In most startups, the idea “move fast and break things” is king. But in edtech—in which student learning, parent communication and school improvement are critical focus areas—the stakes are often too high to engage in typical “lean startup” methods.
Education companies have a responsibility to ensure the products and services they develop work well and are trustworthy. But measuring the efficacy of a product takes time, a body of research, and careful attention to detail.
It’s easy to see the tug-of-war between research goals and agile product development timelines. Social science studies are conducted year-over-year through sophisticated planning. Product “sprints” race ahead with daily standups and rapid iterations with the ultimate goal of shipping a “minimum viable product.”
So how can edtech startups balance the tension between building products efficiently and taking the time to ensure a high-quality research basis behind their tools? Here’s the story of how we turned social science research into a product used in thousands of classrooms this year.
Starting with research
Last year, Dr. Hunter Gehlbach, then an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, joined Panorama Education to further our collaboration on the Panorama Student Survey and to advise the creation of new edtech products. It wasn’t long before an opportunity emerged to develop a new tool based on his research.
Dr. Gehlbach and his research team found that a simple “get to know you survey” that matched what teachers and students have in common could help foster better relationships between these two groups. Their study also showed that students actually earned higher grades in these classes at semester’s end.
Yet the most promising discovery of this intervention was that this boost in achievement was especially effective for students of color. For these students, using the survey to learn about their commonalities with their teacher produced a bump in GPA equivalent to .4 of a letter grade—a reduction in the achievement gap of over 60% at the school where the research occurred.
Building the product
Our team at Panorama was fascinated by these early results and eager to learn if feedback from a simple, 15-minute survey could help close achievement gaps.So we committed to developing a free, online version of the survey tool before the start of school (about 6 weeks away at the time).
One Saturday morning in July, members of our team started working on a minimum viable product that became the “Get to Know You Survey.” This online survey tool lets teachers take the survey and share it with their students so they can get instant feedback on what they have in common with their teacher. For several weeks, we raced ahead to get this product in the hands of teachers by the start of school.
What we learned
1. Recognize your dissimilar goals: If you’re unaware that startup and research teams may have different goals, then you’re likely to stumble when building your product. For instance, we considered adding other features—like matching students in groups with similar interests—that could offer exciting ways to study classroom relationships, but it’s beyond the scope of a minimum viable product.
2. Build from a solid foundation: Before writing any code, examine the research that’s relevant for the edtech tool you’re developing. You’ll avoid common pitfalls and deepen your understanding of the product’s potential impact. In our case, we had two years worth of Dr. Gehlbach’s research to quickly iterate on a product that leveraged similarity “scales,” or groups of related questions, focused on teacher-student relationships.
3. Get your product in the hands of educators early and often: Once our earliest “alpha” product was ready, we invited a handful of actual teachers and administrators to take the survey. Based on feedback from educators in large, urban districts, we added Spanish and Portuguese language support so that English-language learners, a group that stands to benefit greatly from improved teacher-student relationships, could easily access the survey.
Analyzing the results
Several weeks after sketching mockups, we shipped the first version of our “Get to Know You Survey” tool and launched it publicly for teachers to use in their classrooms at the start of school. By working closely with Dr. Gehlbach and his research team, the product has since been used by over 2,000 teachers around the world.
The stories we heard from teachers illustrate how well-received our survey tool was: "I already had a very special moment where a student and I both said that we'd want to go to the World Series, and his response was: ‘Finally, a teacher who gets me!’ I think that's what we all want to hear." And from another: "As a white female teacher in an urban setting, it was great showing my students that we do have things in common!"
Our experience building the “Get to Know You Survey” has been inspiring: we’re learning to combine the best of startup culture—build fast and launch experiments—with the best of research practice—understand your subject area and rigorously test a hypothesis.
Bridging the gap between these two worlds can seem challenging, but we’ve seen how much potential to do good these purposeful projects have. Perhaps it’s time we embrace a new mantra: “Move fast and get it right for students and educators.”