EdTech Startups Make Evidence Their North Star

"Achieving large-scale impact in education has been much more difficult than in public health,” remarked Bill Gates during the 2023 ASU+GSV keynote conversation with Jessie Woolley-Wilson. In doing so, he revealed a public secret: the scale and effectiveness of EdTech have an inverse relationship.

Put simply, when an educational technology is highly effective, its adoption in schools tends to be limited in scale. On the other hand, technologies with broader adoption often lack the same level of effectiveness. This was found in 2016 and is still the case now, seven years later.

There are many reasons for this, but one reason stands out: the disconnect between EdTech evidence and practice. The science of learning is in its golden age, but translating the scientific evidence into the practice of designing and developing EdTech products for children has been difficult. Take the example of educational apps, a particular kind of EdTech.

Numerous scientific papers demonstrate that many popular educational apps for children are ineffective and even use manipulative features that hamper children's learning. Yet, these apps continue to be widely sold and used by children worldwide. One major issue is that educational apps can easily be published on app stores without any criteria for assessing their actual learning value. Another issue is lack of awareness of what quality looks like and how to measure it. However, there is a positive change taking place in 2023.

The lessons learned during the pandemic, coupled with budget constraints in schools and a growing awareness of evidence-based education, have sparked increased interest among investors but also school procurement teams in evidence. Users too, are increasingly requesting reports on the measured impact of EdTech solutions. They want companies to provide concrete numbers that demonstrate how their solution improves children's learning compared to other products or no product at all.

Investors have various ways of evaluating the impact of their investments in different companies. Some prioritise factors like scalability, diversity, learning outcomes, or community impact. Increasingly, investors in EdTech are particularly interested in technology startups that can demonstrate that their solutions enhance children's education. These investors collaborate with us, scientists, to establish indicators and standards that can effectively measure the success of individual solutions in supporting learning.

In this context, "effective” refers to an independent proof that the technology positively affects children's learning. To gather evidence of effectiveness, EdTech companies need to follow specific and consistent methods to measure the impact their tool has on children's learning and well-being. These methods should be tailored to the technology and aligned with the company's theory of change (which means understanding how certain actions by users lead to specific outcomes).

Here are some guiding points for startups for how to make evidence matter in their solutions:

1. Seek Independent Validation: Strive for independent proof that your technology has a positive impact on children's learning. Look for evidence that supports its effectiveness and validates its educational value independently of what you measure with data on your platform.

2. Develop and Follow Consistent Measurement Methods: Develop specific and consistent methods to measure the impact of your tool on children's learning and well-being. Tailor these methods to your technology and ensure they align with your theory of change—understanding how user actions lead to desired outcomes. Researchers can be hired or employed to support this process.

3. Align with Established Research Standards: Ensure that the measures you use are consistent with established research standards. Adapt validated measures from studies conducted by researchers to assess children's progress or the impact of your technology in specific areas.

By incorporating these guiding points into your EdTech startup, you can be growing the documentation of the impact of your technology over time. One model that I really like is that of a living evidence portfolio. With colleagues we have been advocating for impact measures that include teachers’ transparent reviews, various national certifications and usability criteria together with the impact measures that are about effectiveness and efficacy so what programs work, whom those programs benefit and under what conditions.

In the competitive EdTech marketplace, incorporating evidence-based measures from the start is the key to long-term gains. In that way, EdTech will have a positive impact on children’s learning, but the EdTech industry needs to centre evidence as the north star for EdTech investments.