Staging Better Trial Runs of Ed-Tech Products in Schools

Senior Editor

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Austin, Texas

It’s safe to say that many of the education technology companies crowding the South by Southwest EDU conference are convinced—absolutely, absolutely convinced— that they have just the product that will work wonders in districts.

But how can they get the attention of the harried, or cautious, or otherwise unimpressed school administrator? 

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One of the most common strategies for companies to secure a foothold in districts is by offering to stage pilot tryouts of their products—basically, trial runs—with the goal of winning the confidence of school officials and teachers.

Districts are fond of pilots, too, as a way of helping them sort useful digital tools from lackluster ones. Sixty-two percent of district officials in a recent survey by the nonprofit Digital Promise said they rely regularly on pilots.

On Wednesday, I conducted a Q&A at the SXSW Edu with S. Dallas Dance, the superintendent of the 110,000-student Baltimore County schools, and asked him about what he looks for from ed-tech pilots, and what he tries to avoid.

Other than looking to pilots to show how well a product works, Dance said he also wants to get a sense if it’s the right fit for his system, and if so, at what scale. If a product works in a handful of schools in a district, that doesn’t necessarily mean Dance is comfortable recommending that it be rolled out across many more schools. In some cases, the product may not be ready, or rapid expansion may not fit into the district’s strategic plans, he explained. But the pilot could still open up avenues for other uses in the district, he said. 

Dance also said companies need to be selective, and realistic, in staging pilots in districts, asking themselves, “do I have the capacity to make this work?” If they don’t, or if the district isn’t a good partner, it could be a big setback for their product.

One organization that has been probing the process districts use to pilot ed-tech products is Digital Promise, a Washington-based organization that tries to improve schools through research and technology.

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This spring, Digital Promise is working with six school districts to track their experiences in staging ed-tech pilots. The goal is to closely monitor their experiences and share them with districts around the country to help provide useful, practical advice to other K-12 systems on how to structure a pilot, what works, and what doesn’t.

The six districts are the District of Columbia schools; the Fulton County school system, in Georgia; the Piedmont city school system, in Alabama; the South Fayette Township school district, in Pennsylvania; the Vista Unified school district, in California, and the West Ada school system, in Idaho.

But Digital Promise’s project doesn’t end there. The organization is using crowdsourcing to invite districts around the country to share their experiences staging pilots (and share their best practices). As an incentive for K-12 systems to participate, Digital Promise is offering competitive stipends of up to $1,000 for up to 10 school leaders who submit information for a trip to San Francisco connected with the Education Industry Summit, held in May.

Districts’ applications will be judged by several standards, such as how their pilots make efficient use of time and money, how they involve stakeholders, and how they measure results, such as through gains in student achievement, or other factors.

Digital Promise is also recruiting ed-tech companies to participate, with the goal of finding out how research guides companies’ product development and design, among other questions.The organization wants to know how ed-tech providers use scientific or academic research to guide product design and improvement, and how they translate research findings into specific product features.

What’s the incentive for companies to take part? They get the chance to show off how research guides their products. It’s also an opportunity for companies to partner with new districts, and win their confidence, said Phil Martin, the head of marketplace initiatives for Digital Promise.

The deadline for districts to apply is March 27. The ed-tech provider deadline is April 17.

 

Top photo: Michelle Arbuckle, left, learns about the app Noteworthy from Manor New Tech students Jesus Reyes, front, who is 18, and Mario Gallegos, 16, at SXSWEdu at the Austin Convention Center this week. —SwikarPatel/Education Week

Photo, above right: Heather Lamb, left, marketing manager for Smart, demonstrates the Smart Kapp, a bluetooth collaborative board that works with all mobile devices at SXSWEdu at the Austin Convention Center this week. –Swikar Patel/Education Week

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