ImBlaze: Igniting Powerful Real-World Learning Experiences

Isabel, currently a rising 11th grader, did fine at her traditional middle school. Her academic performance required no intervention nor curricular acceleration. Though her parents regularly asserted that she was smart and capable, she questioned whether that was true given infrequent and mediocre feedback received from outside her family structure. When she entered high school, Isabel grew frustrated by working hard on schoolwork that was absent meaning or connection. She explained, “I was staying up until 2 am every night doing all the homework that they assigned, but it wasn’t stuff that I wanted to do, and I never got to pursue my passions.” Uninspired by what she was learning, Isabel began feeling uncertainty, anxiety, and depression about being in high school. Conversations with her guidance counselor helped her transfer her enrollment to an innovation high school in her district where coursework was driven by student interest and included engaging in an internship as part of the academic curriculum.

Motivated by a lifelong interest in science, after exploring a number of possible opportunities, Isabel secured an internship position at a local laboratory that does complex testing of water samples from all over the United States. Through her work there, Isabel learned lab techniques and protocols, was trained on highly technical equipment for scientific testing, and collaborated with colleagues on a variety of projects. Isabel leveraged her internship experience into a paid summer job at the same laboratory, where she is working as part of a team spearheading new techniques for identifying bacteria in water. In doing this work, she “found [her] love of science again” and has had “the chance to pursue [her] passions,” all while still in high school.

Isabel’s learning has purpose. It is tailored to her interests and passions. She is engaged in her work and excited and driven to do more. She has grown confident from experience being successful in a real-world work environment. She has a mentor helping advise her on future opportunities and choices. She has contributed to, and received feedback from, colleagues. She now knows that she is capable. She learned this through her experiences at a Big Picture Learning (BPL) high school.

Big Picture Learning: A Leader in Authentic, Real-World Educational Opportunities

Big Picture is a school design network that has been a leader for student-centered learning opportunities in real-world environments paired with strong mentors for more than two decades. Creating these kinds of hands-on, deeper learning experiences at a large scale is extremely challenging. Recognizing the design and implementation challenges, BPL leadership learned from their own experiences matching and managing mentor-mediated internships, and created the ImBlaze platform. As BPL describes, “ImBlaze is a mobile platform that encourages students’ interests through internships by connecting them to mentors in the community.” It automates many of the business processes that are obstacles for schools hoping to implement or expand a high-quality internship program. ImBlaze has made it possible for other schools to take internships to scale without increasing the burden, and made it possible to easily replicate internship management at new sites.

ImBlaze has received significant recognition. Julia Freeland-Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation touted ImBlaze as a rare exemplar of Ed-tech that addresses opportunity gaps and helps students grow their social capital. And Jobs for the Future highlighted ImBlaze for easing the administrative burden on schools to provide exemplar learning experiences. The platform was one of seven national education trailblazers to each be awarded funding of $1 Million as part of the Personalized Learning Initiative from venture philanthropists New Profit. BPL has also received support for the development and implementation of ImBlaze from leading educational philanthropists including Ted Dintersmith, the ECMC Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Why the recognition? Because ImBlaze is helping schools remove the previously prohibitive implementation barriers to providing internships at scale.

The Value of Internships: Unique, Engaging, Real-World Learning

Students engaging in real-world structured experiences, based on their interests, places them into learning environments that communities want for every young person. But 20th-century school design models pushed those opportunities increasingly out of the high school curriculum. School systems have raised the academic preparation required for employment readiness from 8th grade through 12th grade to today’s Associate Degree plus. This increase in academic readiness has pushed hands-on learning out of most students’ K-12 experiences.

Done well, internships provide environments where students are learner-participants, and paired with a supportive mentor that is guiding the increasing challenges students encounter, they are the fulfillment of engaged learning today with long-term benefits for tomorrow. These experiences liberate learning from the confines of a classroom, relocating it to an immersive environment where there are mixed roles and multiple authorities, and where the ability to listen and to contribute is fully integrated with knowledge acquisition. This situated learning occurs by doing. Unlike schools that purposefully separate content knowledge from context, internships place students in communities where life experience and relationships are just as important as prior knowledge.

In most traditional school environments, students tend to be grouped by age or subject matter in a cohort where several students are taught by a single teacher. But in a workplace, one student interacts with multiple adult influencers. There is a lead internship mentor for accountability and support roles, but the learning, coaching, and collaborating come from many adult colleagues of varying ages, backgrounds, and support roles. Internships play a powerful role for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who might not otherwise be exposed to career pathways beyond their particular community.

Engaging students in interest-driven, real-world learning environments has benefits in post-secondary education as well. As students move closer to joining the workforce, internship experiences both develop professional skills and knowledge and help students build relationships with individuals in professional networks relevant to their future career paths. Higher education institutions, especially community colleges, can strengthen their students’ post-graduation prospects through these kinds of programs.

As Isabel found, internships can be powerful, authentic learning experiences. For schools, however, establishing and administering a high school internship program can be prohibitively challenging. Therefore, many schools will not provide such opportunities in the array of options students are offered.

The Challenges of Implementing & Managing Internship Programs

Implementing a successful internship program for even a small number of students can be daunting for administrators and teachers. Any time students are off-site from the school building requires a significant change in the standard operating procedures for a school. The legal requirements that schools must meet include that students are present, safe, and engaging in effective learning experiences. These functions of in loco parentis, supervision, and the issuance of Carnegie Unit credits for high school graduation are required by statute and must be accomplished for any student in any internship location. Meeting these requirements has meant a significant amount of administrative time building separate processes in an ad hoc fashion.

