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Institute of Education Sciences

A2i: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

This blog post is part of an interview series with education researchers who have successfully scaled their interventions.

Assessment-to-Instruction (A2i) is an online Teacher Professional Support System that guides teachers in providing Kindergarten to Grade 3 students individualized literacy instruction and assessments. Students complete the assessments independently online without the teacher taking time away from instruction. A2i generates instantaneous teacher reports with precise recommendations for each student and group recommendations. See a video demo here. Between 2003 and 2017, researchers at Florida State University (FSU) and Arizona State University (ASU), led by Carol Connor, developed and evaluated A2i with the support of a series of awards from IES and the National Institutes of Health. Findings from all publications on the A2i are posted here.

While results across seven controlled studies demonstrated the effectiveness of A2i, feedback from practitioners in the field demonstrated that implementation often required substantial amounts of researcher support and local district adaptation, and that the cost was not sustainable for most school district budgets. In 2014, the development firm Learning Ovations, led by Jay Connor, received an award from the Department of Education (ED) and IES’s Small Business Innovation Research program (ED/IES SBIR) to develop an technologically upgraded and commercially viable version of A2i to be ready to be used at scale in classrooms around the country. In 2018, with the support of a five-year Education Innovation and Research (EIR) expansion grant from ED totaling $14.65 million, A2i is now used in more than 110 schools across the country, with plans for further expansion. 

 

Interview with Carol Connor (CC) and Jay Connor (JC)

From the start of the research in the early 2000s, was it always the goal to develop a reading intervention that would one day be used on a wide scale?
CC: Yes and no. First, we had to answer the question as to whether individualization was effective in achieving student literacy outcomes. Once the research established that, we knew that this work would have wide-scale application.

When did you start thinking about a plan for distribution
CC: Before embarking on the cumulative results studies, in 2008, Jay said that we needed to know who the “customer” was… i.e., how purchasing decisions were made at scale.  His 2008 Phase I ED/IES SBIR was critical in shifting our research focus from individual classrooms to school districts as the key scaling point. 

Did you work with a technology transfer office at the university?
CC: Only to the extent of contractually clarifying intellectual property (IP) ownership and licensing. 

Who provided the support on the business side?
CC: Jay, who has an MBA/JD and has been a senior officer in two Fortune 100 companies was very instrumental in guiding our thinking of this evolution from important research to practical application. 


 Do you have any agreement about the IP with the university? What were the biggest challenges in this area?

JC: Yes, Learning Ovations has a 60-year renewable exclusive licensing agreement with FSU Foundation. FSU couldn’t have been better to work with.  Though there were expected back-and-forth elements of the original negotiations, it was clear that we shared the central vision of transforming literacy outcomes.  They continue to be a meaningful partner.

When and why was Learning Ovations first launched?
JC: In order to pursue SBIR funding we needed to be a for-profit company.  At first, I used my consulting business – Rubicon Partners LLP – as the legal entity for a 2008 Phase I award from ED/IES SBIR.  When we considered applying (and eventually won) a Fast Track Phase I & II award from SBIR in 2014, it was clear that we needed to create a full C – Corp that could expand with the scaling of the business, thus Learning Ovations was formed.

Who has provided you great guidance on the business side over the year? What did they say and do? 
JC: Having run large corporate entities and worked with small business start-ups in conjunction with Arizona State University (Skysong) and the University of California, Irvine (Applied Innovation at The Cove) and having taught entrepreneurship at The Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine, I had the experience or network to connect to whatever business guidance we needed.  Further, having attended a number of reading research conferences with Carol, I was quite conversant in the literacy language both from the research side and from the district decision maker’s side.

How do you describe the experience of commercializing the A2i? What were the biggest achievements and challenges in terms of preparing for commercialization?

JC: Having coached scores of entrepreneurs at various stages, I can safely say that there is no harder commercialization than one that must stay faithful to the underlying research.  A key strategy for most new businesses: being able to pivot as you find a better (easier) solution.  It is often circumscribed by the “active ingredients” of the underlying research.  Knowing this, we imbued Learning Ovations with a very strong outcomes mission – all children reading at, or above, grade level by 3rd grade.  This commitment to outcomes certainty is only assured by staying faithful to the research.  Thus, a possible constraint, became our uncontroverted strength.

