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

Reach Yvonne through:

School website:


Facebook: Mims Elementary Public Group

Twitter: N/A

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:

The 2018 EdTech Awards program is open a little while longer and accepting your entries. Featuring edtech’s best and brightest, the annual recognition program shines a spotlight on cool tools, inspiring leaders, and innovative trendsetters: Click here for an Entry Form 


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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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Cool Tool | AssignFocus by Print Program

CREDIT DreamBox Learning circles.pngPrint programs are often a large part the main component of every student’s math experience. Because teachers are pressed for time, they must find quick and effective digital resources that align with and enhance their classroom lessons. DreamBox Learning’s latest cool tool, AssignFocus by Print Program, enriches the learning experience by allowing student differentiation and professional development to complement math print materials, like Eureka Math, Engage NY, and Contexts for Learning Mathematics. This new capability in the company’s K-8 math solution helps educators create more comprehensive and differentiated math experiences for students by blending DreamBox’s adaptive learning technology with print materials. This cool tool gives teachers more flexibility and choice in how they differentiate lessons for students and track their progress. They can complement instructional goals and district curricula by creating assignments using the module, topic, or unit names from the print program they’re using. With real-time proficiency data about each learner, the feature enables teachers to automatically create differentiated assignments for each student that support concepts from their print programs. The blending of these two tools provides deeper learning opportunities through this company’s virtual manipulatives — proven to develop problem-solving strategies, hone critical-thinking skills, and develop math fluency. Learn more.

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IoT in Edu

Five reasons the Internet of Things deserves a seat in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Lisa Litherland

CREDIT CDW-G IoT in education.pngIt’s no secret that the Internet of Things (IoT) has exploded in popularity in recent years – Gartner predicts 8.4 billion connected devices will be used in 2017, a 31 percent increase from 2016. Many of these connected devices are finding their way into education. From the rise of interactive whiteboards to connected school buses, IoT’s value in K-12 is growing exponentially. Here are five reasons IoT has earned its spot in K-12, and how it can impact schools from the student, teacher, administrator and even parent perspective.

1. Student Engagement

Eighty-one percent of K-12 professionals say that IoT will improve student engagement, and 36 percent say they have already seen improved student engagement thanks to their IoT efforts, according to CDW-G’s survey, Safety and Savings: IoT Opportunities in K-12. Devices like laptops, tablets and digital whiteboards are commonplace, but many IoT tools are expanding capabilities to improve student achievement. For example, 25 percent of school districts have smart buses, which often include Wi-Fi. For students without internet access at home, this can mean more time to do homework and have access to online learning tools.

With a proper implementation plan, schools will reap the benefits of IoT technology for students, teachers, parents and administrators alike.

2. Classroom Innovation

Additionally, 33 percent of schools have seen improved teacher engagement thanks to IoT, finds CDW-G’s survey of 300 K-12 professionals. For example, IoT technology that helps teachers take attendance saves time by avoiding the need to conduct a manual roll call. Internet-connected devices, such as tablets, combined with analytic technology, can help educators monitor student activity during testing or classwork and provide more agile, personalized instruction – increasing both teacher and student interest and enthusiasm. Further, smart webcams allow students to tune in to the classroom virtually, enabling teachers to work with students independent of physical location – possibly eliminating the snow day.

3. Parent Involvement

Parent participation is important as well, but it is challenging to keep parents informed at all times. IoT-connected devices can help. Connected school buses that sync with apps enable parents to know when to pick up their children at the bus stop or when to expect them to arrive at home. Text-based emergency alerts triggered by IoT sensors can be delivered automatically to parents’ smartphones, and are already in use by 25 percent of school districts, notes the CDW-G study. These IoT devices increase parents’ knowledge of their students’ whereabouts and safety.

4. Security Enhancements

The biggest IoT benefit schools and districts have seen to date is improved security – 55 percent of K-12 professionals surveyed say safety has improved thanks to IoT, finds the study. Wireless door locks, room access systems and connected cameras – the latter of which are already used by 48 percent of schools – enable the main office to see guests before they are allowed to enter the building, as well as ensure all building doors are locked automatically at the same time every day. Student ID cards with radio frequency identification chips – currently used by 26 percent of schools – can confirm the identification of all students entering the building, and be used to ensure all students are out of the building during fire drills or other emergencies.

5. Cost and Energy Savings

Implementing an IoT strategy is an investment in both time and money. However, with careful planning, schools can realize long-term cost savings and a considerable payoff in terms of energy use. In fact, 65 percent of K-12 professionals predict that IoT will save schools significant money. And, 38 percent of schools using IoT have seen improved energy efficiency thanks to resources such as smart lighting systems, smart HVAC systems and smart thermostats. By controlling the lighting and temperature automatically and only using these devices when the building is occupied, schools can cut down on their energy bills.