Systemic implementation of internships as an educational experience requires that schools schedule students within and beyond the standard school hours. And counselors need to manage students’ total course load to accommodate both the internship time, travel time, and traditional coursework. Then, these procedures need to be repeated each school year with a significant number of variables that change from year-to-year: participating companies change, positions within each company can change, and the contact personnel at a company can change.

Enter ImBlaze: Agency, Authenticity, & Advisement

Before developing ImBlaze, BPL explored a variety of off-the-shelf products for internship processes. Unable to find one able to be adapted, they then attempted to build such a system from scratch. While this solution proved functional, it also required significant staff time to maintain. Being innovators, BPL found a partner with technology expertise to build a solution to fill the vacuum in the marketplace. Built in conjunction with ECHO Technology Solutions, a services company specializing in designing “technology-enhanced value delivery solutions,” BPL has delivered this efficient, easy to use, and scalable solution. Built to lift internship implementation and management burdens from schools, ImBlaze adds mobile transactions, remote connectivity, and location verification via mobile phone/device applications running either the Android or iOS operating systems. Overcoming geographic separation and enabling 24/7/365 connectivity successfully addresses many safety and supervision concerns for experiences that students want to engage in as school.

The ImBlaze platform creates a common tool for the student, the school, and the internship sponsor. One navigation path begins by enabling students to explore the possible opportunities of interest-based internship learning opportunities. Making this possible is the fact that ImBlaze allows schools to manage a large number of mentor relationships–across multiple sites, people, and industries–within a community. An easy-to-use interface guides educators through this repository as they explore, select, implement, and monitor internship experiences. Establishing an easy management system for the collection of background documentation for the students and mentors makes beginning and ending off-site relationships with quality and compliance easy. This includes a common interface for all participants for attendance, communication, and feedback. This ease of use increases the frequency and quality of communication. And the system empowers all parties to assess the quality and overall impact of individual internship and mentor experience, aggregate responses by participant descriptors, and enable analytics across placements and years. While ImBlaze was developed within the BPL ecosystem, it has matured to the point of having been spread far beyond. It addresses the internship implementation problem in BPL and non-BPL schools and other community organizations.

The development of the system recognizes that internships should not be “opportunity philanthropy.” The internship providers need to see a return-on-investment in the short term from the student’s presence, and in the long-term through community awareness of the industry sector and the capability of high schools to have graduates ready to enter the workforce. ImBlaze lowers the burden of company participation because ECHO utilized the Salesforce Community Cloud. This allows companies to use an industry standard tool set that is interoperable with Human Resources department’s software. Companies easily provide internship placement opportunities, define how many placements are available in specific time periods, provide the position description and what skill sets participants will refine or acquire. They can identify what prerequisite skills students should have to be successful, what days and hours of attendance are required, and what, if any flexibility the participant has in hours to work.

Connecting student interest and their learning is core to the purpose and setup of ImBlaze. The information provided by the companies provides a landscape for students to search for internship opportunities based on their specific interests, curiosities, and needs. By providing students the agency to explore, apply, and participate in the relationship, ImBlaze empowers learners. As Pamela Gordon, an Advisor and Teacher at BPL’s Leominster Center for Excellence School explains, “Using this platform helps students continue to take ownership of their own experience and be at the center of their learning. They don’t have to rely on their advisor completely to hand out a list of internships or go blindly to a google search. They can go to ImBlaze and look, get ideas, and begin to dream about the possibilities that are out there.” This empowerment is extended with the LinkedIn integration that allows participating students to build resumes, archive references, provide recommendations for their mentors and peers, and promote their expanding skill set. The students are the drivers in this process.

ImBlaze is currently being used in over 40 schools across the U.S. by more than 4,000 students and educators. The platform is provided under a service-as-subscription model, with a pricing structure that consists of an initial set-up fee with a subscription rate based on the number of participating students. The subscription includes a “full suite of online training” for teachers. Going beyond the technical understanding needed to successfully implement the service, the professional development is interoperable with leading learning management systems including Canvas by Instructure. BPL provides additional training opportunities for participating schools, and through their annual Big Bang, Big Picture Learning’s annual international conference on Student-Centered Learning.

Leave to Learn

Reflecting on his own educational opportunities, Andrew Frishman, Co-Executive Director of BPL and one of the architects of the ImBlaze platform shared, “All of my own learning experiences that were most powerful were out in the real-world with adults who had expertise.” These insights and BPL’s success over the past twenty years inspired them to create the concept, prototype and pilot for ImBlaze. The growing cohort of ImBlaze schools have realized that this efficient internship management tool improves quality, reduces time taken by paperwork, and delivers personalized learning including “students’ soft skills and social capital at every stage.”

There is a growing national momentum behind having students learn in contexts and at times outside of the traditional school day. Project- and problem-based learning, competency-based progression, and other deeper learning approaches are being more widely utilized. ImBlaze can be a vehicle to bring these opportunities to students in any community. Isabel’s successful experiences in finding meaning in her learning is something all students can experience. As a member of the Class of 2020, she is the frontline of high school graduates born in the 21st Century. ImBlaze has lit the path for schools to deliver them a 21st Century model of community based-learning that will leave the school building, and the 20th Century, behind.

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Erin Gohl

Erin Gohl is a Getting Smart columnist, and an independent writer focusing on issues of equity, engagement, and technology in educational policy and practice

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