Learn Launch conference delivers fantastic conversation on digital learning

Boston-based LearnLaunch‘s second annual conference (agenda here, but perhaps not permanently–also here as a PDF) brought together educators, students, entrepreneurs, industry participants, researchers, and other thought leaders to brainstorm on the question “How can Edtech scale student success?

The event was first-rate. LearnLaunch adroitly used the late Friday afternoon and Saturday calendar slots to allow attendance by many luminaries from the Boston education scene and numerous locales beyond. I came away with new connections, new ways of thinking about the challenges facing education and the approaches that might overcome these challenges, … and new ideas for blog topics. Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore some of these ideas.

My short answer to the conference question: Edtech can scale student success by delivering effective offerings to schools equipped to receive those offerings. In my most recent post, I touched on the second half of this success–schools needing the infrastructure to implement effective offerings. I’d like to use the current post to address the offerings themselves.

What makes for a better educational offering? I’ll argue that it’s a product or service that improves outcomes, reduces cost, or both. With digital educational offerings, there’s a clear path to doing both.

IMPROVING OUTCOMES: We learn best when we’re engaged. A key element of engagement is being appropriately challenged–not bored, not overwhelmed. In a classroom of 25 students, it’s impractical for a teacher to have every student engaged. Impractical, that is, without the right tools. Well-designed software offers the promise of providing this challenge-level engagement, allowing the teacher to take a step back and apply his or her talents where they’re most needed.

Are critical developments needed to create software delivering on this promise across the spectrum of student ages and curricular needs? No doubt. But are there examples of where this software exists today? Also no doubt–to wit, see Lexia Lexia Reading Core 5 (reading), Symphony Math (math), Harvard’s EcoMUVE (science), and McGraw-Hill’s MuzzyLane-developed Government in Action (social studies), to name just a few.

REDUCING COST: Teachers spend their time in many ways: preparation, collaboration, instruction, assessment, professional development, communication, and tending to various supervisory and administrative tasks. As it has in so many other fields, technology should be able to free up teacher time in most if not all of these areas.

Consider three possible examples of technology-enabled time saving:

Example 1: An elementary school teacher’s 2nd grade class increases from 20 to 25 students. Rather than dilute his time, the teacher rotates groups of 5 students through sessions with reading or math skill development software.

The software presents each student individually with instruction in the form of video or animation. The student practices what she has learned. In the background, the software assesses her responses, diagnoses her needs, and presents her with the next piece of instruction … all at a pace and challenge level matched to her needs.

While each group of 5 students interacts with the software, the teacher continues his work with the remainder of the class. The number of students served increases by 25% with no added staff. In effect, time is saved.

Example 2: A middle school teacher prepares for professional development. Instead of the one size fits all brand of in-service PD (and sometimes the need to travel to receive it), however, she accesses the course content online at a time and place that fits her schedule. Like the student in Example 1 above, she learns at a pace that works for her. A savings of even half an hour a week adds up to valuable time over the course of a school year. But her PD isn’t just available outside of class. It’s also available in short “sound bites” she can hear or read in the classroom in the context of a specific student’s need.

Example 3: A high school English and Language Arts teacher starts his year with a new energy. Why? A new system helps him grade the 100 papers submitted by his 4 classes of 25 students for every assignment. Students check their papers into the school’s learning management system (LMS). The teacher checks his dashboard, sees that 5 students haven’t turned in their work, and triggers a reminder message, avoiding having to track down missing items.

The teacher runs a first-pass grading utility that assesses the papers for spelling and grammar. He takes a second pass himself to judge each student’s style and quality of writing, making comments inline as he goes. Another push of a button and the papers are returned to the students. Even five minutes saved for each of the hundred papers frees up hours of teacher time.

How can Edtech scale student success? The offerings and implementations above show just several of many paths to that success.


Imagine the perfect digital learning offering

one-to-one computingFew are bigger proponents than I am of the application of digital technology to change the K-12 educational landscape. There’s a strong case to be made that technology will enable us to get better outcomes while reducing cost.

Let’s imagine that an education company has developed a suite of digital learning products spanning all grades and subject areas that does just that–learner understanding increases while the cost per learner drops.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s CEO, Linda Zecher, is certainly not alone among education company executives pursuing this vision. In an August 2013 Boston Business Journal article, she’s quoted as setting the goal of having 50% of the company’s revenue come from digital products in 2015 (up from 30% in 2013).