IoT has earned its place in the classroom – and with elements such as the smart bus – a seat outside the classroom. While some schools may still have hesitations, 81 percent say the potential benefits of IoT outweigh the risks. What’s more, 82 percent of administrators and teachers surveyed by CDW-G expect most schools to have incorporated IoT into core functional areas in five years. With a proper implementation plan, schools will reap the benefits of IoT technology for students, teachers, parents and administrators alike.

Lisa Litherland is a digital transformation architect and focuses on the Internet of Things (IoT) for CDW-G. Write to:

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Sharing the Genius

Chalkup founder Justin Chando talks growth, struggle, success – and students.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Justin Chando of Chalkup.jpgThey do everything a Learning Management System does, but “we hate learning management systems” says Justin Chando, Chalkup founder and CEO (pictured, left). “We don’t think education is something that should be ‘managed’ and that’s not how we designed Chalkup.” Instead, they call themselves a class collaboration platform— “because that’s what we’re all about: connecting classrooms, sparking collaboration, and finding new and innovative ways to work together,” says Justin, who founded the company less than five years ago out of a college dorm room.

From those heady days, it was there that the young company stayed grounded and practical with a simple, basic frustration over the lack of collaboration functionality in their own school’s technology. Assembling a small team, Justin and his friends made their own system. They focused on what was important to them: class discussion, resource sharing, and connecting students.

Something is broken in teaching today if teachers are coming up with ideas alone and consistently reinventing the wheel over and over again.

Two years went by and EdTech Digest interviewed Justin—that was in 2015. Now, another couple years, time flies, and even more has changed, as you’ll read in this what’s-happening-now interview.

A lot has happened since we last chatted back in September 2015. So, two years later—what’s the update?! You were working on making the best mobile learning experience, and featuring innovative teachers. Now what is up?

Justin: It’s great to chat again, Victor. So much has happened since we last caught up!

We started Chalkup with the thesis that learning needs to be more social and collaborative in order to better engage students.

Back then, there weren’t many Learning Management Systems (or LMS) that had any sort of rich communication space for courses. We saw this as a big gap in the market. So, we designed our whole platform to enable safe, rich in class and out of class discussions. It had to be simple, beautiful, and incredibly functional. We see Chalkup today as the easiest way for teachers to send messages and assignments.

Back in that dorm room in 2013, when we were frustrated by the lack of collaboration functionality in our school’s technology—we got a team together and made our own system, which focused on class discussion, resource sharing, and connecting students. Bam. Chalkup was born.

Fast-forward to today and we now have millions of class discussions taking place on our platform. Early on, we made a big bet that classrooms around the world would want a space to communicate and chat with each other about their course work. We’re able to give students a voice in their classes. We’re happy this bet has paid off.

What new challenges came up during that time? How did you overcome them?

Justin: Building something new is always hard. I’d be lying if I said everything came easily for us. We’ve dealt with school challenges, implementation issues, frustrated teammates and teachers, etc.

For example, early on we gave a school beta access to something new we were building—they insisted they had to have it to move forward. We knew it really wasn’t ready for that kind of use. Unfortunately, it spoiled the relationship with that school afterwards because the teachers there continued to treat Chalkup as an early beta, when the product actually evolved so much since then.

However, even with the challenges that always arise there’s something unique about working in edtech. What keeps us going with such strong conviction is the potential for our work to have a profound impact on millions more students and teachers around the world. It’s still so exciting to walk into a classroom and have every student using your product and hear the feedback and compliments that come along with that. The best experience I ever had with Chalkup—seriously almost cried—was when I walked into a school in San Francisco and the students in the 8th grade Spanish class gave me a standing ovation thanking me for building Chalkup. I’ll never forget that. Building a company comes with extreme highs and lows.

How is the funding world, the business end of things?

Justin: I think edtech funding is quite different than other markets and is certainly still changing and figuring itself out. There have been companies before us that have raised a lot more capital that are doing well, and there are some who have raised a lot and haven’t been able to figure out a path to monetization; are dealing with layoffs, downsizing, etc. There has also been investment from older large education companies into their own home-grown digital products that have failed miserably. In the past year or so, it’s been interesting to see a disproportionate amount of venture capital in education go to companies working on ancillary products outside of the classroom. That’s not great.

That being said, we’re proud of how efficiently we’ve been able to build this company. We’ve raised a small amount of funding from some incredibly passionate investors/advisors that are actually actively involved and help me make strategic decisions. This has allowed us to stay focused on solving for the student and teacher long term and build the best product possible while having a solid business model.

How has your company grown?

