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Virtual reality has yet to become a reality in most classrooms. According to a 2016 survey of 38,000 U.S. educators, just around 5 percent of teachers said they used any virtual or augmented reality programs in class.

Yet with Google ramping up sales of its Expeditions Kit, and Facebook giving away 500 free Oculus Rift headsets to schools in Arkansas, the number of teachers using VR tools in U.S. classrooms could jump to more than 15 percent by 2021, predicts Futuresource, a market research firm.

Because of the way [the VR space] was built, she had to overreach to do something and fell over.

David Kleeman

What gives VR builders and their investors reasons to cheer also raises concerns, however, for health experts. A recent study was done by Children and Virtual Reality, a collaboration between researchers, VR companies, universities and health organizations, found that using VR tools could have significant health impacts on children.

“We wanted to make whatever experiences we create for children are as healthy and as right for their age as possible,” says Dr. Dylan Yamada-Rice, a senior research manager at Dubit, a consulting firm for children’s media and one of the groups involved in the study.

Started in 2015, the experiment just completed its third of four phases, where researchers worked with a group of about 20 children, aged 8 to 12, to observe health and safety issues posed by the use of VR tools. The first two research phases involved surveying more than 1,000 U.S. and U.K. children, aged 2 to 15, about their knowledge of and interest in emerging VR tools. Then they explored how children used different types of headsets including Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

What the researchers found in the third phase of the study, published last October, was that usage of VR headsets could impact a child’s vision, balance and spatial awareness—concerns they say educators should consider before adopting VR technology.

Researchers from the University of Leeds conducted pre- and post- eye examinations for 20 children, and tested their depth of perception and sense of balance, before and after they used the headsets. For most students, there were no significant differences. However, for children who displayed issues with balance, spatial awareness, vision and depth of perception in the pre-test, those problems may have intensified after using virtual reality tools.

“We had one child whose eyesight differed pre- and post-test. He already had bad eyesight to begin with,” says Yamada-Rice, noting that this student showed problems with nearsightedness after playing with the headset, something not common for children.

To test their depth of perception, researchers asked children to find numbers or shapes embedded in dot patterns. Then they asked students to use the headsets for about 20 minutes before repeating the dot test. One child, who displayed problems with depth perception during the pre-test, also displayed significant issues after using the headset.

“What we are looking at is making sure there is not a lingering effect once you take that headset off,” says David Kleeman, a senior vice president at Dubit. He notes that students struggling with depth of perception may run into objects or trip over things.

Researchers also found risks for young people who had no pre-existing health issues, noting that their balance and depth of perception could be affected by engaging in content created for adults. For instance, children who entered VR experiences created for adults often struggled to stay balanced as they reached for objects within the fabricated realms that were beyond their body’s extent. Researchers suspect that this effect lingered after the headset came off.

“There was one girl who had balance problems post-test,” says Kleeman, describing how the young girl fell over while using the program. “Because of the way it was built, she had to overreach to do something and fell over. It may have been a lingering effect from that.”

Kleeman and Yamada-Rice also note that children appeared uncomfortable in virtual spaces where there was no ground, or when they could not see their feet.

“You go into Google Earth, and you’re sort of just floating in space,” says Yamada-Rice, describing what some students felt. “And they are like, ‘Why am I here? And why haven’t I been given a platform to stand on so I don’t feel like I am going to fall down?’ That, not understanding where you are grounded, they didn’t like that very much.”

Despite these incidents, these are health and safety concerns that manufacturers can fix, she believes. For starters, they can design features that lock children out of the VR experience after 15 minutes, so they take a break. She is optimistic that these lessons can help VR developers create content more suitable for children.

The research group notes that further research is needed for to learn exactly how long youth with pre-existing health issues should engage with VR tools. Yamada-Rice worries for children using the tools at home, but she doesn’t suspect that this will be a big problem for educators whose students will be on headsets for short periods of time.

For teachers adopting VR, Yamada-Rice recommends that they make sure the tools used in classrooms are calibrated for young people. She also notes that it is important to create optimal spaces in the classroom where children cannot run into dangerous objects. Hosting media literacy discussions around VR content, experiences, and how the systems work is another way educators can reduce health risks.

“Those are simple things teachers can do to allow children to understand how VR works,” says Yamada-Rice. “It also gets them thinking about the quality of content themselves. Then they can say, ‘this is good’ and ‘that is not good’ and why so that they are not just passive consumers.” 

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What can we learn about the future of education from hip-hop, yoga and fidget spinners?

That’s not a joke or a trick question. They’re among the sessions at this year’s South by Southwest education (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, from March 5-8. And according to their program descriptions, those are among the tools and tactics used by educators to help students manage stress and anxiety, and get into their “flow” state.

Strange? Perhaps. Remember, this is a city that prides itself on being “weird.”

Yet what may seem peculiar today may well become popular and mainstream tomorrow. And to get a sense of what’s trendy in the education scene, data from SXSWedu’s Panelpicker, a process where anyone can submit topics for the conference program, offers a bird’s-eye glimpse of the issues and practices that administrators, teachers, researchers and industry leaders want to talk about.

For this year’s conference, 1,445 session proposals were submitted from organizers across the U.S. (47 states including the District of Columbia). Roughly 400 sessions, covering pre-school to professional learning, make it onto the final schedule, as determined by a multi-step process involving conference organizers, an advisory board and public votes.

SXSWedu has a growing global footprint as well, with 105 proposals coming from non-U.S. organizers in 34 different countries.

