Digital Promise

The Department of Education recently launched Digital Promise, an effort to identify the best in education technology and get it into classrooms across the country:

The National Science Foundation will also be one of the first contributors to the effort, announcing today $15 million in awards to support research on how best to create contemporary, digital learning environments.

“The projects within the NSF portfolio for cyberlearning stand to demonstrate and promote learning technology, to transform our schools and to enhance our lives,” said Farnam Jahanian of the NSF’s directorate for computer and information science and engineering.

It’s good to see so much effort go toward recognizing the innovative ways technology can be put to use in the educational sphere.  In addition to a host of other benefits, like reduced cost and more efficient content delivery, applying technology in the classroom helps educators accomplish two other critical goals: individualizing instruction and extending instructional time.  We’ve written quite a bit on Oasis, a personalized learning platform that allows students the opportunity to practice writing at a targeted level, read text targeted to their reading level, and even engage in vocabulary activities.  Oasis is built around the idea that targeted practice, when distributed over time, can help improve a student’s reading and writing ability.  Best of all, because Oasis is online, it can be accessed year round and anytime of day; and because Oasis is self-guided, students have the opportunity to engage in targeted practice with limited teacher involvement. 

Kudos to the Department for their effort to recognize the best in educational technology and to utilize it to ensure opportunities for all students.

Finding the Silver Lining Among the Cuts: Personalized Learning Platforms

As state departments around the country attempt to find solutions to substantial budget cuts, one reoccurring proposal has been to increase the use of technology in the classroom.  As Sharon Otterman of the NY Times reports, New York City’s schools are planning to increase technology spending.    As Otterman explains, “the surge is part of an effort to move toward more online learning and computer-based standardized tests.”   With many states facing severe budget cuts the possibility of adding more teachers appears dim; and many states are finding that moving toward technology based personalized learning systems is an increasingly attractive option. 

We’ve written before on the advances in computer based personalized learning platforms and the support they provide educators.  As the number of enrolled students continues to climb – while the number of additional teachers declines  – personalized learning platforms offer a unique advantage.  Personalized learning platforms facilitate instruction without adding to many educators’ already heavy work load.  Utilities, like our own Oasis, allow students to engage in targeted, self-directed practice and even monitor their own growth through real-time assessments.  Plus, web-based utilities offer the promise of individualization – students are targeted at their own ability level.  In addition to true individualization, web tools offer the advantage of consistent availability.  Utilization is not tied to a particular classroom or the availability of a teacher.  Instead, students may access the tools at a time and location of their choosing.   As technology proliferates in classrooms across the nation, we look forward to seeing the various ways in which instructional tools will supplement the work of classroom educators and augment instructional time for all students.

Working Around Mother Nature: Turning Snow Days into Learning Days

We’ve written extensively on the importance of increased instructional time, and various ways to mitigate  summer learning loss.  As many educators have recently shared, all of the recent inclement weather has kept many too many students out of school.  Some schools are now finding creative ways around mother nature and have started utilizing technology to keep their students on track during the school year. 

USA Today reports that educators across the country have been turning to unconventional means to reach their students during recent and frequent snow days.

In Chicago’s suburbs, Lake Forest College professor Holly Sawyers uploaded videos of her anthropology lecture last week on YouTube and kept and e-mail line open while Chicago absorbed 20 inches of snow its public schools had their first snow day since 1999.  University of New Hampshire professor Kent Chamberlin gave an electromagnetic s lecture live – audio only – while still in pajamas.

In St. Louis, where blizzards have closed public schools for six days already this year, math, English, Chinese and history classes met via the Internet as usual…

With the proliferation of YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and of course the increasing availability of personalized learning platforms, educators are able to stay in contact with students in real time – all of the time.  Personalized learning platforms, like Oasis and MyWritingWeb, make real time instructional content and assessments immediately available to any student with an Internet connection.  And these tools further strengthen the home/school connection by allowing students access to the same content regardless of their physical location.  While many enjoy the benefits of social media as a way to stay in touch with their friends, these tools are increasingly being used to maintain contact between schools systems and students – making instruction a constant possibility and the snow day a thing of the past.

