Feds Launch New Online Research Hub on Distance Learning

Associate Editor

Ed-tech companies that can show rigorous—or even less-rigorous—evidence of their products’ efficacy for distance education are eligible to have those products added to a new federal database, with the studies supporting those tools and platforms.

The compilation, a project of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, can be accessed by companies, researchers, educators, administrators, technologists, and the general public via a website, which was unveiled this week.

It doesn’t take the most rigorous research to demonstrate evidence of a positive effect and make it onto the listing, said Matthew Soldner, the U.S. Department of Education’s chief evaluation officer, and a commissioner for NCEE, who oversees the initiative. Even a correlational study or case study will do.

The idea of opening a distance education database originated as the education department saw how quickly administrators, educators, and parents needed to make decisions about distance learning when schools closed, according to Soldner.

“And, we haven’t commissioned a study of this type in more than a decade,” he said in an interview. “The last one was a meta-analysis of distance learning 2009-2010, and we haven’t taken a broad or narrow look at this space since then.”

The department has been supporting studies of individual ed-tech products and practices over the years, but “our current circumstances mean that doing another systematic look across the field is important,” he said.

“Right now, we’re keenly interested in products that help parents and students do this work at home,” Soldner said.

A Gateway to Further Research

While the NCEE does not plan to commission its own evaluations on any of the products or practices now, the hope is that researchers in the field will find ways to perform meta-analyses where there are clusters of studies supporting products’ efficacy, Soldner said.

For example, a collection of K-5 math products with findings of positive outcomes could qualify for inclusion in the What Works Clearinghouse site, where they could be identified as a potential opportunity for any researchers interested in doing a meta-analysis on that topic. The studies supporting those products would need to meet the WWC’s stringent criteria.

Reviewing products and studies to highlight these groupings is underway based on responses to an initial call for “what works in distance education” that was posted on March 26 and due by April 3. That outreach included companies and researchers submitting studies, as well as educators and families asking questions about effective distance education practices and products.

Although NCEE is working on these submissions throughout April and May, any additional companies’ products can be listed on the site. Parents, educators, researchers and the companies themselves can submit materials about practices and products that can be used effectively at home.

Can AI Algorithms Help?

Although the education department can’t invest in artificial intelligence to review the research, Soldner said he’s hoping that organizations that use AI-based algorithms will.

“Research teams that are dabbling in—or experts in—AI could find ways to dig into it. They can delve into questions like, “What distance education works best in a low-income rural setting?”

NCEE expects to release a “flat file” link to the database soon.

Companies submitting a qualitative case study, with no quantitative analysis, should make that clear in their submissions, said Soldner. It does not disqualify them from being part of this kind of research.

The hope is that researchers using the latest methods will be able to “bring their talents to it, and augment the work that we do,” he said.

NCEE is accepting nominations of studies about eligible products and practices, adding them to its “growing bibliography” found here. It currently has 782 studies.

Studies received before the deadline will be considered for the June 1 data release; those received after the deadline will be used to inform NCEE’s prioritization of studies for review, according to an update from the original announcement.

Submissions should be sent to NCEE.Feedback@ed.gov, and include links to publicly available versions of studies wherever possible.

Study authors are encouraged to nominate their research at the NCEE site, as well as to the education department’s online repository of education research, ERIC. Learn more about the ERIC submission process here.

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