Justin: Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve passed a major milestone at Chalkup. Over 1 million educational resources have been built on and shared by teachers on our platform. That’s over a million assignments, rubrics, lesson plans, lecture recordings, and educational videos on Chalkup that now reach students around the world. Chalkup is already in use by educators at 1 in 3 universities, 1 in 5 high schools. Many of our growth has come in just the past year. We’re super excited by how fast we’re moving.

A CEO/Founder running a startup with a couple people has a different job than one that runs dozens or a hundred people – how has this gone for you?

Justin: Absolutely, it’s a different role completely. Today, I am still hands on with everything from product design and development to marketing/sales and customer support. When we get hundreds more people working with us, I’ll have to report back to you to let you know how it’s different!

How is it working in the San Francisco Bay Area? How has this colored your approach versus if you were somewhere else like Boston, Austin, or even abroad somewhere?  

Justin: We’ve been able to experience a lot of different cities and their subsequent “edtech ecosystems”. We were based in Boston for a while and got to know most of the education startups there. Boston actually has a pretty vibrant culture in education both with the surrounding colleges and entrepreneurship ecosystem. We then spent some time in New York City. But since moving to San Francisco about 8 months ago, it’s been different. I think I’ve benefitted most from being able to meet other founders from over 20+ education companies and it’s been helpful to share experiences and help each other. I’ve found the Bay Area to have a greater openness to share and connect than anywhere else I’ve been. Even though the edtech meetup groups are larger in New York City and Boston, I feels like there are more companies actually building education startups here in San Francisco.

After two more years now, what new or amended advice would you provide to those in the edtech sector who have a startup – any advice? What words of wisdom might you have for others?

Justin: To build an edtech startup, you must do the things that many of your larger, more established competitors are too big to do. This means going to classrooms, talking to individual educators/students, allowing schools who believe in your vision to help guide your product design, and yes, doing things that “don’t scale”. You also need to do it quickly and competently enough to stand out among newer, more nimble competitors.

To build an edtech startup, you must do the things that many of your larger, more established competitors are too big to do.

I love Chalkup, the product I imagined in college and launched shortly thereafter. As far as learning management systems go, I truly believe we’re doing something different—in a way that’s better—not just different. And I think we’re positioned to move faster than the big guys. We’re not bogged down with clunky interfaces and unnecessary features, and we’ve logged a lot of time in classrooms, differentiating us from the plethora of new edtech companies that still have much to figure out. Education is a super challenging market but is also the most rewarding one in my opinion.

Your thoughts on the state of education today?

Justin: With everything going on in our country and the world it makes me think that we wouldn’t have many of the problems we’re facing today if everyone had access to an incredible education. As it turns out, everything can actually be traced back to education. Education has never been more important.

This should be incredibly empowering to both educators and people working in education to continue to do the meaningful work everyday. Remember to focus on what actually matters: giving the next generation the knowledge needed to build a better world. Planting the seeds today that will give the world shade later. We have a lot of work to do, but there has never been a greater need for everyone to obtain a great education.

More than anything, we need educators to teach students how to learn. The world is moving rapidly, technology is advancing at astronomical speeds. We can’t learn things today and expect them to remain relevant forever. Teach someone to love learning and they’ll be set for life.

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

Justin: One question I like to ask educators is—can your students make the same learning gains with paper as they can with your current classroom technology? If the answer is yes, your digital setup is failing you.

The world is moving rapidly, technology is advancing at astronomical speeds. We can’t learn things today and expect them to remain relevant forever. Teach someone to love learning and they’ll be set for life.

We shouldn’t add technology to the classroom for the sake of adding technology, but rather to achieve new learning gains. Planning for technology in classrooms too often centers on how quickly a school can purchase devices. After working with thousands of schools with Chalkup, I’ve learned just how many classrooms have accessed new technology without a plan for implementation. Answer: too many. These classrooms are using their shiny new devices, but instruction has been left mainly unchanged.

Timelines and funding structures are crafted, but not enough is put into professional development for the instructors who will actually use these tools. Too few ask how new platforms will enrich lesson and support knowledge gains; we are more likely to see conversations about roll-out dates and new tech policies. Most of all, I often don’t see how students are getting more out of these deals.

I absolutely believe technology in the classroom has an incredible opportunity and there are teachers doing amazing things today. However, I’d like to see the edtech community rally around an evolution in classroom culture that trends toward embracing digital learning as a vehicle to meaningful engagement – enabling things that you couldn’t do before.

Any conferences, meetings, visits, anything you’ve seen “out there” in the field – that has really put a pep in your step, inspired you, perked you up to a certain area of focus that inspires you to carry on with more intensity than ever?

Justin: I was recently able to see a talk in San Francisco discussing the book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement by John Hattie. In the talk, he discussed various actions that have the highest predictor of student achievement. One of the top predictors was classroom discussions—something we’ve been working on forever at Chalkup.

