What K-12 School Leaders Look for in Ed-Tech-Product Research

Associate Editor

Austin, Texas

Ed-tech companies often want to know how much schools care about deep research on the digital instructional resources district leaders consider purchasing, and how else decisions are made.

Those questions were explored during a panel discussion at SXSWedu this week, with participants representing education, research, and education business.

A portrait of Patricia Deklotz standing in front of a list of handwritten plans.
Patricia Deklotz. a Kettle Moraine, Wisc. superintendent and Education Week 2018 Leader to Learn From. shared her views at SXSWedu this week.

Conducting deep, two-year research studies on a new or emerging product can be costly and challenging with so much riding on the results.

“Quantitative data is important, but you can’t get there at first. So please understand that qualitative data is huge,” said Patricia Deklotz, superintendent of the technology-rich, 4,200-student Kettle Moraine, Wisc. district.

The school system, which also has 283 full-time teachers, uses about 70 paid licenses and another 100 that are free. (Deklotz was recently named a 2017 Leader to Learn From by Education Week as an innovator in personalized learning.)

Kettle Moraine is dedicated to “meeting the needs of each and every student,” said Deklotz, who is not the one to make recommendations about what ed-tech to use in her district. Instead, she relies on her staff to advise her about what they need to reach and teach students. Those educators do look at case studies, and “they want to be able to talk to someone” in a company, she said.

Other litmus tests that Deklotz identified as important: Is the product better than what teachers were doing before to advance student learning? And how easy is it to use? “If a teacher can’t use it, it’s not effective. It has to be user-friendly,” Deklotz said.

What will come out of working side-by-side with a district like hers “is the longitudinal, quantitative data, but you have to behave like a partner for several years to get the evidence that says this works,” she said.

Todd Bloom, the chief academic officer of the Jefferson Education Accelerator, said research can improve the product itself, and demonstrate value to schools. Companies can undertake a range of types of research to demonstrate value to educators. “I’m for numbers and analyses that are rigorous,” he said. But qualitative research and correlational studies can prove to be valuable as well.

“One thing I suggest is not just going for the home run study that goes for two years,” Bloom said. It’s important to be iterative as well. “Build research into how you interact with your customers.”

One company the accelerator has worked with, for example, was reactive in addressing issues that arose with its customers. Instead, the accelerator team recommended that the company set up quarterly meetings with the customers to improve customer engagement and support, and make improvements along the way.

Four Key Questions

Dwight Jones, who is now the vice president of urban education at McGraw-Hill Education, drew on his experiences as the former commissioner of education in the state of Colorado, and as former superintendent of the 320,000-student Clark County, Nev. school district, which encompasses Las Vegas.

In Colorado, Jones said one of his focuses was on improving the educational materials that rural or small districts receive. “Because of their size, they had been getting just what was given to them,” he said. “We wanted to make sure they were given good, research-based products,” so his department began requiring a “proof of concept” to show the product would work in that size district.

For his work in Las Vegas, he wanted companies to be able to answer four questions about their educational products:

  • Is it going to work?
  • Under what conditions, and in what learning environment, does this product work?
  • With which group of students does the product work? In Clark County, for instance, proof that it would meet the needs of English language learners was of paramount importance; and,
  • At what cost?

In Search of Personalization

Deklotz addressed “the issues that cause us grief” with vendors. “If you can’t pay attention to data privacy, don’t even talk to me,” she said. “Interoperability is right next to that.”

Kettle Moraine is also looking for adaptive products that don’t lock a child into “a set pace or place or path,” she said. Her district is not interested in ed-tech products designed to fit “that old batch system of education that all of us experienced.”

Instead, “we need tools focused on the student, that show “multiple opportunities to show progression on a path to growth.” A good case study about who’s using those kinds of tools is helpful, she said.

“And, as my data specialist reminds me, the thing we’ve lost with ed-tech tools is the teacher’s manual,” she said. “How do you build in teachers’ resources and strategies to help the teacher expand or dig more deeply with students?”

Photo by Alyssa Schukar for Education Week

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