Are these five educational technologies really ‘success stories’?

In South Korea, robots like this are helping to teach language skills to young students.

Robots that teach students language skills and free online courses that reach hundreds of thousands of students simultaneously are among the educational technologies touted as “success stories” in a new report from Brookings Institution researchers.

The Washington, D.C.-based public policy group used the release of its report to hold a panel discussion about how educational technologies can benefit students—and what the future holds for ed-tech innovation.

While most people would agree the five technologies cited in the report hold promise, not everyone would characterize them as “success stories” just yet.

Educational technologies can be used poorly or effectively—and those who use them effectively know that a teacher helps students make connections between what the technology shows them and how this relates to learning, said Marcia Linn, professor of development and cognition for UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, during the panel discussion.

“A good use of technology means that your students aren’t learning just facts anymore,” Linn said. “Students, with the use of technology, can begin to enhance their own learning and become cognizant of the fact that they’re responsible for their learning.”

“The next generation of educational technologies is facilitating substantial change,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the group’s Center for Technology Innovation. “Educational technologies are evolving beyond lecture and group work to games, simulations, and augmented reality. Software is creating environments where students can direct the creation of their own knowledge with nearly invisible prompts from teachers.”

West is the co-author, along with Joshua Bleiberg, of “Education Technology Success Stories,” a Brookings report that says time and cost savings and better assessments are among the reasons ed tech has flourished in the last decade. The report highlights five educational technologies in particular that have “demonstrated the ability to improve efficiency and effectiveness in education systems.”

One of these is Robot Assisted Language Learning (RALL), which holds the potential to keep costs down in resource-intensive language subjects that can strain school budgets, the report argues.

Robots, like those used in some South Korean schools, can aid in language teaching by helping students with repetition and memorization, because grammar and vocabulary is a defined structure, and robots can be programmed with advanced speech recognition software. Along with speech prompts, robots used in South Korea use facial expressions to communicate with students.

Studies suggest that RALL leads to “large improvements in student speaking, but not listening skills,” the report says, adding that RALL will continue to be important because scarcities in qualified secondary language teachers likely will persist into the future.

The report also cites massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as another ed-tech “success story.” It says MOOCs have the potential to “disrupt higher education, improving outcomes for students and expanding learning opportunities,” especially because tuition has increased steeply over the last few decades, and the resulting cuts have hurt students and restricted access by poorer students.

While there’s no denying the explosive growth of MOOCs in the last few years—fueled partly by new MOOC platforms such as CourseraedX, and Udacity—the report makes no mention of common MOOC criticisms. For instance, some worry that MOOCs cannot provide the same intimate experience as a traditional classroom, and MOOCs also have notoriously low retention rates.

Here are the other three ed-tech “success stories” highlighted in the Brookings report:

Meris Stansbury

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at