Ed Tech Developer's Guide: A Primer for Software Developers, Startups, and Entrepreneurs

The full version of this guide can be viewed through the U.S. Department of Education

"The demand for high-quality educational apps is increasing as communities become more connected, devices become more affordable, and teachers and parents are looking for new ways to use technology to engage students."

Choosing the Best Opportunity

As you begin the process of designing apps and tools for learning, focus on solving problems that have a significant impact on your intended users. Apps that simply digitize traditional practice are less meaningful than apps that support more effective approaches to teaching and learning based on sound research. This section presents ten opportunities that technology has the potential to address. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it represents some of the most urgent needs that we hear from educators, parents, and students across the country. Each section describes the opportunity, shows why it is important, and provides some possible approaches to spark your creativity. Many solutions will address more than one of these opportunities.

Learning Powered by Technology

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan (NETP) presents a vision for learning powered by technology. The NETP explains how technology can support personalizing learning to address students' individual needs and interests as well as provide access to learning opportunities anywhere and throughout a person’s life. The plan describes how technology-based assessments can be unobtrusively embedded into learning activities to support just-in-time assistance, measure important student competencies, and provide feedback to inform continuous improvement efforts across the entire education system. The NETP also suggests a new role for teachers as they shift to connected teaching, joining networks of individuals forming professional communities

to support student learning and act on insights from data provided by technology. The NETP envisions a learning infrastructure that provides access to people and resources at all levels of the education system and a role for technology in enabling the redesign and transformation of schooling in ways that increase efficiencies, reducing the time teachers must spend on administrative activities.

Opportunity 1: Improving Mastery of Academic Skills

Perhaps the most obvious place for apps and tools to be helpful is in providing support for teaching academic concepts such as math, science, language arts, social studies, and world languages. New learning activities that help students increase academic proficiency are in high demand. In particular, teachers are seeking tools to help increase opportunities to practice skills in authentic environments and help students take more control of their learning. Each state posts its curriculum standards that show the specific skills that are taught in the state in each content area.

Why is this important? Students need to demonstrate proficiency in certain academic skills in order to move from one grade to another and to graduate from high school and then from college or other training programs. These are skills that are important for students to have to be successful in their careers or postsecondary education. Yet international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that U.S. students are falling significantly behind those in other countries in mathematics, reading, and science (see LA Times article Are America's Students Falling Behind the World?).

What would help? Create apps to teach academic skills in more meaningful ways than traditional textbooks and lectures. Give learners an opportunity to practice in realistic settings. This might be done through interactive simulations (e.g., models of ancient cities that allow students to experience history or virtual chemistry simulations that might be unsafe to reproduce in a classroom). Think beyond delivering content—are there tools that enable students to build and create projects that encourage deeper exploration of a particular topic? Consider merging teaching and assessing to pinpoint knowledge gaps along the way to mastery through probes of understanding or by identifying competencies through formative assessments that are seamlessly embedded in the learning materials. New forms of media such as educational games can break traditional molds, allowing students more freedom to explore, create, and collaborate, and can open the door to more immersive learning experiences. While research has been conducted to identify effective teaching methods for just about every subject, those methods don’t always make it into practice in the classroom. Creating apps that put research-based methods into practice can greatly impact instruction and learning.

Innovate, Don't Digitize 

The value of technology for transforming learning is lost if it is only used to digitize traditional materials (e.g. scanning worksheets makes them digital, but doesn't improve the learning experience). Instead, think about innovative approaches that allow students to engage with content differently. What does technology make possible that could not be done before?

Opportunity 2: Developing Skills to Promote Lifelong Learning

Researchers and educators recognize that students need to develop not only academic skills, but also non- cognitive social and emotional skills and behaviors that lead to their long-term success. For example, what attitude do they have about learning? Do they feel like their abilities in a subject are fixed (“I’m just no good at math!”), or do they recognize they can grow (“I can succeed at math, but I will need to learn some new strategies in order to approach this problem set”)? Non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, self-regulation, and effective strategies for approaching learning enhance student motivation and engagement, and there are many ways apps can be designed to support the development of these non-cognitive skills and behaviors, with promising results (see Readiness for College: The Role of Noncognitive Factors and Context from the University of Chicago and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

Why is this important? There are many non-cognitive skills that are critical for an individual to strive for and succeed in reaching long-term goals. Researchers have found that habits such as tenacity and perseverance can have just as strong an influence on achievement as intellectual ability. There is growing evidence that learning environments can be designed to foster development of these skills. In 2013, the White House Office of Science and

Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. Department of Education hosted a meeting of researchers, practitioners, and industry representatives to discuss the impact of students’ beliefs about their academic abilities (see How Can We Instill Productive Mindsets at Scale?, a report from leading researchers in the field on the meeting’s research agenda regarding instilling productive mindsets).

What would help? Identify which non-cognitive skills and behaviors you are trying to develop and build opportunities to do so into your apps. Growth mindset, for example, is more likely when students believe they can achieve and when they believe that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed (see Stanford professor Carol Dweck's work on fixed versus growth intelligence mindsets). Accordingly, an app might frame mistakes as opportunities to learn and reward students who persist through solving difficult problems. It might also support goal setting, allow students to choose learning activities, and encourage achievement against objective standards. To improve self-regulation, students may be asked to reflect on their effort and to consider how difficult they find the material. Apps that reward hard work and tenacity should be favored over those that reinforce simply getting the right answer in order for students to advance to a new level. Game designers are particularly adept at motivating persistence, and much can be learned from the methods they use to inspire players to persevere in the face of difficulty and frustration. Finally, behavior management is an important non-cognitive skill. Teachers, especially those new to the profession, may need help establishing a productive classroom environment and climate (see this article on Classroom Management from the American Psychological Association), and classroom management apps could reward positive behaviors, potentially decreasing unwanted behaviors. 

