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Can lines of code improve education or is edtech a boondoggle?

Can A Technology Platform Transform Teaching and Learning?

I predict that the slow revolution in technology access, fueled by popular support and continuing as long as there is economic prosperity, will eventually yield exactly what the promoters have sought: every student, like every worker, will eventually have a personal computer. But no fundamental change in teaching practices will occur.

Nearly the entire field of technology and education is about change in some way. It’s about the dreams of what could be, the realities of what is, and the efforts to whittle away at the gap between the two.

Was author and Stanford professor Larry Cuban right when he said technology would not change fundamental teaching practices? (note: he is still an EdTech skeptic but now has a slightly more favorable view of it’s potential to enrich teaching and learning) Or is UNLV”s Neal Sturdler correct in asserting that technology can close the gap between reality and a vision for a better future? There is no shortage of opinions about the potential and peril of educational technology. Boondoggle or transformational tool? I spent five years contributing to the design of a technology platform aligned with constructivist learning theory. My insights and preferences did not always prevail in product development but, because of my work with AltSchool students and teachers and based on my observations of innovators across the country, I know that technology, wisely deployed, can support the construction of knowledge for students and teachers.

A platform is an infrastructure where two or more products, services or groups can interact. Most learning platforms support interoperability with multiple external tools. Ideally, a platform grows and improves as more people use and add to it (called network effect). Connecting educators through well-designed network features can help them continuously improve and accomplish a variety of challenging tasks inherent in sustainable change. Good learning platforms are grounded in principles of learning, make relevant data accessible to students and teachers and include features that support all phases of the learning cycle.

Principles of a Learner-Centered Platform

  1. Because schools are learning organizations a learning platform must support the continuous learning of teachers and students.
  2. Because all members of a school community can drive their learning, a platform must provide tools that empower exploration, collaboration, creation, and reflection.
  3. Because humans are motivated to learn when they have autonomy and purpose a platform must support learner choice about what to learn and how to demonstrate knowledge and skills.
  4. Because each learner has a unique rate of developing a platform must support competency-based education (also called proficiency or mastery based) where every learner has the time they need to demonstrate competencies in knowledge, skills, and content.
  5. Because humans are curious and social the platform must support opportunities for meaningful learning beyond the walls of the classroom and collaboration with peers and members of the wider community.
  6. Because learners need a clear understanding of where they are and where they are going the platform must support multiple modes of assessment and timely feedback.

The Right Data for the Right Reasons

One benefit of a learning platform is the collection and analysis of data to inform decisions about next steps in learning. The goal is to use data to deeply understand learners and to tailor supports and personalized learning pathways. The engineers who build platforms love data and, in my experience, gravitate toward simple data sets with binary choices, mastered/did not master. Educators know that simplistic descriptions do not capture the full picture of learning. Product managers embrace data sets that appeal to the broadest market. Educational innovators want a platform that will advance learner-centric practices. Landing on a shared definition of desired learning outcomes and how to measure them is a conundrum. Educators must advocate for platforms to support narrative and numerical feedback. They must also demand choice in the taxonomies which describe learning outcomes. The best learning platforms will have taxonomies for knowledge, skills, and habits. Edtech companies committed to advance learner-centric education and dealing with market realities will allow users to map learning experiences to Common Core Standards or competencies with aligned performance indicators, rubrics, and rating systems. Some companies will customize, using the school’s taxonomy of learner outcomes.

In addition to a choice of taxonomies, a platform should support learner variability. The cognition factors, beautifully articulated by Digital Promise, describe the complex processes called upon to accomplish academic tasks. Embedding these factors into platform infrastructure will empower teachers and students to understand which strategies work best for specific tasks. With enough input, the network will learn to identify the right approaches for individual students and particular tasks. The cognition factors could be the most important building block of a recommendation engine that will not replace teachers or coerce students but serve as one tool for lesson creation.

The Learning Cycle

Learning is continuous improvement changing the learner over time. A learning platform must guide the student and the teacher to continuously document and reflect on the student’s development. Traditionally the teacher drives all phases of the learning cycle, beginning with planning a one-size-fits-all curriculum and ending with an assessment of all students at the same time and in the same way. In personalized learning, the student and teacher are partners in all phases. The cycle begins with understanding the individual learner and guides the student and teacher in planning, engaging and evaluation.

Phase One: Understanding

Understanding the learner` is at the heart of personalized learning. A rich learner portrait is a dynamic tool or set of tools for documentation of learner interests, strengths, challenges, goals, progress, and reflections. Input from parents, students, teachers, mentors, coaches, and peers should be included. Building is complicated and iterative. Edtech companies should identify the questions teachers ask as they develop a deep understanding of individual learners. Product features should align with the process of documenting answers.

Who is the student outside of the classroom?

  1. What biological traits, challenges, family context, cultural and societal factors have influenced how this child views the world and her place in it?
  2. What interests does this child pursue outside of school?
  3. Does the child receive any external support for medical, physical, emotional or learning challenges?

Product Feature: The learner portrait should have a section for notes from conversations with the student and family. Teachers should have the freedom to craft respectful questions, personalized for each family. An affinity checklist or a drop-down menu allowing multiple choices is probably the best way to gather information about the student interests.

Who is the child as a learner?

