App of the Week: VR field trips!

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Expeditions offers a series of virtual reality (VR) field trips that teachers can use to supplement their curricula. Each expedition is made up of various scenes that include 360-degree panoramas and 3D images. The content is provided by Google and partners such as WNET, PBS, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Planetary Society.

Price: Free

Grades: 3-12

Rating: 5/5

Pros: These engaging virtual field trips are beautiful and include everything needed to lead expeditions right away.

Cons: Getting enough connected devices and managing a classroom full of VR-toting students can prove challenging.

Bottom line: With stunning scenes and a flexible delivery method, your students will thank you for journeying together through space and time.


3 ways new-to-online students can thrive with virtual learning

Digital learning opportunities are widely available and abundant today. From MOOCs to digital study aids to virtual tutoring, there are many ways for students to hone their academic skills while still maintaining flexibility in their schedules. An added bonus? They can often do this from the comfort and convenience of their own computer, smartphone, or other electronic device.

What’s more, virtual experiences are not only becoming more prevalent in the academic realm, but in the professional sphere as well. This can be seen in the increase in remote workforces and online courses/graduate programs.

Students can benefit from the availability of virtual learning experiences, not just in augmenting their current learning experiences, but in helping to prepare them for the real world. The key is in knowing how to use these resources to their advantage. But when the virtual learning concept may seem foreign to some, how can they best approach it?

Here are three ways students can leverage virtual learning experiences:

1. Participate in a MOOC that covers a subject/skill he or she is lacking

MOOCs—also known as “massive open online courses”—are virtual courses open to anyone, anywhere (and usually are free!). MOOCs are a lot like college courses; students will be required to do homework and “attend” lectures if they want to succeed. However, unlike college courses, there is typically no penalty for failing to show up or complete work—but that also means students won’t get the full learning experience out of it!

The more relaxed atmosphere of MOOCs can be both good and bad. For some students, less stringent deadlines and obligations to get work done mean it’s easier to fit a course into a schedule. However, for others, it can make it easy to slack off and not get much work done—which would defeat the purpose of enrolling in a MOOC in the first place.

To use a MOOC beneficially, the student should choose the subject carefully. Students should enroll in a course that they believe could boost skills in, or knowledge of, a subject they’re currently studying or plan to study in the future. This could be directly related to a college major, or not! A science enthusiast, for instance, may wish to sharpen physics or chemistry skills that are crucial to success in labs each week—or, an English enthusiast who may want to teach history one day might choose to learn more about European history. The options can be personalized to individual goals.

(Next page: 2 more ways students can delve into virtual learning)


Infographic: Why mobile technology is hurting some students

[Editor’s Note: Read “Infographic: The edtech challenges faced by immigrant students” here.]

Although most children in families earning below the median U.S. household income have internet access and devices that connect to it, they struggle with being “under-connected.”

Ninety-four percent of families surveyed by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, have some kind of internet access and most have at least one device connecting to the internet, but the quality or consistency of their internet access is lower than they would like it to be.

In fact, in the past 12 months from when the survey was conducted, 20 percent of families with home broadband access and 24 percent with mobile-only access had their services cut off due to inability to pay.

More than half (52 percent) of those with home broadband said they internet service is too slow, and 29 percent with mobile-only access exceeded their plan data limits.

(Next page: Why mobile-only access is detrimental to some students)


Why some schools are restricting student access to 3D printers

A number of factors, including lack of guidance and management issues, lead educators to restrict students’ access to 3D printers, according to a survey from Y Soft Corporation, an enterprise office solution provider.

Surveyed educators overwhelmingly cited motivation, creativity and use of technology with STEAM subjects as reasons their schools use 3D printers in the classroom.

Forty-two percent of those surveyed said it is “very common” for students in their institution to have access to 3D printing, and 58 percent said it is “very exceptional” to have such access.

The survey asked educational 3D printer owners a broad set of questions about 3D printing use to determine how educators include 3D technology in their classrooms. Most institutions who own 3D printers own between 2 and 5 (38 percent), with 28 percent of institutions owning between 6 and 20.

Overall, 35 percent said student access to 3D printers is fairly or very difficult. Thirteen percent of those surveyed said it is very easy for students to access 3D printers and 52 percent said it is fairly easy as long as a process is followed.

