Two examples of systematic EdTech research and development taking place in Sweden are presented: Swedish EdTest and EdTechLnu research group. Both examples contribute to better EdTech products and teachers who are going to be comfortable using educational technology, digital teaching materials, and data-driven teaching practices.
The expectations of educational technology for the improvement of teaching and learning especially in compulsory education are massive. When a teacher or a school principal asks me how they can use digital technology in the classroom to improve teaching and learning they often indirectly imply that they would like to get a cookbook recipe to just follow and to shortly thereafter improve academic results. For the last 20 years, my answer to them has been the same: “Educational technology is not the solution, but a good pedagogical design usually is!” says Italo Masiello. Exceedingly, expectations are not only within the domain of improved students’ learning, but also in terms of the provision of pedagogical solutions for teachers, neuropsychiatric diagnostic solutions, fun learning for boosting motivation, and many more.
The onerous of those expectations has only multiplied with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Within the short period of a year since the first outbreak, the fabric of society has been put to the test, and like many other societal services educational institutions have been forced to redesign the delivery of education. In a matter of days, teachers needed to adjust and adapt their teaching to take place online. The familiar classroom teaching moved in the background, and online teaching became everyday practice. There are numerous examples and studies where it succeeded, but also less so. According to the Swedish National Agency for Education, data from national surveys shows that academic results have not changed negatively, leave of absence has increased both for school personnel and students but less for those who went to online only mode, legal and security issues have increased in connection to assessment and grades, students with language difficulties or with socio-economical disadvantages have had difficulties with online learning and even difficulties to access it, and many students who simply need study strategies have had difficulty in adjusting to the new ways of teaching and learning. In summary, forced changes towards online education have brought to the front what can and should be done in terms of pedagogy first and technology later to succeed with educational technology in school. Digital skills and competences are necessary now to tackle current and future challenges.
The Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027) of the European Commission
is testimony of this unprecedented resetting of education and training for the digital age. The EU is kin to foster the development of high-performing digital education and to enhance digital skills and competences. A rapid digital transformation in school is now a fact, and from here the quality of online education needs to be enhanced. Collaboration between practitioners, researchers, and EdTech companies is a prerequisite for that enhancement.
Here enters the need to systematic EdTech research and development with two examples, Swedish EdTest and EdTechLnu research group.
Right after the outbreak, many national agencies in Sweden organised free access to many of the online digital material available through the companies adhering to the branch organisation—Swedish EdTech Industry. For the whole Spring 2020, teachers and school principals had the opportunity to test many of the educational technologies available in the Swedish market. A portal called School at Home was set up to help teachers get on their feet with online teaching. Many tested the myriads of EdTech products but not systematically, so choosing “the right” product and going through the process of a public procurement was and still is complex and difficult. In fact, the branch organisation still complains that school principals do not have the competences to choose and do proper procurement of digital educational technology. At the same time, the digital resources/tools available to schools are produced and marketed at a very fast pace and with the incentives that “just this product” is going to make a difference for a teacher and for her/his students, making choosing “the right” digital tool a cat-and-rat chase. In addition, to make a viable digital tool, a company has to test it and students, especially those in compulsory schools, are not ease to access. This requires a lot of patience and a mutual understanding for the complexity of learning and the need to meeting, listen, and testing.
Swedish EdTest has been specifically designed to help businesses sharpen the development of new educational technologies. Inspired by Smart learning environments in Helsinki, the English EDUCATE and Nesta’s EdTech Innovation Fund and financed by local and governmental agencies (Nacka kommun and Vinnova), Swedish EdTest connects Swedish schools with EdTech companies across Europe and Scandinavia. It enables the companies to work closely with educators to improve the design of their product and test it in real teaching situations. Through testing, it also supports educators in taking a more effective decision when choosing, using and implementing EdTech products. Finally, it also allows companies to understand key components of the product needed for developing go-to-market strategies.
Swedish EdTest follows a systematic approach that is under development through research in iterative phases. Educators express a need to participate in order to test a product within a specific domain. At the same time, Edtech companies also register their interest to participate to test their products before launching to market or simply improve it. If the needs are matched the details of the tests are agreed upon by pair-matched parties. For example, a teacher wants to start using digital learning material of the subject of Mathematics for the 7th grade. The teacher assessed that some students in the class need further repetition and new learning tasks that the material they use doesn´t provide. The teacher is not sure about what or where to look for such a material or resource. At the same time, a start-up company has a hard time finding a teacher who is willing to test its new digital learning material in mathematics for grades 4-9. Through the systematic method of the EdTest they can cooperate and test and together discuss and develop the resource. Swedish EdTest supports the testing process, and a detailed evaluation is conducted afterward. The results are shared between all parties and the research feedback hopefully used by all for improvement.
