Few words are more likely to divide opinion in the world of education than "edtech".
For enthusiasts such as education secretary Damian Hinds, the tech industry should “launch an education revolution for schools”.
For sceptics such as Sir Kevan Collins, head of the Department for Education-backed research fund the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), it is a field full of untested “wonders and snake oil” that can harm pupils.
So how can teachers separate the good from the junk before they commit their scarce resources?
When it comes to questions about class size or how to use teaching assistants, schools can look to a body of rigorous research to inform their choices. Understandably, there is demand for something similar when it comes to edtech.
Caroline Wright, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association, has highlighted the need for the development of a strong evidence base “to show what edtech offerings work and what doesn’t”. Meanwhile, Sir Kevan has asked “How do we build the capacity to demand that the evidence is provided before we unleash some of this nonsense on our children?”
Despite the importance of such solid research, there is an unsettling possibility that, by their very nature, edtech products cannot be subject to the usual rigorous standards of high-quality research.
There are two interlinked reasons to think this may be the case: firstly, the source of much of the technology is a highly competitive part of the private sector; and secondly, the rapid pace of development.
This is a point made by Priya Lakhani, the founder and chief executive of Century, a teaching and learning platform used by schools.
“If you stop for a year to go through a randomised control trial to see if that initial bit of technology works, you have lost one year of innovation. You are not allowed to change anything,” she told MPs taking evidence about the fourth industrial revolution.
“No company will be funded to do that. Just so that you are aware at the committee, we spent over £6 million developing this one technology platform. No investor is going to fund you to sit still for a year.”
It is a point acknowledged by the EEF in its summary of evidence about digital technology when it said “the pace of technological change means that the evidence is usually about yesterday’s technology rather than today’s”, although it added that average effects “have remained consistent for some time”.
The UCL Institute of Education’s Educate initiative, which aims to help entrepreneurs “use research evidence to inform the design of their products”, may help.
But for teachers looking for rigorous research about the effect of a particular piece of edtech, they may instead have to settle for the word-of-mouth recommendation of their peers.