Which Way for K12 Blended Learning?
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Which Way for K12 Blended Learning?

Just beyond the mountains, there is a land where unicorns run free, jumping from rainbow to rainbow. The children call the land “Edtech Nirvana.”

In Edtech Nirvana, a child can find the perfect lesson online for any standard, in any  subject, in any grade. The lessons are developed by various education co-ops that freely pool their work together to create a “just right” experience for every child. If there has to be a student information system, it lets teachers and parents see everything wonderful about their children all in one place and offers suggestions about how they can love their children even better, as if that were possible.

The children deeply engage with their devices for hours at a time - smiling, laughing and furrowing their adorable brows throughout. And just as a child’s energy might flag, a loving educator appears offering words of encouragement, an organic snack, and a perfectly timed tutoring session. Three other students, who just happen to also need the exact same support at the exact same time, skip over to the teacher...

It may be that education moves at such a glacial pace that it is possible to see into the future. However, predicting the future is difficult and conventional wisdom can be extraordinarily unreliable. Here are a few things I’m thinking about as I wait for the bus to Edtech Nirvana.

Let’s not overthink Edtech Nirvana (or why I fell in love with playlists).

The learning playlist is a simple idea. Take a learning objective. Curate the best resources you can find related to that objective (e.g., pdfs, videos, websites, games, apps, etc.). Create an assessment to see if kids have mastered the objective.

Here are my three reasons why playlists are going to happen.

  1. Playlists don’t require Edtech Nirvana. Teachers at Summit Public Schools are partnering with Illuminate Education and teachers from other schools to create playlists in core subject areas across grades 6-12. They can work on this right now, just like Khan Academy has done for the last several years.
  2. Playlists put resources directly in the hands of students, allowing them to own more of their learning. The idea of edtech shifting more power to students is like the Terminator, it just keeps coming and coming and it’s not going away. Arguing that edtech can’t replace teachers misses the point. Yes, teachers are irreplaceable. But should they be spending 30 hours a week with students like they do in high school? Or the 12 hours a week they spend with students in college? If we have 18 hours to play around with, how about we use part of that time to let students practice being independent learners? Just give them the playlists already.
  3. Playlists can free teachers and students to try new approaches to education. During personalized learning time, Summit students work on playlists while teachers take their talents to the Tutoring Bar, kind of like the Genius Bar at the Apple Store. Large class time is repurposed to push deeper learning through projects and other rich performance tasks. Sounds like an insidious plot to help prepare students for college. Someone call the local paper.

Edtech startups seeking other edtech startups for group edtech.

For the record, I love edtech startups. And I have a lot more faith in their ability to lead us into the future than I do in the big publishers.

But, for the love of everything good in this world, a few of you have to band together, deeply integrate, and give schools a more compelling offering.

I’m sure your point solution is awesome and destined for greatness. And you certainly don’t want to make a strategic blunder and give up a lot of value to a partner organization. But schools have limited ability to deal with multiple point solutions. We need some real integrations where the sum is greater than the parts, not the half-hearted ones you do to make philanthropists and education bureaucracies happy.

Kudos to EdElements + Goalbook + UDL for coming together. LearnZillion + Nearpod are coming to a tablet near you. Clever will work with any company that wants their learning data to be, you know, useful. No edtech startup gets to leave this party by themselves!

Don’t underestimate PreK-2 edtech just because four-year-olds have these big doe eyes and are covered in applesauce.

PreK-2 consumer edtech is my dark horse pick for technology most likely to disrupt traditional schools.

  • Fact: Children are learning to use touchscreen devices at 18 months old, before they can speak in sentences.
  • Fact: In fall 2012, the first generation of kindergartners showed up for school having played with touchscreen devices since they were toddlers.

    Speculative guess: while families still have Good Night Moon and the Hungry Caterpillar board books strewn among letter blocks, a growing chunk of children’s early literacy skills and math concepts are coming from the family’s iPad.

    Curating the best digital resources for children will become part of “good parenting” and, trust me, families reach into their wallets to give their children the best possible start to life (or to get some peace and quiet as they make dinner). Edtech companies serving PreK-2  make families happy because families can see and appreciate the learning that is happening. The companies also don’t have pound their heads against school district sales (at least initially). It’s no wonder people are excited about companies like Homer Learning, Kidaptive, Busuu and others.

    When rich online experiences facilitate even better offline experiences, I’m dropping the mic.

    Those who criticize edtech for being all drill-and-kill aren’t paying attention. Want your kids to get off the Internet, build things with their hands and make new friends? Give them your iPad.

    My son saw a crystal growing project on DIY.org so we grew them in an eggshell over the weekend and shared the project with the DIY community – all of a sudden eight other kids wanted to know how my son grew those crystals. Since then, he’s uploaded three projects on his own over a two week period. “Doing something” connected my six-year-old to a vibrant, like-minded community, a skill that he will hopefully use time and time again throughout his life.

    There is an endless library of kid-friendly, real-world projects across DIY.org, Khan Academy Projects, Make Magazine and other resources. These are the types of educational activities we say we value but often do not find the time or money to do them in our schools. Guess who’s making project-based learning a whole lot easier? That’s right, big bad edtech.

    Districts are raising more money than you can shake a stick at to spend on edtech.

    Schools are adopting edtech a lot more quickly than we think. While school operating budgets are just awful in much of the country, school districts have the handy power of taxation that allows them to get bonds and mill levies passed to invest in technology. Los Angeles Unified School District carved $650+ million out of a $7 billion bond to put tablets in the hands of every student and upgrade their IT networks. Vendors are twisting themselves in knots to figure out how to bundle their products in a way that allows districts to pay them in bond dollars instead of operating funds. Add in $400 million from the last Race to The Top and school districts should be unwrapping new toys for a while. On the other hand, districts have the less handy power of being... school districts.

    OK, I’m worn out. When is the bus to Edtech Nirvana coming again? It’s running late...

    Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools.

    Editor's Note: Alex Hernandez works at the Charter School Growth Fund (a nonprofit). The fund is a philanthropic investor in Summit Public Schools. Alex is also an unpaid advisor to Homer Learning.

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