New ‘Education Exchange’ Will Pay Teachers for Reviews of Ed-Tech Products

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A new project launched with support from the University of Virginia will attempt to create an online hub for educators to write and get paid for providing detailed accounts of their inspiring or agonizing experiences using ed-tech products.

The Jefferson Education Exchange, announced today, is being rolled out at the same time that a separate entity that also sought to bridge disconnects between ed-tech providers and schools, the Jefferson Education Accelerator, closes shop, after failing to gain traction on a large scale.

The new organization, a nonprofit dubbed the JEX, will invite teachers from around the country to offer in-depth written accounts of their time spent trying to implement digital tools and platforms in their classrooms. 

The plan is that teachers’ experiences will be organized and cataloged through an online database that educators and the public can search.

Participating teachers will receive a monetary stipend and technical support from the JEX, in return for their “careful documentation” of how well or poorly various products played in their classroom.

Many of the details of the exchange, dubbed the JEX, have yet to be finalized, such as the amount of the stipends, and how many teachers will be involved. But the goal is to have “thousands” of educators getting paid to document their experiences, said Bart Epstein, who will serve as president of the JEX, in an interview.

The JEX is being created with the goal of remedying a series of problems that conspire to scuttle the effective use of ed tech in schools, says Epstein.

One is that much of the research on education technology is of little practical value to many school officials and educators, who are more comfortable relying on recommendations from peers on what works well.

And once schools buy ed-tech products, they have no idea how to implement those tools in the classroom, and they may not get the support they need from companies. (Many ed-tech providers, not coincidentally, lament that schools and teachers don’t use their products the way they’re designed to be used.)

Prized Information

The JEX will try to overcome those barriers and help administrators and educators make decisions about which products to buy or avoid, based on teachers’ direct testimonials.

Today, when educators give advice or reviews to their peers about ed-tech products, much of that counsel is relatively informal, without many of the details that matter most to teachers, Epstein said. With the JEX, the expectation is that teachers will document their experiences in enough detail that they will offer a how-to blueprint for teachers, and offer lessons on mistakes to avoid.

For educators, “that information is gold,” Epstein said.

“This is about giving voice to the perspectives of teachers and faculty who live in the world where the products are actually being implemented,” he said. Teachers need to know “what’s the fit for my school?”

The amount that teachers will be paid – whether it’s $50 for an hour’s worth of feedback, or $250 for much more work–is one of many details for the JEX that will be worked out over the coming months, Epstein said.

No firm date has been set for the launch of the educator exchanges, or the site that will house them.

But covering the teacher stipends will require financial support. To date, the JEX has received $1 million from the Strada Education Network, and additional backing from the Curry School Foundation at the University of Virginia. The network, formerly known as USA Funds, is a national nonprofit focused on strengthening connections between education and employment. The JEX is also seeking additional philanthropic backing, Epstein said.

Funding will partly determine which academic areas get reviewed, Epstein said. If the JEX receives money from a philanthropy with an interest in, for example, rural literacy, the exchange will focus on trying to recruit teachers who can offer accounts of products used in that area, he said. Individual vendors, however, will have no say in whether their products will be reviewed.

Leaders of the JEX said they will work with organizations such as the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Digital Promise, and ASCD, that can reach large numbers of teachers who might be interested in taking part.

For many educators and administrators, using rigorous academic research to make ed-tech buying decisions sounds great in theory but is totally impractical, said Steven Ross, a professor of educational research at Johns Hopkins University who has studied breakdowns in K-12 procurement.

One reason is that many ed-tech tools are supplemental products, which aren’t really meant to be judged in how they alter student achievement in the same way that a core curriculum is, observed Ross. And by the time it takes for a digital tool to go through the academic review process, it’s probably outdated — and districts officials have already made their buying decision.

For schools, information about a product “that is three or four years old is getting pretty prehistoric,” Ross said. Educators “are looking at today. Who’s using this product now?”

Information from the JEX will probably seem a lot less abstract to teachers, and more timely, said Ross.  “It’s asking about someone’s experience with a product–someone you trust,” Ross said.

At the same time, the biggest barriers to making the JEX work will probably be logistical, such as trying to find teachers willing to devote sufficient time to offer extensive product reviews, and figuring out whether educators have to get approvals from their districts to take part, he added.

End of the Jefferson Ed. Accelerator

The JEX is in many ways meant to build upon difficult lessons learned by the Jefferson Education Accelerator, which will soon close. The accelerator was launched in 2015, also with support from the University of Virginia.

The accelerator was conceived as a commercial project in which companies would apply to participate in a program in which they would have their products subjected to research by academic scholars. Companies give up a portion of their equity to participate. The returns from equity investments were meant to make the accelerator self-sufficient. UVA officials were involved in overseeing the research process.

But the accelerator ran into a number of problems, many of which reflect the difficulty of bringing rigorous research into the ed-tech space.

Many companies were ambivalent about the value of conducting research on their products–in part because K-12 officials did not seem to value it, relying instead on peer reviews of products and gut instinct, said Epstein, who serves as CEO of the accelerator. School officials tend to go with the sources they know partly because they’re overwhelmed with tasks, he said.

While the JEA was having a “meaningful impact on how companies and investors and institutions think about efficacy research,” Epstein said, “it would have taken a long time to have had a meaningful impact on the market.”

Ross said he admired the JEA’s goals and hoped it would have a larger impact. But he said he’s talked with enough vendors to know that many are afraid to put their products though a process that could earn negative reviews. And marketing a product, he said, costs less than trying to arrange a high-quality academic study.

Last year, leaders of the JEA convened a symposium to look at what kinds of research and evidence K-12 officials want, and what information about digital products they value. The event drew educators, academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors in May of 2017, to talk about the issue.

One of the biggest takeaways from the summit was a consensus that there was a need for better, more precise data on what makes ed-tech implementation successful in districts, and what sends it off the rails. The JEX’s job is to make it happen.

The new education exchange “can have 50 times the impact,” that the accelerator would have, Epstein said, by giving relevant information to K-12 officials about “what technology to buy.”

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