Do you have advice for university researchers seeking to move their laboratory research in education into wide-spread practice? 
JC:  Start with the end in mind.  As soon as you envision wide-scale usage, learn as much as you can about the present pain and needs of your future users and frame your research questions to speak to this.  Implementation should not be an after-the-fact consideration; build it into how you frame your research questions. On one level you are asking simultaneously “will this work with my treatment group” AND “will this help me understand/deliver to my end-user group.”  I can’t imagine effective research being graphed onto a business after the fact.  One key risk that we see a number of researchers make is thinking in very small fragments whereas application (i.e., the ability to go to scale) is usually much more systemic and holistic.

In one sentence, what would say is most needed for gaining traction in the marketplace?
JC: If not you, as a researcher, someone on your team of advisors needs to know the target marketplace as well as you know the treatment protocols in your RCT.

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Carol Connor is a Chancellor’s Professor in the UC Irvine School of Education. Prior she was a professor of Psychology and a Senior Learning Scientist at the Learning Sciences Institute at ASU. Carol’s research focuses on teaching and learning in preschool through fifth grade classrooms – with a particular emphasis on reading comprehension, executive functioning, and behavioral regulation development, especially for low-income children.

Joseph “Jay” Connor, JD/MBA, is the Founder/CEO of Learning Ovations, Inc, the developer of the platform that has enabled the A2i intervention to scale.  Jay has 20+ years of experience in senior business management at the multi-billion dollar corporate level, and has experience in the nonprofit and public policy arenas.

This interview was produced by Edward Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences.

SELweb: From Research to Practice at Scale in Education

With a 2011 IES development grant, researchers at Rush University Medical Center, led by Clark McKown, created SELweb, a web-based system to assess the social-emotional skills in children in Kindergarten to Grade 3. The system (watch the video demo) includes illustrated and narrated modules that gauge children’s social acceptance with peers and assess their ability to understand others’ emotions and perspectives, solve social problems, and self-regulate. The system generates teacher reports with norm-referenced scores and classroom social network maps. Field trials with 8,881 children in seven states demonstrate that system produces reliable and valid measures of social-emotional skills. Findings from all publications on SELweb are posted here.

In 2016, with support from the university, McKown launched a company called xSEL Labs, to further develop and ready SELweb for use at scale and to facilitate the launch SELweb into the school marketplace. SELweb is currently used in 21 school districts in 16 states by over 90,000 students per year.

Interview with Clark McKown of Rush University Medical Center and xSEL Labs

 

From the start of the project, was it always a goal for SELweb to one day be ready to be used widely in schools?

CM: When we started our aspiration was to build a usable, feasible, scientifically sound assessment and it could be done. When the end of the grant got closer, we knew that unless we figured out another way to support the work, this would be yet another good idea that would wither on the vine after showing evidence of promise. In the last year and a half of the grant, I started thinking about how to get this into the hands of educators to support teaching and learning, and how to do it in a large-scale way.

 

By the conclusion of your IES grant to develop SELweb, how close were you to the version that is being used now in schools? How much more time and money was it going to take?

CM: Let me answer that in two ways. First is how close I thought we were to a scalable version. I thought we were pretty close. Then let me answer how close we really were. Not very close. We had built SELweb in a Flash based application that was perfectly suited to small-scale data collection and was economical to build. But for a number of reasons, there was no way that it would work at scale. So we needed capital, time, and a new platform. We found an outstanding technology partner, the 3C Institute, who have a terrific ed tech platform well-suited to our needs, robust, and scalable. And we received funding from the Wallace Foundation to migrate the assessment from the original platform to 3C’s. The other thing I have learned is that technology is not one and done. It requires continued investment, upkeep, and improvement.

What experiences led you to start a company? How were you able to do this as an academic researcher?

CM: I could tell you that I ran a children’s center, had a lot of program development experience, had raised funds, and all that would be true, and some of the skills I developed in those roles have transferred. But starting a company is really different than anything I’d done before. It’s exciting and terrifying. It requires constant effort, a willingness to change course, rapid decision-making, collaboration, and a different kind of creativity than the academy. Turns out I really like it. I probably wouldn’t have made the leap except that the research led me to something that I felt required the marketplace to develop further and to realize its potential. There was really only so far I could take SELweb in the academic context. And universities recognize the limitations of doing business through the university—that’s why they have offices of technology transfer—to spin off good ideas from the academy to the market. And it’s a feather in their cap when they help a faculty member commercialize an invention. So really, it was about finding out how to use the resources at my disposal to migrate to an ecosystem suited to continuing to improve SELweb and to get it into the hands of educators.