When speakers propose a session for the Panelpicker, they must also select a corresponding track, or overarching topic that it slots into. The five most popular session proposal tracks at this year’s conference, in order of frequency, are: instruction, implementation, leadership, equity and employability. Altogether these five tracks make up more than half of all the proposals submitted this year. There are 17 tracks in total.

See breakdown of session tracks here.

These tracks are not consistent from year to year, and conference organizers add, combine or remove them based on “evolutions in the conversations that people in this space are having,” says Greg Rosenbaum, the general manager of SXSWedu.

That the instruction and implementation tracks top the chart is hardly surprising, as the sessions focus on the application of tools (like Google), ideas (design learning) and frameworks (competency-based education) into the classroom—topics that have dominated the general edtech conversation for a while .

What was more surprising, says Rosenbaum, was the emergence of employability as a topic of interest. Across all the session proposals, the phrase “skills gap” appeared 246 times. Another 225 had the words “hiring practices.” Their popularity reflects a growing desire for higher-ed institutions to better prepare their students for the workforce—and, also, for companies to provide continuing education opportunities for their employees.

As a track, equity saw the biggest year-over-year increase in terms of the sessions submitted, from 97 proposals in 2017 to 150 this year. Many of the these talks focus on supporting diverse and underrepresented populations—from preparing men of color for the teaching profession, to engaging with immigrant families and creating inclusive spaces for youth with disabilities and emotional needs.

In addition, submissions for the business, language learning, and VR/AR tracks all saw at least a 40 percent boost from last year.

Also on the upswing: social-emotional learning (SEL), which covers topics including mindfulness, emotion and empathy. Since SEL was first introduced as a distinct track for the 2015 conference, there’s been nearly a three-fold increase in the number of sessions proposed on this topic.

Those looking for the unconventional and under-covered topics may want to take a peek at the less popular tracks. The aforementioned fidget spinner talk is part of the “cognitive process” track that explores the science behind how people learn. The hip-hop and yoga session can be found on the “informal learning” track that house other sessions, including an environmental learning project based in a trash dumpsterand a workshop on whether the Dungeons and Dragons can “save the world.” (Pub trivia fact: EdSurge, much like the TV show Stranger Things, traces its origins to that game.)

First held in 2011 with 800 attendees gathered in one hotel, SXSWedu has since grown to become one of the most popular stops on the U.S. education technology conference circuit. Since then the conference has spread across town, taking over the downtown convention center and even the local movie theater for film screenings of education-themed movies. Last year’s gathering drew more than 7,800 registered attendees.

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Over the course of my career, I’ve had some years where my students’ standardized test scores were on the rise, and other years where they stagnated. Rarely did these scores correlate to the amount of growth each learner had experienced during our time working together.

One thing I know to be true is that little things matter a lot when it comes to recognizing student growth. 

It matters when a student with trust issues lets you in and and opens up emotionally, or when a student starts showing up to class and gains enough confidence to start setting goals and advocating for himself. It counts when an essay expands from one unclear sentence to three paragraphs of of compelling narrative, even if three paragraphs doesn’t cut it on the rubric.

While educators are engaged in long-winded conversations about how these tests don’t accurately reflect student success, kids are losing out every day. Some of the progress they are making is overlooked because it doesn’t fit into the box that has been designed for us. We need less empty rhetoric and more actionable steps and support to make change.

So what can growth look like for a student who isn’t having success on traditional measures? Like most things in education, it’s different for every learner, which makes it complex to capture on a case-by-case basis, let alone at scale. But each day my desire to find a way to recognize and celebrate all of the ways my students are growing feels more urgent.

If I don’t show my students how much I value their dedication to bettering themselves, then I’m not the teacher they need.

Take Junior for example (name has been changed), who I taught for 11th and 12th grade literature. To put it bluntly, he was on a pretty self-destructive path when we first met. It was January 2017 and he had come to McClarin Success Academy after failing multiple classes repeatedly at his previous school. He was supposed to graduate that May, but was expelled for disciplinary reasons a few months after starting with us. Junior was allowed to re-enroll in the fall and finish his credits.

His scores on the Georgia Milestones, our state standardized assessment system, haven’t improved much from one semester to the next, but he has made some pretty radical changes and today, he is finally on track to graduate in May 2018. Was he ultimately successful? It depends how you measure success.

Emotional Readiness

Our first semester together was hard for both of us. We often butted heads and disagreed on almost everything. I tried desperately to motivate him to do his classwork but he refused and always had an excuse: he was tired, his computer wasn’t working or he just wasn’t in the mood.

We had a lot of conversations in the hallway, which is about as private as it gets in a public high school, but none of our chats led him to put his best foot forward. Junior began warning me: “You don’t know who you’re messing with.” I always tried to get in the last word, which in hindsight, I’m certain was a mistake. Then we’d return to the classroom and he would check out again. This became a predictable cycle until one day he just stopped coming to school. That’s when I found out he had gotten into some trouble and had been expelled.

It’s hard for me to admit, but at the time I thought, “Good, if he isn’t here I can focus my energy elsewhere.”

Yet, I spent a lot of time thinking about Junior. Where was he? Was he okay? Could I have done anything differently to make him show up?

Spring ended and one morning at the start of fall, I walked into class to find Junior sitting in his chair. He had returned and this time things were different.

