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

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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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A Personal, Digital Tutor

Former Google and Venmo employees get busy building a mobile app for education. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Socratic team grid.pngBack in 2013, Chris Pedregal and Shreyans Bhansali (pictured below), both experienced tech entrepreneurs, met and realized they had a shared passion for education. Chris has spent four years at Google, working on Gmail, Google Maps, and other consumer-facing products. Shreyans had been the first employee and VP of Engineering at Venmo. Both wanted to contribute their skills towards big, important social problems. “We realized that for many of the problems in the world, education was the root solution, empowering people to solve the problems they experienced and understood best.” Thus, their company, Socratic, was born. “The company started with the insight that students everywhere constantly turn to the Internet for help, but usually find low quality resources that don’t effectively teach them,” says Sheryans. From its inception, the company’s mission has been to make learning easier for these students.

We’ve found that when kids are stuck on homework, they use the tools that they are most familiar with.

Over the past four years, the company has grown from two to 12 people, has transitioned from a website to a top-ranked mobile app, and has helped over 60 million people answer over 100 million questions.

What real problems in education does the Socratic app solve?

Shreyans: A lot of learning happens after school, when a student is doing homework, catching up on lessons they missed, or preparing for a test. One-on-one tutoring is proven to produce significantly better outcomes than any other method of instruction, so those who can afford it hire tutors. Most families, however, cannot afford tutors. The vast majority of students turn to the Internet for help, where they have to navigate low quality sites with complex explanations and contradictory answers.

Our mission is to make learning easier for these students. We are building a personal digital tutor for every student – low cost, high quality instruction, and available at any time for all subjects.

Our app makes it as easy as possible to ask a question – simply take a picture of the question – and the Socratic AI does the heavy lifting. Like a tutor, the app figures out what underlying concepts the question is about, and teaches the student those concepts using content that was designed from scratch to be consumed on a mobile device.

What’s the role of educators in creating this app?

Shreyans: Educators have been closely involved at every stage of the app’s design and development. All the content in the app was designed, created, or curated by educators. To design the content, educators looked over thousands of real questions asked by students in the app, designed content and algorithms to find the right content for each question, and tested their results with real high school students. Educators on our team are constantly examining the results we show in the app to make sure any weaknesses are discovered and fixed.

How have parents and teachers reacted to it?

CREDIT Shreyans Bhansali.png

Shreyans: Both parents and teachers have reacted very positively to the app.

For many parents, a challenge is knowing how to help their kids with their schoolwork. This is already challenging for parents that spend all day at work, and becomes increasingly challenging with age, as material becomes more challenging and parents never studied it or no longer remember it. So when parents hear about us, their most common reaction is: “Amazing! Now I can finally understand what my kids are learning and can help them.”

Teachers know that their students go online for help every day, and often end up on unreliable sites. So when they hear about Socratic’s approach and content, the most common reaction is: “Finally a resource I trust my kids to use since it doesn’t just give them answers, it also gives them good explanations”. Teachers want their kids to have reliable resources to supplement their in-class lessons.

We’ve heard a lot of buzz around “artificial intelligence”. How would you define this (in light of education and learning), and how do you believe this technology will impact educators and classrooms in the next decade?

Shreyans: “Artificial Intelligence” means many different things in different contexts, from big things like self-driving cars, to small things like saying if a comment is spam or not.

We believe AI will impact education in massive ways in the long run, and in many small ways in the short run. AI will start by giving both students and teachers superpowers. Many tasks a teacher does outside of instructing students – things like spotting plagiarism, grading tests, suggesting practice problems, etc., – will all become easier, faster, and more accurate. AI will slowly get better at learning the patterns of each individual students, and making predictions based on it – where will a student get stuck, what are they most likely to find confusing, what would be most helpful to learn next.

We believe that AI will not replace teachers, nor should it. Instead AI will help teachers focus their limited time and effort where it is most needed.

In the long run, AI will help realize our vision of a lifelong personal tutor for every person on the planet. It will be by our side from our earliest lessons, and will guide us through all our educational journeys. It will learn what we enjoy and what we are good at and will encourage us to pursue those fields, and it will also know what we need to learn and are struggling with, and will supplement our in-class education. Used correctly, AI will help us continue on our collective journey of unlocking all human potential.

What do you think educators need to know about students in this age of rapidly changing tech?

Shreyans: Over the last few years smartphones have slowly but surely gotten into most student’s hands, and that has transformed how students study and get help. Students have more choices for where they get educational help than ever before, and they will increasingly find the tools that work best for them, and will rely less on the tools that are sanctioned or provided by schools, unless these are highly effective.

We’ve found that when kids are stuck on homework, they use the tools that they are most familiar with: Google and messaging. They first go to Google to get help, and when that doesn’t work, they message their friends. Teenagers are highly social, spending their days sending and receiving hundreds or thousands of texts and snaps. They use these same tools for their homework. Since it’s difficult to type out most questions, they rely heavily on photographs – both to ask questions, and to provide answers. They will message individual friends often, and will sometimes participate in group chats set up specifically for school work.