However, the number one predictor of student achievement turned out to be “collective teacher efficacy”. Which is a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged. Teachers working together. When this happens, the results were absolutely off the charts – three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status, home environment, and parental involvement.

Teachers spend most of their time focused on their individual classes and students and rarely get the opportunity to work with another educator to build lessons together. How can teachers better share and work together with others around the world? What would it mean for the level of quality of both content and teaching methods if educators could truly collaborate with peers outside of their school? It’s been exciting to have begun to focus on helping solve this. We’ve already built a growing network educators and have the ability to invest in building tools that can make teacher collaboration happen better than ever before.

You serve both K-12 and Higher Ed, not many serve both – how is that? what lessons are there? is it very separate, or how does that go?

Justin: What’s worked for Chalkup won’t necessarily work for another company. For most, I probably would not recommend the strategy of going in both K-12 and Higher Education markets. It turns out, what’s been unique about Chalkup is that we provide simple tools that work in almost any learning group. The ability to communicate with a class and the necessity of assigning tasks and giving students grading feedback has transcended grade levels and abilities. We have classes successfully using Chalkup from Grade 5 all the way up to postgraduate, doctoral, and corporate training courses. It surprised us how flexible the platform is and how many incredible ways it has been used.

What’s on the horizon for you/Chalkup, as well as edtech generally? What trends do you see unfolding in the next couple years?

Justin: Never has there been more attention on technology’s role in education, especially from the largest of tech companies, like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Edtech is exploding right now. We’re also finding more and more new companies that claim to be better and smarter and faster. I’m simultaneously watching Google claim it’s place in education, as well as Blackboard, Canvas, and older publishers scramble to reimagine their services and (re)-secure their corner of the market.

My take on all this? The little guys are generally ready to move faster but have a lot of kinks to work out. The big guys have more resources, but are often adjusting to new trends, weighed down by decades of feature creep.

We need educators and students to be leading the conversation of what technology is built next. We know it’s not just about buying devices.

At the end of the day it needs to be about the students. When implementing edtech, it’s easy to get caught up in the needs of administrators and teachers – who need to be heard and play a role in the process – but when their needs overshadow students’, it’s clear we’re forgetting why we’re doing this in the first place.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning ed, tech, Chalkup, learning, teachers, students or anything else for that matter?

Justin: Something is broken in teaching today if teachers are coming up with ideas alone and consistently reinventing the wheel over and over again.

A teacher coming up with a great teaching method is equivalent to a scientist discovering DNA and only sharing it with themselves. When one teacher has an engaging way to approach a subject it goes unshared with the rest of the world—it feels like a huge missed opportunity.

I know that we have genius teachers out there — but their genius is locked up in a single classroom, in a single school, benefiting very few.

We’re excited to be working hard to change this.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. He oversees the annual EdTech Awards recognition program, celebrating the best and brightest in edtech. The 2018 EdTech Awards entry window is still open, click here: 2018 Entry Form

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Trends | Blended Perspectives

CREDIT The Foundation for Blended and Online Learning.pngEducators integrating technology into their classroom practice experience some common benefits and challenges, identified in a new report from the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning (FBOL) and the Evergreen Education Group. In Teaching with Technology, a survey of teachers from 38 states finds that time, thoughtful planning and support at school and district levels, and ongoing relevant professional development—are key to the success of their efforts. The report draws insight from educators teaching in traditional public schools, charter public schools, alternative education programs, and private schools—as well as in-depth interviews with teachers and administrators across the country, and school and classroom observations by its authors.

Key takeaways and recommendations include:

  • Teachers value the ways that digital tools and resources allow them to differentiate instruction among students, and help students collaborate on content creation.
  • Contrary to popular belief, today’s students are not necessarily comfortable using technology, and therefore they may not be as ready to use computers to learn in school and at home as assumed.
  • Technology advances more quickly than human behaviors and systems, so choose a strategy to support, and stick with it.
  • Teachers have different personalities and instructional strategies, and they should feel comfortable adjusting blended learning concepts to their own strengths and situations.

“Understanding both the obstacles to and promising practices of blended instructional practice is vital to developing personalized learning environments,” says Amy Valentine, FBOL’s executive director. “This report is a contemporary snapshot of the evolving educator experience as policy, practice, and technology blend into a reimagined ‘classroom’ for our students.” John Watson is founder of Evergreen Education Group. “Teachers are using technology to support their own instruction and to advance the achievement of their students,” he adds. “While their implementation can range from the very simple to the extremely complex, all involved in this transition have valuable insight into the risks and rewards to share. This report provides a view of the current shared educator experience, as well as recommendations for the next generation of teachers adopting technology into their practice.” Learn more.

