Editor’s Picks 2015, No. six: Where blended meets personalized learning—and gets results

A coordinated, intentional program of blended learning is changing teaching and learning in the Nation’s capital.

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). Blended and personalized learning were two topics on the rise this year. In D.C., the focus is mostly on blended instruction, but they’re not just sticking kids behind computers. The goal is to produce deeper learning.

dc-blendedFor the past two years, the Washington, D.C. Public School District (DCPS) has earned a sort of celebrity status with lawmakers, superintendents, and think tank heads filing in to see what, and especially how, students are learning. They have a good reason to visit. In a district that has been plagued with low test scores and student performance, several D.C. schools have seen student proficiency levels jump in math and reading in recent years.

Part of their success has hinged on the way teachers are using blended learning in the classroom.

“Blended learning definitely has been an important factor in the changes we’ve seen in our students, our teachers, and in our schools,” says David Rose, deputy chief in the district’s Dept. of Educational Technology and Library Programs.

In its simplest form, blended learning programs combine face-to-face instruction with personalized online learning using adaptive courseware that gives students some control over their pace and content of instruction.

D.C.’s blended learning approach grew out of a district-wide push designed to ratchet up student performance and provide a centralized way to track data from the success of some enterprising schools. That was Spring 2012.

Months of research, careful introspection, and brainstorming led to a reimagined curriculum and classroom structure, with blended learning as a central component. Administrators saw blended learning as a way to provide more personalized, self-directed learning that they could focus on the high-level cognitive skills that students need to succeed in college and beyond.

“We’re not a one-to-one district,” says Rose. “We started with academic goals and found the technology to help put those goals in place and to help teachers better reach their students.”

How it works
When done right, blended learning tailors education to each student’s needs by offering high-quality teaching with cutting-edge online learning programs. The district is using two programs, ST-Math and First in Math, for math instruction, and myON and Lexia Learning for English Language Arts and reading in most of its participating elementary schools.

“Blended learning frees up time for project-based learning, higher-order thinking teaching and learning, and Socratic discussions,” says Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. “Teacher time is now freed up to look at other aspects of teaching.”

Next page: Making personalized learning possible


Most Popular of 2015, No. six: 7 of Leslie Fisher’s favorite gadgets for 2015 and beyond

Futuristic drones, wearables, and augmented reality are cool tools to watch

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. If you’ve ever heard Leslie Fisher speak live — about gadgets or anything else — you might understand the runaway popularity of this article. Leslie casts a wide net and digs out some of the more incredible devices more likely than not to be released in the near future. I still want one of those 3D doodler pens…

Speaker and self-professed gadget geek Leslie Fisher took to ISTE 2015 to share her favorite futuristic tech tools at her session “Attack of the Gadgets,” where she previewed everything from drones that follow you to next-gen augmented reality tools to a gadget that really does attack you. From the just-released to the possible pipe dream, here’s a sampling of the future of tech.

Lily. Your own personal paparazzi drone flies and follows you (or, rather, the tracking device you wear like a watch) for up to 20 minutes as it snaps photos and records video from way up high. It’s also waterproof, captures sound, and shoots in HD.
Release: February 2016; $500

Pavlok. Fisher describes this bracelet that uses light electric shocks to help wearers reach goals and break bad habits as “a personal coach for your wrist — a personal coach who is basically a low-grade masochist.” Users who don’t meet their goals risk getting zapped, having shaming Facebook posts pushed to their feed, and even losing money (to other users who are meeting their goals, naturally). According to a video on its website, the bracelet bullied one user into abstaining from all refined sugar (which admittedly was her goal) in a single day. Did somebody say stocking stuffer?
Release: Pre-order; $200

QBall. Basically a dodgeball with a built-in microphone, this soft, bouceable sphere can be linked into any sound system and tossed around a classroom or gym for audience participation. Certainly gives new meaning to a mic drop.
Release: Pre-order

Next page: Augmented reality, iPad tools, & more


Most Popular of 2015, No. seven: 6 reasons why Chromebooks are the device of the moment

What makes Chromebooks popular, and will they outlast their buzz?

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. Truthfully, I almost didn’t put this piece together following my appearance on Education Talk Radio in Nov. I wasn’t sure that there was an appetite for another article on Chromebooks trends (boy was I wrong). But as I re-listened to the interview, I realized there were several assumptions challenged and some useful information shared about everyone’s favorite sub-$200 laptops. Besides, the complete interview is a good listen and well worth a plug.

google-devicesAs the familiar refrain goes, “It’s not about the device,” but even so schools need to choose one to advance their digital instruction goals. And by all accounts, Chromebooks are the device of the moment, with 2.5 million shipped to schools in the first half of this year alone. There’s no doubt they’re trendy, but is there any deeper reasons for the sales surge beyond appearance and affordability? Recently, I joined host Larry Jacobs and Google Certified Innovator and trainer Chris Scott for an episode of Education Talk Radio in which we talked through these issues at length and came up with a handful of reasons for the Chromebook’s trendsetting status. Here’s the CliffsNotes of that discussion, but be sure to check out the full conversation available online.

