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From comments about a hurricane wiping out an education system, to loud chatters drowning out a presentation on federal policies and regulations, the brashness of Silicon Valley was on display. At an industry-focused education technology event hosted by Cooley, a law firm, in San Francisco this past Wednesday, several dozen entrepreneurs and investors gathered to network, scout for new business opportunities and share a mix of practical and questionable wisdom.

Opening Salvo

“If there was one good thing that came out of Katrina, [it’s that] it wiped out the K-12 education system in New Orleans,” said Mike Goldstein, a senior counsel at Cooley. And in its place, he added, “you spread this wonderful fertilizer on the ground...and all these flowers grew,” in reference to charter schools.

That was just the first of many questionable comments throughout the evening, as Goldstein introduced Ashley Beckner, a principal at Omidyar Network who has worked with Bricolage Academy in New Orleans (which Goldstein described as a “happy hunting ground for charters”).

Speaking in broad strokes, Goldstein proclaimed that the education industry has transformed from a system where a student comes in, goes through the process and “pops out the other end clutching a degree” to one that has a “whole lot of different elements that feed into the process of education, the process of learning.”

The panelists were a bit more specific. Michael Staton, a partner at Learn Capital, said that over the past six to seven years, he’s seen a large opportunity in the market for direct-to-consumer learning tools, specifically around reskilling and knowledge-building for working professionals. These career-accelerating services, he added, are converging with many high-growth professions that require skills and knowledge that he claims traditional education institutions have largely ignored.

However, he noted that these tools and services have yet to reach a broad base of learners. Rather, they target professionals who have already successfully navigated the education system, and know how to take advantage of online learning opportunities to advance their careers.

Kelly Fuller, a director at BMO Capital Markets, shared similar thoughts. Ten years ago, she claimed, the predominant mindset in higher education was that the higher the tuition, the better the program. That “blew up,” she said, and now the focus is on short-form certification programs. Companies are focusing on how to assess the skills of their existing workforce, and what they can do to reskill their employees.

Another focus for her firm, she added, are backend tools that help teachers and administrators do their jobs more efficiently. It’s “shocking how much is still done on Excel spreadsheets and pieces of paper,” she said.

George Straschnov, the managing director of Bisk Ventures, said his firm is interested in data, assessment and improving the student experience.

Always Be Raising

Despite very mixed messages about the fundraising process, the entrepreneurs on the second panel appeared unified on the notion that a CEO’s job is to always be raising capital.

Ventilla described his fundraising experience as being “absolutely awful and almost impossible at every stage.” That latter part of his statement is not the case, as he also boasted that AltSchool has raised about $200 million so far. Still, he added that although the “always be raising” mentality is “a natural trend, it comes at a huge cost to you and the company over the long term.” (Last year, AltSchool pivoted from operating schools to selling software.)

By contrast, Ben Nelson, CEO of The Minerva Project, seemed very casual—even flippant—about the process. Anyone with a good elevator pitch will eventually get funded, he claimed, since the amount of time investors spend digging into a company is “shockingly low.” His pitch was a mix of plans to “build the world’s greatest university from scratch” and bashing Ivy League schools like Harvard as “abominations” that “shouldn’t really be attracting talent at all.”

That, apparently, helped him land a $25 million seed round from Benchmark Capital in 2012. Minerva has since raised another $70 million.

But Degreed CEO David Blake described his fundraising experience as a “harrowing journey” that nearly cost him his marriage and family. “I maxed out every credit card application that came in the mail.” He’s raised more than $34 million across three funding rounds.

Referring to a quote from Jeff Bezos that “innovation requires the willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time,” Blake said: “Well, the unfortunate thing about being a startup with no money is you don’t have a lot of time to be misunderstood.”

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College advisors and education leaders gathered in Nashville, Tenn., this week to discuss how to get more nontraditional students—such as full- and part-time workers, parents and other underrepresented groups—to and through college.

But even in presentations about the latest advising technologies, a through-line for the event was how to frame student success initiatives beyond surface-level enrollment and retention metrics.

The organization behind the event was Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that has provided grant support to colleges working to implement student success technologies like degree planning systems, early-alerts and predictive analytics. At the conference, the organization stressed another strategic focus: equity. According to CEO Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream is working to forward the conversation around student success by “redefining the destination of our work beyond [college] completion.”

“Successful redesigns address the systemic structural barriers for students,” Strout said at a plenary session on Thursday. “Barriers that prevent them from getting on a path or staying on a path; barriers that continue to hold back our collective cable to close the equity gaps on campus.”

Closing the Gaps

So what do improved student success initiatives look like? According to Hoori Kalamkarian, a researcher at the Community College Research Center who also spoke Thursday, technology-assisted advising could play a role—provided that any data collected doesn’t algorithmically reinforce biases.

She added that to go beyond retention metrics, insights should be shared beyond the advisor’s office to help inform institutions about their own achievements gaps. (For instance, which groups of students are getting flagged more, or which students receive more kudos.)

Others at the conference stressed that successful initiatives must also put emphasis on the student needs that data alone cannot solve, like housing and food insecurity.

“Do they have food, do they have transportation?” asked H. Jeffrey Rafn, president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “When you begin to think about that, everyone of of those activities can impact if a student is successful.”

Later, during an afternoon session, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy at Temple University, shared findings from a 2017 study that found more than half of the 33,000 students surveyed were housing insecure, while 56 percent face food insecurity and 14 percent are homeless.

“We don’t know there is a problem until we can quantify a problem. This is especially true for the policy-makers,” she said. “No matter how we measure it, these numbers are not acceptable. These are getting in the way of our students’ success.”

Even in places like Seattle where the economy is booming and private companies have partnered with institutions to create their own job pipelines, students are still struggling with these issues.

At the later session, an attendee from Bellevue College in Washington explained that local students are being forced out of the area due to the effects of gentrification. As massive tech companies like Microsoft increase their footprint in the region, housing prices have soared and members of the community—including students, faculty and other staff members—are struggling to afford to stay at the institution.

Experts like Goldrick-Rab, who specializes in college affordability and access issues, have suggestions on what could be done to help more students succeed—starting with official policies to make sure they have enough food to get through the day.

“This is why we have a national school lunch program [in K-12]. Some kids come to school to eat,” Goldrick-Rab said. “So what’s the policy solution? Expand the school lunch program to community colleges.”

Technology Reaches Out

As for the tools themselves, Goldrick-Rab told EdSurge she believes technology can and should also be used to help address food and housing insecurity issues.

“I’d like to see predictive analytics focused more on using data on basic needs security to target interventions,” she said.

Examples of what that might look like already exist at some campuses. She pointed to Amarillo College in Texas, which uses its predictive software to identify and reach out to students who might benefit from services like the college’s Advocacy and Resource Center, which oversees a clothing center, food pantry and social services.

Kalamkarian, who researches how colleges and universities implement student success tools, said she sees more colleges today thinking about how to use technology like predictive analytics in a way that better supports disadvantaged students.

Still, Goldrick-Rab said that a major barrier to effectively using advising technologies and interventions is when students still struggle to meet basic needs.

“Students who don’t have a place to sleep or enough to eat will have trouble having access to a computer or engaging with technological innovations,” she said in an email.

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During the last eight plus years of teaching kids to code, I have constantly worried about the girls who feel they do not belong in the world of computer science. I have created curriculum, strategies and a classroom environment to help girls fall in love with the subject. I am happy to report that many of these efforts show promise, and I continue to work on these each day. There is still so much more to be done to encourage girls to participate in computer science.

