Strength in Understanding

Driving new edtech through student data analysis.

GUEST COLUMN | by Emily Gover

CREDIT Imagine EasyMany educators on Twitter often ask about who develops ed tech, but more importantly, why and how. What is the motivation? Why build one tool over another?

It’s time to clear this up, at least for one edtech company that reaches millions of students every year.

The company for which I work, founded in 2001, is a little company with big ideas. Our flagship product supports students with their bibliographies. With over 47 million users and 1 billion citations, we have a unique insight into how students approach research and writing assignments.

Through leveraging our student data, we are able to inform educators and develop new products that help solve a proven and known problem in education.

So what’s a company to do with all that data? We analyze it to develop new and refine existing products, and detail the findings in white papers to share with our community of educators. The latest white paper, Analyzing Student Writing & Research Habits to Drive New Technology, summarizes three years of data on student writing and research.

In a nutshell, here’s what we have learned over the years:

Ethical Writing is Not Innate

We conducted an informal survey with our student users in 2012 on how they organize and structure their writing.

Shockingly, more than half (54%) of the 2,700 respondents said that they would be less likely to give credit if they didn’t have edtech tools like ours to support them through the process. Essentially, more than half of students said they would intentionally plagiarize if they did not have tech to help them.

Organizing ideas and main themes in writing is a requirement in many of the new standards, and outlining is fundamental in developing this skill. The same survey found that a whopping 60% of students do not use an outline when structuring their writing. This lack of organization demonstrates that students are not able to write cohesively or develop strong connections across different sources.

Critical Thinking Skills are Lackluster at Best

Many studies have found that K-12 students are more likely to use Google to access digital information than asking teacher or school librarian for guidance. Annual analysis of our data corroborates this: 90% of our tool’s most-cited sources stem from popular websites found on Google.

With such stark statistics, we wondered: Do students exercise close reading of information texts enough? Do they critically think about multiple characteristics of digital content?

In 2014, we saw an opportunity to ask students about this topic directly. Collecting over 10,000 responses, the findings were curious: About half said they only consider one or two components of credibility, like authority or bias; over one third said they think about it often, and 14% willingly admitted they do not think critically about information at all.

Despite these somewhat “positive” responses—86% of respondents saying they consider at least two characteristics of credibility with information found online—our data and external reports show otherwise, with many top sources from our tool coming from user-generated websites and Wikipedia.

Teachers Are Left in the Dark

In 2013, our company worked with the non-profit group Project Information Literacy (PIL) on their annual report about how students find, evaluate, and use online information. Using our flagship site as a literal survey site, PIL surveyed almost 2,000 students to better understand whom they consult when they face struggles during the writing and research process.

The study found that less than half of students consult an educator as they compile their writing. As a result, teachers cannot pinpoint learning roadblocks until the writing is complete, hindering their abilities to provide support to students at the point of need, in real time.

What’s an EdTech Company to Do?

Armed with a stronger understanding of where students can improve, we set out to build a new product that will disrupt the way students interact with content online. After a year of consulting with hundreds of teachers, curriculum directors, and administrators, Imagine Easy Scholar was born.

Released in April 2015, this new platform supports students with close reading skills as they interact with digital content. Annotate anything on the open web—teachers and students have the freedom choose the content they wish, synthesize information, and create new knowledge. Our new platform uses the same powerful technology as EasyBib to create source lists, so students can maintain their academic integrity as they move through the writing process.

Undoubtedly, communities like EdTechBridge help bridge the gap between tech companies and educators, but understanding the driving forces behind edtech development is an important (yet still fuzzy) area of discussion. Through leveraging our student data, we are able to inform educators and develop new products that help solve a proven and known problem in education.

Emily Gover is the Community Manager at Imagine Easy Solutions, the team behind EasyBib. She is a part-time librarian, loyal podcast listener, and novice knitter. For a white paper on the issues described above, click here.


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