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Published in Print: February 18, 2015, as New Venture To Evaluate Technology

Business, University Venture to Test Ed-Tech Products

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An ambitious new commercial project aims to use the combined might of private investment and academic research to rigorously test educational technology products and share the results with schools and colleges hungry for objective information on which products best meet their needs.

The Jefferson Education Accelerator will give ed-tech companies the ability to have their products tested in K-12 districts and in colleges through independent reviews—and potentially, be given an imprimatur of evidence-based success that they can market to districts attempting to make sense of a burgeoning and often bewildering array of such products.

In return, the accelerator will receive equity in the businesses that pass muster, an arrangement intended to produce monetary returns to sustain the project.

The Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia is helping advise the accelerator, which will operate as a commercial entity with its own, independent corporate structure.

The Evaluation Process

The Jefferson Education Accelerator is working to make it easier for ed-tech companies to put themselves through a rigorous research process—and for schools and colleges to find that research. Here’s how it will work:

1. School districts and ed-tech companies must apply to participate in the program; more than 100 vendors have expressed interest so far.

2. Companies give up a small portion of their equity to take part. Returns from the equity investments are meant to make the accelerator self-sufficient.

3. In exchange, companies receive support from the accelerator, including having their products tested through research conducted in K-12 districts and colleges.

4. Academic researchers from the University of Virginia and other higher education institutions around the country will conduct the research, based on their areas of expertise.

5. A scientific review board made up of University of Virginia faculty will oversee the quality of the research; individual faculty members from other universities also must comply with their own institutions’ policies.

6. The types of research can vary from small, rapid-response reviews intended to improve products to ambitious investigations with experimental designs.

7. The results of the research, whether positive or negative, will be made public.

As part of the arrangement, Curry school faculty will serve as a scientific review board to ensure that the research is rigorous and conducted objectively, and that no conflicts of interest are in play among scholars recruited to conduct the research and the companies whose products are being investigated. Ed-tech companies from around the country will be allowed to apply for the accelerator, and academic researchers from universities around the country with expertise in various fields will be sought to review products.

Unlike ed-tech "incubator" projects, which focus on fledgling companies, the accelerator will target businesses that are past the startup phase and convinced they're ready to withstand the scrutiny of independent research.

Bart Epstein, the CEO of the accelerator, which will operate out of offices in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, said the goal is to bridge the divide between education entrepreneurs frustrated at not knowing what products schools want, or how to test them in schools, and district officials besieged by seductive pitches from tech vendors.

Most school districts "don't coach companies on the level of proof they need to see," Mr. Epstein said. And when school officials know what kind of evidence they want, he added, "it's not communicated to companies."

The accelerator is likely to face challenges, some observers said, such as creating a process that persuades companies they should participate and convinces districts the reviews are impartial.

With traditional ed-tech incubator programs, startup companies are often willing to give up a share of their typically small value in exchange for support, said Barbara "Bobbi" Kurshan, the executive director of academic innovation at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education. But for the Jefferson accelerator, the big question is how willing more established companies will be to make that trade, in exchange for going through a potentially tough research process.

Many startups are "desperate for help," said Ms. Kurshan, who has offered informal advice to the Jefferson project and supports its goals. But for companies already doing relatively well in the market, "that's a very different request," she said.

Multiple Research Methods

Ed-tech companies that seek independent academic research are often frustrated by the fact that it does not produce results quickly enough to allow them to pivot to meet changing market demands, Ms. Kurshan noted. It remains to be seen how ed-tech companies will respond to the idea of having independent research on their products aired publicly, especially if the findings aren't to their liking, she said.

The ed-tech market has drawn a stampede of interest over the past few years from companies of all sizes brandishing platforms, software, content, apps, and other tools and services that they claim will improve teaching and learning.

A recent estimate by the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association put the size of the ed-tech market at $8 billion annually. Venture capitalists poured $642 million into K-12 ed tech in 2014, a 32 percent jump over the previous year, according to the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based venture philanthropy.

