Thursday, June 3, 2010

Making Vendor Research More Credible

The latest evidence that research can be both rigorous and relevant was the subject of an announcement that the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) made last month about their new guidelines for conducting effectiveness research. The document is aimed at SIIA members, most of whom are executives of education software and technology companies and not necessarily schooled in research methodology. The main goal in publishing the guidelines is to improve the quality—and therefore the credibility—of research sponsored by the industry. The document provides SIIA members with things to keep in mind when contracting for research or using research in marketing materials. The document also has value for educators, especially those responsible for purchasing decisions. That’s an important point that I’ll get back to.

One thing to make clear in this blog entry is that while your humble blogger (DN) is given credit as the author, the Guidelines actually came from a working group of SIIA members who put in many months of brainstorming, discussion, and review. DN’s primary contribution was just to organize the ideas, ensure they were technically accurate, and put them into easy to understand language.

Here’s a taste of some of the ideas contained in the 22 guidelines:

• With a few exceptions, all research should be reported regardless of the result. Cherry picking just the studies with strong positive results distorts the facts and in the long run hurts credibility. One lesson that might be taken from this is that conducting several small studies may be preferable to trying to prove a product effective (or not) in a single study.
• Always provide a link to the full report. Too often in marketing materials (including those of advocacy groups, not just publishers) a fact such as “8th grade math achievement increased from 31% in 2004 to 63% in 2005,” is offered with no citation. In this specific case, the fact was widely cited but after considerable digging could be traced back to a report described by the project director as “anecdotal”.
• Be sure to take implementation into account. In education, all instructional programs require setting up complex systems of teacher-student interaction, which can vary in numerous ways. Issues of how research can support the process and what to do with inadequate or outright failed implementation must be understood by researchers and consumers of research.
• Watch out for the control condition. In education there are no placebos. In almost all cases we are comparing a new program to whatever is in place. Depending on how well the existing program works, the program being evaluated may appear to have an impact or not. This calls for careful consideration of where to test a product and understandable concern by educators as to how well a particular product tested in another district will perform against what is already in place in their district.

The Guidelines are not just aimed at industry. SIIA believes that as decision-makers at schools begin to see a commitment to providing stronger research, their trust in the results will increase. It is also in the educators’ interest to review the guidelines because they provide a reference point for what actionable research should look like. Ultimately, the Guidelines provide educators with help in conducting their own research, whether it is on their own or in partnership with the education technology providers. -DN

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