(Next page: The three areas where support for 3D printers is lacking)


Real talk: This is what successful blended learning actually looks like

[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 2 of our April series on Blended Learning. Click here to read Part 1 on what makes a blended learning initiative fail. Check back every Thursday this month for the next installment!]

In theory, blended learning sounds straightforward: You replace a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction with web-based online instruction. In practice, though, launching and sustaining a blended learning initiative takes planning, training, tech tools, and the flexibility to change course midstream. Colorado District 49, where I am superintendent of the iConnect Zone, started down the road to blended learning in 2009, and we are still learning. Here are five lessons we can share from our years of experience on sustaining a blended learning initiative.

1) Infrastructure and budgeting look at the big picture.

The first step to any tech initiative is to take stock of your bandwidth and infrastructure. Devices should definitely be considered but also look at how students and teachers are going to engage with them, and make sure that your infrastructure is up to the task. You don’t have to be 1:1 to make blended classrooms work. Most of our students have their own devices, and for those who don’t, we can provide them.

When you address budgeting, I would advise staying big-picture focused. For example, funding in Colorado is broken down into “in-school” and “online.” As you might expect, in-school is more expensive. Back in 2009, District 49 was looking for ways to provide more flexible learning opportunities. We wanted to include as many students as possible, both to alleviate overcrowding in our brick-and-mortar schools and to attract students for whom a virtual model was the only way to retain them in the district. The result was Falcon Virtual Academy, a multidistrict online K-12 school.

Over the years, we discovered that we got better results when our students spent time with us, in a shared physical environment with teacher interaction. In response to this, we changed the name of Falcon Virtual Academy to Springs Studio for Academic Excellence and shifted to a blended model. Moving from virtual to blended involved taking on more overhead costs, but for us, the improved student outcomes were worth the increased expense.

At Springs Studio today, content is delivered primarily online and students can go as a fast as they want—but not as slowly. They are held responsible by meeting with their actual instructors who monitor their progress and provide support when needed.

2) Hire the right teachers—and support them with people and PD.

It takes very specific teachers to teach blended classes and we are fortunate to have some outstanding educators. We offer them professional development before they start working in the blended environment, and ongoing online courses help us make sure that all of the staff are on the same page.

We also have a team of specialists called the iSolutions team. They work with groups of teachers to model what instruction should look like in our blended learning environment, as well as working one-on-one with specific teachers. They help create lesson plans, set up classrooms, and work through any issues the teachers encounter.

(Next page: 3 more tips for a successful blended learning initiative)


6 IT nightmares plaguing schools-and 6 solutions to stop them

From constricted budgets to needing to protect large numbers of devices and users, educational institutions face a unique set requirements for data protection and business continuity.

As a result, many school IT departments are struggling to create new data backup and business continuity practices. However, all is not lost and there is no need to create these from scratch, as leading education institutions are already leveraging enterprise-class protection capabilities.

Here are six facts that experts in educational backup and continuity services already know:

Challenge #1: Budget

There is perhaps no industry with more budget restraints than education. Most school districts have few IT resources with little time that can be spent managing backups and recovering lost files. If ever there was an industry that is required to do more with less, it is education.

Every moment spent managing and troubleshooting backup issues is time not available for IT’s real job: working with the administration to improve student education. Carl Jaspersohn, associate director of Infrastructure, Boston Architectural College commented “We have a small IT administrative staff with very little cross-training/overlap in responsibilities. Our budget isn’t big compared to larger schools, but demands on IT are still high due to the nature of the work done here.”

What the Experts Know – Educational institutions are now selecting backup and continuity appliances and purpose built devices, to replicate data locally to a remote location or to the cloud. Appliances are easy to deploy and have a user interface dedicated to scheduling, monitoring and managing backup files. The best backup appliances can also serve as a recovery platform since the backup data files are already on the appliance. This provides business continuity in case the original server or application is unavailable.

Challenge #2: Security Requirements

The protection requirements of educational institutions are different from other industries. Education is unique in that there are large numbers of fairly unsophisticated users who are prone to making mistakes. They are quick to click on dangerous links or delete and lose files that they may need in the future. Bryan Young, network administrator, Rocky Hill, CN Public Schools stated “The school district consists of an enrollment of about 2,600 students with more than 3,000 user accounts, 2,000 devices, and 50 servers as well as a network that spans across six locations.”

