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Fellow Travelers: Nascent DLP-as-Research Infrastructure Community

Growing the movement

SEERNet remains focused on supporting the current IES-funded digital learning platforms (DLPs) and research teams to share ideas, build knowledge, and strengthen dissemination around using DLPs as research infrastructure. We also acknowledge that this work is part of a larger movement of platform developers, researchers, scholars, and funders who see the DLP-as-Research Infrastructure movement as a significant and necessary advancement in education research, since so much learning is taking place within DLPs. We are excited to continue to find ways to grow this movement and engage a larger community in a shared vision. Over the last several months, we conducted informal interviews with 15 project teams outside of SEERNet whose work overlaps with our network goals. The objective of these interviews was to understand the synergies between these projects and SEERNet and to discuss how we might engage with these “fellow travelers” in ways that continue to grow the movement.

From our interviews with these project teams, we discovered two prevailing interests: 1) clarifying the vision of this movement for researchers, and 2) articulating the significance of this work for practitioners. In this blog post, we introduce some of the teams we engaged with, and share our insights gleaned from these discussions.

Peer Networks

We connected with three other existing networks whose work aligns well with SEERNet: Advancing Innovative Math Solutions (AIMS) Collaboratory, Center for Educational Efficacy, Excellence, and Equity (E4) at Northwestern University, and a consortium planning to build secure data enclaves for researchers. These are all networks that bring together DLPs, researchers and schools/districts to facilitate the research process. While each network has a different operating structure, there is a lot we can learn from one another. For example, in the AIMS Collaboratory structure, the Gates Foundation funded the school district who works closely with the DLP and a research team to “advance innovative math solutions to accelerate impact and educational equity in algebra.” The decision to fund the district directly was a strategic one, since the districts have the access to personal identifiable information. Additionally, the districts co-design the research agenda with the research team to represent their local interests, in order to bridge evidence to practice. As a network, the AIMS Collaboratory is discussing things like data sharing, common data dictionaries, translating learning across the network and beyond, and how to successfully build RPPs. Similarly, E4 has formed RPPs with several large urban districts that use Curriculum Associates products, including the i-Ready assessment (which is administered to approximately 13.5 million students) and their diagnostic and curriculum data. E4 has established an early-career visiting scholars program to invite assistant professors from less-resourced universities to join the research team to design and conduct the studies. A new project, which will include several of the SEERNet DLPs, will advance the movement of DLPs as research infrastructure by building the secure data enclaves needed to provide access to student data while releasing none of it. This project plans to enable researchers to analyze fully-identified data without accessing personal identifiers and to run queries across different platforms in the same setting (e.g. a student information system, a learning management system, a specific content-area application). Each of these networks sees developing the larger movement and the identity of the movement as an important part of their work.

A Growing List of Fellow Travelers

In addition to the larger networks that are forming, we were excited to meet with other “fellow travelers” in the growing DLP-as-Research Infrastructure movement. The teams we spoke to can generally be categorized into three groups: 1) DLPs with large footprints in schools who are interested in opening access and recruiting researchers, 2) projects that are building ways to support experimental research on DLPs, and 3) other individual contributors who have a lot of experience with conducting large-scale experiments in DLPs or business development for DLPs in the marketplace.

What we learned

Across each of the 15 teams, we found excitement and interest in continuing to collaborate and learn in a community! While the projects may be emphasizing different advancements in how they approach this work (e.g., emphasis on sharing data, emphasis on ability to run experiments), there is a lot of interest in, and ideas around, the broad common themes that the SEERNet community has been discussing (e.g., data privacy, how to engage researchers and practitioners in this work). Here is a bit more about what we heard.

Articulating the vision

Several teams discussed the importance (and challenges) of how to communicate the research possibilities on platforms with other researchers. The excitement of building infrastructures to allow research to occur within DLPs– where so much learning is happening– was reiterated during these interviews. Several of the DLPs we spoke with said that they have more research questions than they can answer, but they are constrained by internal capacity and funding in their ability to answer them. Thus, the idea of opening up their platforms to other researchers is appealing. But equally prominent in the conversations were questions about how to effectively communicate to other researchers and the field about the capabilities of research within the platforms. There is an acknowledged need to identify the edges of the kind of research that can and cannot be done, and how to clearly articulate the value proposition of this work to the research community. Establishing common messaging about the value proposition to the research community could be a great first step that this larger community takes on.

Articulating the value to practitioners

There was also a lot of discussion about how to communicate the value of this work to practitioners in a way that builds trust and highlights the potential impact of research to practice. There was a consensus that the research infrastructures must be designed to ensure data privacy and data protection. There was also a call to the research community to be clear and committed that the motivation for data access with DLPs is to improve education and to provide relevant information directly back to the classroom. A key value of this work is in supporting more ecologically valid studies within actual learning environments and then giving practitioners and schools the information they need to understand what will improve their specific teaching and learning experiences. It is critical that we work to identify and align the motivations of the DLPs, researchers and practitioners in order to build trust that allows for student/data access for research that can drive improvements.  

What’s next? 

We look forward to continuing to collaborate with “fellow travelers” who are working to advance the DLP-as-Research Infrastructure movement. In the upcoming months, we plan to bring these groups together through virtual sessions (and possibly in person later this fall) where we can share our project overviews, pain points and developments, and continue to discuss ways to grow the movement. 

If you’re interested in being part of this work, or would like to learn more, contact us at