Panorama Education connects with Harvard for open source surveys: Why it’s important

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

On Tuesday, Panorama Education, the Y-Combinator graduate ed tech startup that has been backed by Mark Zuckerberg, announced that it is taking its survey product for K-12 schools and making it free through an open source initiative. What’s more, Panorama has teamed up with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to do so.

Panorama, which is currently working with 5,000 schools in 30 states on surveys to gauge both student success and teacher’s efficacy, funded the open source project and specifically reached out to Harvard School of Education professor Hunter Gehlbach.

I reached out to Gehlbach to find out his (and Harvard’s) interest in Panorama and some of what he had to say reflects a lot of what people have found attractive in Panorama, which goes about business more like a standard technology company than an ed tech startup.

Surveys

Gehlbach said he had been interested in creating a set of surveys for both teachers and students for awhile, but other projects always pushed the survey onto the back-burner.

When Panorama was enthusiastic about dual goals of providing teachers with feedback and assessing students on “a wider array of outcomes than is typically prioritized,” Gehlbach knew they’d be a good match. That, and that Panorama was also willing to fund the survey development process. Gehlbach said that the establishment of the “very productive collaboration” between Panorama and Harvard helped to entice students to work on the project.

Specifically, he cited Molly Cahen, Bryan Mascio, Joe McIntyre, Beth Schueler, and Julianne Viola, who developed the survey scales.

How can feed back help in K-12?

When I asked Gehlbach how surveys can make a difference in our current education system, Gehlbach said that two things need to happen “for student feedback to improve the teaching and learning processes.”

“First,” he said, “the feedback needs to capture students’ actual opinions on important topics with precision.”

“Second, the feedback needs to be presented to teachers and school leaders in ways that are explicitly designed to improve teachers’ pedagogy.”

Making the product free will mean that all schools, “no matter what their levels of funding…will have access to high quality measures,” in Gehlbach’s words.

Basically, Panorama, with the help of Harvard, can now try to figure out where the holes in a child’s education are, from the student’s first hand accounts.

The difficulty of getting schools to adopt to new software

Getting schools and, even more importantly, school districts to adopt a new ed tech program can be both tedious and frustrating process.

Both Gehlbach and Panorama’s Aaron Feuer believe that Panorama differentiates itself from anything else on the market. What is so appealing about Panorama’s surveys? As Gehlbach explained, the surveys can give schools a clear baseline as to where their teachers and students are, they can show which factors are most closely tied to student outcomes of interest, document changes over time, and evaluate how successful teacher interventions are in helping poor students improve.

“If the use of this survey helps teachers to improve and helps schools to identify how they can better support their students as much as I think it will,” Gehlbach said, “schools should be tremendously eager to begin using these measures.”

The greatest needs that Panorama is solving

For Panorama and the Harvard project, figuring out and driving teaching practices towards what matters most for students is the greatest possible outcome for Panorama’s new open source initiative.

“One of the things that I’m most excited about with Panorama putting these measures out into the public domain is that the range of topics addressed by the measures should push the conversation about what matters in education to broaden its focus,” Gehlbach said.

As an example, he cited how policy-makers these days put more focus on test-scores than about teacher-student relationships.

“However, for a student who is deciding whether or not to drop out of school suddenly it seems vital to care about that students’ relationships at least as much as his or her test scores — if not more,” Gehlbach said.

For Panorama, and now the Harvard School of Education, being able to build data that school districts, policy makers, and even teachers and parents can use to gauge children’s interest in, dissatisfaction with, and perception of their own education could be one of the most impactful developments in our entire education system.

With the launch of the open source program, the ability for every teacher, regardless of a district’s financial stability, to leverage a powerful ed tech technology could be a game changer.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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