How did xSEL Labs pay for the full development of the version of SELweb ready for use at scale?

CM: Just as we were getting off the ground, we developed

 a partnership with a research funder (the Wallace Foundation) who was interested in using SELweb as an outcome measure in a large-scale field trial of an SEL initiative. They really liked SELweb, but it was clear that in its original form, it simply wouldn’t work at the scale they required. So we worked out a contract that included financial support for improving the system in exchange for discounted fees in the out years of the project.

What agreement did you make with the university in order to start your company and commercial SELweb?

CM: I negotiated a license for the intellectual property from Rush University with the university getting a royalty and a small equity stake in the company.

Did anyone provide you guidance on the business side?

CM: Yes. I lucked into a group of in-laws who happen to be entrepreneurs, some in the education space. And my wife has a sharp business mind. They were helpful. I also sought and found advisors with relevant expertise to help me think through the initial licensing terms, and then pricing, marketing, sales, product development, and the like. One of the nice things about business is that you aren’t expected to know everything. You do need to know how and when to reach out to others for guidance, and how to frame the issues so that guidance is relevant and helpful.

How do you describe the experience of commercializing SELWeb?

CM: Commercialization is, in my experience, an exercise in experimentation and successive approximations. How will you find time and money to test the waters? Commercialization is an exciting and challenging leap from the lab to the marketplace. In my experience, you can’t do it alone, and even with great partners, competitive forces and chance factors make success scale hard to accomplish. Knowing what you don’t know, and finding partners who can help, is critical.

I forgot who described a startup as a temporary organization designed to test whether a business idea is replicable and sustainable. That really rings true. The experience has been about leaving the safe confines of the university and entering the dynamic and endlessly interesting bazaar beyond the ivory tower to see if what I have to offer can solve a problem of practice.

In one sentence (or two!), what would say is most needed for gaining traction in the marketplace?

CM: Figure out who the customer is, what the customer needs, and how what you have to offer addresses those needs. Until you get that down, all the evidence in the world won’t lead to scale.

Do you have advice for university researchers seeking to move their laboratory research into wide-spread practice?

CM: It’s not really practical for most university researchers to shift gears and become an entrepreneur. So I don’t advise doing what I did, although I’m so glad I did. For most university researchers, they should continue doing great science, and when they recognize a scalable idea, consider commercialization as an important option for bringing the idea to scale. My impression is that academic culture often finds commerce to be alien and somewhat grubby, which can get in the way. The truth is, there are whip-smart people in business who have tremendous expertise. The biggest hurdle for many university researchers will be to recognize that they lack expertise in bringing ideas to market, they will need to find that expertise, respect it, and let go of some control as the idea, program, or product is shaped by market forces. It’s also a hard truth for researchers, but most of the world doesn’t care very much about evidence of efficacy. They have much more pressing problems of practice to attend to. Don’t get me wrong—evidence of efficacy is crucial. But for an efficacious idea to go to scale, usability and feasibility are the biggest considerations.

For academics, getting the product into the marketplace requires a new set of considerations, such as: Universities and granting mechanisms reward solo stars; the marketplace rewards partnerships. That is a big shift in mindset, and not easily accomplished. Think partnerships, not empires; listening more than talking.

Any final words of wisdom in moving your intervention from research to practice?

CM: Proving the concept of an ed tech product gets you to the starting line, not the finish. Going to scale benefits from, probably actually requires, the power of the marketplace. Figuring out how the marketplace works and how to fit your product into it is a big leap for most professors and inventors. Knowing the product is not the same as knowing how to commercialize it.

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Clark McKown is a national expert on social and emotional learning (SEL) assessments. In his role as a university faculty member, Clark has been the lead scientist on several large grants supporting the development and validation of SELweb, Networker, and other assessment systems. Clark is passionate about creating usable, feasible, and scientifically sound tools that help educators and their students.

This interview was produced by Ed Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences. This post is the third in an ongoing series of blog posts examining moving from university research to practice at scale in education.

