NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

Seeking Your Help in Learning More About What Works in Distance Education: A Rapid Evidence Synthesis

Note: NCEE will continue to accept study nominations after the April 3rd deadline, adding them on a regular basis to our growing bibliography found here. Studies received before the deadline will be considered for the June 1 data release. NCEE will use studies received after the deadline to inform our prioritization of studies for review. Awareness of these studies will also allow NCEE to consider them for future activities related to distance and/or online education and remote learning.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we know that families and educators are scrambling for high-quality information about what works in distance education—a term we use here to include both online learning as well as opportunities for students to use technology or other resources to learn while not physically at school.

Leaders in the education technology ecosystem have already begun to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by creating websites like techforlearners.org, which as of today lists more than 400 online learning products, resources, and services. But too little information is widely available about what works in distance education to improve student outcomes.

If ever there is a time for citizen science, it is now. Starting today, the What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC) at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences is announcing its first-ever cooperative rapid evidence synthesis.

Here is what we have in mind:

  • Between now and April 3rd, we are asking families and educators to share with us questions they have about effective distance education practices and products. We are particularly interested in questions about practices that seem especially relevant today, in which educators are called to adapt their instruction to online formats or send learning materials home to students, and families, not all of whom have internet access, seek to combine available technology with other resources to create a coherent learning experience for their students. Early education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome. Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov.
  • During that same time, we are asking that members of the public, including researchers and technologists, nominate any rigorous research they are aware of or have conducted that evaluates the effectiveness of specific distance education practices or products on student outcomes. As above,  education, elementary, postsecondary, and adult basic education practices and products are welcome.
    • Submit all nominations to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov. Nominations should include links to publicly available versions of studies wherever possible.
    • Study authors are strongly encouraged to nominate studies as described above and simultaneously submit them to ED’s online repository of education research, ERIC. Learn more about the ERIC submission process here.
    • We will post a link to a list of studies on this page and update it on a regular basis.
       
  • By June 1, certified WWC reviewers will have prioritized and screened as many nominated studies as resources allow. Based on the responses received from families, educators, researchers, and technologists, we may narrow the focus of our review; however, nominations will be posted to our website, even those we do not review. Reviews will be entered in the WWC’s Review of Individual Studies Database, which can be downloaded as a flat file.
     
  • After June 1, individual meta-analysts, research teams, or others can download screened studies from the WWC and begin their meta-analytic work. As researchers complete their syntheses, they should submit them through the ERIC online submission system and alert IES. Although we cannot review each analysis or endorse their findings, we will do our best to announce each new review via social media—amplifying your work to educators, families, and other interested stakeholders. Let me know at NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov if this part of the work is of interest to you or your colleagues.

Will you help, joining the WWC’s effort to generate high-quality information about what works in distance education? If so, submit your study today, let me know you or your team are interested in lending your meta-analytic skills to the effort, or just provide feedback on how to make this work more effectively. You can reach me directly at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

Matthew Soldner

Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and
Agency Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education

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.