Students are so used to using their phones, we’ve found that they will often search for help on mobile devices even when a desktop or laptop computer is available. When they do consume content on phones, they find that most existing educational material was not meant for the phone, and the experience is painful and slow. Desperate students will swipe dozens of times through one page to find their content.

We’ve also found that students tend to treat the Internet like a tutor, not a textbook. This means they go to the Internet with very specific questions, and usually end up on Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers. Only later, if they are still stuck, will they search for the concept behind the question. The more granular the content, the better it is for students.

What’s the vision for your company; where will it be five years from now?

Shreyans: Our vision is to be a tutor in your pocket, giving you high quality and personalized answers for all your educational questions in all subjects. We will be a tool you start using early and will be by your side all through your education. We will answer specific questions you have while doing homework, we will assess whether you learned the material, and we will create custom study guides that will help you prepare for tests. And we will do all this for a fraction of the cost of a tutor.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest and oversees the annual EdTech Awards program, featuring edtech’s best and brights innovators, leaders, and trendsetters. Write to:

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Shifting the OPM Conversation

Managing online and blended with more choice, control, and differentiation.

GUEST COLUMN | by Scott Moore

CREDIT ExtensionEngine.pngAs the debate over the value of online program management (OPM) companies rages on, the baseline requirements for colleges and universities seeking to expand their presence online remains the same — increased enrollment, revenue, student retention, and student satisfaction.

OPMs emerged about 10 years ago and now comprise a $1.5 billion industry. They help universities address a specific and important opportunity — move curriculum online by minimizing up-front expenditures while also managing enrollment and marketing. By providing the capital and resources to build online programs, OPMs benefit from multi-year, high revenue-share models for developing and managing these programs. The institutional benefits of reduced up-front costs while establishing and/or increasing an online presence has made this an attractive choice for higher education institutions.

An unbundled, fee-for-service model has emerged that is allowing institutions to maintain greater control over pedagogy, student experience, marketing strategy and revenue model.

Ironically, some of these strengths are increasingly being seen as disadvantages, such as the homogeneity of mass-produced courses and the shared revenue model that enables OPMs to take 50 percent or more of online tuition for the life of the program.

The first direction that institutions are turning for a solution is inward, looking for in-house resources to create online learning. It provides the most control over and insight into the process. However, this approach raises difficult-to-answer questions that institutions end up trying to ignore:

  • Does our staff have the needed expertise in project management, modern online pedagogy, applicable instructional design experience, modern user experience design expertise, and technical integration and development for both desktop and mobile? Does this staff have availability when priority demands are placed on them?
  • Do our internal processes encourage and support innovation in conjunction with on-time and under-budget delivery?
  • If we don’t have the staff, do we have the ability to attract, manage, train, up-skill, and retain good employees combined with the ability to release those who under-perform?

Many institutions who have used in-house resources end up realizing too late that their institution’s expertise only seemed to be related to what they were already doing in support of their face-to-face courses. The end result is usually a non-differentiated program that underperforms related to the institution’s financial goals, bores the students, and doesn’t allow the faculty to create courses that build on their strengths.

More recently, institutions are seeking new models that allow colleges and universities to launch and manage online and blended programs with a greater degree of choice, control and differentiation. In contrast to the traditional approaches of either outsourcing to traditional OPMs and sharing the revenue or doing everything in-house, an unbundled, fee-for-service model has emerged that is allowing institutions to maintain greater control over pedagogy, student experience, marketing strategy and revenue model.

As the market for online learning matures and institutions seek new ways to increase revenue and create engaging student experiences, authentic, visionary curriculum is driving the future of higher education. Now more than ever, institutions are seeking more flexible models that enable them to emphasize choice, flexibility, and differentiated educational experiences that complement their internal resources while building on their own distinctiveness and putting pedagogy back in the driver’s seat.

Traditional pure-play OPMs will continue to be a good choice for institutions that need to create an online presence where none exists, those that don’t have access to funding sources—either directly or through partnerships, gifts, or budget planning—and in situations where unique, differentiated curriculum is not a requirement.

The unbundled approach complements institutions that are looking for a more unique and customized learning experience, and want to do it on a fee-for-service basis so they can pick and choose program elements that best align with their program goals and the overall academic brand. In this model, colleges and universities take more control over the curriculum, student experience, marketing strategy and revenue model. Doing so ensures that pedagogy drives technology decisions rather than the other way around. And, unlike the traditional, revenue-sharing approach, institutions make the initial investment for services and then retain all of the tuition revenue.

An Eduventures’ survey of 175 online learning leaders indicated that institutions currently engaged with OPMs are expressing a more nuanced set of goals and priorities for these engagements than they have in years past. Compared to results from a similar survey conducted in 2015, institutions continue to exhibit strong interest in marketing and recruitment services, but appear to have a greater expectation that their OPM provider will improve student performance metrics through better online course experience and enhanced support.

The bottom line is that as online learning continues to evolve, a new market paradigm is emerging — one in which higher education institutions and their students will benefit from the variety of choice and opportunities that emerge.

