Balancing Innovation and Efficacy to Improve Education


The story of technology in education is too often the story of a rollercoaster ride: the anticipatory climb to new heights of innovation, the thrilling stories about teachers’ and students’ initial use of new tools, and the terrifying plummet once evidence of low impact rolls in. Technology has undeniable promise for improving learning; yet the evidence is often too hard to find and too thin, weak, and confusing to interpret.

How can a new rapprochement between innovation and efficacy be obtained? How can we replace the rollercoaster ride with the steady improvement students need and deserve?

A new report from SRI Education re-thinks how innovation and evaluation can work synergistically, building on SRI Education’s experience both translating research to inform innovation (in public broadcasting, publishing, and technology organizations) and conducting objective, high-quality evaluation studies (for government and foundations). From our decades of work in this dynamic space, we have found two keys to thinking about innovation and evidence in education.

First, the interconnection of innovation and evidence should be continuous throughout the lifespan of the innovation process. At SRI Education, rather than focus solely on “does it work?”—because “does it work” can only be evaluated late in the game after a product is fully developed—we continually elaborate a theory of action to answer two questions:

  1. How can an active, robust connection between the new technological capability and scientific understanding of the learning process be achieved?
  2. How can a broad complex of factors (such as the role of teachers, curriculum, assessment, school leadership, etc.) be aligned to implement and sustain a positive change in the learning process?

These questions can scale with the progress of an innovation over time, starting from initial concept and leading to gold-standard evidence of efficacy.

Second, constituents in the rollercoaster of innovation and evidence have different needs, which are best addressed with different types of studies.

  • Researchers are seeking to increase scientific understanding of how people can learn challenging topics and skills.
  • Developers want studies to help them improve their innovation.
  • Policy makers want a sound, rigorous base of evidence to guide the articulation of broad policies that frame the use of technology in schools.
  • Teachers and school leaders experience the wait for perfect evidence as the enemy of good decision-making today. They need pragmatic, scientifically grounded, evidence-based guidance—even if definitive proof is not yet available.

A stronger culture of evidence-guided innovation in education can be achieved through clarity about how and when differing needs for evidence can be addressed.

The full report describes how these ideas lead to stronger connections between innovation and evidence in education, and each idea is accompanied by illustrative case studies. Over time, the right balance will get us off the rollercoaster and just take us to new heights.

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