Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks

Who you know matters. Depending on their socio-economic and geographic backgrounds, and availability of school resources, students possess vastly different webs of relationships that they can tap into for mentorship, coaching, tutoring, and future career help.


7 perks of technology done right

When done correctly, technology has encouraging outcomes in classrooms

Technology can have a dramatically positive impact on student engagement and instructional practices when implemented carefully and accompanied by extensive professional learning and management, according to a new report.

The report from SRI International analyzes schools participating in the Apple and ConnectED initiative. That initiative, launched in 2014, brings technology and support to 114 underserved schools in order to promote more personalized and student-centered educational experiences supporting critical thinking and conceptual understanding.

The initiative includes devices (including an iPad for every student and an iPad and MacBook for every teacher); infrastructure upgrades; a dedicated team to provide sustained support for leadership development, teacher professional learning, technology and project management; and access to an ecosystem of apps and other digital learning resources.

The report sheds light on some encouraging results:

1. After about a year, 75 percent of teachers say their students use their devices each day, and 98 percent say the initiative has been positive for their school, especially where student engagement, learning, and future success are concerned.


3 ways to better assess soft skills

New survey gauges whether formal and informal assessments are painting a clear picture of students' soft skills

Soft skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving are an exponentially important part of students’ life skills toolbox, yet assessing these skills remains a persistent challenge.

Eighty-three percent of teachers, 82 percent of parents, 82 percent of superintendents, and 83 percent of principals say it is equally important to assess both academic skills and nonacademic skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and creativity, according to a new report commissioned by NWEA and conducted by Gallup.

But despite the agreement around importance, just 1 in 10 teachers say that the formal and informal assessments used by their school to gauge nonacademic skills measure them “very well.”

Teamwork seems to be the skill most in need of better assessment, with 42 percent of teachers saying the formal and informal assessments in their school do not measure teamwork well at all. Thirty percent of teachers say their school’s assessments do not measure students’ ability to consider different perspectives well at all.


This cool new program helps kids develop better tech habits

Seton Hall Law School’s Institute for Privacy Protection educates students and parents about privacy and technology overuse

Dignity—it’s not a word often associated with social media and online interaction. However, as part of a new education program from Seton Hall Law School’s Institute for Privacy Protection, communication, community, and dignity are key themes of the curriculum. Overall, the goal is to educate students and parents about privacy and technology overuse. But they try not to shame the students and parents, said Gaia Bernstein, law professor and director, Institute for Privacy Protection at the Seton Hall University School of Law, and Najarian Peters, assistant professor, Institute for Privacy Protection at Seton Hall Law School. During the recent edWebinar, “Educating Students and Parents About Privacy and Technology Overuse,” they explained it’s counterproductive to become another authority figure telling students what not to do. Instead, by encouraging students to share their stories and having them explain how technology impacts their lives, the program gives students the agency to take control over their technology use.

The program, which is taught by Seton Hall law students, targets students in fifth and sixth grade, typically the age when they get their first cell phone. It’s a time when parents feel like they are losing control of their kids, yet the kids still have the capability to learn good technology habits.

Since students are getting phones at younger and younger ages, they don’t have the cognitive ability to understand the ramifications of their actions and need parental guidance. Thus, the program has both a student curriculum and parent talk. Parents need to learn what privacy really means in the digital world and how their tech usage affects their children. The program focuses on collaboration and helping students and parents discuss good technology habits together.

Within the student curriculum, there are four hour-long modules:

  1. Introduction to Privacy
  2. Reputational Harm and Digital Footprint
  3. Ads and Content Choice
  4. Online-Offline Balance

For each module, the lessons focus on teaching students how the tech works and getting them to talk about how technology affects them. With ads and content choice, for instance, the students learn how their search terms are tracked and how that influences which ads appear on websites. Then, the program leaders ask the students what they think and what actions they could take.