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Cool Tool | Book Creator

etd-ct-CREDIT Book Creator.pngPutting publishing into the hands of students is what this cool tool does. With Book Creator, students aren’t doing busywork, they are creating content that they can then publish to an authentic audience. They create a finished product and are afforded a platform for sharing their learning with peers and others. This tool has the potential to engage reluctant writers, and it promotes collaboration and understanding in students. As it is naturally project-based, it sets a clear purpose for learning and is a great resource for teachers. Learn more.

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Trends | Next 20 for Higher Ed

CREDIT Blackboard Future Forward next 20 higher ed.pngAs one of edtech’s oldest companies turns 20, how are they celebrating? Looking ahead to the next 20 years, naturally. “Future Forward: The Next Twenty Years of Higher Education” asks U.S. higher education leaders to share their insights into what the higher education institution of the future will look like; how other industries will influence higher education; how technology will enable change in the way learning is delivered and assessed; and a variety of other themes.

The following emerged from the interviews and are detailed in the paper: the current higher education system is unsustainable and ill-suited for a globally connected world that is constantly changing; colleges and universities will have to change their current business model to continue to thrive, boost revenue and drive enrollment; as well as:

  • New technologies will allow faculty to shift their focus to the application of learning rather than the acquisition of knowledge.
  • Data and the ability to transform that data into action will be the new lifeblood of the institution.
  • The heart and soul of any institution are its people. Adopting new technologies is only a small piece of the puzzle; institutions must also work with faculty and staff to change institutional culture

Learn more.

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Trends | Increasing Equity and Awareness With Online STEM Programs

CREDIT CareerinSTEM.jpgTo address the high demand and current shortage of STEM workers (Maltese & Tai, 2011), CareerInSTEM initiated a pilot online summer camp to equip diverse learners with the knowledge needed for a meaningful, rewarding future as a STEM professional. The intent of this pilot program was to expose students to a variety of STEM careers and provide hands-on practice of what professionals “do” in each career. Delivered 100 percent online, the program was facilitated by licensed STEM teachers in collaboration with STEM professionals. 51 students joined from 11 different states, as well as two from Nicaragua. Below are key findings of the pilot study (post-test only design):

  • 100 percent would recommend the program to a friend
  • 92 percent reported increased confidence in knowing where to learn more about STEM careers
  • 100 percent agreed that the program helped them learn more about STEM careers

The program also ran on-campus at Central CT State University. While nearly identical (content, ages served, facilitated by a licensed science teacher), the online program ranked equivalent or higher on all measures in the student post-survey. This is an interesting finding, and underscores the potential of online STEM programs as a viable option to scale up access to STEM career preparation. —Ashley Pereira, MS Ed. Write to:

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Promising Distractions

Three digital projects worth supporting in schools. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Renwick

CREDIT MIT Media Lab SCRATCH.pngIn a sea of new apps and digital opportunities, it can be challenging to determine what works in the classroom and what does not.

A teacher might select one technology to integrate within their instruction for a variety of reasons, seeking an authentic audience, a more clearly defined purpose, or an accommodation for certain students that might not have access to opportunities many take for granted.

In a sea of new apps and digital opportunities, it can be challenging to determine what works in the classroom and what does not.

This is a common situation for many educators who want to make their learning relevant for their students. Unfortunately, there are always trending ideas circulating that may entice a teacher at first glance, but will prove to be ineffective once implemented in the classroom.

Case in point: A teacher recently developed a 20 lesson guide on how to integrated Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game, in the classroom. Using a mobile device, the game embeds digital renderings, such as Pokémon characters, over what a person would see out in the world through their smartphone’s camera. Players collect these characters to attain levels and more challenging characters. It’s an engaging game, but what do students learn? How are the objectives developed in the teacher’s guide tied to essential understandings?

Students need more than mere engagement to be better prepared for an unknown future. So what digital concepts might best make that happen? With all of the opportunities available today, three possibilities stand out. These “promising distractions” have at least one thing in common: they can engage students in learning that can pay dividends down the road in their education.


Concerns about Pokémon Go being shoehorned into the classroom are warranted. Yet gaming itself, especially applications developed with young learners in mind, should be considered for every classroom.

Most well-designed games are built on a few common principles: they exhibit a clear objective, an engaging platform, immediate feedback on actions, and just enough challenge to keep the player interested. These elements also happen to be the right ingredients for a successful learning experience. If we can think beyond Pac-Man or Super Mario Brothers, what are the possibilities here?

A starting point might be games that teach students traditional skills. For example, Scratch is a coding application that gives kids the tools to create digital gaming challenges for peers.