More recently, I started to worry about another group of students in my middle school Python-based computer science elective classes—a certain group of boys. Obviously, not all the boys, but there was a definite subset. These are boys that strongly believe they belong in my CS elective class since they fit the stereotypes that we see everyday in movies and TV shows about the tech industry. They are white or Asian (or South Asian) and in many cases, have parents who work at local tech companies here in the heart of Silicon Valley). They have been told that since they are interested in computers and video games, they will learn to code quickly and easily. They have enjoyed the introductory sixth-grade computer science class and have chosen to take this next more advanced elective in seventh or eighth grade.

In spite of their privilege, the positive reinforcement and the confidence that comes from knowing they belong in the world of computer science, these boys struggle with coding and fall behind other students in my elective classes. They are far behind the girls in my class, who were much more worried about taking the class and were not expecting to do well. For the most part, I consider this as an individual student problem and provide support on an individual basis to help them succeed. However, over time and with careful study, I have detected some common issues that impact this group and some teaching strategies that work well.

Not Willing to Ask for Help

Many of these boys do not want to admit they are unable to do a coding assignment and need help. Social pressures (especially in the difficult middle school years where they want to establish who they are) and the high expectations they set for themselves, prevent them from asking for help. Instead of turning to their peers or a teacher, they will simply not turn in an assignment; they may waste time, not read the instructions and ultimately miss deadlines.

Once I detect this behavior, I offer help discreetly. I quietly remind them of my many scaffolding techniques for new coders—help pages, sample projects and starter code. If needed, I do an optional ‘code-together’ session for the entire class so they can catch up without being singled out.

Not Really Reading

All programming assignments start with reading the instructions on what is expected, which might also provide hints and starter code. Debugging a program requires many careful re-reads of the error message and the code itself. But these boys do not actually read instructions, and are either attempting a very different and often more difficult project—to prove they are already advanced as they feel they should be—or are not able to detect the error because they are not reading the error message or their code.

The reading gender gap, where girls outscore boys on reading assignments, is often cited as a reason why boys can fall behind. Coding can be impacted by a boy’s reading skill just like any other subject. The amount of reading content is not large—this is not equivalent to a book in English class. However, it is about reading comprehension. In my class, I try to get the boys to actually read the error message or the instruction again carefully (sometimes aloud), though I must admit, I often go the easier route and just tell them them what it says. But I still maintain that it’s important that students learn to debug independently.

Not Ready to Persist

Coding is not always easy. It can quickly become difficult when you encounter a bug. Debugging a program requires a willingness to work through the challenge. Some of these boys quickly lose patience when their project does not work; they are not willing to persist by putting in the time to solve the problem. Instead, they might ask for help immediately or get another student (or me) to fix their bug, so they can keep going.

I get it. They just want their game to run. It’s difficult to teach patience and persistence. I have to gently nudge them to try debugging on their own. I always highlight students whose final project may not finish but who I can tell worked hard to try and debug it themselves.

Not Able to Use Their Algebra Skills

Coding requires an ability to abstract, and coders must be able to use basic algebra skills to read a problem, determine what must be denoted by variables and how to manipulate them. This is the same skill used in reading a word problem in algebra class, and being able to write down the correct variable expression or equation.

As a former math teacher, I know this can take some students longer to learn, and some boys have a more difficult time, especially at this age. These algebra skills also do not always transfer from math class to computer science, since it is not written up as a familiar math question. Once I determine that this is the problem, I try and get the student to do a special instance of the problem, and then go back and try to write a more generic solution.

Not Focusing on Process over Product

These boys are often the ones who play video games and are excited about making their own game. They do not know that creating a game of the type they play requires a team of expert programmers and designers several months of work. The projects they can make with their initial coding skills are sometimes a bit underwhelming, and they have to be motivated to go further. They have to learn to enjoy the process of coding and not focus on the end product.

If these boys have attended summer coding camps where a lot of code is given, and the focus was on making a big end product, they are even less willing to work through basic coding challenges in a class that is teaching them to write code independently. They want the flashy “Wow” project they can showcase as soon as possible and are impatient about going through shorter and simpler learning projects. I have found mixing in smaller independent projects with larger collaborative projects, especially those with graphics, can keep these boys engaged.

Computer Science for All 

Obviously, the above characteristics can apply to any student—girl or boy. These are just some of the common patterns I have noticed in the group of boys who have a more difficult time learning to code than they expected.

There are no “boys only” after school coding clubs or summer camps to support them. They are often expected to be at the more advanced hackathon-style events that are often not a good fit for them. They are uncomfortable or unwilling to attend programs designed for new coders, especially since many often focus on girls.

For many of these boys, their own expectation (and sometimes their parent’s expectation) is that they will be amazing coders right away, and then create fantastic new apps that will change the world. When they find out that coding is harder than they expected and find themselves struggling in a coding class, they can be frustrated.

As a teacher, understanding the issues these boys face can help identify the right strategies. It can help design a class that is welcoming and helps everyone achieve their dreams. After all, as a teacher committed to computer science for all, we must reach all the girls—and also all the boys. 

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“Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
—Jim Dator, futurist at University of Hawaii-Manoa

Here’s something ridiculous for you: Futurists and experts on aging and longevity are now suggesting that the first people to live to be 150 years old have already been born. That is a long time to live—and work. It’s almost unfathomable: Will the careers of the future last 80 or 100 years?

Combine this idea with the velocity of technological change we are experiencing. We are in a world of exponential futures: Moore’s law is doubling the rate of computing power every two years. With advancements in machine learning and deep learning, automation threatens forty-seven percent of the jobs in the U.S. workforce; nearly half of the activities associated with $15 trillion in wages in the global economy will potentially become automated. There will be large amounts of job obsolescence, but many also project plenty of job creation with the increased productivity of machines.

We’ll have to prepare students for work that doesn’t exist yet. As an example, in 2014, LinkedIn’s top ten jobs were jobs that hadn’t existed five years prior: social media intern, iOS/Android developer, cloud manager, big data architect, or UI/UX designer as examples. How many new jobs that don’t exist today will a person have during a 150-year lifespan?

Proponents of the liberal arts love to explain how an excellent general education will teach students to learn how to learn for a lifetime. But two, four or six years on the front end of a 100-year work-life sounds inadequate to say the least. The future of our nation’s economic prosperity and competitiveness will depend on a citizenry that regularly retools itself for the future of work.

These days, education reformers, evangelists and foundations pay a lot of lip service to the notion of lifelong learning, but we do little to invest in the systems, architecture and infrastructure needed to facilitate seamless movements in and out of learning and work.

Talk of lifelong learning doesn’t translate into action. In fact, resources and funding are often geared toward the traditional 17- to 22-year-old college-going population and less often to working adults, our growing new-traditional student population.

We’ll need a different investment thesis: For most adults, taking time off work to attend classes at a local, brick-and-mortar community college or a four-year institution will not be the answer. The opportunity costs will be too high. Our current system of traditional higher education is ill-suited to facilitate flexible, seamless cost-effective learning pathways for these students to keep up with the emergent demands of the workforce.

Higher education today doesn’t offer many on- or off-ramps in and out of work. Our systems are not set up for students to navigate just-in-time learning pathways. If a student doesn’t follow the linear, insular two- or four-year learning experience, we do not make it easy for students to return and retrain themselves for the future. In fact, we often punish them with student loan debt.

