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School leaders and teachers struggle to find the right education technology to suit their needs. Education technology makers can’t figure out exactly what schools need – or if their products can work as intended.

Enter the matchmaker.

LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, works on both sides of the equation, providing a pilot network program that links schools and education technology companies. Schools say what they need and then get to test-drive programs for free. Companies get a real-life run and meaningful feedback on their offerings.

This symbiosis helps schools cut through the clutter to find solutions that actually work as intended.

“It is kind of a free-for-all out there,” said Phyllis Lockett, the CEO of LEAP Innovations. “It’s the wild West. Schools don’t know where to start.”

Here’s how it works: Four to six teachers and a principal participate in the program. They review pitches from education technology companies that want to work with them. The educators pick one program to try for a school year, and then are trained in how to use it. The company provides a license to the program for free. Staffers at LEAP Innovations provide feedback on how the education technology works in the school. About 80 percent of the schools decide to keep the program after the test drive, Lockett said.

Testing education technology to find out what works is a difficult endeavor. A recent example highlights one of the most pressing challenges for traditional studies: timeliness. The U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse published in January the results of a review of research on an education technology program called Odyssey Math. The clearinghouse determined the program showed promise. But schools can’t buy Odyssey Math anymore. It was purchased by another company, and parts of it were woven into other educational programs. As a result, the new study is already obsolete.

“It is kind of a free-for-all out there. It’s the wild West. Schools don’t know where to start.”

“Those programs are different than Odyssey Math and therefore are not within the scope of this [What Works Clearinghouse] review,” the study states.

Technology changes rapidly, making it necessary for educators and researchers to be nimble.

In Boston, LearnLaunch, a nonprofit organization, runs a variety of initiatives meant to provide technical assistance to schools and start-up companies. It has worked with 100 teachers in Boston Public Schools as they have moved to use more blended and personalized learning – approaches that combine technology and in-person in instruction.

LearnLaunch also facilitates a program that helps schools and districts ensure they pick the right technology to solve their particular problems. As with the LEAP Innovations program, teams of teachers and a principal must agree to work together. Teachers act as researchers as they try out, refine and publish the results of their work. Many of the Boston educators are choosing to work with adaptive learning programs that help custom-fit lessons to the needs of students.

“We happen to believe that great digital technology can support teaching and learning,” said Eileen Rudden, co-founder and a board member at LearnLaunch. “It’s the way education will change. But it’s always going to be about the teacher.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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