Building the Ed-Tech Research Network


by James A. Bacon

K-12 schools and higher ed institutions across the United States are expected to spend a combined $11.3 billion on education technology in 2015. So many new products are flooding the educational marketplace that educators are finding it difficult to make informed decisions about which to use. To address this challenge, the Jefferson Education Accelerator (JEA) is partnering with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to expand JEA’s network of experts and researchers.

JEA, an initiative of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, launched in February as an educational accelerator/incubator. Its big value-add is a nationwide network of K-12 schools and colleges that provide efficacy studies of new products and services. Washington, D.C.-based AIR uses social science research to gain insights into education, health and the workforce. Among the issues it has addressed recently: what and how summer schoolers learn, school discipline reform, and early childhood education quality ratings.

“AIR brings a breadth and depth of experience in research, evaluation, and technical assistance that we believe will complement the Curry School expertise and support the objectives of JEA,” said Bart Epstein, founding CEO of the accelerator.

Last month Reston-based Echo 360, developer of a learning platform, joined as JEA’s first customer. For an undisclosed sum, JEA will help the Steve Case-funded technology company conduct research and scale its operations.  “Our review of its internal data shows strong evidence of significant impact on student engagement and outcomes,” Epstein said in a press release.

“We know that traditional lectures present a significant challenge for institutions grappling with completion rates and student engagement. Echo360 already shows strong evidence of supporting faculty and engaging students,” said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School. “At UVA, we’re excited to further explore how technology like theirs can help faculty and institutional leaders improve actual student success.”

Bacon’s bottom line: U.S. K-12 education is in a rut. It costs too much and it has failed to move the needle on educational outcomes. Applying technology to revolutionize teaching methods is, in theory, one way to jump-start the industry. But technology is not a magic wand; the effectiveness of the new technology tools is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Implemented carelessly, technology initiatives can squander a lot of money.  Field-testing the tools in real-world conditions and evaluating them with scientifically valid methods should help take the politics and the anecdotal out of decisions on which technologies to deploy.

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9 responses to “Building the Ed-Tech Research Network

  1. During my one foray into elective politics, I was on a public school board, where I learned the hard lesson: Never buy all that competer hardware the staff (except the accountants) say they want. It will sit in a storage room, because nobody has any real incentive to learn how to use it, especially in a union environment.

  2. Our local schools have done a good job of adopting technology -wi fi, laptops, tablets, and software.

    Todays’s schools, like any other work environment, have to intelligently incorporate it into the work and that’s a trick for many work environments if the folks in those environments are not computer and tech savvy.

    A teacher knows how to teach – but does that teacher know how to use computers to teach more and better?

    Not just teaching and not just unions. Doctors and medical professionals are also struggling with new fangled technology, computers, databases..etc.. State Troopers – using license plate readers, the auto tech using computers to download data from cars and analyze it,

    But for those who’d like to see private sector teaching challenge public sector teaching – this is a path – for those who know how to teach and how to use technology to teach – and I’m all for it ..

    because – the problem with public schools is not unions nor teachers – it’s the administrators who have turned most schools into de-facto college prep schools and private schools would focus primarily on academics… to keep costs down.

    Our K-12 schools are junior versions of our Colleges who have focused in Ivy League “experience” rather than core education for careers.

    Yes, in both cases – they are serving the demands of their customers but are they performing their essential mission of producing a comptent and employable workforce?

    so , I have high hopes for the private sector to utilize technology to deliver “the goods”!

  3. I have respect for the Curry School at UVA. They have already made important contributions to education in Va – including PALS which has
    become an important assessment tool –

    Early literacy screening is the key to providing effective literacy instruction and preventing future reading problems. The Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) provides a comprehensive assessment of young children’s knowledge of the important literacy fundamentals that are predictive of future reading success. PALS is the state-provided screening tool for Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI) and is used by 99% of school divisions in the state on a voluntary basis.

    PALS consists of three instruments, PALS-PreK (for preschool students), PALS-K (for kindergartners), and PALS 1-3 (for students in Grades 1-3). PALS assessments are designed to identify students in need of additional reading instruction beyond that provided to typically developing readers. PALS also informs teachers’ instruction by providing them with explicit information about their students’ knowledge of literacy fundamentals. Mid-year assessment and PALS Quick Checks allow for ongoing student progress monitoring throughout the year.”

    so I do have more hope with UVA/Curry to not grab onto education fads without requiring some level of verification and validation that the JEA will be a legitimate effort with real results.

    Jim says: ” U.S. K-12 education is in a rut. It costs too much and it has failed to move the needle on educational outcomes.”

    but in other posts, he often typically puts the blame on parents and bad union teachers.

    If that is really true JEA is not going to help – it just will become yet another bell or whistle that will not be used effectively by teachers and will not help kids who are behind because of their parents

    what I’m getting at – is that some critics of K-12 don’t have very cogent views of the problem – nor what needs to be done.

    if you take the bad teacher/bad parent argument – where do you go from there? fancy smancy software won’t fix it – will it?

    or perhaps those critics with that view BELIEVE that software and technology WILL fi bad parents and bad teachers.

    it’s hard to figure it out from their words sometimes especially when some of the same critics are opposed to academic standards and testing to determine if kids are meeting those standards.

