A New Way to Judge Ed-Tech Products: ‘Learner Variability’

School districts have long been disappointed with the fact that many of the thousands of ed-tech products pitched to them each year are developed as “one-size-fits- all” tools. They need something different: products that can be adapted to meet students’ multiple needs.

To address that disconnect, Digital Promise has released a new product certification intended to serve “as a reliable signal for educators, administrators, and families looking for evidence that ed-tech products support the unique needs of their learners.”

Called the Learner Variability Product Certification, it was created and tested to identify what product design features, tools, and support would help learners and teachers clearly understand whether a specific ed-tech product can meet their needs, said Christina Luke, the director of digital certifications and credentialing for Digital Promise.

“Learner variability means so many different things to different people,” she said. But it includes strategies like giving learners the opportunity to choose certain aspects of their learning experience, allowing an English learner to re-read a passage in a language they’re fluent in, or helping an educator understand what kind of extension activities a student needs to master a concept, Luke said.

Learner variability is based on what Digital Promise describes as a whole-child understanding of learners. It recognizes that each learner has unique cognitive development, social-emotional capacities, and personal backgrounds.

Ed-tech products designed with learner variability in mind are more likely to support the broad range of a learner’s strengths and challenges that can vary in different contexts and that create multiple opportunities for differentiation, the organization contends. The certification uses a competency-based learning framework, developed in collaboration with more than 60 educators, a dozen ed-tech products, and Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Project advisory board.


In total, 128 strategies were chosen by the project team, which included researchers, educators, and product developers. To get the base level of certification, a company must demonstrate that it is using at least six. The Learner Variability Navigator is a free online tool that translates the science of learner variability into easily accessible learner factor maps and strategies to improve educational product design and classroom practice.

To qualify for learner variability certification, a company must show that its product:

    • Offers at least six distinct features, tools, and/or learning experiences that support learners’ social-emotional needs, cognitive abilities, and personal backgrounds and explains in detail how different learners are expected to benefit from each feature/tool/learning experience.
    • Identifies and explains at least two features that can be adjusted by the users themselves to meet learners’ varying needs.
    • Provides clear, easily accessible, publicly facing information on how the product has been designed to support variation among learners. It also must clearly identify which aspects of learner variability are supported by using the product, and
    • Incorporates input from educators and diverse learners to inform the design features.

Visitors to Achieve3000 Literacy—which has earned the Digital Promise learner variability certification—will see a statement on the home page about how the company is complying as strictly as possible with accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. These guidelines are designed to help ensure that a website is accessible to all: blind people, people with motor impairments, visual impairment, cognitive disabilities, and more. To deliver on that commitment, Achieve3000 Literacy offers users buttons that can be turned on to automatically adapt the site for individuals with specific needs.

To establish how closely an ed-tech product aligns with the needs of different learners, companies can begin by using a Product Assessment Tool on the Digital Promise site. The evaluation offers suggestions for features that can be developed to reach more learners.

Fifteen products are the first to have earned the Learner Variability certification. Each ed-tech product team submitted evidence verifying they have designed features, including some that can be manipulated by learners themselves, that support learner variability. The 15 products are:

●  Achieve3000

●  Actively Learn

●  BrainPOP

●  CommonLit

●  Ellevation Math

●  Ellevation Strategies

●  Levered Learning

●  Newsela

●  My Math Academy

●  Pear Deck

●  Readworks

●  Speak Agent

●  ST Math


●  Tailor-ED

This is the second product certification introduced by Digital Promise, based on learning sciences research.

The organization launched the Research-Based Design certification in February and has certified 37 products to date. Eleven products have earned both certifications.

Applications are now open on the Digital Promise website for product developers interested in earning the Learner Variability certification. For more information on Digital Promise’s product certifications, visit