From Research to Practice: The Difficult Journey for Edtech Entrepreneurs

From Research to Practice: The Difficult Journey for Edtech Entrepreneurs


The ever-expanding role technology plays in schools has contributed to the explosive growth of a marketplace worth over $8 billion in the U.S., according to Software and Information Industry Association.

Along with this growth, however, have come major questions about the efficacy of products and services. Companies such as Lea(R)n Trials have begun to fill the void in efficacy studies, and the nonprofit Digital Promise has also recently launched a tool to evaluate effectiveness. There are also a number of new services, provided by organizations like the Jefferson Education Accelerator, that allow entrepreneurs to conduct pilots virtually and to have academic researchers help design the studies and evaluate the results. And yet it seems clear that engagement—the ability to retain a student’s attention—is still far easier to achieve and measure than effectiveness.

But before we can achieve effectiveness, let alone measure it, we need to firmly ground ideas in established research. It is not enough to have attractive graphics, to operate on a logical “hunch,” or to make sweeping statements about groups of learners. It is an intervening step— moving research into practice—that should form the bedrock of any intervention.

One entrepreneur who is developing research-based products and services is Megan Marcus, Founder and CEO of FuelEd Schools and a recently appointed Ashoka Fellow. Trained as a therapist and influenced by the work of Dr. Louis Cozolino—specifically his book, “The Social Neuroscience of Education,” Marcus built her company on research from developmental psychology, counseling psychology, and social neuroscience. Research in these fields suggests that strong adult-student social bonds support student academic success; teachers who are successful with hard-to-teach students have developed stronger relationships with students. Marcus notes, “both [teaching and counseling] are really just interpersonal learning environments. All the learning happens due to the relationships and both are about development. Yet we’re training teachers as technical instructors, without preparation for the highly interpersonal and highly emotional parts of their job.”

Marcus recognized that despite the significant research basis, most school districts didn’t offer training to build teachers’ competencies in social-emotional learning, and external consultant services that target teachers’ social-emotional skills were in short supply. She also found that many teacher training programs focused largely on instruction and pedagogy and did not teach pre-service teachers how to leverage relationships. She created FuelEd to provide training for teachers to help them create meaningful, positive relationships with their students. Workshops are interactive and involve hands-on activities and discussions that increase teachers’ knowledge and self-awareness through experience and discourse. FuelEd also offers counseling services to support individual teachers.

Even innovation education solutions that are grounded in research need to be evaluated, however. FuelEd is a good example of how educational technology products and services with tremendous potential may be the most difficult of all to evaluate. Marcus’s work rests on the power of strong interpersonal bonds to foster learning, but the link between those bonds and student learning is very difficult to establish. Testing the effectiveness of interpersonal training requires lengthy interviews with individual teachers in order to chart their progress in changing what Marcus calls their “attachment style.” This endeavor necessitates huge numbers of staff hours to interview, record, transcribe and analyze data. Testing the impact of an altered attachment style on students is an even thornier question, requiring complex, longitudinal studies with thousands of participants in order to establish impact.

Perhaps even more daunting is the question of the horizon of the impact on students. Will changes to a given teacher’s attachment style produce immediate gains for a student, or will these gains manifest over time? Will gains be maintained if a student’s teacher in the following year does not have the same attachment style? Do the gains derived from improved interpersonal bonds accrue differently in humanities subjects than in the hard sciences?

Assessing the effectiveness of educational technology services and products is far from straightforward, but Marcus is trying. She notes:

“We haven’t yet crunched data to see [whether we] are moving [teachers’] attachment styles along. And even when we do prove that, it doesn’t mean anything to the world yet; no one cares yet that an educator has a secure attachment style. So it’s up to us to build a field and show that it means something to people. That actually, a more secure educator makes for more secure kids which translates to a better world.”

Through qualitative assessments and testimonials, Marcus has learned that teachers who have completed FuelEd training report a greater ability to self-regulate and stronger active listening skills. While she is planning to increase the rigor of these assessments, such as the adult attachment interview, but for the moment assessment relies on testimonials, observations, and a pre- and post-program instrument developed by Dr. Philip Riley, who is one of a tiny number of researchers studying the impact of adult attachment in educational settings. Her hope is to use information from these assessments to increase the impact of FuelEd products and services. And we believe that as research is more effectively used by entrepreneurs to build new products the use of innovative technologies will be applied to data collection, analysis and development.

Megan Marcus is one of many entrepreneurs who has received support from the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (“ Innovation @ Penn GSE”). The office has created several pathways to help emerging and established educational innovators, each of which emphasizes the role of research in moving ideas forward. These include the nation’s first Master’s degree in Education Entrepreneurship; the Education Design Studio, Inc. (EDSi), a hybrid incubator, design studio, seed fund, and social impact company; and the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, which since 2010 has awarded more than $650,000 in cash and services to ventures and ideas. Marcus noted that as a Competition winner, her ongoing connections with judges were particularly helpful and that she has maintained contact with a few of them. “Mark Claypool [of ChanceLight Behavioral Health & Education] gave me guidance, connected me with others, and even bought a FuelEd program for one of his schools in Tennessee.”

Marcus offers the following advice to entrepreneurs who are working to incorporate research into their products and services, “Research isn’t conducted just for research’s sake. Use research to address the most challenging issues in education.” Without research backing, the impact of educational technology solutions may not be discernable.

Contributions by Jenny Janovitz, Doctoral Candidate, and Catherine McManus, Doctoral Candidate, GSE.

Disclosure: Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Kurshan serves as the Executive Director of Academic Innovation and Senior Fellow in Education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and manages the Milken - GSE Education Business Plan Competition and Conference. FuelEd was a previous winner of the Competition.

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