Inspiring students to become global problem solvers

When you push students out of their comfort zone while mirroring their own passion, the imagination cultivated is nothing short of remarkable

Last year, my district—Roosevelt (AZ) School District—was asked by Arizona State University’s (ASU) department of innovation and entrepreneurship to pilot a new educational program for middle school students. I was initially skeptical but curious to learn about this new type of learning experience, especially given the tagline: Global Problem Solvers.

Words like “inspire,” “global,” and “problem solver” make every teacher’s ears perk up. Not only are educators obsessed with getting kids to think critically and tackle real-world problems, we also want projects that motivate all students, because we know that some students don’t show interest in conventional assignments.

The road to creating agents of change
In the summer of 2017, ASU held a week-long professional development (PD) program for Cisco’s Global Problem Solvers (GPS) program with teachers from five schools in the Phoenix metro area to familiarize us with the intent and implementation of the program. I teach social studies, and our middle school’s math and science teachers joined me.

The GPS program is built on design thinking, a framework for creating new products and becoming social entrepreneurs. These projects allow mid-childhood, pre-teen, and early teenage learners to create viable business products, and the process encourages them to address problems within their community and the public at-large.

Upon returning to our school, our heads were full of rich possibilities: Would we engage in a school-wide GPS competition, could we develop cross-curricular connections, or even create higher taxonomy outputs? We decided to be ambitious. We reworked our fall schedule and added 35 minutes to the end of the school day Mondays through Thursdays to include all 85 eighth-graders in the GPS program.


Recipe for back-to-school success

An educator shares 5 key ingredients for success from her PD-filled summer

Are you interested in expanding your comfort zone, building relationships with your students, and boosting the culture of your classroom in the new school year? Read on!

While attending EdCampFlipgrid, StuVoiceCon18, and FlipgridLive in the marvelous city of Minneapolis this summer, I raptly listened to dozens of amazing educational leaders and pioneers delivering thought-provoking statements, providing new perspectives, and offering game-changing takeaway tools and strategies for immediate implementation.

Whether in the intimate session circles of EdCampFlipgrid, in the StuVoiceCon18 audience at the University of Minnesota- McNamara Alumni Center, or in the energy-filled room of Flipgrid Live at Aria Event Center, the central theme being celebrated was the reach and power of student voice.

Check out these five key ingredients to support you in making sure you and your students get what’s needed to thrive as we start back to school.

1. Honor and amplify your student’s voices.

They may just change the world … if you give them the opportunity.

#StuVoiceCon18 morning keynote, Matt Miller, issued the reminder that each of us has a chance to change the world if we simply find, use, and let our voices and ideas be heard. As he said, “Your voice is your soul, your essence, your inner being” and the recipe to finding that includes providing “choice, action, and skill.” Let’s do that.

How? Start a classroom Twitter account and have your students create tweets that you blast out. Not ready for social media? Start a classroom blog using Blogger or a Vlog (video blog) using Flipgrid where students can share their voices, ideas, and feelings as near or wide as feels comfortable.


Video: How edtech connects

At SXSW EDU 2018, The Christensen Institute’s Director of Education Research, Julia Freeland Fisher, reveals innovative schools that are creating learning models that strengthen teacher-student relationships, and emerging edtech tools that promise to expand students’ networks to experts and mentors from around world.

Julia’s current research focuses on emerging tools and practices that leverage technology to radically expand who students know – their stock of “social capital” – by enhancing their access to, and ability to, navigate new peer, mentor, and professional networks. She is the author of the forthcoming book Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks. Prior to joining the Institute, Julia worked at NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy organization that supports education entrepreneurs who are transforming public education. She also served as an instructor in the Yale College Seminar Program. Julia holds a BA from Princeton University and a JD from Yale Law School.

Visit to learn more about SXSW EDU and subscribe to SXSW EDU on YouTube for more great videos



Disrupting opportunity gaps will hinge on networks

Recently, Stanford researcher Raj Chetty came out with yet another new study on the jagged landscape of opportunity facing America. Analyzing the relationship between young people’s exposure to innovation and the likelihood that they would go on to become inventors, the study highlights an alarming rate of what the authors dub “lost Einsteins”: young people who show promising potential but who, due to lack of exposure to innovation, appear far less likely to pursue careers as inventors. Perhaps unsurprisingly these gaps fall along demographic lines. Children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families.

