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Diataal is setting the standard in secondary education in the Netherlands with Diatoetsen

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The University of Groningen spin-off publisher Diataal BV is setting the standard in secondary education in the Netherlands with Diatoetsen. Diatoetsen comprises diag-nostic tests for reading comprehension, vocabulary, spelling and arithmetic with supporting practice material. Dr. Hilde Hacquebord is an associate professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Groningen, and is director of the Groningen-based company.
Hilde: ‘Diatoetsen monitors student progress from a formative perspective. We focus on diagnosis of specific aspects, for example reading comprehension problems. Our aim is to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.’
A new and distinctive learning environment was born. Hilde: ‘Diatoetsen provides teachers, students ánd parents with ongoing feedback on a student’s proficiency level, from primary education to secondary education, age 15. As the test is computer based, it is adaptively differentiated to the individual proficiency level of the student. The results display indicates the level he or she has reached and also indicates the level that student still needs to attain. Diatoetsen aims at continue learning at the appropriate level.’

Competing Cito exams
October 2017; Diatoetsen has a very good market position within secondary education. More than 35% of Dutch secondary schools, about 100,000 pupils, make use of Diatoetsen’s distinctive learning environment. Hilde: ‘And we are about to expand our focus to primary education as well.’

As of this school year, Diatoetsen is focusing on primary education, in competition with the annual Cito exam (Cito-toets). The Cito exam is an independent assessment of final year Dutch primary school pupils. Hilde: ‘Diatoetsen is a much better alternative than Cito assessment, from a pedagogic perspective. Cito assessments are mainly summative, evaluating learning areas of maths, receptive reading, spelling and technical reading by means of defined measures. A world of difference from Diatoetsen.’

Positioning in the market
The germ of the success of the Diatoetsen innovative e-learning environment lies almost 30 years ago. In 1989 Hilde Hacquebord graduated on her thesis ‘Tekstbegrip van Turkse en Nederlandse leerlingen in het voortgezet onderwijs’. Hilde: ‘My doctoral study showed surprisingly that Turkish students in secondary education had less problems with comprehension reading of Dutch texts where Dutch students had no idea. These non-native speakers, you could say they are compensatory readers, used smart reading strategies, such as associative reading and reading with insider information.’

This sensational discovery of compensatory reading made the Groningen-based language scientist decide to start developing innovative reading intervention programmes herself, including reading methods and reading comprehension assessments for Dutch students with language deficiency, and students who had trouble with text comprehension. Filling a gap in the market. Hilde: ‘In the mid-90's an increasing number of students signed up at the class who weren’t able to understand the technical or vocational training because of insufficient reading comprehension skills or a lack of vocabulary.’

Local and regional schools and governments in the Northern Netherlands contacted Hacquebord’s department of Applied Linguistics of the Groningen University with a request for help. Hilde: ‘So we introduced our new e-learning tracking system for comprehension reading in the Northern Netherlands.’

Over the same period of time the Dutch Ministry of Education heard about Diatoetsen via the enthusiastic stories of teachers. The Ministry asked Hilde Hacquebord to officially standardise her innovative comprehension reading tests. Hilde: ‘Diatoetsen tied in with the strategy of the Ministry to guarantee equal learning opportunities for all students. The Ministry’s request felt like nationwide recognition.’

In the late '90s Hilde Haquebord founded the Center of Expertise of language, education and communication (Etoc), University of Groningen. In the context of Etoc Diatoetsen was further developed and digitalised. Diataal generated a lot of research funding from private investors and subsidies. With the support of RUG Holding Hilde Hacquebord decided to start her own business in 2011. Diataal BV was founded. Hilde, smiling: ‘We invented a product that met the needs of many schools. It gave a boost to sales straight away.’

A dream came true. Hilde: 'Diataal already employs 15 people (10 fte). And our innovative e-learning environment is highly appreciated by the Dutch Inspectorate of Education.’

How to become a successful entrepreneurial researcher? 

Hilde: ‘Seize the opportunity to start a business from your academic environment. Universities provide the people, the multidisciplinary expertise, including business development support, money, and they provide challenging research projects and a useful network. In the initial phase, focus on a cost-effective budget. A budget just sufficient to cover the first financial requirements, including money to be able keeping on writing your articles, financial means to attend your conferences, to start small, interesting research projects that you can publish about. A lot of my publications turned into material for students in teacher education.’

Different rhythm
And you need plenty of perseverance as well. Hilde: ’In practice, the entrepreneurial environment and the academic environment can sometimes be difficult to bring together. Entrepreneurs want to see quick results and products that are ready to sell, researchers aim to do long term research and publish. These worlds have a different rhythm. On the other hand, university-industry driven cooperation is indispensable for spurring innovation and generating investment for new research and new products.’

Catching Innovation, October 2017 edition, Research & Valorisation