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Where's the Research?

Thursday evening brought a panel of EdTech heavyweights into the already heavily paneled halls of Teachers College, Columbia University: Azi Jamalian Co-Founder of Tiggly; Kara Carpenter, Co-Founder of Teachley; and Luyen Chou, Chief Product Officer of Pearson. The evening was moderated by Detra Price-Dennis of Teachers College and co-hosted by Teachers College and New York EdTech MeetUp.

The theme of the evening was “The Role of Educational Research in EdTech,” and the key takeaway was:

Research is not as much of a factor across the EdTech community as it is for this panel.

From Concept to Product

All three speakers are alumni of Teachers College, with Jamalian and Carpenter having founded their companies while finishing their Ph.D. dissertations there. Chou received his M.A. in Educational Leadership there before moving on to a number of key positions at SchoolNet, founding Learn Technologies, leading several large-scale technology initiatives at the Dalton School, and serving as head of research and development for the School at Columbia.

When asked what drove him initially, Chou said it was an “impatience to drive change and use market forces to drive change in an educational setting. It’s what drives me at Pearson.”

For Carpenter, whose Ph.D. is in Cognitive Studies, it was the desire to do something more applied with all the research she had been doing. So she applied for small business funding and received a prototyping grant to build a game for kids. Teachley now offers a number of math apps for grades K-5 that use the data from the apps to help identify at-risk students, target intervention, and differentiate classroom instruction.

Jamalian, who also has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies, had been interested in the use of tangible objects and gestures to enhance comprehension. This is the key concept behind Tiggly, combining manipulatives with tablet-based activities. Tiggly is sold both to schools and in the consumer market.

What are the Challenges?

One of the key challenges to adoption of EdTech in the schools, is of course, budget. Chou pointed to the conservative nature of K-12 procurement and reiterated how slowly change comes to K-12.

The challenge is offset in several ways, though, most of all, perhaps by the fact that teachers are frequently the earliest adapters of new technology for the classroom.

Additionally, procurement may not always understand exactly what it is they are being asked to purchase.

One thing procurement does understand is standards, and Jamalian clarified that they are looking more closely at products that are aligned with Common Core subjects.

What about the research?

It wasn’t surprising to hear that research does not play a major part in the current sales scenario of EdTech in the schools. It’s been a lot like the wild west out here for the past few years.

Perhaps with Digital Promise getting its game on with the hiring of Dr. Barbara Means and Dr. Jeremy Rochelle to set up a new research center there, research may take on a more dominant role.

For now, according to Carpenter, much of what we see described as “research” on company websites consists mainly of case studies, and products may more frequently be evaluated on the basis of teachers’ comments on the products rather than any research reported.

For Carpenter and Jamalian, this is not due to any lack of research on their parts, as neither has forgotten their roots, and who continue to collect the data to assess their products. “We have the research,” says Carpenter. “It just seems as if no one wants it.”

Research is certainly front of mind for Pearson, who launched an Efficacy program on their products in 2013 and will be releasing those reports for a third-party audit in 2018. You can see the currently published reports here.

“Not an EdTech Company”

Perhaps the most telling statement of the evening came when Jamalian let the audience know

We are a learning company. Not an EdTech company.

It’s telling because people feel they need to differentiate between one and the other, and hearing those words spoken by someone on this panel in this heavily paneled lecture hall, it seems we still have a ways to go to bring it all together.

Thank you, Teachers College, New York EdTech MeetUp, and the evening’s fantastic panelists.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

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