Hanna Elving, the project leader of the Swedish EdTest, says: “We do this with the purpose of developing a systematic model for evaluating and assessing digital learning resources from a pedagogical quality standpoint. One of the main purposes is to strengthen teachers' digital competence so that they can make clear demands on products and services for teaching and learning the companies develop. In other words, better EdTech products not just more products!“
Together with Anna Åkerfeldt, who holds a PhD in Didactics, Swedish EdTest has developed the method and processes based on educational research and the everyday classroom experience of a teacher. The tests are designed to take approximately six weeks and be place in the regular classroom’s teaching schedule. It is important to mention that Swedish EdTest does not formally certify the quality of edtech products. As Anna puts it: “Success for [the Swedish EdTest] entails that teachers are empowered to choose and evaluate digital learning resources, and companies increase their knowledge about everyday life in the classroom. Hopefully the collaboration will lead to both practitioners and EdTech companies having the possibility to use and develop high quality resources, which will benefit students’ learning in the long run.”
During the year 2020, Swedish EdTest has provided a testbed for more than 100 teachers and 40 companies. The results of the first round of tests have shown that all participating teachers and companies felt they improved both digital competences and the skills to assess and choose digital tools. At many schools, teachers test together and therefore also learn and develop digital skills together. In some cases, during a test, teachers get a better understanding of how a product is developed. This give a strong feeling of empowerment and that their professional skills are taken into consideration. As for companies, they establish a long relationship with schools, and after the first short tests, they perform longer and thorough testing with large groups of schools in the same municipality.
A new series of tests will start at mid-March 2021, and circa 40 different digital resources will be up for testing. Companies want to test their digital tools, which range from systematic quality improvements in pre-school to collaboration in distance education, with pre-school teachers, compulsory school teachers, and course leaders.
A good and broad example that Swedish EdTest has put together with Halmstad University, Halland Region and two EdTech companies is with the university’s teacher education programme. Eighty pre-school pre-service teacher students have tested the digital resource first in the classroom and then during the training at pre-schools. An important insight for both students and companies have been the understanding on how to develop and use digital technology to align to the curriculum. Another insight was to discover the possibilities, as well as the challenges, that digital technology offers for teaching and learning. Swedish EdTest has written a best-practice handbook of the gained experience with the wish that more pre-service teacher programs in Sweden and EdTech companies get inspired to try it out. Several other teacher training programs have shown interest in joining.
Co-development in a systematic way is key. The ambition behind the Swedish EdTest is to narrow the gap between teaching and learning and digital development. By narrowing the gap digital tools and teaching methods can be developed together to address real pedagogical needs in the classrooms and thereby strengthen teachers’ competence to assess and choose digital learning resources. Systematic EdTech development and collaboration is key also in EdTech research.
The EdTechLnu research group at Linnaeus University was established only a year ago and right at the onset of national control measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The EdTechLnu research group creates the opportunities to long-term research partnership between municipalities and their primary and secondary schools and EdTech companies. Just like the Swedish EdTest, EdTechLnu works with systematic co-creation and methodology that are necessary to establish better product development that target users’ pedagogical needs and educational values in their everyday-practice environments. We argue that the digital transformation occurring in schools today is a matter of a cultural change that requires close collaboration with learners, researchers, organisation scientists, practitioners, and EdTech developers.
EdTechLnu has now embarked in an interdisciplinary, long-term and applied research & development project called Educational Technology in Schools.
It has a three-part focus: technical, pedagogical and organizational. With its base in implementation science and the Active Implementation Frameworks, the project aims to change teachers' educational practices and improve students' academic results through data-driven analysis and support, systematic competence development and close collaboration with teachers, school leaders and EdTech companies. Within a window of 10 years, the project progresses at different phases, and different municipalities/schools starts and completes the work at different time points. Within the project, we establish a number of School Teams composed of experienced teachers and IT-pedagogues who together with the researchers will work towards the fidelity (compliance) of the project and will provide teachers with knowledge and support.
The scientific literature on educational technology shows that the number of digital tools for teaching and learning is increasing rapidly. Overall access to educational technology is good, at least in industrialised countries across Europe and North America. But even so, schools neither applies EdTech, nor data-driven educational practices in a pedagogically proficient way, as evidenced in the literature.
Our research hypothesis is that sustainable and profound changes require carefully planned process work in close collaboration between teachers, researchers, and EdTech companies. Teachers must want to change, but at the same time also receive professional and research-related competence development, as well as continuous support from their school in order to bring forward cultural changes. The emphasis in this project focuses on teachers' work in connection to the Swedish Government’s National Strategy for Digital Transformation in Schools, and what actually happens in the classroom when implementing educational technology. This also forms the basis for planning, implementation, and evaluation of the changed teaching practices. This is the core of our project.
The group has received large national and local grants and we recruit municipalities and EdTech companies to participate in our project in order to increase the level of evidence from our research. When the project is finished the participating teachers are going to be comfortable using educational technology, digital teaching materials, and data-driven teaching practices.