The grant period for NGLC’s second wave of funding recently came to a close. In this Wave II, which we called, “Building Blocks for College Readiness,” NGLC awarded grants for 19 innovative, tech-enabled instruction and assessment materials, which were designed to improve students’ mastery of content aligned with seventh-to-ninth grade Common Core State Standards.
There were 230 total applicants, and of the 19 selected for funding, there were nine “proof of concept” awards and 10 “early stage adoption” awards. The innovations included games, platforms, assessment tutorials, and tech-enabled learning modules. I described these innovations in a previous blog post, 19 Promising (and Common Core-Aligned) Tools and Resources for Middle School Classrooms. Over the next six months or so, we’ll be sharing findings and outcomes from Wave II. Today I’ll share some early musings about what we’re learning.
- CCSS-alignment has become critical to the success of learning technologies. While many tool developers are retro-fitting their innovations to the Common Core, many Wave II grantees designed their resources from scratch based on the new standards (see Assessing Deeper Learning in CoMPASS-Physics and The WhyPower Project: Crossing Games to Standards for two examples). Since standards-based curricula leave little wiggle room for going beyond specific lessons, we recognize just how important it is that educators understand how an innovation can be integrated into the curriculum rather than used as a supplemental add-on.
- The work of the proof of concept grant recipients differed from the work of early stage adoption grant recipients. In general, NGLC helped proof of concept grantees develop, pilot, and make direct improvements to their innovations. These grantees identified the need for more work to scale and sustain their innovation. On the other hand, grantees that received early stage adoption awards in general reported that NGLC helped them define their business and growth model, gave them a pathway to plan for sustainability, and gave them credibility to secure additional funding.
- Teachers using the learning technologies were overwhelmingly satisfied. Responses to a survey of 182 teachers using one of the tools suggested a positive influence on teacher practice. An independent evaluator (SRI International) found this to be especially true when teachers implemented science-based innovations, when innovations required more time in the classroom, when teachers spent more time in training and prep work, and when teachers looked at project data more frequently.
- The field of learning technology products has evolved since the RFP in 2011. First, the more rigorous and comprehensive CCSS are driving most pedagogical decisions in the classroom. Second, the exponential growth of blended learning schools in the U.S., though still small in total numbers, is driving the field towards more comprehensive, integrated, robust, and rigorous learning technologies that can meet a range of needs for a large number of students. And third, a growth in investment capital in educational technology has brought different kinds of tool developers into the field.
- Sustainability and scalability of a learning technology depends upon the grantee’s organizational structure, the type of innovation, and the level of support required to implement. For example, we saw that some learning module grantees needed to be in the classroom whenever their innovation was used, and feared that without their help, teachers would use the content but not fundamentally change their practice. Some of these grantees were able to shift from high-touch support to more low-touch solutions—training videos, detailed manuals and lesson guides, and train-the-trainer approaches—and thereby improve their ability to scale and be sustainable (see, for example, Using Data to Drive Instruction: As Easy as Washing Your Hands).
- Developers of learning technologies have most in common with start-up entrepreneurs, and need to pay as much attention to their business model as they do the creation of a high-quality product. Experts at a capstone convening last December encouraged grantees to a) borrow principles from The Lean Startup: bring users into refining your product and add features they want rather than guessing; b) recognize that there’s nothing wrong with raising money and while they may not need to directly charge teachers or students, they will need to find revenues somewhere; and c) think of themselves as “sustainability scientists:” design scientific revenue experiments to find the most viable options.