Ed Tech Trends | Research

Closing the Loop in Education Technology

K-12 education isn't using technology effectively and isn't investing nearly enough in IT infrastructure to enable next-generation learning. That's the conclusion of a new report, "Unleashing the Potential of Technology in Education," which called for a greater financial commitment to education technology and the adoption of a holistic, "closed loop" approach to its implementation.

Investment in Ed Tech
The report, released this month by business strategy firm Boston Consulting Group, pointed to an analysis by market research firm Gartner showing that K-12 spending on technology was just 1.6 percent of overall spending--or about $9.2 billion in 2010--compared with sectors like professional services and healthcare that are devoting up to 6 percent of their spending on technology annually. Education's investment should be as high as $30 billion to bring the technology investment closer to that of "comparable labor- and knowledge-intensive industries."

It's this disproportionately low investment in IT by the education sector, in part, that's hampering the potential of technology to improve learning outcomes, the report's authors argued.

"The education sector continues to devote a far lower proportion of its spending on technology than do other sectors. It should be no surprise, then, that the investment in technology has yielded little overall impact on student achievement," said J. Puckett, one of the report's authors and global leader of Boston Consulting Group's education practice. Pucket is also a senior partner in the firm. "It is no longer an issue of whether or not to use technology. Today, we must carefully examine the research on how best to adapt and use technology in the teaching and learning process."

Time for a New System?
According to the report, per-pupil spending in the United States has doubled since the 1970s, while existing measures of student outcomes have shown no improvement. And given that kind of return on investment--double the spending for the same results--especially given the economic environment right now, the current model is "simply not sustainable."

Rather, according to the report's authors, factors like economic pressures are necessitating change--change that may have once been impossible but is now being made possible through improvements in education technology, the proliferation of free and more affordable learning materials in digital form, and an expanding base of technology developers supporting education.

"Significant demand awaits new models in education that demonstrate the ability to produce comparable or improved outcomes at a lower cost--and several technology-enabled models are showing significant promise," according to the report.

In order to achieve that, the report argued, the U.S. education system has to adopt new approach that "closes the loop" in education. Such a closed-loop instructional system, as it's described in the report, involves "a deeply aligned set of educational objectives, standards, curricula, assessments, interventions, and professional development," as well as the deep integration of technology "at every level to enable continuous improvement in both instruction and student outcomes."

"Throughout the U.S. and around the world, educators are focused on boosting student outcomes as never before, with technology and innovation serving as key drivers in education improvement efforts," said Allison Bailey, lead author, in a statement released to coincide with the report. "If we are serious about igniting a true learning revolution, we must incorporate technology in a holistic, proven effective way." Bailey is also co-leader of Boston Consulting Group's U.S. education practice and is a partner in the firm and managing director of its Boston office.

The "closed-loop system" includes six core elements:

  • The establishment of clear learning objectives that focus heavily on 21st century skills;
  • Development of curriculum centered on now-abundant open source resources provided freely by scholars at leading higher education institutions, among other sources;
  • Adoption of distance/virtual learning technologies, such as lecture capture, streaming media, and videoconferencing, among others;
  • Use of frequent, ongoing formative assessments;
  • Adoption of technology-enabled interventions and online tutoring; and
  • Development of new data systems to track outcomes.

According to the report: "The closed-loop approach in education is hardly new: the best educational institutions have always taken a comprehensive, holistic approach to educating their students. They start by setting clear objectives. They then put in place a curriculum designed to meet those objectives, and they hire instructors who can teach the curriculum in a compelling fashion. Because student aptitudes and learning styles vary enormously, these institutions use frequent assessments to spot problems and then intervene to help struggling students get on track. Finally, they carefully monitor student outcomes and use these data to modify and improve the closed loop for future students. What makes technology such a powerful lever is that it can help educators do all of this better, faster, and usually at a significantly lower cost."

Policy Roadmap
In its call to action, the report's authors offered several recommendations for both education leaders and policymakers to enable a successful implementation of a closed-loop system. These included:

  • Promotion of the flexible use of funding;
  • Removing existing barriers that stand in the way of change, such as prescribed student-teacher ratios that may be beneficial to instruction in physical classrooms but that can hinder virtual instruction;
  • Eliminating arbitrary geographic barriers, such as teacher certification and textbook requirements;
  • Investing significantly more in IT infrastructure and instructional technologies;
  • Pursuing meaningful research to evaluate the impact (if any) of technology on learning outcomes;
  • Encouraging the use of technology not to replicate existing processes but to create more engaging experiences;
  • Creating more meaningful digital assessments, both formative and summative, with faster turnaround on reporting; and
  • Lifting barriers to teacher adoption of technology through professional development.

The complete report, which includes case studies and additional statistics focused on the use of technology in education, is freely available on Boston Consulting Group's site.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .