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Multilingual digital educational materials

Bringing together municipalities, educational publishers and researchers, Studi’s Språkprojektet is a nationwide research and development project. It aims to develop multilingual digital educational materials that help all learners, particularly recent immigrants to Sweden, to be more successful at school.

Founded in 2011 and focused on developing short, animated, curriculum-focused films for students in grade 7 to 9 (13 to 16 years), Studi started this project as a direct result of feedback from teachers. With the help of Vinnova pilot project funding, Studi translated Swedish films in three subjects – chemistry, biology and religion – into Arabic and tested the material in 20 schools in 12 municipalities in spring 2015. According to Anna Kraft, MD Studi Nordics, the research focused on a few key questions – “How can the child best learn the language and course content in Swedish?” “Do the new digital learning materials help improve learning outcomes?” “Does the programme help students integrate with their peers and feel part of their new school?” 

The pilot also explored how it’s materials could best support teachers, who didn’t know how to teach these newly arrived students. Researchers and content developers therefore used questionnaires and interviews as the content was used in class to identify what had worked well and where the materials could be improved.

The results at the end of the pilot were clear – they showed that Studi’s digital learning materials had helped students to learn detailed curriculum content as well as learning the Swedish language. This initial work to establish a proof of concept enabled Studi to secure two further rounds of Vinnova funding as well as financial investment from Swedish municipalities. More than 80 municipalities now use the resources, which are provided in 12 global languages.

This ongoing programme – Språkprojektet – continues to make extensive use of data and research in directing product development. Data is easily accessible through Studi’s learning platform and helps identify what progress students are making as they move from native language resources through Swedish subtitles and audio content towards fluency. By combining this data with insight from Skolverket (the Swedish National Agency for Education), Studi can also demonstrate improvements in learning outcomes as a result of using their materials. 

Careful analysis of their data has also helped Studi to identify that their fastest growing user segment is actually native Swedish speakers! They’ve migrated to Studi as they’ve found the video and animation content better suited to their preferred learning style.

Student and practitioner feedback is also regularly sought, particularly when new languages and new content is being added to the platform. Studi’s newly opened Malmö office, for example, recently hosted 15 students and their teachers to gather feedback on new animations before launch. For Anna Kraft this work is vital: “It ensures that our content engages users and ensures that sensitive topics like sex and relationships are covered appropriately.”

Kraft also places a premium on the twice-yearly Språkprojektet meetings her team holds with all stakeholders. “These help make Språkprojektet an important network,” she says “where municipalities can exchange experiences, inform our research and discuss what content, features and languages should be added in the future.” It’s also an important opportunity, she believes, to reiterate the importance of Studi’s mission – to give all students in Sweden an equal chance to achieve educational success. 

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Supporting teachers. Motivating students.

An evidence-based research approach underpins the entire business at Sparx, a prominent UK EdTech business. It has also inspired them to launch a national movement calling for a ‘step change’ in the quality of EdTech evidence available to schools.

Sparx Maths is an adaptive learning platform for maths education and is aimed directly at the secondary school market (11-16 years). The Sparx Family – comprising Sparx Maths, HegartyMaths and the recently launched, Numerise – currently supports over 1.2 million learners in 1,400 schools around the world. Since the initial idea came to life in 2010, the team has continually experimented and iterated the product, based on extensive collaboration with a network of partner schools, teachers and students. The product’s homework and classroom solution was launched onto the market in 2018.

This focus on testing different hypotheses of how best to support learners and teachers in the classroom lies at the very heart of their approach to product design and development. For Tomasz Stefanski, Sparx’ Head of Data Science, this agile process is “all about coming up with ideas which might solve a problem or improve what’s already being used.” It typically involves unsuccessful approaches being quickly discarded before new prototypes (tech and paper format) are then developed and tested again in the classroom.

One example of this approach saw the team quickly abandon pre-populated schemes of learning in favour of a more flexible approach. This allowed schools to tailor the right solution for their setting by combining their own resources with those provided by Sparx, exam boards and other subject matter experts.

Bursts of research activity usually run in 1-3 local schools who test different ideas with different teachers, with different year groups and with students from all attainment levels. This requires exceptional relationships with local schools, some of whom have even given the Sparx team their own classroom to run their testing from! The same model is applied to testing in international markets, where the UK product serves as a starting point, as the team explore what works and what doesn’t in each geography. As Andrew Blackie, Commercial Director for Sparx, explains: “It’s all about getting as many teachers and students as possible involved, so that different ideas can be tested, adapted and then adopted.”

However, to understand the effectiveness of the widest variety of product features, their approach also includes rigorous analysis of all data collected through the learning platform. Every interaction with the content is carefully studied. For example, the team review what type of students pause and rewind the explanatory videos and at what point do they lose interest and click off? Tomasz Stefanski is clear on the benefits here: “We think our content is high quality , but we can always do better. It’s only through data that we can understand if the scaffolding of our learning is right. Data tells us what needs to be improved and how.”

More broadly, Sparx use the data made available through individual school dashboards to help maths departments and whole schools to identify where they can improve. Similarly, the Account Managers at Sparx use the same data to support their in-school contacts (known as Sparx Leaders), to bring key data trends (e.g homework completion rates) to their attention and to collaboratively find a solution.

But ultimately for Sparx, the most important stage of this evidence-based approach is whether their product actually makes a difference to student learning outcomes. To measure this, Sparx has pioneered the use of student-level randomised control trials (RCTs), running one of the first in UK EdTech back in 2015. Following the double-blind methodology commonly used to test medicines, the company runs multiple trials during the year. The most recent of which explored if homework impacted on attainment (it did!) and then to identify the optimum length of homework each night.

These RCTs typically involve a full year group of students in three partner schools, which is approximately 500 individual students. The trial runs for a minimum of half a term (six weeks) but most usually for a full school term. Stefanski’s team also reviews other data sources to ensure robust research and recently marked 5,000 end of year maths papers to compare and contrast student performance and build further evidence of impact. All of this data and insight is then used to iterate and improve the product once again.

This rigorous, ongoing evaluation of the efficacy of approach and learning content is a key differentiator for Sparx. Louise Mayor, Head of Marketing reiterates the point: “This is what we do and who we are. Our commitment to evidence-based research therefore sits at the heart of all of our messaging and communications activities.” At BETT 2020, this saw Sparx leading the formation of the UK’s EdTech Evidence Group. This body of like-minded businesses is making its impact evidence more widely available to help teachers/schools make better informed buying decisions and to inform government policy makers.

Unsurprisingly, Sparx will be using similar techniques to persuade parents to purchase their new B2C independent maths learning product, Numerise which the company has accelerated to help support home-learning while schools are closed due to coronavirus. The product incorporates Secondary Ready, a platform designed specifically for children in their last year of primary education so they can develop their core number skills required for secondary learning. As Mayor identifies, there’s one big difference with Sparx’s core product: “In school, pupils are told to use Sparx – they don’t have any choice. But at home, we need to motivate learners to want to use this product rather than playing Fortnite”