Yet many K-12 officials complain of not knowing how to judge the merits of products offered by vendors. Some nonprofit organizations, and individual K-12 administrators, have sought to establish formal or informal processes that allow companies to test their wares in schools under agreed-upon conditions.

But the goals of the Jefferson accelerator are much broader.

Companies that participate will agree to have their products evaluated independently. The exact type of research will be determined by a "three-way negotiation," Mr. Epstein said, by the accelerator program, the business, and the academic researchers leading the evaluation. Those methods could include smaller-scale reviews intended to inform product design, or much more robust randomized trials or longitudinal studies, Mr. Epstein said.

The research method chosen will depend on several factors, including how broad or narrow the goals and claims of the product are. The accelerator will make the results of the research public—whether the findings are positive or negative, Mr. Epstein said.

The duty of the scientific review board staffed by UVA Curry school faculty will be to oversee the rigor and independence of all research conducted in the accelerator, including making sure the assigned researchers have no conflicts with the products or companies being reviewed. Researchers from both UVA and other institutions nationwide also will have to comply with their own institutions' conflict-of-interest policies, Mr. Epstein said.

Many district officials have grown skeptical of research generated by companies to validate and then pitch their own products, said Phil Martin, the head of education marketplace initiatives for Digital Promise, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on improving education through technology and research. For that reason, the appeal of the Jefferson accelerator to K-12 officials is likely to hinge on its ability to prove its independence from companies' interests, said Mr. Martin, who has studied education procurement. (He noted that his comments were based on his overall understanding of the education market, and that he was not yet familiar with specifics of how the Jefferson venture would function.)

"The details will be important to the districts," who will want to know "how unbiased is it?" Mr. Martin observed.

Smarter Buying Decisions

Mr. Epstein is a former corporate lawyer who was also an executive at Tutor.com, an online service for helping students with homework. The Jefferson accelerator is being advised by faculty members at the University of Virginia's Curry School, most notably its dean, Robert C. Pianta, whose research has broadly influenced early-childhood education and aspects of K-12 instruction. Mr. Pianta will serve as the chairman of the board of the accelerator.

Mr. Pianta said the idea of the accelerator appealed to him partly because of his frustrations in seeing high-quality academic research that could inform the commercial development of ed-tech products—and potentially benefit teachers and students—languish in obscurity.

He hopes the accelerator will speed the flow of information between K-12 officials, academic researchers, and companies.

"Its real value is very intentionally organizing the intersection of those key constituencies and stakeholders," Mr. Pianta said. "We want to help educators make better decisions about the products and services they use, to promote learning."

Related Blog

The Jefferson Education Accelerator is receiving a combined $11 million in financial backing from the Curry School Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the university's education program; and from USA Funds, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit focused on college access and workforce issues. It is also receiving initial support from university alumni. The accelerator will provide access to investment capital through a separate entity, the Jefferson Education Fund; a portion of the accelerator and fund returns will go to the Curry foundation.

Ideally, Mr. Epstein said, the accelerator will move beyond its initial startup funding to use the returns on its equity investments to become self-sustaining within five to seven years. The "gigantic variable" in that plan, he said, is the performance of the stock market.

One district planning to take part in the accelerator is a neighbor of the University of Virginia: the 14,500-student Albemarle County, Va., system. Superintendent Pamela R. Moran said her district is flooded with promises from ed-tech companies. She hopes the accelerator will help her bring order to the process.

Her district is likely to use the accelerator to test ed-tech products focused on local project- and performance-based assessments tailored to individual students.

"Every day, our emails fill up with messages from people telling us, 'We have solutions for the problems you're trying to solve,' " Ms. Moran said. "Sometimes, they're sharing research; sometimes, it's bells and whistles. We have precious dollars to invest, and we need to invest them well."

Vol. 34, Issue 21, Pages 1,9

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