  1. What are the learner’s demonstrated competencies in knowledge, skills, and habits?
  2. How does the learner approach learning? Do they like to work alone or in groups? What are their preferences for seating, friends, and experiences?
  3. Have there been breakdowns in learning related to cognition factors? Which factors appear to be weak?
  4. What are the learner’s goals? What motivates the child to learn? What do they value? What do they believe is possible?

Product Features: A portfolio will have samples of student work over time. Adding work samples, photographs, audio, and videos must be simple. It should also be easy to include and see feedback from teachers, peers, mentors or coaches, and reflections from the student. A learning progression will incorporate multiple measures of growth in knowledge, skills, and habits. Schools must be able to customize the calculation of competency or grades. Ideally, the progression will be layered. The top layer will be easy to read the table of competencies attained or grades. With one step the reader should be able to move from the table to the next layer where corresponding student work from the portfolio is stored. A separate view of progression should be a visual representation of the student’s strengths and weaknesses of cognition factors. When designing learning experiences (see planning stage below) teachers will tag related cognition factors. When a student struggles to demonstrate mastery the progression will show which cognition factors might be causing the breakdown in learning. Using data from the learning progression a report generator will create a learning report for parents or a transcript for next schools. A learning plan co-authored by the student and teacher will articulate goals for knowledge, skills, and habits. It will also briefly describe future learning experiences and list or link to strategies and resources to support the learner.

Phase Two: Planning

For many teachers planning is an exciting and creative phase of the learning cycle. For others, it is frustrating. A learning platform that connects students and teachers across a network enriches the experience of lesson design for both types of teachers.

Product Features: A resource library will make it easy to find content, resources, strategies, and lessons by other teachers which can be refined as needed. A lesson-building module will offer a selection of templates for lesson plans. Every template should prompt teachers to tag cognition factors at play in the learning experience. Lesson designers will be able to combine material from digital texts, user-developed content and open resources. When building assessments teachers must be able to draw from other assessments and auto-build assessments from content. Over time user input will empower a recommendation engine.

Phase Three: Engaging

The engage phase of the learning cycle is where students construct knowledge through a wide variety of learning experiences, ranging from direct instruction to tinkering. A learning platform must help the individual access resources and organize time and materials.

Product Features: The playlist, is a Kanban board for learning. It is a work and workflow visualization tool that enables the student and teacher to see the steps and stages of learning experiences, to prioritize tasks, give feedback, assess and reflect. Typically some playlist cards will be on every student’s playlist while others will be assigned to a few students. Although every student will also have a few unique cards use of the playlist does not mean every student is pursuing entirely different learning experiences. The playlist will be built in the planning stage with teachers tagging learning experiences to the student goals and cognition factor. Although the teacher will do most of the planning students will have input. Students will also have access to the resource library to inform the creation of self-designed playlist cards. Teachers will be able to see and respond to notes students make on the playlist. A collaboration chat feature will enable students to post questions and answers to peers.

Playlists can also be a tool for teacher learning. Educators will use playlist and collaboration chat to share samples of student work and videos of students working. Through discussions of cognition factors, tagged to student work, they will deepen understanding of cognition factors and strategies to address breakdowns in learning.

Phase Four: Evaluation

“What was the impact of my efforts?” “What is the next step in learning?” Where are the breakdowns in progress and what causes them?” Collecting evidence to inform answers to these questions takes place at every phase of the learning cycle. Decisions based on the evidence occur in the evaluation phase.

Product Features: Assessment might take place on the playlist where students and educators will assess work, from individual playlist cards or cards grouped in units of study. Alternately students and teachers could record assessments on the learning plan. The portfolio will store all student work. Students and teachers will be able to curate different views of work from the portfolio. The view shared with parents will show progress over time. The view for an external audience, such as next schools, will show the best work, selected by the student or teacher and aligned with goals or specific competencies. Rubrics, performance indicators, written in student-facing language, will be stored on the platform and easily accessed from the playlist, portfolio and progression. Dashboards, one for students and one for educators, will bring data together allowing educators and students to sort by a variety of criteria. Educators will be able to create classwide views and dynamic groups of students according to interests, progress or needs. The dashboard will make it easy for students and teachers to view the student’s learning journey, reviewing learning goals over a specific period. Alerts will notify the educator when students have fallen behind or are ready for the next step. Over time the platform should offer more discrete views to assist educators in error analysis and resource effectiveness. Public schools need dashboards for data required by policymakers.

Boondoggle or Transformative Tool?

No platform currently meets all the needs of schools launching personalization, but that doesn’t’ mean learning platforms are a boondoggle. Schools, districts or networks with a well-articulated vision for teaching and learning and a healthy system for piloting and spreading effective practices are ready to define what they want in a learning platform. Doing so is the first step in finding the right product and the right edtech company. If your school is committed to continuous improvement, you need to work with a platform provider who has a track record of iteration in response to evolving needs and a roadmap with features that support your community ’s vision for learning. Authentic transformation will not come from a tool but is possible when tools are aligned with a pedagogical vision and practices.

Every educator I have ever known has a dream for a better system for helping all children meet their full potential. And every single educator has been frustrated with orchestrating multiple tasks inherent to teaching. Technology can help us close the gap between where we are today and our vision for reaching all children.

Written by

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.

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