For Long-Term Success, EdTech Needs to be Part of a School’s DNA

Starting early with curriculum and pedagogic models, how to effect authentic change.

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Harris

CREDIT EdTech Digest.pngWe know that educational technology (edtech) offers the potential to enhance learning to meet the needs of contemporary students.

It does what education is supposed to do: it provides skills, knowledge, and experiences that emulate the information rich world in which students live.

And schools will often jump in with both feet to leverage this potential.

The Common Model for EdTech Implementation

In most schools, the adoption of edtech is considered a special event.

Often it will begin with a pilot program of devices, then a short term strategic plan (with heavy emphasis on costs) to implement technology more broadly, and finally celebration of accomplishment as amazing activities and projects stream out classrooms.

For a school to have a truly sustainable and impactful edtech program it almost needs to be invisible.

Schools will then earmark funds for tools and personnel, bring in trainers to support technology tools, and they create departments and evaluation structures to ensure edtech is monitored.

During this phase, schools will often highlight their strategies and accomplishments. They will publish a roadmap for edtech in the school, emphasizing their purpose and plans for the program.

They’ll show something cool the students have done using their devices.

Many will hold parent sessions to discuss the implication of technology on the home-school bridge. Others will go further and include technology integration into their teacher evaluation processes. Many ask teachers to identify how they will increase their use of technology for learning.

Sadly, this is where the edtech journey culminates for many schools.

The Absence of Authentic Change

This is not true and lasting change as it doesn’t fundamentally improve the learning experiences for students. In fact, it subjugates edtech, and its potential, to a lesser position in the hierarchy of pedagogy and learning activities. Edtech becomes an add-on for a school that requires special care and feeding. It doesn’t become a core practice of the school.

FETC link.jpgLearn more from Matt Harris and other leading analysts, thought leaders, and educators at the 2018 Future of Education Technology Conference, January 23-26 in Orlando, Florida. 

Without an eye towards authentic change and sustainability, even the most exemplary edtech programs will hit a wall. The initial excitement about technology for learning will fade and focus will shift from commitments to the future to returns on investment and eventually cost cutting.

Sustainability and the School’s DNA

To truly impact student learning with technology, schools need to look at the long game and insist that their programs become part of the school’s DNA.

First, during program inception, strong focus should be given towards sustainability. Most schools that embark on the edtech journey will be able to manage logistics, professional development, budgeting for devices at the outset.

Instead, they should look deeply at what happens in year three once the “honeymoon” period is over.

They should consider altering their expense and capital budgets to include expansion of technology tools and replacement of devices. They should fund depreciation on the devices and be prepared to replace a third of them every year in perpetuity. Clearly delineated funds should be reserved for annual training on new systems and the employment of education technology coaches. These funds should be reserved year over year to avoid either large unplanned expenditures or cancellation of elements of the program.

Second, edtech should be included in all academic planning. As curriculum is developed and term plans are finalized, the edtech personnel should be part of the discussions. Technology skills should be part of student evaluation with an eye towards application and independence rather than tool specific knowledge. The technology should move from being an add-on to learning to an accepted tool, similar to textbooks or resource specialists.

Importantly, there needs to be a balance. Many schools will err on the side of one time learning projects with heavy use of technology tools as a marker of edtech success.

This is not always the case.

Technology can be used for amazing student work, but it must fit into the curriculum and pedagogic models of the school to be truly integrated into learning over the long term. It is very easy to use it for a wonderful project in year one, then ditch it in year two because the time is needed for something else.

Instead, technology projects should be seen to integrate and supplement other forms of learning activities. Large-scale projects should use technology to create a holistic experience for students that focuses on several areas of learning.

Finally, schools need to change the way they call out their edtech.

The most sustainable edtech programs will be found in schools that implant technology into their core learning documents and practices. You will find reference to it in the school’s mission and vision, hiring and appraisal procedures, and in school reports. However, this reference is always on par with other learning and operational approaches.

Technology goals should be removed as a highlighted element from teacher evaluation. If technology is highlighted, then it isn’t integrated in the learning DNA of the school. Instead include it as a line item as you would differentiation or formative assessment.

Also, report cards should talk about creative and responsible uses of technology rather than specific skill development. And when a school highlights their edtech success, avoid discussions about the iPads, but rather what the students experienced and learned.

The Long Game

For a school to have a truly sustainable and impactful edtech program it almost needs to be invisible. An outsider should have to search for technology in school publications rather than be greeted by it at first glance. They should feel its presence in a classroom instead of having teachers specifically call it out.

And all members of the school community should be comfortable in the belief their younger students will receive the same edtech experiences as the older children as they progress through the school.

Impactful edtech is not a one-time event.

Matt Harris, Ed.D., is Deputy Head of School for Learning Technology at the British School of Jakarta, Indonesia. He also works as an educational consultant for schools and Ministries of Education in the Middle East, Africa, North America, Australia, and Asia. Matt has a deep passion for all things edtech. Contact him through

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How to Teach Math Without Worksheets

An engineer’s perspective on making a digital shift in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marie Mérouze 

CREDIT Marbotic.pngWhen looking for alternative ways to teach math, avoiding the use of worksheets seems like it would be a simple task considering technology is constantly changing the learning environment.

E-books and typing are easily inserted into reading and writing lessons, but finding an innovative angle to teach math in a way that equates with the way students learn can prove to be more difficult.

Take it one step further to develop the most engaging lessons by using applications that pair both technology and hands-on activities.

Students are tired of completing worksheet after worksheet, just like you’re tired of assigning and grading them. And while some schools have minimized this problem with a no homework approach which prevents worksheets from being sent home, they are still used daily in classroom settings.

Although worksheets make lesson planning simple and are easily accessible, it’s time to get more creative during math lessons. To help, we’ve compiled three ways to put worksheets aside and reinforce math principles in a fun way.

Use educational technology

In today’s digital age, there are plenty of educational tech tools available and the number of apps and tech toys made for education is constantly growing.

Technology today can be educational while incorporating ways to make math fun for students. While seeking a fitting app or tool for your classroom use, it’s important to list out educational standards the tool or app must have.

Search for applications that increase engagement. They should be fun for the students, but they should not distract from the math lesson at hand. Combining technology with your lesson plans helps those visual learners. Take it one step further to develop the most engaging lessons by using applications that pair both technology and hands-on activities.

Include hands-on experiences

While technology is great, take a moment to look back through history. Before calculators were on every tech device, math problems were solved with an abacus. This tool made of columns of stones and beads representing units, while outdated shows the importance of using physical objects in math. Hands-on learning through physical objects gives kids a visual representation of numbers which allows them to be creative while learning basic addition and subtraction.

Visualize how difficult it is to teach someone a new game without being able to physically demonstrate how it is played. It would be easy to explain the rules, but people need hands-on demonstrations to fully understand how to play. Giving students a hands-on experience helps them understand and retain the basic rules of math.

Merge math with other subjects

You probably have a designated time to teach math, English, science, and so on. But, having a schedule does not mean it can only be taught during ‘math’ time.

Math can be incorporated with most subjects in order to help students obtain a deeper understanding of numbers. For example, include math into an English lesson by having students write and read story problems and even solve them. This not only allows students to work on their creative writing, but also combines reading and math, allowing students to practice multiple skills at once.

When seeking other ways to combine and punch-up lessons, try getting active. Use recess, or class time to play games like basketball or kickball, that encourage students to practice counting while keeping score. Using some class time for these activities gives students a creative way to practice math principles while taking a small break from the monotony of the classroom. You can insert math into games you already know or try creating your own, or even mix math into everyday activities, like counting off by 2s or 3s in line, or solving a quick addition or subtraction problem before entering a classroom.

While worksheets are still used in many classrooms, there are always creative ways to teach and reinforce math lessons. Revamping lesson plans with new activities for your students will not only renew their engagement but, you might also discover a new teaching method to incorporate in other subjects.

Remember to keep it simple but still challenge yourself to insert creativity and fun into lesson plans.

Marie Mérouze is the founder and CEO of Marbotic, an IoT startup focusing on the creating of connected devices for children. Marbotic has two flagship products: Smart Letters and Smart Numbers. Marie has her Masters in Engineering from Ecole Centrale Paris, an engineering graduate institution. She worked at an e-learning company for children for ten years before founding her own company.

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3 Ways to Streamline Higher Ed Tasks

Digital transformation has at last made its way to higher education, and staff need to take advantage of the perks.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jamie Riepe

CREDIT Signal Vine img.jpgIt’s no secret that higher education staff are often spread thin across their many responsibilities – from managing student enrollment to overseeing residential life to directing financial aid and back again. Digital transformation has at last made its way to higher education, and staff need to take advantage of the perks.

From staff organization to student communication to online learning experiences, tools that bring higher education into the digital age are becoming more commonplace.

The benefit?

Streamlined processes, and ultimately, improved staff capacity over time.

From staff organization to student communication to online learning experiences, tools that bring higher education into the digital age are becoming more commonplace.

In the case of uAspire, an organization that helps students find affordable ways to access postsecondary education, staff implemented a student texting strategy that increased advisor capacity from 300 students per advisor to a caseload of more than 1,000 students per advisor.

With all the digital tools available today, it’s important to uncover which ones will be the most beneficial to higher ed staff in areas that need it most. Below are a few key insights your institution can use to effectively embrace digital transformation and streamline processes for staff:

Streamlining staff organization

There is a significant need among higher ed staff for a streamlined system of communication.

With dozens of admin-related deadlines and important student-related events happening at any given time, multiplied by hundreds and even thousands of students, the task of effectively communicating important information across campus quickly becomes overwhelming.

A system that combines automated and personalized messaging is a great way to get important messages out across the board, while still maintaining a one-on-one feel.

This means that email no longer cuts it.

Higher ed staff need to enter the digital age and say goodbye to archaic methods of linear communication, like email, which students delete without reading, and implement a more intuitive system for cross-campus communication. Build in additional support features – like instant message options and tutorial videos for staff – and you’re golden.

Streamlining student communication

We’ve established that email communication is on its way out the door – so what is the best way for higher ed to reach students with messages they will actually listen and respond to?

First of all, messages must be clear and to the point.

If students see paragraphs upon paragraphs of text, they are likely to ignore your message altogether.

Only the most relevant information – who, what, when, how, etc. – is necessary.

Secondly, make sure to personalize your communication.

Students don’t want to feel like you are blasting out blanket messaging – and they’ll be able to tell if you have. A personal touch and being available to respond back quickly will make students much more likely to engage with your message.

Finally, personal touches can go too far if you use too much shorthand. Students want to be spoken to like an adult, so avoid certain abbreviations like “u” for “you” and “2” for “to.”

Streamlining the online learning experience

Online learning has grown in popularity over the last few years – to the point that some universities exist exclusively online.

According to a recent report from Online Learning Consortium, one in four students in higher education is taking an online course.

For students who opt in to online learning, engagement is critical. Staff need a specific plan in place to make sure each student feels connected and appreciated.

To accomplish this, staff should set a specific schedule for checking in with students and stick to it, whether that’s weekly, bi-weekly, or mid-course. Determine what those check-ins will be: touching base to find out how each student is handling the course load, opportunities for feedback about the course, “getting to know you” sessions, etc. And don’t make it all about checking in – help students set goals and motivate them by rewarding their individual successes. The ultimate goal is to recreate the feeling of a classroom virtually.

There are several areas within higher education in which implementing digital tools can help make life easier for staff.

With all the options available, it’s important to be intentional about creating an effective strategy that focuses on the areas that could benefit the most from digital transformation: staff organization, student communication, and online learning environments.

With the right tools in place, higher ed staff capacity has the potential to increase, creating even more opportunities to help students reach their goals. 

Jamie Riepe is Chief Revenue Officer of Signal Vine, an enterprise text messaging platform transforms the way higher education institutions reach and engage students. The company serves more than 200 higher education organizations, including the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, University of New Mexico, and Austin Community College.

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The Adventures of Alice in Jakarta

An international school educator rekindles a passion for exploration in her students and herself.

GUEST COLUMN | by Stephanie Mathews

After starting the British School Jakarta, with an Apple one-to-one student laptop program, I wondered how I would manage to keep up with the technological demands.

After I met my year 7 class, it was clear these 11 year olds were already light years ahead of me in their understanding of all things technical: apps, platforms, collaboration tools and creating multimedia resources.

When approaching our ‘Inanimate Alice: Digital Storytelling Unit’, my ‘wonder’ increased to a slight panic: how could I ever ‘teach’ these pupils anything new?

Luckily, my school’s Technology Coaches were on hand to help out. They worked with me during the initial stages of my planning and suggested ways we could support students in both studying Digital Stories and creating their own.

I’m excited about teaching the unit again; no longer fearing the unknown, simply waiting for the inspiration and creativity technology once again evokes.

Though initially, I taught traditional methods of story study: analysis of character, plot, sentence structure and vocabulary, the change to a digital medium allowed for new knowledge. For example, analysis of meaning presented through mise en scène (arrangement of scenery and stage props), audio and visual media design.

Before I knew it, I had A-Level analysis terms being used in a Key Stage 3 class!

The change to multimedia storytelling revealed new opportunities to deepen student understanding of the original analysis skills.

They were able to decipher the application of pathetic fallacy via color and props; they were able to detect the subtle change in non-diegetic and diegetic sounds to indicate fear; they were able to appreciate the impact of a long-angle camera shot to depict the vastness of Alice’s unknown setting and emotion.

Studying through a Digital mode also amplified students’ emotional engagement with the plot.

The most exciting opportunity technology offered was for students to apply their newfound knowledge by creating their own Digital Stories.

No Worries

As a ‘non-tech-savvy-teacher’ this section initially worried me, but I learned that I don’t need to have all the answers: students were happy to explore their own choices in the technology they used. This exploration was greatly enhanced and supported in class with assistance from our Tech Coaches.

We wanted the learning to be as authentic as possible, so their Digital Stories focused on students’ Jakartan experiences; some took inspiration from the stories of pupils at Sekolah Bisa! – a micro school established by a BSJ CAS project with the goal of changing the fate of children from local kampungs (villages).

Students recorded their own footage and interviews as they, some for the first time, began to truly consider the disparity of their lives from those in their country and broader communities.

As part of our school’s Digital Citizenship Program, students were taught about usage rights and encouraged to film as much of their own material as possible. The English Department also teamed up with the Computer Science Department so that students could share footage and learn how to upload their videos to YouTube.

The staff collaboration across these departments was also a new experience that the technological input provided.

Leaders, Collaborators, Independent Learners

Through completing their Digital Storytelling, students became leaders, collaborators and independent learners. Some lessons, I would see them for all of a minute whilst they quickly detailed their ‘filming schedule’ then disappeared around the school to create.

Students had a flexible choice of tools and technologies and were empowered to recognize and utilize their strengths as they applied their media knowledge to a real-world dimension by creating and presenting their own disrupted childhoods or those from Sekolah Bisa!

The Digital Stories unit really showed me the benefits a technology rich environment. I could never have imagined the outcomes as they were and so I learnt the power of putting students in control: it reaps learning opportunities you can’t design.

Essentially, technology transformed my role as an educator, moving me away from the forefront of learning to simply the starting point. This learning community — created by students’ independence and engagement — enabled them to deepen their understanding of storytelling and digital skills as they provided each other support, guidance and critique.

Skills and Tools They’ll Use

Yet, more importantly, students developed transferable skills they need in the real world with the tools they will also need to use.

Moving forward, our Tech Coaches are already trialing out and researching new, more modern and innovative tools students can use in their own Digital Story creations next year.

In particular, we want to develop students’ understanding and use of digital sound and hope to team up with the music department in their creations.

I’m excited about teaching the unit again; no longer fearing the unknown, simply waiting for the inspiration and creativity technology once again evokes.

Stephanie Mathews is assistant faculty leader at the British School Jakarta in Indonesia. She has been a literacy coordinator, taught English and has her Master of Arts in Education and Leadership, as well as Google Educator Level 2 certification. Contact her through LinkedIn.

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The Vital Importance of Connecting College Students with Industry Experience

Re-examining current education models with ‘competent producers’ in mind. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Randy Swearer

CREDIT McGraw Hill.pngColleges and universities are a stepping stone between childhood and adulthood, a launch pad into professionalism and an educational haven for acquiring the necessary skills to lock in good careers.

And yet, they are failing to leave undergrads feeling confident in this professional capacity, especially when it comes to using specialized industry technology.

According to McGraw Hill Education’s 2017 Future Workforce Survey, fewer than half of college students today feel very or extremely prepared for their professional careers ahead and only thirty-seven percent acquired skills in industry technology, signifying a major problem with the way our colleges and universities are preparing students for the future.

With the labor landscape constantly evolving, it’s more important than ever before to provide students with access to a myriad of experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

Until we can amend the current education model to include more hands-on industry training and skills, students are left to seek out internships and experiences outside of university walls to prepare them for the future.

Sixty-three percent of the students surveyed indicated that they would have felt more prepared for the workforce if they had participated in more internships and built up more professional experience during college.

While some of the responsibility remains on students to seek the critical experience to prepare themselves for the future, society as a whole can and should do more to ready students for what lies ahead.

This is especially important as industry experience is no longer an option, but rather an essential component of preparing for future employment.

According to The Graduate Market in 2017 – an annual report on universities and the employment market in Britain by High Fliers Research – two-fifths of recruiters hoped to attract more applicants for specific job functions, particularly those with engineering or other technical vacancies.