Setting aside the question of how digital revenue will be measured (if a product has a digital component, will its entire revenue be counted as digital?), I applaud that goal.

What I haven’t heard mentioned, however, is what I think is a major roadblock to achieving the goal, especially by 2015. Put simply, a digital education requires students to have access to a device at any time. In short, that means one-to-one computing.

The natural question to ask, then, is what fraction of schools have implemented one-to-one computing? While this data is getting a bit old, MDR/EdNet Insight’s 2011 “State of the K-12 Market” (Part III) finds that based on a survey of 300 districts, only 11 percent report having at least substantially implemented one-to-one (pp. 19-22).

  • Full implementation (5 on a scale of 1 to 5): 3.8% of districts
  • Substantial implementation (4): 6.9%
  • Partial implementation (3): 15.2%
  • Partial implementation (2): 23.8%
  • No implementation (1): 50.3%

In sum, education companies such as HMH may be ready (or readying) for digital, but their customers aren’t yet keeping up–half have no implementation whatsoever. The education companies that succeed will be the ones that offer hybrid print/technology products and services that serve districts both with and without one-to-one implementations as they collectively navigate the transition to digital.

Summary of EdNET 2013 Keynote: Big Publishing – Barriers to Entry Are Dead, Long Live Barriers to Entry

School districts and education companies are facing two forces for change: the Common Core and the transition to digital. Resisting these changes is a lack of adequate funding—manifested in part by a lack of technology infrastructure—and a lack of a clear path forward—manifested in the form of effective digitally-delivered content via that infrastructure.

As suggested at the outset by the moderator of the Tuesday keynote session at EdNET 2013 in Denver, districts may be starting to seriously consider diverting existing dollars from teachers (in the form of smaller class sizes) to technology for the primary purpose of improving outcomes, with cost savings potentially coming along for the ride.

Education companies need to pace their digital offerings to match the wide range of district infrastructures they encounter. In many districts, print will continue to be a large part of the curriculum for the foreseeable future.

T H E   P A N E L

  • Robert Lytle, Partner, The Parthenon Group (Moderator)
  • Peter Cohen, President, School Education Group, McGraw-Hill Education
  • Mary Cullinane, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Jonathan Harber, CEO, K-12 Technology, Pearson North American Education
  • Midian Kurland, SVP Technology and Development, Scholastic, Inc.

T H E   C O N V E R S A T I O N 

Parthenon set the table for the discussion with several opening comments:

  • In the near term, there will be no school funding relief (municipal and state budgets trail that of the private sector economy)
  • The relatively high level of investment in education companies suggests a reason for optimism about education as a market
  • For the first time, when faced with the choice of spending on education technology or reducing class size, superintendents are beginning to lean in favor of–or at least consider–the former

McGraw-Hill: At present, driven by the Common Core, most money is going to reading and math, to the detriment of other subjects.

Pearson: Common Core isn’t just the next in a long line of changes, it’s a fundamental change. The Common Core assessments will drive a different way of delivering instruction. One question is how states will set “cut scores” that determine different levels of proficiency. It will be difficult for states to set arbitrary cut scores now that there will be a point of national comparison.

Scholastic: The initial reaction to Common Core was to slap “Aligned” stickers on existing curriculum. Districts, for their part, have been aggressive about avoiding “false” alignments. Districts want new content, not revised.

HMH: Given allowable differences in the Common Core from state to state, we’re being set up for the “Kind of Common Core.” Districts and states will do an inconsistent job of evaluating whether curriculum does or does not meet the Common Core.

McGraw-Hill: The new standards haven’t been tested. They will morph over time. States will likely address 80% of them, not 100%. In the process, PARCC (one of the two assessment consortia) could lose 10 states. [Not clear if they will drop out, join the other consortium, Smarter Balanced, or form a new consortium.]

– – – – –

Parthenon: Parthenon has a database of all state standards (prior to Common Core). They find that the states are 70% common already. One thing that Common Core will do is create a better/clearer format for coding standards.

McGraw-Hill: Few districts are all digital. The companies on the panel represent $4.5B in revenue—essentially none of that revenue is all digital. [Inference: education companies (a term that all of the panelists prefer to “publisher”) need to be able to deliver curriculum that matches a wide range of digital capabilities, from sporadic computer labs and/or laptop carts to one-to-one implementations.]

Scholastic: Districts want digital capabilities to be added on to traditional offerings at no extra charge. Rather than being cheaper than print, however, digital, when implemented with interactive capabilities, is more expensive.

