In an effort to help educators, parents and other education technology consumers make better choices about the products they use, Digital Promise spent the last year developing a “research-based design” product certification. And earlier this month, the nonprofit announced that 13 education companies had become the first to earn the distinction.
The certification is the latest example of the industry’s push to ensure that edtech products on the market—and in classrooms—can and do actually work. ISTE (EdSurge’s parent organization) offers a “seal” for products that align to its pedagogical standards. More recent efforts include a technology-focused teacher training course at the University of Michigan, and the EdTech Genome Project, a collaboration of 100-plus education organizations to better understand when and why certain tools succeed or fail in the classroom.
Digital Promise sought to isolate one “signal” of high-quality edtech products—as CEO Karen Cator puts it—and zero in on that. As a result, its new certification considers only whether a product is grounded in research, and not whether the company incorporates user feedback to improve the product or can point to evidence showing that the products leads to better outcomes.
The premise may sound simple. But Cator says that most people would be surprised by how few products on the market were created with research in mind. Often, someone will have a good idea—even a well-intentioned one—and see it through before pausing to consider whether research suggests it’s worth the effort.
The team at Digital Promise had been discussing something like this for nearly six years, Cator says. But it wasn’t until late 2018 that the team embarked on a listening tour. In early 2019, the staff incorporated what they had heard from educators and other stakeholders to create the criteria and competencies of the research-based design certification. Then they began piloting, iterating and improving on the idea. Last fall, Digital Promise invited about 100 companies to participate in beta testing. Thirty companies submitted an application, and of them, 13 earned the certification.
That means that, yes, 17 edtech companies did not meet the criteria (and Digital Promise declined to name them).
To earn a certification, companies needed to prove that their product meets this threshold: “Research about how people learn is core to the theoretical framework that drives product design and evident throughout the product. The product team shares the research behind the design publicly.”
In some cases, according to Cator, the companies that didn’t get certified were able to point to peer-reviewed research but did not have that research readily accessible for users or potential customers. So if a company claims it has done the research, but cannot clearly cite or point to how it informed its product development on its website, it was disqualified. She says these companies are encouraged to resubmit once they do publish that information publicly.
In other cases, companies may not yet be able to point to any research backing up their product. But they can still be certified if they work backwards and find research, retroactively, that proves the hypothesis behind their work.
“We’re hoping this is the beginning, and that it will create an impetus for them to ground products in research, or find research that grounds it,” Cator explains.
It’s not just about proving to parents and teachers that the idea behind one’s product is sound. There are dollars at stake as well. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act stipulates that school products and services should meet certain standards of research and evidence before being purchased with government funds.
One of the companies in the first cohort that earned the certification is Newsela, which takes content from trusted brands such as National Geographic and the Associated Press and turns it into instructional materials.
About 10 months ago, Newsela hired Jennifer Merriman to be its senior director of research and efficacy. She was tasked with helping Newsela understand if its product works. “In order to answer that question, you have to start with, ‘How is it supposed to work?’” Merriman explains. “It’s hard to design an efficacy or impact study without that.”
In Newsela’s early days—before Merriman joined—its product leaned on educators’ anecdotal experiences to suggest that it could and would work, she says. Then the company did “a bit of retrofitting as the product developed" to better align to its theory of action.
Since her arrival to Newsela, Merriman has been looking at research around motivation, learning strategies and engagement to prove the company’s theory of action—a term, also known as "logic model," that refers to the cause-and-effect relationship between research and a product.
Merriman provided one example: If Newsela offers students a reading assignment available in five different versions, for five different reading levels, students will have a greater sense of belonging. This is because, ordinarily, students who read behind grade level may be pulled out of class to join a different group, or given different material to read, thereby isolating them. But if everyone reads the same thing at their own level, the children who read behind grade level will have a greater sense of belonging and, in turn, be more motivated. As a result, they’re more likely to perform better in school.
The other companies that have received this certification are Actively Learn, Amplify, BrainQuake’s Wuzzit Trouble, Cignition, CommonLit, The Concord Consortium's CODAP, Goalbook, Lexia Core5 Reading, Microsoft’s Immersive Reader, Speak Agent, ST Math and Woot Math.
The research-based design certification is intended to complement comparable edtech assessments, such as Common Sense’s privacy evaluations for education apps, Cator says. A certification around data interoperability is in the works, and more will likely follow, she adds.
Asked if she envisions an eventual landing page of sorts for all these badges and certifications, she says she hopes they will simply be displayed prominently on company websites, as a point of pride.
“It’s important to think about syndication,” Cator says. “Rather than a one-stop shop, we want [educators and parents] to find these things wherever they go.”