Digital Storytelling

Our sources of information are saturated with advertisements, calls to action, and articles with various levels of perspective and even bias. These communications rely on principles of narrative: a lead, context or setting, a conflict or challenge, and a proposed resolution. Many of our narratives are told in a digital environment that incorporates audio, images, video, and/or text.

Teaching students about digital storytelling has two primary benefits. First, they develop skills and knowledge about effective ways to communicate in the 21st century. Second, they are better able to understand the tools people use to persuade and influence others. Both goals can serve curriculum expectations and academic standards.

For instance, Aris games allows users to create digital tours and interactive stories through a mobile application. Students can work in teams to create mobile-friendly school tours for new families. Also, an English teacher could task students with developing an interactive public service announcement, integrating persuasive and narrative writing with digital media. Other suggested tools for digital storytelling include iMovieBook Creator, and WeVideo.

Citizen Science

Access to the Internet for so many has allowed almost anyone to engage in collaborative projects regardless of location or time. Citizen science, in which an everyday person can record observations and upload data about their local environment to an organization, can offer students the opportunity to use technology for a greater cause. It also introduces a teaching approach that can take advantage of students’ smartphones as learning tools.

For example, the Invasive Mosquito Project asks people to monitor mosquito species in their neighborhood. Participants document and enter data about the different species into a web-based form. This data gives scientists the necessary information to determine where invasive mosquito species are coming from, which informs future environmental actions.

If mosquitoes aren’t your thing, the Monarch Monitoring Larva Project asks citizens to identify the frequency in which monarch caterpillars are observed in their natural habitats. Scientists use this data to drive land conservation efforts. With both projects, what was seen as a distraction, a student’s smartphone, has now become a tool for service learning.

Educators have to be judicious about what they choose to incorporate into the classroom. There are so many opportunities for learning, and not everything can fit into a 180-day schedule.

Digital distractions today may prove to be smart to integrate within instruction in the future. In the meantime, teachers can look to incorporate some of the promising distractions mentioned here that result in higher levels of learning for student work.

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. He is the author of the new book Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (ASCD 2017), Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014), and the ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (2016).

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Cool Tool | ClassFlow Social Media Feed

CREDIT CLASSFLOW Moments app.pngFor many teachers, students, and parents, social media is part of their daily routine. Recently, ClassFlow, a free lesson delivery software, launched a new, social media-inspired activity feed feature to serve as a communication hub for teachers, students, and parents. The activity feed is now available on, and it will also be available within the companion ClassFlow Moments app later in September. With the new activity feed, teachers can share lessons, activities, and assignments that they have previously delivered or shared through ClassFlow to the class activity feed via their browser. In addition, teachers can post photos and announcements to the class activity feed, as well as send private messages to parents either from their browser or now directly from the upgraded ClassFlow Moments app. Teachers can also use their browser or the Moments app to award badges to students. The updated Moments app gives parents the opportunity to view the classroom activity feed, private posts from the teacher, and badges their students earn. Learn more.

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Digital Delivery

Exploring the future of online degrees. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Simon Nelson

CREDIT FutureLearn.pngThe digital shift in society has navigated its way into the higher education sector, prompting the reimagining of the delivery of education. My company’s partnership with Deakin University opened up the way to fully online degrees on our platform and we are delighted to be partnering with Coventry University to announce the launch of 50 fully online degrees over the next five years. A three- or four-year undergraduate degree was once sufficient for those looking to target a career within a specific sector; but job roles are evolving so quickly that universities are looking towards new models of delivery to cater for the learners of today. At the same time, universities are looking to digital to enhance and future-proof their brand to enable them to attract students from home and abroad.

Building the university brand on a global scale

The current political climate has brought the issue of student recruitment to the forefront with universities being forced to look fort new ways to attract and serve international students. The online degree model enables higher education institutions to overcome the physical and geographical boundaries imposed on traditional campus universities. By accessing the most remote corners of the globe, online learning platforms enable universities to take their courses out into new territories, straight to the learner at their home, helping the university to compete globally whilst elevating their brand.

Job roles are evolving so quickly that universities are looking towards new models of delivery to cater for the learners of today.

We were delighted to be able to align, both strategically and in spirit, with Deakin University – the first partner to offer fully online degrees on our platform. Our experience with Deakin has taught us that where borders are closing, universities need to continue to provide international learning experiences for students, where learners can engage with peers worldwide. Digital platforms can deliver education effectively, and at scale, helping universities to extend beyond the campus walls.

One size doesn’t fit all 

Education is no longer solely aimed at the elite who can afford to attend a physical university. Today, education needs to encompass the requirements of adult and professional learners across their lives. People are constantly competing to climb the career ladder and as such are looking for fit-for-purpose qualifications to evidence their skills. Studying a degree online permits greater flexibility, particularly for those looking to build on their skills as they continue to work part-time or full-time. The online approach frees learners from the constraints of physical classroom settings, granting them the flexibility to access information at their own convenience and at their own pace.

