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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Cloud Concerns

For educational organizations, some key elements to a sensitive issue.

GUEST COLUMN| by Michael Fimin

CREDIT Netwrix.pngBecause educational entities deal with both education records and sensitive financial data related to loans and tuition fees, a secure and reliable networking infrastructure is a must-have. However, shortage of IT personnel and limited IT budgets make it very difficult for educational entities to keep their IT infrastructures under control, operate efficiently, and properly evaluate and efficiently manage security risks. Plus, the educational sector is often less regulated than other industries (such as finance and banking), which may result in insufficient focus on security and compliance issues.

The survey results revealed that cloud computing provides educational entities with a powerful instrument to foster innovation for educational purposes, significantly reduce the burden on internal IT resources and improve risk management.

In 2016, Netwrix conducted its Cloud Security Report, which encouraged more than 600 IT professionals from multiple industries, including the educational sector, to share their biggest cloud concerns and experience with data security. Here are some insights shared by educational organizations:

Benefits of cloud

The survey results revealed that cloud computing provides educational entities with a powerful instrument to foster innovation for educational purposes, significantly reduce the burden on internal IT resources and improve risk management. The key benefits that educational organizations have gained through cloud adoption are higher availability of systems (67 percent of respondents), flexibility in resource utilization (68 percent) and better system performance (56 percent).

What’s hindering adoption

Despite the operational benefits listed above, the research indicated that cloud technology still raises more questions than it answers. The top reason organizations cited for being cautious about this technology was security: 67 percent of educational organizations in the U.S. are concerned about the security and privacy of data and systems in the cloud, and 33 percent of them say that lack of skills to manage cloud environments is the main factor that hinders cloud adoption.

The main concerns that keep both government-funded and private educational organizations away from a big cloud move are the fear of unauthorized access and account hijacking (67 percent) and the fear of losing control over data (50 percent). In addition, insider threats associated more with human mistakes rather than with deliberate privilege abuse were mentioned by 78 percent of respondents, who said that their own employees pose more threat to data integrity than anyone else.

Impact on security

When asked about the issues that hinder cloud adoption, 42 percent of respondents in the education sector mentioned the inability to monitor user activity in the cloud, and 33 percent were worried about poor control over users with access privileges at a providers’ site. No wonder that 83 percent of educational institutions said that visibility into user activity in the cloud is crucial for security. In fact, organizations that managed to gain visibility into cloud-based IT environments stated that cloud adoption affected their IT security in a positive way — 34 percent of respondents mentioned that cloud has improved the security of their systems and data.

A matter of trust

In spite of the significant benefits that cloud technology offers to the education sector, the majority of educational institutions simply fear to entrust their data to cloud providers. Since educational entities need strict control over critical changes and user activities in their IT environments to prevent loss of sensitive data, they need a solution that will help them strengthen security, provide compliance and ensure ongoing system availability. Deep visibility into what is happening across critical IT systems will enable the education sector to mitigate the risk of data breaches by validating their security policies and detecting potential threats at early stages, so they can seize the operational benefits offered by the cloud with confidence.

Michael Fimin is CEO and co-founder of Netwrix, provider of a visibility and governance platform that enables control over changes, configurations and access in hybrid cloud IT environments to protect data regardless of its location. Contact Michael through LinkedIn.

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Uber, Airbnb, Top Hat

A successful edtech startup founder discusses big changes for higher education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

CREDIT Top Hat Mike Silagadze.jpg“Let’s make education better.” That’s the simple idea that brought co-founder Mike Silagadze (pictured) and Mohsen Shahini together to create Top Hat. Being engineers, they couldn’t resist fixing things – and they agreed the classroom needs fixing. Under their leadership and vision, Top Hat has become top-of-the-market in student engagement software, used by millions of students at three-quarters of the top 1,000 colleges and universities in North America. Mike is an active speaker and lecturer in the higher education, technology and startup communities, having lectured at the Rotman Commerce Entrepreneurship Organization, the ASU GSV Summit, MaRS, Tech Fest Toronto, SAAS North and T­E­Dx­Laurier­University, among many others. He holds a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Waterloo. In this conversation, Mike demonstrates how his company is filled with smart people driven by the clear mission to improve education.

Mike: One of the things that I wanted to make sure we get a chance to talk about, one of the more exciting things that we’re doing is our foray into the publishing phase, and in particular, taking on the textbook publishers and trying to create a unified platform that creates an open marketplace for educational content, to replace what those publishers have been doing with their traditional textbooks. So I’m happy to answer questions, and to give you an overview of how that came about, and everything else that we’re doing.

Very good, then let’s start with what prompted you and Mohsen to found Top Hat back in 2009 in that small apartment near the University of Waterloo in Ontario? What problem were you originally trying to solve? And is that the same problem that Top Hat still solves, at least in part?

Mike: Yeah, for sure. In the beginning—I’ll go back to what the motivation was for starting Top Hat and maybe talk about the broader market that we’re trying to address. When we were first starting out, the motivation for starting the company came out of my experience in undergrad, in Engineering in particular, where the course environment, both the lecture experience, the course material, everything about it — was out of touch with modern students.

The experience was passive, it wasn’t very engaging and, after a pretty short amount of time, within the first one or two semesters, most students didn’t even bother showing up to classes and studied on their own—which I felt was a pretty sad state of affairs, given how much money was being spent both by the students on their university education, and the money that was being spent by the universities in bringing on these courses.

What changed was that smart phones and laptops and mobile technology has become so ubiquitous that it became possible to transform the educational experience from being really passive and not particularly engaging into a radically different experience that was in sync with students’ lives outside of the university environment. 

And what changed was—I should say, even though everyone recognized that this was a problem, I certainly wasn’t the first person to identify these issues. Everyone knew this was a problem. There really wasn’t a ton that you could do about it. What changed was that smart phones and laptops and mobile technology has become so ubiquitous that it became possible to transform the educational experience from being really passive and not particularly engaging into a radically different experience that was in sync with students’ lives outside of the university environment. So that was the motivation for starting the company.

Excellent—then you pulled in some other folks to join with you, some other very driven, very talented people. What were you looking for in building your team in light of your values and the mission? How did you recruit others?

CREDIT Top Hat image.pngMike: There was a general frustration that people had with their own university experiences, where they’re expected to having to pay really high prices for their text books and having this frustrating and not very effective educational experience in most of their courses, so many people were just able to relate to the mission of trying to create a better educational experience and to save students’ money on their text books and course materials. That’s one of the most important things, I would say, and beyond that, being very selective in hiring people. That helps to create an environment where the best people want to work, ’cause good people want to work with other good people.

There’s a graveyard full of education technology companies that had products that were awesome, but just couldn’t figure out how to get them through.

You’re really an edtech startup success story—what elements do the successful ones have in common?

Mike: One of the challenges that many young tech companies have is they create a good product, something that does solve a problem, but they can’t figure out how to actually turn that into a real business. There’s a graveyard full of education technology companies that had products that were awesome, but just couldn’t figure out how to get them through. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in the education space, is it’s such a difficult market to sell into. And people often have this kind of utopian perspective on it. They think that by just creating a product that gets a ton of teachers excited, that that’s enough. The reality of it is, the revenue model is essential.

One of the keys to success for Top Hat has been effectively, we all always thought carefully about our business model, and we were able to figure out how to go directly to professors and students and drive adoption, rather than being bogged down in very painful university-wide institutional adoption decisions. So, one of the keys to our success has been figuring out a business model to go directly to professors and students.

