New $90 Million Project to Create Digital Research Hub Focused on K-12 Education

Contributing Writer
EdWeek Market Brief, NSF Backs $90M to Bring Together Universities to Find Solutions in K-12 Education

The National Science Foundation has awarded Rice University $90 million to build what is being described as a first-of-its-kind education research hub that will leverage data from an array of major digital learning platforms currently serving tens of millions of students. 

The university recently announced the investment as its largest ever federal research grant. OpenStax at Rice, a major publisher of open education resources, will build the research and development hub known as SafeInsights.

The project will focus on producing “research-informed insights about teaching and learning for educators, institutions and learning platforms to use to create tailored programs, pedagogies and policies that will equip learners to thrive.”

It will take advantage of dozens of partners in digital and physical learning environments, using activity from online platforms to allow researchers to study education at a large scale over long periods of time, said J.P. Slavinsky, the executive director of SafeInsights.  

“Just like there are bigger telescopes that let astronomers see deeper into the night, SafeInsights’ goal is to have this large student population that will enable researchers to see deeper into the student learning experience,” Slavinsky said in an interview. 

The SafeInsights hub will take five years to build, he said, with early research projects beginning in 16 to 18 months, and full-scale research operations starting in 2029. 

School districts’ commitment to seeking and using research-based educational strategies is uneven at best. Many district officials complain that academic and other scientifically based research is too abstract, disconnected from their work, and outdated to be of practical use in their decision-making.

When surveyed recently by EdWeek Market Brief on what sorts of research they value most when choosing products and services, district and school leaders were much more likely to point to data on student outcomes, or product usage data than they were rigorous, experimental research.

Data Security in Focus 

At $90 million, the award is NSF’s largest investment in research and development infrastructure for education at a national scale, the university said.

In the past, education research has been hampered by small study groups and short time frames, but the recent boom in digital learning can provide researchers with a plethora of data needed to better understand academic outcomes, Slavinsky said. 

Researchers will be able to harness data from large student populations to better understand learning outcomes from across educational levels, university officials say. Those insights will be gathered and made available to teachers.

SafeInsights’ goal is to have this large student population that will enable researchers to see deeper into the student learning experience.J.P. Slavinsky, Executive Director, SafeInsights

And research will not be limited to only STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas. Schools, education companies, and researchers participating in SafeInsights will bring their own research agenda, Slavinsky said.

Protecting student data is a major concern within school districts, particularly as schools’ and students’ reliance on technology has steadily grown.

The data collected as part of the new project will remain secure, Slavinsky said. No student information will be revealed to researchers. 

Instead, researchers will submit their inquiries to SafeInsights, and the research hub will have the data in question analyzed where it is originally stored — by schools or on a digital platform — and provide researchers with aggregate results. 

The research and development project will be a central hub for 80 partners and collaborating institutions. That number is expected to grow, Slavinsky said. 

“One of the great things about SafeInsights is that it is very scalable,” he said. “And we want to build this community, so we can get a better and better picture of the students and the teachers we’re trying to help.” 

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