He overheard some students talking about my background as a professional fighter, and he made it a point to show me a video of him lifting weights. Suddenly we shared common ground. I told him weight training could be a positive outlet and that sparked some enthusiasm. He seemed genuinely grateful to have an advocate when he thought all bridges had been burned.

He asked me if I thought he could have a possible future as a firefighter. It was the first time I had seen him dream. I told him that was very much in reach.

It wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. There were moments of confrontation. At times, I questioned his commitment and wondered whether our relationship was falling into old patterns and would become a repeat of the prior year, but there was a pivotal moment when he came into school and did something he never had done before. He looked me straight in the eye and apologized for his behavior. “I was wrong. I just want to get back on track and graduate from high school.”

This is where we needed to be to get beyond foundational relationship-building to make academic progress. Junior needed to want to be there, and he had some emotional hurdles to jump over before he could return to school ready to learn and willing to vocalize it.

Changing Course

Emotional readiness was key for Junior, but that wasn’t his only challenge. His low level of engagement stemmed from his struggle with attention and his lack of confidence.

Junior was constantly distracted by his phone, by other students in the class or with his home life. His insecurities led him to believe that he couldn’t do his work well. If I didn’t build up his sense of self-worth so he could communicate his needs and advocate for himself, we were never going to get anywhere.

The second time around, I knew I needed to change my priorities.

We had a conference at the beginning of the semester to develop a shared set of expectations and for Junior to make some choices about what he wanted to learn and how to learn it.

Junior had a history of shutting down when overwhelmed, so I listened to him closely in an effort to figure out how to redesign the course so he could visualize the outcome, rather than just see an endless supply of assignments to complete. 

I wanted to empower him to find his voice, so we came to the decision together to strip away the traditional in-class readings and extended response questions. The curriculum was filled with texts that Junior couldn’t connect to and the writing prompts asked him to provide detailed evidence from those texts, which he was unable to do at the time. He needed meaningful readings and writing prompts that allowed him to use writing as a mechanism for self-expression.

I started pulling excerpts from texts that would resonate with Junior like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” so he could engage in a higher level of analysis, and we focused on basic writing skills through personal narrative until he felt confident enough to move on to other forms of writing.

Academic Effort

When Junior first came to McClarin, he would rarely submit more than a first sentence when asked to write an essay.

Writing sample from Junior, January 2017

It wasn’t due to a lack of intelligence or an inability to decode or comprehend texts. Just a few weeks before he took this diagnostic writing test, his Lexile score was assessed and his level was 1100 (the low end of high school equivalency). Junior wasn’t engaged and he didn’t believe he could write.

Since our conference, I had been redesigning his assignments. Building confidence was a priority so we sat and worked together often. We dove into essay writing, starting with personal narrative because it allowed him to tap into his own experience and free himself from the limits and expectations of some other forms of writing.

Daily he would ask me to look at his work, and I would provide him with feedback and encouragement. Even though his constant desire for feedback teetered on obsessive, I encouraged the behavior so he wouldn’t fall back into old habits. Balanced feedback motivated him and he started to put in more effort.

In November 2017, I gave Junior a stripped-down version of the writing diagnostic to practice with. I asked him to choose an important milestone in his life and write a narrative essay about it. Junior said he had none and that he had hit rock bottom, so that's what we wrote about.

Writing sample from Junior, November 2017

Was this essay going to get him a high score on the Georgia Milestones? Probably not. But look at it—I mean, really look at it. His effort was much higher, his voice and word choice had strengthened and his sentence flow and grammar had improved. Strip all of the writing skills away, and you can catch a glimpse of how he has grown as a person in his confidence, his ability to self-reflect on some of his flaws and his dedication to bettering himself as a human being.

Junior has completed all of his ELA coursework, and now he is focusing on math and science to complete his graduation requirements. He is scheduled to graduate in May, and we are planning to sit down with one of my firefighter friends before then so he can figure out his career options.

Junior’s road was never easy. Gauging his success using traditional measures would have crushed him completely, so I certainly don’t regret going to great depths to understand the root of his challenges so I could help him find his motivation. I only wish I didn’t need to go rogue and redesign curriculum under the radar. I hope that down the road there is a systemic shift towards capturing growth for students like Junior so that teachers like me feel supported and have the tools we need to help our students grow.

The student’s name was changed for this story.

Farhat Ahmad is an EdSurge columnist and a 9th and 10th grade World, Multi, and American Literature teacher at McClarin Success Academy in College Park, Georgia. 

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Higher education is joining the blockchain party, even if its entrance is, let’s say, incremental. On Tuesday, February 13 the #DLNchat community got together to discuss: What is Blockchain and How Can it Support Student Success? The questions that blockchain raises are large and widespread, and special guest Stephen diFilipo guided us through the potentials for higher education.

The chat started off by defining blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Etherium. Some kept their definitions simple, such as “a distributed database,” from Trish Briere. Others were a bit more whimsical. Bryan Fendley called blockchain “something we can’t ignore,” and Paul Wilson, a “daisy chain digitalized.” Taylor Kendal brought in the technology’s grand possibilities: “A digitized, decentralized, public ledger that represents the next phase of human potential.” Other guests shared resources to provide more thorough definitions of the technology. For folks who need an introduction to blockchain we recommend starting with the video in this EdSurge article from our blockchain meetup in Berkeley. For those who want to continue down the rabbit hole, check out this comprehensive list Bethany Bovard put together for #DLNchat.

