Amid a year of drastic change to the ways we teach and learn, EdTech builders have created many promising tools. These innovators are often perceived as external “disruptors,” but a growing trend of product development among academics has proven that tools created within universities can provide sustainable solutions to old problems.
Through our work at Accelerator at WGU Labs — a research and development hub for early stage EdTech companies — we’re seeing an increase in homegrown learning tools as educators gain confidence in their own intuitions. We call this the “inside-out” model of innovation, where developers lead with learning first, and technology second.
A few of our recent partners — Peerceptiv, Red Flag Mania, and eLumin — offer examples of the power of “inside-out” product design. These companies’ founders all created and refined their tools within the confines of real learning environments.
Enhancing Writing Skills Through Peer-to-Peer Feedback
Peerceptiv emerged from over a decade of research at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, where researchers identified a glaring absence of available technology that promoted learning as a peer-driven, social process.
To remedy this gap, the Peerceptiv team built a tool that allows students to provide and receive actionable feedback from their peers in an anonymous fashion. The platform helps students build critical thinking skills, fosters a sense of communal learning, and allows faculty to maximize their own instruction efforts.
This “inside-out” tool was built to address two classroom realities. First, researchers at Pitt have shown that receiving in-depth revisions and feedback is vital to the
growth of students’ writing skills. And providing feedback on peers’ work forces students to reflect critically on the components of good writing, thereby driving their own development.
The tool has been validated by Pitt researchers and is used for both formative and summative feedback. Thanks to its team of forward-looking educators, Peerceptiv is improving student outcomes and maximizing the time of instructors at schools across the country.
Giving New Life to Tired Modes of Instruction
After years of teaching, Dr. Kelly Richmond Pope identified a critical gap in the classroom experience: The rich, layered drama of organizational misconduct grew painfully dull once it filtered its way into a university’s accounting and ethics curriculum.
To enliven subjects filled with hidden drama and promote deeper learning, Dr. Pope collaborated with Roni Jackson to develop high-value, accessible experiences featuring engaging “whodunit” mysteries that place students in the role of an active investigator.
"Through our work at Accelerator at WGU Labs — a research and development hub for early stage EdTech companies–we’re seeing an increase in homegrown learning tools as educators gain confidence in their own intuitions"
These interactive adventures, which require students to identify “red flags” in characters’ behavior, help students absorb key lessons through artful storytelling, rather than centuries-old learning devices like textbooks, lectures, and dry case studies.
Red Flag Mania plans to build on its homegrown success by developing new courses for a broad range of topics. The development of its new interactive mysteries will continue to be driven by iterative student and faculty feedback.
Transcending the Traditional Computer Lab
Greg Smith and Mohammad Haque, the co-founders of eLumin, were serving as information technology leaders at a large state university when they identified that simple technological hurdles, like the need for students in data-intensive courses to congregate in physical computer labs, often stood in the way of student success.
To address the widespread digital divide, which hampers learning at schools that can’t afford the latest hardware and software, or among students unable to meet in a physical location, Smith and Haque created a cloud-based solution devoted to the specific needs and circumstances of students.
This insight allowed eLumin to help universities move data-intensive physical computer labs into a virtual space, opening access to countless students. It also helped universities shift their learning environments to the online realm amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Putting the “Ed” Back in EdTech
By designing products centered on the student experience, rather than retrofitting existing technology into an imagined learning environment, Peerceptiv, Red Flag Mania, and eLumin embody the values of “inside-out” innovation.
One common feature of “inside-out” builders is the awareness that learning requires effort. The distribution of knowledge is hard work, and tools forged in the fire of a complex learning environment help foster a sense of motivation among students and instructors alike.
To identify promising EdTech tools, busy administrators can ask a few key questions when weighing the use of technology: Is this a tool that will be adopted by a majority of teachers or staff? Does its design align with the reality of the school environment? And was it refined in an artificial or real learning environment?
If something sounds too good to be true, or is explained in instructable tech language, that tool likely won’t make a meaningful impact on student outcomes. But when new innovations meet the proper balance between “Ed” and “Tech,” schools can see true gains in student learning.