Inside IES Special Interview Series: From University Research to Practice at Scale in Education

Over two decades, the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research at IES have built a knowledge base to inform and improve education practice. This work has also spurred the development of evidence-based tools, technological products, training guides, instructional approaches, and assessments. 

While some IES-supported interventions are used on a wide scale (hundreds of schools or more), we acknowledge that a “research to practice gap” hinders the uptake of more evidence-based interventions in education.  The gap refers to the space between the initial research and development in university laboratories and pilot evaluations in schools, and everything else that is needed for the interventions to be adopted as a regular practice outside of a research evaluation.

For many academic researchers, advancing beyond the initial stage of R&D and pilot evaluations is complex and often requires additional time, financing, and specialized expertise and support. For example, interventions often need more R&D to ready interventions for scale—whether to ensure that implementation is turnkey and feasible without any researcher assistance, that interventions work the same across divergent settings and across different populations, or to bolster technology systems to be able to process huge amounts of data across numerous sites at the same time. Advancing from research to practice may also entail commercialization planning to address issues such as intellectual property, licensing, sales, and marketing, to facilitate dissemination of interventions from a university to the education marketplace, and to sustain it over time by generating revenue or securing other means of support.

Special Inside IES Research Interview Series

This winter and spring, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews with the teams of researchers, developers, and partners who successfully advanced IES-funded education research from the university laboratory to practice in schools at scale.  Collectively, the interviews illustrate a variety of models and approaches for scaling evidenced-based interventions and for disseminating and sustaining the interventions over time.

Each interview will address a similar set of questions:

  • Was it part of the original plan to develop an intervention that could one day be used at scale in schools?
  • Describe the initial research and development that occurred. 
  • What role did the university play in facilitating the research to practice process? 
  • What other individuals or organizations provided support during the process?
  • Beyond the original R&D process through IES or ED grants, what additional R&D was needed to ready the intervention for larger scale use?
  • What model was used for dissemination and sustainability?
  • What advice would you provide to researchers who are looking to move their research from the lab to market? What steps should they take? What resources should they look for?

Check this page regularly to read new interviews.

We hope you enjoy the series.

This series is produced by Edward Metz of the Institute of Education Sciences

IES Celebrates Computer Science Education Week and Prepares for the 2020 ED Games Expo at the Kennedy Center

This week is Computer Science Education Week! The annual event encourages students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 to explore coding, with a focus on increasing representation among girls, women, and minorities. The event honors the life of computer scientist Grace Hopper, who broke the mold in the 1940s as a programming pioneer. Coding and computer science events are occurring in schools and communities around the country to celebrate the week.

This week is also a great time to highlight the computer science and engineering projects that are coming to Washington, DC for the 2020 ED Games Expo at the Kennedy Center on the evening of January 9, 2020. Developed with the support of the Institute of Education Sciences and other federal government offices, the projects provide different types of opportunities for students to learn and practice computer science and engineering skills with an eye toward examining complex real-world problems.

At the Expo, expect to explore the projects listed below.

  1. In CodeSpark Academy’s Story Mode, children learn the ABCs of computer science with a word-free approach by programming characters called The Foos to create their own interactive stories. In development with a 2019 ED/IES SBIR award.
  2. In VidCode, students manipulate digital media assets such as photos, audio, and graphics to create special effects in videos to learn about the coding. A teacher dashboard is being developed through a 2019 ED/IES SBIR award.
  3. Future Engineers uses its platform to conduct STEM challenges for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. Developed with a 2017 ED/IES SBIR award.
  4. Fab@School Maker Studio allows students to design and build geometric constructions, pop-ups, and working machines using low-cost materials and tools from scissors to inexpensive 3-D printers and laser cutters. Developed with initial funding in 2010 by ED/IES SBIR.
  5. In DESCARTES, students use engineering design and then create 3-D print prototypes of boats, gliders, and other machines. Developed through a 2017 ED/IES SBIR award.
  6. In Ghost School, students learn programming and software development skills by creating games. In development with a 2018 Education Innovation and Research grant at ED.
  7. In Tami’s Tower, children practice basic engineering to help Tami, a golden lion tamarin, reach fruit on an overhanging branch by building a tower with blocks of geometric shapes. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution.
  8. In the Wright’s First Flight, students learn the basics of engineering a plane through hands-on and online activities, then get a firsthand look at what it looked (and felt) like to fly it through a virtual reality simulation. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution.
  9. In EDISON, students solve  engineering problems with gamified design software and simulate designs in virtual and augmented reality. In development with support from the National Science Foundation. 
  10. May’s Journey is a narrative puzzle game world where players use beginning programming skills to solve puzzles and help May find her friend and discover what is happening to her world. Developed with support from the National Science Foundation. 
  11. In FLEET, students engineer ships for a variety of naval missions, test their designs, gather data, and compete in nationwide naval engineering challenges. Developed with support from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.
  12. Muzzy Lane Author is a platform for authoring learning games and simulations without requiring any programming skills. Developed in part with a Department of Defense award.

