IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Leading experts provide evidence-based recommendations on using technology to support postsecondary student learning

By Michael Frye and Sarah Costelloe. Both are part of Abt Associates team working on the What Works Clearinghouse.

Technology is part of almost every aspect of college life. Colleges use technology to improve student retention, offer active and engaging learning, and help students become more successful learners. The What Works Clearinghouse’s latest practice guide, Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning, offers several evidence-based recommendations to help higher education instructors, instructional designers, and administrators use technology to improve student learning outcomes.

IES practice guides incorporate research, practitioner experience, and expert opinions from a panel of nationally recognized experts. The panel that developed Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning included five experts with many years of experience leading the adoption, use, and research of technology in postsecondary classrooms.  Together, guided by Abt Associates’ review of the rigorous research on the topic, the Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning offers five evidence-based recommendations:

Practice Recommendations: Use communication and collaboration tools to increase interaction among students and between students and instructors, Minimal evidence. 2. Use varied, personalized, and readily available digital resources to design and deliver instructional content, moderate evidence. 3. Incorporate technology that models and fosters self-regulated learning strategies. Moderate evidence. 4. Use technology to provide timely and targeted feedback on student performance, moderate evidence. 5. Use simulation technologies that help students engage in complex problem-solving, minimal evidence.

 

Each recommendation is assigned an evidence level of minimal, moderate, or strong. The level of evidence reflects how well the research demonstrates the effectiveness of the recommended practices. For an explanation of how levels of evidence are determined, see the Practice Guide Level of Evidence Video.   The evidence-based recommendations also include research-based strategies and examples for implementation in postsecondary settings. Together, the recommendations highlight five interconnected themes that the practice guide’s authors suggest readers consider:

  • Focus on how technology is used, not on the technology itself.

“The basic act of teaching has actually changed very little by the introduction of technology into the classroom,” said panelist MJ Bishop, “and that’s because simply introducing a new technology changes nothing unless we first understand the need it is intended to fill and how to capitalize on its unique capabilities to address that need.” Because technology evolves rapidly, understanding specific technologies is less important than understanding how technology can be used effectively in college settings. “By understanding how a learning outcome can be enhanced and supported by technologies,” said panelist Jennifer Sparrow, “the focus stays on the learner and their learning.”

  • Technology should be aligned to specific learning goals.

Every recommendation in this guide is based on one idea: finding ways to use technology to engage students and enhance their learning experiences. Technology can engage students more deeply in learning content, activate their learning processes, and provide the social connections that are key to succeeding in college and beyond. To do this effectively, any use of technology suggested in this guide must be aligned with learning goals or objectives. “Technology is not just a tool,” said Panel Chair Nada Dabbagh. “Rather, technology has specific affordances that must be recognized to use it effectively for designing learning interactions. Aligning technology affordances with learning outcomes and instructional goals is paramount to successful learning designs.”

  • Pay attention to potential issues of accessibility.

The Internet is ubiquitous, but many households—particularly low-income households and those of recent immigrants and in rural communities—may not be able to afford or otherwise access digital communications. Course materials that rely heavily on Internet access may put these students at a disadvantage. “Colleges and universities making greater use of online education need to know who their students are and what access they have to technology,” said panelist Anthony Picciano. “This practice guide makes abundantly clear that colleges and universities should be careful not to be creating digital divides.”

Instructional designers must also ensure that learning materials on course websites and course/learning management systems can accommodate students who are visually and/or hearing impaired. “Technology can greatly enhance access to education both in terms of reaching a wide student population and overcoming location barriers and in terms of accommodating students with special needs,” said Dabbagh. “Any learning design should take into consideration the capabilities and limitations of technology in supporting a diverse and inclusive audience.”

  • Technology deployments may require significant investment and coordination.

Implementing any new intervention takes training and support from administrators and teaching and learning centers. That is especially true in an environment where resources are scarce. “In reviewing the studies for this practice guide,” said Picciano, “it became abundantly clear that the deployment of technology in our colleges and universities has evolved into a major administrative undertaking. Careful planning that is comprehensive, collaborative, and continuous is needed.”

“Hardware and software infrastructure, professional development, academic and student support services, and ongoing financial investment are testing the wherewithal of even the most seasoned administrators,” said Picciano. “Yet the dynamic and changing nature of technology demands that new strategies be constantly evaluated and modifications made as needed.”

These decisions are never easy. “Decisions need to be made,” said Sparrow, “about investment cost versus opportunity cost. Additionally, when a large investment in a technology has been made, it should not be without investment in faculty development, training, and support resources to ensure that faculty, staff, and students can take full advantage of it.”

  • Rigorous research is limited and more is needed.

