s a hole in this conversation.



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