So why do proponents think blockchain can improve higher education? Answers may vary, but the technology’s potential to verify student learning was the focus of Tuesday’s conversation. There was agreement that student learning credentials could be issued via “blocks,” which could be added to the immutable blockchain. Sharon Leu posited that could build their own credentials from verified blocks of competencies. When students can verify competencies across institutions or from other organizations, such as employers, then, as Alex Kluge articulated, “smaller, verifiable, units of accomplishment student learning becomes more portable, and likely more of a life long effort.” Not only that but, as Ed Garay tweeted, blockchain credentialing could lead to “empowering students to have both higher ed and informal entities tag onto their learning transcripts.”

Matt Meador and many others were excited by this idea of decentralizing the traditional owners of learning validation, that being higher education institutions themselves. But special guest Stephen diFilipo recommended, “If you want quicker adoption of digital credentials then focus on certificates and non-credit systems.” He also added, “I wonder if the constraints on an accredited institution will slow down adoption.” Clay Forsberg furthered the thought: “Simply by acknowledging these "outlying" types of learning vehicles - we give them credibility. And once they acquire credibility - they proliferate ... hopefully resulting in a more learned society.”

But who, exactly, will get to authenticate credentials in the future? And should the data be validated through a public or private system? Taylor Kendal believes, “Blockchains are evolving into niche, specific use-case tech. There will be a need for private and public.” Kelvin Bentley also had some ideas: “Definitely takes a "village" of sorts but one that regularly discusses the competencies and needs to include industry. This work will be especially important for career pathways that are not overseen nationally by workforce groups.”

Student success then might look very different using a system like blockchain. As Bethany Bovard articulated, “We currently emphasize continual enrollment in one institution as a measure of "success,” and that we need to think about “how that might change with ability to track various learning -not just at the one university.” Trish Briere echoed this sentiment, “Student experience could become much more personalized. Measures of success may need to look differently.”

Also discussed was the technology’s ability to track sharing, which some guests said could build trust for faculty to share more intellectual property as open educational resources.

With so much potential, special guest Stephen diFilipo reminded us to ask, “What is being disrupted? Ownership of learner data/records? Speed of delivery of learning outcomes? Institutions?” Perhaps all of the above, but as Kelvin Bentley said, “I would hope that blockchain will create decentralization that matters. Our blackbox model for learning is not helpful to students in the long run. We need to help learners, faculty, administration, staff have better insight into the learning process.”

Join the Digital Learning Network to stay up to date on all events and the latest news for highered digital learning leaders! At our next #DLNchat, we’ll discuss What is the Role of Libraries in Digital Learning Innovation? with special guest Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian for Research & Instructional Services at Temple University's Paley Library. Add it your Google calendar forTuesday, February 27 at 1pm PT/ 4pm ET#DLNchat is co-hosted by the Online Learning ConsortiumWCET and Tyton Partners.

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On Wednesday a bankruptcy court approved the sale of the New Media Consortium's assets to Educause, just 2 months after NMC abruptly ceased operations due to financial troubles that remain largely mysterious.

Educause, one of the largest associations in education technology, had long served as a partner in creating one of NMC’s popular Horizon Reports on edtech trends. Educause also recently hired Eden Dahlstrom, who had been executive director of the NMC until it shut down in December, to be its director of academic community programs.

The pricetag for NMC’s assets was $55,000, and in physical terms Educause isn’t getting much. The New Media Consortium had no office, and its employees all worked from home. The group’s physical holdings are housed in two storage units in Austin “that have various electronics, office equipment, supplies and business records,” says Gardner Campbell, who former chair of the board of trustees for the organization and has been helping to wind it down. The assets also include software that had been built to organize the group's research and produce its publications, including the popular Horizon Reports. “I went in and visually inspected what was there in those units, and it was like looking into an archive in some respects.”

Yet Campbell and leaders of Educause described the sale as not about concrete items, but as a commitment to the community that had worked with NMC, which started in 1994.

“Given our shared interest in this work and our respect for the NMC community, we offered to purchase NMC assets,” said Educause’s president and CEO, John O’Brien, in a statement.

Educause declined to answer questions about its plans for those assets. In O’Brien’s statement Wednesday, he said: “We intend to connect and consult with community leaders as we determine the next steps forward—and to do so with the care and thoughtfulness that this community has come to expect.”

In an earlier blog post, O’Brien said the group remained committed to publishing the 2018 Horizon Report for higher education. Most of the research for the report, which involved months of work by staff and by volunteer advisory board members, has already been completed, and was originally scheduled to be released next month. Because the report involves predicting the future, unless it is published soon those efforts may go to waste.

The New Media Consortium also held an annual conference each summer, usually drawing 200 to 300 people. It is not clear whether Educause, which offers similar conferences of its own through its Educause Learning Initiative, will continue that.

“I think it’s good news,” said Bryan Alexander, an edtech consultant who has long served on the advisory board of the Horizon Report, of the sale to Educause. “I’m glad that somebody’s picking it up, and I’m glad that it’s Educause. They have resources, and they have a big community.”

While the Horizon Report was the group’s best-known project, some criticized it as simply amplifying hype. “It’s strongly influenced by the popular press and marketing campaigns,” wrote Stephen Downes, a popular edtech blogger, in a 2015 blog post. “It’s not based on a deep knowledge [of] significant technology developments, but rather focuses on surface-level chatter and opinion.”

Alexander said he and others involved in the Horizon Report had taken such critiques to heart and continually worked to improve the process. “Could it be more rigorous, absolutely,” he said. But he defended the effort as involving “detailed research.”

