Got a Research Base? Ed-Tech Certification Offers Companies a Chance to Prove It

Associate Editor

A new certification launched by Digital Promise is designed to give educators and parents an assurance that there is credible evidence that specific products are research-based.

The research-based product certification gives education businesses third-party verification that a product is grounded in learning sciences research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals, said Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise.

To achieve certification, a company must be able to demonstrate that “research about how people learn is core to the theoretical framework that drives product design, and is evident throughout the product—and the product team shares the research behind the design publicly,” according to Digital Promise.

Products that can make this connection also meet the requirements for Tier IV evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Cator said. ESSA’s Tier IV requires that a company can demonstrate a rationale based on a strong theory of action about its product, and a plan is in place to study its impact on student outcomes.

“We spent a long time developing this, talking to educators, developers and researchers, to make sure we came up with a useful signal that they could rely on,” said Cator, whose nonprofit builds networks to take on challenges facing those groups in providing learning experiences.

Of the 100 companies invited to apply for the certification, 30 responded and 13 were awarded certification, Cator said. Organizations that received certification are:

  • Actively Learn
  • Amplify
  • BrainQuake’s Wuzzit Trouble
  • Cignition
  • CommonLit
  • The Concorde Consortium’s CODAP
  • Goalbook
  • Lexia Core5 Reading
  • Microsoft’s Immersive Reader
  • Newsela
  • Speak Agent
  • ST Math
  • Woot Math

Cator pointed out that the certification, which is granted via a digital badge, does not reflect any efficacy-based research around the product, nor does it rely on data generated by using the product. Efficacy-based research is required to pass higher levels of evidence under ESSA.

Digital Promise also said that educators can use the certification as a signal for which products to consider, but it is not a substitute for the value of piloting ed-tech tools or conducting efficacy studies.

The research-based certification process involves two assessors reviewing each application, and coming to an agreement about whether a product is fully certified, deserves an honorable mention, or shows a “promised commitment” to becoming research-based. Product developers who do not achieve the full certification status have an opportunity to resubmit their application.

Cator said the application fee is $399, and companies or developers will receive their results within eight weeks.

“Once we engage with companies, they work on it,” said Cator. “It’s not a slam dunk.” Some companies already have an idea that their product is based in learning science research, but they haven’t shared that information on their websites. In other cases, companies have a general idea that they used research about how people learn in developing a product, but they had not actually cited which research applies to it, she said.

In a Digital Promise report supporting the certification, the authors wrote that this work is inspired by research from standardized organic food and energy efficiency labeling, as well as reviews of instructional resources from EdReports, a nonprofit whose goal is to help district and state officials make more informed purchasing decisions.

Studies have shown that standards and indicators “may positively influence consumer awareness and knowledge, consumer decision-making, and industry improvements,” they wrote.

From conducting focus groups with 40 educators and administrators, the Digital Promise researchers determined that the certification would offer several benefits. Among them: holding ed-tech vendors accountable to a clear set of criteria; encouraging competition among vendors to use research; helping consumers narrow their search for learning products; helping to persuade school boards to make a purchase, and offering a way to compare similar products.

Digital Promise’s new effort is the latest by a number of non-profits to help educators sort through the thousands of ed-tech products available to them by identifying standards that they meet. Common Sense offers data privacy evaluations of products. InnovateEDU’s Project Unicorn provides a K-12 ed-tech vendor rating system on interoperability, and ISTE offers a seal of alignment with the ISTE standards.

“The lesson learned is that consumers on the supply side and the demand side need better and better signals” about what standards various products meet, Cator said. And they need to be “rigorous, not lightweight.”

“The more clarity we can provide associated with those signals, the better,” she said.

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