In a 2016 study by CoSN, nearly 90 percent of education respondents expect their instructional materials to be at least 50 percent digital within the next three years. The volume of data is growing quickly, and the most requested data recovery service in educational institutions is to restore files or folders that have been mistakenly deleted.

What the Experts Know – It should take you less than 5 minutes to log on, find the requested file in the backup repository, and restore it to the user account. This is possible with disk-based backups and the five-minute rule should apply whether you are restoring an individual file, folder or entire data set. The User Interface (UI) of the appliance should be easy enough for untrained staff to perform this task, as restores are far and away the most requested data backup job required of IT staffers.

(Next page: IT challenges 3-6)


6 underground apps students hide from schools

Technology is nearly ubiquitous in classrooms, and it holds extreme importance in the lives of today’s children.

But with technology comes responsibility, and many ed-tech stakeholders emphasize the importance of teaching students about digital citizenship, being aware of their digital footprint, and being responsible and safe online.

Despite the best efforts of parents and educators, children can–and do–get into sticky situations with technology. And as everyone knows, things you post online, in group chats, or send in text messages don’t disappear if you delete them.

Here, we’ve compiled a list of apps adults might want to know about, not in an effort to alarm parents and teachers, but rather to inform them of the threats that accompany technology ownership and use.

(Next page: 6 apps that might put students at risk)


School sees massive literacy boost thanks to new assessment attitude

At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, 82 percent of Morgen Owings Elementary School’s students were working below grade level. Now, six months later, just 40 percent are working below grade level. We have work to do, but shifting our mindset regarding assessment has made a huge impact.

We all know the purpose of assessment/testing is to gather information that will lead to improved instruction and learning. And I’m quite certain we all agree–that in some form or fashion it’s absolutely essential. But deciding which measure can and should be used to gather data for each area of elementary literacy can sometimes be daunting for administrators.

With only so many hours in a day, and days in a week how do we decide which assessments we need? Do we just test students in timed intervals–once a week, a month, a quarter? Analyze student work samples? Observe students performing literacy tasks or interview students on their readings skills? Do we administer all of these methods to collect data? How do you choose the best method for measuring reading progress?

Assessment Fatigue and Frustration

At Morgen Owings Elementary School–just like in many schools and districts around the country–we too, had assessment fatigue and frustration over which was the best method for evaluating reading progress.

Past discussions about assessments had been met with resistance; our teachers were feeling the fatigue of frequent assessments and the frustration of not understanding the purpose and goal of the seemingly unending series of testing requirements. And then there were our numerous concerns about deciphering the data and the need for immediate real time data analysis.

What we now know is that when assessments are properly administered and integrated into instruction, the resulting data can provide valuable information about progress towards instructional goals, success of interventions, and overall curriculum implementation.

This all came to light after we implemented Lexia Reading Core5 and Lexia’s RAPID Assessment. This assessment was developed in partnership with the experts at the Florida Center for Reading Research, and using it in tandem with the literacy program is what changed our mindset on testing.

(Next page: Focusing on teachers; choosing the assessment path)


This is what Gen Z-designed curriculum looks like for the future

[Editor’s Note: This story is Part 3 of our month-long series on “What it means to teach Gen Z.” Click here to read Part 1 on Gen Z and parents, and click here to read Part 2 on Gen Z and librarians. Check back every Monday in April to read the next installment!]

The generation in school now is the first generation raised entirely in the Age of Technology. They are digital natives, many of them using computers, smartphones, and other digital tools nearly from birth. As technology continues to grow and expand, so too will the ways we use it. This growth and expansion will impact the types of jobs that will be available in the next 10–20 years. So how do we as educators prepare Gen Z for jobs that may not even exist yet?

Go Cross-Curricular

Cross-curricular lessons are one way educators can prepare students for an uncertain future. With the national emphasis on STEM, cross-curricular learning teaches students about history, science, technology, engineering, and math (as well as art and literature), all while inspiring students to explore these subjects and make connections on their own.

By making these connections and using multiple disciplines in their learning, students are learning creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, all of which will be relevant no matter which career path they choose.

Allow for Student Choice

Student choice is an important part of my teaching. I believe students have more buy-in to the lesson when they have choices about what they learn and how they provide evidence of their learning. Textbooks are “boring” according to many students; I would rather give them a choice of articles that are fairly short, but concise.

To appeal to Gen Z, it helps if materials are also visually appealing, with engaging photos, maps, or illustrations.

(Next page: Gen Z curriculum in action)