You talk about active learning. Isn’t most learning at least aspiring to be active learning? Perhaps you could address what ‘active learning’ means?

Mike: Yes, certainly. Everyone wants to—active learning is not some new concept. It’s been around for probably centuries in one way or another. The challenge is that historically, without the aid of technology, implementing active learning was very expensive because you needed to have very small professor-to-student ratios. Whereas, with technology now, you can use smart phone, laptops and other mobile devices to enable professors to create an active learning environment in their course.

CREDIT Top Hat image2.pngExamples of active learning is taking the traditional text book experience, which is very passive and even in most electronic versions, it’s still a very passive experience—so what Top Hat does, is create an active experience with the text book or whatever material by embedding in it assessments, videos and interactive elements so the student isn’t just passively sleepwalking through the blobs of text. Instead they are engaging with the material, and they are actively interacting with the content.

Similarly, with the homework and with the in-class experience, instead of just passively sitting there, the students are interacting with the professor and with fellow students during the course of the lecture, and that radically transforms both the outcomes and the students’ enjoyment of the material.

Is this sometimes akin to a game-show style format? Is that fair to say, or is it a lot more than that?

Mike: When it comes to the textbook experience, there are a couple core components there. The first is embedded interactive elements like videos and various demonstrations. Instead of just reading text on their laptop or mobile device, the students are watching these videos and interacting with these elements. For example, in a chemistry course, they might be asked to draw a chemical or molecule. There’s also embedded assessments where the student might be asked to arrange a few components to see how they fit in, or they might be asked to do multiple choice or a word answer type question, fill-in-the-blank and all kinds of other activities, as they’re going through the material. And in real time, they’re getting feedback on how they’re doing, so they get a sense of, “Am I understanding this material? Am I developing a mastery of it?” So that’s a really important part of the experience.

In the classroom, there are various activities like discussions and games that the students could play, which I guess could resemble a game show, but I would say it goes beyond that, in that the activities can be more sophisticated, like tournaments and interactive exercises in the classroom, it really transforms the experience into something that’s much more active.

How is it watching an idea grow into a real-life company with tens of millions in funding? Would you say there’s a bit of a culture shock there? Are there repercussions from such a rocket ride, and would you even characterize it as a rocket ride?

Mike: Yes, it’s been a pretty awesome experience. Certainly, the most exciting aspect of it is solving the problems that I had as a student. My experience, as I mentioned, was that I found that the textbooks were really dull and not very engaging, the lecture environment was pretty passive—so just being able to watch millions of other students get a different, more engaging, more active experience, and to have them save money on their course materials—is very rewarding. That’s been pretty exciting—and, just going through the journey of different scales: from a handful of people all the way up to hundreds of people now. The role of the founder changes pretty drastically as the company scales, and that’s been a really fun experience as well.

Some companies get someone experienced in leading larger groups, in others the original founders grow into the role; it may be very different being in a startup situation as opposed to running dozens or hundreds of people.

Mike: Right. For sure, yeah. Absolutely. Not everyone can do that.

And you’re doing it. Alright, on to another question: what are your thoughts on education these days?

Mike: I guess that’s a pretty broad question. I’ll talk with it, and lay out what we’re trying to do. Historically in the higher education space, the market for course material has been dominated by the textbook publishers, and for professors, the publishers these days do a lot more than just provide the textbook. They provide them with the book, the test that they use for their assessment, with a homework system that they can use to assign online homework to their students, with PowerPoint slides — and whatever they need for their lecture, and so on, and so on.

CREDIT Top Hat image3.pngThe publishers have been, historically, the trusted adviser to the professor for all their course needs. The challenge with that is that the publishers are not technology companies, so what they’ve done over the years is they’ve acquired a variety of different elements and they’ve tried to cobble them together in to some sort of offering, which right now is very poorly integrated and massively overpriced, and just creates a really bad experience for students. It’s a sad state of affairs.

And most people complain about the cost of tuition prices going up, where the price of textbooks and course materials have gone up even faster than that—three times faster than the tuition prices. So, it’s a really bad situation that we’re in. That’s a core frustration that I have as the founder of Top Hat, and our mission is to address that.

And we think the way to solve that is to create just one integrated platform that includes in-class engagement, online homework and interactive textbooks, and allow professors access to a marketplace where they can collaborate and develop interactive content together.

The way that interactive content has been created and delivered is massively outdated and overpriced, and we’re trying to fix that.

That’s ultimately what Top Hat is trying to create, is this interactive platform that operates an integrated teaching experience, from the in-class to homework to the interactive text. So my view on the education space is that the way that interactive content has been created and delivered is massively outdated and overpriced, and we’re trying to fix that.

You’ve answered this in various ways already, but as we are EdTech Digest, I’d like to provide you with an opportunity to directly address this question: from your perspective, what is technology’s role in education? 

Mike: Yeah. I can easily talk to that, give a little bit more color on the marketplace, which is what we’re excited about. If you look at other industries, like hospitality or transportation and many others, we’ve seen a transformation in those industries from a centralized model to a peer-to-peer, decentralized model.

I’ll give you specific examples around that. With transportation, what you’ve seen is taxi companies, which are centralized and operates and delivers services to people in the cities, replaced with a model like Uber, where instead of a centralized entity that owns the inventory of vehicles, Uber just connects drivers to passengers together through a decentralized platform.

And you’re seeing the same kind of thing in hospitality with Airbnb disrupting the hotel industry. Where previously, hotels have owned this inventory and delivered a service, whereas with Airbnb, what it’s doing is enabling people to share their own inventory of homes to create a better experience at a lower cost for users.

So, you see these moves in disrupting the currency industry, going from a central bank type model to a peer-to-peer, decentralized currency model.

You see these shifts happening across the board.

CREDIT Top Hat image4.png

And I think that a very similar shift has to happen in the textbook publishing space, which is where, instead of publishers owning the textbook and spending huge amounts of money developing these books in a centralized process, what needs to happen is a peer-to-peer model, where professors can collaborate with each other to develop that content and deliver that content to their users without most of the revenue going to some intermediary like a textbook publisher.

And that’s what Top Hat is trying to create with our content marketplace, on top of this platform, this teaching platform that we’ve created.

I think that’s going to be an incredibly powerful transformation in the education space, because it radically changes the way educational content is being created. I think that’s going to be a huge trend in the education space, and we’ll make a massive impact.

So we’re super excited about that.

Wow, I’m really glad I asked that question. This is fascinating. You’ve shared your insights across higher education to tech and startup companies. You’ve talked at ASU-GSV and elsewhere, give TEDx type of talks; any words of wisdom to entrepreneurs in the edtech space? Any key points you might want to articulate to them here?

Mike: With the education technology space, one of the most important things, as I mentioned, is figuring out how to go to market. My words of wisdom would be that rather than starting from a product-first approach, a better approach is to first figure out the problem that you are trying to solve, and the way that the problem is going to translate into a business model. [Not doing that is] what kills most education technology companies, I would say.

I think that’s going to be an incredibly powerful transformation in the education space, because it radically changes the way educational content is being created. 

That is helpful. Who has been helpful and inspiring to you? Who are your inspirations?

Mike: I’d say a lot of the traditional inspirations that most entrepreneurs in general have. Specifically, folks like Elon Musk and Larry and Sergey at Google. Those are always — I kind of look to them as companies that we try to emulate. And we’re making a really big difference. We’re a very mission-driven organization, and at the same time, we’re building really large business.

Does your Electrical Engineering mindset of looking at problems and coming up with solutions inform your current work? In other words, did your degree and your own higher education work out to be useful to you in leading a successful company?

