Choosing Ed-Tech Tools by Balancing Data and Teacher Intuition

Senior Writer


Guest post by Sidharth Kakkar, co-founder and CEO of Front Row

Making a decision about what technology to use with your students can be difficult for educators. Most startup companies in the ed-tech space have to rely on teacher intuition—what they believe will ultimately help increase student learner outcomes. It’s nearly impossible for young companies to provide scientific data backing up the results they have seen firsthand, and thus these gut feelings are critical to moving a startup forward. Yet demand for hard data is growing among school and district administrators.

Earlier today my company, Front Row, released our first research study in partnership with WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research agency, demonstrating the impact Front Row has on elementary school students. The study found students using the technology increased their end of year MAP test scores nearly 10 percentage points over those who did not. While we’re thrilled to have validation of something we could only claim anecdotally prior, it’s important to consider how we got here. We relied on teachers and their intuition in making the decision to move forward with Front Row. They used their gut, along with word-of-mouth results, to take a chance on a startup. This has been critical to our success, and to many others innovating in the ed-tech space.

Back in the Spring of 2013, my co-founder Alex Kurilin and I were two technologists desperate to apply our skills to a field we were passionate about, but had little exposure to: education. We weren’t interested in making yet another social network to update status, or software to get grandma to click on more ads. We wanted to do something meaningful. We connected with two educators who invited us into their schools and classrooms, which we visited every day for over a month. During our time with these students, we saw how they were using our barely-developed software, and at night we’d go home and apply the information we collected to create an even better version of Front Row for students to work from the following day.

That was our feedback loop; we could instantly see the difference our software was making in the classroom, and understand intimately how it impacted learner outcomes.

Since those initial development days, Front Row has grown from those two teachers to hundreds of thousands; from 60 students to over three million. Even with this growth, we still solicit immediate and direct feedback, asking every teacher what they think.  

However, these conversations alone weren’t good enough. In addition to teachers, we started working with educators outside the classroom too—curriculum coaches, school leaders, district leaders, and others with the responsibility to help students succeed—as they looked to implement technology across schools and districts.

While these individuals are all critical to how schools operate, they don’t see first-hand the impact technology is having on student outcomes. We want to make it easier for these stakeholders to understand how technology is truly having an effect on students, and one of the best ways to do this is to provide scientific evidence, which we are now able to do.

We wouldn’t have gotten here without the trust of those teachers before we had this hard data, and despite the fact it essentially proves the technology increases learner outcomes, I still argue that it’s not the only thing at which educators should look. If a tool helps a classroom teacher do the best for their students, the research shouldn’t be the only thing that matters. If it prompts students to ask if they can skip recess to learn a complex and sometimes dry math topic or helps a teacher know and understand each student better, it’s worthy of attention. We’re believers that teachers know best and if they believe a tool helps them, they deserve to be able to use it.

If we obsess over research studies that are nearly impossible to do for a new company or product, we won’t give amazing innovative tools a chance—we are squashing innovation. So while we can now point to this study in our hands, we don’t believe it provides any more valuable information than you could get from talking to any teacher using our program. If we only focused on this scientific research, we are eliminating an incredible valuable source of information, which will only incentivize developers to opt out of jumping into education, and settle for creating yet another social network.

Photo credit: Front Row

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For more information visit @FrontRow on Twitter.

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