Monthly Archives: February 2015

What Drives Teacherpreneurship? The Need to Get It Done!

Who are your learning heroes? Is it a former teacher from elementary school? Someone you’ve read about making a difference in today’s embattled world of K-12? Or maybe a MOOC innovator within higher ed? Think no further. I have some nominees for you:

  • Maya Gat
  • Kara Carpenter
  • Mike Zamansky

Who are they, and how did they get on this list? Let me set it up for you. Then I’ll get into the details.

Why Teacherpreneurship?

There’s a lot of new terminology that has come out of the influx of technology into education in the past few years. Most of us know about the edupreneurs who have entered the education market to provide tools, services and dollars to implementing technology solutions into the field. More and more, we are hearing about teachers who are taking on the mantle of business ownership in order to parlay their expertise into providing educationally sound technical solutions to educational problems.

I was fortunate enough to spend the other evening at a great event called “Real Teachers of Silicon Alley: Teacherpreneurs’ Impact on EdTech” organized by NY EdTech Meetup, co-organized by Michelle Dervan and Kathy Benemann. I was blown away by the dedication, business savvy and technical expertise of the panel.

Classroom Challenges to Integrating New Technology

The discussion started with a provocative question addressing concern around the products and the bad rap that edtech is getting in educational circles these days. The biggest two challenges, as we have written about before in this space, were summarized as:

  • Teachers are in danger of spending more time dealing with new technology than with actual teaching.
  • Much of the technology being introduced can be classified as “substitution products,” or “digital replicas” of existing, and perhaps sub-par teaching practices. Think test prep on steroids.

Each of the three teacherpreneurs is certified classroom teachers. Two have left teaching to focus on running their companies, one is still teaching. The fourth panelist is serving as the iZone Director of Special Projects for the NYC Department of Education.

The panelists shared various anecdotes and perspectives on gaps in the current offerings and processes for integrating technology into the classroom:

  • Trading existing best practices in the classroom for time spent working with new software programs
  • Not enough release time or time to actually learn the systems
  • Lack of appropriate content or toolset

The Basic Business Challenges to Teacherpreneurship

As our small sampling illustrates, the major challenge to teacherpreneurship is that it often takes people who truly love being in the classroom out of the classroom. Therefore, if a teacherpreneur does leave the classroom to start up a business, maintaining a team of teacher content experts, developers and consultants is a large requirement for developing the right kind of product.

Additionally, while teachers may have their fingers on the pulse of what kids need, they may not have the business acumen required to start and operate a business in today’s dynamic market. Some teacherpreneurs take on a co-founder or partner to fill this role.

More on our learning heroes

So let me present today’s learning heroes, three teachers who have taken technology into their own hands in order to improve learning.

Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds

Prior to starting Branching Minds, Gat taught both locally and overseas. Through her own experience trying to understand why certain students struggle in the classroom, and through the principals of activism that were inherent to her teaching, Gat started Branching Minds to help identify appropriate strategies for individual students. Part of the solution lies in Gat’s understanding of neurodiversity and the role that plays in how people learn.

A series of questions answered on the Branching Minds site, much like those you may input into a “Web MD type application,” provides users with the learning strategies tailored to their particular learning style.

The platform enables you to:

  • Identify students’ learning challenges
  • Find research-back support
  • Track and report on student progress

Branching Minds just won the Netexplo Digital Innovation Award for 2015. Off to a good start (up)!

Kara Carpenter, Co-Founder of Teachley

Carpenter started up Teachley in 2011 while finishing her Ph.D. in Cognitive Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has over 10 years of classroom teaching experience from kids to adults, and has also taught overseas. Teachley’s program is a research-driven, game-based product that recognizes the distinct thinking processes different learners apply to solving math problems. Knowing how that child approaches these problems, a pathway to learning appropriate to that child can be developed.

The platform provides:

  • Personalized learning
  • Progress monitoring
  • RTI and intervention support
  • Professional development

Teachley has been recognized by the Breteau Foundation as a 2015 Prize Finalist and was awarded a Research@Work Honorable Mention in 2014 by Digital Promise. Their work has been cited by Scholastic, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets.

Mike Zamansky, Teacher and Founder of CSTUY

Mike Zamansky was a software engineer who left his job at Goldman Saks to teach. He and a group of fellow master teachers built developed the series of computer science courses taught at Stuyvesant and out of that developed the non-profit organization CSTUY (Computer Science and Technology for Urban Youth) to bring computer science to an audience that may not otherwise have access to the type of teaching and learning that CSTUY provides. Through afterschool and summer school programs, they bring best-in-class CS learning to a much wider audience.

One strong component of the CSTUY program has been bringing together the hundreds of Stuyvesant alumni and creating a network of advisors and connections to those just coming up.