Scott Moore, Ed.D., is Principal Learning Strategist at ExtensionEngine, where his role is to help institutions navigate the transition to online- and blended-learning. His passion is creating great learning experiences that both work for students and make sense for the institutions providing them. Scott was a tenured faculty member at the University of Michigan for 20-plus years and led the undergraduate business programs at both the Ross School of Business at Michigan and Babson College.

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Back-to-School Pulse Check

Incorporating open-ended creation tools. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Monica Burns

CREDIT ASCD Monica Burns Tasks before Apps.jpgSearching for the perfect app is more than substituting a set of virtual flashcards for the index cards students are used to holding in their hands. Yes, there are clear benefits to having a digital tool like this – access to an endless number of vocabulary words, the ability to hear a word read aloud, or see a picture pop off a screen definitely transforms this experience. But let’s move away from these type of tools for a moment, to highlight the power of open-ended creation tools.

An open-ended creation tool doesn’t have set instructions to follow or levels to win. It gives students the space to make a product that demonstrates their understanding. A math tutorial to show how to solve a word problem, an e-book that documents the process of a science experiment or a movie that brings a personal narrative to life, are all examples of open-ended creation tools in action. In my forthcoming book Tasks Before Apps: Designing Rigorous Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom I dive into the idea behind the importance of giving students a space to create.

Creation in the Classroom

When students are given the opportunity to create a product they can dive deeper into a topic, think critically about how to present this information, and design something to share with an audience. First grade students might snap a collection of images on a neighborhood walk as they explore different roles in their community. When students return to their classroom they might share one tablet and record their voice to add an explanation to each page.

When students are given the opportunity to create a product they can dive deeper into a topic, think critically about how to present this information, and design something to share with an audience.

Alternatively, a group of high school students might visit a waste management plant as they explore topics related to environmental stewardship. Using a video creation tool they might create a set of public service announcements that support a city council campaign and are shared on the town’s website. The possibilities are endless when we have tools that give students a space to capture images, movie, and voice and support it with text and music.

Spotlight Open-Ended Creation Tools

In the examples above, there is no magic app or website to make these learning experiences come to life. Educators can thoughtfully choose how to structure these type of tasks so students can either choose their own open-ended creation tool or work with one introduced by their teacher. The tools spotlighted below provide a blank canvas for students where a teacher can be their guide through the creation process.

Book Creator is a Chrome-browser friendly tool also available as an iPad app. With this tool students can create eBooks that include video, voice recording, text and images. If students capture their own photos they can add them to the page, or they can search and add pictures to go along with their text.

Spark Page is a web-browser friendly tool and iOS app students can use to create a website. It has a drag and drop format making it easy for students to get started without any prior web design experience. A website created with Spark Page can incorporate a variety of media and is easily sharable.

Explain Everything is a screencasting tool available on multiple platforms that students can use to create videos and tutorials. Similar to what students might be familiar with from Khan Academy, this tool can be used to give students a space to explain their thinking as they solve a math problem. Explain Everything gives users lots of easy export options so students can share their videos in a handful of different places.

As you design learning activities this school year, leverage the power of open-ended creation tools. Although providing structure and support is essential, giving students the space to create is empowering for children of any age!

Monica Burns, Ed.D., is a former one-to-one classroom teacher, founder of and author of Tasks Before Apps: Designing Rigorous Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom to be published by ASCD in October 2017.

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Cool Tool | IXL Diagnostic

CREDIT IXL Diagnostic.pngJust in time for back to school, IXL, the K-12 personalized learning program used by 1 in 9 U.S. students, released an adaptive diagnostic. The IXL Diagnostic achieves four breakthroughs in assessment: it offers information that is always up to date, requires no class time to be set aside for testing, provides clear next steps and makes the experience a delight for students. With the IXL Diagnostic, teachers always have a complete and accurate portrait of their students’ knowledge and know precisely what options are available to help learners advance. The IXL Diagnostic pinpoints students’ level of understanding in six mathematical strands, as well as their overall working grade level. Along with these insights, the IXL Diagnostic offers specific, personalized recommendations to help students grow and meet grade level objectives. As students learn using IXL and answer just a handful of diagnostic questions a week, the IXL Diagnostic works in the background to continuously update their results. Students will feel empowered as they better understand their own abilities and make smart choices about how to improve themselves. Learn more.

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The Connected States of America

SETDA’s executive director shares her perspective on energizing edtech.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Dr Tracy Weeks SETDA.jpgAs one of the nation’s most prominent K-12 education leaders in academics and digital learning, Tracy Weeks (pictured) is on a mission to provide safe access to high quality education, content, teachers, and leaders for children across the globe. Her focused work with policy makers on providing students with opportunities in personalized learning draws from her extensive experience as an instructional technologist and a leader in online education. She has a passion for new learning models, emerging technologies, and how they can best be used in the classroom. “I love educational research and examining how research can inform practice,” says Tracy, “Many refer to me as a data geek.” Tracy keeps state-level edtech leaders connected and working together, helping external stakeholders and policymakers understand how online learning can provide students with greater choice and provide personalized learning experiences. She is the Executive Director for the State Education Technology Director’s Association (SETDA), and comes from a career indicative of leadership and service at the intersection of education and technology.

