Putting It All Together to Make Schools Smarter

Learning technologies are changing the world—companies are gaining intelligence, people are gaining information economy skills, schools are getting better, kids are getting smarter.  After outlining the benefits of customization, motivation, and equalization, Getting Smart attempts (in Chapter 6) to sketch next-gen learning environments:

I define blended learning as a shift in instructional responsibility to an online or computer-mediated environment for at least part of a student’s day with the intention of improving both learning and operating productivity. In other words, doing things differently for better results.

This year we’ll see hundreds of high-performing blended learning school models that have these ten factors in common:

  1. Goals that express equity, excellence, and preparation for the idea economy.
  2. A powerful and collaborative culture.
  3. Students have 24/7 access to instructional technology.
  4. Social networking capabilities are central to instruction and the life of the school.
  5. Students benefiting from frequent (often instant) academic feedback and learning experiences will be guided by a rich data profile.
  6. Powerful learning experiences include engaging and authentic work.
  7. Students progress based on demonstrated competency.
  8. Robust advisory and support systems.
  9. Students experience success in college, career, and community service.
  10. School staffing leverages the knowledge and skill of master teachers supplemented by junior staff and remote teachers and tutors (a differentiated and distributed staffing model).

For examples, check out Summit Denali (featured image), Carpe Diem, Rocketship, Michigan EAA, and the profiles of 20 NGLC grantees.
Innovation at scale. Despite real progress, American education faces some idiosyncratic barriers:  

Here’s a frustrating thought experiment: with sixty days notice, it would be logistically possible for a half dozen organizations (private companies and nonprofit groups) to make available to every student in the United States quality online high school math and science courses supported by effective instructors; they could also throw in twenty foreign languages—no problem. However, the U.S. history of local control makes this offer nearly inconceivable. If we don’t address the United States’ inability to innovate in the delivery of public services, it is certain that our children will be the first generation to be less well off than their parents.

Digital Learning Now! was developed by 100 experts in 100 days in late 2010. Launched three years ago, the state education platform advocates for polices designed to boost achievement and completion:

  • All students ready for college, careers, and citizenship
  • All students are digital learners: 24/7 access to quality
  • Choice to the course level: multiple statewide providers
  • Fund kids not districts: portable need-based funding
  • Show what you know: competency-based advancement
  • The new deal: performance-based employment
  • The good school promise: open good schools, close bad schools

For the last two years Digital Learning Now! (DLN) has produced a Report Card for each state.  In 2011, Utah passed a bill that extended part time access to online courses and propelled the state to top marks on the DLN Report Card.
This year, Louisiana students gained online options.  DLN is working to extend course and provider reciprocity so that states share the load of reviewing and approving online course providers.  Reciprocity would benefit strapped state education agencies and extend options for students and families.

Our public policy should promote productivity not protectionism; our public policy should promote nimble delivery not a rigid one-size-fits-few system; our public policy should be about cost-effective options not a bureaucratic monopoly. In short, education policy should be about kids not adults.  That said, improved ability to meet student needs and expanded and enhanced employment options for teachers and other learning professionals paint an exciting picture of the future.

Investment.  Real progress will require aligned investment:

Each of the sectors—public, nonprofit, and private—has strengths and weaknesses that it brings to the challenge of innovating education. A public delivery system may be good at promoting social equity but it’s not well suited to produce excellence; a public delivery system may produce consistency but it almost never produces innovation. Philanthropic and private investments have the potential to offset some of the shortcomings of public delivery systems.

Each of the sectors—public, nonprofit, and private—has strengths and weaknesses that it brings to the challenge of innovating education.  Public policy should encourage each sector to leverage its strengths:

  • Public leaders can name and frame problems and invite others to invest in solutions;
  • Foundations promote equity and a long term view; they can extract enough risk out of an investment opportunity to attract private capital; and
  • Private investment creates and scales and innovation.

Productive public private partnerships put the right form of capital to work to solve big problems and take advantage of emerging opportunities.
In spite of the dramatic increase in private investment, it is still difficult for impact focused firms—particularly those out ahead of the sector—to raise growth capital (Series A and B rounds).  For example, it will be five years before most schools embrace competency-based matriculation where students advance based on demonstrated mastery.  Software developers of competency tracking and portfolio systems for these forward leaning environments may have trouble gaining investors making it a great place for foundations to make grants or equity investments .
Back in 2010, Kellogg was one of the few foundations making equity investments in private companies. This year the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation led a $4.25 million investment in MasteryConnect, a site where teachers can share Common Core-aligned assessments.
In a 2012 paper, Learning Returns, we made the case for foundations to take at least a portion of their endowments and invest it private companies likely to build tools that will advance the sector.  I still think this suggestion from Getting Smart would make a big difference:

If just a few of the larger national foundations focused just five percent of their endowments on mission-related investments (funds and direct investments) rather than random mutual funds, there could be an order of magnitude increase in investment in learning innovation.

Employment. Blended learning is not just for students; new ecosystems create a great opportunity to improve working condition, professional learning opportunities, and career pathways:

Personal digital learning won’t just change the experience of students in K–12 education, it will fundamentally change the lives and work of those people who are in any way engaged in supporting and educating children.  New pathways to learning are expanding the number of jobs and the type of jobs that promote learning; at the same time, innovations in learning technology are creating more opportunities for edupreneurs to create new tools and schools.

We expanded on this theme in a May DLN SmartSeries paper on improving teaching conditions and careers where we outlined a set of teaching expectations:

  1. Students have full-time access to mobile learning technology.
  2. Students have access to comprehensive online instructional materials.
  3. Student learning is accurately gauged by online assessments.
  4. Students advance based on demonstrated competence.
  5. Students are ready for your class and lesson.
  6. You should not have to teach a course you’re not equipped to teach.
  7. You should be able to connect with other teachers facing similar challenges.
  8. You should be able to support your learning with online tools and experiences.
  9. You should be recognized for your contribution.
  10. You should be allowed to add responsibility (and compensation) as you demonstrate results.

When combined, investment, innovation, and new learning environments have the potential to boost achievement and completion rates and make teaching a more attractive career.
This post is the third in a series.  The first post–Build on Strengths, Explore Interests, Shore Up Weaknesses–summarized chapters 1 & 2 of Getting Smart.  The second post–The Promise of EdTech: Customization, Motivation, & Equalization–considered chapters 6-9.  Digital Learning Now! is an 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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