Google’s name has staying power. We’ve been Googling for more than a decade by this point, and with the near ubiquity of Google Apps for Education in the nation’s classrooms, educators and students feel comfortable with the Google ecosystem. Branding helps, but at the end of the day, educators do realize that Google is just the conduit for students to advance their learning, not the first and last steps.

Chromebooks have some surface-level advantages. First, they’re cheap, with models often starting around $200. And while the cheaper cost can mean lower quality, it also means cheap replacement parts, too. IT management is simple — and there are few horror stories equaling what schools went through with iPads. They’re easy to share among students, and at a time when online high-stakes testing is still very much a part of the conversation, Chromebooks have the all-important built-in keyboard. None of these things necessarily makes the Chromebook the ideal or superior device for education, but they certainly don’t hurt.

Next page: Why Chromebooks are the safe choice


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. seven: Flipped learning is changing the face of special ed

Flipped learning and one-to-one are a powerful combo for some populations

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). No longer a new concept, early flipped learning adoptees are now starting to transform the model to suit their needs and into something that can be useful for instructing a variety of student populations, including those students with special needs.

flipped-special-edAt E.L. Haynes High School in Washington, D.C., 44 percent of students are English language learners, have special needs, or both. Yet all of the students in this urban charter school’s first graduating class have been accepted into college, said Principal Caroline Hill—and she attributed this success to a personalized, self-paced approach made possible by technology.

E.L. Haynes has a one-to-one laptop program, and students also can bring their own devices to school. Using a flipped learning approach, teachers record their lessons and post them online, so students can watch the content over and over again until they understand—and class time is used to provide more personalized support.

If schools are to meet the learning needs of every student, including those with disabilities, then “we have to think differently about how we provide instruction,” Hill said.

Hill was speaking at a June 17 briefing on Capitol Hill that focused on the intersection of technology and special education. During the event, which was hosted by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training, Hill and other educators described how technology is empowering students with disabilities to achieve at high levels.

About 2.5 million children in the U.S. have some kind of learning disability, said Kim Hines, associate director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. For these children, “technology has been a game changer,” she said, “and for some, it’s been life-changing. … We now know what kids are able to do, and not just what they are unable to do.”

Next page: Tech reduces anxiety


Most Popular of 2015, No. eight: 7 steps to creating PLCs teachers want to use

Practical tips for building PLCs that serve every educator

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. Today we revisit our in-depth look at how to set up your own professional learning communities, which truly serve educators’ needs. It was published as part of Innovation In Action, a column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education that runs the third Monday of each month.

plcs-isteAt my district, the MSD of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, we have found that changing the way we think about teacher training not only benefits staff developers and administrators, but schools, the district as a whole, teachers, and ultimately students. A critical part of our revitalized PD plan has been the use of professional learning communities (PLCs), which are essentially groups of educators that work collaboratively and share ideas, often in an online format.

Benefits of PLCs
One of the first reasons many schools and districts begin thinking about online professional development is to save time and money. As we increase the number of digital opportunities for students, unfortunately the number of professional development staff does not always increase at the same rate. The reality is that we must offer more (and better) professional development with fewer resources.

While my experiences with online professional development came out of a need to reach several teachers while working within a limited time frame, the additional benefits and improved learning that happened because of it were a pleasant surprise. It is important to note that if done correctly, creating a PLC is not about simply moving traditional professional development to an online format. A true PLC is a community of learners, all contributing and collaborating toward a common goal. When you create and nurture this culture of sharing, you benefit from the collective intelligence of the group. It also gives a voice to every staff member. By creating learner-centered PD, the learning is more meaningful and mirrors the type of learning you hope to see in the classroom.

Additionally, by creating an ongoing community of learning, staff developers and principals are able to provide more effective support just when the teachers need it. An online presence allows a teacher to feel supported at all times and not just during the hour a professional developer is sitting with them in a meeting.

From our experience, here are seven suggestions for developing PLCs that work.

Next page: Where to set up PLCs, how to use them, and more


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. eight: Finding copyright-friendly photos for the Google Images generation

Searching and citing usable images is easy once students learn the basics

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). As educators give students more freedom to create meaningful projects, it can be easy to overlook an un-sourced image in a presentation or mixed media project. But as Kathy Schrock reminds us, proper digital citizenship means proper attribution, too.

images-ccssTeaching students to respect the intellectual property of others is important in this digital “cut and paste” world we live in. One great project to share with students that can better help them understand how and when they may use images created by others is the Creative Commons project.