We are at an exciting point in education where what we know about good teaching and learning combined with what technology can now do is at a sweet spot to match those two fields up and do good things for kids.

Prior to joining the team at SETDA, she served as the Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the first senior state leadership position of its kind in the nation. In that role, she oversaw the areas of: K-12 Curriculum and Instruction, Career and Technical Education, Exceptional Children, and the North Carolina Virtual Public School.

She also served as the state agency lead on the development of the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan. From 2008-2014, Tracy led the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the second largest state-led virtual school in the nation, as the Chief Academic Officer and subsequently the Executive Director.

She holds a bachelors degree in Secondary Math Education from UNC-Chapel Hill, a Masters of Education in Instructional Technology with a Statistics minor and a Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction from North Carolina State University. She is an NC Teaching Fellow, NC Education Policy Fellow, and a member of Phi Kappa Phi.


Tracy S. Weeks, Ph.D.
Executive Director
SETDA // Leadership :: Technology :: Innovation :: Learning
202-715-6636 x700 |
Follow @setda | Visit:

CREDIT SETDA DMAPS.pngYou preside over a large, important network of the country’s edtech directors – is this akin to herding cats? What analogy might you use, and how often do you get live face time with them? Any anecdotes representative of the personal camaraderie you enjoy with any of them? 

Tracy: SETDA has two annual in person meetings with our members: The Emerging Technologies Leadership Forum is in the summer, and the Leadership Summit is in the Fall. Our members really look forward to these events to connect with one another. Before becoming the Executive Director of SETDA, I was a member of SETDA as the Chief Academic and Digital Learning Officer in North Carolina.

When you get to leadership positions at the state level, it can be a somewhat lonely place as you are really the only person in your state who does what you do. So, having the opportunity to connect with leaders from other states who have similar joys and concerns is energizing.

When you get to leadership positions at the state level, it can be a somewhat lonely place as you are really the only person in your state who does what you do. So, having the opportunity to connect with leaders from other states who have similar joys and concerns is energizing. And given that there are only 50 states, the group is naturally smaller than other edtech groups, so the members really get to know one another well – so these in person events are more like a reunion.

How do you collect the sentiments, needs, wants, and understandings of the directors into a cohesive whole? And what are they, generally?  

Tracy: There are a number of ways: SETDA has several committees of members who focus on broad topics like state engagement, professional learning, state action, and strategic partnerships. These committees help to elevates the needs and wants and then helps to the work on those topics. They also help plan the in person events so that members are spending time on meaningful issues. SETDA has an online community for the members called SETDA Connects – there they can post questions and responses to one another on any issue. We also survey our members for interests.

SETDA is now more than 15 years young – congratulations on that recent anniversary – could you compare the issues at its inception with the issues you are currently addressing?   

Tracy: In the beginning, SETDA was formed to support the state leaders who worked with the Title IId or EETT funds in each state. So the job roles and issues were very similar from state to state. Since the EETT funds ended in 2012, many state agencies have reorganized – who is an “educational technology” director now can look different from state to state. In some places that means an IT Director who is interested in devices, data, and infrastructure. In other places is means a role more connected to teaching and learning and in others the role is more closely aligned with professional learning. And in some states, they have a team of all these roles. You can imagine how the issues would vary based on role(s).

What is the state of education today? Why do you think so?

Tracy: I think we are at an exciting point in education where what we know about good teaching and learning combined with what technology can now do is at a sweet spot to match those two fields up and do good things for kids. There are so many choices out there for parents and students now so it is important for us in the education field to continue to learn, grow, and transform to provide the best options for each learner.

What do you believe technology’s role in education should be?

Tracy: I believe strongly that the learning needs and vision needs to be laid out first and then the technology (devices, content, apps, infrastructure) needs to be designed to help the state/district/school achieve those instructional and learning goals.

Our instructional leaders need to be well informed on what technologies exist and how they could transform the teaching and learning process so that these leaders know how to dream and plan big.

That being said, our instructional leaders need to be well informed on what technologies exist and how they could transform the teaching and learning process so that these leaders know how to dream and plan big. I believe that technology can help an educator meet the needs of each individual learner. Teachers can do this without technology, but it is much more work intensive – the technology acts as a force multiplier.

SETDA priorities currently are Equity of Access, Digital Content, Interoperability, and Digital Learning. Are these catch-all categories, or is there a fifth major category that could be included, one that is not quite on the front burner for whatever reasons?

Tracy: I think hidden in all of these is the role of leadership. These priorities are important to many edtech organizations, but SETDA is interested in supporting the role of the state leader in each of these areas.

One major value of SETDA is that of a Professional Learning organization. As an organization in the education field that specifically addresses technology, how do you set a good example of what great professional learning should look like? What methods and practices do you employ?

Tracy: We try to offer Professional Learning (PL) on a variety of topics to meet the varied interests of our members. We offer them in real time via in-person meetings and webinars, but we also record them so that they can be accessed when the member has the time to focus.