About the ED Games Expo: The ED Games Expo is the Institute’s and the Department of Education's annual public showcase and celebration of educational learning games as well as innovative forms of learning technologies for children and students in education and special education. At the Expo, attendees walk around the Terrace Level Galleries at the Kennedy Center to discover and demo more than 150 learning games and technologies, while meeting face-to-face with the developers. The Expo is free and open to the public. Attendees must RSVP online to gain entry. For more information, please email Edward.Metz@ed.gov.

Edward Metz is the program manager for the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research program.

Christina Chhin is the program officer for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education research program.

Calling All Students to the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” Contest

On August 27, 2019, NASA launched a national contest for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students to name the Mars 2020 rover, the newest robotic scientist to be sent to Mars.  Scheduled to launch aboard a rocket in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and touch down on Mars in February 2021, the to-be-named rover weighs more than 2,300 pounds (1,000 kilograms) and will search for astrobiological signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

By focusing the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest on K to 12 students, NASA seeks to engage U.S. students in the engineering and scientific work that makes Mars exploration possible. The contest also supports national goals to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and help create the next generation of STEM leaders.

Students can sign up and submit their entries for the competition at https://www.futureengineers.org/nametherover. Entries must include a proposed name for the rover and a short essay of 150 words or less explaining the reasons for the name. NASA will select 156 state winners (one from each state and age group), before narrowing down to the top 9 entries that will be part of a public poll. The grand prize winner who will name the rover will be selected and announced in spring of 2020.

Even if you are not a student you can still participate. US residents over the age of 18 can apply to be judges for the contest to help NASA make their selection.

The Mars 2020 Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages rover development for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch management.

NASA Partners with an ED/IES SBIR Awardee to Run the Contest

The education technology firm that NASA selected to help run the competition is Burbank, California-based, Future Engineers.  The “Name the Rover” contest leverages Future Engineers’ online challenge platform, which was developed with the support of a 2017 award from the US Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences’ Small Business Innovation Research program (ED/IES SBIR).  The platform will receive, manage, display, and judge what is anticipated to be tens of thousands or more student submissions from around the country.

Future Engineers has a history of collaborating on space-themed student challenges. The company previously ran a national competition series in 2018 for the ASME Foundation with technical assistance from NASA, where K-12 students submitted digital designs of useful objects that could be 3D printed on the International Space Station, resulting in the first student-designed 3D print in space.

Future Engineers developed its platform to be an online hub for classrooms and educators to access free, project-based STEM activities, and to provide a portal where students submit and compete in different kinds of maker and innovation challenges across the country. The Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest will be the first naming challenge issued on its platform.

We look forward to the results of the competition!

Originally posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Homeroom blog.


Edward Metz is a research scientist at the Institute of Education Sciences in the US Department of Education.

Bob Collom is an integration lead in the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.


About ED/IES SBIR

The U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds projects to develop education technology products designed to support students, teachers, or administrators in general or special education. The program emphasizes rigorous and relevant research to inform iterative development and to evaluate whether fully-developed products show promise for leading to the intended outcomes. The program also focuses on commercialization once the award period ends so that products can reach students and teachers and be sustained over time. ED/IES SBIR-supported products are currently used by millions of students in thousands of schools around the country.

About NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP)

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) in the Planetary Science Division is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today. To that end, all of our future missions will be driven by rigorous scientific questions that will continuously evolve as we make new discoveries. MEP continues to explore Mars and to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network.