    The Education Community – like the UVA/Curry seems to believe they know what to do – the public? I’m not so sure. When you listen to the critics, its very hard to tell what they are in favor of other than letting local schools set their own standards and get the govt out of education all together.

    I continue to point out that most school districts in Va fund millions of dollars in excess to what the State requires – and virtually no one other than the school systems know what these extra dollars are actually spent on other than “salaries”.

  4. This is a positive development. Public policy should be grounded in field tests that measure outcomes rather than “flavor of the month” whims or ideology.

    I’m interested to see the results of the study. It seems that every day we’re hearing stories of the “Khan Academy” and its successes. But how much of that success is simply reinforcement and how much is organic learning? It is one thing to bolster classroom learning. It is quite another to deliver original content to the student.

    One question that comes to mind is: Are we going to interpret the results from an outcome perspective or a fiscal perspective?

    A lot of online ed advocates point to potential cost savings. The study may demonstrate that online providers can inspire and deliver organic learning. Perhaps there can be fiscal savings if that is true. But, what if the study demonstrates that online ed is “effective” in ultimate learning outcomes, but its role is as a reinforcement agent rather than an original content delivery agent? I’m having a difficult time grasping how that can save public dollars. Rather, I would imagine that it would lead to a greater fiscal commitment to public education by providing online learning during the summer/weekends to reinforce what the student learns in the classroom. If online education is proven to be an effective supplement to classroom/laboratory instruction, will public bodies make greater fiscal commitments to public education to provide these tools to its students?

    I do applaud the Curry School for trying to provide us with some answers to one of the twenty-first century’s “black boxes” of public policy (online education and its effectiveness).

    • re: measuring to see what is effective (or not)

      and ” outcome perspective or a fiscal perspective?”

      obviously the former – you have to have some way to measure and some agreement on what to measure or we have no clue what has been achieved with a new method (or not) and that has been one of the problems with what I call “fad” techniques like New Math, Whole Language and open classrooms, etc,

      on what the outcome should be or not and the fiscal – I might need to hear more about the thinking to make sure I understand but I’ve always said and continue to say that to justify tax dollars – it has to be 1. something society needs – not just individuals and 2. how do we measure what we set out to do?

      We cannot afford all things educational for all individual and familial wants and if we head down that path – we not only expend more than we intent but worse we prioritize in ways that the most important goals are not the top goals.

      Our public schools expend more money than most schools in the world but we compare abysmally in academic performance – in no small part because we choose to expend funds – on things that are not core academics and especially so for economically disadvantaged.

      Our top kids DO compare with Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada but our average and lower kids do not – and we subsequently fail in full employment of them in the 21st century global economy.

      Further, we seem content with assigning blame for that even as we are drowning in the costs of providing entitlement for them.

      I’m at the point – where I would support non-public schools with much more narrow programs primarily focused on core academic – as long as they accept the tougher demographics and produce results – kids who grow up and find jobs.

      Our public schools, with a few notable exceptions, are not focused on educating and delivering an employable workforce outside of the college-bound and as a result, kids who are not academically prepared for college – still try to go to college – and fail – but not before they are in thousands of dollars in debt – which taxpayers will pay for and then again when they pay for entitlements.

      I urge everyone reading this to go to your local school district budget and find out what they are spending their discretionary money – the money over and above what the state requires – on.

      then I urge you to go to the VDOE build-a-table and put in all the schools in you school district for reading and math – and observe (for most) the significant disparities in academic performance BETWEEN SCHOOLs in the SAME DISTRICT – and ask yourself why this is.

    • I don’t see much use for this technology in the early grades, except for reinforcement and to get all kids used to dealing with online learning. But as kids move to the upper grades (at least middle and high school), they need to master online learning. Not for every class and, even when online learning takes the major role, there needs to be access to resource teachers.

      A key skill for success in life is the ability to use technology to “teach oneself.”

      Lots of trials and testing needs to occur, and educators alone should not be the evaluators. We need both the business community and the public to become involved in evaluation, along with teachers, students and administrators.

      • I think we need to re-think what we mean by “online”. Kids in first grade can learn from the right content delivered in the right way – no matter where the content came from.

        They can be working on a tablet – that is offline and has static software or it can have content downloaded from a network in the school via wi fi or it can be directly online.

        The kid does not care – as long as they are engaged in learning and the tools are working successfully.

        more important in the early grades is knowing WHERE the kid is in their learning and insuring they are presented with the content that is where they are ready to learn from.

        the beauty of software is that the testing can be occurring as the kid is learning – and the software can detect if they need more practice before they move on. In a classroom of 15 – this is not as easily achieved and the process is manual where, after seeing the test results – the teacher knows that most of the class can go on to the next topic but some need to practice more .. and how to get that accomplished without slowing the whole class down or neglecting to help the kids who are behind.

        that’s why continuous but less obtrusive, assessment is so important.

        the way it is done now – the teacher is in a race to try to get them all up to grade level by the time the high stakes tests is given and that’s a terrible way to go about education for the teacher and the student.

        • Well stated, Larry. A better phrase would have been self-directed learning using an electronic device and software, as opposed to direct instruction from a teacher.

          • Thanks TMT. Kids learn differently and at different rates and software has the promise of delivering one-on-one instruction if the software is good and the teacher knows how to use it as a tool.

            And it’ll be a whole new blamer ballgame!

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