In October you have the big Leadership Summit “Leveraging Technology to Personalize Student Learning” – what goes in to choosing a theme, especially this year’s theme?

Tracy: The themes for our events are born from a combination of hot topics in the field and the needs of our members as expressed through our committees. We will focus on policy issues around personalized learning, what this looks like in rural areas of the country, what states currently have in motion, and most of all – what is the role of the state leader.

What major issues or challenges are you dealing with in regards to SETDA work and activities and how are you addressing them? 

Tracy: There are a growing number of organizations that serve the edtech field and that serve state leaders. SETDA wants to make sure we stay true to both and serve our members in the most effective way possible.

What are a few of the real controversial issues in edtech, the very sticky issues, and what is your take on them? 

Tracy: Data privacy would rise to the top here. The challenge is we (educators) can make better, more informed instructional decisions for students if we have good data. However, we (parents – as I fall into both categories) want to keep our children safe. The good news is this is not an either-or situation – it can be a both-and, meaning it is absolutely possible to have good data and keep kids safe. The challenge is trying not to over-regulate on either end of the issue.

The future of edtech is coming fast – what do you see on the near, mid and further-out horizon in regards to the edtech issues that will have your attention? 

Tracy: I see interoperability, while not a new issue, but rather one that is growing and maturing as an important issue for educators. Typically, interoperability has had the attention of those on the IT end of the spectrum, but it is important that our instructional leaders have a decent knowledge of what it is, how it can help applications interact in more meaningful ways for educators, students, and parents, and how this understanding can help the field move the needle on how to meet the needs of each learner.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest and oversees the annual EdTech Awards recognition program featuring Cool Tools, Leaders, and Trendsetters in education technology. Write to:

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Running the Distance

Winning technology insights from an innovative Illinois Superintendent.

INTERVIEW | by Susan Dias Karnovsky

Superintendent John Hutton - Gurnee District 56.pngJohn Hutton’s favorite sport is running. Like all good runners, he sets his pace with a strategy that includes planning, training, mental focus, and the patience to know when to run fast or slowly.

As Superintendent of Gurnee Illinois’ School District 56 , John has applied this same strategy to help his team become one of the premier school districts in the United States. They recently won ISTE’s 2017’s Distinguished District Award for “innovation in offering equitable and appropriate technology use for all students in a school system, with the goal of increasing learning opportunities and improving achievement.”

When did you decide to commit to implementing digital learning in your district?

John: About five years ago: We were buying more and more computers for classrooms because staff was expressing anecdotally that classroom learning opportunities were enhanced using instructional technology. Since we were approaching a new technology lease cycle with Apple, I made the decision to go to a 1-to-1 environment with iPads.

The other superintendents in the room had a vision for what they wanted to do. We were all risk takers and were highly motivated to succeed. We were all big-picture thinkers.

It was a unique opportunity to provide every student and staff member a device. The decision to move toward a 1-to-1 environment was the turning point for this school district in establishing itself as one of the premier school districts in the United States. 

As the leader of your district’s successful edtech evolution, what advice would you give district superintendents to help them plan this strategy?

John: I would tell every superintendent that a 1-to-1 only makes sense if it fits within the districts mission and vision statements. It cannot be a stand-alone initiative. Instructional technology, i.e., blended learning, is a conduit to bridge the gap from where a district is to the goals of its vision statement.

It takes four to five years to implement a successful 1-to-1 program for an average wealth district. That process may take longer with less wealth and may be accomplished in less time with more wealth. It is important to have an infrastructure in place that will support a 1-to-1 program. That is expensive and takes time. Skipping this step is a recipe for disaster. 

CREDIT Gurnee District 56 image.jpgWhat about training?

John: Professional development is equally important. In our district, we began professional development two years before students received their iPads. When the students did receive their iPads, the staff was ready to go.

Ready to go? Where?

John: Yes. A 1-to-1 environment is just the beginning of the process. Our goal with the 1-to-1 iPad initiative was to create learning opportunities that were not possible through traditional methodologies, and we put a premium on creativity and innovation. As such, the next phase in our blended learning platform is to include an immersion based coding system for all students to learn computer science concepts, develop on-line courses to provide all students an opportunity to expand learning opportunities in areas of choice (rather than typical homework), and develop maker learners to expand instructional technology into the areas of entrepreneurial education, the fine arts, and problem based learning. 

Regarding your 2017-2022 five year strategic technology plan: what do you consider the most important goal?

John: Although we are known as a “tech school district,” the thing we do best is to use data to improve learning. Our goal is that every child will demonstrate one year of growth for each year of school experience, and we use NWEA Map to measure student growth. The district’s strategic plan is to develop a robust assessment system that supports Map and provides data to be used to make mid course corrections between Map assessments. Triangulating data between Map, locally developed formative assessments, and standards based grades from our outstanding staff would provide us that robust assessment system. Although Map is fully developed, formative assessments and standards based report cards are still in the developmental stage for us.

What community and/or national partnership(s) would you recommend to other superintendents that would most benefit their strategic technology plans?