Despite technology’s ubiquity in college settings, rigorous research on the effects of technological interventions on student outcomes is rather limited. “It’s problematic,” said Bishop, “that research in the instructional design/educational technology field has been so focused on things, such as technologies, theories, and processes, rather than on the problems we’re trying to solve with those things, such as developing critical thinking, enhancing knowledge transfer, and addressing individual differences. It turns out to be very difficult to cross-reference the instructional design/educational technology literature with the questions the broader field of educational research is trying to answer.”

More rigorous research is needed on new technologies and how best to support instructors and administrators in using them. “For experienced researchers as well as newcomers,” said Picciano, “technology in postsecondary teaching and learning is a fertile ground for further inquiry and investigation.”

Readers of this practice guide are encouraged to adapt the advice provided to the varied contexts in which they work. The five themes discussed above serve as a lens to help readers approach the guide and decide whether and how to implement some or all of the recommendations.

Download Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning from the What Works Clearinghouse website at https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/25.

 

The NCES Ed Tech Equity Initiative Framework

In a recent blog post, NCES announced the groundbreaking work of the NCES Ed Tech Equity Initiative. The Center’s efforts for this initiative focus on working with stakeholders to identify how NCES data collection, reporting, and dissemination efforts can better inform the relationship between technology and K-12 students’ educational experiences and outcomes. 

THE FRAMEWORK

As part of these efforts, NCES developed a framework to better understand the various facets that influence technology in K-12 education, as well as how these facets interact. The framework was created through extensive research and is designed to be revised over time to align with changes in the ed tech equity space.

The NCES Ed Tech Equity Framework, included below, is comprised of four critical components—Indicators, (located in the center of the framework), Dimensions and Environments (the green and purple circle), and Change Agents (shown in the outer gray circle).

 

HOW IT WORKS

The interaction of the framework elements informs ed tech equity and NCES data collection:

  • Indicators represent the broad categories used to measure or assess education technology—relevant NCES survey questions will fit within at least one of the Indicator categories.
  • Dimensions are the key perspectives through which NCES focuses its ed tech equity data collection efforts.
  • Environments are the settings that facilitate educational experiences.
  • Finally, Change Agents are factors that impact or influence students’ educational experiences and outcomes.

Below, a few existing NCES items are mapped to the framework to illustrate how it will be used in NCES data collection:

  • TECHNOLOGY RESOURCES AND SUPPORT
  • TEACHING IN-SCHOOL: In this school year, did your school offer training for teachers on how to use computers or other digital devices? –NAEP, 2017

  • TECHNOLOGY KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS, AND ATTITUDE
  • TEACHING OUT-OF-SCHOOL: During the last 12 months, which of the following activities have you or another family member done with [your 9th grader]?

- Worked or played on a computer together –HSLS, 2009

  • INTEGRATION OF TECHNOLOGY
  • LEARNING IN SCHOOLDo you use the Internet to do any of the following tasks for schoolwork (including classroom tasks, homework, studying outside of class)?

- c) Collaborate with classmates on assignments or projects –TIMSS, 2015

NEXT STEPS

NCES recently convened an expert panel to assist with evaluating NCES’ existing technology-related efforts and provide recommendations on priorities for future NCES data collection, reporting, and dissemination. Feedback from the panel will assist us in our efforts to provide greater focus on the relationship between technology and K-12 students’ educational experiences and outcomes. We plan to share insights from the expert panel meeting in an upcoming blog post.

 

By Halima Adenegan, NCES and Emily Martin, Hager Sharp

The Digital Divide: Differences in Home Internet Access

The expanding use of technology affects the lives of students both inside and outside the classroom. While exposure to learning technology inside schools and classrooms is important, access can also differ once those students are in their homes. It’s important for educators to be aware of the potential barriers to technology and internet access that students may face. A recent report from NCES, Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside the Classroom, highlighted some differences in home internet access for students.

The percentage of 5- to 17-year-old students with either no internet access or only dial-up access differed by students’ race/ethnicity.

Access also differed geographically. Remote rural locales had the highest percentage of students with either no internet access or only dial up access at home. Within these remote rural areas, the percentage of students lacking access differed by students’ race/ethnicity. Forty-one percent of Black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students living in remote rural areas had either no internet access or only dial up access at home. This was higher than the percentage of White students (13 percent) and Asian students (11 percent) living in remote rural areas who had either no internet access or only dial up access at home.   

The percentage of students who had no access to the Internet or only dial-up access was higher for students living below the poverty threshold (26 percent) than for students living between 100 and 185 percent of the poverty threshold (15 percent) and at greater than 185 percent of the poverty threshold (4 percent).

In 2015, the two most common main reasons for children ages 3 to 18 to not have home internet access were that it was too expensive or that the family did not believe they needed it/ were not interested in having it (38 percent each). Other main reasons for not having home internet access included that the home lacked a computer or a computer adequate for internet use (8 percent), internet service was not available in the area (5 percent), the Internet could be used somewhere else (3 percent), and privacy and security concerns (i.e., online privacy and cybersecurity and personal safety concerns) (2 percent). 

