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Tom Vander Ark: "There is a Ton of Underused Data Out There"

Learn Capital partner explains how 2014 will support more personalized learning

The combination of real, common college/career-ready expectations and the shift to personal digital learning is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to make step function improvement in achievement and completion rates.

Given effective leadership in 2014, I believe that we will see real inflection points in American K-12 education, with focus in four key areas.

1. More investment. I don’t see edtech investment slowing in 2014. We saw a big surge in angel investments in 2012. In 2013, a couple foundations made equity investments in edtech companies. There has been a steady stream of acquisitions and we’re finally seeing some IPOs.

The good news: it’s easier than ever to put a seed round together today and get a beta app into classrooms. 

The bad news: if you sell to school districts, demonstrating a business model and putting together Series A funding can be the valley of death. As I recently told my friends at 4.0 Schools, if you want to do high impact work, you’ll probably be in front of the market, and you’ll need an impact investor to buy you a runway.  

I think that the big trend for 2014 will be the continued surge of international edtech venture investments, particularly in Brazil and India.  

2. More information. This is a ton of underused data out there, just waiting to personalize learning. There are enough people talking about learner profiles that we may see some progress in 2014. 

We’re seeing a little progress with gradebooks (e.g., Jump Rope, Kickboard, and MasteryConnect’s mastery tracker) and portfolios (e.g., eduClipper and Pathbrite)--both are key to managing a competency-based environment. (Watch for Getting Smart's January report on performance assessment and mastery tracking.)

Smart learner profiles are key to driving customized playlists. There’s a lot of buzz about this idea, but only a few folks executed on it this past year, including Summit Public Schools (who used the open Activate Instruction platform). I also like the high-agency environment that the Michigan EAA is creating, where students make choices about how they learn, apply and demonstrate learning.

3. More online learning. About 3 million American students took at least one online class last school year; it will probably be 5 million during the 2013-14 school year. 

Online learning is probably still growing by about 50% annually, and school districts are the current driver. Most districts report that they are offering or planning to offer online courses. A handful of states will emulate Louisiana Course Choice in 2014 and expand statewide part time options.

4. More incoherence. I’m a big fan of the Common Core, and despite the 2013 backlash, the Core and its white label cousins will be implemented by most American schools. However, there will be an odd assortment of old and new assessments in many districts in 2014 as states come to terms with new expectations. PARCC and Smarter Balanced are facing capable competition from vendors that can deliver decent and less expensive tests.

What you won’t see in 2014 is a reauthorization of federal education policy. ESEA waivers as a substitute for a national education policy is the embarrassing byproduct of a deadlocked congress. The federal confusion and long time frames of the testing consortia have made it even more challenging for states to create a coherent policy framework. What we’ve learned from top performing countries is that policy matters--and American kids deserve better.

State and district leaders can make a big difference by putting a timeline and a plan together for embracing the Common Core and the potential of personalized digital learning. Use our free ebook, Navigating the Digital Shift, as a study guide. Make your corner of the world more coherent and productive for students and teachers.  

About the Author

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and CEO of Getting Smart, a learning advocacy firm.

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