Campbell said that improving the Horizon Reports was in the group’s strategic plan. “We were on track to be able to address those criticisms in a very positive way,” he says.

The sale to Educause punctuates the end of a group that just a few months ago seemed full of plans for the future. When it shut down in December, the group blamed “errors and omissions by its former Controller and Chief Financial Officer” that led to it become insolvent.

NMC’s leaders have still declined to elaborate, and even those like Alexander, who had worked closely with the organization for years, still don’t know how what happened. “It’s really mysterious and cloudy,” he said.

Disclosure: New Media Consortium has been a partner in EdSurge’s DLNChats on Twitter.

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My sixth graders entered the room, found their seats and in typical fashion, I asked them to take out their homework—but it wasn’t a typical day. It was my first experiment flipping our classroom. As the groans from my students got louder, I knew something wasn’t right. I panicked.

"Don't let your fear of what could happen make nothing happen."

Doe Zantamata

Hands immediately went up and my students began to get defensive. Some said the video was never posted, others told me the link didn’t work but I had checked that link multiple times. The period couldn’t end fast enough. I was tense and ready to throw in the towel.

For the past 13 years, I have been a social studies teacher at the middle school level. I’ve taught in a few districts with unique missions and priorities, but one thing that has remained constant is the fact that to make sure that learning remains engaging and relevant for the modern learner, risk-taking in the classroom is a necessity.

To build a classroom culture where risk-taking is encouraged for students, a teacher also needs to be willing to try new things. By taking risks, and in some cases even failing in front of our students, we demonstrate that not everything works as planned and prove that we can rebound from any situation.

Many of my students don’t have this mindset. Many believe they need to succeed immediately and that any failure they encounter will be devastating. This viewpoint can be debilitating for a learner.

I’ve always enjoyed bringing new techniques, methodologies and tools into the classroom, but by nature I am risk-averse, so my excitement is typically followed by a slew of big fears. Sometimes these fears get the best of me, but I’m working on finding a balance between my love and fear of taking risks in the classroom.

My First Big Risk: Flipping the Script

When I became a teacher, I promised myself that I wouldn’t teach from the textbook and bore my students with presentations. Unfortunately, for the first five years of my career, that’s exactly what I did.

My classroom was set up with desks in rows and my lessons included lectures with PowerPoint presentations, worksheets and textbook work. In the summer of 2010, I recognized that my teaching needed to change in a big way. My lessons were stale, my students were disengaged and I was bored.

With a newfound passion for my career, I was ready to try something new. After months of research, I decided to bring flipped learning into my classroom. While this was a relatively young idea for the field, it felt like the solution to many of my problems. I spent the next five years learning everything I could about flipped learning, piloting new edtech tools and unlearning many of the traditional teaching practices I was taught as I pursued my teaching degree.

The more I learned about flipping my classroom, the more fears that developed. How would I survive without the comfort of my PowerPoint presentations? How would classroom management change if I relinquished control over to my students?

As I experimented with this approach, I found my bearings. Though there were moments I wished I had my slides, my students and I always worked together to figure out where to go next. While there were a few occasions when chaos broke out in the beginning as students navigated the transition, they only lasted minutes and we could always pull it together shortly after.

It took time to tweak the model to get the right balance of freedom and structure, but as we iterated, I found that stepping away from the traditional lecture model and into flipped learning helped me raise student engagement and that was powerful.

Flipped learning was my first foray into risk-taking, but as the world of teaching and learning continues to grow and change, and I’m committed to consistently morphing my practices in response.

The thing about risk-taking is that it doesn’t get easier with practice. After all of my years in the classroom, I know what to expect when I come in each morning, but each year brings a new group of learners and sometimes a different grade level or classroom. These changes, and the pressure I put on myself to consistently be reshaping my practices to give my students what they need is anxiety-provoking. But I can’t sit back and repeat the same stale lessons year after year because it’s tradition. My students deserve more.

Even though I haven’t found some magic remedy to make my fears slip away, I have taken some actions to build up my confidence so I can continue to push the envelope in my classroom.

Name Your Fears and Gain Perspective

Low engagement, losing control of the class, students not buying into my lesson hooks, reactions from stakeholders and decreased test scores are just a few of the fears that have plagued me over the years. Saying them out loud has helped me and putting them down on paper feels even better.

Talking about them can help too. I’ve had conversations with colleagues and friends to better define my fears, flesh them out and even consider worst-case scenarios. But the most powerful step I’ve taken is to consider best-case scenarios.

Instead of asking myself “what will happen if it doesn’t work?” I’ve started to reframe the question to “what can happen if it does work?” In most cases, the hope of what can happen is much more enticing than the fear of what might not.

Add “Considerations” to Your Lesson Plans

A very tactical action I took to overcome my fears is carving out time to consider what challenges could arise when trying new things, and coming up with a plan for how to resolve them so I’m not handling everything on the fly. Sometimes I even add them to my lesson plans. By making small notes and finding a few backup activities just in case things start to unravel, I’m more prepared and confident.

Take conflict resolution for example. In my classroom, we do a lot of partner and group work, so I often need to plan ahead for possible challenges during periods of collaboration. As a middle school teacher, my students need to learn conflict resolution tactics, so my solutions usually entail letting the students problem-solve together.

Each time I plan a lesson that has group work, I make a mental (or written) note reminding myself to breathe, step back and not rush to fix every situation. When frustrating or unplanned for situations occur, my students are watching me and waiting for a reaction and the best thing I can do is to stand back, hold my ground and give them space and time to solve their problems so they can become better at communicating with each other.