Student expectations are shifting

PwC reminds us that today’s young graduates will populate the majority of the workforce, with millennials set to make up 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020. If the digital native of today is going to dominate the workforce, then higher education institutions need to offer solutions to ensure they are prepared. The student of today is used to consuming digital content delivered using cutting edge techniques, in bite-sized chunks. Learners expect to have an enjoyable learning experience where they’re able to connect with educational material in an engaging way that stimulates further discussion. To cater for these learners, it is important that education delivered digitally makes use of the tools out there so that it is in-keeping with other forms of digital content and meets the expectations of consumers today. Teaching methods should adapt to accommodate this, whether it’s adopting a ‘flipped’ learning experience where learners study content online and discuss ideas covered in a classroom setting, or adapting content for online delivery.

Try before you buy

Students today are faced with the prospect of significant debt. So whether it’s paying for undergraduate or postgraduate study, they need to know what they’re paying for. The online approach has enabled more transparent access to course material and the delivery of online degrees enables this idea of greater transparency. Learners may begin studying for free and complete a range of short pathway courses before deciding to enrol in the full qualification, making learning both manageable and flexible. Ultimately, it’s important for learners to benefit from a greater element of choice in the composition of their degree, so that what they’re paying for is what they expect and what they want to learn.

Campus-based universities with live lectures will always have a central place in the delivery of higher education, but there’s no doubt that student demands are evolving. Today’s students need to feel confident that the course they’re committing to is fit-for-purpose; it’s the university’s responsibility to ensure they are meeting the changing needs of their existing students, as well as reaching out to new audiences on an international scale too.

We believe that the digital delivery of higher education—at distance, and where appropriate, at scale—will become increasingly important in meeting the changing needs of students and in addressing some of the challenges (whether financial, political, or international), that higher education institutions are facing today.

Simon Nelson is founder and CEO of FutureLearn, a leading online learning platform.

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Classroom Replay

Using teacher-collected videos (vs. in-class observation) leads to better outcomes.

GUEST COLUMN | by Emir Plicanic

CREDIT Vosaic image.pngThe Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard found in their “Best Foot Forward” study that using video instead of in-classroom observation, improved several dimensions of the classroom observation process: increased teachers perception of fairness; reduced defensiveness in post-observation discussions; led to greater self-criticism by teachers; allowed supervisors and administrators to shift observation duties to non-instructional school hours.

Teachers perceived their supervisors to be more supportive and their observations to be fairer.

The study involved 347 teachers and 108 administrators in Delaware, Georgia, Colorado and Los Angeles. A secure software platform like Vosaic Connect was used to watch the videos and provide time-stamped comments aligned to specific moments in the videos. The videos were used in one-on-one discussions between teachers and principals and between teachers and the external content experts.

Here are some highlights of the study (see link to full report below).

Were teachers willing to record and watch their lessons?

Yes. Giving control of the cameras to teachers successfully shifted the mode of classroom observations from in-person to video. Nearly all (96 percent) treatment teachers completed all three observations by submitting videos to their administrator. Nearly all (96 percent) also completed at least one observation with their virtual coach and 85 percent completed two observations with a virtual coach. Treatment teachers collected an average of 13 videos of their own lessons, though they were only required to collect five videos.

How did the use of video change teacher perceptions of their own teaching and their classroom?

The opportunity to watch their own lessons resulted in teachers being more self-critical. Of teachers in the treatment group, 42 percent reported that while watching the videos, they noticed previously unnoticed student behaviors or their own behaviors “quite often” or “extremely often.”

How did the use of video change the conversations between teachers and supervisors?

Teachers perceived their supervisors to be more supportive and their observations to be fairer. They reported fewer disagreements on the ratings they received and were more likely to describe a specific change in their practice resulting from their post-observation conference.

How did the use of video affect supervisors’ time?

Administrators reported spending more time observing and less time on paperwork. Moreover, the ability to watch video allowed supervisors to time-shift their observation duties: two-thirds of log-ins occurred during non-instructional school hours (lunch hour, the two hours immediately after school, evenings, weekends, and holidays).

Would teachers and administrators support the use of video in the future?

Because both treatment and control teachers volunteered to be part of the project, we would expect them to be supportive of the use of video in classroom observations. Still, after having been through one year of actual video use, the teachers who used video were even more likely than teachers in the comparison group to support use of video as a replacement for some or all of their in-person classroom observations.

The study concludes that giving teachers control of the video collection and submission process improved several dimensions of the classroom observation process. It boosted teachers’ perception of fairness, reduced teacher defensiveness during post-observation conferences, led to greater self-criticism by teachers and allowed administrators to shift observation duties to quieter times of the day or week. Download the full study here.