Zamansky is passionate about teaching and learning, about providing quality computer science offerings to students within his school and beyond it.

The Need to Get It Done

The other day I wrote about the need to disrupt education if we want to change it. It was great to hear how these powerful innovators are using technology and business modeling in a way that is truly disruptive in order to improve education. When asked why they would take on teacherpreneurship despite the challenges, the consensus was that “it needed to be done.” These are the reasons I’ve added them to my list of learning heroes.

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If We Want to Change Education, We Need to Disrupt It

What do you think our greatest improvements have been in the educational sector in the past couple of years?

  • Has it been the number of students graduating high school?
  • Has it been the technology introduced to support teachers in the classroom?
  • Is it the growth of online learning expanding the footprint of higher education beyond the ivory tower?
  • Could it be the evolving business model under which we operate?

To really address the issue of improvements, I’d propose that we ask ourselves first whether our educational system is adequately preparing today’s student for the workplace of tomorrow. Are we?

Is Anything Really New?

A while back, I attended a Google + Hangout hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Can you be for profit and for students? Rethinking private enterprise in public education.” It brought together John Bailey from Digital Learning Now, Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly of the AEI, and Michael B. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. My interest, at the time, was in the debate over private dollars in public education. I’d seen resistance to this for so long and was thrilled that progress was being made to frankly get support from the private sector.

At that time, the discussion yielded a few key takeaways:

  1. A lot of the argument against for-profits was in a simplification of the role for-profits could play.

Andrew Kelly raised an interesting point in noting that 70% of Americans were comfortable with private dollars going to food, transportation, and supplies but not whole school management.

If you look at the different roles for-profits can play, this may reveal a misconception over the intent that many for-profits have and the role they can play in improving educational access and quality.

  1. We can learn from how federal policy deals with private sector contributions to other sectors.

A lot was said in this discussion around the role that policy can play in incentivizing the private sector to support positive results in education. As John Bailey point out, in almost every other sector (health care, clean energy, space program), the consideration has not been whether or not to engage with the private sector, but how to bring them in to tackle the challenge. Education, Bailey noted, is very unique in that incentives have not been provided to make such a collaboration work. And therefore, for-profits have largely had to work outside of the system to get things done. Michael Horn added to this argument that with i3 came out “the engine of innovation was cut out of the game.”

  1. There’s enough to be done so that we can all play a part.

As an extension of the first two points, John Bailey highlighted the role of collaboration, stating that “a blended solution” wherein “the suite of tools, services, and resources that the private sector will develop” can be used inside of the institutions. These benefits of innovation funded by the private sector could be used to support the existing institutions rather than breaking into institutional management. Likewise, expertise in instructional design, program design, and business modeling shared from the private sector can lend great support to the improvement of our schools, from K-12 through higher education.

At the time, my own conclusion was that a balanced, collaborative approach would yield the best result, that based on the need to produce revenue, for-profit educational providers would be watching the bottom line and that this could be a good thing when the pursuit of quality is as important. Additionally, I felt that with technology driving innovation, collaborating with those with the greatest access to capital to drive innovation, could be a smart move.

Now I’m not entirely sure.

What is needed to truly innovate in education

That technology is being used to great effect is not the issue here. It is being used to great effect. In these following areas, the use of private dollars to help drive innovation has resulted in improvements in:

  • Blended learning models and programs
  • Gamification
  • Professional development

But remember that millions of dollars are also being spent to support the Common Core and its associated testing, which in turn is really an extension of an existing model of education that remains stale and disengaging for a large number of constituents. Amy Scott reported on Marketplace yesterday that a single multiple-choice question costs $1,000 with costs ranging between $3,000 to $5,000 per question for more open-ended questions.

To truly innovate would be to take a look at this constituency and really understand how they can best thrive both during the school years and into the workplace. So take at least some of that money spent to make our kids better test takers, and instead provide them with more experiences and skills that prepare them for an adult world:

  • Experiential, hands-on learning
  • Expanded mentorship programs
  • Community-based internships

Question the Model

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Ed came out with an article on the Thiel Fellowship, titled “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club.” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know about Peter Thiel, he is the PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member and investor who decided in 2010 to pay selected teenagers $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and work on their own start-ups. While there are those who question Thiel’s methods, I’m a huge fan because he addresses the heart of the issue, which is the model itself. The article points out that Thiel initially considered building a better university through his foundation, but instead decided “The opposite of putting faith in the system is putting faith in the young people.”

Granted, the model isn’t expandable, but like other emerging like-minded organizations, it is calling into question the accepted standard for success that has been in operation for so long. UnCollege and Enstitute are others that I have mentioned here before, providing alternate pathways to the working world.