Celebrate Victories Big and Small

The hardest thing about commiting to innovation is that there isn’t really an end to it.

Most recently, I have become fascinated with increasing student choice in my classroom to empower students to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. I’m already convinced that choice is a good thing, so, what am I fearful of? I’m anxious about the increased workload of creating additional choices, nervous that my students might make choices that don’t push them to grow and worried that lessons will take longer.

Although I have the passion and drive to continuously innovate, my fears always come back, so I need to constantly reflect on victories big and small that occur in my classroom each day and remember that many of them stem from taking a chance and not knowing what the outcome would be. 

AJ Bianco is a middle school social studies teacher at Harrington Park School District in Harrington Park, New Jersey.

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In a strong job market that values both experience and educational credentials, interest is growing in experiential learning models that fuse traditional academic study with real-world projects and work experiences.

In K-12, that has meant increasing popularity for project-based learning, or PBL, accelerated by various innovation initiatives, grants and start-ups. And beyond project-based instructional efforts, a growing number of K-12 educators and schools are now focused on broader notions of experiential learning that include collaboration with outside employers and industry partners. As these approaches continue to take hold, we will need a new array of partnerships, policies and networks to scale these models and to fulfill their promise.

But as experiential models gain momentum in K-12 education, what happens when these graduates who have been working with employers and immersed in authentic, real-world experiences move on to encounter the traditional, didactically oriented college and university system?

Corey Mohn, executive director of the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a high school-level experiential learning program in the Kansas City metro area, refers to this scenario as “whiplash”–as students have already “fast-forwarded past high school, past college and into their first career.” He notes that it might be solved over time by continuing to send students who are experienced, curious self-advocates into the higher-education system. Similarly, Cynthia Burt, a humanities teacher at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington, says that her high school students are taking the perspective that the problems and challenges they’d like to address may take many years–or a lifetime and career–to solve, and that colleges will increasingly need to provide for the continuation of these problem solving efforts.

There’s a need for more coordination between K-12 and higher ed to bring a more holistic approach to experiential learning.

At Northeastern University last summer, we launched the Network of Experiential Learning Teachers (NeXT), in an effort to harness what we know about experiential learning and broaden its impact across the K-12 and higher education systems. NeXT’s inaugural event convened 75 K-12 educators and administrators from schools and districts representing 35,000 students across North America–with the goal of developing an international incubator in innovative K-12 experiential learning practices, supporting the development and growth of the model at schools and creating a space to advance new models.

One participant was Mohn of Blue Valley Schools. Started in 2009, the experiential program at Blue Valley, known as CAPS, is a complement to traditional high school education that immerses students in professional culture, providing opportunities to solve real-world problems and explore professional interests in partnership with actual employers–for example, serving as consultants to local businesses and nonprofits. Its success has led to the creation of an emerging national network of CAPS programs in other school districts. According to Mohn, “Students relate content knowledge to actual work opportunities and professional skills–the ones employers tell us are so important in entry-level employees: communication skills, team dynamics, project management.”

Burt, of Tesla STEM High School, was also a NeXT participant. Burt’s students have worked on projects that integrate the National Academy of Engineering’s “grand challenges” into their curriculum, across areas such as design, physics and biomedical engineering–including projects and internships in partnership with local companies. Importantly, despite the school’s explicit focus on STEM, real-world projects also provide an opportunity to bring the humanities to life. “The students have this incredible passion for English and humanities–to vocalize, to write, to be able to discuss ideas, which brings purpose back to STEM,” says Burt. “They want to make an impact on humanity, very often doing it out of concern for others, rather than just excelling in STEM because that’s where all the careers are right now.”

Northeastern is certainly not the only college engaged in experiential learning. A majority of U.S. college students participate in an at least one internship prior to graduation–and employers are hiring greater numbers of interns and co-op students. In the professional- education market, capstone projects that demonstrate that learners can apply the knowledge they’ve gained through online study are becoming a common element of many microcredential programs. And, the current federal push placing apprenticeships at the center of education and workforce policy is shining a spotlight on various other forms of “earn- and- learn” models.

But to truly scale experiential learning, one of the most fundamental requirements is greater awareness among employers–and closer collaboration between employers and schools. Many major employers have an interest in building their “employer brand” among students, and many are also focused on “early talent” recruiting strategies–efforts that could extend into high school, as various STEM and corporate philanthropy initiatives often do, for example.

Educators, school leaders and policymakers also need to be more aware of experiential learning’s variety of forms, its outcomes and the diverse settings in which it can apply. It is especially important that employer-aligned, hands-on learning is not stigmatized or automatically equated with “vocational” education in a political environment that is prioritizing the trades and is often skeptical of college. Experiential learning is at home and especially powerful in K-12 college-preparatory curriculum, or integrated into a traditional liberal arts education. Learning by doing may even be the key to developing the curiosity, understanding and intangibles that will help students and professionals thrive in the era of smart machines.

Experiential learning’s growth also presents a variety of opportunities for educational technology providers, given the rise of virtual projects; the need to match and connect students and employers; and the necessity to document and share information and artifacts related to competencies, experiences, and project outcomes. Like college transcripts, high school transcripts will also need to evolve to become more digitized and more portfolio-oriented—to account for the resume-worthy experiences that growing numbers of students are completing. Leaders of CAPS programs have found that such experiences and portfolios make their students stand-outs in the college admissions process.

