Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Teams With Harvard To Open Source Its Student Survey

Panorama Education, the Y-Combinator education startup backed by the likes of Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg’s Startup:Education, Google Ventures and other notable investors, is today announcing a partnership with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education that speaks to how the startup is evolving its core business model. The pair have teamed up to launch Panorama Student Survey, Panorama’s signature school survey delivered as a free, open source product.

Panorama Education will subsequently make the use of the survey (online here) free for new and existing school, school-district, and state education department customers, while continuing to offer analytics and reporting tools around the basic survey. To date, Panorama says that it has worked with “hundreds” of districts and states collecting feedback and analyzing the data of over 1.5 million students served this past school year — all in the name of giving supplemental information that might not be easily found otherwise, to help improve how students are educated.

As a bit of background to Panorama, the startup was first conceived by co-founder Aaron Feuer when he was still in school himself. Participating in student government, he saw that there was a disconnect between how students, teachers and parents all perceived education, and what they hoped to get out of it, and how administrators were forming opinions. Through years at Yale, and then Y Combinator, Panorama Education was born.

The line between education and enterprise has always been a contentious one — on one hand there is something to be said for entrepreneurship spurring innovation, but on the other is the idea that access to good education, and the best we as a society have to offer, should be at the disposal of everyone, not just those who can pay. You might wonder if Panorama’s push to take its survey product free is the result of perhaps the startup not finding enough school districts and others willing to pay to use that product, either for lack of funds or simply for lack of initiative.

In fact, I think it’s something different. When I first spoke to Feuer last year, he described how the company saw itself more as competing against the likes of management consultancies, providing a new approach, and new technology, to give better answers to educators asking, “What can we do better? What should we be doing better?” Open sourcing the survey portion of its business, in that regard, makes complete sense — the basic materials become something that everyone can use and build on, and Panorama can then focus on ways of parsing and analysing that data for paying customers.

There is also a precedent in the broader area of online education for open sourcing, although much of that work has been relegated to the actual process of learning and online tools to facilitate that, rather than some of the back-office surveys to help find more quality ways of educating online and offline. (Two decent resource guides for open-source educational offerings are here and here.)

“There’s an art and a science to creating great surveys that gather valid data, and we realized that was a huge need in the field too — schools needed more than our technology,” Feuer says of the news. He also adds that this is something of a first for the education industry. “There are a few surveys out there, but most are proprietary (and mediocre.)”

Panorama says that it’s been working with Harvard for more than a year not just on the survey but the tools for collecting feedback data from students. The Harvard team and Panorama piloted the survey this last spring with 13 school districts, which included not only running the surveys but also interviewing students and teachers and others to get the questions right. The basic premise was the make something not only open source, but actually effective:

“When I taught high school social studies, feedback from my students played a vital role in helping me improve my pedagogy. Feedback can be a really powerful tool, but you have to ask the right questions in the right way. We want every educator to have access to the best tools available,” notes Harvard Associate Professor Hunter Gehlbach, a survey methodologist and education researcher, who led the effort from the university side. “Panorama was already a leader in the field, and when they pitched me on the idea of creating this survey and making it free for schools, it was a perfect match.”

As part of the survey’s life as an open source product, Harvard and Panorama will also continue to update and refresh the material, the two said.

Image: Flickr