Four Things We Learned About What Really Works in Ed Tech

NewSchools Venture Fund

Guest post by Peter Gault, Cofounder & Executive Director, Quill.org

I’m a nonprofit ed tech entrepreneur, and I’ve learned a lot while developing, marketing and refining my product, Quill.org. Quill was funded by NewSchools Venture Fund, and I recently joined two other innovators — Komal Dadlani of Lab4U and Andrew Coulson of Mind Research Institute — whose products were also funded by NewSchools. Together, we did a deep dive into what we’ve learned on our respective journeys, or in other words, what really works in ed tech.

NewSchools hosted a lively discussion during Ed Week’s Ed Tech Leadership and Innovation Summit. The session, “Beyond Shiny Objects: What Really Works in Ed Tech,” brought teachers and ed tech entrepreneurs together to discuss what we’re learning and how we can differentiate instruction to support all learners.

Lesson #1: To Find What Works, You Need To Get Out of the Office
Komal Dadlani, the CEO & Cofounder at Lab4U, shared that their team spends many hours a month in the field working with teachers and students to understand their needs. They seek to understand the unique pain points of physics and chemistry teachers, the product improvements they’d like to see, and the ways they’re using Lab4Physics and Lab4Chemistry in their classrooms. The Lab4U team does its best to have these conversations and test their products in diverse settings (not just where their team is located — San Francisco, Mexico City, and Santiago de Chile, but also in places like suburban Atlanta, Sinaloa, and Concepcion). They want to get a good read on what’s happening in the field because it helps to inform the development of new products and features. These communities of practice are a gold mine of information, along with studies like the randomized control trial that studied the impact of Lab4 physics on 5,000 students.

Lesson #2: You Can Use Simple Metrics to Effectively Analyze Big Data Sets
Andrew Coulson, Chief Data Science Officer at Mind Research Institute, explained that they have billions of data points related to student usage. However, by using a simple logic model and metrics like logins, minutes, and amount of content, MIND can effectively find patterns in student usage that lead to big insights.

Lesson #3: Game-Entertainment Features Are Not Always Effective
Andrew revealed that the math puzzles with game-entertainment features — like distracting non-mathematical features or timers — were actually inhibiting some students from making progress. So, MIND Research got rid of them. The result? Students did stay engaged in solving puzzles — and many fewer were slowed down or got stuck.

Lesson #4: To Build the Most Effective Tools, Start With the Most Effective Research
At Quill, each new tool starts with research. Instead of just looking at individual research studies, Quill looks to meta-analyses that capture what works across the field of education. For example, Quill has extensively drawn from Writing Next, a seminal meta-analysis publication of writing instruction sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. The report recommends eleven proven strategies for building writing skills, and its findings “are based strictly on experimental and quasi-experimental research, as this is the only type of research that allows for rigorous comparison of effects across studies.” The recommended strategies include summarization, collaborative writing, and sentence combining.

Next Steps: Keeping the Conversation Going
After a 90-minute spirited exchange with teachers, we were able to hear more about their specific needs, experiences and challenges. It was great to see that many of the educators who attended the session were familiar with our products and able to provide useful feedback. We are continuing to grow and refine our products.

I enjoyed sharing what I’ve learned and hearing from peers in the sector. But most of all, it was so inspiring to hear directly from teachers. It is for teachers and students that we do this work. I’m excited to keep sharing what I’m learning and I will definitely stay in touch with some of the new teacher-friends I met today. Their insights are invaluable.

NewSchools Venture Fund

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NewSchools Venture Fund is a national nonprofit venture philanthropy working to reimagine public education.

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