John: Our best partnerships are with Apple, the League of Innovative Schools, NWEA, and Code to the Future. Each of these partnerships has helped us in developing a framework for success. Apple has been our best partner and has really championed our success as a school district. We are not where we are today without them.

The League of Innovative Schools is a group of approximately 80 school districts across the United States that provides an avenue for progressive school districts to work collaboratively with the goal to develop innovative practices that can be replicated by other districts.

I discussed NWEA’s contributions to us in the prior question.

We started Code to the Future’s coding immersion program last school year to introduce coding as a platform to enhance learning for all students. Our first year was an amazing success for us.

In 2014, you were one of 100 superintendents invited to attend the “Future Ready” initiative at the White House. Did you recognized that the other superintendents you met shared a similar strategy?

John: First of all, what an honor it was to attend the event. And the answer is yes. In 2014, we were all trying to see the forest (big picture) but were being blocked by the trees (current practices). We were all doing some cool things at that time but were really just sticking our toes in the water. Many of the same superintendents I met at that event are now in the League of Innovative Schools. When I look back to 2014 and think about where we are today—wow! The other superintendents in the room had a vision for what they wanted to do. We were all risk takers and were highly motivated to succeed. We were all big-picture thinkers.

Establish a school climate that prioritizes innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

CREDIT Gurnee District 56 Illinois.jpgBased on your first-hand experience, what advice would you give superintendents as to how to expand technology opportunities for parents, families, and their community?

John: We wanted to make sure that all of our students had connectivity at home and developed a goal using Title I funds to accomplish this goal. We partnered with Kajeet and Verizon to provide students from low income families a mobile WiFi unit with home connection included. On the first day of school, last year, we introduced this new idea to students and parents. To our amazement, we had no takers. It would be easy to blame our parents for their lack of engagement, but the truth of the matter was that I did not do a good enough of job of educating parents on the new initiative. After taking a few steps back and starting the process over, we were able to distribute all of the mobile devices to our needy families. My advice to superintendents is not get too far ahead of yourself and make sure that enough time is spent with families prior to introducing new ideas.

What would you tell superintendents to focus on now as the most important priority?

John: Establish a school climate that prioritizes innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. Sir Ken Robinson stated in a TED Talk that school experiences suck the creativity away from students. I want our school environment to place a premium on innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, and creativity for teachers and students. We are making good progress toward that end.

Susan Dias Karnovsky is an educator, writer, and improvisational lyricist. She has written for licensed characters at Sesame Workshop, Disney, Nickelodeon, Jim Henson’s Muppets, and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes media franchise. Her syndicated music segments for KIDS AMERICA were distributed by American Public Radio. Her non-fiction interviews and articles have appeared in MONEY and Converge. Teaching Artist credits include workshops at Berklee College of Music, Boston; The American Stage Theater, St. Pete; Boy & Girls Harbor, Harlem; and ODO SOUND in Austin. Find Susan and more of her work on wikia, soundcloud, and odosound.

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Cool Tool | Awe Media

CREDIT Awe Media.pngWith this cool tool, create your own Mixed Reality experiences with a simple drag and drop interface, with no code – using your computer, smartphone or tablet. This company also helps schools and organizations customize complex “awe” apps and even roll out branded awe platforms for your group. They do all the magic behind the scenes to make sure your content looks great and works across the different devices and browsers. Add event actions, animations, character animations, info panels, quizzes, augmented reality, facial and image recognition, location-based content, time-based content, among other features. Learn more.

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Cool Tool | NextLesson

CREDIT NextLesson.pngThis platform offers K-12 teachers over 10,000 resources that engage students in real world problem solving through topics they care about, such as movies, books, sports and celebrities. Complementing core adoptions, NextLesson enables students to develop deep understanding of skills and concepts in authentic contexts. Five different lesson types offer teachers resources ranging from skills practice worksheets, to real world Performance Tasks, to inquiry-based projects and PBL. Real data from online sources is used where relevant, and critical thinking challenges are incorporated to help students develop higher order thinking skills. Lessons are written on 3,500 (and growing) high-interest topics to engage any learner, and teachers can utilize the InterestID tool to identify their students’ favorite interests and receive relevant lesson recommendations at a class or student level. NextLesson tries to meet teachers’ needs by offering resources in online and printable formats, providing teacher guides and differentiation tips, and having multiple ways to discover relevant lessons. All lessons are written by teachers and are aligned to Common Core and state standards. Learn more.

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Cool Tool | CreationCrate

CREDIT CreationCrate.pngTheir teacher-designed curriculum is one of the most educational and hands-on subscription boxes in the world. Each month you can learn how to build and program electronics with instructions and components sent to your door. Students get a new and more challenging project each month with new lessons. It’s part of the DIY movement and their teacher-designed curriculum is an arduino project helping students develop new programming capabilities. Students can earn all 12 badges and will have more hands on programming experience than most current college level computer science students, according to the makers of this very cool tool. Learn more.

