Who will test the testers?

Great follow-up to yesterday’s post. Dylan of the Learning Equality Foundation confirmed on Twitter that they’re planning on doing randomized control trials (RCTs) on the KA Lite program.

Rigorous testing is sorely needed in the edtech world. It’s understandable that private companies don’t seek it out as much (since they need to please clients and institutions), but with all the varied approaches to technology both at the K-12 and higher ed levels, we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. For the products and services that seek to solve immediate problems for educators (e.g. visualization tools or back-office management tools), it’s easy to see what helps. Teachers and administrators will know if things work because their jobs get better. But for all the products that aim to improve the learning experience, we need actual evidence that students are learning better.

It would be awesome to see testing done on more online programs, especially as they spread around the world. Steve Kolowich at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently wrote about a project by Professor Barbara Moser-Mercer in partnership with Coursera to teach two students at a refugee camp in Kenya.

I disagree with Kolowich that using a MOOC in a refugee camp is a silly idea. The reality is that many refugee camps become semi- (or completely) permanent homes for their residents. What refugees need will depend on their specific circumstances, but there isn’t really a reason to assume without investigating that they should have less access to education than people living in cities. If anything, online education could be a useful tool for reintegrating displaced workers into the economy.

What is a bit odd is that Professor Moser-Mercer draws conclusions from the experience based on a project with just two students. A small project like that could be useful to plan out a larger test, but at that scale, it’s impossible to tell what outcomes are due to the intervention and what’s due the innate abilities of the students.

I’m looking forward to following the testing on KA Lite, and I hope that more edtech companies follow suit. Edtech has a lot of potential to improve education, both in the US and abroad, but we shouldn’t be forcing radical changes on students and educators without making sure that they work.

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