A Research Challenge for Startups & Educators

Cloud 1I’m intrigued (and sometimes troubled) by the lack of research and data literacy in the field of education. I see it in school leaders, professors and classroom teachers. I see it in educat startups and established companies. I see it in myself. I”m ready to do something about it in 2015. How about you?

It was seven years ago and I was at a conference where founders of educational startups and newly established education companies gather. One of my favorite parts of these events is listening to stories of how these companies started. One evening I was sitting with founders or senior leaders of three education companies, two startups and one just out of the startup stage. This was the perfect chance for me to dive into one of my favorite conversations about why and how those in education startups go about their work.

“Why did you get into this work?” I got three completely different answers. One founder was a former teacher who ran into a problem in the classroom and decided to do something about it. It turns out that others had the same problem, so she did a little research and with the help of a startup incubator, she founded her first business. A second entered the education space from being a director at a major (as in one of the big ten) technology company and got tired of it. Over a few beers with a couple of college roommates, they decided to do something together, and they thought the education sector would be a good place to look. They brainstormed a list of problems in education based mainly on their own experiences as former students. Once they focused in on an idea that they liked, they ran it past some teachers and built a prototype in the evenings while keeping their day jobs. They launched it as a freemium product and were delighted to see the teacher interest. Within no time they had enough interest that they quit their day jobs and focused on this new venture. The third founder (who was with a couple of others from the same company) was not too interested in sharing. This was his second or third (maybe more, I can’t remember) startup, but his first in education. Of course, all this came out over a half hour chat.

I was one of those students who asked tons of questions in class and I sometimes feel like I’m still that kid. I must have asked twenty or thirty questions over the next hour and a half. Amid our conversation, we had a lively chat about the role of education startups. One founder really saw herself as an educator, and while she respected the viewpoints of other educators, she was not afraid to speak her own mind about what seems to be working and what isn’t in the field of education. The second founder was more hesitant. He was quick to explain that he is not an educator and he leaves the teaching up “to the experts.” He just wanted to provide a product/service that helps them do their job. That is where things got good.

“But what if those experts don’t really know what is best or most effective? I mean, if you have a dozen educators in the same room, you will find a myriad of claims and convictions about what works, what doesn’t, what constitutes good education, whether or not the Common Core is good for kids, whether project-based learning is practical and effective, the best way to teach reading…or math, how to address the impact of poverty and SES on student success, and all sorts of other things. How do teachers come up with those claims and convictions.” Well, that is sort of what I said. From there, the conversation took off. You had to be there, but it was good…definitely my kind of dinner conversation. It was candid, substantive, impassioned, and pretty entertaining.

Here is what I learned amid that conversation. Not one of the people at that table had read a peer-reviewed piece of research related to their product or service in the last twelve months. In fact, when I mentioned a few studies that seemed related to their companies, they didn’t know about most of them. In fact, some at the table looked like they were learning about this new treasure trove of ideas to inform their work. “Well, do you have someone on your staff who stays upon on the research?” Two of the companies did not. The third had a PhD in something like neuroscience and cognitive psychology who served as the chief learning officer or a similar title to denote their role in directing the educational soundness of the product.

Then I asked about the research that they’ve conducted or had others conduct on the effectiveness of their products/services. What does it do to improve student engagement, student learning, student something? One startup had a ton to share on that front, explaining how they used an approach that sounded very much like IDEO’s empathetic design thinking, sort of a blend of participant ethnography and action research. It was brilliant, and I loved hearing how their product/service was built, from the ground up, based upon the real-world needs of students. In addition to the design process, they had an independent researcher currently gathering data in the impact of their product/service. The other two didn’t say much. They talked a little bit about user satisfaction and how their product “makes things easier for the teacher or student.” They had done market research, but they didn’t seem to have much evidence to support the claims that what they were selling was genuinely good for educators, schools or students. I’m not suggesting that they didn’t have support. They did. Both of the other products/services made intuitive sense. They were things that seemed like they would generally be good.

Is our gut enough when we are spending billions on proposed educational technology interventions to educational problems, when we are asking school leaders to invest massive amounts of tax dollars in these products and services? As I’ve written before, having a business in the education sector raises the bar for you. You are part of a social entrepreneurship movement whether you are formally a non-profit or for-profit. It seems to me that this is a call for doing research and/or analysis to find out what is working and what is not. At least get to know resources like the What Works Clearinghouse.

Before this comes off as a lecture to education startups (too late?), I should look back at those of us in educational institutions as well. How many educators and administrators consistently read scholarly research about education? I’m talking about the people who are identified as the professionals. The truth of the matter is that many educational decisions in schools are not informed by current research nor are there strong plans to analyze ongoing data to help adjust what they are doing. Look at the Common Core adoption around the United States. The adoption of this new set of standards was done without a even running a full pilot or field test. I’m not arguing for or against CC, but we would think that something that big would include a plan, from the start, to make sure it was truly shaped by the best research and tested in an ongoing way. Or what about the testing culture in education? What does the research say about it? What about 1:1 programs, new literacy programs, math curricula, and STEM programs? What about the impact of a college education? There is research in these areas, but most of us don’t read it or use it.  So, can we blame education startups for following the same pattern? The field of education continues to have a fascinating anti-educational approach to quite a few things.

I realize that there are philosophical battlegrounds in what I’m writing here. It is not as simple as asking if you read the research and conducted studies to determine impact. Nonetheless, promoting a growing culture of evidence-based practice would be a great start for us in 2015 and beyond. I’m not even arguing that we have to do all the research upfront, just that we try to stay modestly informed about past research and strive to collective and analyze evidence on our products, services, methods, and strategies.