Mike: I would say in a very broad sense, an engineering mindset helps, but I would say I wasted my electrical engineering education. Most people who study engineering end up doing something different, and end up going into software in one form or another.

Do you regret that?

Mike: No, it was a great education. I don’t regret it.

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

edtech-awards-2017-white-header.pngTop Hat is a 2017 EdTech Award Winner for “Best Higher Education Solution”. The 2018 EdTech Awards program is open now, click here for a 2018 entry form.  


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Powerful Models for EdTech

SAMR too complicated? Try “learning how vs. learning about”.

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Harris

CREDIT Matt Harris EdD.jpgThe SAMR model has been around for a while now. It is a model that helps teachers understand to what degree they have impacted their teaching practice using technology. Schools have adopted the model as a means of teacher evaluation in edtech or as a model for professional development though it was never intended for such purposes. SAMR was designed to guide inquiry amongst teachers. It was meant to foster discussion about what was being done and what could be done to leverage technology to alter how thoughts and ideas were presented. It’s no surprise that schools have found the model complicated and difficult to operationalize.

Pockets of success, examples of good practice, and overall increases in edtech engagement are easy to document with this type of learning.

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. Teachers are said to progress through the model the more creative they are in their teaching using technology. Lessons that fall in the S and A realms are said to be enhanced, whereas the M and the R are transformed.

It is a powerful model that has sparked incredibly rich conversations about pedagogy, curriculum design, and teacher attitudes towards technology. However, it suggests that schools should progress towards modified or redefined learning when assessment systems are not prepared for that. It also presupposes that teachers have the technical skill and empowerment needed to successfully use technology for learning. Thus, schools struggle with SAMR until they have a strong basis in Educational Technology skill development and evaluation in place.

So, I offer a simple alternative: “Learning How vs. Learning About.”

The concept first arose from academic research in 1-to-1 student laptop programs where researchers found that teachers fell into two categories: those who had strong enough technology skills to learn about curricular applications of technology and those who needed further support with the tools at hand. They found that schools that separated out their professional development into these two categories had a great impact on teaching.

How’s That

“Learning How” is an approach to support the second group. It focuses professional development, support, and training on the technical aspects of educational technology. Teachers learn the ins and outs of devices, applications, or online tools from a user experience, not from a teaching angle. An example would be training teachers how to use and manipulate spreadsheets. This training would cover the basics of data entry to semi-advanced topics of formulas and data visualization. After the training, teachers should understand how to use the program in general, not necessarily in their classrooms with students.

The goal of “Learning How” training is twofold. First, teacher should develop tangible technology skills. Second, they should feel supported in using technology. This second goal is arguably the most powerful as it aims to remove judgment from their entry skill level, it removes the pressure of using technology for academic purpose before they have a solid foundation, and it helps them develop an attitude of exploration with technology rather than one of trepidation. Done well, “Learning How” training can move large groups of teachers further along the SAMR ladder than anything else because supported teachers, who aren’t pressured, feel empowered and invigorated.

All About It

“Learning About” goes beyond the technology itself. It assumes teachers have a level of comfort and skill with a particular technology tool that can be used to focus on curricular or pedagogic applications. It centers on the instructional elements of Educational Technology while focusing on planning and execution of technology enhanced lessons. An example would be using spreadsheets to track weather patterns in a particular geographic area. This training would cover the curricular implications of using spreadsheet based modeling, show avenues for using spreadsheets to teach specific topics, and discuss methods for presentation and assessment. After the training, teachers should have an understanding of how to apply spreadsheets and data modeling to their classes and some curriculum that can be used immediately with students.

“Learning About” training is all about enhanced teaching and learning. It aims to build teachers’ pedagogic skills rather than building their technology fluency. These trainings get teachers to think about the application of technology and the potential to improve the student experience. It builds knowledge and ownership of edtech instead of focusing on skills and confidence. Oftentimes, these trainings evolve from teaching examples and suggestions to collaborative learning and generative discussions amongst empowered teachers. It’s what we strive for in edtech professional development.


Implementing a “Learning How vs. Learning About” is quite simple, especially when compared to a SAMR based program. With SAMR, professional develop must cover a range of ability and interest levels. Participants are usually evaluated, guided, and encouraged to progress through the SAMR ladder. As much time is spent on planning and evaluating as is spent of program delivery. With “Learning How vs. Learning About,” trainings are run simultaneously with participants self-selecting their group. Each type of training offers appropriate support for participants needs with teachers growing and progressing at their own pace. The administration time for such programs are minimal, leaving more time for instruction. Further, “Learning How vs. Learning About” instructors don’t need to be technology gurus or edtech experts. Instead teachers within the faculty who know a particular technology or are interested in leading a collaborative working team can deliver these programs with the same effect as an outside trainer.

With schools looking for return on investment for their edtech purchases and asking for measures of success for training programs, SAMR is the gold standard. When used right, SAMR can show clear progression for teachers in moving towards 21st century learning goals. However, with its complexities and administrative overhead a simpler system is often better. “Learning How vs. Learning About” can show similar growth and progression at lower costs. Pockets of success, examples of good practice, and overall increases in edtech engagement are easy to document with this type of learning. It is also easy to implement, simple to manage, and cheap to run.

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

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Committed to Doing Right for Students

IN CLOSE WITH | Ken Wallace

CREDIT Ken Wallace D207.JPGAs the superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207, Ken Wallace, Ph.D., holds the belief that every teacher deserves specialized coaching and professional development. Here, he talks about the importance of coaching, and how regular feedback enhances learning, both inside and outside of the classroom; what inspire him—and much more. Ken is also founder of the Chicago Coaching Center.

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

I was a high school English and journalism teacher, and I coached wrestling. I taught writing almost exclusively and loved it. After five years of doing that, I was recruited to go back to my hometown to become the head wrestling coach. The only teaching job open was middle school computer science. I was only one class shy of the endorsement, so I got that and taught middle school computer science for six years. It’s one of those things that at the time didn’t seem like a big deal, or perhaps it was even a little sad for me because I loved teaching writing and felt like I was just hitting my stride. Looking back, though, it’s really one of those happy coincidences that helped change my life and my thinking.

I’m excited about the future of education, but committed to making sure that we develop world-class public education, because I see that as the battleground for the soul of our democracy. 

I had every 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-grader for nine weeks every year in our rotation courses. I took over a Commodore 64 lab and was able to build an Apple II and eventually Mac lab. I treated the kids like adults, and we constructed ways to use technology to solve real problems. I was teaching the full Clarisworks suite, along with Turtle Logo programming and a fair amount of gaming.

Moving from teaching to leadership required changing many things. While learning is the same for students and adults, leading adults is different than leading students. Adults make rules up for students that they would never follow themselves. This is changing, thank goodness. What has changed more than anything is this fundamental understanding that so much of what we’ve done in education is just wrong. We built schools to herd students through them, pretending that we wanted to educate everyone while building systems that often limited students, bored students, or simply discriminated against students. If we actually apply what we know about human learning, which is that the more we enrich and give ownership of learning to the learners the better humans learn, then we have to move past old ideas, wrong ideas, and open up paths for students to experience rigor and leading their own learning in ways that have previously been limited.

My best college professor was Dr. Tom Rivers at the University of Southern Indiana. He taught me about heuristics—the power of questions, really—and how they were the key to solving problems. I used to tell my students that questions were at least half of an answer, which is why I loved teaching writing, and why I think students liked my class. We had to invent classes like Speech and Oral Communications so that students could practice speaking in school, because for too long we treated students as empty vessels who needed to be filled up by an answer-driven education construct.

