Q&A with ETS’s Research Foundry Team

The Research Foundry, housed within the Research & Development division at ETS, has spent the last few years building rapid prototypes to help provide solutions to the challenges that learners and educators face in today’s world. True to the ETS mission, the team is working to put more reliable, high-quality tools in their hands and respond to user-needs at a lightening pace.

Hear from a few members of the Foundry team about who they are, how they operate and what they’re working on in this Q&A:

1. What is the Research Foundry at ETS?

Tanner Jackson, Director of the Research Foundry: The Research Foundry is an internal incubator within ETS’s Research & Development division that is made up of a cross-functional, fully dedicated team of engineers, designers, project manager, and user experience researchers. Our team works with internal stakeholders and external users to design, develop, and rapidly build edtech prototypes and learning tools. The goal is for us to translate existing educational research conducted at ETS into real-world applications that can be deployed and tested with our target users.

All of our projects begin with a focus on identifying and understanding our users – their values, beliefs, and challenges. Then, in partnership with those users, we as a team, design and develop potential solutions that leverage existing ETS research and core capabilities.  We continuously evaluate and refine a potential solution to both advance the research on solving the specific problem and inform development and optimization.

2. Why ‘The Foundry?’

Patrice Thomas, Senior Coordinator of Agile Development: For decades, ETS has delivered on its mission of pursuing equity in education through rigorous research in educational assessment to support learners. To further deliver on that mission, the organization is now seeking out new ways of expanding its impact by translating its foundational research into digital learning and assessment solutions that can be accessed by learners worldwide.  All of our projects within the Foundry are focused on the end user. This begins with us understanding the user and then investigating how they interact with a prototype so that we can make data-driven decisions about improving our capabilities to better meet user’s needs. This endeavor to understand potential solutions to real-world problems helps to fill the gap between foundational research that advances education sciences and the practical application of everyday educational experiences for both educators and learners.

3. How does the Foundry team approach their work?

Chris Kurzum, Research Project Manager: The Foundry team considers the goals of the project, the team structure, and how the work is executed in our approach to any project. Our work emerges based on foundational research conducted at ETS that points to a user need that ETS has the potential to support solving. When a new concept is considered by the team, the expectation is that it will have a roughly short-term, highly focused duration in the Foundry. Upfront, we consider and identify target users, engage with them in and co-design activities, rapidly prototyping a potential solution in tandem that leverages existing ETS capabilities. Upon initial testing of a resulting prototype, if the concept is determined to have potential as a viable solution, it will transition over to new research teams to pursue longer-term research and shared with business units to explore potential product applications.

4. What are some of the most important values for the Foundry?

Patrice Thomas, Senior Coordinator of Agile Development: To execute our rapid workflow successfully, our team has adopted a set of core values. Given our keen focus on user-centered design we use approaches including lean start-up and agile methods to turn our work around quickly.  We maintain ongoing engagement with our users through interviews, observations, and pilot testing in order to provide the necessary information to make evidence-based decisions. And, regular decisions are made about whether to pivot or continue developing a potential solution.

5. What are some examples of projects the Foundry has completed? What are you working on?

Tanner Jackson, Director of the Research Foundry: Some of the projects we have completed and those that are in production, include:

  • An English test that can be taken anytime, anywhere, providing a quick and trustworthy indication of overall proficiency, so language training institutions can efficiently provide students with the education they need.
  • A web application that provides on-demand and cost-effective conversational speaking practice to non-native language learners looking to join the English-speaking workforce through simulated, naturalistic conversations with actionable feedback in a non-judgmental environment.
  • An app that was designed for young English Language Learners (ELLs) to practice speaking English. The tool provides interactive spoken English conversation through several game-based Amazon Alexa® skills that are fun, immersive, persistent, and allow ELLs to practice at school, home, and on-the-go. In addition to the launch of 3 Alexa skills, the team also produced a mobile app prototype which focused on educational games to improve young English learners’ speaking skills.
  • A writing tool that is designed for English-language learners who would like to improve their English writing skills. The tool is intended to provide users the options to practice and receive feedback/scaffolding on-demand that provides actionable information to inform future learning activities outside of the classroom.
  • A speaking app that was designed for English-language learners who are trying to improve their English-speaking skills. The app provides on-demand speaking practice, and instant and actionable feedback that is supported by the makers of the TOEFL® Family of Assessments, state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technologies, second language learning theories, and skills that are critical for academic and career success in an English-speaking environment.