On the Blended Learning Road with DSST’s Jake Firman

Jake Firman is the Education Technology Manager for the Denver School of Science and Technology.  Jenny Meyer posted this blog on the DSST site on April 2.  This is the first in a series of  reflections from Jake’s blended learning road trip. When you’re in Denver make sure to visit DSST, it’s probably the best high poverty STEM school in the country.  

We started the official program of the Pearson Digital Learning Executive Forum with a discussion-based keynote by a very interesting and intelligent guy named Tom Vander Ark. I had the opportunity to chat with Tom briefly before his talk, and I found out that one of the many interesting things that he’s done in his time in education was to help write the initial grant proposal for DSST. I hope to have time later to discuss that startup process with him, but at the very least, I know that he’s a huge fan of the work we’re doing.
Tom wrote a book called “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World”, and he has a very profound, and self-proclaimed “melodramatic” view of the current shift we’re going through in education. He believes that we’re in the middle of a shift to digital learning that is 100% inevitable, and schools have about 36 months to prepare for it. He says that it will change learning in 3 distinct ways:

  • Customization – A student getting a path through learning that is right for them, and guided by them as well, not just in terms of content, but also in terms of time and location.
  • Motivation – Engagement in the learning process.
  • Equalization – EVERY student having equal access to devices, technology, and ultimately quality education.

Tom led a discussion with about 50 of us here at the forum about the benefits and worries we have about this shift to digital learning. The exciting thing about this discussion was how many of the benefits and worries we already had figured out at DSST. Many people discussed the potential benefits of surgical assessment that identifies concrete skills, equal access to devices for students, and other benefits that our 1:1 environment and infrastructure and tools like ActivProgress are already achieving. Similarly, people expressed fears of cost and support models, teacher supervisions and creation of a strong digital culture, and others that have already been addressed and largely solved in our environment.
Outside of these aspects of our foundation that we already have figured out, the three main themes of the conversation that provoked my thought for growth at DSST were the ideas of individualized instruction for students, rich banks of digital content, and achievement recognition systems.
Individualized Instruction for Students– Much of the conversation was about the idea of students receiving instruction that is customized not only in content, but also in modality, based on the “surgical” assessment data collected by tools. The word “playlist” came up in this discussion. A school in New York called “School of One” has made the term popular by giving each student a “learning playlist” each day when they walk in, assigning them to a learning experience that is appropriate for them both from a content and modality standpoint. It made me think a lot about how we can incorporate this type of “playlist” or content assignment fueled by achievement data in ActivProgress. I wonder if we can write our own “algorithm” that takes standards-specific achievement data and generates student specific playlists of recommended content, and embeds it into a widget in AP. I hope to think and write a lot more on this later.
Rich Banks of Digital Content– This, I think, is the easiest way that we as a network can begin to facilitate at least a step towards blended learning…creating an easily navigable bank of standards aligned, quality digital content, and build and develop a framework by which to distribute it to students. The power of quality videos, simulations, games, etc. were identified in the discussion as being one of the primary benefits of digital education. Our teachers know that this exists, but I’m not sure they have (a) a good way to find them at the content and difficulty level that they need, (b) a way to eliminate the noise of poor content, and (c) a concrete, easy, integrated way to share this data with the students that need it in an easy and intuitive way. Again, this is something that I hope to have time to think and write about more later.
Achievement Recogntion Systems– Although we at DSST have not done a lot of work on this front, and it hasn’t been at the forefront of my thought, it was an interesting topic. Tom brought up the possibility of future “gradebooks” or Achievement Recognition Systems gathering achievement data from every learning activity, not just from tests, but from simulations, games, etc. The idea of every learning experience being captured and compiled in a bank of hundreds of pieces of evidence of learning sounds like an incredible opportunity. Additionally, it includes offering engaging incentives to students that are achievement-driven, like badges and awards. I expect to see some interesting things come out on this front.
One nearly all of these topics, I look forward to the opportunity to sit and think about how they may develop at DSST, but for now, the exposure to the ideas is an awesome start.

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