American Institutes for Research to Partner on Accelerator Project

Senior Editor

Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

An ambitious project to subject educational technology products to potentially rigorous testing of their effectiveness will receive help from the American Institutes for Research, which will serve as a research partner in the effort.

The Jefferson Education Accelerator is a commercial entity, advised by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, that invites companies to apply to go through a review process. The businesses give up a small portion of their equity to take part.

In return, companies receive support from the accelerator. Academic researchers, based on their expertise, conduct reviews of the products. A scientific review board made up of UVA faculty oversees the process.

This week, the accelerator announced that the AIR, a big research organization based in Washington, will be a “lead partner” in conducting that research, along with the Curry school.

That means the two organizations will be the Jefferson project’s “preferred research partners,” or first options, when businesses come to have their products vetted, said Bart Epstein, the CEO of the accelerator, in an interview.

In the meantime, the accelerator will continue to build a nationwide database of researchers to help with the reviews, as was the plan all along, Epstein said. But partnering with the AIR will give the accelerator the ability to tap into a stable of researchers, and become familiar with their expertise and availability, in an efficient way.

The type of research the accelerator plans to arrange on ed-tech tools can include robust, randomized trials or much smaller-scale reviews intended to help companies shape the design of their products.

Previously, Epstein has described decisions about the kind of research that will be done on products as part of a “three-way negotiation,” between the accelerator, the business, and the academic researchers.

Those choices about the type of study to be conducted will rest partly on the company’s view of where they are in the product-development process, said Jessica Johnson, a vice president of education at the AIR. “We want to be able to meet the organizations where they are on [that] continuum,” she said.

The AIR will follow strict research protocols in working with the accelerator, Johnson said. That means “summative” research meant to measure the impact of products will be conducted with independence of company input; but for “formative” reviews designed to test and improve products, the AIR may involve interaction with the companies, and adjustments, if the information being collected isn’t proving useful.

“That’s what happens in good research,” she said.

Officials from the AIR found the idea of working with the Jefferson Education Accelerator appealing, she said, partly because the organization’s extensive experience in school research, but also because of its interest in trying to help educators make sense of the vast array of digital products peddled their way.

The AIR has more than 500 staff members working on education issues, she said. 

There are a couple possibilities for how the research will be funded, Epstein said. The ideal one would be for the JEA to pair a company with a researcher at AIR or UVA who is already working on a grant to study a topic related to the ed-tech product. Or the companies and researchers could apply for a new grant.

Another possibility is that the company pay AIR directly to do the work. And in some cases, the JEA could pay for the research to be done itself, Epstein said.

The JEA will insist that those arrangements are transparent, Epstein said. All the research projects will also be overseen by a scientific review board staffed by UVA faculty, and subject to the requirements of other universities whose reseachers may be leading the reviews. 

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