Special Report
Meeting District Needs

Program Pairs Ed-Tech Companies, Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — June 06, 2016 5 min read
Students in Jaime Catlett’s 5th grade class make robotic arms from recycled materials at Carolyn A. Clark Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. Catlett’s students used the curriculum from Teaching Garage, an education technology company, to learn about engineering design processes and concepts.
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When Janice Chong, the CEO of the startup company Teaching Garage, was looking for more schools to try out her engineering curriculum, she headed down the rough path followed by many entrepreneurs: cold-calling and emailing as many districts as she could, looking for willing partners.

Only a fraction of school officials—no more than 3 percent—responded. And even when they did, the process of building enough of a rapport with them to earn the right to a trial, she recalled, took many months.

“Oftentimes, the doors don’t open,” Chong said, “because there are so many startups out there.”

Last year, she tried a different strategy. She applied and was accepted to the Learning Innovation Hub, or iHub, one of several programs to have emerged in recent years that pairs fledgling ed-tech companies with school officials eager to test out digital products. Overseen by the nonprofit Silicon Valley Education Foundation, iHub seeks to create laboratories for bringing new, potentially innovative technologies into the market and giving teachers the chance to shape those digital tools.

Other efforts around the country, led by organizations such as Boston’s LearnLaunch Institute and Chicago’s LEAP Innovations, are using similar models meant to help companies and schools work more collaboratively to understand each others’ needs.

Companies taking part in iHub have the opportunity to be “validated—in real schools, real districts, with real feedback,” said Muhammed Chaudhry, the CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. “Every ed-tech company wants greater adoption, and this accelerates that process for them.”

For schools, the appeal is that “they get to be part of the innovation process,” he said. “They get to help define what their needs are and they get to work with products.”

A growing number of advocacy groups and researchers today have said the process through which school districts select and buy education technology is broken.

K-12 officials are often asked to make high-stakes decisions about big purchases with scant information, leaving them to resort to recommendations from peers or cursory reviews of flawed research. Some ed-tech companies, in turn, say the procurement process is slow and tilted in favor of big, brand-name companies, stifling innovation.

Launched in 2014, iHUB has worked with 22 companies and 88 teachers serving 4,800 students so far. IHub looks for companies developing products for grades 5-12 in science, math, computer science, and related subjects. Companies selected as finalists end up making presentations before a panel of business and education leaders, a process modeled on the popular TV show “Shark Tank.”

Teams of teachers from schools in the San Francisco Bay Area also apply to test their products. IHub officials want educators with clear needs that can be met with ed tech. Educators are required to devote extensive time to weaving product use into lesson planning and providing feedback to the developer.

Jaime Catlett and Nicole Alcalá, both teachers at Carolyn A. Clark Elementary School in the Evergreen district in San Jose, Calif., were among the educators to sign up.

After being paired with Teaching Garage, the two educators began integrating lessons on topics like astronomy and agriculture into their courses during the 2015-16 school year. Catlett used the online curriculum to ask students to come up with ideas for how astronauts could exercise in space, given space and gravitational limitations, and to study how a robotic arm might help crews make repairs without having to leave a space shuttle or station.

Chong found the promise of getting feedback on Teaching Garage through the iHub process appealing. And feedback—positive and negative—is what she got.

Catlett and Alcalá liked many features of Teaching Garage, including the way it made engineering fun. But Alcalá also told Chong that the platform’s online interface was too cumbersome, and that the curriculum needed stronger connections with other academic topics. Catlett wanted more content, and she said some lessons presented students with so much information they risked stifling creativity.

In response, Chong said she’s been making changes to the product, including revising the platform and curriculum and giving teachers more “explicit tools” to make connections between engineering lessons and other subjects.

As companies like Teaching Garage gather feedback on their products, iHub officials are still grappling with how they should evaluate the digital tools being tested. From the time iHub was launched, program officials measured companies’ products against a series of criteria, including their ease of use and their alignment with learning objectives, said Karl Rectanus, the CEO of Lea(R)n, a company helping with data collection and analysis of the program.

IHub officials are planning to include evaluations of companies’ impact on student achievement in the 2016-17 school year, though there are barriers in taking on that work, said Arati Nagaraj, the director of iHub. Companies’ products may not align with standardized tests needed for evaluation, and uneven access to technology across schools, can also skew results, Nagaraj said. Findings may also hinge on school districts agreeing to release data.

Given those limitations, Nagaraj said she isn’t certain whether student-achievement measures iHub collects will be made public. Those decisions will likely be left to individual companies participating, she added.

IHub officials are careful to choose companies that are a good fit, said Chaudhry, of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. If they’re too big and established, they may lack incentive to modify products based on teachers’ feedback. If they’re too small, they may not have enough finished academic content to help teachers they’re paired with—and they might not be able to survive in the K-12 market, anyway.

The best company for iHub is usually a young one that has a viable product and enough money to sustain it through a few years of financial swings, Chaudhry said.

The value of programs like iHub comes by increasing the odds that you have “serious partners at both ends” of testing a digital tool, said Brian Rowan, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

But commitment is a two-way street, Rowan said. Participating companies want teachers who will try to implement ed-tech products as the developer intended them to be used, Rowan said. But programs like iHub need to press technology developers to look honestly at why teachers might be struggling to make a digital tool work for them.

“It’s an iterative process,” he said. Ultimately, a company “may have developed a product that [a teacher] can’t implement with fidelity.”

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