Browse the full report for more data on additional topics relating to differences in access to technology and the internet.

 

By Lauren Musu

Evaluating Oregon’s Adult Basic Skills Transition Planning Process: An Interview with Judith Alamprese

In her 2017 IES grant, Judith Alamprese (Abt Associates) is collaborating with the state of Oregon’s Office Community College and Workforce Development to evaluate a program that aims to help adults earn a GED® and transition into postsecondary education. This project is funded under the Low-Cost, Short-Duration Evaluation of Education Interventions competition, which supports research that aims to produce meaningful results for local and/or state education agencies quickly. Program Officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Ms. Alamprese about this current work, how it came into being, and what it might mean for Oregon and adult education more broadly.

Tell us about your area of research and why it’s important to Oregon.

My current research is focused on determining effective interventions for assisting low-skilled adults establish and succeed in a career pathway. Oregon was one of the first states to implement a statewide initiative for transitioning adult basic skills learners (henceforth adult learners) to further education and work, and this project expands Oregon’s activities to support adult learners’ success.  

What is your current project studying?

The Transition Planning Process (TPP) project is a collaboration between Oregon’s Office of Community College and Workforce Development (CCWD) and Abt Associates (Abt). We are using a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test whether text messaging helps adult learners earn a GED® and transition to postsecondary education and training.

What is TPP, and why is this approach innovative?

TPP is a text messaging intervention in which transition facilitators who work with the adult learners send text messages to the learners to help keep them on track to complete their GED® and enroll in postsecondary courses. The intervention is a supplement to the facilitators’ other transition activities to prepare learners for next steps in education and work.

TPP has a standardized list of text messages to prompt learners to take the GED® tests, set college goals, access information on college planning and other college preparation activities. Facilitators can send texts customized to programs’ specific transition activities.

CCWD chose text messaging because it appeared to be a low-cost approach that could support existing transition activities and provide a boost to ABS learners. The TPP project is an exciting opportunity to determine whether texting can be effective with ABS learners, and may be a promising approach for encouraging specific behaviors in learners preparing to go to college.

How did this project come into being?

The TPP project grew out of Abt’s and CCWD’s work together on an IES Researcher-Practitioner Partnership grant. This grant was a longitudinal study of Oregon’s Pathways for Adult Basic Skills Transition to Postsecondary Education and Work initiative. The findings from Abt’s analyses of adult learners’ GED® attainment and postsecondary participation prompted Oregon to want to try some additional strategies to encourage ABS learners to earn a secondary credential and enroll in postsecondary courses.

What is the current status of the project?

The study is underway, and transition facilitators are providing text messages to encourage adult learners to initiate and complete GED® testing, determine next steps, and begin the postsecondary planning process. The facilitators have found that while many treatment group learners respond to the texts, some learners have chosen to increase their face-to-face interaction with their facilitators. The facilitators report that texting is an efficient way to reinforce learners and check on their progress.

Why is this work important?

This research is particularly important because it is a rigorous test of an intervention that could be beneficial to adult basic skill learners nationwide and could leverage such programs’ existing activities in transitioning learners from basic skills programs to further education and training. We will learn more about the types of information and support that are most persuasive in helping learners succeed.

Computerized Preschool Language Assessment Extends to Toddlers

Identifying young children with language delays can improve later outcomes

Language is a core ability that children must master for success both in and out of the classroom. Extensive studies have shown that many tasks, including math, depend on linguistic skill, and that early language skills are predictive of school readiness and academic success. Being able to quickly identify children at early ages with language delays is crucial for targeting effective interventions.

Enter the QUILS.

In 2011, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES funded a 4-year grant to Dr. Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware) and Drs. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) and Jill de Villiers (Smith College) to develop a valid and reliable computer-based language assessment for preschoolers aged 3-5 years old. The resulting product was the Quick Interactive Language Screener (QUILS), a computerized tool to measure vocabulary, syntax, and language acquisition skills. The assessment ultimately measures what a child knows about language and how a child learns, and automatically provides results and reports to the teacher.

The preschool version of QUILS is now being used by early childhood educators, administrators, reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and other early childhood professionals working with young children to identify language delays. The QUILS is also being utilized in other learning domains. For example, a new study relied on the QUILS, among other measures, to examine links between approaches to learning and science readiness in over 300 Head Start students aged 3 to 5 years.

QUILS is now being revised for use with toddlers. In 2016, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funded a 3-year study to revise the QUILS for use with children aged 24-36 months. The researchers have been testing the tool in both laboratory and natural (child care centers, homes, and Early Head Start programs) settings to determine which assessment items to use in the toddler version of QUILS. Ultimately, these researchers aim to develop a valid and reliable assessment to identify children with language delays so that appropriate interventions can begin early.

By Amanda M. Dettmer, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Sponsored by the American Psychological Association Executive Branch Science Fellowship