So, while we have made progress with dropout rates, there are still 1.2 million kids a year who leave school. The system still appears to be broken. And that is where we have to begin, questioning the model itself.

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Who Is the Teacher of Tomorrow?

In my last post, I asked people to “Imagine a School without Teachers” in order to examine some of the current challenges to the profession. Some interesting conversation came out of that post, with people actually speculating a school without teachers, or some variation of that theme. It’s safe to say that with the ever evolving technology, there are great opportunities for technology-assisted learning to support both classroom instruction and personalized learning in any environment (traditional school, home school, etc.). But removing teachers from the equation is not the answer. Evolving the role is a large part of the answer, as is ensuring the curriculum addresses the real needs of today’s students.

Early Voices of Discontent in Higher Ed

Since I left the classroom over a decade ago to participate in the development of some of the first online learning programs in higher ed, I’ve been keenly aware as to how the teaching profession is evolving. I saw the great potential for those whose passion is teaching and learning.

Throughout those years, I also saw how many people felt threatened by the changes that were occurring, first with the introduction of new technology and then with the introduction of new business models, particularly within the realm of higher ed. The first step was simply posting course materials online, starting online discussions, and allowing homework submissions online: in essence, using online platforms as an extension of the classroom learning environment.

As universities started to extend their footprint via the world of online learning, many faculty began to feel they would be replaced by either the technology itself or by those more willing than themselves to engage with it in this newer form of teaching. Sure, there were those that embraced and even spearheaded the changes, but that there was discontent is no great secret.

MOOCs shook things up entirely and to a great extent ensured that online learning would never be ignored again. Higher ed is still learning how to incorporate online options into their overall business model, but it will be a while before we see massive closings of brick and mortar institutions of higher learning.

Embracing Technology within PK-12

Today, as I continue to explore the ongoing changes in PK-12, I see an overwhelming amount of effort being exerted by teachers, schools, districts, and private entities to bring technology into the classroom. According to PBS Learning Media, 74% of teachers say technology enables them to reinforce and expand on content, to motivate students to learn, and to respond to a variety of learning styles (73%). Seven in ten teachers surveyed said educational technology allows them to “do much more than ever before” for their students.” And more than two-thirds expressed a desire for more technology in the classroom.

So, what type of support is there? Let’s look at a couple of examples that differ in their offerings.

Edmodo, the online community for teachers and learners (or “the social network for schools” as it is referred to) has over 47 million users. Teachers share lesson plans and support each other through online forums. Students keep track of their learning and become content creators through blogging features. Parents keep track of learning (including homework, quizzes, grades, projects, etc.) through the platform’s notifications, calendar, and tracking tools.

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has a membership of 100,000 users worldwide who collaborate to implement technology into the classroom. ISTE has online resources and Professional Learning Communities, hosts an annual conference on educational technology, has an advocacy network to share information on federal and state policies, and provides a framework (the ISTE Standards) for implementing technology in the classroom.

Teachers’ Perspectives on their Role

Teachers will continue to play a vital role in the educational process even as, and especially as that process evolves. But we have to ask if we are providing enough support to enable the change in the role.

According to a 2013 Scholastic poll, 82% of teachers felt that constantly changing demands on teachers and students was the most significant challenge to their profession. The second most significant challenge was not having enough time to collaborate with colleagues. Additionally, all teachers reported having two or more populations within their one classroom, with 23% having seven different populations (including special education, gifted, and those working below grade level).

So, from an academic perspective, providing the time, resources and classroom conditions becomes ever more vital as we seek to retain the quality of teaching we seek for our children. From a broader perspective, it is important to note that 99% of teachers surveyed agree that “teaching is about more than academics, it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills, and they believe great teaching demands a mastery of many skills.”

The Ongoing Role of Teacher

What will be the role of the teacher as we incorporate more technology into the classroom, and as more and more information becomes accessible outside of a traditional classroom environment?

  1. Many teachers in the PK-12 environment have already started the process of evolving as they:
  • Bring more technology into their lesson plans, having students research topics further and complete in-class assignments using desktop computers, laptops, tablets and, yes, cellphones.
  • Use blended learning strategies to differentiate and personalize instruction.
  • Flip their classrooms to make classroom time more valuable.
  • Communicate with students and parents outside the classroom via online platforms accessed on a variety of devices.
  1. As access to information expands, the concept of the flipped classroom may also expand, and the role of teachers will evolve further into those who support learning rather than deliver it directly, as:
  • Curators who help students navigate and select from the vast array of available learning material.
  • Facilitators who provide feedback and guidance within specific learning programs.
  • Mentors who offer practical guidance on real-world tasks associated with more project-based learning programs throughout their educational journey.