The notion of “lifelong learning”–whose time has arrived in today’s economy–is inherently experiential. Rather than thinking about experiential learning predominantly as a “college to career” model, it is time to consider it across educational sectors and life stages, and develop the types of partnerships, foundational research and experiments, and cultural shifts that will be required to understand how it works, how to do it best, and how to scale it, from K-to-grey.

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“What state is south of Washington?” I asked the fifth grader beside me. His class was playing an online puzzle game and attempting to fit the U.S. states together. The student just shrugged. Another selected the piece for Maine without knowing where to place it on the map. When I hinted that Maine was in the Northeast, she moved the piece to the Midwest.

These observations at a school in southeastern Washington reminded me of my own experience teaching fourth and fifth graders in Arizona. My students memorized state names and capitals, but could not locate them on a map. Many were unaware of the differences between a state, a country, and a continent. And it's not only kids who lack geoliteracy—adults often have limited knowledge as well. Too many of the pre-service teachers who I teach today also found this puzzle to be a challenge.

With GPS in our cars and Google Map on our phones, we no longer navigate for ourselves. While these tools often (but not always) save us from getting lost, they do little to encourage us to learn our way around the city, the country or the world. What happens when our citizens, or worse, our leaders, lack this fundamental understanding? During the 2016 presidential debates, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson asked, “What is Aleppo?” Addressing African leaders at the U.N. last fall, President Trump referred to the non-existent country of “Nambia” twice. If that's acceptable, why should 5th graders care?

Connecting the Dots

Geoliteracy is more than pinpointing locations on a globe. It is the ability to connect them with wider issues. How can we gauge global climate change without a mental map of normal temperatures? Or assess human encroachment on animal habitats without knowing their environmental range? How can we understand the plight of immigrants or refugees without understanding the places from which they came? In a politicized era of “alternative facts,” children (and adults) need spatial reasoning skills more than ever to critically analyze the news and their personal world.

A growing concern for these issues inspired Fred Newcomer, CEO of SpherAware, to develop a program that turns online web maps into interactive puzzles. It's called PuzzleMap. This software engineer is also my father. As a kid, my dad’s passion for geography and the earth’s beauty led to memorable camping trips, star-gazing sessions and important learning opportunities like reading a road map during car trips. Now, as a teacher-educator and researcher, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to partner with him to take his passion into the K-12 classroom.

This past fall, my father and I put PuzzleMap to the test in three different classrooms in the Tri-Cities area in southeastern Washington. Together with my Washington State University colleague, Jonah Firestone, we created a special puzzle of the U.S. states tailored to a fifth-grade social studies curriculum. We used 3 regional variations as well as the entire puzzle to encourage and support students during their regular social studies unit on the geography of America.

We hoped the tool would put students in charge of their learning. When a puzzle is first loaded, the subject area is completely obscured so that no identifiers or internal details are visible. The pieces are scattered randomly across the screen and must be moved and rotated into their correct location. An interactive clue window, appearing each time a piece is selected, provides a rich informational context.

These text and image clues can also link to external resources, zoom to a specific location or even play sounds. As each piece is successfully placed, the background map is magically revealed. In addition, each state in our USA puzzle remains color-coded according to its average annual precipitation, resulting in an interactive choropleth and another teaching opportunity.

To measure PuzzleMap's effectiveness, we created a pre- and post-multiple-choice assessment of our clues about the climate, landscape, economy and people of America. The questions reflected three categories: Conceptual (state-specific attributes), topological (states’ location and relationship to each other) and spatial (involving visual recognition of state shapes). The assessment also encouraged deductive reasoning. For example, "A Southwestern tribe called The Hopi live in which of the following states?" is easy to answer once a student determines that only one answer choice is in the Southwest.

We found that PuzzleMap has great potential for improving geoliteracy. Students who used it in conjunction with their social studies curriculum, or as a stand-alone resource, showed statistically significant growth, with test averages increasing by 12 and 8.4 percent, respectively. There was also significant correlation between puzzle completion proficiency and post-assessment scores. The more proficient students became at manipulating the pieces, the better they did on the post-assessment.

As tomorrow’s decision-makers, our children must be able to think critically about our interconnected world and see how actions in one place have profound consequences elsewhere. These skills are important for being successful in school and for becoming responsible global citizens. Our planet’s future rests in our children’s hands. They need the knowledge, opportunity and best tools we can provide to prepare them for the task at hand.

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Tutoring is big business. Wealthy families fork out more than $1,000 an hour for top teachers. The industry has spawned celebrity millionaires in South Korea. One market analyst projects the global market for private tutoring will hit $227 billion by 2022.

In the heartland of America, one company is raising big bucks in a bid to capture this lucrative market. This week, Varsity Tutors raised $50 million in a Series C round led by Learn Capital, an education-focused venture firm. Other investors include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and existing backer Technology Crossover Ventures.

This latest cash infusion matches the St. Louis-based company’s $50 million Series B round, which closed in November 2015. Across its three raises, Varsity Tutors has raised $107 million.

Already boasting 4,000 tutors covering 1,000 subjects, the company is on the hunt for more teachers. Among the goals of the fundraise is to add more topics and experts available for its instant tutoring mobile app, which promises to match a learner with an expert within 15 seconds. Currently this feature is available for less than 20 percent of the subjects, but providing “instant liquidity” is a priority, shares Chuck Cohn, CEO of Varsity Tutors, in an interview.