Creative Commons is designed to span the gap between full copyright and the public domain. The Creative Commons project provides content creators the opportunity to state ahead of time how their images may (or may not) be used.

When an image creator posts an image online and applies a Creative Commons license to it, there are four conditions/restrictions they can apply to the image:

1.    Attribution (giving credit to the creator) is always expected.
2.    Commercial use: the creator can state whether their item can be used commercially or just non-commercially.
3.    Transformation: the creator can allow others to change their work, by mashing it up, cropping it, editing it, etc.
4.    Share alike: if the creator allows other to transform their work, they may also state, if someone wants to transform the work, the created image must carry the same Creative Commons license as the one that was transformed. I call this the “pay it forward” option.

Here is a sample of what a Creative Commons license may look like.


Now, of course, in the “old” days, we would suggest students write to image creators and ask permission to use their image. Direct permission from the image creator is still a viable option, and can usurp the Creative Commons license assigned to the image. For example, if a student has an image they would like to use in a video they are creating for a media festival which has cash prizes, that use probably would constitute commercial use of the image. If the Creative Commons license states non-commercial use only, the student can ask the image creator for permission to use it for the media festival. I have found that creators are often flattered a photograph they have taken is being used in an educational setting and will readily grant permission.

Next page: How to find Creative Commons and other free images


App of the Week: One-stop communication tool for parents and schools

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated with help from Common Sense Graphite. To read the full app review, click here.

What’s It Like? ParentSquare aims to improve communication, organization, and engagement between parents and schools. Parents can access posts, events, photos, files, and a directory on the site. School administrators and teachers can post polls and use two-way messaging via the Web, email, and text messages. For a fee, users can send voice messages via text to parents. In the posts, administrators can see how many parents viewed the post, ask for items, request volunteers, get RSVPs, or even fundraise. Events are integrated right into the school calendar.

Graphite Rating: 4/5

Price: Varies by need

Grades: K-12

Pros: An entire school community can use this tool for communication and engagement.

Cons: Although it touts a one-stop communication tool, there is no online gradebook, which would be a great addition.

Bottom line: A cool way to help schools streamline communication among administrators, teachers, and parents.


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. nine: Why you should stop testing and start assessing

One educator issues a challenge to all: skip the Scantron and discover what students really know

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). This April piece, on the difference between testing vs. assessing, was published as part of Innovation In Action, a monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.

testing-studentsDuring the first day of the semester, one of my students commented: “Your class is the easiest class I have this semester. You don’t have any tests.” I laughed, but the student was serious.

I teach graduate level courses about educational technology, such as Online Tools for Teaching and Learning. The thought of asking students to take tests to show their knowledge had never crossed my mind. My goal has always been to design courses that capture the interest of the students and inspire them to take charge of their learning. I just don’t think that tests can capture my students’ true learning experiences.

Don’t get me wrong, I still assess learning. I just do it in a way in which students often don’t realize that they are being assessed. For ongoing, formative assessment, I ask my students to design, discuss, build, create, present, reflect, and share. My students create videos, interactive timelines, 3D models, animations, tutorials, websites, wikis, blogs, interactive images, digital stories, podcasts, screencasts, presentations, mindmaps, and collaborative essays, to name a few examples.

These “creative products,” as I call them, allow my students to demonstrate their mastery in a variety of ways and provide me with a way to assess what my students are learning during class and make adjustments to my instruction.

Next: How to change assessment practices


Most Popular of 2015, No. nine: 106k free teacher-created digital textbooks hit the web

The move to digital textbooks and resources is spreading as more companies partner with open education efforts

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. This news item on FlexBooks exploded on social media capturing quite a bit of attention.

digital-textbookMore than 100,000 teacher-created digital textbooks are now available online through the CK-12 Foundation’s free STEM content and tools platform.

The 106,000 digital texts, or FlexBooks, come from the roughly 30,000 schools using CK-12’s free and open digital resources. CK-12 is launching two new tools in addition to its new content.

One is a new physics simulation module that uses real-world interactivity to increase student engagement. Students relate often-abstract concepts to real-world examples to increase learning.

The second is called PLIX (Play, Learning, Interact, and eXplore), and it gives students an interactive and immersive experience that helps them learn by doing.

PLIX “makes it simple for students to play around with concepts, follow up, and model those concepts,” said Neeru Khosla, the executive director and co-founder of the CK-12 Foundation.

“Learning best happens when you’re exposed to something–you first learn very basic facts and then you think about the material in deeper ways,” she said. “[PLIX] takes students through deeper thinking, critical thinking, and creativity,” in the hopes that they use their knowledge to create new ideas, tools, and concepts.

Next page: How one district is implementing CK-12’s digital resources