The consequences of Chetty’s specific findings are profound. Society is passing up entire reservoirs of latent innovation potential in the next generation.

The findings are also a microcosm of a broader reality facing the education establishment in an age of stark income and geographic inequalities. If Chetty’s research tells us something about schools, it’s that all the academic interventions in the world may not add up to tackling opportunity gaps that shape students’ ability to realize their potential as inventors or otherwise. In recent years, education reformers have focused relentlessly on K-12 achievement gaps and college graduation rates as proxies for leveling the playing field. But Chetty’s data suggests that opportunity gaps don’t merely spring forth from gaps in achievement or attainment—they are based on exposure. They are also social and geographic in nature.

The study underscores a fundamental truth about opportunity: it depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks. Inherited networks, Chetty’s findings suggest, are fundamentally bounded. They can propel some young people into certain careers, but keep others out. Luckily, however, new tools and approaches emerging across K-12 and higher education could begin to disrupt the boundaries of students’ inherited networks.

Tools to address opportunity gaps

For the past three years I’ve been tracking tools and models that expand students’ access to relationships that might otherwise be out of reach—because of where they live, their family’s networks, or the structures of the schools they attend. These emerging tools and practices offer a small but vibrant beacon lighting the path forward to address the social side of opportunity gaps.

Some include platforms, like CommunityShare or ImBlaze. These tools are aimed at allowing schools to better tap into local community-based opportunities and experts by cutting through the logistical hurdle of coordinating across the school-community interface. Using CommunityShare, teachers can log onto the site to find a community member who can speak to particular topics in their classes or offer a lesson. Schools can use ImBlaze—an effort spawned from Big Picture Learning’s longtime model connecting students to internships with local businesses—to recruit and organize internship opportunities for their students throughout their local community. In other words, these tools can help schools address exposure gaps by deliberately connecting students to more local, real-world professionals whom they otherwise might not know.

But much of Chetty’s research suggests that geography can shape the sorts of opportunities on students’ radar. (This map shows just how unevenly the ratio of patents to children is distributed across the country). What about those geographies where a diverse array of industry experts and mentors are harder to come by? In these cases the most promising innovations may be those that allow students to diversify their connections to experts online. For example, tools like Nepris or Educurious allow educators to port online mentors or experts into classrooms over video. Using these tools, educators can begin to supplement traditional lesson plans and projects with live chats with real people working in the fields that students are studying and industries they might eventually work in.

These tools could help K-12 schools begin to address exposure gaps. Still other innovative approaches—like Braven—aim to help higher education institutions address stubborn opportunity gaps that tend to persist even as older students get closer to entering the workforce. Braven partners with universities to provide an “Accelerator Course” to arm first-generation college students with skills, internship experiences, and networks. The program is delivered through local volunteer near-peer young professionals working in high profile firms the likes of Facebook, Prudential, and Audible. According to its latest impact report, compared with peers nationally, Braven college graduates are more likely to have at least one internship during college. Their cohorts also experienced statistically significant growth in the closeness of friendship networks and advice networks with volunteer professionals.

What schools and colleges can do to surface ‘lost Einsteins’

Opportunity is something young people are—or aren’t—networked into. Although the notion of “networking” can reek of a shallow exercise at cocktail parties or ad-hoc connections on LinkedIn, Chetty’s research suggests that exposure to certain professions has deep, long-lasting consequences. Education institutions can address this reality by exploring emerging tools and approaches designed to reach beyond students’ inherited networks and, in some cases, immediate geography. If we don’t, countless ‘lost Einsteins’ will be deprived of—and deprive us of—a brighter future.



