Jefferson Education Accelerator Winds Down, Rebrands to Focus on Edtech...


Jefferson Education Accelerator Winds Down, Rebrands to Focus on Edtech Reviews and Procurement

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 19, 2018

Jefferson Education Accelerator Winds Down, Rebrands to Focus on Edtech Reviews and Procurement

For the past three years, Bart Epstein has been busy running the Jefferson Education Accelerator, a “research accelerator” based at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. As a part-investment, part-research firm, the accelerator offered a unique proposition to education technology companies that hoped to marry rigorous research practices into the development of their tools.

Yet in an interview with EdSurge, Epstein says he is embarking on a new project—and winding down the accelerator. The main reason, he notes, was that despite his team’s efforts to bring research-backed products to the education market, there was a low demand among educators for such validated tools.

“Despite being incredibly dedicated to building great products and wanting to eventually do real research, [entrepreneurs] understood the sad reality that high-quality efficacy research does not generally drive sales and company growth with the same [return on investment] as does equivalent investment in branding and distribution,” says Epstein. In other words, research doesn’t pay.

Launched in 2015 with $11 million in seed funding, the Jefferson Education Accelerator aimed to invest up to $2 million in growth-stage companies, in exchange for equity. It also sought to connect these companies with researchers who would help run experiments to help validate the efficacy of their education products. In 2016 it received an additional $1.5 million in a grant from the Dell Foundation.

Epstein did not share the specific number of companies the accelerator has worked with. But at least six have been publicly announced—Agile Mind, Branching Minds, Echo360, Fishtree, Formative, and Thinkster Math.

In the course of this work, he learned that many education leaders who make purchasing decisions aren’t looking for proof that something works. So now, instead of focusing on companies, Epstein wants to steer educators towards making better choices.

Bart Epstein, seated in the middle of a panel on edtech efficacy at NYEdtech Week, December 2017, Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

His new venture—the nonprofit Jefferson Education Exchange (JEX)—will work with K-12 educators to develop ways to document and research the use of educational tools. It will continue to partner with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and has raised $1 million in seed funding from the Strada Education Network.

JEX hopes to give individuals in charge of procurement the information they need to choose tools wisely and will work with a network of partners that are already reviewing education technology tools. “We are not reinventing the wheel,” says Epstein. “We are learning from and building on the work of Common Sense Education, LEAP Innovations, NYC’s iZone, Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, and a dozen other important efforts that have involved organizations and supporting educators and districts to implement technology.”

Collaboratively, Epstein expects to build a space where educators can read detailed, up-to-date, unbiased primers on edtech products. This is hardly the first attempt to create such a resource, but Epstein notes he wants to go deeper with his analysis offering educators stipends to document their experiences with technology in research report fashion. The amount of the stipends is yet to be determined.

“After educators go through a process in their local schools to find a product, to do some demos, a pilot and implement, each of these people have learned important information that would be of great value to their peers,” says Epstein. “But they don't have the incentive, time or mechanism to document what they have learned. That is crazy, insane, wasteful and a natural consequence of our fragmented education system.”

Going forward with this mission will be no easy feat, as research shared last May at the EdTech Efficacy Research Symposium, a convening of educators, researchers and entrepreneurs led by the Jefferson Education Accelerator, noted that decision-makers often do not have the time, resources or—in some cases—the will to factor efficacy in their purchasing decisions. Efficacy research, noted one professor who was present, was “cool but not essential” and “icing on the cake.” It also remains to be seen how well edtech purchasers can incorporate efficacy research into an already complex purchasing process where procurement rules differ from state to state.

Epstein says to make the impact he hopes to create they plan to start small—working state by state, district by district to gather findings and feedback on products from educators.

“If there is a funder in Connecticut who wants to know about third-grade reading programs in Connecticut, then we would need to work with partners in that state to do a representative sample of Connecticut third-grade teachers,” Epstein explains. “What we don’t know yet, is how many teachers per school do we need.”

The work gets more complicated as Epstein describes the details. There needs to be some critical mass of reviews, from teachers across the country, before a product profile reflects all the different use cases and settings in which that tool might be used. For example, educators using a tool in one school may have leadership that supports risk-taking and are flexible with student outcomes, while others may work with more conservative officials. Those differences, he says, could impact how teachers review a product.

In spite of the work ahead, Epstein is optimistic about the possibilities of his new venture. He notes that the lessons learned managing the Jefferson Education Accelerator will be useful.

“As we have done that work, we have been pleasantly surprised to discover that everyone agrees that we should be making decisions about education technology based on merit, evidence of fit and evidence of efficacy. Everyone also agrees that it’s not happening now,” says Epstein. “We can’t change the system…but what we can do is empower educators to give voice to their experiences.”

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