Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

18 October 2012

Things Every Education Tech Entrepreneur Should Know

This weekend I'm volunteering as a coach for Startup Weekend Edu in Seattle. Preparing for this got me to thinking about things people building education technology should know. The following list isn't comprehensive but it's a good starting point. Follow the links to learn more about these topics.

Theories of Change
You need to have a good theory of how your technology will improve education. There's a lot of money to be made in record keeping and ERP-type applications. But the things that interest me and I hope interest you are those that directly improve student learning. And you need to be specific about the expected improvement. Do you want students to learn more in the same amount of time or take less time to learn a skill? Are you seeking better comprehension and retention? What about "deeper learning" – getting beyond recall and demonstrating the ability to apply concepts or solve problems.

Most ed tech theories of change start with Bloom's Two Sigma Problem. In a 1984 paper, Benjamin Bloom discussed how they had achieved two standard deviations improvement in student learning through a combination of Mastery Learning and one-on-one tutoring. Noting that 1:1 student-teacher ratios are impractical, Bloom's challenge is to find scalable ways to achieve the same results.

The following resources should stimulate your theoretical juices:
  • A 2011 Metastudy by Kurt VanLehn gives a progress report of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and an update on progress toward Bloom's Two Sigma Problem. In particular, see page 210 (the 15th of the paper) in which VanLehn explains that about half of Bloom's two sigma gains were due to changes in Mastery Learning parameters.
  • Personalized Learning is "instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners. In an environment that is fully personalized, the learning objectives and content as well as the method and pace may all vary." This definition is from the National Education Technology Plan which is an excellent read so long as you skip the executive summary.
  • Cognitive scientists talk about the Zone of Proximal Development. Game designers talk about Gameplay Progression. They are similar concepts and they both involve motivation and increasing skill levels. In fact, the motivational reward from this form of gameplay is achievement of greater skill.
  • Feedback loops are an essential component of Personalized Learning. (From an earlier post in this blog.)
  • The Puzzle of Motivation: Dan Pink explains the growing science of motivation without which, even the best instruction may fail.
Building Blocks
A number of organizations including the federal government, technology standards groups, associations and foundations have assembled building blocks to support innovative education technology. Some of these can improve time-to-delivery, some help interoperability between applications and some ensure that your application is based on tested learning theories:
  • The Personalized Learning Model is a framework that some of us at the Gates Foundation have used to talk about how key components in a learning system work together. It's very similar to frameworks used by others in the community.
  • The Learning Resource Metadata Initiative is a metadata schema for identifying learning resources (text, video, virtual labs, assessments, etc.) and aligning them to education standards like the Common Core.
  • The Learning Registry is a system for sharing metadata about learning resources. It's synergistic with LRMI and other metadata formats.
  • MyData Button is a federal government initiative to allow students or their parents to download their student data so that it can be used by other systems.
  • The Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) defines data models and protocols for exchanging data among postsecondary institutions. PESC standards cover admissions applications, test score reporting, student aid applications and reporting, digital transcripts and more.
  • IMS Global defines educational content standards (where SIF and PESC concentrate on student and institutional data). IMS standards like QTI and Common Cartridge define how to package assessment items and courseware for exchange between systems. My favorite IMS standard is Learning Tools Interoperability which is a protocol that allows rich, custom learning tools to be integrated into other learning environments.
  • Ed-Fi is a data model and set of tools to support teacher and student dashboards indicating student progress.
  • The Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) "is an alliance of states, foundations, educators, content providers, developers and vendors who are passionate about using technology to improve education." It's an ambitious multistate project that leverages many of the technologies listed above into a coherent whole. Vendor outreach programs are at dev.slcedu.org

Product and Service Categories
There are a handful of existing education technology product and service categories with new ones emerging. Here are key categories with some examples. Note that the examples I've listed just happen to be well-known systems. It's far from a comprehensive list and I don't necessarily endorse these products. In each category there are emerging products that may be more innovative than the ones I name.
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS) manage class interactions such as syllabus, assignments, learning materials, quizzes, forums, gradebook and so forth. While LMSs are capable of delivering a rich online learning experience, most deployments are supplementary to conventional classroom learning and only a fraction of their capabilities are used. Well-known examples include BlackBoard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, eCollege, Sakai, BrainHoney and Canvas but there are numerous others.
  • Instructional Improvement Systems are an emerging concept. Like an LMS, an IIS manages student learning. However, an IIS uses accumulated student data as well as effectiveness data about learning resources to customize the learning experience to individual student needs. To support continuous improvement, the IIS should place equal emphasis on data collection and data use. Most action in the IIS space is being driven by state-level RFPs often with Race to the Top funding.
  • Public Education Datasets are available from the National Center for Education Statistics and other federal and state education agencies. The Digest of Education Statistics is a compilation of many government and privately-sourced datasets. Other public datasets include EdFacts and IPEDS. There some interesting opportunities to consuming existing public data and analyzing it in new ways.
There's much more that could be added but I think I've reached the point of diminishing returns. Please use the comments to point at other important theories, building blocks or initiatives.

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