Mapping the universe of edtech that connects

I’m excited to share a tool that my colleagues and I have been working on for the past few years: a market map of what we’re calling Edtech that Connects. We’ve captured a wide range of edtech tools that are bringing new relationships within reach for students. The tool lives—and will be regularly updated—at

When I first joined the Christensen Institute over five years ago we were knee-deep in studying the fast-growing market of tools designed to support blended learning environments. Many consisted of adaptive learning content tools that could support students at different levels in a manner that traditional textbook and lecture-style teaching struggles to do. At the same time, cloud-based productivity tools to help schools organize their staff and streamline their data collection processes were becoming more and more mainstream.

But I had a lurking suspicion that something was missing from that booming edtech market. Beyond our education systems, communications technologies have advanced in ways that radically improved our ability to connect across time and space. Why weren’t there more edtech tools designed to connect students—to new people, supports, and opportunities?

I went on the hunt for tools that did just that. We began interviewing entrepreneurs who were building tools for schools premised not just on content delivery and assessment but on using technology to forge new connections in students’ lives. Some of these tools were facilitating brief, one-off online connections with industry experts who could share their career trajectories with students. Others were brokering new, enduring mentoring relationships to support students into or through college.

Fast forward to today. Our free, searchable market map features all the tools we’ve come across (so far!) over the years and the types of relationships they are bringing within reach for students.

The map is surely not a complete picture of tools that connect students. But as it’s grown over the years, our list of tools offers insights into how schools are starting to use technology in new ways beyond curriculum, assessment, and productivity.

Slices of the traditional edtech market

When we set out looking for edtech tools designed to expand and diversify networks, we used a simple litmus test: are these tools offering a relationship that otherwise would not be on offer for students? Studying tools that met that threshold, we started to see clusters of tools in particular pockets of the market: project-based learning tools, college access, success and guidance tools, and academic support tools. It’s pretty intuitive why these categories lend themselves to mentoring and coaching models that reach beyond students’ immediate networks. Bringing additional supports, real-world expertise, and increased guidance are all fundamentally human endeavors. There are still many tools in each of these three market segments are not actually brokering new relationships in students’ lives. Many aim instead to make project-based learning or academic support structures more efficient within existing human capital constraints.

To better understand the emerging market, we started tagging tools by these different market segments and value propositions. On the website users can filter by these different segments depending on the particular problem they are trying to solve. They can also filter by the type of relationship that these tools offer. For example, teachers can find tools that bring industry experts into their classrooms or diversify students’ access to peers and near peers beyond their school. School leaders and afterschool providers can see the range of tools bringing more mentors and tutors within reach.

Sourcing versus coordinating connections

A key distinction in this emerging market is whether vendors themselves supply new relationships and connections or are instead selling tools for schools to coordinate the existing supply of relationships in students’ lives. Coordinating platform companies are not in the business of recruiting new mentors or experts. Instead, they have built software as a service (SaaS) tools that could help schools and communities to more efficiently and effectively organize and coordinate existing supplies of relationships.

For school systems or higher education institutions in areas awash with social capital or that are already running in-person mentorship or internship programs, these platforms can lend crucial programmatic efficiencies. For those systems just getting started or that are in rural or cash-strapped circumstances, sourcing additional connections and supports can prove challenging. In those cases, vendors that recruit those new assets will have a competitive advantage. Some tools—like iMentor and Nepris—fit into both of these categories. Part of their business is to recruit mentors and experts that can connect with students online. But they’ve also been asked by some groups to white label their tool to simply provide the backend software for organizing local and existing connections.

The next frontier of school as we know it

Although still a relatively small share of the edtech market, we believe that network-expanding tools have huge potential. Over time, they stand to unlock classroom and school designs that effectively network students into opportunity in expansive and exciting ways. Innovative technologies could be game-changing tools for schools to invest meaningfully—and at an affordable price tag—in their students’ networks. Given the current landscape of opportunity gaps, these tools’ upside potential is enormous. Powerful webs of technology-enabled connections that diversify young people’s networks are increasingly within reach.

Want to learn more? In my book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations that Expand Students’ Networks, we explore how these tools fit into a relationship-centered vision of school. We examine dramatic shifts in the way schools are empowering students to forge new connections—and ultimately opportunities—that would otherwise be out of reach. The book is now available here.


