Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core

Our own Malbert Smith just released a new policy brief: Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core.  Smith outlines some of the major challenges facing educators, including the imperative to ensure that students are graduating college and career ready.  An important component of ensuring steady progress toward college and career readiness is facilitating student reading growth throughout a student’s entire academic career.  Otherwise, students unable to handle grade-level material by high school face an enormous challenge in trying to ‘catch-up’ by time of graduation. 

Smith outlines two important strategies for ensuring students remain on track for life after high school – extended instructional time and personalized learning:

The “New Normal” requires us to find innovative solutions to eliminate the readiness gap. There are two promising, cost-effective strategies that can help us achieve the Common Core within today’s financial and time parameters: personalized learning platforms and summer reading. Both approaches support “blended learning,” which Michael Horn defines as: “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” (Horn, 2011).

Be sure to read the whole thing.

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.

Laptops for Every Student

In an effort to help close the digital divide, Google announced a major initiative aimed at getting laptops in the hands of school children:

At Google IO this week, Google announced a “new kind of computer” and a new program aimed at schools: Chromebooks for Education. These new devices look like laptops, but they run on Google’s new operating system Chrome OS and are truly Web-based and Web-centric. There is no local storage and there is no software. In other words, everything runs through the (Chrome) browser and everything is stored online.

Google’s new Chromebooks for Education program will offer these devices to schools for $20 per user per month.

That’s great news and we applaud Google’s efforts.  As more schools move toward individualized instruction and personal learning platforms, Google’s initiative helps shore up one of the central issues with a focus on learning platforms – the digital divide.  Many schools lack the funds to provide adequate technology to every student and many students – particularly low-income students – go home to technology free zones.  Google’s $20 device helps bridge that divide by making the web accessible to all students – allowing students and educators to take advantage of a whole host of personalized learning platforms, not to mention all of the instructional resources, tool and utilities that are now finally accessible. 

Kudos to Google.  This device promises to open up a whole new world of resources to students around the country.

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.

Washington Moves Toward Digital Texts

We’ve written at length about the shift from print to digital media in higher education. Many universities are now seeking ways to ease the financial burden of higher education for its students. One route that Washington State has opted to take is to offer more online classes with online resource material. According to this report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington state’s current textbook bill is financed through the state legislature, which has been facing financial hardships. The state currently has a half million students taking courses at their 34 two-year colleges. The idea was to create very accessible and affordable resources for students through online portals. The savings alone made the idea a winner. “We believe we can change the cost of attending higher education in this country and in the world,” says Cable Green, director of e-learning and open education at the Washington Board for Community & Technical Colleges.

The state received a matching grant of $750,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help begin development on low-cost online resources for the two-year colleges. The state is taking an ambitious approach to providing affordable education to their students, regardless of the obstacles they may encounter along the way. This is probably just a glimpse at what could be a revolutionary approach towards the future of higher learning.  If students are already receiving their texts digitally, it’s easy to imagine younger students receiving individualized texts targeted to their own reading level.  Personalized learning systems offer a world of possibilities to the world of education.  The wide availability of digital texts bring those possibilities that much closer to reality.

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.

    Engaging English: Preparing for the Future

    For the past 46 years the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) has been used to evaluate “the ability of nonnative English speakers to use and understand the English language as it is heard, spoken, read and written in the university classroom.”  This test is now the standard used by more than 7,500 colleges, universities and agencies in 130 countries.  Many students intending to study in the United States are required to complete this test in order to confirm their ability to function within an English-speaking environment. 

    And it’s not just universities.  Some companies are taking the English proficiency requirement a step further.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported (subscription required for full access) that Rakuten, the Japanese rival to Amazon.com, has developed a plan requiring all business to be conducted in English by 2012.  This requirement goes far beyond an expectation of minimal proficiency.  Rakuten’s CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, is requiring that all employees speak and correspond only in English.     Although the decision is not without controversy, many other Japanese based companies including Sony, Nissan Motor Fast Retailing Co., Mitsubishi Corp., and Nipon Sheet Glass Co. have already implemented similar policies.  (more…)

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