Utah Digital Learning Summit: Blending Learning, Penguins & Dopamine

There would be more and better education options in this country if every state had a Robyn Bagley. She sat on the board of two online schools and is working on a blended high school. She was instrumental in the development and passage of SB65, the nation’s most innovative online learning bill. Bagley’s Parents for Choice in Education and Digital Learning Now! (DLN) co-hosted a summit in Utah this morning bringing together local and national experts in online and blended learning.
JiJi Builds Intrinsic Motivation. Matthew Peterson said, “I’ve developed thousands of math games over the last 17 years and a lot of them didn’t work very well.” Peterson’s trial and error led to founding MIND Research Institute, an Orange County nonprofit dedicated to closing the math achievement gap. Today, more than 14,000 schools use Peterson’s ST Math, featuring JiJi the penguin, with gap-closing success. The visual game-based approach to learning is particularly effective for English language learners and visual learners.
Peterson has identified three keys to effective instructional software:

  1. Interactive: engaging and challenging work that captures interest and builds persistence.
  2. Informative feedback: not just right and wrong, but immediate instruction targeting specific mistakes and misconceptions.
  3. Intrinsic motivation: ditch the extrinsic rewards and give students a chance to see how math works and ability to track their progress.

Most games carefully calibrate difficulty, but Peterson said that occasionally introducing a big challenge can produce step function improvement gain—and big rewards. The work products and learning you remember from school are probably associated with a big challenge. (I remember trying to learn Verdi’s Requiem—and the rewards of finally singing it.) Matthew reminded the audience not to let individualization eliminate big challenges.
Peterson passionately believes that we can “crack the code” on helping all kids achieve—we can invent pathways that will help students construct knowledge and skills that will prepare them for college and careers.
Hornblende. No, not the dark amphibole, the keynote and following discussion featured Michael Horn’s classification of blended learning.
Charlie Bufalino from Rocketship Education joined Michael and outlined their rotational model (see his Getting Smart summary).  Students spend 25 percent of their time in a learning lab working on basic skills using visual and adaptive software including ST Math, Dreambox, and i-Ready. The lab allows three humanities and math specialists to cover four classrooms. The savings enable a longer day and year, academic deans (that become new school principals), and allows Rocketship to pay teachers 20 percent more than surrounding schools.
Charlie said, “We need data platform layers that exist underneath the apps and integrate what happens in the classroom and online.” He added, “Getting more data to teachers in real time will make them more effective at differentiating.” (Charlie will be pleased to learn about the DLN paper released today Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles.)
Laura Belnap from Washington Online described how the district managed online learning program is serving students statewide. When an audience member asked one of her students about getting to know teachers he said, “My online teacher knows me much better than my classroom math teacher did last year.
The meeting was held at Innovations High in Salt Lake City. Student body president Sabrina Ng said about Innovations High, “They teach you, not a class, they teach you!” I asked her why she transferred as a high school senior, she said “If I hadn’t transferred, I’d be focused on my career at McDonalds.”  She’s back on track to graduate after the accelerated completion of a couple blended courses. Vice Principal Jan Hedberg introduced their school and gave the educators and legislators a tour.  (See Robyn Bagley’s site visit report.)
Robyn showed a Bloomboard video featuring their free teacher evaluation system.  I added that personalization is not just for students. With platforms like Bloomboard, we can do a much better job of supporting individual teacher learning plans. Blended learning has the potential to create better working conditions and improved career options for teacher. (See 10 reasons teachers love blended learning.)
Dopamine & Legislators. Building on Dr. Peterson’s keynote, digital learning champion Senator Stephenson outlined in surprising detail how synaptic connections are made in the brain. He admitted, “I’m not a brain researcher but I play one in the legislature.” Sen. Stephenson accused Matthew Peterson of dealing drugs in schools by releasing dopamine with his high challenge, high engagement, and high feedback games. Sen Stephenson wants to “set the captives free” and put an end to the factory model of education.
Co-host John Bailey, DLN Executive Director, and I closed the summit by urging Utah leaders to:

  1. Continue to lead with online assessment: Utah left the Smarter Balanced consortium which could actually increase its ability to lead with early and innovative applications of adaptive assessment–both formative and summative.
  2. Create incentives for adoption of blended models and components: A grant program supporting adoption of blended models would provide the roadmap and incentive that many schools need to make the shift.
  3. Make a contribution to improved student access: as a South Dakota described, a small contribution from the state is enough to help many districts transition to 1:1 access.  As outlined in Funding the Shift to Digital Learning, it’s a shift every district can afford to make.
  4. Extend quality full an part time online options.  Utah is a leader in choice to the course but needs to continue to monitor quality.
  5. Make personalizing data available to teachers.  Utah could set the pace for personalization by implementing the recommendations of Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles–give teachers a shot by arming them with data from day one and allow parents to manage a comprehensive student learning profile.

With conversations like this, Utah will continue to be a leader in digital learning.
Digital Learning Now! is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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