When Jason Lange was at NewSchools Venture Fund, he was tasked with assessing the education technology market and determining who was doing the best work.  “I talked to every superintendent, every principal. I called every charter school operator,” said Lange.  “I was just trying to look at content and school models and blended learning.”  Across the education sector, he found one common concern: how to train and scale high quality instruction.  He also learned that teachers needed access to a more diverse marketplace of tools and instructional materials.

In 2010, he and educational services engineer Eric Dunn co-founded Bloomboard, a web-based assessment platform that increases accessibility and reduces the expense of feedback and training for educators.  Through its clean, user-friendly interface, Bloomboard allows teachers and administrators to set goals and assess their progress, and then identify which learning tools are successful with students.  The platform also features a marketplace of third-party educational resources to guide and train educators according to their specific needs.

A research team hired by Boundless Impact Investing discovered Bloomboard when they were seeking to better understand U.S. K-12 Education Technology and the best potential investment opportunities.  Boundless enables private investors to maximize the social value of their investments by providing access to an inexpensive and faster way of learning about investing in their sector of choice, be it education, clean water or solar technology.

Led by education expert Alexa Cortes Culwell, the team spent the first half of 2014 interviewing the top investors, product developers, and product consumers (teachers, schools, districts) in the sector.  They developed social impact metrics for three distinct product categories: student learning, teacher training and development, and school and district operations.  Not surprisingly, the research showed that assessing the impact of products in the U.S. K-12 education system is a significant challenge. But getting the metrics right can make that easier.  With American schools so far behind in incorporating technology into daily instruction and learning, the status quo isn’t acceptable anymore.

In spite of budget cuts and financial tension, schools and districts are directing more funding toward technology and teacher training for ed tech.  But with so many new products flooding the market, how to choose?  Ed tech products must be cost-effective and high quality, and investors – private and institutional –must seek out the new, disruptive models like Bloomboard that incorporate smart metrics into their business model.

And those metrics need to be developed and agreed upon by all the key stakeholders.  Bloomboard is one company that set out to disrupt the supply chain, and is allowing student growth and achievement to dictate the demand for teaching products.  Many others are tuning into this impact-based approach, and our findings indicate companies employing more rigorous impact measurement to assure quality are performing better. Better metrics are generating better investments.

It’s no secret, the education technology sector is growing exponentially.  “In 2012, U.S. Congress appropriated $3.1 billion for teacher programs that are designed to improve the quality of teachers in the K-12 classroom.  The programs include monies to support professional development in technology integration,” according to The Cooney Center.  Ed tech funders are increasing the amount of capital invested in new products and services.  So while capital is rising and opportunities abound, the problem for investors is a severe lack of complete, objective information about the companies and products out there.

Trusted research sources like Boundless give investors information they can rely on to make smart investment choices.  Only with independent research, led by experts who have demonstrated knowledge in the many integrated fields that make up Ed tech, are investors prepared to sift through the numerous investment opportunities in Ed tech companies and funds.  And only with analysis that incorporates an understanding of the social and financial variables involved, can an investor determine what products will be attractive to teachers and schools in the long-term. In other words, products that will have staying power.

Investors should clearly understand how a company is collecting and using data to improve its product(s) over time.  This helps an investor understand the potential impact of an investment as well as the limits of the data enabling it. Investors should ask:

• What does the product’s data actually indicate in terms of meaningful, positive change?

• How do we know the measurement data is valid and rigorous? What are its limitations?

• What does the product developer hope to measure in the future? Why and when do they expect to do this?

Looking at a product like Bloomboard, its goal setting features take direct observations from administrators and teachers and assess best practices based on the correlating student achievement.  The Bloomboard library creates access to an entirely new market of companies that are fundable and can serve as smarter social change models, providing teachers with appropriate tools for the new 21st century education environment.  Their data is collected continuously, and generated firsthand by users. It is measuring student performance and professional development and assessing the effectiveness of different education resources.

The metrics called upon to evaluate the total learning impact of Ed tech products and companies are not universal.  They vary by product category, audience, how the data is collected, etc. It is important to determine which research methods, measures and level of independence are appropriate for measuring the impact of the unique product.  Combining relevant measurements across a variety of populations will yield the highest level of confidence possible for both financial and social returns.

 

Michele Demers, Founder & CEO, Boundless Impact Investing, an online community of private investors seeking to maximize returns through impact investing.  With  20 years of experience as a philanthropy executive, strategist, and social entrepreneur, she has been involved in the successful development of more than two-dozen for profit and nonprofit start-ups, including her own.