A Simple Prescription: Write More, Read More – And Often

A tip of the hat to the Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent article by Deborah Hollimon in Reading Today.  In “It’s Simple: Read More, Write More, Teach Vocabulary”(subscription required), Hollimon’s suggestions are right in line with the research of Anders Ericsson.  Here’s Hollimon getting straight to the point:

What our students need are opportunities for voracious reading in classes brimming with engaging materials of all sorts, at many different levels… Reading means reading something engaging in every class, every day.

We could not agree more.  We’ve written extensively on the importance of students reading more.  First, Ericson’s research on what it takes to move from novice to expert is informative here.  Critical to the development of expertise is time on task, or practice.  In other words, if students wish to become better readers, they then obviously must spend more time engaged in reading.  Second, the Common Core State Standards has established a proposed ‘staircase’ of text complexity.  That document recommends that students face the challenge of increasingly complex texts as they progress from grade to grade.  Third, Nell Duke, among others, including, again, the Common Core State Standards, recommends that students must learn to grapple with a wide variety of texts.   To put it another way, a student brought up on a steady diet of fiction will find himself ill-prepared to face the challenge of real-world, informational text as they move into college or the workplace.  Duke, like Hollimon, recommends that students be exposed to informational text from a much earlier age.

On writing, Hollimon is even more succinct:

Writing more means writing every day, in every class, mostly without fear of red ink… Content teachers can easily incorporate quick-writes, exit slips, learning logs, or journals into daily lessons. What better way for teachers to check for understanding than to peruse the writing thoughts of their students?

We would echo Hollimon’s point on writing more.  Targeted and deliberate practice applies across a range of human activities, including writing.  Our personalized learning platforms, Oasis and MyWritingWeb were built around the very simple idea of allowing students to engage in daily, deliberate, and targeted practice in reading and writing.  Hollimon’s ideas on easy ways to incorporate writing into the content areas mirror our own belief that writing should occur across content areas and need not be limited to full-length, 3-5 page essays.  MyWritingWeb and Oasis, for example, allow students to write essays of any length, giving students plentiful opportunity to practice and teachers an easy and administratively painless way to keep students writing more.  And because both Oasis and MyWritingWeb are based on the Lexile Framework for Writing, educators have the added benefit of being able to monitor student growth in the domain of writing. 

If you haven’t yet checked out these platforms, be sure to take a look.

Remaining Relevant with Personalized Learning

Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant is concerned about the lack of technological literacy within public education and is asking a long list of important questions.  To mention just a few:

  • 7 billion people on the planet; 5 billion cell phones. 2 billion people on the Internet. 500 million people on Facebook. 200 million on Twitter. 85 million on LinkedIn. 5 billion photos on Flickr; 50 billion photos on Facebook. 17 million Wikipedia articles. 500 billion mobile phone apps were downloaded last year. 6.1 trillion text messages were sent last year. Apple will sell 20 million iPads this year. 35 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute (or 176,000 full-length Hollywood movies each week). When are we going to start integrating technology into our schooling lives like we do in our personal lives and in our non-school professional lives?
  • What percentage of your school technology budget goes toward teacher-centric technologies – rather than student-centric – technologies?
  • How are you (or should you be) tapping into the power of technology to facilitate differentiated, individualized, personalized learning experiences for your students? (emphasis added)
  • When e-books or e-textbooks now can contain hyperlinks, embedded video, live chat with other readers, collaborative annotation where you see others’ notes and highlights, and/or interactive maps, games, and simulations, does it still make sense to call them ‘books?’ How might we tap into their advantages and affordances?
  • Electronic versions of books on Amazon now are outselling both their hardback AND paperback counterparts. Reference materials are moving to the Web at an exceedingly fast pace. When all of the books in your media center become electronic, will you still need a physical space called a ‘library?’ Will you still need ‘librarians?’
  • What percentage of my job could be done by robust learning software that not only delivers content in a variety of modalities to students but also assesses them on their mastery of that content? What percentage of my job could be done by a lower-paid worker in another country who is accessible via the Internet? In other words, what percentage of my job requires me, the unique, talented human being that stands before you?
  • Do I truly ‘get it?’ Am I doing what really needs to be done to prepare students for a hypercompetitive global information economy and for the demands of digital, global citizenship? In other words, am I preparing students for the next half century rather than the last half century?
  • Readers concerned with McLeod’s last point on the emergence of a hyper-competitive global elite should see last month’s cover story in The Atlantic, which illustrates well the new world in which students will soon find themselves.

