The “e-learning” company Istation has been engaged in a public relations offensive ever since NC Superintendent Mark Johnson’s early June announcement that he had awarded a three year, multimillion dollar contract to the company for use of its K-3 literacy assessment tool led to massive pushback from North Carolina’s public school parents, teachers, and superintendents.
It isn’t going very well.
Johnson’s unilateral decision disregarded input of two teams of professional educators who overwhelmingly recommended students continue using the mClass tool which has been in North Carolina schools since 2013. The aftermath has seen both public outcry and official protest by Amplify, the company that produces mClass.
One key difference between the two products is that mClass requires one-on-one interaction between student and teacher, while Istation has young children sit and work alone on a computer.
When he announced the news about Istation, Johnson referred to the company’s “proven results of helping students grow.”
Durham school psychologist Dr. Chelsea Bartel, whose research focused on identifying and implementing effective interventions to improve skill deficits, reached out to Istation to find out more about those proven results.
But it was an independent study by Tarleton University professor and education researcher Rebecca Putman that caught Dr. Bartel’s eye.
As provided by Istation, Putman’s study “Technology versus teachers in the early literacy classroom: an investigation of the effectiveness of the Istation integrated learning system” is behind a paywall. You’d have to pay $39.95 to actually read anything beyond an abstract that mentions Istation’s “statistically significant effect” on kindergarten literacy skills.
If you don’t have that much cash to spare, you could just read the Istation.com summary of the article entitled “Does Istation’s Technology Improve Learning? Research Says Yes!” by Istation’s digital marketing manager Rachel Vitemb. Not surprisingly, the Istation summary of Dr. Putman’s research focuses exclusively on positives, crediting the software with “improved students’ letter-sound knowledge as well as their ability to hear and record sounds and write vocabulary.”
But if you only read the Cliff’s Notes version provided by Istation’s marketing team, you’d be missing out on some of the study’s most important conclusions. Fortunately, the study’s author graciously provided Dr. Bartel with the full piece free of charge.
Dr. Putnam’s article explains that she gave kindergarten students the ISIP-ER assessment at the beginning of the study, then had them spend 135 minutes per week using computer-based Istation reading interventions. The study lasted 24 weeks. At the end of the study (so, after approximately 54 hours of kindergarten children working alone, wearing headphones and clicking boxes on a computer screen), the students took the ISIP assessment again. Comparing the results, Dr. Putnam found the program to be effective in teaching students early literacy skills such as letter sound recognition “that require drill and repeated practice”.
I’d bet $39.95 you could get even better results if you spent those 54 hours working on sound recognition with a human teacher.
Here’s what Istation left out about Putnam’s research:
In the full study, Dr. Putnam explains that, in addition to assessing Istation for its effectiveness in supporting early literacy achievement, her goal was to determine whether Istation served as what she refers to as a “more knowledgeable other” when compared with a classroom teacher:
Another purpose of this study was to investigate whether Istation is an adequate substitute for the more knowledgeable other (MKO) in the classroom. In other words, did this particular application of technology scaffold students’ learning as effectively as a classroom teacher and serve as a MKO? Generally, a MKO refers to a person who has a higher level of understanding and knowledge about a particular topic or concept (Vygotsky 1978).
Her conclusion? It isn’t.
Istation does not appear to be an adequate substitute for the MKO when it comes to creating meaning and applying early literacy skills to more complex literacy tasks. Based on the data from this study, early literacy skills that require the integration of a variety of literacy skills and strategies, such as reading and comprehending a book, understanding concepts about print, and reading words, seem to require the instruction and feedback of a human, one who is able to interact, provide multidimensional feedback and allow for the student to take on a more active role in the social interaction.
At the end of a study in a section titled “Implications for use of Istation in early literacy education,” Dr. Putnam acknowledges that technology is often seen as a quick fix for literacy problems and calls for more independent research so that it can be incorporated into early childhood classrooms in a way that is healthy for students:
There is increasing pressure on school districts to find quick and efficient solutions to perceived problems in reading achievement, and often, the focus is on improving early reading skills (Paterson et al. 2003). A popular solution to these problems is educational technology. As the use of technology becomes more prevalent in elementary schools, and particularly in early childhood classrooms, there is an increased need for independent research on the relationship between technology and literacy in order to justify (or discourage) districts’ large expenditures and inform their decisions about how to integrate technology into the instructional curriculum (Tracey and Young 2007).
Istation is the wrong choice for North Carolina’s children, and the research that the company itself is sharing just confirms it.
Note: Chelsea Bartel has conducted an in-depth review of the available research on Istation. You can read her summaries of the studies and takeaways in her piece “Try Again, Istation.”