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Cool Tool | pivotED from Capstone

CREDIT pivotED from Capstone.pngpivotEd leverages Capstone’s rich content by offering more than 500 pre-built lessons for grades 3 through 6. Each lesson is based on a Capstone text and an ebook is included with the lesson. All lessons and titles have been correlated to state and national standards, and their Connecting Content to Literacy lessons are available in a digital format. Connecting Content to Literacy lessons are an instructional roadmap designed to get students thinking deeply about the text as they learn strategies for answering text-dependent questions, explore academic vocabulary, use metacognitive strategies to gain understanding, and respond to their reading in a variety of ways. Capstone provides rich, leveled content to support all learners. Their titles are leveled and support learning standards, and include professional resources to help teachers implement proven strategies in their classroom. In addition to providing excellent content for the classroom, it ranks as a leading brand among librarians and the students they serve. Learn more.

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Cool Tool | Curriki

CREDIT Curriki.pngHave a look at this online community where educators create, share, and explore high quality K-12 content. The Curriki Library hosts thousands of educator-vetted, openly licensed, Open Educational Resources (OER) that teachers, educators, or other professionals have created and have made freely available to others for use, reuse, adapt, and share. Many resources have been aligned to standards and Curriki’s Review Team reviews contributions with the Achieve OER Rubrics. Using their community tools, students and teachers use groups to collaborate on projects, curriculum development, and district initiatives.
Benefits include:
• Free membership for educators, parents, and students.
• Easy to find content, members, and groups to join.
• Save any resource to your private Curriki Library for quick and easy access to those resources at a later time.
• Upload your own content to the Curriki Library or your personal Curriki Library.
• Create and organize collections of content for your own use and share with colleagues.
• See the latest community activity – new resources, group posts, etc. with a real-time aggregated activity feed.
• Form collaborative working groups with colleagues or class groups to communicate and manage your students’ work. Learn more.

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Cool Tool | ParentSquare

CREDIT ParentSquare.pngHere’s an all-in-one parent engagement platform helping K-12 schools securely streamline communication and inform today’s parents in their preferred methods and language. ParentSquare is an everyday tool used and loved by administrators, teachers and staff to interact with parents about school and student activities. Along with their intuitive two-way communication platform, the platform offers full SIS integration, voice alert notifications, automated attendance calling and performance statistics making it a pretty complete solution for all parent communication and engagement needs. Learn more.

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Worlds of Possibilities

Three edtech trends to watch and how to use them to transform learning in your classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Melissa Maypole

CREDIT virtual whale.pngEducational technology continues to open up a world of possibilities for both teachers and students, but let’s be honest—it can be intimidating. With new devices and trends popping up on a regular basis, it’s difficult to know what to embrace and what to ignore. In this article, we’ll discuss three movements in ed-tech that are not to be missed and offer advice on how to incorporate them into your curriculum with minimal fuss and maximum results.

The thought of adapting curriculum to include new technologies can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

1. Makerspaces

Project-based learning has been a trend in education for years now, but thanks to recent advancements in technology, this initiative is gaining even more steam. Tech-inspired teachers are now beginning to incorporate makerspaces into their classrooms and curriculum. What are makerspaces? Makerspaces are physical spaces within the classroom where students can apply what they’ve learned during instructional time in order to create something tangible. High-tech maker spaces may include fancy tools such as 3-D printers, die-cutters, and even robotics. Even the budget-strapped classroom can create a makerspace using low-tech essentials that are widely available for discounted prices. Makerspaces are incredibly effective learning environments because they appeal to students’ innate curiosity and ingenuity, and perhaps most importantly, they facilitate truly authentic learning experiences. Now, instead of simply discussing a concept from a desk in their classrooms, students can actively participate in their own learning. Moreover, students in makerspaces are often encouraged to work in teams, practicing the kind of communication and collaboration they’ll one day be asked to apply in professional environments.

2. Virtual Reality

Teachers have always tried to bring learning to life for their students. Think about all the times you’ve passed around pictures, showed videos to your students, or asked them to simply imagine a scenario in their minds. Although these enrichment techniques can certainly enhance learning experiences, they stop short of the ultimate goal—to allow students to experience subject matter firsthand in steps (this is what is commonly referred to as virtual reality, or VR). Although VR is still in its infancy in terms of applications in the classroom, it’s growing at a rapid pace and becoming more and more accessible, even for teachers on a budget. Consider Google Cardboard, for instance. With a smart phone and a simple piece of cardboard (or even a pizza box!) you can put true-to-life experiences in front of your students via free apps, making learning more fun and meaningful than ever before. Imagine being able to instantly transport your students into the past during a history lesson or have them navigate a “real” marketplace during an economics unit. This is the power of virtual reality in a classroom.

Is virtual reality really a worthwhile endeavor, though? The answer is, quite simply, yes. Although it may seem a bit gimmicky, it actually has real learning implications for your students. The reality is that our students are enamored with technology applications. Virtual reality allows us to leverage engagement and immersive experiences in favor of real academic gains. We can now use the same technology that makes video games and mobile apps so appealing to our students in order to engage them in authentic learning.