HMH: Districts are hearing about the coming digital promise, and as a result, are somewhat paralyzed from implementing what’s present now. Education companies have high standards for technical requirements—too many districts don’t have the infrastructure to match.

Pearson: The tablet is game-changing. Apple has sold 6 million iPads into K-12. Los Angeles Unified just purchased 650k iPads on their own. It may be folly, however, for schools to be using debt to purchase consumer goods … that don’t even come with keyboards. In higher education, a one-to-one computing environment (one device for each student) is assumed—K-12 isn’t there yet.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Should devices be pre-loaded with content, or do districts want to add content once they have the device?

Pearson: The 650k iPads in LA Unified are coming with content. [Question for Amplify and others delivering devices: are the devices locked so that they accept only content from the providing publisher, or are they “open?”]

Scholastic: The majority of the LA Unified money is going for the devices, not for content.

McGraw-Hill: Obviously, better outcomes won’t be due to hardware, infrastructure, or bandwidth, but rather, to the content they deliver. As a whole, the system must be easy to use.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Many buildings don’t have the physical infrastructure to support technology. There’s a need for electrical power. And bandwidth isn’t just about what’s available to the campus on average—it’s what’s needed when 30 students in a classroom all start streaming the same video, for instance.

McGraw-Hill: The most important element of making technology work is teacher professional development.

HMH: What’s the timeline to get to scale (that is, significant digital installation)?

Pearson: To get to scale, education companies need to be “outcomes partners” with districts. This means integrating curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development with the technology infrastructure.

McGraw-Hill: Outcomes is the right area of focus. For too long, the industry has been about inputs (content). Outcomes will be reached not by linear paths or scope and sequences, but rather, but having students work in their challenge range (Zone of Proximal Development) on unique paths from which they’ll learn.

Scholastic: As students move along these paths, they’ll be generating assessment data on which instruction decisions can be made. Eventually, this will make the end of year test obsolete.

– – – – –

Parthenon: What’s the role of the parent in all of this?

Pearson: Technology won’t work on its own. Instead, adults will be guiding students. Parents will have access to the learning of their children through portals. In addition, there will continue to be home markets for intervention, tutoring, and test preparation.

McGraw-Hill: Parents in South Korea spend more money on outside-of-school education than the US does. The US parent market is $30B—that can grow to $150B. That spend is well-rounded, by the way: it includes camps, sports, and so on, not just “pure” academics. This spend raises the question of income inequality.

HMH: The need is to bridge home to school, not separate them. The parents most needed at back-to-school nights are the ones who don’t attend, not the ones who do.

Scholastic: Every child doesn’t have involved parents and new technology—there’s a strong need on the part of “school-dependent” children who rely on school not just for education, but also for meals and safety.

Pearson: The growth of the home spend from $30B to $150B (as posited by McGraw-Hill) isn’t plausible.

– – – – –

Parthenon: Do the education companies gathered here have a reason to doubt the bleak forecast for education spending, and if so, why?

McGraw-Hill: “Publishing” is dead, but the Big 3 [Including Scholastic as #4? Presumably, the exclusion wasn’t intentional] aren’t publishers, but rather, “digital education providers.” These are exciting times on the solution side, and on the research side. [This didn’t answer the question of how school spending constraints might be surmounted.]

HMH: It’s odd that the companies on the panel [and others] have been named by their content distribution method [“publishing”].

Scholastic: Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s hard [and expensive] to develop curriculum that works. [Inference: curriculum development shouldn’t be the domain of teachers … or students.]

McGraw-Hill: Education companies need the flexibility to evolve content in real-time. To date, adoption contracts have required that content be locked for the duration of the adoption unless a committee explicitly approves the changes. In a digital world, getting approval in such a way will dramatically slow the process, with quality concerns resulting.

Pearson: California has just approved a completely digital curriculum—to Pearson’s knowledge, this is a first for education in the US.

– – – – –

Audience question: If we weren’t limited to the content of today as a starting point, what would educational content look like?

HMH: Content would be dynamic, improving with time.

McGraw-Hill: Content needs to be authored, assembled (scope and sequence important), aggregated, accessed (digital), analyzed, assessed, and adapted. [There was an 8th “A” that wasn’t clear.]

Scholastic: Maintaining content isn’t free—it will be interesting to see how education companies treat content improvement compared with open education resource (OER) providers.

Pearson: It’s tempting to think of K-12 education in the US as an educational system, but in fact, it’s 15,000 educational systems.