Even the most innovative pathways today—whether they are coding or sales bootcamps or online competency-based education pathways aligned to workforce needs—are nowhere near flexible enough for the vast majority of working adults. And those who likely need the most guidance are least aware of the available options.

We can’t extrapolate from where we are today to meet the challenges of the workforce of 2030 or 2040. Our postsecondary learning system will have to engage students differently than before.

Many adults may have no interest in coming back to college. Out of the 37 million Americans with some college and no degree, many have already failed one or twice before and will be wholly uninterested in experiencing more educational trauma.We can’t just say, “Here’s a MOOC, or here’s an online degree, or a 6- to 12-week immersive bootcamp.”

We have to do better. Let’s begin seeding the foundational elements of a learning ecosystem of the future—flexible enough for adults to move consistently in and out of learning and work. Enough talk about lifelong learning: Let’s build the foundations of that learning ecosystem of the future.

As we try to make sense of a longer, more turbulent work-life, we must anticipate the learning will have to be episodic and frequent. Working adults will be looking for truly flexible, on-demand pathways that tie education to economic relevance.

The new learning ecosystem will have to facilitate more seamless transitions in and out of the workforce. We need better assessment tools and prior learning assessments to take any student and assess where they are: What capabilities, skill sets, and mindsets do they have? What are their gaps in relation to the learning goals?

Working learners will also need help articulating their learning goals and envisioning a future for themselves. People don’t know how to translate their skills from one industry to another. How does a student begin to understand that 30% of what they already know could be channeled into a totally different and potentially promising pathway they never even knew was within reach?

Working learners will need better competency maps and tools to build career paths. They’ll also need better information to understand whether in some cases it’s better to pursue a certification, a nanodegree, a bootcamp or a degree program to get them where they need to go. So much of our current educational market is needlessly opaque because we do not provide easily consumable outcomes data at the program level to prospective learners.

The learning ecosystem of the future will likely entail strong peer-to-peer exchange models with more consumer insights. We will create the Amazon marketplace of higher education in which anyone will be able to access verified reviews of this or that microcredential—not unlike the driver forums for gig economy workers.

None of this is necessarily new, but the combination may have disruptive potential with the convergence of multiple vectors: the right learning model, the right technologies, the right customers, and the right business model. A powerful, open platform of the future can empower adults with better information, better assessments, and better maps to greater opportunity. It can offer just-in-time tutoring, advising, or mentorship. Adults could be able to bundle together offerings from Lynda, Pluralsight, Udemy, Udacity or a MOOC and have them stack into something meaningful to employers. Perhaps even more importantly, this new proof of mastery must translate across learning providers, employers, and state boundaries.

We have to begin saying these things aloud in order to prototype the flexible and seamless reskilling and upskilling pathways of the future. One of the most popular design-thinking and team-building activities is the marshmallow challenge. Teams are provided a bit of masking tape, some twine, 20 spaghetti noodles, scissors and a marshmallow. They have a short amount of time to create the tallest tower. Each tower must have the marshmallow sitting on top. Funnily enough, business school students are some of the worst at this game because they spend too much time orienting toward or analyzing the problem while vying for control. When time begins to run out, they hastily build and place the marshmallow on top last. The most successful teams, on the other hand, are Kindergarteners. Why? They immediately begin placing the marshmallow on different structures, failing, trying again and building iteratively.

If we begin writing the ridiculous stories about the future, we can design toward them. We can stop staring at the marshmallow and build the learning ecosystem of the future.

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The College Board recently released its Advanced Placement (AP) program results for the class of 2017—and it’s largely a mixed bag, with a greater number of overall test takers but significant achievement gaps still impacting success rates. Here are some highlights:

  1. Though the percentage of students taking the exam has increased over the past 10 years, going from 23.9 percent of the class of 2007 to 37.7 percent for the class of 2017, achievement between demographic groups continues to vary significantly. Only 4.3 percent of Black/African American students who took the test scored a 3 or higher; the general score needed to get college credit for an AP course. By contrast, 55.6 percent of White students and 22.9 of Hispanic or Latino students scored a 3 or higher.
AP results for the Class of 2017. Photo Credit: College Board

2. With schools such as Harvard and MIT in its corridors, Massachusetts has some top ranking universities. The state also has top test performers, with the highest number of students scoring a 3 or above on the exam (32.1 percent).

AP results for the Class of 2017. Photo Credit: College Board

3. The number of students taking the Computer Science AP exam continues to rise, with a stark increase of 79 percent since 2016. The number of girls, Latinos, blacks and rural students taking the exam has more than doubled over the course of the past year.

AP results for the Class of 2017. Photo Credit: College Board
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Sitting in front of a laptop, Chris Pozo, a sixth-grade student at Truesdell Education Campus in Washington D.C., opens his Summit calendar to show his daily goals. “My goal is to do my task and get 50 percent or more,” it reads.

Like every other student using the Summit Learning platform, Pozo must start each class by setting his goals before doing activities. The goals are either typed or picked by the student from a drop-down list of options created by the teacher.

One of the lines in the sand that I have drawn from the very beginning is that this is not an edtech tool. It’s a program for schools that are like us.

Diane Tavenner, Summit CEO 

“Every morning I change it, and we type our goals right here,” explains Pozo, pointing to his screen. He then opens up an assignment on a Google Doc and a grading rubric, reviewing the comments and feedback his teacher has left on his work.

Sixth-grader, Chris Pozo, using the Summit Platform in is science class. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

This goal-setting feature is part of the Summit Learning Platform, an online tool used in a personalized learning program created by Summit Public Schools. Core to the charter network’s vision is a belief that students can be empowered to make choices that direct their learning, with guidance from teachers and access to real-time data. Information from students’ activities on the platform is combined with qualitative feedback from educators to inform teachers, parents and most importantly, students themselves about their learning progression.

Yet getting students to make choices and direct their own learning is no easy task, even with the assistance of an online platform that has more than 50 software engineers maintaining it.

A recent visit to two schools in Washington, D.C. shows that implementing technology is only part of the struggle for public schools seeking to make the switch to personalized learning models. School administrators must lead complex organizational changes to create environments that nudge students to be self-directed learners. And inside the classroom, educators still wrestle with behavior issues, short attention spans and all the distractions that come with online tools.

What Is Summit Learning?

Summit Public Schools currently operates 11 charter schools in Washington and northern California. Its Summit Learning Platform, originally called Summit Basecamp, was first designed by the schools’ leaders using Google spreadsheets. In 2014, Facebook appointed a team of six engineers to help the organization build a more robust tool. Last year, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the “venture philanthropy” affiliated with the Facebook CEO, took over building the technology platform. Summit officials say more than $20 million was invested into the tool in 2017 alone.

People cried. People left. Now this group of teachers is like, ‘If you come into my class, I am teaching you how to read.’

MaryAnn Stinson, principal at Truesdell

Now, the Summit Learning Platform is used by about 56,000 students in approximately 330 campuses across 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Students at Howard Middle School Using Summit Learning. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Across the country, the Summit Learning Program is one of a number of different “personalized learning” models that schools and districts are increasingly trying out. Personalized learning, according to many educators and organizations championing its message, is about making education fit the needs of students.

Like other personalized learning technology tools, the Summit Learning Platform involves collecting data on student work, sharing that data back with the student and teacher and, in many instances, using algorithms to queue up the next steps or learning modules to help students make progress.

The technologies enable students to go through content at their own pace. Some programs also give learners options about the subjects they choose to master and how they want to work (with a teacher, in groups or independently online).

What sets Summit apart is how they combine the technology and an instructional model around a belief that students such as Pozo can become self-directed learners. They do this by preparing a curriculum that includes helping students develop critical thinking skills, academic knowledge, and a set of habits that Summit leaders say will help students become successful For example, they supporting students seeking challenges and help them learn persistence. To do that involves far more than technology. That’s why Summit leaders insist that educators can’t just adopt the online platform--they have to change their school. And that change can, at times, be painful.

“One of the lines in the sand that I have drawn from the very beginning is that this is not an edtech tool. It’s a program for schools that are like us,” says Diane Tavenner, founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, in an interview. She notes that in order for Summit’s online platform to be successfully integrated, leaders must adopt a school-wide approach to personalization.

The outside of Truesdell Elementary in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

In Washington, D.C. EdSurge visited two public schools where leaders had to make some cultural and operations changes before implementing Summit Learning. According to Summit officials, these are the core tenets required for schools to implement the approach successfully:

  • Enabling 1:1 mentorship for groups of about 15 students who meet outside of class hours, during lunch, breakfast or other unstructured periods to offer students guidance;
  • Embedding “project-based learning” activities, where students address real-world problems through projects, into all course curricula;
  • Changing grading practices from a letter scale (A through F grades) to a competency-based system where students only progress when they demonstrate mastery of a topic or subject, and;
  • Ongoing professional development opportunities from Summit personnel, who offer free training throughout the year via a mentor or coach, as well as convenings for educators.

“The first sign that we can’t or won’t work with someone is when a school comes up to us and says, ‘Oh, we are really looking for a technology platform,’ and we say, ‘Oh, well, we are not your thing,’” explains Tavenner. “That is not who we are, and that is not what we do. This is really about a whole belief, a way of educating, thinking and learning. This [platform] is just a tool.”

Inside DC Schools: Takes a Village to Personalize

The approach to integrating Summit Learning’s Platform and Program varies based on the school context. The Summit charter network, though public, has more flexibility to change certain core school features such as the bell schedules and the hours teachers work, flexibility that few traditional public schools have because of laws and contracts. Yet, traditional public schools have adopted the platform and made changes—where possible—to do it.

Truesdell was one of the first public schools outside of Summit’s own charter network to adopt the Summit Learning platform in 2015. The school serves 364 students, all of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The school is in its third year of integration with the platform, which is used in grades 3 to 8.

The inside of Truesdell Elementary in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

When EdSurge visited Chris Pozo’s sixth-grade science class at Truesdell, the student was reviewing comments left by his teacher, Courtney Grant, on his writing assignment. He glanced back and forth between his Google Doc and the grading rubric on the right side of his screen. This is how he decides what to do to get a 4 (equivalent to an A) on this assignment.

“I have to add more transition words and make it organized,” Pozo explains as I visit his class. “This is what they are going to be grading us about,” he continues, pointing to the rubric on the screen.

Teacher, Courtney Grant, offering feedback to students in her science classroom on the Summit Platform at Truesdell Elementary Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Getting students and educators to use the online platform as seamlessly as Pozo is now was an uphill battle. More than a few tears were shed by teachers and some resigned, says MaryAnn Stinson, the principal at Truesdell.

For some educators, it was difficult to shift away from the tradition of creating a single lesson plan or activity for the entire class. In the personalized learning program that Summit distributes, teachers are expected to work closely with all students, whether they’re at, below or above the average. Even with the help of technology, school leaders say making sure every child in a classroom learns is a big ask— requiring extra time from teachers.

“We add in more time to keep them on track. [Students] go to Intervention Block, Saturday School and Lunch Bunch,” says Stinson, noting that she put in several extra activities to help students improve their reading scores in her school. “Our belief is, the research says, that everyone can learn how to read, so we have to be held to that accountability.”

“People cried, people left,” says Stinson, describing staff changes she has made to ensure educators buy into her vision. “Now this group of teachers is like, ‘If you come into my class, I am teaching you how to read.’”

Since she arrived in 2010, her school has been undergoing reforms and transformations with technology and school culture. She is regularly applying for grants and sending staff to training and fellowships.

Before using Summit, Truesdell already had mentorship groups, used project-based learning, had teachers differentiating instruction, and worked with a competency-based grading system called Mastery Connect. These practices, says Stinson, laid the necessary foundation for a successful implementation of Summit’s Learning Platform.

“We were very much about personalized learning—not the buzzword, but differentiated instruction to meet the needs of every child,” says Stinson about her early days at Truesdell.

Taking on the Summit platform has helped bring all their practices together, says Stinson, making the techniques and terminologies teachers were using consistent across classrooms.

In an interview with EdSurge, Truesdell’s Assistant Principal, Michael Redmond, explains the importance of having consistent terminologies across classrooms. “The consistent language— when a kid is in my English class, they go to Veronica’s math class and they go to Ms. Courtney’s science class— the expectation for kids to be successful is very clear. it's not subjective; it is very objective,” he says, pointing out the rubric students use on the Summit Platform.

Using the Summit system, educators at Truesdell are frequently updated on students’ progression and mastery of content through a data dashboard. But Stinson is adamant that simply observing data on a screen is not enough for teachers. Her school also practices what she calls “aggressive monitoring” to ensure teachers catch student issues the system cannot show.

“If you are asking kids to do an assignment, independent practice, or a ‘do now,’ you must be immediately walking around, seeing, observing, and marking their paper. You should be telling them ‘yes, go on’ or ‘no, go back.’ Otherwise, you’re wasting their time,” Stinson explains.

Teacher, Courtney Grant, walking around the science classroom helping students at Truesdell Elementary Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

One result has led Stinson to believe that her school’s effort has been fruitful. Eight years ago, only 20 percent of students were reading on grade level. Today that number is around 80 percent.

“The school has made gains over the years, not big leaps and bounds, but nice, consistent gains. Last year we had the highest [district] growth in English Language Arts for a Title 1 school,” says Stinson. A Title 1 school is an institution that receives extra government funding for having a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

Getting Middle Schoolers to Guide Their Own Learning
Sixth-grade students can barely put their pants on. They lose their stuff all the time. It takes a lot to help them start setting their own goals. It’s a lot of repetitive processes.

Kathryn Procope, Howard Principal

Less than three miles away, Howard University Middle School is in its second year of using the Summit Learning platform. Like Stinson, Kathryn Procope, the principal at Howard, has sent her teachers to several trainings (with Summit and other organizations), received multiple grants and transformed her school’s operations to smooth transition to using the Summit platform to support personalization.

Students entering Howard University Middle School in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

She hesitates to give too much credit to Summit for the progress her students have shown at Howard, saying her the concept of personalizing learning is something her school has been working to cultivate for years. “It is not a new concept,” says Procope, of Summit’s personalized learning philosophy. “What Summit has done is take a concept that already existed and put a framework around it so that it assists every student.”

She finds that the Summit program has helped create a guide for personalizing learning at her school, mapping out the details teachers and administration need to take to make sure everyone is on the same page. She is also pleased that Summit allows students to set goals, work to meet goals, take assessments and— most importantly—allows students to try again when they fail.

“A lot of times teachers have very hard and fast ideas about, ‘I teach you, you take the test, you fail the test, you get the grade, I move on.’ That fails urban children every single time,” says Procope. “Where in life don’t you get another chance? You can take the SAT 20 times, and they take the best score. I can fail my driver’s test and take it again. I didn’t understand why we had those hard and fast rules here because that’s not what society does.”

But Procope is careful to attribute the school’s improvements to verbal communication and personal relationships between teachers and students. Her teachers, she says, have been what helped her students become self-directed learners.

Teachers greeting students before they enter the classroom at Howard. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

These relationships are observed on EdSurge’s school visit where, teachers stand in the hallways greeting students, one-by-one, as they enter classrooms. Procope makes herself available to staff and pupils, taking time to listen to their personal needs and concerns. In the future, she plans to customize the school schedule so students can come early or stay late as needed.

Yet, in spite of these efforts, and buy-in from her teaching staff, integrating the Summit Learning Platform and Program into the school has been a steep learning curve.

Procope has caught students using their “personalized learning time” (which averages about 30 minutes in a 55-minute class period) to do things such as going on YouTube and listening to music. To curb this behavior, she has set up meetings with teachers, students and parents to learn how to help learners stay on task while using the platform. Some students, she notes, need constant reminders to stay focused.

“Sixth-grade students can barely put their pants on. They lose their stuff all the time,” says Procope. “It takes a lot to help them start setting their own goals. It’s a lot of repetitive processes.”

The spectrum of sixth grade behaviors are on display is displayed in the classroom, where some sixth grade math students, needing no guidance at all, begin setting their goals and completing work on the Summit Learning Platform, while others swivel in their chairs and wait for direction from their teacher, five months into the school year.

Procope notes that simply providing students with technology tools without putting in supports to make the systems work, is a recipe for disaster.

“You have some students who have a very structured life at home, and so it was not difficult for them, but that’s not most of the students that we serve,” Procope explains.

Her observation—that students with disciplinary issues and unstructured home environments struggle to direct their own learning using personalized tools— is consistent with observations from researchers.

Kathryn Procope observing sixth-grade students at Howard. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

Dr. John Pane, a senior scientist at RAND Corporation research group, recently published findings from a large-scale evaluation of over 150 schools that have adopted personalized learning models. Among his observations were that students who performed worse on achievement tests after using educational software also struggled with self-discipline and were easily distracted online.

“We saw a lot of problems with students being on-task in those classes,” says Pane in an interview with EdSurge about his study. “They were basically using the freedom that came with using the software...as an opportunity to slack off and not really stay on topic. We think that was one reason the tool was not working very well.”

To encourage students to stay on task each morning, Nyah Reese, a sixth-grade math teacher at Howard, reads out each student’s name and thanks them as they set their goals in the system.

“Thank you Mayana, Malaysia, Anya, Amarie, thank you,” says Reese to the class.

Students in her class do not sit idly or quietly in front of their computers the entire class period. Her teaching style is hands-on, showcasing for students what they must do within the Summit platform before assigning work. She is constantly walking around to observe and answer their questions.

“I show this to them all the time,” says Reese, as she makes sure each student sets their daily goal. “They act like it is brand new every single day.”

7th grade class at Howard using Summit. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu

“It’s not a silver bullet,” says Procope, referring to Summit. “Sometimes we look and see kids who haven’t started checkpoints (assignments). We really have to pay attention to students. They don’t need unsupervised technology time. They are still young people learning to make good decisions.”

In the schools EdSurge visited, the amount of time students spend on Summit’s online platform varied from teacher to teacher. Procope estimates that in the four (out of eight) class periods where Summit is used, students spend about half of class time on the platform. At Truesdell, the school’s principal estimates that students are engaged, in some capacity, (taking notes from videos, reviewing feedback, making edits or taking an assessment) with their devices for about half the school day.

Stinson says the idea of a students spending all their time on computers is one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding personalized learning programs.

“I am a teacher. I don’t want my kid on a computer all day,” says Stinson. “The teacher is still the—I don’t want to say the center of the classroom—but more of the facilitator, the designer of the learning, the assessment person. There are a lot of pieces to that. But the classroom still centers around the teachers as the architect of what going to happen.”

The back of principal Stinson walking through hallways at Truesdell. Photo Credit: Jenny Abamu
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When some kids grow up, they stop gaming and go abroad. That metaphor might describe the journey that Kidaptive took on its way to a major fundraise.

Once known for a learning game, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company now touts itself as a provider of adaptive-learning technologies for educational content providers. And to support its work, Kidaptive has raised $19.1 million in a Series C round led by Formation 8 and Woongjin ThinkBig, a Korean publisher.

Of this amount, Woongjin invested $5 million in return for a 10 percent stake in Kidaptive, reports The Korea Herald. To date, Kidaptive has now raised about $31 million.

Kidaptive first entered the edtech market in 2012 with Leo’s Pad, a game-based learning app that offered mini-games and puzzles to assess cognitive skills in young children. The team followed up with Learner Mosaic, an app that takes gameplay data from Leo’s Pad to inform a sequence of learning activities that parents can do with their kids to help them further develop those skills.

But those days of designing games and content may be over. The company has refocused its business and research around what it calls its “Adaptive Learning Platform.” The description from the press release is a bit abstract and heavy on jargon, but it boils down to this: combining data from learning activities to create a “psychometric profile of a learner” and offering feedback and recommendations for what he or she should do next in order to master a skill.

That data comes from content partners, and Kidaptive is eyeing publishers in Asia. This path was influenced by an early investor and board member: Formation 8’s founder and general partner Brian Koo, who has been described as a “scion of the LG business dynasty in South Korea.” His connections there brought Kidaptive to the Asian market. In 2015, Kidaptive acquired Hodoo English, a language-learning company, in a deal that established Kidadaptive’s Korea headquarter.

Today the team splits its time and resources between Silicon Valley and Asia, says Kidaptive’s co-founder and chief learning scientist, Dylan Arena. He added that its Korean business is already cashflow positive, and expects to reach that milestone for its U.S. operations by the end of the year.

The company’s Adaptive Learning Platform works in a number of ways. In the case of Woongjin Book Club, a reading and tutoring service provided by Woongjin ThinkBig, the tool gathers and analyzes data from the digital books, quizzes and activities that a child engages with. That information is then distilled into feedback, patterns and predictions that tutors can use during their in-person teaching session.

Information sent by Kidaptive’s Adaptive Learning Platform to tutors. (Source: Kidaptive)

The goal is to “characterize learner activities by citing specific evidence” and “suggest possible strategies for the tutor without de-professionalizing the tutor,” says Arena, who acknowledges that this is “a delicate balance to strike.”

All of this data crunching and analysis happens on the backend. “We’re entirely invisible,” he adds. “If you’re a kid, you have no idea what Kidaptive is.”

Back in the U.S., Kidaptive has also applied its technology to a game, Fish Force, developed by PBS KIDS, WGBH and CREEST, an assessment research group at the University of California in Los Angeles. The game has 256 different levels, and the Adaptive Learning Engine decides the sequence of levels that each player sees based on his or her gameplay.

In this partnership, “what Kidaptive provides is information on the leveling sequence to keep kids in their zone of proximal development,” explains Sara Dewitt, vice president at PBS KIDS Digital. She’s referring to a research term that describes the sweet spot at which a learner is adequately challenged.

While Kidaptive’s system is used to determine the sequence of activities in Fish Force, it does not offer information about where or why users may have done something wrong. That’s the opposite of how the Adaptive Learning Engine is used with Woongjin Book Club, which “focuses on generating learner insights but not recommending next steps,” says Arena.

Depending on the extent of capabilities that a prospective partner wants from the adaptive engine, a business deal can take anywhere from 3 to 8 months to secure. The company is in talks with education companies in China and India, and will onboard as many as 5 new partners by the end of the year. Kidaptive will also continue working with PBS KIDS on a new game based on The Cat in the Hat.

Kidaptive’s efforts to build an adaptive engine for other content creators sounds eerily reminiscent of what another company once tried. Once the industry’s poster child for adaptive learning, Knewton boasted working with dozens of publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill. But as those partners pulled out, the company has since pivoted to competing with them.

Arena says he’s familiar with Knewton, adding that his team is “proceeding slowly and cautiously” in its external partnership and business development work. He’s also careful around how he frames adaptive-learning technology: “There’s a lot of legitimate concern about the robotic tutor. A much more healthy way to think about adaptivity is how it can augment what human teachers can do.”

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In higher ed, people often look to a few elite schools for big new ideas. But that might be changing. These days innovation seems just as likely to come from a state school, a small liberal arts college, or even an upstart from outside the traditional system.

That’s the argument made by Bernard Bull, vice provost for curriculum and academic innovation at Concordia University Wisconsin. The former high school teacher is also a blogger, and he runs a podcast of his own, called MoonshotEDU. He’s optimistic about what he sees as a greater diversity of models and teaching practices at colleges and universities. But he’s also concerned about other pressures he sees in edtech, that are pushing toward standardization as colleges experiment with big data and algorithms.

EdSurge recently sat down with Bull after his keynote at the Educause Learning Initiative’s annual conference in New Orleans. We talked about what he sees as the most important new edtech trends and why it’s still important to read tech critics. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: You’ve talked a growing movement in education that you compare to outsider art in the art world, where newcomers are trying experimental things in higher ed. Do you think there's a significant Outsider Education movement?

Bull: There's definitely an outsider learning movement. If you go back to the '60s and '70s, you see all these really fascinating conversations and lots of thought experiments about ‘What Could Be’ in education. That's where we have the open classroom concepts in the K-12 and lots of conversation around self-directed learning—all these fascinating ideas. But they were ahead of their time. These were ideas that people were imagining in a future context where this could happen, but most of the early implementations just didn't take. They didn't work.

Then you jump ahead to the '90s, and we have this information revolution and the internet. We find ourselves now in this connected age. That's when a lot of those '60s, '70s ideas started to get some traction. In the '60s and '70s, people were talking about self-directed learning and peer-to-peer learning, learners helping one another learn, you don't need the instructor, and those kinds of things. Now we're actually in an era where that's true, where that's possible, and that’s happening.

If I’m a person with relatively interesting ideas and the capacity to mentor other people, I can find a following today. That's a reality of the connected and the digital age. One of the examples I gave in my talk is Howard Rheingold, a fascinating individual with some intriguing thoughts about this modern digital context. He started his own [entity] he called Rheingold U. It's not really a university, but he offers his own classes. He has [students] like me, higher-ed professionals who are taking classes from him to imagine what's going to happen. That's just one of thousands of examples of individuals who can create their own schools or classes or learning environments.

Do you think this could actually have an impact on the way traditional higher ed works?

I think it is already. I think when we look at higher education, we oftentimes look at it as an entity, as if it's just one thing. That's why I often use the phrase ecosystem. Maybe it's become a little bit cliché, but I think the metaphor still holds up. It really is an ecosystem. It's not as if it's this one thing that a certain person or small group of people are strategically growing. It's organic. Things pop up and then they die. They come and they grow and they interact. Sometimes in positive ways and sometimes not-so-positive ways. That's what's happening with this digital space.

I picture the current landscape of higher ed. Imagine this massive mural that represents all of the different things that have been happening in higher ed for an extended period of time. Then imagine all the sudden on that mural small adjustments start appearing. Maybe it's a landscape art, and a small garden appears in one place, and another garden, and another garden, and another garden. All the sudden, we find that same picture is now covered with this new vegetation and this new growth. That's what I see happening in higher ed.

We have this outsider innovation. It's a place to incubate ideas that is free from some of the regulatory issues and some of the restraints and the bureaucracies sometimes in formal learning organizations. People are able to iterate and experiment, and they learn things. People are applauding them in higher ed. Or, from the learner perspective, learners are sometimes choosing those outsider learning opportunities in place of where they might have chosen a traditional degree or higher ed pathway.

There seems to be a mounting frustration with high cost of higher ed, and that probably plays into it. But isn't there a danger that you could end up with students wasting their time or not getting something that really is going to serve them well?

Yeah, I certainly am not an advocate of removing all regulation. Regulation is not the enemy. Bad regulation is the enemy. Maybe we don't even need the enemy metaphor. On the federal level and in some of our states, we clearly have some policies and regulations that are based upon very narrow constructs and metaphors of what education should be, tied to the credit hour and the like. I think that's creating some unnecessary limitations.

It really ties higher ed professionals' hands behind their backs sometimes to innovate in some really promising ways that could help students. I definitely think that by adjusting the policies and giving higher ed organizations a little more freedom and flexibility, while still being able to work within the federal financial aid system, I think that that could actually really help with the issue that you just described. Higher ed organizations are generally pretty ethically minded. They want to do right by the students and their stakeholders, in general. Certainly we can point to bad examples. But I think that's one piece where it's an uneven playing field right now.

You wrote a book called What Really Matters, focused on ten issues facing the future of education. One of the things that you mention is you've often found yourself drawn dystopian writers like Neil Postman who raise alarms about the way technology is evolving. We still hear a lot of suspicion on campuses—especially the Silicon Valley world. What do you learn from some of the tech critics? How do you put that in with your I see as your often optimistic view of what you're seeing in edtech?

Yeah, I cut my teeth on the media ecologists and critics like Jacques Ellul, Louis Mumford, Neil Postman, and Marshall McLuhan. A lot of those people really helped me form my ideas and my thinking.

I started in the K-12 space. I saw, in the '90s, when I first became a high school teacher, [then a] middle school teacher, I saw the way in which the digital world was impacting people's lives, even their most deepest-seated beliefs and values about life and the world. And I noticed how media influenced their beliefs and ideas, and how people's pursuit of truth and truth claims. This was '93-'94. We're finding that this is at the same time that there's a push to get the internet into classrooms, on a federal level. I'm observing all of that as a social studies teacher and realizing, "Wow, I need to figure out how to prepare young people for this new world."

It was kind of like a media literacy, information literacy drive for me. Helping people realize that their beliefs and their values and their view of the world is being shaped without them knowing it. The example I'd often give is, If you can't read, if you're not literate with a book, the book can't really influence you. But if you can't read media, it still has its way with you. It still works on you.

In some ways, when you hear me talk and it sounds a little bit utopian, it's actually being a critic of the current technologies, technologies like the current letter grade system, the current credit-hour system, the current systems that sometimes inhibits student-centered learning, the archaic policies and practices that we don't even remember where they came from but we still hold on to them. In some ways, I'm not really championing for a particular new innovation. I'm just trying to encourage us to recognize that our current innovations are not all that we thought they were and maybe we need to reconsider some of them.

How well do you think that's going? You're at an institution and trying to work on innovation there.

In higher ed at large, I am optimistic about where we're going. I think we're creating an increasingly diverse educational ecosystem, which I think serves the learners best.

I work from a fundamental assumption about human beings that humans are inherently worth something, they're valuable. That's a Constitutional concept in our country, right? That each person has unique value and worth and they also have a unique set of gifts, talents and abilities, some of which may be inherent and others that will be developed because of life experiences and emerging passions throughout life and things like that.

If that's true, then if I have a cookie-cutter education system, and we try to nationalize and scale everything, we just make it more uniform. We're creating a system that's not for diverse people who are uniquely gifted with different gifts, passions, callings, interests, abilities, and all those things.

What do you see as the obstacle to that at an institution like your own or within traditional higher ed?

Historically in higher ed, we have modeled ourselves after a few elite schools. That is changing. We now see innovations that are coming from the grassroots, and they're emerging from other places. It's not all sort of the president of Harvard has an initiative that then trickles down to everyone else, or MIT or Stanford or Princeton or Yale. We're seeing state schools do incredibly innovation things, going directions that others are not doing. We're seeing curricular innovations that are happening and popping up based upon a local need or a regional need.

It seems like higher ed is still very hierarchical and status oriented, though. which schools are you thinking of when you say those non-MIT's and non-Harvard's?

The thing that's neat about it is I could name certain schools, like the Arizona State's, that have really stepped up as an innovative state school, and UW-Madison has done some really incredible things. We have some big flagship state schools. But what's most intriguing to me are the dozen schools that I can't name for you. They're the small liberal arts schools that are doing incredible things that you and I don't even know about. They're doing great things for 150 students or 300 or 500 students.

You’ve talked about how big data is coming in higher ed. What does that look like for a typical student?

This has many possible futures. I want to try to influence it in one direction, candidly, because I think that there is a more humane and better way to go than others. I let my values kind of stick out there. I'm very concerned about closed algorithmic systems. These are systems that kind of rate and sort you, but you don't have any say on how it's rated and you don't get to see behind the curtain and see how it's sorted. That's incredibly disconcerting. That amplifies the prejudices and values, intended or unintended, of the designers of those systems. That is very concerning. That's happening, probably in a number of contexts that I haven't looked at yet.

I'm concerned that that will start to happen more and more in education, as we try to do really well meaning things. Like build these algorithmic tools that predict whether students are likely to persist or not, and then we have interventions to step in and try to prevent them. Or we advise students away from taking certain courses because the algorithm claims that they only have a 10 percent chance of getting a passing grade or getting a B or higher.

That is massive. That's going to grow. There's a lot of investment. We're going to see more start-ups in that space. We already are seeing quite a bit of investment. When you see start-ups and you see investors, then there's also a desire and a push to scale. When there's a push to scale, there's a push to standardize so that you can scale more easily. When there's a push to standardize, you lose what I was talking about before, about meeting the unique needs of people, sometimes. Unless we can have some really wonderful experiments around open, transparent use of data and algorithms, even giving learners the ability to co-create algorithms or to manipulate the algorithm to give them answers to their questions. That, I think, has a ton of promise, but it's definitely not something I would say is the future. The future is data. There's no question. Big data is here to stay. It's just whether we're going to make a better world or worse world with it.

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These days many schools tout blended learning programs when marketing their school to potential students. And in a way, this does make sense. Blended learning can combine the flexibility of online instruction with the benefits of in-person teaching. But much like nutritional claims, such as “all-natural” and “healthy,” the term “blended learning” can mean just about anything depending on how you define it.

Before we can discern what to look for in a good blended learning system, what common misconceptions to watch out for, and what to avoid we should first clarify the term. According to “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” by Michael Horn and Heather Staker, blended learning is a formal education program 1) delivered at least in part through digital learning, with some flexibility for students to choose the way they want to learn, 2) at least partly in combination with a physical classroom and teacher and 3) with opportunities for students to learn through activities that capitalize on different learning modalities.

While there are many ways to apply blended learning to a curriculum, some of the most popular examples include flipped classroom models, where students learn online at home, then spend in-class time practicing with a teacher available to assist them; or rotation models, where students move between learning stations, with at least one station being a digital space where students can access a variety of learning resources. Though there are many ways to implement a blended learning program, there are a few commonalities in what works, what doesn’t and what is destined for failure.

The Good

The best blended learning programs seem to have some common threads. One of the biggest indicators of a successful program is intentional technology use. Whether creating digital resources and activities or planning a large purchase of student devices, the technology should support the learning, not the other way around. Mindful pairing of digital resources to learning outcomes is an excellent way to ensure that any blended learning program will produce the desired learning outcomes. This also means being mindful of students with special needs, and students without access to digital resources at home. Even the best digital tool is useless if it is inaccessible to learners, so schools should create supports ahead of time for those who need them.

Another indicator of a great blended learning is a teacher who is well-trained and well-supported in applying both digital and non-digital teaching practices. Much of our teacher professional development focuses on use of programs or tools, but falls short when it comes to imparting best practices around teaching and learning methods, digital and in-person instruction, differentiated assessment and data analysis. The best programs feature teachers who are strong in all these areas.

Perhaps the “secret sauce” in ensuring that a blended learning program is the most effective is student engagement. But this component is also the most elusive. Since engagement is something students have to provide, and teachers can not just apply engagement to any lesson, it is important to create a learning experience that is engaging, both in the digital and the physical classroom.

One promising development in blended curriculum design that promotes student engagement is the new COVA model. The key to this, according to the newly-published e-book, “Choice, Ownership, and Voice through Authentic Learning,” is to create learning environments and activities that support COVA, which stands for choice, ownership, voice and authentic learning. While this concept sounds simple, applying it is actually quite complicated, because it involves veering away from the accepted model of drill-test-repeat of student skills.

In the COVA model, rote memorization, repetitive drills and standardized assessments are replaced by students choosing the path of their learning, creating and sharing products of their learning and retaining ownership of these products—all while learning through authentic experiences. Giving students COVA increases engagement by giving students agency in their learning and ownership of the products of it.

The truth is that technology will never replace good teachers, who can create relationships with students and learn students’ strengths and challenges

The Bad

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, “blended learning” may be one of the most misused terms in education. There are many so-called blended programs that do not meet the definition, but schools use them anyway. They regularly disappoint with low success rates, often because care was not taken in planning, designing, purchasing, training, supporting or engaging students.

One of the worst offenses of bad blended learning programs is simply not creating a strong blend between digital and non-digital learning. Some school systems think that providing students with a digital learning program to replace in-class instruction will eliminate the problems of poor teaching.

While this may sound tempting, especially as many school districts are experiencing a teacher shortage and the pressure to increase high-stakes test scores rules pretty much every decision made in schools, replacing the teacher with a computer program will not result in better student success, no matter how much the program claims to adapt to and engage diverse learners. The truth is that technology will never replace good teachers, who can create relationships with students and learn students’ strengths and challenges, curate a collection of resources with specific students’ needs in mind and work with students to create the best learning plan. For the amount of money schools spend on computer programs, they could provide teachers with better training and support in creating a blended learning program customized for and by their own student population.

Which brings us to the next problem with bad blended learning programs—lack of ongoing support. When teachers do not have appropriate and ongoing support to change their teaching style to a blended learning model, and/or support for keeping the network, devices, and programs current and in good repair, a system will not work. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of any blended learning program is the long-term support plan, for both human and digital resources.

Other programs fail to provide appropriate digital resources for students and learning goals. When designing a digital learning environment, it is crucial to provide resources that are accessible to all students, and to gear them toward specific goals. Because the digital learning environment is not constrained by the class schedule or space, it is easy to fill it up with resources and activities. But just as in a physical environment, cluttered digital spaces are confusing and hard to navigate. If students aren’t sure how to move through their digital learning, chances are they won’t get the most out of time spent there.

The Ugly

While bad blended learning design will result in low student success, and nobody wants that, some blended learning issues produce problems on such a large scale that they create a negative view of digital learning that ripples through the education world. Though these scenarios are the nightmares of digital educators today, we can learn from them to ensure they don’t happen again.

The most famous of blended learning fiascos is probably the failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad program. In 2013, the school district entered a contract with Apple (technology) and Pearson (curriculum programming) to provide students with devices for a blended learning program. This program failed quickly and very publicly because students learned how to disable the security profile on the devices and get around protections designed to prevent misuse and theft.

In Apple’s defense, LAUSD did not follow Apple’s specified deployment guidelines, nor did they fully consider the implications of such a large rollout for the type of technology they wanted to deploy. Also, because the school system bought the iPads in order to use a new curriculum by Pearson, the large investment ($6.4 million) for that software was lost because it could not be accessed without the proper devices. A major lawsuit ensued, the district suffered enormous negative press and those reluctant to bring technology into schools became even more reluctant to do so.

But this failure brings with it an important lesson for anyone hoping to implement a blended learning program, whether you’re planning a huge deployment like LAUSD, or starting small in your classroom, like I did. LAUSD failed in planning their rollout to fit the specific needs of their population and goals. If you fail to fully research your population and goals, then fail to find technology that is suitable for both, your blended learning program won’t just result in lackluster student results, it will be a waste of money and a black eye for your school district.

The Upshot

Now is the best time to start a blended learning program, because blended learning has been around long enough to provide us all with plenty of background information to make the best choices for our students (and our investments).

Your students will benefit from the best of both digital and in-person learning, while building digital citizenship and technological skills necessary to be successful adults! But it is crucial to have a strong vision that starts with a real understanding of the school you already have, the goals you want to achieve and the proper tools and resources that will take you from one to the other.

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The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. —Marcel Proust

In higher education today, learning activities focus on challenging students throughout their studies—enabling them to acquire the knowledge, skills and attributes that will equip them for a rapidly changing and complex world and ensure they have the confidence to thrive as global citizens in the 21st century. The role of educators is to create the environment that best supports this learning process. And because the most significant learning environment is inside the head of any learner—not outside of it—it is vital to ensure that students are engaged in learning that is meaningful to them.

. . . how can I ensure that learning is meaningful and help my students to connect more deeply with any learning activity?

So, the big question for me as an educator is: how can I ensure that learning is meaningful and help my students to connect more deeply with any learning activity?

First, consider that two of the central gatekeepers of learning are emotion and motivation. When our emotions are activated, our cognitive functions are profoundly impacted. Similarly, when motivation levels are high, students engage more deeply in the associated learning task. Ask any educator about the joys of teaching a highly intrinsically motivated student! Indeed, research has demonstrated the power of personal engagement, demonstrating that contextualization and personalization produce dramatic increases not only in students' motivation but also in the depth of their engagement in learning.

Join me in Houston, April 5-6, 2018 for the first Creator Fest, where educators and subject experts will collaborate to develop additional resources to use with OpenStax textbooks.  The contextualized approach

Over the past ten years, I’ve developed an approach that has helped make my own chemistry teaching meaningful and also helped students to connect deeply with their learning. I really want to see my students connect with the topic and ask more and more questions as they immerse themselves in the learning.

To achieve this, the topic must be relevant. It must connect to the real world and to students’ career paths. This connection isn’t always obvious, particularly when teaching an abstract chemistry concept that students can perceive as pointless or irrelevant. To stimulate students’ curiosity and interest, I have introduced a contextualized approach, making the content relevant to my students and linking it to real-world scenarios. Although I developed this method for chemistry classes, it can be used with any subject.

When students ask, “but how does this relate to the real world?” they’re asking . . . why are you teaching it?

When students ask, “but how does this relate to the real world?” they’re asking about the “why” of the topic—why are they learning it, and why are you teaching it? Creating assignments and lectures that answer that question can be far more compelling for students than those that explain all the ins and outs of a new concept without explaining how it comes to play in the world outside the classroom. Author Simon Sinek’s TED talk and Golden Circle illustration below helped me understand the importance of crafting every assignment, lecture, and assessment by first thinking about the “why.” If students are not clear why they should attend to information and put effort into making sense of it, the likely outcome is disengagement.

Simon Sinek’s The Golden Circle. Full sized image here.

My goal when I create assignments centers on inspiring students to integrate their chemistry learning and see their education in the context of the current issues of the day. Contextualization of a topic helps to answer that “why” that students are looking for: Why this is relevant? Why should one learn this information? So I always begin crafting assignments and lectures by asking myself why the topic is important to my students, and what real-world examples and scenarios exemplify the topic. Then I’ll saturate my lessons with those relevant examples, using a variety of methods, including:

Creator Fest highlights
  • Create materials with subject experts
  • Experiment with cutting edge learning technologies
  • Leave with tangible resources you can use in your courses
  1. Incorporating current events. I like to start a series of lectures with a real-world scenario. For example, when I begin my lesson about stereochemistry (the arrangement of atoms and molecules and the effect of this on chemical reactions), I tell my students the story of Alain Baxter. He was a Scottish skier who was stripped of his Olympics bronze medal after his urine sample tested positive for methamphetamines. I then show my students the formulation of a decongestant inhaler that he used before competing; it contained an ingredient that is chemically similar to methamphetamine and therefore triggered a positive drug test.
  2. Including relevant research. Students become more invested in the material when they can clearly see the link between current scientific research and their own personal learning. For example, in my chemistry class I incorporate my research on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), previously referred to as “legal highs” or “designer drugs.” I created a case study that illustrates how the same chemistry concepts that my students are learning play a fundamental role in identifying the ingredients of newly-created drugs.
  3. Connecting to students’ future careers. When I teach pharmacy students, I keep in mind that the primary responsibility for pharmacists is ensuring their patients’ safety through their expert understanding of how drugs work, the mechanism of action, possible side effects, and contraindications. I try to align examples and assessment questions to the real-world future employment scenarios of my students. For example, I’ll ask them to consider a taxi driver who goes to a pharmacy complaining about seasonal allergies and asking for advice. Students will need to consider various drugs’ side effects, including drowsiness. As one student told me, “It’s so much easier to learn chemistry when it’s made directly relevant to our future careers.”

Suzanne Fergus receiving the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Higher Education Teaching Award in 2016. Full sized image here.

Starting with the context and application—the “why”—and then moving onto the “what” and the “how” has transformed my teaching and helped my students see the material with new eyes.

I’ll be speaking more on this approach in April at the OpenStax Creator Fest, a participant-driven conference where attendees will work with colleagues and subject experts to create lectures, assignments, and classroom activities together and leave with tangible resources they can put to use in their courses. Check it out!

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