More change? Yes, it’s inevitable. I can see some eye-rolling right now. As the Scholastic report noted:

In conversation, teachers identify various issues within “constantly changing demands,” including changes in leadership, policies, curriculum, administrative systems and more. Many note that a large part of the challenge is the pressure these changes place on existing time and resources. As one teacher said, “Too many changes at one time waters down everything and doesn’t give teachers the time to effectively implement all of the changes.”

We need to manage change effectively, give teachers time, and broaden the support system. In an earlier piece, I wrote about Meet Johnny’s Teachers, a community of experts, inside and outside of the school who all contributed to a child’s learning. This proposed network depends to a certain extent on a more experiential curriculum. I agree with those teachers who said that a large part of teaching “is not about academics,” and I do believe the classroom teacher does not need to do it all on his or her own.

The role of teacher is changing greatly, but I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.

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Imagine a School without Teachers: Would that Work?

This weekend, the drive along the New York State Thruway was full of wind, ice and snow. It was challenging to keep the windows clear, and the road was so bumpy that I thought maybe I had blown a tire. Or two. I was escorting my high school senior to another college audition, and we had already laughed about how this was the perfect time to see the school, in the worst weather conditions possible. We arrived safely, and the next morning made it to campus and a welcoming reception and series of presentations while the kids all took their music theory tests and headed to their individual auditions. What stood out for me were two conversations I had in which Governor Cuomo’s name surfaced in relationship to careers in education and the increasing degree of jeopardy in which teaching jobs have been placed most recently.

Where will we be without the music?

Because we were at a college of music, the focus of these conversations centered on arts education and the migration of prospective music education applicants to other areas of study because of ongoing cuts to music and art. This is a shame. The curriculum for a degree in music education is rigorous, including both performance and pedagogical requirements. These programs prepare students for a broad range of teaching responsibilities. To see these programs declining is to portend the decline of one of the most significant components of a K-12 education.

How are we approaching evaluation and professional development?

But of course conversations about the Cuomo plan do not end at shortfalls in funding to arts education. Much of the controversy today comes out of the challenge to teaching and teachers in general. “The 2015 Opportunity Agenda” includes proposals to evaluate teachers based on essentially two criteria.

  • 50% of evaluations will be based on student performance on state exams (Proposal #37)
  • 50% of evaluations should be limited to independent classroom evaluations (Proposal #38)

On the surface, it is easy to say that if your class is not performing well on the test, you as a teacher are not performing well at your job. But it is more complex than that. As we know, the advent of Common Core has introduced serious challenges to those schools who have adopted these standards. Test scores have dropped recently as both teachers and students venture into unchartered territory.

As I have previously written, bravo to those pioneers in edtech and teacher development who have provided a range of tools to help prepare teachers and to support students who have been immersed in the CCSS curriculum. But if the issue is with the curriculum itself, will any amount of professional development improve overall outcomes? We are painting our teachers into a corner. Where does that leave our students?

Are we abandoning public schools? And by extension, are we abandoning our teachers?

Charter schools are a political hot button and under as much fire now as ever as people question Governor Cuomo’s request for additional funding for and a raise in the cap on charter schools. That these schools play a vital role in both the populations they serve and in innovating teaching practices should not be questioned. This should not be an either/or argument. All public schools can benefit from best practices in teaching and curriculum design from the nation’s charter schools. But at what cost to the overall budget? Should young people have to “go where the money is” rather than choose an honorable profession because of an allocation of dollars? What we really need here is some creative business modeling to further leverage the private dollars going into education these days.

What is the forecast moving forward?

My high school senior and I were lucky enough to arrive at our weekend destination safely despite the difficulty of the journey. The road upon which our kids are undertaking their educational journey is well-worn and bumpy, and the conditions under which they are traveling are quite stormy. As an educator, as an optimist, as a lifelong learner, I want to envision our kids all arriving safely at their destination. I can’t see them doing that without well-trained and motivated teachers there to help them along the way. Right now, the conditions are a tad hazardous.

How can we ease the way?

A well balanced and well-designed curriculum that both requires and lets teachers do what they do best will provide some enticement for people to continue entering the profession. Most teachers I know want their students to succeed in life. In most cases, that means providing the skills to make better decisions and to sort through masses of data to effectively problem-solve in a wide range of situations and in confounding circumstances.

As long as we have a curriculum based on achieving well on tests rather than understanding how to effectively gather and use information for problems solving, we won’t be best serving our students interests. And if we decide to judge a teacher’s ability to teach based on the results of and prepping for that exam, we won’t be serving anyone’s interest. And we’ll probably be losing some valuable teaching candidates moving forward.

Let’s get back to the drawing board on this one, folks!

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