April 8, 2019

At Catalyst bootcamp, educational entrepreneurs learn how to harness research to create better, more impactful products

Ajoy Vase of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (left), Michael Golden, of Catalyst @ Penn GSE (center), and Ed Metz of the Institute of Education Science (right), discuss how startups have successfully integrated research into their educational products.

GAB-on!, a startup that nurtures social and emotional learning in children through conversation, started as a way for Jarrid Hall to better connect with his son.

What began as a spreadsheet grew into a platform that is now being used by teachers and families in several schools. So far, the feedback has been positive and GAB-on! continues to grow.

“Our story is very compelling,” Hall said. “But we’ve reached the point where we want to put more evidence behind it.”

That’s why Hall attended Catalyst @ Penn GSE’s April 1 bootcamp, Harnessing Research into Practice in Education. He was among the founders, CEOs, COOs, education directors, product developers, teachers, consultants, and graduate students who heard from experts at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Macmillan Learning, the Institute of Education Science, and Penn GSE.

Upcoming Bootcamps

May 6: Fundraising Strategies for Education Ventures

June 2019: Tradeshow Prep webinar

Learn more about Catalyst Entrepreneur Bootcamps.

Catalyst’s bootcamps prepare educational entrepreneurs for the challenges that stand between an initial idea and a startup rollout, including fundraising, legal issues, and understanding the education marketplace.

Michael Golden, Catalyst’s Executive Director, said that knowing how to incorporate research and learning science into an organization can be a stumbling block for many entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

 “We know so much more about learning sciences, and how and why people learn,” Golden said. “When you apply these lessons, your organization can continue to examine itself, continue to evolve, and continue to improve.”

Bror Saxberg, Vice President of Learning Sciences at CZI, gave an overview of how learning sciences and learning design principles can and should be incorporated into learning products.

“Too many products and ideas are based on how we wished learning works, not how learning actually works,” Saxberg said.

He told a story about a company that was creating a new set of learning modules. Initially, they built a series of “intuitively designed” 90-minute videos to explain concepts, but found that students weren’t retaining information. When they tried a simpler module based on learning-design principles — one that didn’t include video but could be completed in eight minutes — student performance soared. The company bailed on video, Saxberg said, and ultimately transformed how they developed programing.

“You can’t just use your intuition, and you can’t ignore what the evidence says would work better,” Saxberg said. “You have to understand the problem in depth before you can see if technology can scale the solution.”

There was a time when decision makers in school districts were impressed with products that said they were “research-based,” according to Abigail Gray, a Senior Researcher for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education based at Penn GSE. But that time has passed.

“Superintendents, principals, and business administrators are increasingly savvy as to what’s evidence based,” Gray said. “It’s important to be able to talk that language, and show that you have evidence supporting the effectiveness of your product or solution.”

Gray’s session focused on how entrepreneurs can work with independent researchers to learn more about their products. And she stressed that academic research isn’t just part of a sales pitch. Companies can and should be constantly using it to refine their approach, theory of action, and their product.

 Leaving the bootcamp, GAB-on! founder Hall said he had a new appreciation for what school leaders were looking for and what he would have to provide them.

“This gave me a solid foundation,” Hall said. “I can build on this.”