We know better and we should do better. What we are trying to do in District 207 is really support each student to find his or her voice, talent, and passion—and connect it to their future. School today, at least great school today, has flipped the script and allowed students more space and support to apply their passions to learning experiences. I’m excited about the future of education, but committed to making sure that we develop world-class public education, because I see that as the battleground for the soul of our democracy.

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

Great teaching and teachers inspire me because they have two things that I hope every human could have: they see students for their possibilities and they are learners themselves. Truly great educators have humility and self-reflection. Coaching in sports, medicine, and a host of other field is common, but with all due respect, teaching humans is more complex than just about anything else, and that’s why I’ve always been passionately driven to not only learn as much as I can about learning, but also to try to construct the best possible conditions to facilitate adult learning.

Of all of the things I’m proud of in my career, I’m most proud of the incredible teacher leadership program at Maine Township High School District 207 because it’s led by the learners themselves. We aspire to be to teaching and learning what teaching hospitals are to medicine. I often ask, and not in jest, “What if we took teaching and learning half as seriously as we take high school football? — where every play and every player in every play is videoed for review down to the point of the cornerback’s toe when defending a receiver? How good could we be then?”

CREDIT Insight ADVANCE img.pngThat’s where I’m excited to give our teachers Insight ADVANCE to use to video lessons. We’ve done some lesson study, but I think this tool has the best utility I’ve seen for coaching and having a two-way or more feedback loop. Everyone wants change or “takeover” ideas, but real improvement doesn’t happen that way. It’s a mindset and a culture, and it takes time. If I have a slogan, it’s “The better you get, the better you can get.” It really just means making the work about positively seeking better, and building capacity in each teacher as a learner. In District 207, we aspire to demonstrate that it can be done in a way that truly honors teaching and teachers.

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

I love utility, and I try to keep it simple. This won’t be sexy, but I construct almost everything I write now using Google Docs because it makes the feedback loop so much more efficient. When I taught writing, my students wrote every day, but 90 percent of it was journaling just to help students develop their own voice. I took the journals home every week to give my students feedback—nothing about language conventions; I just wanted to peek at how they thought and expressed those thoughts. I’d bring the journals back on Monday morning and return them.

CREDIT Google Docs.pngWith docs, I’d have been able to shorten the learning loop while providing more and better feedback, and it could have been more interactive to include student reaction. We look for whiz bang technology, and we use many cool things, but learning is so enhanced by the feedback conversation. The human mind seeks that. It’s why kids who aren’t interested in school topics will play video games for 10 hours without a break but won’t do their homework. The most important feedback that games give students is that it’s okay to fail. What did you just learn that will help you get to the next level next time?

The tech that I’m most interested in right now facilitates shaping the curriculum into a more gamified framework. But the key here is that the tech matters, but not nearly as much as the science of learning and that the curriculum that we’ve “gamed” is worth pursuing in the first place.

For our students, I’m for tools like YouTube that provide a platform for them to display what they’ve created themselves, whether it’s music, science, or anything else. Human imagination is a powerful thing if we honor it, and technology can amplify it in ways that we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Will Richardson just did our keynote. His position is that the web is the most significant learning invention ever. He’s right, and our challenge is to figure out how to move past schools as nearly exclusive owners of content, which we aren’t anymore, to places that help people (including the adults) learn.

CREDIT ABCMouse.jpgIn terms of my favorite, this is going to be a silly answer from a superintendent of a high school district, but I just came across this tool called ABCmouse that is a pre-school and elementary literacy program. What I loved about it most was it’s a cool interface that kids naturally like, and it’s recursive and iterative, which the best learning tools now are. They have conducted really compelling research behind its efficacy.

This is where I think technology can change the world in a way that really matters. Imagine if we could identify struggling readers really early and have a game nimble enough and powerful enough to keep even a struggling reader engaged to build the reading pathways that will help a student have success. Until we re-imagine new coding for literacy and give it the same currency as we do reading and writing, then I think this is the magic of technology and how it can help us solve some really complex problems that, quite frankly, we are only truly beginning to understand. A lot of our “conventional” thinking has just been wrong, and we’ve harmed students and filled jails up behind this issue. There are still states either setting these “read at grade level by third grade” mandates, and even some contemplating them.

RECENT EVENTS What memorable edtech conference have you attended recently?

Center for Digital Education.gifI just attended the Center for Digital Education Superintendents’ Group meeting in July with Kecia Ray and CDE founder Cathilea Robinett. It’s a group of superintendents from around the country who serve a variety of districts from urban and suburban to rural, rich to poor, and homogenous to incredibly diverse—which is District 207.

What I love about these types of conferences is that it’s only a little about the tech and way more about the learning. Kecia and Cathilea both have fascinating back stories, but it is such a privilege to get to connect with people who have the same passion for improving the lives of students through education and the strategies that allow us to amplify learning through technology. Kecia and Cathilea have been at this tech journey for a while, and though they have traveled far different paths, their common ground is the place that we have to get to if we really want to not only know what works, but how to bring it scale to really improve outcomes. One of the key issues still facing the nation is just basic connectivity, particularly in rural areas, and CDE, along with the good folks at Tech and Learning, ISTE, and a host of other organizations, is trying to identify and amplify solutions to this problem.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS What was your greatest educational moment?

When I started teaching I was traveling to classrooms on a cart. I had a mentor, but we had no formal structure in place, and we really didn’t talk much. I’m not sure I even knew the right questions to ask. No one came into my class to just watch me and provide feedback, other than one or two visits from an assistant principal toward the end of the year when evaluations were due. I made a bunch of rookie mistakes, but I wanted to be good at my craft, and I wanted to help students learn.

By the middle of my second year, I really started to figure some things out. I thought a lot about the teachers I learned the most from, and I thought about how I learned. The first thing I did right was to honor student questions and to give students a lot of choice and autonomy in their writing. I found a pathway of connecting that was real, and when you reach that, it’s really meaningful. I remember it vividly, and it is one of my career regrets that I didn’t get to teach writing longer. I truly loved it, and the feedback that I got from students was genuine. Today, I’m incredibly proud to say that our seniors this year are likely the first seniors in America to spend their high school career in schools where every teacher every year was supported by an individual instructional coaching and coaching plan. That was profoundly influenced by my own journey as a teacher.

RED IN ED What was your most embarrassing educational moment?

It was when I really saw first-hand how tricky politics is in leadership. I tend to see things that involve students in a black-and-white way, and in this profession, there will be times when you have to confront whether decisions are being made for the benefit of students or for the benefit of adults. I respect and care deeply about making sure we have great conditions for adults, but we build schools to serve students. I have faced some issues that were egregious and needed to be addressed only to find out that politics, even up to the board level, can often stop someone from being able to do the right thing. I’m lucky now in that I work with a board that is committed to doing right for our students, but no one should ever assume that everyone has that agenda at their first priority.

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

We were at the forefront of 1-to-1 and cloud computing. My first great hire in District 207, Dr. Hank Thiele back in 2007, and I decided early on that we would open our web to a lot of things that some schools still lock down. I hired him to help us become great at instructional technology, so being open to information is really a prerequisite. We started, like many, with “Tech Coaches” who delivered professional development. There were two keys to our evolution:

1. Changing behavior in the classroom is a hard thing to do, and seeing an app for 30 minutes at a “lunch and learn” will not get most teachers to change, no matter how cool it looks. We coach every teacher every year, and we provide just-in-time support to help teachers work through the inevitable issues and mistakes that come with changing practice.

