At a time when the education marketplace is being flooded with new education technology products, amid questions about their effectiveness, a Silicon Valley startup is attempting to provide a way for educators to assess their utility in what it calls a “fair and unbiased” fashion, independent of the hype  of the proliferating number of companies that make them.

Photo by Brad Flickinger

Photo by Brad Flickinger

Last month, the one-year-old EdSurge — no relation to EdSource — launched a new website intended to provide parents and educators seeking independent reports on how various technology tools are working in the classroom — or not.
What seems clear is that teachers do need help sorting through the flood of new educational software, online courses, and hardware that are flooding the market

A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation survey  of 400 6th through 12 grade teachers released in February found that teachers overwhelmingly believe that technology is a good tool to supplement classroom teaching.   At the same time, they said, they needed “more opportunities to learn about and build confidence using technology tools.”

In addition, they said they want more information about which technology tools and approaches are proven to help students achieve, as well as more support with integrating technology into their teaching practice.

That’s where a website like EdSurge — which has received financial support from the Gates Foundation — could help.

EdSurge founder and CEO Betsy Corcoran said the new website seeks to provide “context and a lot more objective kinds of descriptions of what is available.” The site also asks for input on products or reports from users. “We read and take all of the feedback really seriously,” said Corcoran.

EdSurge is operating at time when growing numbers of teachers are using technology in some fashion.  Just over  half of teachers report using some form of “digital games” in their classroom instruction two days a week or more, according to a nationwide survey of 500 teachers just issued by The Joan Ganz Center at Sesame Workshop.

Teachers said the major barrier to their use was cost.

At the same time, significant questions are being raised about just how effective a massive investment in education technology will be in producting educational gains.

“Schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning,” the lead article in a series in the New York Times last fall asserted.  “This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.”  Tom Van Der Ark, formerly the executive director of the Gates Foundation, and an investor in technology companies, was quoted as saying,”The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data.”

Corcoran is a veteran journalist who was previously executive editor for technology coverage at Forbes Media and a staff writer for the Washington Post and Scientific American, she co-founded EdSurge with Nick Punt, a vice president of products at Inigral, whose “schools app” is “designed to build community amongst incoming college students, driving friendship and belonging.”

EdSurge began in 2011 with an online newsletter it delivered free to subscribers.  In February, it added yet another online newsletter, titled EdSurge-Instruct, this time oriented more directly at educators.

Last month EdSurge launched a website that provides detailed descriptions of education technology products.

For example, it gives a detailed description of Achieve 3000, “a web-based tool for supporting reading comprehensions and writing proficiency in grades 2 through 12,” which according to the site, has been used by 1 million students.

Another listing describes Apangea Math, which, according to the site, provides middle and high school students “with a combination of tutoring technology and live, online, certified teachers, based on cognitive research conducted by the US Air Force.”  It is currently being used by 250,000 students in 34 states.

“There needs to be a lot more candid discourse on what is the right tool,”  said Corcoran.  Just introducing IPads into a classroom doesn’t change education outcomes, she adds.

Corcoran said she became interested in education technology through her experience as a parent of children in the Burlingame public schools south of San Francisco.. The world of edtech intrigued her because in it she could combine her background in technology with her life as a parent with kids in the public education system.

One of EdSurge’s main features is to track who is funding what in the education technology field.  “They keep us up-to-do to date on the edtech space,” says Gabriel Adauto, Co-founder of Motion Math, a company that creates children’s math games for mobile devices.” The space is moving really fast right now. Lots of people are getting funded. We need to track where that money is going.”

Another potentially useful tool is the interactive  “edtechmap”  developed by the NewSchools Venture  Fund with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, offers a “visual representation” of some of 230 education technology companies.  As Meredith Simonton of the Arnold Foundation stated at its release last October, the proliferation of  technology in the classroom has “led to a confusing landscape and a duplication of efforts and mirroring of organizations.”

But the tool, while visually appealing, provides only brief descriptions of the companies — and only a slice of the material offered by EdSurge on its weekly newsletters and website.  Another resource is EdTechDigest, edited by Victor Rivero, which similarly offers occasional blog posts, but not the range and volume of offerings from EdSurge.

The EdSurge staff—two full-timers (including Corcoran) and three part-timers—also manages to do some old-fashioned reporting, but on a limited basis for now.  In February, EdSurge broke the story the news that Craig Silverstein, the first employee hired by Google’s founders, was leaving the company to work for the Khan Academy, the acclaimed online instructional website.

In addition to the Gates Foundation, the Colligan Family Foundation, the Lucere Education Network and some “private angel investors” Corcoran declined to name are among the site’s funders. But, says Corcoran, EdSurge is still in the “class of startup companies that live on ramen noodles.”

“This has definitely been a labor of love,” she added.

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