The other gap that schools aren’t talking about—relationships

The NAEP scores released in April set off a flurry of headlines about the sobering state of achievement gaps across the nation. The general consensus? Despite pockets of promise, and slight declines in gaps by race, achievement data reveal that gaps by income have remained relatively flat, or uneven at best.

The news for young people on the wrong side of these gaps, however, may be worse. Measuring opportunity in terms of household income or school quality, as education reformers are prone to do, doesn’t paint the whole picture. Students today are competing on an even more complex playing field, one that’s often masked by statistics on income and achievement gaps. A well-resourced childhood introduces a whole new set of inequities between rich and poor students, and those whose parents have or have not earned college degrees: social gaps.

Gaps in students’ networks matter immensely in both immediate and longer-term measures. Research groups like the Search Institute have shown that developmental relationships drive everything from higher grades to persistence in school. Down the line, an estimated 50 percent of jobs come through personal relationships.

The best-hidden asset

Depending on their backgrounds, however, children possess vastly different webs of relationships that they can tap into. If diverging income levels remain the starkest drivers of unequal childhoods, then relationships are arguably becoming the best-hidden asset in the modern opportunity equation.

Slim but troubling data collected by a host of scholars illuminate the uneven terrain shaping young people’s social assets.

First, over the past three decades, the amount of time that college-educated parents spend with their children has dramatically increased, relative to that of their less educated peers. Second, these more educated parents offer their children an additional social asset besides time: a disproportionately professionalized social network of their own. More educated parents know more people working in the knowledge economy; in fact, according to Robert Putnam’s analysis in his book Our Kids, college-educated parents on average have social networks that include at least twice as many politicians, CEOs, and professors than those who received only a high school education or less.

Third, as income inequality has grown, children from wealthy families are enjoying a boon in enrichment spending relative to their low-income peers. This investment gap helps explain startling disparities in access to informal mentors (a fancy term for adults like coaches, teachers, and parents’ friends gained through a student’s everyday life). Low-income young people report significantly fewer informal mentors — particularly beyond their family and neighborhood — than their wealthier peers. Putnam found that young people from the top socioeconomic quartile report nearly double the rate of adults from outside their family in their lives.

Unlike achievement data, most of this information is rarely collected on an annual basis, much less captured at a local or school level. But nascent efforts are afoot to give counties and states a sense of where their students and families stand. For example, Congress’s Social Capital Project tracks some of these metrics, such as family interaction, social support, and community health, at the neighborhood level. Other measures approximate the state of students’ individual networks regardless of family structure. For example, based on its recent finding that the more adults in a community, the more young people stay on a path toward academic success, America’s Promise Alliance, in partnership with Community Commons, has mapped adult:student ratios in ZIP codes across America.

Besides starting to pull back the veil on the data, what can schools start to do to tackle these gaps? One small but mighty group of innovators is setting out to shore up students’ networks along a variety of dimensions. Some are increasing students’ access to caring relationships by triangulating services among families, schools, and community-based agencies. Others are diversifying students’ weaker-tie connections — acquaintances beyond close relatives and friends who could offer new channels to the knowledge economy — by leveraging communications technologies that bring more relationships within reach. Although online connections may sound woefully shallow, they have a competitive advantage in overcoming geographic isolation or cost constraints that can limit students’ access to networks.

For those focused intently on NAEP scores, fear not. Social capital — whom students know — and human capital — what they know — are inextricably linked. For example, investing in students’ networks of caring adults to strengthen family-student and student-teacher connections can boost academic outcomes. And connecting academics to real-world adults can increase authenticity in classrooms, in turn boosting student engagement.

The current patchwork of data on social connections is clearly imperfect compared with analyses of standardized test scores. But it starts to paint a portrait of social gaps emerging alongside academic ones across the country. So next time we find ourselves awash in data on achievement gaps, we should pause to ask the following question. Yes, we increasingly track what students know; but do we know whom they know?