How to test if an edtech product is worth using

Everyone can be swept along for the tech ride sometimes, after all edtech companies often employ the most persuasive people in the land to try to get you to buy or use their products. But how do you know when a product is valuable teaching and learning tool, or just a fad? Simple: apply a pedagogical analysis.

What’s the pedagogy behind the tool?

Like all good teaching, an example is often the best way to explain something, so I’ll illustrate my point by discussing the excellent tool GoFormative. GoFormative is a formative assessment tool that displays students’ responses to questions posed by the teacher on a screen or virtual wall for all other students to see. The reason it works is because it draws on sound evidence based teaching and learning strategies, such as cooperative learning and checking learning as it happens, but then enhances them.

Cooperative learning: Students being able to view other students’ work creates a valuable opportunity to consider other points of view, and be stimulated by others’ thinking. The old school comparison would be students writing their responses on a piece of paper and sharing it in a group, or even better, writing it on a page stuck to the wall or post-its for the class to come up and view. The ‘silo’ of thinking is eliminated, and students are forced to evaluate their own thoughts about the topic or question, and those thoughts of their peers. More discussions ensue, more critical thinking happens, and more learning. GoFormative does this in a very neat and concise way, and it makes the whole process very manageable.

Checking learning as it happens: all good teachers know that checking students’ work to assess for progress and understanding is vital to success, and the sooner the better after a task is set. However, all good teachers also know how difficult that is in a large class; in fact it is practically impossible. The result is that many students miss out on having their learning checked, and are often left in the dark about whether they are mastering the content. Having students post their thinking on a virtual wall lets the teacher see everyone’s progress in real time. All responses are visible, and strong answers can be discussed and serve as models for others’ thinking. At the same time, those who are struggling are easily noticed by the teacher, and the really valuable aspect of this is that these students now needn’t sit in the dark for any amount of time, as they can now get some immediate assistance by reading the responses posed by others.

There are other benefits of using the tool, all furthering the proof of its pedagogical value: all students read other students’ posts (perhaps because it’s in a medium they like) which promotes inclusion and engagement; posting initial ideas about a topic, then reposting after some teaching provides an incredibly powerful visible demonstration of progress; student responses can be printed out and evaluated in another session, with modelled responses again serving to teach other students; and students enjoy having their answers discussed and this motivates them to want to participate more. But note, all of these are pedagogically valid, and would work whether it was carried out through tech or not. The tech simply serves to better the experience, and thereby enhance the learning.

So when deciding on the value of using a tech tool for teaching, ask yourself this question: can I explain the pedagogy behind the tool to a new teacher? Can I justify the use of the tool? Does it truly enhance learning? Would the principles behind the tool’s use hold in a regular situation with the tech removed? Or is the tech a distraction, a gimmick that the lesson is not enhanced by? Simple!