Technology Brings “Growth Mindset” to Schools

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program,
New York City-based Mindset Works developed
SchoolKit, an app designed to strengthen academic and social- emotional success. Through animations, assessments, and classroom activities, students learn a growth mindset—the understanding that ability develops with effort. Pilot research in nine middle schools found significant increases
in students’ growth mindset, which related to increases in learning goals, positive beliefs about effort, and positive
academic habits and behaviors (such as resilient responses to failure and better learning strategies). These changes also related to increases in students’ GPA. Since launching in 2012, SchoolKit has been used by tens of thousands of students around
the country, including all middle schools in Washington, D.C. The app is based on Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets. 

Opportunity 3: Increasing Family Engagement

Involving parents and caregivers in the learning process is a key element to ensuring student success. It is particularly essential for students who need special assistance, such as those who struggle with learning disabilities. Often parents feel left out of the education process, especially those whose work, school, or family responsibilities make it difficult to connect with teachers and school leaders during regular school hours. The Harvard Graduate School of Education published an article on the benefits of family engagement that included a summary of research on how to most effectively engage families. Family and community engagement—for students of all ages—is a focus for the U.S. Department of Education, and its family and community website provides resources for early learning in families overall and in special populations like military and migrant families as well as homeless children.

Why is this important? Schools have a tremendous role in engaging and supporting students, and parents help in many ways, including making sure that children start on par with their peers. Providing parents with at-home activities (as PBS KIDS has done in its Parents Play & Learn app and Zero to Three has done in its Let’s Play! app) to support in-class learning reinforces the idea among families that not all learning has to take place in school. Parental engagement could come from daily progress updates, easy tools to communicate with a child’s teacher, and resources to connect school learning to practical home activities. Connecting parents of all backgrounds to school communities empowers them to become active, informed advocates for their children throughout their education.

What would help? Familiarize yourself with ways to engage families (some ideas are provided by the Response to Intervention Action Network article) and then think about how to apply those principles to engage families through technology. For instance, could your app provide information to caregivers about student progress and homework in near real time and in languages spoken at home? Can your tool be used on a smartphone or in an offline mode for homes without an Internet connection? Does it help parents stay involved in their children’s school activities while

Opportunity 4: Planning for Future Education Opportunities

Preparing for college and navigating the application process can be challenging, and the sticker price for college can be overwhelming and misleading. For example, a more prestigious college that appears to be expensive may actually be cheaper than other options once scholarships and financial aid are factored in. Using technology to help students and their families make better decisions about their future education has great promise. Many students do not apply to college because they do not know what institutions they could qualify for or how to take advantage of financial supports that may be available to them. All students, but particularly underserved students, would benefit from tools that engage them long before their final years in high school to help plan their academic path to graduate and apply to and complete postsecondary education.

Why is this important? Research, including a recent College Board study, has shown that students who graduate with a degree, even an associate degree, far outpace their peers in income generated over a lifetime of employment. Even career and technical education programs often require a two-year degree. Yet the process of planning for, applying to, and financing college can feel daunting—especially for first-generation college students and their families.

What would help? Financial aid navigators, course planners, remote college counseling, and college-to-career maps all can help students plan for and be successful in their future education plans. Additionally, new tools and apps targeted at helping school counselors could increase both the reach and amount of support counselors can provide students (on average, half the number of counselors are available to high school students as is recommended by the American School Counselor Association). Additionally, open state and federal datasets can be used to create apps for managing college finances and to identify skills needed for different types of jobs. Imagine a “jobs available at graduation” tool that uses labor statistics about job growth. Also needed are tools that interface with college course catalogs and let students interactively plan various paths to college completion. Imagine an app that lets students identify and communicate with alumni of the institution that they are attending (or plan to attend) in fields that interest them so they can gain perspective and advice.

Opportunity 5: Designing Effective Assessments

Understanding what students know and how much they are learning is an important part of education. Traditionally teachers have made educated guesses about how much their students are learning based on classroom observation and reviewing homework. Teachers often struggle, mostly because of time, with creating assessments that truly align with the skills they want to measure. They also spend hours reviewing and grading student work that could be better spent preparing lessons and working with students.

In addition, information from formal assessments is often not available quickly enough to inform instruction. Data from high-stakes assessments, for example, may actually come after a student has moved to a new grade and new teacher. Even grading quizzes or homework takes so much time that teachers often are not able to turn around the assignments quickly enough to change their instruction for the next day. True data analysis can also be time-consuming and difficult using many current assessment practices and formats.

Why is this important? Well-designed formative and summative assessments provide teachers and students with just-in-time feedback on progress towards mastery of content and allow educators to personalize learning pathways for their students. With feedback that is almost immediate, educators can strategically adjust instruction more quickly to meet the needs of diverse learners

What would help? Technology provides a variety of new opportunities to rethink the way we assess student learning. Tools that help teachers create and share formative assessments, automate grading, and streamline providing feedback to students allow teachers to focus more of their time on instruction. Expanding assessment item types (beyond multiple choice questions, etc.) can provide educators with a more detailed and sophisticated understanding of what their students know and can do. Simulations, heat maps, and ranking are all examples of technology-enhanced assessment item types that are beginning to be incorporated into digital assessments.

Traditionally, education has struggled to develop meaningful assessments that measure non-cognitive skills such as persistence, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. (For more information on these skills, see the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework for Learning.) Consider creating tools that help develop and assess these kinds of skills.

Aligning assessments with learning goals is crucial to success. Make sure you clearly understand what you are measuring. It is crucial to measure what is important not simply what is easy to measure. 

To read the rest of the guide, click here.