That feature is a far evolution from the company’s humble beginnings in Washington University, where Cohn started the business as a student in 2007. At the time, Varsity Tutors offered an online directory where people could book local tutors for in-person sessions. After graduation, he continued running the company as a side project while working in investment banking as his day job. In 2011, he returned to Varsity Tutors on a full-time basis. At that time it was a small operation with a staff of 10, but nonetheless profitable, according to Cohn.

The business began shifting online in 2013, he says, as video chat functionalities on Chrome and Firefox browsers improved. The following year, the team raised its first $7 million of outside capital to scale its business across the web.

Today, 60 percent of Varsity Tutors’ business is online—up from roughly 20 percent just a couple years ago, Cohn claims. Across its on-site and online offerings, the company claims it has served more than 100,000 cumulative students since its founding.

That figure may seem like a trivial by Silicon Valley’s standards, where user numbers are generally measured by the millions. But all of these students are paying users, reminds Cohn. Students (or their parents) pay by the hour, with packages that cost in the range of $60 to $70 per hour. (The hourly rate is lower if the user purchases more hours.)

To date, Cohn says the company has facilitated about 3 million hours of tutoring, which would roughly translate to about $200 million in revenue across the company’s entire history. He declined (expectedly) to share details about the company’s current revenues, other to say that it is currently not cashflow positive.

Unlike their South Korean counterparts, it’s unlikely that Varsity Tutors’ teachers will be millionaires. The company only offers one-on-one sessions, and not classes where multiple students might pay. Cohn deflected questions on how much tutors get paid, only sharing that the rate depends on geography and the “supply and demand for the specific subject.” But tutors we spoke with suggest the range is somewhere between $15 to $25 per hour.

Lauren Heymann, who tutors online through the company, gets paid $15 per hour. Her students hail from across the country, and even as far away as Saudi Arabia and South Africa. She says the online scheduling system offers her flexibility as she does 15 to 20 hours of tutoring a week. “The range of students who you can reach is so much larger than if you’re doing local tutoring,” she tells EdSurge.

To vet its tutors (who work as independent contractors), the company conducts a video interview to check on a prospect’s communication skills, and reviews grades, transcripts and relevant test scores. There’s also a subject diagnostic test and a background check.

Today, the company has grown to just under 500 staff employees across offices in four cities. Cohn says he plans to add more people across product, engineering, sales and customer support roles.

Furthermore, Varsity Tutors aims to expand its footprint beyond the U.S., where most of its current users are based. Last spring, it acquired First Tutors, a U.K.-based tutoring marketplace that claims to have 150,000 tutors serving the Australian, Canadian, European and South African markets. For now, First Tutors facilitates offline, in-person tutoring sessions “but we think we have an opportunity to take our online model and replicate it,” says Cohn.

Varsity Tutors is not the only one chasing the tutoring market, which is saturated with traditional, brick-and-mortar competitors like Kumon and Sylvan Learning and online upstarts like Chegg and Wyzant. A number of Chinese online tutoring companies have recently raised gargantuan venture funding rounds, including VIPKID ($200 million in 2017), Zhangmen ($120 million this January) and DadaABC ($100 million last month).

For now Varsity Tutors will focus on English-speaking learners. Cohn says “eventually we would like to” branch out into other languages and markets, but that’s not on the roadmap for now.

“Our board has told us we don’t get any extra credit for doing the hardest stuff first. We might as well start with the easy stuff,” he quips.

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Microsoft has acquired what it calls an “exclusive licensing” to the technology used in Chalkup, a collaboration platform where teachers can organize, annotate, share and grade digital coursework with students.

The deal has all the trappings of a company acquisition, even if that’s not how Microsoft chooses to describe it. A company spokesperson confirmed that there was money exchanged between the two parties, although she declined to disclose how much. Chalkup’s co-founder and CEO, Justin Chando, will have a new job at Microsoft. And furthermore, Chalkup will cease operations this summer.

Founded in 2013, Chalkup claims users in 1 in 5 high schools, and 1 in 3 universities, in the United States. The product aims to help improve the assignment workflow in the classroom, by allowing students to ask questions, leave comments and submit digital assignments. Teachers can also grade and leave feedback on coursework, and send messages to the class.

In an interview with EdSurge, Chando said his company had been engaged in conversations with several education companies and received multiple acquisition offers. Early this year, he decided to go with Microsoft.

He says Microsoft Teams for education is aligned with Chalkup’s original vision as a “class collaboration solution that was built on the idea that classes need to discuss and work together to get their questions answered and share more collaboratively.”

At Microsoft, Chando will be a product manager on its education team, focusing on helping Chalkup’s existing users migrate to Microsoft Teams, a group chat software. Some of Chalkup’s features, including its rubrics system for grading, will be added to Microsoft Teams, according to a blog post from Microsoft.

Rolling these functionalities into Microsoft Teams will mean that Chalkup will cease to operate as its own product on June 30, 2018. Current users are being nudged to transition to using Microsoft Teams, which is part of the company’s Office 365 for Education product suite.

Chalkup also currently has an integration with Google Drive that allows users to manage their files on Google’s platform. One signal from its impending shutdown is that Microsoft is trying to woo users who currently use the search giant’s tools. The two companies compete—rather openly and directly—in the education market on both the hardware and software fronts.

But rest assured, says the Redmond, Wa.-based company: Microsoft Teams already integrates with Google Drive to allow users to share Google files on the platform.

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