2. This is the real key: we don’t treat technology as a stand-alone element in our teaching and learning program. We have evolved our professional develop to include integrated, teacher-led topics like, “How to enhance a 1:1 environment using cooperative learning.” And we aren’t just showing teachers. We guide them by making sure that we have coaching support available as they go through classroom transitions to implement new learning strategies for students. Whether it takes a week, a month or a year for the teacher to really hit his or her stride, we have to provide personalized support to teachers to ensure that they feel comfortable making the changes. Absent that, there is an incredibly high failure to implement rate if teachers only get learning through brief “sit and get” sessions.

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

We have students building applications right now to solve real problems and challenges at school. We are working with a software company right now to develop software that will enhance our college and career counseling program with a custom program that we think will have a giant audience in the future. We are working on this as an entrepreneurial venture where District 207 will co-own the program. If it fails it will have been a good experience, because we will have student programmers getting real world experience. If it succeeds, maybe we have helped create a revenue stream for District 207 while trying to solve a real problem that we are already at the forefront of trying to solve: how to evolve high school college and career counseling to help alleviate the high debt and underemployment that is occurring on an historic scale right now for our young adults in this country.

We hosted the world’s first student Google summit last year. Our friend Jaime Casap did an incredible keynote for our students and students from around the Chicago area. He challenged them to identify problems, big or small, that they wanted to solve and then get to work solving them. This is where technology matters. How can we leverage technology to help invent and create solutions to real problems? That’s an essential question that we all should be asking, and we should be supporting our students’ learning by getting out of their way so they can solve these real problems. What’s most cool is that you can do this and also do school better.

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

One can make an argument for many things like Facebook or any social platform that brings people together.

CREDIT The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.jpg

In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver points out the irony that, in a world more connected than ever before, we are actually more isolated, because people tend to go where like-minded people go, and this creates an “echo chamber” effect. It’s real. I think we can all see it, and it illustrates the power of technology, but also how important it is for schools to still help students develop basic human and civil skills like respect, openness to hearing other ideas, and the ability to conduct rational debates with civility. Those concepts are more important than ever. Technology has so much potential to help us create better lives, but those basic human interactions about how we treat each other—what we stand for as a country, that we condemn racism and bigotry for what it is—are bigger than technology, and we need to understand how technology can isolate us and really create good learning conditions to balance that. As Will Richardson said at our keynote the other day, “Unless we learn how to talk to each other, we are in trouble.”

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

The next level of development is going to be the use of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality to help us enhance learning for students. We are only just now scratching the surface of what’s possible, but I think there are ways to help solve many complex learning problems with technology if we do a better job of marrying the programming logic to a real understanding of how humans learn and how to create the conditions for that learning. If we understand what students are passionate about and we can personalize learning using strategies like gamification, I truly think there are very few learning problems that we can’t either completely solve or greatly improve outcomes. That’s how we should aspire to use technology.

Connect With

Reach Ken through Twitter @KenWallace207

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

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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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The Process of Assessing Student Learning Is Broken

A product strategist’s perspective on data for teachers.

GUEST COLUMN| by Hilary Scharton

CREDIT Canvas K-12.pngIn the current assessment landscape, all schools are required to assess students because of past and recent legislature — the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Because of this mandate, teachers and district administrators receive massive amounts of data from these assessments on several occasions within the school year. Unfortunately, this data isn’t delivered fast enough and in the right quantities to truly impact curriculum and instruction, even when using assessment management systems (AMS). Currently, educators aren’t empowered by the data they receive to make changes that will lead to improved student success.

Instructure recently performed a national survey of K-12 public school teachers to see how they feel about the current use of assessment data and how it can be improved to lead to better data-based decisions. The survey also asked for respondents to be candid in expressing their top challenges when it comes to assessment and the AMS. The findings paint a clear picture of what teachers want from their data and what they aren’t receiving. These gaps show opportunities for great improvement in assessments, the data it provides, and the technology that delivers it.

Teachers Need Personalized Performance Data

Teachers aren’t receiving the kinds of data they need to identify student needs. In the survey, only 50 percent of teachers reported receiving individual student performance data from their current AMS. Of all the types of data, teachers said access to this individual student performance data would be most helpful to them. Delivering this particular set of data is essential to not only teachers, but parents and students themselves as it helps them identify which subjects need extra attention and care.

It’s virtually impossible to effect positive change in student progress if mentors and students are not clearly shown personalized information on their performance. What’s more, providing personalized data empowers students themselves to own their learning process and take the lead on improvements.

Teachers Need Access to Data Faster

While current assessments are not providing teachers personalized student data, they also aren’t receiving the data fast enough to influence instruction and make needed adjustments to curriculum. If they received results sooner, 60 percent of teachers would individualize student learning plans, 58 percent would intervene with targeted instruction for struggling students and 43 percent would make changes to the curriculum. Rather than receiving hefty mounds of data weeks or months after the assessments have been administered, there needs to be a shift in which educators can access this data — if not instantaneously — than rapidly enough to empower them to modify instruction.

Teachers Need Tools to Help Them Analyze Data

When teachers do ultimately receive the assessment data, in whatever timeline that may be, they face the challenge of analyzing and converting it into actionable items for their classroom and each of their students. This analysis requires teachers to shift time from more impactful activities like providing feedback. In fact, analyzing data was among the top four challenges for both formative and summative assessments within the survey results.

A likely culprit is the lack of adequate technology to help visualize and organize the data. Most AMSs today are clunky, inconvenient, hard to use, and district-mandated ones no longer are up to par. They’re not working on behalf of the actual educators, but rather are a Monday morning quarterback, telling the real educators what they should’ve done a year ago. The edtech industry has seen this needs gap and has delivered new AMS technology like Gauge that is scalable, easy to use and easily customizable. Data is captured immediately, stored forever, and accessible via easy-to-read reports.

We need to move the needle forward in terms of advancing data technology implementation in the classroom. But the biggest hurdle isn’t in getting student data from A to B, it’s convincing school administrators to overcome their hesitancy to switch software. Forty nine percent of teachers reported their colleagues are reluctant to adopt digital tools like a new AMS. However, as data and AMS challenges like the ones outlined here come to light, perhaps more decision makers will best this caution to give teachers the data they need, when they need it, and how they need it. Our teachers will be better equipped to improve achievement if we give them the tools they need to make good decisions.

Hilary Scharton is VP of K-12 product strategy at Canvas by Instructure.

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21st Century Show-and-Tell

Communicating beyond text in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ryan Eash

CREDIT TechSmith.pngIncorporating technology into the classroom can set the foundation for greater student and instructor success, especially in online or blended learning environments. However, technology should not play the leading role in education. As an instructor, you should not use technology just for the sake of using it. It should be implemented only when the technology will provide clear benefits for both instructors and students.

So, let’s discuss: what types of technology should be used in higher education? To help improve students’ comprehension of a topic or concept, visual communication is key. Visuals have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent. Fortunately, there are a variety of available tech tools that enable instructors to communicate quickly and visually with students.

New educational technology tools enable more visual learning, resulting in better communication, engagement and transparency between instructors and students.

In general terms, visual communication is the use of images, photos, videos, animation, text, voice narration, and music to clearly convey a message, story or information. For higher education, specifically, we can describe visual communication as “show and tell for the 21st century.” Students today want greater flexibility to choose when, where and how they learn. As a result, more and more higher education institutions now offer online courses or some type of blended learning environment where course instruction is conducted virtually. Visuals still provide communication and engagement, especially in the absence of a physical classroom setting. In some cases, this is the next best thing to being in the same room.