Emir Plicanic is a Product Manager at Vosaic, a leading performance discovery company providing video recording, markup, and other video analysis tools that help educators, learners, and researchers discover indicators valuable to classroom observation, performance improvement, and research outcomes.

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Best Possible Experience

A different take on personalized instruction.

GUEST COLUMN | by Cliff King

CREDIT Skyward students.jpgAs a grandfather, I’ve been around long enough to see some major changes in what education looked like for my kids compared to what it will look like for theirs.

Most of these changes are for the best – more curriculum options, more student ownership in the process, and more transparency about what’s happening in the classroom. Sometimes, however, it seems as though the pendulum might be swinging too far away from the personal relationships that were the highlight of my own educational experience.

Personalized instruction cannot come from an app. It can only occur with a unique blend of parent awareness, teacher insights, and school culture.

Personalized instruction is one of the topics that leaves me scratching my head. This phrase is brought up in a lot in discussions about algorithms, machine learning, and app development. In my mind, personalized instruction isn’t about that at all. It’s about a teacher understanding what each individual student needs to reach his or her potential and working with the other adults in that student’s life to make that happen.

Personalization through Parent Awareness

It’s disappointing to me that only about 22 percent of parents can name a basic milestone their child should have reached in school during the previous year. This should be a point of emphasis in parent-teacher conversations throughout the school year, from open house to parent-teacher conferences and less formal interactions.

Informed parents can take steps to nudge children toward their learning goals, but if we don’t know what those goals are, we may be nudging in the wrong direction all along. It seems simple, but one brief, personalized message from teachers to parents every day can reduce dropout rates by 41 percent, to say nothing of the individual learning benefits.

To make the leap from “improved communication” to “personalized instruction” requires more than just regular progress updates. This is where parents need to be proactive about using their unprecedented level of access to support what teachers are doing in whichever way makes the most sense for that individual child. With the knowledge of what assignments are coming up and what the learning objectives are, parents can fulfill their end of the bargain with informed dinner table conversations, book selection, and thematic weekend trips. That kind of interaction can mean the difference between mastering a concept and falling behind.

Personalization through Teacher Insight

Time and data analytics are two of the most obvious barriers to personalized instruction. Teachers are stretched thin as it is, and the amount of effort it once took to curate, organize, and analyze data was not feasible for most. However, with the capabilities of any modern student information system, that time has passed.

Most teachers today have instant access to valuable gradebook analytics, enabling at-a-glance identification of students who are trending in the wrong direction or who seem to be struggling with a certain standard or assignment medium. Response to intervention tools, automated notifications to parents about behavior or attendance issues, and improved collaboration between counselors, support staff, and educators are just some of the advantages my grandchildren’s teachers have over those who came before.

Personalization through School Culture

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the willingness of innovative district leaders to challenge such pillars of the school day as attendance, grading, and behavior management in pursuit of the best possible experience for every student.

Positive attendance is having a particularly strong impact on personalized instruction. Take Nicolet High School, just north of Milwaukee, for example. They have turned an entire class period into a flexible resource hour for students (watch the video here). Need some extra tutoring in math? No problem. Want to get the blood flowing in advance of an afternoon test? Check into the gym for fourth period. You can’t have personalization without putting some of the responsibility back into the student’s hands. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some variation of positive attendance becomes the norm before my grandkids are out of school.

Bringing it All Together

Personalized instruction cannot come from an app. It can only occur with a unique blend of parent awareness, teacher insights, and school culture. With the leaders and tools available, it’s exciting to imagine the personalized opportunities available to my grandkids’ schools today.

Cliff King is the CEO of Skyward and has over 35-plus years of experience in the education and technology industry.

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Still Time to Enter 2018 EdTech Awards

2018 EdTech AwardsThere 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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An EdTech First: LiveEdu “ICO”

CREDIT Live Edu.pngThe future is already here and is now appearing in the edtech sector: this month, LiveEdu, a privately-held San Francisco based educational video streaming company, is launching a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The main goal behind the campaign is to collect premium tutorial project suggestions from learners and promote premium tutorial projects on LiveEdu. If you give a pledge, you will get big discounts, early delivery, LiveEdu Pro subscription, a custom built premium project, T-shirt, cap, stickers and other perks. A crowdfunding expansion campaign may already sound rather familiar, but in October, LiveEdu is launching an ICO (initial coin offering), an interesting new funding phenomenon and what may be a first in the edtech world. More details will be released soon on their blog. With LiveEdu (a live and video tutorial learning platform), content creators teach learners how to build real products from the fields of programming, game development, data analytics, design, VR and AR, AI, and cryptocurrencies. As the future unfolds, these trends seem to be on an ever-expanding trajectory. Learn more.

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