    McLeod’s other questions are similarly provocative and serve as good reminders of why education must embrace these important shifts in technology.  The focus on technological literacy need not come at the expense of an ability to handle increasingly complex texts.  Students should be able to improve literacy skills across a variety of formats and genres. 

    McLeod’s particular emphasis is on the importance of personalized learning and of harnessing new technologies to facilitate targeted and differentiated learning.  Our own personalized learning platforms (MyWritingWeb and Oasis) were built around the idea of facilitating the move from novice to expert.  Because these tools are web-based students may access them from anywhere at anytime, giving students many more opportunities to write.   And because they are student-centered, these tools do not require teacher administration. 

    McLeod’s questions are worth considering.  And we’re happy to do our part to help prepare students for tomorrow’s hyper-competitive global economy.

    Writing More Through Personalized Learning Platforms

    A tip of the hat to Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent post by Mike Schmoker, author of RESULTS NOW: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning.  In ‘Write More, Grade Less’, Schmoker argues that over the past thirty years, we have developed a number of ineffective and even counter-productive practices when it comes to student writing:

    • Overload: we grade for and comment on too many dimensions of a single writing assignment (which students ignore—because these comments discourage and  overwhelm them—with no clear direction on how to revise).
    • Infrequent writing assignments:  because grading papers very thoroughly takes so much time, we wind up reducing the number of assignments—though  frequent guided writing assignments are essential to becoming an effective writer.
    • Delay:  writing assignments are commonly returned weeks after they are completed–which nullifies any benefits for students.  And we seldom provide guided opportunities for students to revise their papers, based on feedback.

    Schmoker goes on to offer detailed recommendations on more effective ways to improve student writing, including focusing on short, more frequent writing assignments, focusing on one trait at a time, and scheduling dedicated ‘writing days’.

    If Schmoker’s cautions sound familiar, they should.  We’ve written before on what it takes to move from novice to expert in any field, including writing.  We know that writing practice should be distributed over time, and, as Schmoker argues, the key to developing a successful writer is frequency – students need to write a lot to improve as writers.

    Our own personalized learning platforms (MyWritingWeb and Oasis) were built around the idea of facilitating the move from novice to expert.  Because these tools are web-based students may access them from anywhere at anytime, giving students many more opportunities to write.   And because they are student-centered, these tools do not require teacher administration.  Educators may utilize MyWritingWeb and Oasis to monitor a student’s writing growth using The Lexile Framework for Writing, though it is not necessary to ‘grade’ every assignment.  Instead, educators can simply assign frequent writing assignments and then monitor for content or specific traits.

    Schmoker makes some valuable recommendations and it’s good to see a consensus building around the idea of what it takes to develop a good writer: targeted practice, more frequent and distributed opportunities to write, and self-directed activity.  For more on the value of personalized learning platforms, be sure to check out “Next Generation Assessments”.

    The Development of a Writer: Write Now, Write Away

    Here’s Paul Collins over at Slate taking a look at the first ‘How-To’ guide for fiction writing and reminding us that much of today’s advice to aspiring writers bears remarkable similarity to what was dispensed over 100 years ago.  The first known guide offering systematic advice on creative writing  (as contrasted with ancient Greek works on the essential elements of drama) was How to Write Fiction by the 26 year old Sherwin Cody.  There’s nothing all that startling in Cody’s suggestions – at least not by today’s standards – and most of it is by now familiar enough that there’s little need to belabor the details: write what you know, show don’t tell, and, of course, don’t plan on writing full-time.  As an aside, Cody’s Victorian upbringing shines through in his admonishment that art should shy away from controversy or his warning that a good writer does not make the reader uncomfortable with stories about ‘peculiarities’.   Today, Cody’s work strikes us as a bit quaint.  But that’s not entirely fair.  The idioms may reflect today’s culture, but many of the contemporary ‘how-to-write’ guides proffer the same sort of generalities as Cody.