One key benefit of using technology to create visuals is saving time. Visual communication helps reduce the number of back and forth emails with questions and clarifications between students and instructors. Responding visually also allows you to be as clear as possible when answering questions or when presenting new information. As the instructor, you can reduce explanation time by replacing or adding to a textual description with a visual, such as a video. In fact, one of the easiest ways to ensure that learners store information in their long-term memory is to pair concepts with meaningful images. Research has found that this tactic increases recall better than when courses deliver information through aural or textual form.

The hope is that a student’s question can be answered in one attempt when a visual is included as part of the explanation. In fact, 40 percent of learners respond better to visual information than text alone. Therefore, visuals tend to be more well received than simple text, especially in cases where the response entails multiple layers of explanation. With visuals, especially video, students have the ability to review and reference the information on demand. Additionally, it’s inevitable that instructors will receive the same question from multiple students. Instead of recreating the same response, instructors can easily reply with the same annotated screenshot or explanation video. Visuals save explanation time – and inbox space.

The use of visual communication can also prevent learner confusion from the start. As the instructor, you are the subject matter expert and can probably pinpoint those “trouble spots” for students. Each semester you anticipate where the course content becomes tricky or what concepts are typically more difficult for students to grasp. In instances like this, using visuals enables you to answer students’ questions before they even have to ask them. You can plan ahead and prepare a video or infographic to share with students when they reach those difficult topics or concepts throughout the course. Create demos to show students examples or to walk through specific assignments. Visuals can serve as a guide for students who many not even know what questions to ask and set them up on the initial path to success in the course.

There are some challenges to incorporating these tools and technologies. Some instructors do not have a support staff to provide instructions on how to effectively use these tools. Others may not have the time to learn how to properly implement visuals into their courses. And with anything new, there is a learning curve that goes along with it. While some barriers do exist, it is not impossible to incorporate new technology into classrooms. Visual communication tools, like Camtasia and Snagit, are made for the everyday user and can easily be implemented in all learning environments.

Again, technology should not be used just for the sake of using it. Rather, using technology to enable better visual communication in the classroom is one example of technology benefitting both instructors and students. New educational technology tools enable more visual learning, resulting in better communication, engagement and transparency between instructors and students.

Ryan Eash is the Learning and Development Specialist for TechSmith, the go-to company for visual communication. He’s responsible for designing, implementing, and maintaining training curriculum to help educators be successful utilizing image and video creation tools. He is also currently an adjunct faculty member at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC. Prior to joining TechSmith in 2007, Ryan taught for 10 years in elementary grades through higher education. He received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Indiana University, and his master’s degree in instructional technology and design from East Carolina University.

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Summer Repairs

An aerospace engineering student provides perspective on the future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Thomas Schumacher

CREDIT San Jose State University Aerospace Engineering.pngI have heard that technology is the future of education. Now that I have used it extensively, I am convinced that technology is the future of education. In my two years of college and my senior year of high school, I was given the opportunity to use 3D printers and a variety of programs that have taken my education to the next level. Currently, I am studying Aerospace engineering at San Jose State University. I previously studied basic engineering as a student of a local community college. I have used 3D printers for prototyping, manufacturing and learning. Over the past summer, I took the opportunity to repair a printer. Through looking at every part and every process, I have learned so much about how dissimilar materials interact with each other and how different technologies can interact to make great tools.

I have heard that technology is the future of education. Now that I have used it extensively, I am convinced that technology is the future of education.

As an example, when I was designing a boat for a race, I used printed parts on the final model and they worked beyond my every expectation. In my build, I used materials from hard materials to elastic materials. It was great! Every time my team and I tested our boat, we had minor setbacks but that didn’t deter us, we would use every bit of current technology and older technology to solve our problems no matter how hard or easy the problem was. The key for me is using technology to make the problem-solving process easier and more complete.

In addition to 3D printing, I have been exposed to 3D modeling software and computer science programs that have allowed me to explore many different techniques of design. I am primarily a design-based student and enjoy having a physical aspect to my education. With the 3D modeling software, I can move from conceptual ideas to a 3D printer and test my handy work with little turnaround time, an engineering student’s dream come true. As you are reading this, I am probably learning some crazy material like the structure of a wing or the physics of heat. What technology allows me to do with my education is the true education, applying my new skills to my latest ideas.

Where can a student use technology to improve their learning? The internet! I use the internet daily, as I assume many people do. This allows me to ask a question and answer it in a matter of minutes. I use it for things like learning new techniques in my modeling software to watching chemistry videos so I will be successful in that class. Another benefit I have found with technology is the ability to collaborate with colleagues and run a meeting smoothly from the other side of town. I can effectively video call a group and run a meeting for any project.

I have learned the relevance of technology and the internet in the world is overwhelming in its many applications. But many students are limited in their use of these resources due to budget shortages and older schools of thought. Due to the use of technology in my classrooms, I am an advocate for increased use of technological devices and resources in all classrooms and all households. Every student should be able to have the same exposure to every resource possible to maximize potential.

The greatest effect of technology I see in my life the most as of now would be the drive to learn more using all the technology I have at my disposal, currently my laptop and 3D printer. Every time I start working on/with them, I go head long and learn something big or small. I have learned that the way to enjoy technology is to use it to my advantage, to use it to learn and expand my skillset. The one thing I wish that technology could do is to write for me! I continue to learn using technology, I do this by studying new things that I come across, hence the 3D printers.

Technology has its limits, but the places it can take me on my path to gaining knowledge far outweigh its limitations. My hours of 3D printing, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi have truly allowed me to learn countless skills and little gems of knowledge, as well as the ability to help people when needed. Technology has also taught me how to disconnect when needed, allowing me to be able to use technology in my mind, think about it while not on it. Technology is a benefit to my education and has thus benefitted my life as well.

Thomas Schumacher is an aerospace engineering student at San Jose State University. Write to:

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Life Lessons

Building an online curriculum for economic empowerment.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jared Kaplan

CREDIT OppLoans.pngWhen it comes to teaching personal finance, educators need all the help they can get. Nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic financial literacy test, and data from the Federal Reserve show that consumer debt hit an all-time high in early August. But bringing money management lessons to life and making them relevant to students is a challenge, to say the least. That’s where technology comes into play.

Digital resources combined with an online learning management system (LMS) can deliver lively, engaging instruction. They allow educators to leverage interactive videos, quizzes and exercises to teach students the knowledge and skills they need to build healthy financial habits. Since there are no national requirements or formal support systems for financial education in schools, such resources are urgently needed. In fact, a recent survey found that 92 percent of K-12 teachers believe financial education should be taught in schools, but only 12 percent actually do.

We believe in the power of education to lift the trajectory of individual lives. Education doesn’t always lead to change, but it’s always where change begins.

To help close this gap, OppU is an online curriculum that provides free financial literacy lessons to schools, colleges and consumers. Each lesson is comprised of a series of short, interactive videos that require students to answer questions periodically in order to advance. The curriculum is structured to engage students and help them retain the content. Videos – particularly interactive videos – are a great way to do this.

To build it, we began by reviewing existing online resources for financial education. We discovered that many of the sites were stuck in the past — most of them offered PDFs and text-heavy webpages. We decided that we wanted to give financial literacy a modern makeover, and we wanted to make it free and available to all.

