Learn Launch conference delivers fantastic conversation on digital learning

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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.

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Boston: the Hub of the (Education) Universe*

universePreface 1: Posting at least every other week hasn’t exactly worked out. Here’s a pledge to be better.

Preface 2: *With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes; per Wikipedia, “The Hub, which is a shortened form of a phrase recorded by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Hub of the Solar System. This has since developed into The Hub of the Universe.”

It took last evening’s LearnLaunch January Meetup, “International Education: Opportunity Outside the U.S.,” to drive home the title point: Boston is the hub of the education universe.

“Boston is the home of more than 240 startups,” commented panelist, LearnLaunch co-founder, and Boston EdTech fixture Hakan Satiroglu. “But we’ve got more startups,” you might expect the Bay Area to cry. “And perhaps you do.” Boston (and Cambridge) venture capital to go with those startups? Check. “Yeah, yeah, Bay Area, we know.”

How about large education companies? Bay Area, nada. New York City could perhaps make a claim here, but Boston has headquarters or major presences in Cengage, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, Pearson, and School Specialty. Scholastic? Not exactly, but their Tom Snyder Productions division calls Watertown home. Small and midsize players? Check: Cambium Learning Technologies, Curriculum Associates, Lexia Learning, MuzzyLane, Six Red Marbles, and many others.

On the academic front. Massachusetts K-12 education leads the nation and ranks high amongst the best nations on the planet. Oh, and just to slather some icing on the cake, let’s not forget higher education. This fact may not be widely known, but the Hub is home to one or two (or more than 50) colleges and universities, some of which you may even have heard of.

“A jaunty-looking person … said there was one more wise man’s saying that he had heard; it was about our place—but he didn’t know who said it … ‘Boston State-House is the Hub of the Solar System. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar.'” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table