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The key to better edtech is better feedback

Scaling up our edtech feedback will make teachers' jobs easier.

4 min read



The pandemic was a stress test for educational technology, and in many ways, it wasn’t up to the task. But COVID-19 forced edtech to completely replace the classroom experience — decidedly not the role it was designed for. As we return to in-person instruction, edtech can settle back into a more suitable role to supplement and enhance instruction, while, at the same time, drawing some important lessons from the pandemic experience. 

As we look into this year and beyond, I anticipate particular growth in feedback systems. During the pandemic, a lot of students and parents complained about a lack of responsiveness from the edtech tools. Tech, in general, fails users when it doesn’t anticipate potential struggles and frustrations. The emotional effects of these failures can be quite serious.

In education, of course, a certain amount of struggle can be a good thing, but beyond that point, it becomes unproductive. The student is putting forth a sustained effort with a topic but making no forward progress — what researchers refer to as wheel-spinning. On distance learning platforms, wheel-spinning can feel even more frustrating than in the in-person environment, leading to some of the demotivation and learning loss that’s become common during the pandemic.

Faster feedback revs up edtech

The solution to wheel-spinning is more immediate feedback. Teachers and tutors give students immediate feedback all the time, offering tips and hints in class and switching approaches when students get frustrated. Edtech platforms can offer feedback as well — to both students and teachers. 

Formative assessment platforms for math, such as ASSISTments, which I founded, can help. Platforms such as Khan Academy and Zearn also provide feedback and assessment tools to teachers through dashboards that can give an overview of student performance and help identify students in need. 

There’s a lot of room to make edtech more useful and accessible to teachers. We’ve overwhelmingly heard from teachers that they value feedback from their tools that allows them to see student progress over time; to assess achievement by learning standard; and to intervene with additional, targeted practice.

We still need to scale up 

The next step is to leverage technology to scale up constructive feedback systems and study what works best on them. Edtech platforms are producing reams and reams of data, including about students’ struggles and how they respond to particular forms of feedback. But we aren’t yet doing a good job of using that data to improve our knowledge of what works best in education, whether it’s teacher learning or student nudges. Nor are we using tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the feedback provided on these platforms. The ultimate goal is continuous, iterative improvement of learning platforms based on what we can learn from the data produced when students use them. 

Finally, feedback needs to be further integrated into assessment so that student performance isn’t just being measured (as in end-of-the-year summative tests), but also improved. Useful, personalized feedback that is optimized by research can help students overcome weaknesses and become better critical thinkers and even better at understanding their own learning. Teachers rely on assessment data as actionable feedback for adjusting daily instruction to student needs. In short, feedback creates far improved and more powerful formative assessment.

Overall, the pandemic could yet prove to be a kind of formative assessment for edtech itself, teaching it a crash course in its own limitations that it can use to improve itself — and student learning.

Neil Heffernan is a computer science professor and co-director of the Ph.D. program in Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.  He co-founded the ASSISTments teacher tool.


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