The curriculum was informed by the belief that financial education should be brought into the digital age. We explored a number of cutting-edge learning management systems but decided that platforms like Bridge, Cornerstone and Litmos — though quite sophisticated — were better suited to corporate training than education. Ultimately we opted for Moodle, an open-source platform.

Because Moodle is open-source, it’s constantly evolving. A global community of users and developers create plugins and add them to a public repository where they are free to download and use. This allowed us to customize our LMS using features that were quite possibly dreamed up on the other side of the world.

Our challenge, however, was to tailor Moodle to financial literacy and take it above and beyond what others have done. To do this, we worked with a team of Moodle experts to develop a custom theme. In addition, we found exciting plugins to use. One of our favorites is a technology called “H5P,” which superimposes interactive hotspots over images and video. By installing it, we were able to add pop-up questions to our videos. The result is a great tool that encourages active learning and tests student comprehension.

OppU features 11 videos and six cumulative quizzes that comprehensively cover the fundamentals of financial literacy. But the problem with teaching money management isn’t that the material is tough. Rather, it’s that many people don’t take the lessons to heart until it’s too late. Because of this, drilling home concepts is key, so we end each series of video lessons with a cumulative quiz. These quizzes not only test learners, they also help them process the material through the act of information retrieval.

Through a carefully curated assortment of technological features, we made this solution a fun, interactive space for students to learn. However, we also wanted to make sure it would be a useful resource for educators in K-12 and higher ed. To achieve this, we added a feature that allows teachers to confirm student completion of the lessons.

The curriculum is suitable for use in the classroom or it can be assigned as homework. To keep up with a generation on the go, it’s optimized for display on tablets and phones. And though lessons are designed to be self-contained, they’re not intended to replace a teacher’s creativity in the classroom. Activities like role playing and small-group discussions are great ways for students to learn about money management.

These lessons are aligned to standards developed for K-12 learners, but the material is suitable for anyone hoping to understand money management—including adults of all ages. At my company, we see the effects of economic distress, and financial education is critical to helping people avoid these situations if they can.

By leveraging the best in education technology, we created this free resource to deliver the knowledge and skills people need to start and stay on the right financial path. We did this because we believe in the power of education to lift the trajectory of individual lives. Education doesn’t always lead to change, but it’s always where change begins.

Jared Kaplan is CEO of OppLoans, an online lender that provides safer, more affordable borrowing options to the underbanked. He received his BBA from the University of Michigan, co-founded the online business insurance broker Insureon, and previously held positions at Accretive LLC and Goldman Sachs & Co. At OppLoans, he and his team launched OppU to deliver on the firm’s commitment to economic empowerment. The site teaches financial literacy through interactive videos, cumulative quizzes and more, and is free to use and available to the public at

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Cracking the Code

Motivating bored-but-gifted students using some fiery competition – and technology. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Christopher Godshall

CREDIT MobyMax.jpgThere’s a lot of both media and academic attention paid to students with learning difficulties acting as barriers to acquiring knowledge, and rightly so. But teaching gifted and talented students poses its own set of challenges. Higher-achieving students can get bored easily or become impatient if they’re not given material that engages them academically. They can get frustrated if they find the pace in the classroom too slow. They also might yearn for a classroom that is more competitive than the one they’re in. Plus, not meeting these students’ needs for more challenging studies could squander the opportunity to push those students to new, exceptional heights.

We believe very much in “sharing the wealth” when it comes to keeping all the teachers on staff informed about any techniques and solutions that increase student success.

As someone who has taught gifted and talented students for 16 years, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of these pupils in a way that keeps them engaged, their parents informed, and me, as their teacher, at least a few steps ahead of them!

This summer, I turned to an edtech platform for the solution. The lessons I learned from our successes seemed worth sharing as a new school year gets underway. 

Create Friendly Competition

I decided that, given how motivated the students were, we should launch a friendly competition to encourage them to set and meet goals during the summer months. We used our learning platform, MobyMax, to set up a contest that encouraged kids to compete against each other (as well as themselves) to successfully solve math problems while on break.

You’d think the kids would have preferred to go swimming or play video games. But in fact, 156 students joined in the fun during June, July, and August. Seventy-five of these students worked particularly on fact fluency and ended up answering 36,408 problems correctly – an astounding number.

Moreover, participating students passed 2,740 math standards, along with 725 language standards, and 227 science standards. Such achievement any time is noteworthy, but over the summer? During vacation? Wow!

Acknowledge Achievement and Success

Many of the summer students accomplished more than just completing problems. They showed real growth in subject mastery. In fact, 37 students gained 1 month of grade level improvement, 5 students showed a 3 month grade-level gain, and 2 students gained 9 months, essentially moving them into the next academic year.

When we showed the parents that some students had experienced 2 or 3 months of growth over the summer, it was like…mic drop!

We acknowledged the students’ achievement and success by assigning them more advanced skills to work on. This keeps them involved and motivated, a process we could do thanks to the flexibility of the edtech software we’re using.

We’ve also developed a year-long plan with exciting quarterly contests in Fact Fluency and Science. We’ll be staging a large fall math contest and a spring language contest. We’ve instituted a new 100% club that encourages students to master 100 percent of all math standards in their grade.

At the end of each contest, we’ll acknowledge all participants and reward those who exceeded expectations. Our school-site acknowledgment ranges from field days and awards ceremonies to 100% club parties. At these events, attendees are treated to pizza and dance-offs to celebrate their mastery of the state math standards in their grade level. The recognition doesn’t end with school-wide celebrations. In some classrooms, teachers have even built theater-style stages to recognize their student stars! Others have created centers that allow for personalized learning and themed bulletin boards tracking classroom progress and encouraging healthy competition.

Teach Other Teachers

We believe very much in “sharing the wealth” when it comes to keeping all the teachers on staff informed about any techniques and solutions that increase student success. To that end, we’ve developed a MobyMax 101 training for just our school. This training helps teachers put contests, competitions, and software solutions to work for their students, whether they’re gifted and talented or not. There are a few of us who love to find tools that give you the extra edge in the classroom. The ease of use is key, and it can’t be rocket science. In this case, with this software, you only need to spend a couple days playing around, and you can easily figure it out, as our training will show.

We’ve also set up a grade level committee of “super users” to be the go-to resource for each grade. We’ll be offering supplemental training and support throughout the year.

After all my years of teaching, I feel like I may have finally cracked the code on what it takes to motivate and engage gifted and talented students. It’s great to be starting the new year with a proven game plan in place!

Christopher Godshall is a third- and fourth-grade AGP teacher at McKitrick Elementary School in Lutz, FL.

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Harvey HELP

Higher education taking a unified response, students helping students through GoFundMe.

CREDIT Harvey HELP higher ed community.jpgTexas and national leaders from higher education associations, institutions, foundations, and businesses have come together to launch the Harvey HELP Fund, a crowd-sourced relief fund dedicated to aiding the close to 500,000 students impacted by Hurricane Harvey—almost a third of all of the college and university students in the state. Announced September 1, 2017, HELP, which stands for Higher Education Learning Pathways, will provide emergency funds to enable students in southeast Texas to stay on or more quickly return to their education pathway.

“This is an opportunity for anyone, within the higher education community or beyond, within Texas or beyond, to make a real difference.”

“The storm has disrupted hundreds of thousands of students’ lives, most of whom were just about to start the new school year. We all know students, neighbors, and fellow Texans who are now displaced from their homes, employment, schools, and are even coping with the loss of loved ones,” says Richard Rhodes, Ph.D., President of Austin Community College. “Like volunteers and citizens across this country, we were determined not to just stand by, but to take action. We formed Harvey HELP to pool the collective strength, resources, and passion of higher education to enable and streamline community support for these students. We want to make sure the students have what they need to overcome these challenges and return to the classroom.”

The relief efforts are being led by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), Austin Community College(ACC), Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC), Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (ICUT), Council of Public Universities Presidents and Chancellors (CPUPC), Civitas Learning, and Communities Foundations of Texas (CFT), the parent of Educate Texas.

Tax-deductible donations can be made through the Harvey HELP GoFundMe page at or directly through Communities Foundation of Texas. The Communities Foundation of Texas is serving as the charitable partner as education has been a primary focus of its philanthropic investments and through Educate Texas, its statewide, public-private initiative.

Emergency aid will help students and their families recover from and manage immediate life-and-logistics emergencies so they can afford to resume their studies and complete their higher education pathways. Research shows that many students leave school because of non-academic challenges related to work, family, and personal finance. Hurricane Harvey is likely one of the most extreme examples of the range of issues that can knock students off their education pathway.

“This is an opportunity for anyone, within the higher education community or beyond, within Texas or beyond, to make a real difference,” says Mark Milliron, Ph.D., Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Civitas Learning, one of the corporations stepping up to donate. “With Harvey HELP, everybody who believes deeply in the power of education to change lives has a simple way to get involved and help the tens of thousands of students who were planning on attending Texas colleges this Fall and are now grappling with much more pressing challenges than getting to class, including finding food, shelter, transportation, child care, health care, and more.”

To ensure that all of Harvey HELP’s funds are used in a way that best benefits students, Harvey HELP’s steering committee of nonprofit and institutional leaders will evaluate applications from colleges and universities. Approved institutions will receive Harvey HELP’s funds to support aid programs, respond to their students’ specific needs, and help with students’ school expenses – such as tuition and textbooks – as well as personal expenses like transportation, rent, and groceries.

To get involved or donate to the fund, visit or contact Carolyn Newham at the Communities Foundation of Texas at 214-750-4146.

About Communities Foundation of Texas. Communities Foundation of Texas works with families, companies and nonprofits to strengthen our community through a variety of charitable funds and strategic grant making initiatives. Communities Foundation of Texas is committed to serving and understanding donor needs, expertly handling complex gifts, wisely managing charitable funds, and leveraging its community knowledge to increase charitable impact. CFT professionally manages nearly 1,000 charitable funds and has awarded more than $1.7 billion in grants since its founding in 1953. Facebook: Twitter: @GiveWisely

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Putting the ‘Fun’ in Fundamental Concepts

Two educators share how augmented reality and robots help them make lessons playful.

GUEST COLUMN | as told by Mary Amoson and Amanda Puerto Thorne

Every teacher wants her students to be happy at school and excited to learn, but sometimes, the pleasure of discovery can get pushed aside when educators are forced to balance the demands of curricula and state standards. Here, two educators share their perspective on the techniques and technology they’ve used to keep the joy of learning alive in every lesson they teach.

CREDIT Mary Amoson teacher.pngMary Amoson: How Augmented Reality Made My Kindergarteners Want to Skip Recess

I went to school to earn a special degree in instructional technology. That is, the study of how to use technology “the right way” when engaging students and helping them extend their minds and ways of thinking. Using classroom tech in this way has been a specific passion of mine from the start, and it’s partially why I got involved with Augmented Reality (AR) when planning learning activities for my kindergartners.

These lessons go beyond just seeing a letter and hearing a sound. They allow the students to hear, see, touch, and learn.

Using AR-centered lessons to introduce early concepts to young kids allows me to present essential skills, like letter recognition and sounds, through a fun, full-body experience. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, five-year-olds are not meant to sit still. AR-based lessons provide a way to combine their excitement and imagination with their understanding and critical thinking.

I have created my own AR activities with apps and iPads, and have also used supplemental AR learning kits from Alive Studios. Both approaches take something from the real world that my students can interact with and manipulate, and connect it to a 3D or digital response that comes to life on screen.

I introduced Letters alive Plus to my class by just playing around with the AR kit in front of them. We used letter, word, and zoo-animal cards that, when viewed through the provided document camera, activated a series of changeable 3D animations. My kids lost their minds the first time they saw bears and peacocks coming to life on screen. No matter how frequently we use these tools, their reactions never get old. I love seeing the little twinkle in their eyes and the grins on their faces. These lessons go beyond just seeing a letter and hearing a sound. They allow the students to hear, see, touch, and learn.

It was especially fun to see them experiment with the card combinations to see what might happen. The joy my kids had putting words and sounds and sentences together was astonishing. Since we used Letters alive Plus later in the year, a lot of them knew these skills already, but it forced them to think creatively. They explored all the different layers of the program, structuring and restructuring the sentences as they broke down the words.

We use our AR technology with our daily lessons, but I also leave it available for my kids to interact with during our pen choice “center time.” The game-changer, however, was when a group of girls from my class one day asked me if they could play with the AR reading kit instead of going out to recess! Reading, spelling, and building sentences was more appealing than playing outside because the tool to do so was so fun and engaging.

CREDIT Amanda Puerto Thorne.pngAmanda​ ​Puerto​ ​​Thorne​: ​Early​ ​Engineering​ ​with​ ​Programmable​ ​Robots

Kids are naturally very curious, and I believe “joy of learning” is actually their default state. It’s only after they’ve been integrated with certain classroom expectations to sit quietly and follow instructions that some of that wonder starts to go away.

I try to make everything I teach fun by making sure there is always room for kids to experiment and make a project their own. That’s why the decision to teach robotics to our kindergartners was such an easy one.

We open the door for their exploration and let the children’s creativity and critical thinking lead the way.

At KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, we use robot kits and “coding blocks” specifically
designed for children ages four to seven to provide a fun and engaging introduction to basic coding concepts for young learners. The robots we use are called KIBO, and are customizable, allowing our kids the hands-on experience of building their own robots. When they put their robots together using building blocks where they build their code, scan it in, and experiment with their construction, they’re able to take control of their learning experience and can understand from the start exactly how their robot will work.

I feel the most successful when a child uses the tools or skills that I have provided to them to create something I never would have thought to make myself. That’s also when I see the most joy in the kids: when they feel that they’ve figured out something for themselves. Research shows that robots provide kids positive ways to express identity, communicate with peers, and engage in civic activities, so our role is to give them the initial instruction they need: put your coding blocks in a certain order, scan them, and watch the robot carry out your instructions in that order. After that, we open the door for their exploration and let the children’s creativity and critical thinking lead the way. Each block comes with a bar code for the robot to scan. Once they understand that, along with the cause and effect reaction of their commands, the rest is up to them.

I had one student who was so excited about “if/then” statements that he decided he wanted to make a robot that he could control in real time to navigate the miniature city we had created for the class. On his own, he created a program that had the robot move forward continuously but could be triggered by two different sensors (light and distance) to turn right or left. He spent the rest of that session joyfully chasing his robot around, pointing a flashlight at the light sensor or waving his hand at the distance sensor when he wanted it to turn right or left. I couldn’t believe how creative and complex the program was, and the child was in first grade!

Young people learn best by experiencing new concepts with their own minds and bodies and “figuring it out” when they encounter something they don’t yet understand. By allowing our kids to experiment, design, test, and even play with a tool that brings these lessons to life, we’re making their learning experience not only meaningful, but joyful as well.

Mary Amoson teaches kindergarten at Brooks Elementary in Coweta County Georgia. She can be reached at

Amanda Puerto Thorne is a Maker Educator at KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. She can be reached at

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