    What is useful about Cody’s work, however, – and other ‘how-to’ works, more generally – is what it represents, or, more accurately, what it implies.  Implicit in Cody’s work is the idea that good writing is something that can be improved through effort, that good writers can be developed through hard work and by applying certain principles of practice to their work.   Despite the occasional insistence that great writers are born, not created, there’s nothing inherently strange in the idea of learning how to write.  Expertise in writing, like any human endeavor, is an adaptation acquired through repetition and hard work. 

    We’ve written before on the work of Anders Ericson and on what it takes to move novice to expertise.  Ericson found that attaining expertise in a chosen activity required the following attributes:

    • Targeted Practice: practice at a developmentally appropriate level
    • Real-time Corrective Feedback: specific and based on one’s performance
    • Intensive Practice: practice performed on a daily basis (or often)
    • Distributed Practice: practice over a long period of time; allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance
    • Self-Directed Practice: practice in the absence of a coach, mentor, or teacher

    There’s no reason to think that the act of writing is any different, or that writing somehow exists outside the range of other human activities and belongs to a special distinct class of human behaviors.  The qualities of a good writer are no more ineffable than what makes a good reader or a good cook.  If we think of writing as just one more human activity, as on a par with other endeavors, like swimming, mathematics, or chess, then we can dispense with the whole notion of treating writing as an essentially distinct activity and as somehow beyond the influence of practice.  Instead, we have much to gain by treating the practice of writing as one more useful skill that can be trained.

    The idea that writing can be improved through practice and that great writers can be trained applies to all forms of writing – even fiction.  In fact, there’s been recent evidence to suggest that creativity – presumably the essential element of a great fiction writer – is a skill like any other, one that, in addition to responding to environmental cues, can be cultivated and learned.

    Sites, like Figment, are attempting to do just that by providing a forum where students can read and write fiction.  By providing a social network, Figment allows students to present their writing to a peer community for review and criticism.  Our own work at MetaMetrics has incorporated Ericson’s research into our metrics.  In fact, The Lexile Framework for Writing (and its applications: MyWritingWeb and Oasis) is built around the idea that students have the ability to improve their writing skill through frequent, sustained, and targeted practice; and that writing performance – like reading comprehension and math readiness – may be measured.  Writing is a measurable skill, and by providing an automated platform in which students may practice, it is our hope to facilitate an environment where students may improve their writing ability through sustained and deliberate practice.

    Essays on Demand: The Desperation of the Unprepared

    Here’s The Chronicle of Higher Education offering an appalling view into the seedier side of post-secondary education.  In The Shadow Scholar, academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym), chronicles his experience as a ghost-writer for hire.  Dante works for a custom-essay company, an organization birthed from the deficiencies of students ill-prepared for the academic rigors of university life and dedicated to churning out essays for students to pass off as their own:

     The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

    I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

    I told her no problem.

    It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

    There’s no gray area here.  Even the most adept sophist would be hard-pressed to dress this practice up  as anything other than plagiarism – a practice we’d prefer to view as a rare mistep  by the desperate few.  That might be a mistake.  Dante argues that the practice of paying others to produce essays is far more pervasive than most would like to believe.  And it’s not constrained to a particular discipline or department.  Moral ambivalence, apparently, goes all the way down.  Unable, or unwilling, to produce even marginally competent work has led both graduates and undergraduates alike to enlist the help of writers, like Dante, to churn out thoughtful work that they can turn in as their own.  And, as Dante writes, there’s no pattern to the customer base.  The clientele is just as varied as the topics on which they refuse to write: (more…)

    MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.