Students, universities and businesses must come together to ensure the current generation is prepared for the realities and possibilities of future careers.

A Winning Approach

One former NFL player and a former competitive soccer player decided to take matters into his own hands after graduating from Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture. Upon realizing their mutual appreciation for design, Kevin Jones and Alex Barrette decided to build their own design consultancy firm – Joba.

With strong roots in Virginia, they sought to create a local design hub so that future Virginia Tech students would have the opportunity to directly connect with the design and tech industries without relocating to major cities like New York or San Francisco.

Joba welcomes the opportunity to work with interns, teaching them how to use professional design software, like Autodesk’s Fusion 360, among others.

By hiring students, Joba fostered an environment where students are awarded the opportunity to have a meaningful and valuable experience setting them on a path for professional success. Both having had professional sports experience, Kevin and Alex knew what it was like to be part of a team and to have a larger goal in mind aside from individual objectives.

They leveraged their athletic experience to create a sense of camaraderie among their staff, allowing their interns to develop equally significant soft skills (like the ability to collaborate and work well with others) while also honing in on vital technical industry experience.

Fast Track for Success

In the UK, Autodesk is leading a Future of British Manufacturing Initiative which is a collaboration between key UK organizations that’s focused on increasing competitive advantage by removing the barriers to true productivity and innovation.

The Fast Track Program is one element of this initiative which enables student experts from the U.K.’s top design and engineering universities to intern as “digital catalysts” in established businesses and expedite their adoption of digital technologies.

It also increases the ability of those companies to develop innovative, connected products. The program quintessentially brings together students, universities and businesses for a rich experience that benefits all involved.

Just Doing It Now

PENSOLE™ Footwear Design Academy  is another example of how students can refine their design and technical skills while gaining industry-relevant experience. The program teaches students the entire footwear design process from concept development to prototyping and branding and the hands-on environment exposes students to a real-life work environment.

As a result of the PENSOLE program, there are already nearly 250 graduates working professionally for world renowned footwear companies such as adidas, JORDAN, Nike, North Face, New Balance and Under Armour.  PENSOLE founder, D’Wayne Edwards took things one step further by partnering with YouTube Red to launch the channel’s first-ever, unscripted competition series: Lace Up: The Ultimate Sneaker Challenge.

Twelve students from around the world were awarded the chance to design, develop and produce the next ‘it’ sneaker for NBA star James Harden and adidas. The series emphasizes a mix of design and professional skills with adidas manufacturing an exclusive limited run of the final winning design which is slated to become publicly available in November.

Setting Students on a Successful Path

With the labor landscape constantly evolving, it’s more important than ever before to provide students with access to a myriad of experiences both inside and outside the classroom. In doing so, we are setting students on a successful and fruitful career path.

Initiatives like Joba’s internship program, the Future of British Manufacturing’s Fast Track Program and PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy help ensure the next generation is receiving invaluable opportunities to prepare for future careers while also exposing industry professionals to fresh ideas and a skilled talent pool to help close the impending skills gap.

Randy Swearer, Ph.D., is the vice president for Autodesk’s global Autodesk Education Experiences team. He empowers students on a journey of lifelong learning through problem-solving, collaboration and design thinking. He was dean of Parsons School of Design and provost at Philadelphia University, bringing with him education experience that is as deep as it is wide. He also served as the deputy director of the design program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the Design Division head in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas. There, he was awarded a Texas Excellence Teaching Prize. Randy received his Ph.D. in anthropology and urban studies from Union Institute, an M.F.A. in design from Yale University, and a B.A. from Wesleyan University.

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First STEM. Then STEAM. Now, STREAM.

Catholic School principal starts early, stays diligent on transformative full-tech journey.

GUEST COLUMN | by Monica Haldiman

CREDIT Sacred Heart Roslindale Verizon.pngImagine you’re in a classroom, but instead of children sitting quietly at their desks, they are testing a model bridge built from pasta and glue.

The teacher hands out paper for the students to use to take notes; paper they made themselves.

And in a room down the hall, pre-K students are learning rudimentary coding skills.

The school’s leadership worked with community and tech partners to develop a three-year strategy using pedagogical teaching techniques.

This educational environment prepares students for the jobs they’ll hold in 15 to 20 years – highly skilled technology jobs that don’t yet exist.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that by 2020, 77 percent of all U.S. jobs will require computer skills. This percentage will only increase – a troubling statistic when mastering technology skills isn’t a requirement in most schools.

Five years ago, Sacred Heart School embarked on a mission to modify its strategic approach to prepare students (or as we call them, scholars) for the 21st century workforce by directly integrating technology into the curriculum. Today, we are known for our K-8 full STREAM focus. STREAM is an initiative to promote science, technology, religion, engineering, the arts and math in Catholic schools.

Scholars have already shown improved confidence, creativity, and support for each other. They understand that it is okay to fail, but instead of walking away, are taught how to analyze the problem differently and try again. Most importantly, it puts our scholars on a level playing field to pursue the educational and career-focused opportunities they want.

More schools are now considering this model. For those that decide to transition to a full STREAM-tech curriculum, take a moment to reflect on Sacred Heart’s journey to STREAM, the obstacles and programmatic issues faced, and my recommendations for an effective program.

The Path to STREAM

Sacred Heart’s journey to become a full-tech school was deliberate. Once the decision was made to transition to a STREAM school, new computers, iPads, and smart boards were ordered for every classroom and Internet connections installed.

The school’s leadership worked with community and tech partners to develop a three-year strategy using pedagogical teaching techniques.

At the start, each teacher was required to integrate only one technology-focused course.

The classrooms today are significantly different.

For at least half of the school day, scholars are using technology or engaged in technology training; most textbooks are online, experimentation in class is encouraged, scientists visit on a bi-weekly basis, and 3D printers help learning come to life.

We continue to work with professional developers to review and revise our path forward, train teachers, and address issues or concerns.

Overcoming Obstacles

With all growth and change come challenges, and our story is no different.

Shortly after transitioning to the full-tech model and installing new technologies, slow and unreliable Internet connections limited teachers’ ability to effectively use them in the classroom.

The school experienced delays and network issues that disrupted classes and halted online testing. After months of network challenges, we installed a fiber optic network, Verizon Fios, throughout the buildings, which helped improve internet speeds and reliability.

Lessons Learned

With each obstacle, we have also learned lessons that other K-8 schools might find useful. Consider these recommendations if and when you plan to integrate a full tech-focused STEAM or STREAM curriculum.

  1. Listen to your scholars. This curriculum is designed to set scholars up for the best success in their future careers. Watch them learn. Share growth with their parents. Hear their perspectives change, and encourage their curiosity.
  2. Encourage teac Understand that a shift to a full STREAM tech-focused curriculum is a significant change for several educators. Training and support for teachers to help guide them through the process – and what’s expected of them – will go a long way.
  3. Be patient. The transition to a STREAM tech-focused curriculum could take anywhere from three to six years to complete. Once your new technologies arrive, take time to learn about them and understand how to utilize them best. Slow and steady progress is important.
  4. Invest in your network. The technologies you purchase are only as good as the network that allows them to work. A STREAM tech-focused curriculum only works if the technology can effectively be used.
  5. Budget strategically. The technologies needed to support a full-tech curriculum come with a hefty price tag. Think strategically about how and when to use funds to best meet your school’s goals.

Many of our former scholars continued on to STREAM tech-focused high schools after leaving Sacred Heart, and while our first class of STREAM scholars will enter college in the fall of 2018, we expect several of them to continue their studies in this field.

It is great progress for us, but those at Sacred Heart make up a small percentage of the 35.6 million students in pre-K to 8th grade across the country.

These are our future world leaders, so consider a STEAM or STREAM program in your community.

Let’s set them up for success.

Monica Haldiman, a native of Brooklyn NY, is currently the Principal of Sacred Heart School, in Roslindale MA. She received her undergraduate degree from St. Anslem College and a Masters in Education from Boston College. Monica began her career as a middle school science teacher before moving on to administration as the vice principal of Sacred Heart School in 1993. In 2009, she stepped into the role of principal. In 2011, Monica became a Lynch Fellow when she became a member of the first cohort of the Lynch Leadership Academy. She is a member of the Boston Compact Committee as well as a former adjunct professor at Boston College’s School of Education. 

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Students Are Texters, So Here’s a Company that Knows That

Scaling an edtech solution with a veteran scaler.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT SignalVine Brian Kathman.jpgAn entrepreneur and executive who has spent most of his career building successful companies, Brian Kathman has deep experience across technology, philanthropy, and high-growth companies, often translating product innovation into new business models and markets.

Prior to Signal Vine, Brian was the Chief Operating Officer at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy services firm which grew 1000 percent during his five years. But most of his career has been spent building technology companies from an early stage. He founded his first company at 28-years old, a web-based identity management and privacy company.

There’s a growing need for higher ed staff to integrate technology tools into student communication to help nudge students to success.

In addition to Brian’s entrepreneurial ventures, he has helped grow several early stage businesses, most notably InphoMatch/Mobile 365 where he established key contracts which became 75 percent of its revenue. The business was eventually sold to Sybase in 2006 for $430 million.

While at Five Wireless, Brian helped launch a new profit center for its client NeuStar which grew from $0 to $50M in revenue in less than 10 years.

Brian is a third-generation entrepreneur with a BS in Marketing from Indiana’s Kelley School of Business and an Executive MBA from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

As CEO of Signal Vine, Brian leads an enterprise text messaging platform changing the way higher education institutions reach and engage students. The company serves more than 200 higher education organizations, including the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, University of New Mexico, and Austin Community College.

You’ve been in tech for a while, but edtech is newer – your thoughts on Signal Vine in the edtech sector?

Signal Vine logo.pngBrian: I’ve spent most of my career focused on building successful, high-growth technology companies from an early stage. Educators today have a lot of trouble reaching their students quickly and informatively because students today aren’t using traditional communication channels.

The vast majority of students have access to a smartphone or mobile phone, so mobile messaging is the best way to reach them.

More millennials use their phones for texting than any other generation, and they say it’s just as meaningful as a voice conversation, so the intersection between mobile and education is quite clear.

Every day, we move one step closer to closing the achievement gap and ensuring equal access to the resources needed to achieve success in higher education. The information is out there, but students often can’t find or utilize it without a supportive nudge.

Signal Vine has built a bridge between students and resources that is supported by the research, experience, and innovative technology we’ve developed over years of implementing impactful text messaging programs.

Your platform enables organizations and their staff to easily communicate with thousands of students via text messaging to increase student responsiveness and engagement — how’s this unique?

Brian: Signal Vine’s intelligent messaging platform is an intervention tool. It’s hard to compare us to other text vendors, since no other organization is doing what we are with native text message intervention combined with blended messaging.

There are several key points to highlight about our platform and what we are uniquely providing for our customers:

  • Personalized text and MMS messages can be pre-scheduled by program, case group, or department and scheduled in a calendar.
  • Existing student data, like first name, FAFSA status, or high school, can be seamlessly integrated into the Signal Vine platform and used to target and customize messages.
  • Historical and comparative data is always at your fingertips to benchmark and track performance like engagement rate, message response time and more.
  • Response management tools are used to automate follow-up replies. Message branching logic reduces the amount of time staff need to sort through expected responses, so they can focus on the messages that need one-on-one interaction.
  • Automated nudges for students who haven’t completed tasks, like completing the FAFSA, are targeted by profile data.

Your company believes counselors, advisors, and mentors are the critical drivers of positive outcomes for students. Makes perfect sense. Got any statistics or anecdotes on this?

Brian: The path to postsecondary success is overwhelmingly complex and fragmented. The administrative burden alone is daunting. Application forms, financial aid requirements, registration deadlines – these tasks challenge even the most high-achieving students.

Due to a nationwide counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 450, students often receive general and vague information throughout processes that demand personalization and specificity for success.

Due to a nationwide counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 450, students often receive general and vague information throughout processes that demand personalization and specificity for success. With 500,000 college-intending students failing to matriculate to a postsecondary institution every year and countless others dropping out before attaining a degree, it’s clear that we need a better means of reaching students with the information and support they need to succeed in higher education.

Signal Vine’s interactive and data-driven solution is the necessary bridge for this communication gap. The platform expands organizational capacity and increases efficiency, which allows for real-time communication to help identify those who need support most and drive positive change in behavior.

Research and experience show that targeted and personalized text messaging outreach is the most effective way to interact with students and nudge them to take timely action on college-related tasks.

The post-intervention statistics are staggering – we see improvements in matriculation rates by 11 percent, increases in first-year persistence by 20 percent, a 4-10x increase in staff capacity, and reductions in high-risk loan borrowing by up to 20 percent.

Define ‘personalized learning’ How is your tech more robust than other solutions?

Brian: We use the phrase “blended messaging” rather than personalized learning to describe our unique approach to communicating with students today. Blended messaging combines automated text messages to large groups of students with one-on-one text messages to individual students. Blended messaging helps staff save time with automated messages so they can focus on helping students who need the most high-touch support.

Signal Vine is unique in that it is the only text messaging platform with the necessary functionality to manage a high-scale texting program. The platform can be customized to fit any institution’s internal structure. Here are a few of the time-saving features you won’t find elsewhere in the market:

  • Response management and machine learning. Machine learning interprets student responses for you. The platform replies to understood text messages and flags messages that need a manual reply.
  • Case management. Incoming student messages are routed in real time to the appropriate staff member. Message inboxes can be shared so that staff users can work together to manage incoming student responses from one central phone number.
  • Advanced Search. No need to pull lists in an external system – you can do this in Signal Vine to send targeted text messages.
  • Data capture. Save incoming replies and use them to automatically update student information. For example, if you send students a text message asking, “Have you completed your FAFSA yet?” their Yes/No responses might update a “FAFSA Completion” field. You can then schedule future text messages to send only to those students who replied in the negative. These updates can also be pushed back to a CRM or SIS.
  • Advanced reporting and metrics. Monitor student engagement, average response time, staff activity, and much more with program-specific dashboards.
  • Provisioning by algorithm. Scheduled messages are sent out in automated batches every few seconds to ensure that your program phone numbers are never blacklisted for spamming. Automatic provisioning also helps staff keep up with incoming student responses, since students tend to reply within minutes of receiving a message.

What’s the state of education currently?

Brian: It has never been more important to earn a college degree to be gainfully employed. Though college attendance rates have risen in the past decade, only two-thirds of high school students are going to college and only 60 percent of those students complete a four-year degree. Moreover, higher education is more expensive than ever.

Students are starting to question the wisdom of this investment, and many are frustrated by how complex the entire process is.

The state of education today involves an increasingly important role for technology.

That said, I’m encouraged by the energy and innovation in this field. Signal Vine works with staff at schools of all types and sizes across the country. The people we work with are dedicated to supporting students to and through post-secondary paths, and they recognize that to be successful they must continue to learn and evolve in the way that they work.

Your thoughts on technology’s role?

Brian: The state of education today involves an increasingly important role for technology, both in the classroom and in communication between institutions and students in general. There’s a growing need for higher ed staff to integrate technology tools into student communication to help nudge students to success, as demonstrated by Signal Vine customers.

For example, our partnership with the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance contributed, in part, to a seven percent increase in FAFSA submissions in the state of Louisiana this year.

As technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing rate in both our personal and professional lives, the public sector is often hard put to keep up. For students who have access to information from across the globe at their fingertips, but are still taking pencil and paper bubble tests, this dissonance is palpable.

Through the research Signal Vine has been involved with, it has become clear to me that to guide students to success we must keep them actively engaged.

Student engagement may be possible without technology in a classroom setting, but to reach students at scale and yet be personalized and relevant, there is no alternative. Schools must make use of technology to communicate efficiently and effectively with their students.

There are a lot of edtech startups, yours is already attracting a great deal of positive attention, e.g., Lumina Foundation, fundraising Series A.  Your advice for other startup leaders working in education?

Brian: My advice for other startup leaders working in education is to focus on delivering value to the customer and student. You may have the coolest chatbot or the most beautiful user interface, but if you’re not helping education organizations reach students in a human way, students will check out.

Meet, coach, and network with key partners in the education space.

Another piece of advice is to meet, coach, and network with key partners in the education space. Partnerships are crucial drivers in the development of Signal Vine’s technology to meet the needs of organizations serving our shared mission.

Your dog-friendly, on-the-Potomac, outdoorsy company culture in Alexandria is already growing strong. How does this inform the strength of your product?

CREDIT Signal Vine team.jpgBrian: Signal Vine’s company culture is important to our team for one big reason: it motivates us to do better by our customers and their students. It’s easy to come to work each day when you know you’ll be surrounded by incredibly talented people who are dedicated to improving outcomes in education.

Our open, productive, and healthy culture creates a workplace where diverse people, cultures, and perspectives are welcome.

This ultimately strengthens our product because we focus on incorporating the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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Leading a Digital Learning Transformation

How to lead, support, and evaluate an effective digital learning shift. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Randy Ziegenfuss 

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

—Joseph Campbell

CREDIT Western Salisbury Elem TL2020.pngI am an educational practitioner – a superintendent in a small school district in Pennsylvania, Salisbury Township School District. We are now in our seventh year of a digital transformation, what we are calling TL2020 (Teaching and Learning 2020). Any transformation – true transformation where we let go of the past and create something entirely new – is hard, hard, hard work! And because it’s so hard, I find that K12 leaders are quick to find some kind of formula, a step-by-step path to transformation. Follow the prescription, and you’re done!

As a result of monitoring our digital transformation for several years, we developed a framework to help guide us through the process.

But as Joseph Campbell reminds us, we have to create our own path – a unique path to digital transformation. There are no pre-packaged paths because every one of us has a unique learning context, complete with strengths and challenges. Unique context is what makes the work so challenging.

Even after seven years of this work, we still have lots of heavy lifting to do before our digital transformation meets our vision. My colleague/assistant superintendent, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, and I have come back to a simple framework for guidance along the journey:

  • Lead it
  • Support it
  • Evaluate it

Using this broad framework, anyone can define effective strategies and actions to fit that unique context, and, over the course of time, effectively navigate a digital transformation journey. Here’s a glimpse into what distinguishes each phase of the framework.

Lead It

Digital transformations cannot be successful without leadership on multiple levels – district, school board, building, teacher and student.

School board leadership: Be prepared to invest the time and energy into sharing your vision and goals, and educating the school board around the need for change. They are the gatekeepers of human and financial resources.

FETC link.jpgLearn more from Randy Ziegenfuss and other leading analysts, thought leaders, and educators at the 2018 Future of Education Technology Conference, January 23-26 in Orlando, Florida. 

Building Leadership: Principals can make or break the transformation through the manner in which they establish expectations and create opportunities for conversations focused on improving practices in teaching and learning with digital tools.

Teacher leadership: Pioneering innovators and those who are naturally intrinsically motivated to tinker and experiment with new ideas, tools and pedagogies will provide valuable inertia as you implement and refine your vision for teaching and learning.

Student leadership: Even though students are our “customers” and have valuable insights into how they best learn both inside and outside of school, we too often leave their voices out of our digital transformation efforts.

Two key takeaways on the topic of LEADERSHIP and digital transformation:

  • Take leadership out of a digital transformation and you miss the foundation on which everything else is built.
  • The traditional notion of leadership – people with titles – is no longer valid. For digital transformations to be successful, leadership must be developed and distributed at all levels of the system – district, school board, building, teacher and student.

Support It

Simply providing a digital device for students and staff does not a transformation make. To reach the goal of transforming teaching and learning through digital tools, teachers (and students) will need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. They’ll need to be supported to turn vision into reality.

Professional Development for Teachers: Be prepared to provide a variety of learning opportunities that align with the goals of your initiative. Just like our students, teachers are at different places in the journey and should be supported wherever they happen to be.

Professional Development for Leaders: In Salisbury, the leadership team participates in their own professional learning. The team meets monthly for intentional professional learning and occasionally for lunch and learn sessions.

Rethinking Resources: We want our teachers and students to be creative and innovative, designing new products and processes that have value. How can we use human and financial resources in ways that will more effectively support our digital transformation? How can we model creativity and innovation? We did this by rethinking how we utilize computer technicians and school librarians.

Two key takeaways on the component of SUPPORT in a digital transformation:

  • Frequent opportunities for professional learning keep your digital transformation goals at the forefront with everyone in the organization focused on transformational learning, professionally and for our students.
  • While everyone needs a common language around technology and pedagogy, effective supports meet teachers and leaders where they are and challenge them to embrace a growth mindset for continuous improvement. Building and district leaders must work collaboratively to ensure the individual and collective needs of teachers and leaders are being met.

Evaluate It

There are many reasons you will want to evaluate your digital transformation: to understand how and where teaching and learning are evolving; to determine if the financial investment is paying off; to measure progress toward meeting project goals; and to support shifting priorities with appropriate data.

As a result of monitoring our digital transformation for several years, we developed a framework to help guide us through the process of evaluation and assessment. Our framework includes the following questions:

While the components of the framework are shared here in a linear fashion, the process of digital transformation the framework is best approached in a recursive manner. The challenge of digital transformation is balancing and addressing all three components simultaneously on some level – Lead it. Support it. Evaluate it.

Now that you have an understanding of the framework, what strategies and actions will you develop for each of the phases to best support your digital transformation efforts? To learn more about the strategies and actions we’ve taken in Salisbury Township School District, read this ebook on the framework. Then set out to make your digital transformation a reality!

Randy Ziegenfuss is Salisbury Township School District superintendent. Previously a classroom teacher, department chair, tech integration specialist, director of technology, and assistant principal, he is currently adjunct professor of education at Moravian College, his alma mater. He teaches courses in assessment and technology. He earned his M.A. from Teachers College in Technology Leadership and a doctorate in educational and organizational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow @ziegeran, and visit or listen in to and

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Trends | Owl Swoops in with $185M

Owl Ventures edtech fund.pngMore big news for edtech: Owl Ventures has $185 Million in fresh capital for edtech startups. Owl Ventures debuted its second venture capital fund dedicated entirely to education technology startups. While this is the largest U.S. fund devoted to edtech, many investors worldwide are eager to support the new wave of entrepreneurship and innovation across the education spectrum including early childhood, K-12, higher education and career mobility/professional learning. The firm counts fifteen such companies so far, including: Newsela, a literacy solution that uses online news; Quizlet, a studying app for students; and Lingo Live, an online language startup. Learn more.

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The Write Idea

Technology-enhanced writing support: how it works.

GUEST COLUMN | by Michele Israel

CREDIT Turnitin writing.pngEmily Bonack, English 9 and AP Language and Communications teacher at Merrill High School, in Merrill, WI, knows all too well what happens to students who are not at grade-level writing proficiency: confidence lags, frustration overwhelms, and motivation declines. Writing becomes a very daunting charge that students resist.

Bonack laments that this resistance presents a communication obstacle, and impedes educational and career trajectories. “Students,” emphasizes Bonack, “need to know how to write well because it is going to greatly affect their future. And determine whether they can communicate, with clarity, what it is that they want…and ultimately work towards those desires.”

With many students to teach, it is hard for Bonack to guide each one’s writing journey, especially in the absence of requisite, grade-appropriate ELA skills.

[The programs] facilitate student-teacher conversations during valuable learning moments.

Thus the reason Bonack uses two technology programs from Turnitin that support students’ writing efforts. Revision Assistant (RA) gives students immediate, automatically generated formative feedback on core writing skills. Feedback Studio (FS) lets teachers respond to students’ writing and check for proper source attribution. All of Bonack’s students have iPads that make it easier for them use the software when they need it.

Each tool’s unique attributes—RA being student-centered and FS teacher-directed—bolster competencies in ways Bonack admits she cannot do by herself. With 150 students across five classes, it is only possible to have students work on the same, non-differentiated assignment. They get a bit of direction to get them started. But, then they are on their own during the revision and drafting process, which not all students negotiate well.

“We’ll do some activities in class,” explains Bonack. “But I tell the students that I can’t really see where they’re at because I don’t have time to grade 150 papers three times, or to touch base with 150 students three times, in depth, throughout the course of one writing project.”

The writing event is ultimately a summative event. Students submit papers for a grade, but have not had much support. Only those who are adept at the writing process are likely to get top honors.

Bonack acknowledges that the features of RA and FS, combined with quality instruction, are what get many students over the writing hump. And allow her to narrow her instruction in more targeted and useful ways.

How it Works

With RA, students work from writing prompts (some with reading passages) linked to a concept. For example, a 9th-10th grade Civil Service assignment requires composing a high school newspaper editorial (argumentative writing) discussing whether high school graduates should spend one year in service before going to college.

On this assignment, students work independently during the pre-draft process, primarily relying on feedback from RA to guide them. They can request a Signal Check, RA’s signature feature, that highlights text students are struggling with, and gives them feedback on trouble spots in the areas of language and style, organization, and claim and focus.

Students make suggested changes on the spot and get more feedback: a red flag for something that still needs adjustment; a green flag for a job well done (a major confidence builder!).

If the Signal Check’s response is confusing, students can reach out to Bonack directly for help. She might lead a mini-lesson, or help them with grammar, punctuation, and parts of speech, which RA does not address. If many students struggle with the same concept, Bonack will conduct a full-class lesson.

What about the students who do not (or rarely) request Signal Checks? Bonack can monitor their progress and work through RA and provide support/encouragement where needed.

Once the pre-drafting process is done, students use FS to fortify learned skills. Basically, says Bonack, the message to her students is: “Show me what you can do now that you’ve learned the steps of how to write this particular type of assignment.”

FS is what Bonack views as the summative stage of student writing during which she helps students to understand her comments and edits/revisions. “With FS,” explains Bonack, “I can drag and drop frequently used comments right onto a student’s paper, add voice comments, have the software check grammar, and engage the tool’s similarity report to scan for possible plagiarism or mis-citation.”


RA heightens students’ willingness to self-correct, embrace effective writing practices, and get beyond the first-draft-is-the final draft syndrome. FS reinforces their ability to tackle different types of writing, while encouraging them to use sources honestly and in an informed fashion.

Then there are the “bells and whistles” that make the tools gamelike…and fun, two enticing features that further motivate.

Also, students like that they can rely on the device for assistance, rather than announcing their need in front of their peers, or asking the teacher for help. Bonack explains that for some students, it’s easier to get feedback (and affirmation) from a computer than a person.

Sometimes, students are frustrated, not with the tool, but with the gaps in their writing. They are sorry they did not master the skills earlier on.

Bonack talks about a 9th grader who was just done with writing. “He seemed to think that everything he wrote wasn’t good enough,” she laments. “He never turned anything in because he claimed it was ‘trash.’ “

RA turned him around. “Being able to run his first few drafts through the software,” says Bonack, “versus through a human being (who he thought was judging him), he was able to actually complete something and turn in a paper that he deemed good enough.” She adds that he did not become a wordsmith over night, but he was no longer a reluctant writer.

Bonack shares another story that points to the benefits of RA as an instructional tool. Last summer, she had her AP Language students complete AP Language prompts through RA. Students had to achieve at a certain level per writing category.

“This requirement,” explains Bonack, “motivated students to turn in their best possible drafts. I was able to analyze their class readiness and knowledge levels to arrive at a benchmark from which to start the class in September.”

Finally, Bonack, along with other English teachers in Merill Public Schools (MAPS) know for sure that the tool/teaching mix helped raise student scores on last year’s MAPS’ ELA exam.

Apps Alone Make Not Good Writers

Bonack says that students’ writing improvements are not just the result of the Turnitin programs. “The tools do not replace the teacher,” she emphasizes, underscoring that they facilitate student-teacher conversations during valuable learning moments.

She notes that the RA and FS cut down on the time it takes Bonack to sift through papers to give short bursts of feedback that students may or may not read. Bonack likens this to math. “If a student,” she relates, “gets a question wrong on a math test, it’s a lot easier for the math teacher to say, ‘You got this one wrong and here’s why.”

This does not happen in English class. “If a student has three or four paragraphs that don’t flow with the organization of his or her essay,” relates Bonack, “I have to read the entire essay to see how the paragraphs don’t fit, and then try to explain that to the student.”

So, RA and FS turn that essay into the “math question” that Bonack zones in on – easy to target, easy to explain, easier for the student to fix…with improvement and pride all the way around.

Michele Israel owns Educational Writing & Consulting and works with large and small educational, nonprofit, and media organizations to bolster products and programs. Her career spans more than 25 years in the field of education as a traditional and non-traditional instructor, professional developer, writer, and curriculum developer.

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The Brightest Future Possible

A Florida superintendent talks technology, learning, and full STEAM ahead.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Tim Wyrosdick Santa Rosa Superintendent.pngFrom sandy beaches to rolling pines, the Santa Rosa School District is situated in a bright, sunny, and aesthetically beautiful part of the country; the panhandle region of northwest Florida near the Gulf of Mexico. The area offers a healthy and busy quality of life. Over 170,000 residents call Santa Rosa County home; many are currently serving in the Armed Services, as both Navy and Air Force bases are part of the community. Santa Rosa School District serves over 27,000 students through 33 brick and mortar schools, two charter schools and their online blended academy. The district provides students “with a high-quality education and our students consistently lead the State of Florida in academic achievement,” beams Tim Wyrosdick, the district’s superintendent (pictured).

The integration of instructional technology, project-based learning, real world problems and connections to meaningful careers is essential.

Indeed, the area’s bright and sunny disposition clearly extends to its people, to the students in its school district, and the district’s administration. “The mission of our school district, ‘Educate students for success by providing a superior, relevant education’  — drives our daily instruction in the classroom as we strive to prepare our students for a bright and prosperous future,” says Tim. With this mission in mind, Santa Rosa School District is currently in year three of their Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics STEAM Innovate Program, “a five-year transformation of our entire K-12 school district working closely through our partnership with Discovery Education, a division of the globally recognized Discovery Communications,” he notes.

Why STEAM? What’s the school’s vision for STEAM?

Tim: Research consistently demonstrates that STEAM education dramatically increases student achievement, literally eliminating achievement gaps for at-risk students while challenging gifted and talented students and simultaneously creating an adaptable and skilled workforce for the future. Simply put, Santa Rosa STEAM Innovate is not only about transforming teaching and learning, STEAM Innovate is about economic development and the creation of a pipeline from our classrooms to gratifying and meaningful careers. The STEAM Innovate program in Santa Rosa County will transform every classroom in every school to an environment rich with critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. STEAM Innovate  will provide students and teachers with authentic learning activities and projects that are relevant and meaningful to the community in which we all live and lead to a vibrant climate attractive to new business and expansion of current industry.

What’s an overview, and what are some of the details on—STEAM Innovate?

CREDIT STEAM INNOVATE.pngTim: [The program] started in 2015 and the formal training and coaching associated with [it] will continue through 2022. In 2015, we started [it] in 20 of our schools. We began with four teachers from each of these 20 schools with these teachers receiving five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days. These 80 teachers began a five-year journey with that first training occurring in September of 2015. It 2016, we added five more schools to the STEAM Innovate transformation. These five schools added 20 more teachers to our STEAM Innovate group. So, these 20 teachers began their five-year training loop in September of 2016. This group also received five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days during their first year of training.

Now, in 2017, we have added another seven schools to the STEAM Innovate transformation. These seven high schools have added another 34 teachers to STEAM Innovate . Like the preceding groups, this group of high school teachers will receive five professional development days and 10 on-site coaching days during their first year of training. As this group begins their first year of training, the 2016 group is entering their second year of training and coaching while the 2015 group is beginning their third year of training and coaching. Along with the incredible amount of professional development and coaching that occurs during each group’s five-year cycle, there are many supporting events that occur around STEAM Innovate . Events such as family nights, STEAM celebrations, launch events, and school visits bring all aspects of STEAM Innovate alive within our district.

What is the goal of the initiative? 

CREDIT STEAM INNOVATE image1.jpgTim: Santa Rosa School District provides students with a high-quality education and our students consistently lead the State of Florida in academic achievement. Indeed, the mission of our school district, Educate students for success by providing a superior, relevant education, drives our daily instruction in the classroom. Our goal with Innovate is to make these educational experiences even more relevant and more engaging. Through increased relevancy and engagement, we believe that we can continue to raise graduation rates, while at the same time create a well-trained, problem-solving student that meets the needs of high-tech. Our work within STEAM Innovate creates options for students as they walk across the graduation stage. What is our goal? Our goal is to provide the brightest future possible for every student within the Santa Rosa County School District.

What role does professional development and educational technology play? 

Tim: Professional development is the cornerstone of this program. The teachers participate in 25 full day trainings over a five-year period, while receiving 50 on-site coaching during the same time frame. In addition to this, the administrators receive 20 PD days during the five years, while also receiving onsite coaching. The professional development activities are the key to transforming the classroom. As we strive to make our classrooms more engaging to today’s students, we have found that the professional development activities are critical and helping us understand the needs and desires of our students.

As we introduce new technologies into the classroom, it is important for us to understand that the technology needs to be seen as a tool for accomplishing tasks. The professional development activities help us to create “Talent with technology” among our students. Our approach to technology calls for us to be device agnostic as we strive to teach our students to operate on multiple platforms using multiple tech tools in various situations. Technology is important to what we are trying to accomplish, but providing a safe culture for curiosity and “failing forward” is the most important.

How has education changed in the district so far?

Tim: What has changed in our district is not only the classroom but also the attitude of many teachers. STEAM Innovate has energized veteran teachers, provided confidence to the new teachers, and created teacher leaders out of many. The level of student engagement has increased during this first three years of STEAM Innovate . In many ways, fun has returned to the classroom, along with exploration and curiosity.

In many ways, fun has returned to the classroom, along with exploration and curiosity.

What role are local stakeholders playing in this effort? Are you working with external partners and if so, what do they bring to the table?

Tim: STEAM Ambassadors, leaders from the business community, advise the school district in this important work by providing feedback and input regarding the type of skills that are essential for tomorrow’s workforce. A long-term strategic initiative, STEAM Ambassadors are partners in this symbiotic relationship in which Ambassadors visit our STEAM Learning Labs and Schools, as well as discuss the goals and future needs of their own businesses. To sustain and expand the program, STEAM Ambassadors are sharing the message of STEAM Innovate with other community leaders, leading to opportunities for additional resources and community-based projects.

VIDEO CREDIT: Momentus Films 

During Year 3, our partners, include Ascend Performance Materials, the world’s largest manufacture of nylon; AppRiver, a global cybersecurity company; and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research institute of the Florida University System. Researchers at IHMC pioneer technologies aimed at leveraging and extending human capabilities. Post-secondary partners include the University of West Florida (UWF), particularly the College of Science and Engineering, Pensacola State College, and Florida State University.

The district has cultivated a robust relationship with UWF. In fact, the district and University are collaborating on two National Science Foundation grants, with plans for not only teacher professional development and recruitment of students into STEM related teaching degrees at the secondary level, but internships for our secondary students. Finally, the district contracts with the Community Outreach Research Center (CORAL) at the University of West Florida for an annual external evaluation of the STEAM Innovate transformation. Year 1 and Year 2 reports are available on our web site.

Your district has become a destination for other school systems looking to implement STEAM capacity building programs—how did that happen?

CREDIT STEAM INNOVATE image2.jpgTim: Recognizing the importance of continuous improvement and the responsibility of providing students with a relevant and high quality education, Santa Rosa County School District has traveled and collaborated with other high performing school districts throughout the country. Over the years, we have adopted many practices and strategies that we have observed in other school districts. With the launch of our K-12 district-wide transformation, we partnered with Discovery Education, and the positive outcomes experienced by our students, teachers, and the community are undeniable! STEAM Innovate sells itself. The momentum of the transformation has been significant and beyond our expectations. As school district leaders have heard or read about STEAM Innovate, they have contacted us directly and also through our partner. In 2017, the school district hosted a National STEM Symposium with Discovery Education. Educational leaders from 18 states and five countries traveled to Santa Rosa County to learn directly from our teachers and students. An international STEAM Symposium is now in the planning stages for 2018.

What are the next steps for STEAM Innovate?

Tim: Over the next several years, we will continue to grow STEAM Innovate in Santa Rosa County. As part of the STEAM Innovate training that teachers are receiving, they are also being trained on how to lead other teachers into the STEAM Innovate space. The Innovate teachers within Santa Rosa County are leading PLC’s and workshops and presenting at conferences across the state and nation. Our next steps involve us growing STEAM Innovate into every classroom within the Santa Rosa County School District.

If you could point to one major thing you learned in implementing this program, what would it be?

Tim: When we began STEAM Innovate within the Santa Rosa County School District, we thought we were transforming teaching and learning in the classroom. What we have learned now in our third year of the STEAM Innovate initiative, is that we are not only transforming the classroom, but we have transformed the living room for many of our families. Parents are engaged like never before with their students on STEAM activities within their homes. Children are taking STEAM activities that they have participated in at school back to their neighborhoods and doing these activities with friends and family. The impact that these activities have on families and homes has been an unbelievable surprise for our school district.

The impact that these activities have on families and homes has been an unbelievable surprise for our school district.

What do you think is the future of STEAM in our country?

Tim: In the coming years of STEAM Innovate , we expect the excitement to continue. The 100+ teachers that are in the Innovate program will assist in scaling up Innovate through partnering with peer teachers, facilitating PLC’s, and leading professional development which will help non-Innovate teachers to incorporate exciting engaging relevant activities on a regular basis into their curriculum. With this pipeline of problem solvers that we will be graduating, we expect our activities to make a positive economic impact in our community. Santa Rosa County will quickly become an area in which people will want to live–not just because of the outstanding school system, but also because of the high-tech job opportunities that will exist. We expect STEAM Innovate to provide students with a very bright future right here in Santa Rosa County.

What do you think is the future of education?


Tim: It is critical, no matter where teaching and learning occur, the environment must be conducive to critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Regardless of each individual’s career path, education must cultivate teachers and life-long learners that adapt to whatever employers and the community require. In Santa Rosa County we are also cultivating learners that possess curiosity, confidence and commitment. The integration of instructional technology, project-based learning, real world problems and connections to meaningful careers is essential. There is no prescription or magic formula; however, the engagement with business, industry, and especially our students’ families and the community must be part of the learning experience.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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The Social Campus

Eight areas of opportunity for higher education in 2018.

GUEST COLUMN | by Phil Chatterton

cREDIT Hootsuite higher education.jpgIn the past five years, social media has become a mission-critical communications technology in higher education. It is used by many stakeholders across campus for various different use cases: student and alumni engagement, fundraising drives, athletics ticket sales, domestic and international recruitment, student services, and crisis communications.

By taking advantage of insights made available by social listening, schools can measure sentiment towards their institution, better understand student needs, and differentiate from their competition.

In fact, social media has become so ubiquitous, so quickly, that institutions are now experiencing challenges with governance, security, cost efficiencies, and cross-campus collaboration.

A recent global survey conducted by Hootsuite, with support from the Chronicle of Higher Education, provides some valuable insights into how social has affected higher ed, and uncovered eight areas of opportunity for social media in higher education in 2018:

1. Campus collaboration

Despite the high adoption of social media across many areas of campus, our survey found that social efforts are still siloed. On the plus side, there is a desire for improved collaboration – over half of higher education institutions want to coordinate with other teams on social strategy in the next 12 months. Cross-campus collaboration would help schools align their social media goals, implement better security measures, and realize more value from social media.

2. Executive support for social

Executive participation on social at higher education institutions is high, with 49 percent of institutional leaders active on social, compared to the 39 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. This is a positive sign of executives leading by example – it’s driven by a desire to engage with stakeholders and be seen as more transparent and trustworthy.

3. Social advertising

With the decline in organic reach on social media, social advertising has become a key part of marketing efforts to reach a wider audience. Our research found that 67 percent of respondents are using paid advertising to enhance their reach. Fifty-one percent expect an increase in paid ads budget in 2018—and among respondents that manage social media centrally, 62 percent expect an increase next year.

4. Social insights

Using social media data is an essential part of building a solid strategy. By taking advantage of insights made available by social listening, schools can measure sentiment towards their institution, better understand student needs, and differentiate from their competition. Unfortunately, thirty-five percent of schools are not using social media to monitor social conversations about their campus – this is a missed opportunity for some excellent insight to inform social strategies in the future.

5. Security

Several high profile institutions have been hit with social media security scandals in the past few years. Some of those institutions have spent millions of dollars on their responses and suffered huge hits to their reputation. Despite this, our research found that 40 per cent of schools still share login credentials to native social media platforms. This represents a massive risk to an institution’s brand. Two-step authentication procedures and third-party social media management and security applications are a must.

6. Sharing authentic experiences on social

User-generated content allows schools to showcase an authentic portrayal of student life on campus to their prospective students—and helps recruit top talent. Our survey respondents are seeing value in sharing these real-life stories. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed allow students to temporarily “take over” the official school social media accounts to share a student’s perspective on special events on campus. We expect this trend to continue into 2018.

7. Delivery of student services

By delivering student services on social media, schools can improve communications with students and significantly reduce customer service backlogs. Schools delivering services on social have experienced these gains. Over half of respondents said that social media helps them respond to customer service queries faster.

8. Measuring return on investment (ROI)

Our survey found that while institutions are leveraging social for revenue-generating initiatives such as meeting new student enrollment targets or driving fundraising efforts, few of them are attributing gains in these areas back to their social media strategies. For example, only 26 per cent have seen an increased number of student applications as a direct result of social efforts and just 11 per cent have seen increased quality of student applications. While these numbers appear low, it is possible this is less related to low ROI and more so not attributing ROI back to social efforts.

There’s a lot of opportunity in social for higher education—with a unified strategy, improved reporting, and centralized management, schools will be able to better understand their ROI and make the case for more investment in social media in the future.

Phil Chatterton is an Industry Principal for Higher Education at Hootsuite. In his previous role at the University of British Columbia, Phil worked with a diverse stakeholder community to develop and execute emerging technologies and the broader digital strategy.

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Tools Teachers Love

Some practical perspective from an online educator.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dominique Baroco

CREDIT FLVS.pngLong gone are the days of textbooks and chalkboards. Classrooms have evolved, and teachers are now turning to technology to develop lesson plans. This evolution comes as no surprise considering the variety of options available to students, parents and teachers. With computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and more, learning no longer requires the standard tools of the past.

From blended learning options within a traditional classroom to online homework assignments to fully virtual education, teachers are meeting the challenge to become even more creative with assignments and keep students engaged, interested and successful. According to PBS Learning Media, 74 percent of teachers surveyed said technology is a key motivational tool for their students.

By survey, 66 percent of students measure their academic success by the achievement of their own personal learning goals, outstripping parental pride, or school awards and honors.

Meanwhile, 73 percent said technology helps teachers respond to different learning styles, and 69 percent said technology helps them do more than ever for their students.

Choosing the right tools

Using technology for the sake of technology clearly is not an optimal strategy. Teachers choose different technology tools based on various criteria:

  • What tools are available within a respective school district?
  • Will students use a desktop computer or a laptop? Are mobile devices or tablets available?
  • How will tools or programs fit into lesson plans? What purpose will they serve? Will they play a large or small role?
  • Is there a free or low-cost option?
  • How comfortable will students feel with the program?

Of course, technology does not always require internet access. There are many programs and applications that students can download and use offline, which is helpful if they are doing homework or studying in a setting where Wi-Fi is unavailable. Some include:

  • Explain Everything: Students can use this screencasting tool to record what they’re thinking as they design videos.
  • Book Creator: Helps students write stories and publish their own books.
  • The Solar System: Offers an interactive experience while students learn about the solar system.
  • iBooks: Allows student to save PDFs so they can read them offline.
  • Toontastics: Students can create their very own movies. 

Online options and customizable solutions

There are hundreds of online programs available to research, although sometimes it takes trial and error to discover which programs will be most effective in helping students learn and reach their goals.

According to Dreambox Learning, 66 percent of students measure their academic success by the achievement of their own personal learning goals, outstripping parental pride, or school awards and honors. Tools that can help personalize the learning experience and track academic success for each student better aids development.

Some teacher favorites include:

  • Safeshare converts YouTube videos to ad-free mode so that students can watch the video without any commercials or pop ups.
  • Classtools helps teachers create games, quizzes and activities for class.
  • Kahoot!: Kahoot! offers fun live quizzes that can assess students’ knowledge of a subject.
  • Desmos: Desmos is a free online calculator for math students that is identical to the $100 TI calculators.
  • Google Knowledge Graph: This offers a more advanced search bar for students seeking out answers online.
  • iCivics: iCivics is a free website that offers a variety of resources for teaching history.

As a foreign language teacher at a virtual school, I incorporate technological tools throughout the courses. I look for programs that can help personalize the learning experience and offer feedback options to help ensure proficiency and fluency. Each student learns at a different pace and in a different way, so being able to customize these programs is critical.

Some of the best foreign language online programs I’ve used in my classroom include:

  • Acapella Box: Allows students to hear a native speaker pronounce a word and practice the target language prior to submitting a voice assignment.
  • Powtoon: Provides custom animated videos for presentations.
  • DuoLingo: Offers practice with reading, writing, speaking and listening in the desired language.

Technology can offer many benefits, but obviously does not replace human interaction entirely. It’s important that students and teachers still develop a one-on-one relationship. Whether it’s in a traditional classroom or through virtual learning, that dynamic can make a huge difference with their success. However, it’s easy to see why technology has become such a valuable asset to educators. It provides a number of opportunities for further customizing lesson plans and offering personalized learning for students. The future looks bright for the advancement of education in the digital realm.

Dominique Baroco is a French and Chinese Instructional Leader for Florida Virtual School.

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The Right Conditions for Learning

To foster a culture of positivity in your school, follow these five simple steps.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan R. Steele

CREDIT HeroK12.pngWhen I became the principal of Finger Lake Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska, in 2015, we had about 250 students. Two years later, that figure has grown to more than 400 students—and a key reason for this surge, in my opinion, has been the positive school culture we have fostered. We are a district of choice, meaning parents can choose to send their children to any of the schools within the district. One of my goals when I took this position was to grow our enrollment, making Finger Lake a place where families would want to boundary exempt to so their students could come to school here. One of the primary ways we have accomplished this goal is by increasing the number of positive interactions our students experience each day.

Our focus on improving school culture is paying off. … We surveyed our students about what would best motivate them, and we included student representatives on our task force. 

Our focus on improving school culture is paying off. Teachers report fewer behavioral problems, disciplinary referral rates have dropped, and more parents are choosing Finger Lake for their children’s education. While our success has been a true team effort, here are five key strategies that underlie it.

Build relationships.

Strong interpersonal relationships are the foundation for positive student behavior, and changing the culture of your school begins by nurturing healthy relationships with your students. Here are some ways that our staff builds relationships with students:

  • Greet students at the door
  • Give them a handshake, high five, or fist bump on their way in
  • Know at least 10 things about each student
  • Spend time building a sense of community in your school or classroom creating a safe and fun environment where students want to be.
  • Always remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When faced with confrontation, take a step back to consider whether that child’s food, sleep, or basic safety needs are being met.

Set clear and consistent expectations.

Make sure students understand what behaviors are expected of them, and hold them accountable for their actions. These expectations—which should include the progression of consequences that students will face if they choose not to follow the rules—must be explicitly taught and modeled.

As an administrator, the first thing I ask students who are sent to my office is: “What happened?” Then I’ll ask, “What were you supposed to be doing?” It’s important that students know how to answer this follow-up question.

Make sure all staff are familiar with these expectations as well, and hold team members accountable for enforcing the rules of behavior consistently. Even though we’re an elementary school, our students are taught by multiple teachers throughout the day. It was important that we established a school-wide system of behavior so that all staff members were using the same language and setting the same expectations for student behavior from classroom to classroom.

Our school mascot is a falcon, and so we developed a system of behavior in which we encourage students to “Show the HEART of a Falcon,” where the letters in the word HEART stand for the virtues we hope to instill:

  • Having a positive attitude;
  • Expecting success;
  • Accepting responsibility;
  • Respecting yourself and others; and
  • Thinking before acting.

Focus on the positive.

I am a big believer in the power of positive reinforcement. Students respond more effectively to praise than they do to punishment or disapproval. With that in mind, we have sought to flip the ratio of positive to negative interactions with our students.

Positive interactions are defined as rewarding or encouraging students when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Negative interactions are defined as correcting students when they are off task or behaving inappropriately. The more frequently we can give students attention at times when they are on task, the more positive outcomes we are going to see.

To help our teachers track and reward positive student behaviors, we began using a program called Hero K12 last year. It’s an online platform that enables us to monitor all forms of student behavior, both good and bad.

CREDIT Hero dashboard.pngUsing a web browser or mobile device, our teachers and administrators can record student behavior within Hero as it happens—and they can assign consequences or rewards as applicable. We have customized the software according to our own school-wide system of behavior, so that teachers can give Hero points to students for showing the HEART of a falcon or otherwise acting positively. Students love getting positive recognition, and teachers tell me their students immediately perk up and give full attention when they project the Hero dashboard onto the interactive whiteboard.

Get your students involved.

We put together a task force to decide on a reward structure for how students can redeem their points, and we made sure to include students in this process. Even elementary students can come up with great ideas! We surveyed our students about what would best motivate them, and we included student representatives on our task force. With the students’ help, we have devised rewards that include opportunities to watch a movie, play kickball, purchase falcon gear for our Falcon Fridays, or even sing karaoke during class time.

When students know the goals they are working toward, it becomes easier to encourage those behaviors. Giving students a voice in setting those goals allows them to take ownership of the process and helps them become fully engaged in your efforts to change the culture of your school.

Celebrate success.

This is important not just for students, but for teachers to buy in as well. Change can be hard for some people, and we have tried to remove as many barriers keeping teachers from using the system as we can.

In staff newsletters, we share our teachers’ successes and highlight those who have experienced positive results from using our platform. As teachers see the success their colleagues are having and the access to fun incentives for their students, they become more likely to try it for themselves—and our success multiplies.

Last year, we set up a Google document where teachers could describe their experiences and leave questions, comments, or concerns. Teachers could see which colleagues might have questions similar to their own, or which colleagues they can turn to for help if needed. This enabled our teachers to serve as the experts for each other, rather than having to ask me for help.

Kids need recognition when they’re doing a good job. They appreciate positive feedback, and Hero helps us give that feedback and reward students in a consistent and tangible way. Too often, we correct students when they misbehave instead of acknowledging when they are behaving appropriately—and a system like Hero helps us flip that ratio of positive to negative interactions. It is refreshing to see how many positive interactions our students are receiving. We ended last year with over 50,000 school-wide points!   That is 50,000 times our staff “caught students doing good.” Our school is proof that increasing the number of positive interactions students have throughout the day makes a big difference in their behavior and desire to come to school!

Susan R. Steele is the Principal of Finger Lake Elementary School in Wasilla, Alaska.

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Global State of Digital Learning

Key findings and trends in K-12 education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dylan Rodgers

CREDIT Schoology Global State of Digital Learning 2017.png

With each passing year, technology continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible in teaching and learning. So much so, that it’s getting harder to find schools that haven’t adopted at least some form of digital learning—blended learning, flipped learning, personalized learning, and/or other strategies that rely on digital tools to enhance the learning experience—into their classrooms.

Our research found that teachers and administrators are in overwhelming agreement: digital learning positively impacts both student achievement (95%) and teaching effectiveness (92%).

But digital learning goes far beyond providing students access to iPads in hopes of enhancing their learning experience and producing better outcomes. Like a well-oiled machine, there are countless tangible and intangible variables that must work together: from software and classroom practices, to professional development and collaboration among the many stakeholders.

With this in mind, Schoology recently conducted an inaugural study—The Global State of Digital Learning—which encompassed 2,846 education professionals across 89 countries worldwide. The goal? To reveal deeper insights into some of these variables in the form of data, trends, and strategies, and to shed light on the current state of digital learning in K-12 education.

Here’s what we found:

Key Insights of 2016-2017

Among the many benefits of digital learning—enhanced learning experiences by enabling teachers to better tailor learning to their students’ needs, aiding in the tracking of student progress, saving teachers time, etc.—our research found that teachers and administrators are in overwhelming agreement: digital learning positively impacts both student achievement (95%) and teaching effectiveness (92%).

Other key findings we uncovered include:

  1. Time is the Top Obstacle to Effective Digital Learning: Despite the enthusiasm and confidence in digital learning results, more than 43% of respondents noted that lack of time was the biggest obstacle to integrating technology and more than 40% noted a lack of devices. Other top challenges included inadequate hardware (29%), lack of access at home (26%), and difficulty creating lesson plans (25%). It must be noted that respondents could choose all answers that apply for this and certain other questions in the survey.
  2. Professional Development Isn’t Modeling Best Practices of Digital Learning: According to our findings, the large majority of professional development being offered is via single-session and periodic events. Very few respondents cited having asynchronous learning, blended courses, or on-demand PD options. Couple this finding with the fact that 46% of respondents with an LMS say they don’t use it for professional development, and it suggests that the most effective teaching strategies are not being carried over from the classroom to professional development (let alone being modeled using the pinnacle tool teachers are leveraging in the classroom).
  3. Static Instructional Resources are Still the Norm: Schoology’s survey also revealed that the most used instructional resources are, by far, static, or provide a non-interactive, one-way flow of information (i.e. PDFs, Word Docs, Videos, etc.). This may suggest that institutions are digitizing traditional learning rather than enhancing it. While there is a place for these “static” resources in learning, the decision to replace a textbook with an eBook without serious thought behind how it will make the material more interactive, totally defeats the purpose of digital learning.
  4. Collaboration May Be Key to Solving Professional Development Challenges: Eighty-one percent of respondents consider collaborating via professional learning communities (PLCs) and personal learning networks (PLNs) to be effective for professional development. Interestingly, professional development is the number one challenge for administrators, and faculty collaboration is their number one priority.

Digital Learning Trends That Emerged

When considering the state of digital learning, the technologies and tools an institution chooses to implement can have ripple effects throughout the organization. So according to our survey, what trends are impacting schools and districts most?

  1. LMS and Positive Effects: Of the nearly 3,000 education professionals who took the survey, 46% said they have an LMS. Of respondents who noted that students at their institution are “very engaged,” 89% said an LMS is in use most days, if not every day, of the week. This may indicate that careful and consistent LMS use can lead to the highest rates of student engagement. And as we know, better student engagement means increased student achievement.
  2. Mobile Device Use is Becoming More Prevalent: While the debate around mobile devices in the classroom rages on, a winner seems to be emerging: nearly 80% of schools and districts use them at least monthly, with nearly 50% reporting using mobile devices daily.
  3. Most Common Instructional Strategies and Practices: Digital learning takes many forms—gamification, flipped learning, etc.—but which instructional strategies are practiced most? Differentiated learning leads the pack (75%), with blending learning (54%) and individualized learning also vying for top spots (45%). And as for which instructional strategy was considered the most effective? Our respondents answered blended learning, followed by differentiated learning, and then personalized learning.

Education is a far cry from what it used to be, thanks to the dedication of many creative education professionals and rapid technological development. Although this new study highlights many digital learning successes, it also brings to light some larger issues around the strategies and priorities of educational institutions around the world.

All in all, these findings serve as an opportunity for the education community to come together and continue to transform how students learn, how teachers teach, and how institutions as a whole prepare the next generation for success.

Dylan Rodgers is Editor-in-Chief of The Schoology Exchange, at SchoologySee all the findings from Schoology’s Global State of Digital Learning survey in their free ebook.

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2018 EdTech Awards Final Deadline

2018 EdTech Awards last chance to enterThere is still time to enter The 2018 EdTech Awards. The annual program recognizes people in and around education for outstanding contributions in transforming education through technology to enrich the lives of learners everywhere. Featuring edtech’s best and brightest, the annual recognition program now in its 8th year shines a spotlight on cool tools, inspiring leaders, and innovative trendsetters. Finalists and winners of the 2017 EdTech Awards were announced in March. The 2018 EdTech Awards program is open for entries through our FINAL DEADLINE: Thursday, October 19, 2017, enter here: 2018 Entry Form. For assistance with category selection, or for help or guidance, email us.

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Booming in Buffalo

A community agrees on a truly transformative tool for teaching and learning.

GUEST COLUMN| by Joe Parlier

CREDIT zSpace image.pngKriner Cash views his district as on the cusp of a major renaissance, parallel to the one that the western New York state city of Buffalo is experiencing. And as superintendent, he has high expectations for what can be achieved in Buffalo Public Schools (BPS). “We want to become best-in-class in urban education for the whole country,” he says.

As a transformative superintendent, Cash launched the New Education Bargain for BPS less than a year ago, an initiative with six major elements, all interconnected and all necessary for the district to grow and grow fast.

Every time I visit a class, the kids are 100 percent engaged, they absolutely love it and they can’t wait to get a visitor’s attention and share what they are doing.

Through the New Education Bargain, the district has instituted Rigorous Early Elementary Education with significantly reduced class sizes in the early grades, launched five New Innovative High Schools, 13 Community Schools and ratified a new contract with the Teachers Federation.

In early 2016, BPS Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Sanjay Gilani saw a new mixed reality technology that he knew supported the vision for transforming the district’s schools.

zSpace allows students to learn STEM subjects using immersive images that they can move and manipulate in applications across a wide-range of standards-aligned curriculum. The all-in-one-computer combines elements of VR and AR to create mixed reality computing experiences that are interactive and lifelike. Each all-in-one computer features tracking eyewear and a stylus, allowing students to interact with objects and really understand the science behind them. Unlike other virtual reality solutions, such as head-mounted displays, it enables interaction and group collaboration. In addition, it empowers students to “learn by doing” in an environment where it is easy to undo mistakes, make changes, and not worry about material costs or clean up.

BPS began to roll out its first such learning labs during the 2016-2017 school year.

Seeing the Changes

Twice weekly, Superintendent Cash visits schools to see the changes from the New Education Bargain in action. Visiting one of the district’s Innovative High Schools with a zSpace Lab, he had the opportunity to experience the mixed reality environment for himself.

He said, “As soon as I tried it, I knew that we were doing something special. It was so clear and animated. Students were fascinated and totally engaged in the learning.’

Continuing, Cash said, it has all of the best features of good cognitive learning, but also visual and digital and tactile – it gets you entirely engaged in learning simple to the most advanced content can be easily learned because it takes the abstract and makes it clear for our whole spectrum of learners. Combined with good teachers, it is a one-two punch for improving learning that is unprecedented.”

CTO Gilani introduced Sarah Edwards, the district’s supervisor of instructional technology, to this solution and she had the chance to experience it for herself at ISTE 2016. “At first, I was skeptical, but in five minutes, I was blown away,” she said.

Edwards returned to Buffalo to roll out eight such labs in the 2016-2017 school year and more labs will be added during the 2017-2018 school year. She said that the ultimate goal is to have a lab in all of the district’s 55 schools.

Motivated By Opportunity

The motivation? Edwards said that the solution provides the opportunity for hands on learning across the curriculum and the opportunity to interact with the content. “Every time I visit a class, the kids are 100 percent engaged, they absolutely love it and they can’t wait to get a visitor’s attention and share what they are doing. It is absolutely the right thing for our students at the right time.”

Edwards noted that because of BPS’s diverse immigrant population, some of the girls in the district are new to education and school. “We had one sixth grader who couldn’t wait to show me. She told me that it opened her eyes to the content and said, ‘Now that I have seen this, I really want to be a doctor.’ It opened the world of possibilities for her.”

Tracy Nagowski, who teaches fifth grade math and science at Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School, is also seeing the ways that the tool is expanding her students’ world. “Our students don’t get a lot of opportunity to vacation, to go camping, to interact with anything other than the six-block square that they live on. [This] puts the world at their fingertips.”

It has also changed the way that Nagowski teaches. “When I plan a lesson, we start in the classroom and set some purpose to what we are going to do and then we go into the lab. The students are very independent. I am just the facilitator.”

“I know that my students have met their learning objectives when I hear them discussing what they have learned. They naturally work with partners and they are learning together side by side.”

A World of Learning

Even the youngest learners see the ways that the technology is changing learning. A second grader said, “We learn in more of an entertaining way because it is in 3D. It is fun to work with a partner. If the choice is Franklin’s Lab versus a textbook, I would definitely pick [the mixed technology lab] because you can learn tons of stuff about science and engineering.”

Aniya Clough, seventh-grader at West Hertel Academy, also prefers learning with mixed reality. She said, “[It] is really spectacular.I like this way better than learning with a textbook. You can actually pull apart a heart or see the insides of a cow. It feels like you are touching it – it is so real. This is much better than having a textbook where you are just throwing paper around. “

Aniya sees the possibilities for learning with such technology throughout her education, “I would like to have this all day, every day, for the rest of my school. It’s like you are in a different world. You get to try out new things. The possibilities are endless. It gives a new dimension to learning.”

Noah Spalding, a science teacher at Aniya’s school, is seeing student engagement and achievement spike. He said, “When learning with [this tool], many students that are not able to read a lab or have not had much interest in learning are much more interested. Their participation and their grades have gone way up.”

A Transformative Technology

They are also increasing parent engagement in the school community. Spalding’s school has a Saturday Academy where it is open to the community. He said, “We had a parent, who is a mechanic, come in and he was using [the technology]. He found a program with every part of a car in it and found me to tell me that this would be a great way to teach auto mechanics.”

Demario A. Strickland, principal at Harvey Austin School, said “Things are getting exciting here at BPS with our new community schools program. A big part of the community schools program is a push on technology integration. In a high poverty area, students don’t get the opportunities that other students get.”

He said that this technology is transforming the way teachers teach as well as how students learn. He said, “I observed a teacher’s lesson with her class using [the tool]. I’m a big chemistry person and they were learning about electrons, neutrons and protons. Every single student was engaged in the learning.”

CTO Gilani said that BPS’s journey with such mixed reality technology is just the beginning. “As we expand mixed reality learning opportunities throughout the district, we have the opportunity to widen the horizons for all of our students. These hands-on, interactive learning opportunities help them grasp difficult concepts, delve more deeply into what they are learning, and open their eyes to career and life possibilities that they might never have considered.”

Joe Parlier is the senior director of education solutions at zSpace, a Silicon Valley-based mixed reality education technology provider. With a background as an educator and school administrator, Parlier is integral to the zSpace product strategy and ensuring products meet customer expectations.

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In Student Hands

How technology drives personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rachel Tustin

Editor’s Note: Over the past sixteen years, classrooms have seen a world of change. This post takes the long view, examining classroom practices from the perspective of a veteran educator.

CREDIT Stackup image.pngIf you walked into my classroom more than a decade ago, students would have been in awe just to have more than one computer in the classroom. Their favorite days were the ones when we got a turn in the computer lab to work on the desktops. The software wasn’t exciting, mostly just tasks such as composing essays, math practice, or occasionally working on a simulation that had to be run off the hard drive. My students didn’t have cell phones, tablets, or laptops at home. Times have certainly changed. Our students are now avid consumers in the business of technology. Our children just don’t play video games alone. Instead, they are often playing online with other children across the country and around the world. Many of the students in our classrooms have smartphones and can access the Internet anytime and anyplace. For the first time, we are teaching children who are technology natives. As a result, we have to change how we teach in schools.

For perhaps the first time in history, teachers can easily create and facilitate personalized learning paths for their students.

The revolution of education towards personalized learning begins with putting devices into student’s hands. I have been fortunate to teach in an urban district where there has been immense investments of capital toward transforming schools to 1-to-1 computing. It began by putting laptop carts in classrooms, and has since moved on to purchasing Chromebooks for every child. While we still keep paper notebooks, the vast majority of my lessons and assignments live entirely online. Rural districts in my state, however, have not been so fortunate.

In these districts, where funds are tight, they have been resourceful in spending money updating their networks and expanding their bandwidth as they adopt Bring Your Device (BYOD) policies. Rather than ban cell phones and other devices, BYOD districts adopting these policies allow students to bring a device and access their Internet when on campus. My nephew lives in a rural area and only has access to computers and the Internet in his classroom because his parents purchased him a Chromebook for classes.

With a device in every student’s hand in the classroom, educators can now use virtual classrooms to create personalized learning experiences for each student. A virtual classroom in its simplest terms is a website a teacher uses to “host” their class online, so students have access to information anytime, anywhere. Textbook publishers like Pearson have turned from just making a PDF of their textbook available online to creating virtual classrooms teachers can use to create assignments, give tests, and give students access to additional multimedia tools. This model is far more appealing to my students than paper textbooks.

If you gave my students a choice, most would opt for completing work on the computer every time. For some, it is because technology is more comfortable to them than paper and pencil. Others struggle with organization, and like having it all organized for them to locate in the virtual classroom. For myself, using a virtual classroom platform allows me to personalize learning for students by creating different groups, and even easily translating materials into other languages.

Building a Classroom Online

In recent years, I have had the luxury of using one of the more sophisticated virtual classroom platforms for teachers. Our school works with Summit Charter Schools, who using their partnership with Facebook and developed a sophisticated personalized learning platform being implemented in schools across the country. Their platform allows me to create and assess personalized learning paths for the students all within a single program. Within the platform I can create “playlists” of content for their students pulling resources from wherever I wish.

Sometimes I pull content from YouTube, or I can link multimedia from the Pearson online textbook. When I need to, I can create my own resources using any website or app I please. Unlike other platforms, I am not limited to a single publisher. When a student takes a test, the test is randomized so that while students are taking equivalent exams, no two tests are identical. So within my classroom, I am never concerned that students will cheat on an exam because no two tests are alike. My students and I have freedom to adjust the pace as the year goes on, letting them move faster or slower as needed through the material.

There are many other platforms available for teachers. Some prefer Edmodo because it is designed to look and function like the interface on Facebook. Teachers can post materials, assessments, and discussion questions to their page. Students simply have to look in the thread to find what they need. In our district we also use Google Classroom, which is also free and works in the same way. Students log in and see the main thread of items for their course. You can post discussion questions, assignments, or even multimedia for student’s access. Google also allows teachers to integrate Google Forms to administer assessments via the Google Classroom for students.

Social media can also be a powerful tool to create a simple virtual classroom experience for students. In my classroom, I often use Twitter as an educational tool. We have discussions across class periods using hashtags to share information and ideas. Some of my colleagues do the same using Instagram. Over time, programmers have realized the lucrative business of creating social media tools for teachers and students. More and more, virtual classroom platforms are being designed to imitate social media.

The App-Driven Revolution in Personalized Learning

In the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of apps. I avoided adding them to my phone, and scolded students who tried to add them to their Chromebooks. In my head I associated apps with gaming, and it took me a while to wrap my mind around them being anything else. It was actually a colleague who convinced me to explore the apps. In a meeting I listened to them talk about how they used the app Blendspace to create personalized learning, and I could mentally feel my mindset shift. This app allows teachers to integrate videos, websites, and assessments easily into a lesson. You can personalize learning by creating different groups, and customize the lessons accordingly.

Bookwidgets is a similar app that offers some more sophisticated options for creating lessons, such as the ability to create interactive crossword puzzles and extra bells and whistles for presentations. These apps are a great tool when I work with new teachers who may not be experienced at using technology in education because they are easy to use and share with students.

For teachers who want to personalize learning without necessarily building whole modules online, there are apps such as Stackup. This app, when installed on a Chromebook, allows teachers to assign and track student reading online. Teachers can personalize reading based on their content area and the different abilities in their classroom.

Once students have completed their required reading, teachers can use free apps such as Socrative to engage different groups of students in interactive games or even assess learning based on student’s personalized learning path. For my teachers who are just starting out in personalized learning, it is an easy way to track what their students are working on in the digital world.

If your students are like mine, while they are digital natives they are organizationally challenged. I have embraced the mindset now that “There is an app for that too!” The app Flextime Manager allows teachers to create lists of activities students are allowed to work on during personalized learning time based on their content areas. Students, in turn, get personalized learning by having a choice of what activities they complete. The app itself tracks what students work on, how much time they spend on each activity, etc. to help the teacher manage personalized learning more efficiently in their classroom.

Technology has placed in classrooms the great opportunity to personalize learning for students. No longer are teachers and districts without the resources to engage the diverse population of technology natives sitting in front of them. Instead, technology has provided resources for every school budget to personalize learning for students. For perhaps the first time in history, teachers can easily create and facilitate personalized learning paths for their students. Our educational system now as the tools to allow students to grow by catering to their interests and pace needed. Personalized learning can transform education in such a way that when it comes to learning, there will genuinely be no limits on our students.

Rachel Tustin, Ph.D., is a veteran science educator, having taught for more than sixteen years in public and private K-12 education, and eight years of teaching English composition at the university level. She has served as both a technology and new teacher mentor in Richland School District 2. Her passion is teaching environmental science, for which she has been recognized by the South Carolina Aquarium, Richland County Conservation Association, and Gills Creek Watershed Association.

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Trends | EdChat Interactive to discuss Digital Citizenship

Eric Butash - Headshot.jpgAnother exciting edition of Edchat Interactive is almost here, and Highlander Institute’s Eric Butash (pictured) will lead a discussion on the meaning of digital citizenship for today’s socially active students. What are the consequences of the way we help students learn to be digital citizens? Edchat interactive, brought to you by Steve Anderson, Mitch Weisburgh, and Tom Whitby, is replacing “talking head” webinars with an awesome, interactive, online professional development experience. Try it for yourself: join the discussion on Thursday, October 26, 2017 – but go ahead and register here first.

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Simply the Best!

IN CLOSE WITH | Yvonne R. Zamora

Yvonne Zamora (1) (1).jpgThe principal of Mims Elementary in Mission, TX, Yvonne Zamora shares her thoughts on building a society within her school and why she wishes social media had never been invented.

GETTING STARTED How did you get started as an educator, and how has your job changed over the years?

I began my career as a second-grade teacher at an impoverished school, which was in my neighborhood, only two blocks away from my house. I served as an educator for my neighbor’s children for six years. During those years, I got involved with University Interscholastic League (UIL) and General Education Diploma (GED) in search of other means to serve students and our community.

Once we provide teachers with professional development, it is imperative that we integrate technology with fidelity and that we monitor its impact.

During the latter part of my teaching career, I completed my Master’s in Mid-Management in the fall of 1999. I began my administration career as an assistant principal at Mission Junior High and completed two years, only to return to my elementary roots. I served as an assistant principal at Mims Elementary for three years and have served for 12 years as principal at Mims Elementary.

During these 12 years, lots of changes have occurred. Instructional leadership and accountability are now at the cusp of the principal’s main responsibilities. Throughout the years, the focus has changed from guiding teachers, maintaining facilities, and overseeing students’ educational needs to becoming an instructional leader, guiding and providing teachers with feedback and professional development, holding all stakeholders accountable for student achievement and progress, and building capacity while delegating other, less pressing, issues.

INSPIRATIONS What inspires you about teaching? Do you have a slogan or mantra that guides you?

Being at the elementary level allows me to see our students for a period of seven years. We get to build their strengths and weaknesses. We get to build their cognitive, affective, and physical abilities. We get to see them grow and watch their personalities develop. They come at the early age of 4 years old and leave at the age of 11. We allot ample time to help them evolve. We do so with the assistance of the entire school staff, along with our parents and community, in an effort to provide them the best educational opportunities. You ask what inspires me: our students do!

Our mantra is “Simply the Best.” We dedicate our lives to our students each day because our students deserve simply the best!

We dedicate our lives to our students each day because our students deserve simply the best!

FAVORITE TECH What is your favorite tech tool right now and why?

CREDIT myON.pngMy favorite tech tool right now is myON. We pair up myON with Chromebooks and we have opened new doors to our students. Our initiative is that every student has access to a class set of Chromebooks, and we are almost there. myON comes along and reinforces our vision to have a literature-rich environment which offers students a variety of experiences. Moreover, diagnosed and undiagnosed hyperactive students and students on the autism spectrum have a tool that allows them to enjoy literature while having their literacy needs met. In addition, that experience is not limited to the classroom for our students. myON allows at-home access not only to students, but to all community members. At last, the total reading experience is within our reach!

RECENT EVENTS What memorable edtech conference have you attended recently?

CREDIT TCEA conference.pngI really enjoy attending the Texas Computer Education Association Conference (TCEA). This conference attracts thousands of educators due to the enormous number of technology tips that are shared that can be integrated in the classroom. The knowledge and resources shared give me a perspective on what we need to do to transform our classrooms. If I am unable to attend, we make sure that someone from our campus attends, so that we can stay abreast of new technology that is available.

GREATEST MOMENT What was your greatest educational moment?

My greatest educational moment was initiating our society within our school, our very own Minitropolis. Students in our Minitropolis study traditional academic subjects with an emphasis on real-world application. Students create a model of the world outside the school. Students establish a municipality, a government system, and an economic system. They participate in the democratic process by forming their own government, electing officials, and passing laws for the students or “citizens” of the school or “city.”

We have the privilege of seeing our students become leaders, enhance communication skills, solve problems, work as a team, and make decisions in real-world situations!

CREDIT MIMS Elementary.pngStudents create an economy by creating money, establishing and running banks, and becoming consumers of goods sold in the retail sector of the society. All students hold jobs within the society and are paid with Minitropolis money for attendance and following the values code. Students save their money in banks or spend it to purchase goods at various stores. Students must also pay taxes to the IRS. Non-profit organizations, other businesses, and a government-run post office are also a part of this society. We have the privilege of seeing our students become leaders, enhance communication skills, solve problems, work as a team, and make decisions in real-world situations!

RED ED What was your most embarrassing educational moment?

As a principal, we have countless things happening in our building. We rely on the entire team to make things happen. From time to time, we are asked to speak at different meetings being held at our campus. Due the number of events happening during a particular week, I stepped into a parent meeting. I proceeded to greet them and began what I thought was the topic of the meeting. Well, there is the art of reading your audience while you are addressing them. I looked around and watched parents and their expressions and then turned to the staff who was present who, with their not so subtle ways, were asking me to look at the agenda. There is also the art of using humor to redirect and completely change your topic while trying to redeem yourself. I thought I did a good job, but the jury is still out on that one!

PD FOR ME What makes for great tech-related professional development?

Research-based tech-related professional development makes for great presentations. The most important factor is to have staff buy-in. We need to demonstrate how the particular tech-based professional development is going to enhance instruction and impact our students. Start with the end in mind. Once we provide teachers with professional development, it is imperative that we integrate technology with fidelity and that we monitor its impact.

NEXT TECH What’s the next technology you want to bring to your school and why?

CREDIT Google for Education.pngBefore we venture out to obtain the latest technology gadget, I would like to fully take advantage of all of the amazing experiences that can be shared through Google. Google offers so many features that assist in enhancing instruction, and I would like our students to fully explore all the possibilities. We recently had one of our teachers become a Google Certified Educator. We are working together to prepare professional development to completely take advantage of all the tools that are available to us.

NO THANKS What technology do you wish had never been invented and why?

CREDIT Wired unlike.pngI wish social media had never been invented. It has become such an overwhelming part of our society. It has impacted the way we communicate by allowing incorrect grammar, spelling, and the exclusion of punctuation marks. Furthermore, it has disconnected people from the people they are surrounded by, only to replace them with people who are not physically present.

FUTURE LOOK What educational technology do you wish someone would invent and why?

Dysfunctional is the new norm. I wish someone would invent a tool that would bring back old-fashioned family values. I miss those! One can dream…

Connect With

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School website:


Facebook: Mims Elementary Public Group

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Got a suggestion for a great person to get IN CLOSE WITH here?

Write to:

Use IN CLOSE WITH in the subject line, and in the body of your email include their name, title, email, phone if available – and yours, too.

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Up On the Edshelf

From beyond and back, the platform that continues to fill a need.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Mike Lee of edshelf.jpgThe co-founder of, a socially-curated discovery engine of tools for teaching and learning, Mike Lee is also a father, husband, and self-described idealistic realist and humanistic technologist. “That means I dream big and work hard on building concrete plans for achieving those dreams,” says Mike. “I also believe technology should be focused around the interests, needs, and well-being of people.” With a background as a software engineer and technical manager at Yahoo!, Mike is passionate about edtech, and with edshelf, it shows. Here’s what happened when he almost let it go. It’s an interesting story, and here it is from Mike.

I’ve always had the desire to improve the world in a significant way. When you strive for vast goals like that, it helps to break them down into achievable parts. Here’s how I did it.

What a long strange trip it’s been! Could you share the origin, some highlights, any low points, and resurrection of your platform? And what are your original purposes in edtech?

Mike: I’ve always had the desire to improve the world in a significant way. When you strive for vast goals like that, it helps to break them down into achievable parts. Here’s how I did it.

It’s a large planet, so instead of changing the world right away, let’s start with my country, then grow from there. So how can I make a meaningful impact on this country? I believe that can be done in two ways:

  • By changing the laws and policies of this nation. Once a policy is enacted, the impact can be relatively immediate.
  • By changing the education level of this nation. This is a slower, yet more fundamental way to have an impact.

Being a politician doesn’t interest me, so I choose education. If I can’t cure cancer or end poverty myself, maybe I can help with the education of young people who will one day do those things.

I looked into the field of education for a long time before I stumbled across this thing called, “education technology.” My background as a software engineer made this field seem perfect for me. So I posted a Craigslist ad asking if any local teachers would be interested in a free lunch in exchange for telling me about their daily work. I have an aunt, cousin, mother-in-law, and lots of friends who are all current or former teachers, but I wanted to learn more from a wider set of educators.

From those discussions, I amassed a long list of frustrations teachers frequently face. I went down the list to see if technology could be a viable solution. For many of them, it was – or at least, could be used in a way that minimized the pain of a frustration. I also noticed that many technical solutions already existed. I contacted those educators again to ask if they had ever tried those products. The answer I received was, “No, I’ve never heard of that. Where did you find it?”

CREDIT edshelf image1.pngIt was two of these educators that listened to my entire journey thus far and gave me the idea for edshelf. “Sounds like we need a catalog of edtech. Go build this please.”

So I built a quick prototype, got lots of positive feedback from every educator who would look at it, applied to the edtech startup accelerator Imagine K12 with a group of friends, and got in. That was a definite highlight and an amazing experience.

Trying to raise venture capital funding that was a definite lowlight though. While we were able to get a footprint into about 40 percent of the K-12 school districts in the U.S. by year two, investors weren’t interested. We looked at everything from grants to bank loans and everything in between, but unfortunately none of them worked out. The team eventually parted ways because their personal savings dried up. I stubbornly pressed on by myself for as long as I could, until I finally announced I had to shut edshelf down.

Then something amazing happened.

Educators rallied around a #saveedshelf hashtag. This cumulated into a successful Kickstarter campaign that gave edshelf a second lease on life. I raised enough money to hire some contractors to fix a bunch of problems with the site. Then I sustained myself by becoming a part-time web development contractor while slowly adding highly-requested features for edshelf.

I stubbornly pressed on by myself for as long as I could, until I finally announced I had to shut edshelf down. Then something amazing happened.

I’m happy to say that edshelf is still growing steadily and the response from educators is amazing. Reading their emails is what keeps me going every day.

How is edshelf something that resonates so strongly with others? What real service are you providing, and why are people reaching for it so strongly? 

Mike: I once did a survey with thousands of educators about the top frustrations of education technology. The top three responses were:

  • They don’t do exactly what I need.
  • Tech support and access issues.
  • Too many options; I don’t know what is best.

Edshelf addresses the third frustration. I think that’s part of why it resonates with educators. And in particular, with the people responsible for identifying, evaluating, deploying, training, and supporting technology in their schools. If you’ve ever walked into a supermarket aisle to buy cereal or toothpaste, you’ll know how stifling it can be to have too many choices.

I’ve also been told that many educators were touched by my personal story and struggles, especially during the Kickstarter campaign. If there are any edtech startup founders reading this, I would encourage you to use your own voice and be authentic whenever possible, instead of using corporate “marketese.” I think people appreciate that much more.

Has there been a person or pivotal event that informs your current approach?

Mike: As a kid, I was quiet, not very good at sports, and one out of a handful of minorities. That made me a target for bullies. When I got to college, I came out of my shell and lead a bunch of student-run community service organizations. This experience taught me that it was possible to do good in the world, especially for marginalized groups.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days?

Mike: There seems to be a common belief that education has gotten worse, that schools were better in the past. I don’t agree with that assertion.

Most teachers I speak with are far better informed and trained than ever before. Their passion and dedication isn’t less than it was decades ago. Even with changing classroom demographics and sizes, the vast majority of teachers are still sacrificing their time and energy to give all of their students a good education.

Sure, there are still many problems facing many schools, such as lack of funding, harmful policies, high turnovers, socio-economic issues, and more. But the professional of teaching and quality of education on a macro-level seems to be higher than it has been in the past. The statistics I’ve seen, such as high school graduation rates, are trending positive overall. And not just for this country, but for the world.

Every time I see an education leader asking introspective questions and challenging the status-quo, I am excited. We should also have an open dialogue about how to improve the way we educate future generations. Even if policies are enacted that may take us a step backwards, I know that eventually we will take two steps forward.

What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Mike: I believe that technology is a tool that should not and cannot replace teachers, but augment their practices. Technology can be transformative and enables a wide range of new activities not possible before. But at the end of the day, having a human connection is critical for a student’s development.

In my opinion, a lot of today’s problems can be traced back to a lack of emotional and social intelligence. Not enough people try to understand one another. Not enough people are able to carry out a calm yet critical debate. Not enough people work towards inclusion and cooperation.

Emotional and social intelligence is just as important, if not more important than academic intelligence. The leaders of tomorrow are the students that are learning how to understand and manage their interactions with other people. Technology can facilitate some of that, but human role models are the best. If students’ parents aren’t good role models, then hopefully their teachers are.

The leaders of tomorrow are the students that are learning how to understand and manage their interactions with other people. Technology can facilitate some of that, but human role models are the best.

What are some of the common traits of great stuff on the “ed shelf”?

Mike: Four common traits come to mind:

Responsive to educators’ needs. This goes for customer support issues, adding new features, and fixing existing problems. Organizations that have an open dialogue with the people that use their products tend to have the best products.

Well-designed features. Whenever a student or teacher gets confused with how to use a website or mobile app, the fault lies not with the person, but with the product. Good edtech is easy to use.

Good security and privacy practices. If a product stores any kind of student data, it needs to follow all modern security and privacy practices.

Ability to try the product out easily. If the product requires a fee, provide a free online demo. Many educators want to quickly play with a product to see if it fits their needs. If they have to go through barriers such as calling a sales person or entering in credit card information, they will go try a competitor instead.

Any advice you’d give to those in search of great edtech? 

Mike: The answer ultimately depends on one’s situation and goals. Here is a suggested framework that may encompass a variety of situations and help narrow down one’s selection.

Ask yourself:

1. What are my goals? If this is for my students, what are my instructional goals? What kinds of outcomes am I seeking? If this is for myself, what am I trying to achieve? What problem am I trying to solve?

2. What kinds of activities do I want to do? If this is for my students, am I looking for a solo activity or a group project? Should this be interactive or is it more about rote learning and drills? Will this take place inside or outside of the classroom? Should they make something or consume something?

3. Who will be involved? Will my entire class be participating, or just a subset? What are the grades/ages of my students? Are there any special needs and concerns? Will parents or other individuals be a part of this too?

4. What are my device constraints? What kinds of technologies do I have on hand? iPads, Chromebooks, an interactive whiteboard, a shared computer lab, students’ own devices, etc?

Steps 1 and 2 can be broken down into many sub-steps, such as alignment with Common Core State Standards and fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy, TPACK, SAMR, etc, depending upon your preferences. Going through these steps will progressively narrow down your choices from thousands of tools to hopefully a more manageable number.

Once you have that, here are some ways to help you decide between the final choices. Look at:

  • Expert and peer reviews. What do experts think about these tools? What do my colleagues think about them? Which opinions are most relevant to me? Which opinions do I trust?
  • Ease of use. Can I use it easily? Can my students use it easily? Is there a demo I can play with right away?
  • Support options. If I need help, are there tutorials or guides to help me? Is there a way to contact customer support?
  • For websites, does the URL start with https://, with the s there? A lack of this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad site, but having it is a strong plus – with one exception: if the site has a page that asks for a username and password, that page MUST have an https:// in the URL. Otherwise, don’t use it.
  • COPPA compliance. If my students are under 13 years of age, is the tool COPPA compliant? Does it ask for parental consent before my students sign up?
  • Data ownership and portability. Will you and your students own your data, or does the company own it? Will the company use your data in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? Can you export your data from the tool? Does it integrate with your school’s student information system?

If your school is fortunate enough to have a dedicated technology team, they can help you with all of this, and much more. If not, hopefully this is a good start!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Practice, Master, Repeat

Quizlet CEO Matt Glotzbach tells the story of a small app that grew.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Quizlet Matt Glotzbach CEO.pngAfter 12 years at Google where he was VP Product Management at YouTube, and before that on the founding team of Google Apps, Matt Glotzbach certainly has a background that serves him well in his current role as the CEO of Quizlet, one of the largest student and teacher online learning communities in the world. The company began 10 years ago when Andrew Sutherland created a tool to help him study for a high-school French vocabulary quiz. He aced the test, so his friends asked him if they could use the tool too. Friends shared with friends, and Quizlet grew—a lot.

More than 10 years later, students have completed more than 2 billion study sessions, they have a fast-growing team of more than 50 employees (and they’re still hiring), and they’re backed by some heavy-hitting investors including Union Square Ventures (USV), Costanoa Ventures, Owl Ventures and Altos Ventures.

In education more broadly, we’ll see the continued unbundling of content, with teachers creating their own lesson plans and curriculum — using the technology and content that works for them.

Every month, over 20 million active learners from 130 countries practice and master more than 140 million study sets of content on every conceivable subject and topic. Here are reflections on growth, mission, the use of feedback, words of wisdom for entrepreneurial minds, the state of edtech today—and more from Matt. Enjoy! 

Quizlet has an interesting history, and has come a long way from its origin to today—your thoughts on that?

CREDIT Quizlet team.pngMatt: It’s pretty incredible to see how Quizlet has evolved, from a student-created application for studying French vocabulary to a global learning platform. Today we’re much, much more than flashcards and rote memorization. Two initiatives we’ve launched in the past year that I’m particularly excited about are Learn, which is built on the Quizlet Learning Assistant Platform and uses machine learning to power effective student studying; and Diagrams, which allows students to see what they’re learning in a whole new way. Today, we’re the largest online learning platform in the U.S., and we help more than 25 million students each month practice and master whatever they are trying to learn.

Has the central mission moved slightly, or has it remained the same? If so, why and toward what?

Matt: Our goal has always been to help people practice and master what they are learning. And while the ways that we do that have expanded and improved over the years, our underlying mission remains the same. At our core, Quizlet exists to supplement existing modes of learning, enabling students to engage with any material in the ways they learn best and providing a knowledge base for teachers to share content with one another.

You’ve now got Live, Learn, Diagrams, Mobile and more. Could you talk about why you developed these features in particular, in response to what sort of feedback and from whom?

CREDIT Quizlet image1.pngMatt: This summer we introduced Diagrams, which enables users to incorporate images into their study sets to help them learn more visual, interactive topics. Many of our users expressed interest in a learning mode that would be ideal for the sciences and social studies, where analyzing and interacting with graphs/charts/maps is vital to understanding. Diagrams was our response to this request – and students are now able to use Quizlet for more subjects than ever before.

Another example of the evolution of the Quizlet platform is our Verified Content Program, launched this week, which offers official study sets straight from textbook and course publishers. To kick off the program, we’re partnering with educational content creators (i.e., Pearson), non-profits with educational initiatives (i.e., National Academy of Engineering, Jane Goodall Institute), test prep providers (i.e., MCAT Self Prep) and even individual teachers.

Our goal here was to celebrate and promote quality content creators and give them a platform to serve even more students and educators. And from a business perspective, we know that edtech faces its own challenges when it comes to monetization, so this program has opened up the door to new revenue streams for the company.

Finally, over the past year we’ve made Quizlet available in 18 languages, so it’s now accessible to 90 percent of the internet population. Prior to localizing we had seen strong organic usage of Quizlet around the globe, but we’ve really seen that growth accelerated since embarking on this localization effort.

What does your growth look like in terms of some numbers you might share?

Matt: With 25 million active users, Quizlet is currently the most popular online learning service in the U.S. – beloved by a growing community of students and teachers. In fact, one in two high school students and one in three college students in the U.S. uses Quizlet because it makes studying engaging and accessible. And, we’re growing quickly internationally as well, which is really exciting. We’ve been focusing on growing a few international markets this year, and in Brazil, for example, we’re seeing year over year growth in the triple digits.

What words of wisdom do you have for edtech startups – any tips?

CREDIT Quizlet image3.pngMatt: First, build products for your users and understand what problem they are “hiring” you to solve. If your user is a student, then build products that serve students’ needs first, and worry about the buyer (the school, the district, IT, etc.) second. Next, one of the most important things I can share with edtech startups is to think about revenue early. Especially in edtech, monetization is difficult. Quizlet was bootstrapped; in fact, it was cash-flow-positive before we decided to raise any money. The combination of existing revenue plus millions of users was attractive to investors – they were willing to invest in us because they knew that we not only had huge aspirations, but we had the business acumen and grit to chase them. 

They were willing to invest in us because they knew that we not only had huge aspirations, but we had the business acumen and grit to chase them. 

What is the state of education these days?

Matt: Why does every student in a classroom need to purchase a certain textbook to learn about a particular subject in school? Why would a job applicant need a college degree to be invited to interview for a potential employer? More and more technology companies are asking themselves these questions and coming up with an interesting answer – they don’t, and they wouldn’t.

Why? Because advances in technology have finally made it possible for us to unbundle learning.

Gone are the days where school districts issue top-down edicts on the specific textbooks students need to buy, and prohibit the use of personal devices. Instead, the educational system is now putting its faith in its educators to create individualized content and lesson plans that they feel will have the most impact on their students, and in students to know how they best learn.

Students are increasing their resourcefulness and finding customized ways to access the information they need. Online coding classes, specialist courses from MOOCs, and updated qualifications for screening job applicants are creating an environment where we can pick and choose the skills and information we want to acquire based on our own, unique goals – setting ourselves up for success in a way that was never before possible.

What do you believe is technology’s role in education?

CREDIT Quizlet image2.pngMatt: With the unbundling of education and learning comes the unbundling of content. Fewer formal textbooks are being used in K-12 classrooms and teachers are looking for more interactive and collaborative ways to work with their students. They’re taking advantage of technological advancements in studying and learning to create customized material to support their lesson plans. They are working to make learning more applied and relevant to a student’s world, which in turn helps engage students and keep them interested. At Quizlet, our goal is to be a supplement to great teaching and great content. Whatever students are learning in the classroom, we can help them learn it more efficiently, and more effectively. 

Anything else you’d like to share about Quizlet’s current direction?

Matt: In addition to launching the Verified Creator Program, we’re also making big investments in the Quizlet Learning Assistant Platform, which combines machine learning with proven techniques from cognitive science to help make studying more effective. This platform powers Quizlet Learn, which helps students work their way through study material with an adaptive study plan that gets them test-day ready. 

What’s on the horizon for Quizlet, for edtech, for education more generally?

Matt: Mastery of skills and concepts is more important than ever.  The world is getting more competitive – no longer is a graduate competing with people in their city or state, they are competing on the global playing field with a billion other people.

Mastery of skills and concepts is more important than ever.  

In education more broadly, we’ll see the continued unbundling of content, with teachers creating their own lesson plans and curriculum — using the technology and content that works for them. That’s a trend we’re following closely. And at Quizlet, we’re looking toward more investments in the Learning Assistant Platform, working with new partners as part of our Verified Creator Program and investing in international growth in the coming year.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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Better Together

In-depth with big-hearted Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Editor’s note: For one of the fastest-growing edtech companies in higher education, we’ve dug deep and present here one of our most in-depth interviews. Enjoy!

Dr Mark David Milliron Civitas Learning.jpg

A first-generation college student, Mark David Milliron came from a family of nine kids, with an African American brother, Native American brother, Korean sister—in total, 25 foster children, and was the first one to go on a higher education journey. It could have gone differently, but it hasn’t. Decades later, he’s doing what he knows how to do. And he’s doing it well: he’s bringing together the best of emerging technology, data science, and design thinking to help students learn well and finish strong. Today, Mark David Milliron, Ph.D., (pictured) as Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Civitas Learning, helms one of higher education’s fastest-growing startup companies. An award-winning leader, author, speaker, and consultant, Mark has worked with universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, foundations, corporations, associations, and government agencies across the country and around the world. In previous roles, Mark served as the Deputy Director for Postsecondary Improvement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; founding Chancellor of WGU Texas; Endowed Fellow and Director of the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice President for Education and Medical Practice with SAS; and President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

I’m a firm believer that we are entering what could be the Golden Age of Learning. And I don’t say that full of hyperbole, I say that with eyes wide open.

Mark is a member of numerous boards and advisory groups, including the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the Global Online Academy, and the Texas Student Success Council. Past board service includes the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and Western Governors University. Among numerous honors and awards, in 2014, EdTech Digest named Mark an EdTech Leadership Award honoree for his “Visionary Leadership in Education”.

Here, Mark goes in depth on recent events, technology in education, assessment and student data, catalytic conversations, “social-purpose corporations”—and how his company came to be one of the fastest-growing startups in edtech.

Our conversation with Mark came just after hurricane Harvey and before Irma. Before our interview formally begins, we catch Mark in the middle of doing what he does best – looking out for the best interests of students.

Mark: … these students who are taking steps to change their lives – they just got their lives changed in a whole different way. We are setting up an emergency aid program with the support of a broad constituency. It’s going to be totally focused on helping these students. HELP stands for Higher Education Learning Pathways. The idea is that you’ve got some emergency aid to overcome the life logistic issues right now and get themselves back on the path of life and learning. We’re going to be pulling together big foundations, rescue foundation, private university, public university, community colleges to do some pretty important work to help these folks who are wrestling with this.

Doesn’t surprise me that you and Civitas are doing something about it because you’ve had a long career in helping students. That’s excellent.

Mark: I have one of those riser desks that stands up. It’s always better for me to put it back down. I’m back to sitting. I’m not standing anymore.

Nice. I was looking at that in an in-flight magazine. Looks like a pretty cool tool.

Mark:  It’s actually pretty useful. The joke in our office is that ‘sitting is the new smoking’—right? They’re trying to, health-wise, they want to get you to stand as much as possible throughout the day. That, in mind with the fact that our two data scientists came from healthcare and tout micro activities throughout the day, we’ve got a very active office.

Wow, you’re going to get me to stand up—I sit way too much!

Mark: All is going well in your world?

Yes, going well. We’ve got the annual EdTech Awards underway with a lot of people and companies looking to be recognized among the best and brightest in edtech, we’ll announce results in March 2018. We have a lot of interesting stories coming out as well as an end-of-year State of EdTech report with leaders weighing in about the future. And it’s exciting to be interviewing you and learning what you’re up to.

Mark: Okay. Sounds good to me! I like you harvesting content, Victor. Nice work.

Thank you. You know we’ve known each other since back in the day, a couple decades ago, you wrote a column that I edited.

Mark: Oh yeah, Lev Gonick and I had that column series. We loved it.

A lifetime ago, but some of the same issues. You have an interesting perspective, knowing there have been a lot of changes since then—and I do have a special affinity for you Mark, I don’t know if you knew that!

Mark: Oh, that’s good. It goes both ways! All I know is that the things we were writing and speaking about back then actually happened, so we have a good track record.

That’s good!

Mark: I still remember trying to convince educators that the internet was a thing.

Yes, it’s been a while. And Lev Gonick, he just recently joined—

Mark: He’s now the CIO at Arizona State University.

Big news!

Mark: Yeah, but truthfully, for the last ten years, and particularly the last five, Lev has been leading the charge with the OneCommunity initiative out of Cleveland that he’s been driving—taking a regional perspective to connecting to digital footprint and non-profit infrastructures, library and all the rest, and it’s been a really impressive project. And I think it’s not surprising you found him. Obviously, we know he’s done so much—and now the work he did with EDUCAUSE and now that, so I’m going to be waiting with bated breath to see what trouble he causes at ASU, which I happen to be an alumni of, so I’m super excited.

The connections! We’ll feature him soon. A panel of people perhaps. What’s on your mind with Civitas from a high-level perspective?

CREDIT Civitas Learning team.jpgMark: It boils down to three things.

1) is that there is enormous amounts of signal or of real information from our students that can be analyzed from the digital footprints of our students. If you look at the digital footprints of our students and the SIS, card swipe and the emerging stream of data, you pull those digital footprints together and they tell stories about their journeys—so what we’ve really worked at developing is what we would call a student success intelligence platform, and that platform allows you to kind of turn the lights on and understand what’s working and what’s not. The biggest thing in our work has been trying to help institutions make the most of their data to help the students make the most of their learning.

And the two biggest areas, now, to go to two and three:

2) is, how do you help a student basically personalize their pathways? Build the right kind of pathways, keep them on the pathway and help them finish strong. And

3) is a big body of work is around precision engagement, using the data that comes from these students to be able to understand the right time to reach out to a student, to understand the right kind of message that will support them and encourage them, what kind of program works the best.

So we’re doing work in all three areas.

One is to better perfect and stand up the signal processing for institutions.

Two, to help develop the pathways, and develop tools and resources and apps that keep students on the pathway, and we’ve got great outcomes around that, Victor.

We know for a fact that these tools will help students finish strong. Then, a whole series of outreach campaigns, nudging and economics kind of work that help find the right students at the right time with the right message to help them get across the finish line, combine with—we now have a tool called Impact, which actually analyzes the whole family initiatives they’re doing, whether it’s orientation programs or classrooms or course redesigns, we can actually—because we have the intelligence platform, we can show them what’s working and what’s not.

We know for a fact that these tools will help students finish strong.

If you go back to our early articles talking about “The Road Ahead”—we said, “As these digital streams come in, institutions will be able to use that data and understand what’s working and what’s not in a way they hadn’t before.”

And that’s kind of what’s coming to the floor now. It’s been a rowdy four years at Civitas Learning as our partners have come to the floor to do this work, and we are learning a ton. Don’t get me going because I could share with you 15 stories of really compelling ways our partners are doing work in this area.

I hear your enthusiasm—love the excitement. How do you explain data science in relation to education?

Mark: What we’re trying to do is help people understand this difference between data for the last 30 years that higher education has been used for reporting, is in use for accountability analytics. Getting data to accreditors, legislators, administrators, and it’s always been backward looking and totally focused on the reports. The real shift here Victor, is moving to a time where we’re using data for real time understanding of what’s happening in a moment with students, and trying to diagnose challenges, intervene, and in particular to use that data to chart better courses for our students so they don’t need support.

CREDIT Civitas student success.pngSo the real difference is moving from accountability analytics to action analytics. The work of data science is to be able to use data to, well, I’ll make it as simple as possible: to help an institution build the right infrastructure, to get the right data to the right people at the right time, so they can understand—so they can help those students be more successful. And that’s the shift. It’s just a fundamental shift. Institutions have been using this, to use a medical metaphor, they’ve been using the data for autopsy, and we’re actually trying to shift them toward using the data for successful operations, diagnostics and hopefully wellness programs, right? The idea is just using the data very differently.

By the way, that means different kinds of data strategies. Most of the reporting work, you end up with analysis based on demographics because those are the neat little categories we’re used to putting students in, so it’s full-time/part-time, it’s male/female, it’s different race and ethnicities, and what we’re finding is that 95 percent of our models, our predictive models, are actually driven by derivative variables, which are calculated variables that are much more driven by what students do. It’s just a different way of looking at the data, and it stops you from jumping to conclusions.

Refreshing! All the focus on demographics can be a bit obsessive or even illogical—and your approach doesn’t even really need that.

Mark: The whole demography-is-destiny thing drives us bananas. What we’re seeing is that—here’s the bottom line: people have used demographic categories as signal. They’ve said, “somebody who is going part time might be a signal that they’re working a lot, or they don’t have as much money.” So they’ve actually interpreted the signal out of the demographic categories—which is pretty dangerous. If you want to talk politically incorrect, that might be politically incorrect, because there are a whole lot of upper- and middle-class African Americans in statics who don’t want to be assumed that because they’re a static, they’re a risk. I think we’ve got to be very careful about the demographic categories in that regard, and I think what we’re trying to do with our data analytics is help them understand, “Listen, if you’ve culled together a whole lot of data and then process and analyze it, what you find is that there’s a better way to do the signal processing. You actually can get more precise signal about who might actually be at risk.”

It’s just a different way of looking at the data, and it stops you from jumping to conclusions.

I’ll give you a concrete example. One of our community insights reports kind of blew everybody away, where we said, “Listen, you are obsessed with academic triggers. You think the main ways a student is not going to persist is they’re below 2.0, they failed a course last semester, they failed a gatekeeper course.” And what we showed them was, 78 percent of the non-persisters across four million students in higher ed that we were studying, 78 percent of the non-persisters had above a 2.0. 45 percent at between a 3.0 and a 4.0. These weren’t academically challenged students. Often, the reason they were leaving were: life and logistics, or often: mindset problems. They literally felt like they didn’t belong, or they didn’t over—the grit challenges and overcoming issues.

So we ran a “nudge” campaign, and we worked with one of our institutions and identified high-GPA students who, in a predictive model, said were on the pathway toward some problems. And we did a basic nudge campaign that said, “Hey, congratulations on being so successful here. We’re really proud of you and we know college is hard. Here are the kind of things many of our students face, financial challenges, work-life balance, dealing with kids. If any of these are a reality for you, please reach out to us because we’re right here, ready to help.” And they got an enormous response. And they ended up seeing almost a 9.3 percentage point bonk out of that initiative.

So that’s the kind of thing where they stopped relying on the demographics and start using the data analysis to more precisely find the students who needed it, and try a different strategy, then measure it.

Does that make sense?

Totally. Really, data can be manipulated or “selectively presented” so you have to ask, what are the intentions of the people behind the scenes? And you are asking the interesting questions, you are not just pushing propaganda, you’re using science in a real, lively, practical way, along correct lines of logic, and have assembled truly empirical minds with good goals, reaching for real results.

CREDIT Civitas image2.png

Mark: Yeah, [it’s] not [just] the best argument wins. A great example is, we recently did a bunch of promotion of the work of University of South Florida. We just love what they’ve done. They’ve really leaned into this.

They’ve actually created this Student Care Team that meets every two weeks and looks at the data and identifies which student groups needs an outreach, and they started testing different kinds of outreach, and they started doing this over the course of the last 3-5 years, and by changing the orientation from traditional academic triggers and demographics, switching it to this kind of orientation, they have literally in the last five years, have gone from a mid to high 50 percent graduation rate to over a 70 percent graduation rate.

They’ve actually eclipsed a 90 percent first-year retention rate, which they never had come close to before. It’s been game-changing for them—because what they have found is, this ability to find the right student at the right time and actually test the outreach has changed their orientation, and it kind of got them off the reporting drug, if you will, or the demographic drug. It actually made them think about, “Let’s actually look at the data as it is and figure out which students need our help, and what kind of outreach will actually work.”

The good news for them is that they have really good outcome data they can share with people. Not to mention, Victor, they closed all the equity gaps—so they don’t have any distinction between the different demographic categories that everybody’s worried about in the first place.

Very interesting.

Mark: Again, it’s just as powerful as you can imagine. And the thing I love about it is, they’re making significant gains in the student success metrics at the same time that they’re closing equity gaps. At the same time, they’re really thinking about how they can optimize that learning experience not just for—you know I hate the term “at risk”, it’s the idea of, how do you optimize learning for all students, right? How do you help that student make the most of their time there? Because that’s when you get expansive and you can do some exciting work. 

That connects to the idea of values, mission, and what drives your engineers, your scientists. In the first place, what prompted you to sign with— 

Mark: Before you jump on that one, I want to make sure: we participated in the creation of the student privacy piece that was put together by the New America Foundation. We feel really strongly about the ethics of this.

Actually, my co-founders Charles Thornburgh and Laura Malcolm and I, we feel strongly about this notion that there are probably some people who shouldn’t be using analytics because they’ll use it for the wrong reasons, so we often push this notion of an ethic, and the ethic is “Do no harm.” This should be used to actually improve the outcomes for the institution and for the students in particular.

And also, we have a firm belief that we should be making bets on getting the data to the front lines. Let’s get the data in the hands of the teachers, in the hands of the advisors, in the hands of the students to help take more agency in their move forward.

But we could not feel more strongly about that notion of “do no harm”.

I get terrified by people who say—and they use math the wrong way. They actually say, once they get a trigger that a student might be having a challenge at a STEM program, they want to cancel them out of STEM and get them into a different major. I think that can’t be the go-to move. We got to think of better ways to help students. Does that make sense? 

Absolutely. That’s a value. Your work and leadership branches out to many areas, very commendable and worth promoting—so what’s the story of how and why you signed on with Civitas, with Charles, in the first place?

Mark: I was coming out of the work with the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, and Gates really had done so much work to champion the challenge that not enough students were finishing what they started in higher education and, in fact, the outcomes were desperately disparate based on income. If we want education to make the difference it can make in our country, we have to help more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before. So Gates really invested in not only making sure people understood that challenge, which resulted in a lot of energy around the completion agenda, but it also invested in innovations to help solve the problem, so we literally gave away tens of millions of dollars to innovators.

If we want education to make the difference it can make in our country, we have to help more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before.

But one of the most frustrating issues in that process was, you never knew what worked, really. There really was no data that understood what worked in what ways for whom, and I—and you know this. For decades, I’ve been championing the idea to be able to use data, and especially getting data to students to help them chart their own course, and I just got kind of frustrated because the ERP vendor said they were going to do it eventually, said they were going to do it, other people had done little side projects. And Charles basically challenged me and said, “Okay, Mark. Stop writing and speaking about this. Someone’s going to actually have to build this—because if we want to get this to help make the difference it’s going to make in education, we’re going to have to pull it together.”

CREDIT Civitas image1.pngSo our vision was to create a social purpose corporation.

Laura, Charles and myself came together around this idea of a social purpose corporation, totally focused on the Million More mission: help a million more students each year learn well and finish strong—and basically use the best data science and design thinking to help change the way people launched and understood their innovations. And that became the core of our work.

We got great champions behind us. Adam Dell jumped in with Austin Ventures and gave us our first round of dollars. We pulled in a group of institutions for our basic program that ran for about two years. Then we finally opened up to work with pioneer colleges in late 2013, early 2014, and basically for the past four years, we’ve been in that stage of this pioneer work. And it’s gone fast and we’ve learned a lot.

Lessons learned at Gates? You had a couple years of tens of millions in giving. 

Mark: No, I think the work of the Gates Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and a host of others is incredibly important, because they are catalysts to innovation. What we want to be is a partner on that so our data can actually show which of those innovations are working and for whom. The answer can’t be, “We have to waste two years and write a meta-analysis on this stuff.” We want to get as much real-time data in people’s hands as possible—so they can tune and test and try these innovations, and bring them to scale faster. 

Goes back to the medical metaphor, the autopsy analogy—

Mark: Yes. Basically, it’s what I wish we had when I was at Gates.

Your company’s community now includes more than 285 institutions reaching 6.5 million students. So, you are at the helm of one of the fastest-growing edtech startups of all time—any words of wisdom for others in edtech? Or has it been head-to-grindstone, no chance to look up and reflect?

Mark: We are so focused on our partner community. We named our organization Civitas Learning because it literally means a community of learning together. So, in some ways, the fact that we’re the fastest growing edtech company—I don’t want to focus on the company. I want to focus on the community. I think we’ve got a community of institutions, universities, community colleges, private, public, who are rowdy, totally difference-making focused folks that are trying to do this larger work. In some ways, I want to speak to social purpose innovators—people who want to build things that actually make a difference. It’s actually one of the reasons why we don’t have—I think we are blessed with the ability to quick track amazing talent from the data science world, the develop world and other places is because people want to be a part of a social purpose mission. I think that’s different. If somebody’s trying to make a million dollars or do X, Y, or Z that’s a totally different thing. We’re trying to create something substantive that’s going to change the lives of millions of students, and we’re more explicit about it.

If somebody’s trying to make a million dollars or do X, Y, or Z that’s a totally different thing. We’re trying to create something substantive that’s going to change the lives of millions of students.

To me, the two or three big lessons would be: Be totally focused on a mission that matters, get really good people together to help go after that mission, then work with the kind of partners that want to learn, that are willing to turn on the lights and figure out what works and what doesn’t—and it’s amazing the kind of good things that can happen.

In the realm of helping others, how do you stay focused amidst waves of political distraction? In your work, how do you not get into it and remain focused? Or is this even an issue?

Mark:  Well, one of the most important things you can do is talk to students on a regular basis. When you start talking to thriving students, you get real stories of the challenges they’re trying to overcome, and you get a lot of passion around trying to fix that, and you realize this isn’t a political issue—it’s a personal issue for these students. That helps you stay focused. And here is a brutally practical one, which is, if you’re going to work in this world, you’re going to be, I always call it, you’re going to be an “educan” or “educat”, you’re not going to be a Republican or a Democrat.

You’re going to be totally focused on trying to improve the pathway to possibility through education. And there are great people in all of those political sectors who can help in the process, so I’m all about welcoming people to the cause. IF they’re going to help improve the pathway for students, I want to be there. Third is, you just got to be careful about the shiny objects of politics.

By the way, politics are not the only shiny object. The other shiny objects in our world are—you can be drawn off path by politics, you can be drawn off path, by the way, by technology. There are people who—you remember us talking about the Techno Cro-Magnon Theory, where it’s just this guttural feeling of “technology is good. And it’ll solve all of education’s problems.” You can’t be wowed by the technology. It’s too—what it is being used for? That becomes a really big thing.

You can also—you can get a lot of religion for a specific technique. You might fall in love with online learning or collaborative learning or whatever else it is. To me, it’s what works. I’ve always been driven by this notion of, does it improve or extend learning and how do you know? And use that as your decision razor. And for me, part of this work is, are you going to help these students improve or expand their learning and how do we know? And that’s how we stay focused on it.

So I don’t think politics are the only shiny object. I think you can get drawn into politics, you can get drawn into technology, you can get drawn into business. You can say, “I want to build the biggest business ever.” That can really distract you from the focus and you’ve just got to keep your eye on the prize.

Well put. Okay, so what’s your take on the state of education today?

Mark:  I’m a firm believer that we are entering what could be the Golden Age of Learning. And I don’t say that full of hyperbole, I say that with eyes wide open. And why I say that is because we have more tools at our disposal than ever before, and we have more data at our disposal than ever before to understand what works and for whom and in what way. I think we are at the cusp of being able to do some radically personalized, powerful learning with every different kinds of programs in very different sectors. I think across K-12, community colleges, private/public universities, and even in workforce education, we’re at a very interesting moment. But I think it’s going to take some hard work. We’re going to have to put our shoulder to the wheel on this.

We are at the cusp of being able to do some radically personalized, powerful learning with every different kinds of programs in very different sectors.

Now, I say we’re at that precipice, but it can go south fast if we politicize education or if we just make it more problematic for people to get on these learning journeys. You know me. From the beginning, it’s about trying to make sure that striving students, especially first generation, low-income students can get on the stats and stay on the stats and be successful.

What is the state of edtech—and what do you believe is technology’s role in education?

CREDIT Civitas student.pngMark: What’s good is that edtech is being more purpose driven than ever before. I think people are—I think the “Techno Cro-Magnon Theory” is being bursted, where people realize now, it’s not just that technology will improve education, it’s how you use it. I think now people are more sophisticated, savvy, and demanding on edtech, which is probably a great thing. And I think now we’re getting to the place where we can ask harder questions faster, and we’re not just, “Oh, look at that cool new shiny object!” I think we’re right away saying, “Does it improve learning and how do we know? Does it improve this outcome for students and how do we know?” So I think that is a great thing.

I will say, one of the things I’m most excited about is the Millennials, and whatever you want to call the next generation, the generation Z or the iGen, very mission driven, very socially conscious, seem very focused on trying to do things that will improve a lot for others, and one of those things include education. So I think we’re getting a lot of energy from that generation coming into our world, and they are so native to technology that their ease and facility with thinking about how technology can improve education is going to be compelling.

Now we’re getting to the place where we can ask harder questions faster, and we’re not just, “Oh, look at that cool new shiny object!” I think we’re right away saying, “Does it improve learning and how do we know?”

Well Mark, you have one of the most active careers of anyone I know—at least on paper! So—

Mark: When you say ‘active career’—you mean I can’t keep a job? Is that what you’re saying?!

[Laughter] You’ve contributed to so many different efforts and to everyone you’re very generous with your time. What compels you to the catalytic conversations that you have, what really compels you—and what is your vision of the future?

Mark: The thing that compels me the most is that I’ve been blessed in my life by the right people showing up at the right time to help me get on my own path. I was a first-generation student, as you know, coming from a family of nine kids with an African American brother, Native American brother, Korean sister and 25 foster kids, and I was the first one to go on a higher education journey, and if it wasn’t for that, I was absolutely not “completion-by-design” in higher ed. I was completion-by-serendipity. The right people showed up to help me get on the right path, including folks like Dr. Alfredo Alfantos, who’s the vice chancellor of America Open Community Colleges. I just happened to make friends with his son, and suddenly he became a second father to help me get through higher ed. What I became committed to is making sure that hard-working, striving students who wanted to use education to change their lives, to make it more likely that they could be successful. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that area—so I’ve been at it ever since.

Sounds like you must have a unique view of time in order to get so much done!

Mark: I think so. As my wife would say, I’m radically unrealistic—especially because I’m idealistic. I just feel like the energy is going to show up. There are people there who want to work on this work, and I’m just amazed at how many people of goodwill will jump in to try and solve some of these problems. A good example of what we’re doing right now with the Harvey HELP program is, suddenly all kinds of people are showing up to help solve the problem and that’s energizing.

Very good. Anything else? Works in progress, podcasts, books, what’s on the horizon? Any back-burner, percolating projects?

Mark: Yeah, a couple of them. One is, I run a podcast called Catalytic Conversations, and we have some great episodes up there with folks like Vince Tinto and Gerardo de los Santos. We’re also doing an e-book on nudging. We’ve sent about two million nudges in the last two years and analyzed what kind of nudges work for which students in which way, and that’s going to be a pretty compelling resource for a lot of our colleges. Thirdly, we produce these things called Community Insights Reports, and the Community Insights Reports are large-scale studies across the Civitas community about what people are learning.

I haven’t seen anything done on that sort of scale since Project Tomorrow; and you have more than two million student records at 55 colleges and universities in your community. Amazing, huge feedback loop! That’s a lot of insights, and to bring order to it…

Mark: Yeah, I mean, we’ve got seven million active students in our data stream, and 20 million enrollment records. The good news is I think we’ve got—the goal is to scaffold students with the stories of students past. I always jokingly say that second, third, fourth-generation students are insider trading, they’re operating on insider information about how to manage higher ed, and first-generation students don’t get to do that. So the idea here is to use the stories of these successful students to scaffold the first-generation strivers on their journeys, and now we’ve got a lot of resources at our disposal to do that. Any student starting in higher ed, if they are in community college, and they’re going to plan their next semester, we should be able to say, “A student like you at this stage, there’s a next set of courses you probably should take.” The idea of being able to use tools like the green app and others that can help them make those choices, those are just things that should exist and we’re going to try to help make exist.

Excellent and thank you Mark, it’s very inspiring to see such a purpose-driven individual forming a true group and getting to work—and getting real results. Keep it up and let’s continue our conversation down the road! For now, unless there’s anything else you want to add or emphasize, I don’t have any further questions.

Mark:  No, I think we’re good. And Amanda’s dragging me out of the office for another meeting so I have to get going pretty quick.

Sounds about right!

Mark:  It’s so good to reconnect. I’m glad you’re doing well and let’s find ways to consistently cause some good trouble, whether it’s a call series or ongoing conversations, let’s stay in good touch.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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Trends | Implementing Ed Tech

CREDIT SMART.pngSuccessful technology implementations do not happen by accident. With the right tools and approach, education technology can have a significant and measurable impact on learning. According to research, the greatest success in the classroom starts with sound teaching skills, complemented by software and hardware, in that order.  The formula for a successful edtech implementation could be said to be comprised of two parts: 1) Following through on each of these key features to result in seamless and thoughtful implementations that will create more engaged students and empowered teachers: Leadership Vision; Integration Pedagogy; Professional Development; Instructional Methods Support; Ability to Leverage Existing Tech; and Evaluation and Assessment. 2) Step two addresses how to design the technology implementation, working with a model in the planning of the implementation that will help the technology engage, enhance, extend and empower students and teachers. There are yet many success stories in a landscape where educators can be seen to struggle in getting results from their classroom technologies. For example, Oak Grove Elementary followed the formulas above and saw a 31 percent increase in the total percentage pass rate in Science scores on state standardized tests. Rolling Ridge Elementary saw their students become quicker and more accurate in their math skills seeing a 55 percent increase in addition and a 69 percent increase in subtraction. Learn more.

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A Fair Opportunity for Success

Preventing technology gaps from creating achievement gaps.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sheldon Soper

CREDIT The Knowledge Roundtable.jpgTechnology is becoming a ubiquitous component of modern day classrooms. Tools like Chromebooks, laptops, and iPads provide powerful ways for students to create, collaborate, and access information. Students benefit from this access and can use it to build crucial skills for their 21st century world.

While technology access inside the classroom can be standardized, it is anything but once students leave. For students without reliable internet access from home, all the rewards and benefits of a technologically infused classroom fade away with the day’s dismissal bell.

Students should be able to participate and engage with any work intended for completion outside of class regardless of their access to technology.

Technology-driven classroom workflows need analog components to ensure students without reliable access to technology outside of school are not left out. Otherwise, the technology gap between those with access and those without will quickly manifest as an achievement gap.

The Problem with Paperless

One of the common rationalizations schools use when transitioning towards technology focused learning environments is the elimination of paper. There is less clutter, fewer organizational issues, and less physical waste. Students can access digital materials quickly and even refer back to prior creations and resources with ease. Learning experiences can become more engaging with multimedia elements and increased interactivity. Teachers can access student work from a single device rather than constantly lugging piles of papers and a gradebook back and forth from school.

While this paperless convenience is hard to deny, it can quickly become a vehicle for disenfranchising students. A truly paperless class creates an unfair hurdle for students without access to the digital content from home.

Teachers still need to maintain some analog components in their digital classrooms to help prevent technological gaps at home from turning into achievement gaps in school. Crucial course materials like study guides and reference materials should always be available in paper form for students to take if needed. Work that is expected to be completed outside of class should be free from rigid, technology-dependent requirements like “this must be typed” when possible.

If technology is to be a key element of a learning experience, that learning experience should be one that all students have the time and opportunity to experience in the classroom.

The good news is that analog work does not automatically mean a return to piles of papers to grade and cluttered “turn-in” bins. Popular workflows like SeeSaw, Edmodo, and Google Classroom all have quick and easy ways to digitize analog student work (paper, projects, models, etc.) using the cameras that are standard in most classroom devices. With just a few taps, paperwork can become digitized and be submitted electronically to a teacher or shared with peers.

Not All Internet Access is Created Equal

While there are a growing number of free and open pathways to internet access for people who need it, educators need to be careful not to assume that these pathways mean their students are on a level technological playing field.

Sure, there are public libraries, homes of family members, school buses equipped with internet hotspots, and local businesses with “free Wi-Fi” signs in the window that all can provide a pathway to access. However, for a student who has to rely on these options, it is no match for being able to enjoy the comfort and security of learning at home like other students have the privilege to do.

Another common misconception is that cell phone data plans and Wi-Fi internet access are synonymous when it comes to accessing digital content for school. Smartphones can be useful learning tools for students, but when those devices do not have reliable Wi-Fi internet to connect to, their bandwidth usage comes at a cost. Teachers must be cognizant of this discrepancy to avoid putting students in a difficult position to decide between accessing their schoolwork and driving up their phone bills with data fees.

It falls to teachers in this age of digital classrooms to try to give all students a fair opportunity for success. When certain tasks or assignments are technologically dependent, they must also then be classroom dependent. Students should be able to participate and engage with any work intended for completion outside of class regardless of their access to technology. Failing to do so drives a wedge between those with access and those without; a widening achievement gap will surely follow.

Sheldon Soper is a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He has a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education from Rutgers University, with teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. He has tutored Reading, Writing, Calculus, Chemistry, Algebra, and Test Prep. Sheldon believes all students can be successful; it is the role of educators to help facilitate growth by differentiating and scaffolding student learning on a personal level.




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