3. Augmented Reality

Augmented reality may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but this technology already exists, as any student who has ever used a Snapchat filter or played “Pokemon Go” can tell you (and it can help transform the learning environment in your classroom).  Unless you’re completely up-to-date on trends in educational technology, it can be easy to confuse augmented reality and virtual reality. The difference is simple: virtual reality is a completely immersive digital experience, whereas augmented reality—or AR—layers digital elements into the real world. A great example is this video of a whale magically appearing in the school gymnasium. In blending the digital world with the real world, AR allows students to interact with objects, concepts, and processes that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. For example, students could hold a virtual atom in their hands for inspection or dissect a virtual frog. These applications of AR through mobile devices are not only incredibly engaging, but they take advantage of the technology that is already widely available in schools (like chromebooks and iPads).

Is augmented reality feasible for the average classroom, though? Thanks to free AR tools like Aurasma and Layar, the answer is a resounding yes. These applications allow teachers to create augmented reality experiences and share them with their students with minimal effort and no expense. All it takes is a little creativity and a desire to transform your classroom with cutting-edge technology!

The thought of adapting curriculum to include new technologies can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing which advancements and innovations are here to stay and which are just passing trends is half the battle. After that, it’s a matter of choosing which devices and approaches are best for (1) the objectives and goals your students need to achieve, and (2) your budget. Technology should never be used in the classroom simply for the sake of its existence. Instead, the end goal should always be learning gains. Makerspaces, VR, and AR are three trends that are here to stay because they are relatively inexpensive to adopt, and they have the potential to make a big impact on student engagement and learning.

Melissa Maypole is a content writer for Wisewire, a digital education marketplace and learning experience design company. She has a Master’s degree of Science in Education, integrating technology in the curriculum and five years of experience teaching grammar and advanced composition in the U.S. Melissa is an active educator and parent blogger. She is Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for Qustodio, a parental control software that helps parents monitor children’s activities from connected devices.

CREDIT virtual whale.png

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Two teachers combine classrooms linked by technology – and a common goal.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rachel Thomas and Steven Lamb

CREDIT THomas and Lamb CollabGenius.jpg

Inspiration or pure insanity. These are the only possible reasons why “Virtual Team Teaching” is successful within an elementary school setting. What is this technology teaching thing? A new curriculum? A professional development book? Essentially, it is two teachers who have combined two classrooms, at two different schools to create one virtual, collaborative environment. Our initial intentions were basic; we wanted students to share information and get to know one another using video. From there, it progressed to students educating each other about topics they were studying in class. Finally, it evolved into an inexplicable entity we never expected.

Not only had it become a student-centered pedagogy, but a student created pedagogy.

Our students began connecting and learning in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we started. Take one of our favorite collaborative moments centered on an integrated health unit: our students were communicating over a video conferencing tool while simultaneously working on a shared cloud document. These elementary-age children were working on a spreadsheet, interpreting data, learning word processing skills, collaborating, and discussing information while carrying themselves with poise, respect, and confidence. They had the opportunity to redefine and shape themselves while learning about different peers, different experiences, and different cultures. They embodied the art of meaningful, productive communication. Perhaps the experience is best described by our students: “This has changed our learning so much that we feel like we are now the teachers. We have a different point of view.”

With more teachers involved, the possibilities are limitless for what this style of teaching can accomplish.

With more teachers involved, the possibilities are limitless for what this style of teaching can accomplish.

This week, follow along as we showcase our collaboration through the @PBS.Teachers Instagram page. We’ll offer a look at how we set up our classrooms, share a few of our favorite activities for building digital citizenship, and highlight the tools that keep us connected all year long. Come take a peek inside our classrooms on @PBS.Teachers.

Ready to start collaborating with other educators? Here are our top three suggestions as you venture into the world of redefined digital collaboration:

TouchCast. Smart video, which is exactly what it sounds like. Record videos with interactive features. The sky is the limit when considering the lessons that you can put together for your students, or even better, the videos your students can create themselves.

Quick collaboration tip: Have students create ‘get to know me’ videos using vApps.

Zoom. Our “go-to” for teleconferencing. Zoom allows you to record sessions, share your screen, annotate, invite multiple attendees (including parents), and much more. Access this tool by invite code (or email invite) only.

Quick collaboration tip: When conferencing with another class, always begin with basic introductions. It helps participants gain some added familiarity and comfort with the teleconferencing environment.

Nearpod. Customizable, interactive, mobile presentations. Nearpod includes mind-blowing features such as 3D diagrams, VR field trips, videos, audio files, open response questions, polls, quizzes, a draw feature, collaborate boards, fill-in-the-blanks, standar-aligned lessons, and more.

Quick collaboration tip: Why control one classroom, when you can control two with over 40 students?! Design lessons to engage two different classrooms from two different locations.

That’s it for now! We hope you explore these suggestions and make great use of them as you continue to engage your students and put them in command of their learning experiences. Want to start collaborating with us or others? Find us on Twitter @collabgenius and share your own cool tools, experiences and success.

Rachel Thomas and Steven Lamb are co-creators, PBS Digital Innovators, and connected educators using a teaching method known as Virtual Team Teaching (VTT), allowing students to share with and learn from peers across their own city, and as far afield as Jamaican high school students and Malaysian college students. Follow @collabgenius

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