What happens when you ask a private Catholic school, a public district, and out-of-the-box schools like Rocketship and AltSchool what the word "blended" actually means? You get different definitions that vary based on the needs of the specific students and teachers involved.
A crowd of approximately 150 education enthusiasts learned that and more on the night of May 23rd at Mission Dolores Academy, which hosted this month’s EdSurge’s SF Edtech Meetup, aptly titled, “How Do Blended Learning Leaders Choose What To Use?”
Hosted by EdSurge’s Christina Quattrocchi, the event brought together four Bay Area kingpins of blended learning: Michele Dawson (Supervisor of EdTech at the San Francisco Unified School District), Caryn Voskuil (Manager of School Model Innovations for Rocketship Education), Carolyn Wilson (Director of Education at AltSchool, a system that recently received $33 million in venture funding), and Dan Storz (Principal of host Mission Dolores Academy).
Questions ranged from favorite tools to the biggest frustrations with edtech vendors, generating a number of informative answers about what each school district/system gravitates towards when making edtech choices.
What’s in their toolbox
Google got plenty of loving from the panelists, who sang high praises for Chromebooks and Google Apps for Education. “Google Apps is something we couldn’t live without,” said Storz.
Wilson added that her school enjoyed using Trello, a tool typically used by companies for project management, for scheduling purposes.
For content, Storz also called out ST Math as “a program that engages kids, teaches them to problem solve, grit and persistence. It goes beyond just learning content.”
Quattrocchi also inquired about the ratio of student-facing tools to administration tools, to which the answers spanned the spectrum. At Rocketship, this element is mostly controlled by the central office; Voskuil explained that Rocketship schools use approximately twelve student-facing tools, as well as a “single-sign on” developed by the Rocketship tech team, while the regional office uses a completely separate set of tools.
At AltSchool and Mission Dolores Academy, tools are mostly student-facing. “We look at the school experience as something that we want to build for children,” Wilson said. Storz added: “We aren’t a part of bigger systems like Rocketship and OUSD, and almost all our tech is student-facing. We use Engrade, Remind 101, and Hapara.”
But over at SFUSD, tech ratios vary over the 120 different school sites, as SFUSD champions a “decentralized blended model” where each school gets to decide what to use, Dawson explained.
What happens when products don’t work
However, these blended learning experts don’t always get tool usage right the first time around.
“Technology is not something we grew up with,” Storz said. He also admitted he was a bit naive at first about his school’s student data-tracking system: “I thought to myself, ‘All this software is going to tell us exactly what the data is!’, but you have to know how to interpret the data. What do I make of it? How do I use it?”
But there’s beauty in the mistakes, as Wilson explains about the AltSchool. The AltSchool was only recently founded in 2013 and currently has 20 students enrolled. Wilson is quick to describe AltSchools as a startup that both tries and fails, particularly when it comes to iPads.
“The great thing about being a startup is that we expect things not to work,” she explains. “We have iPads and Chromebooks, and students used to complain that [their work] disappeared on the iPads… It wasn’t until I watched the story disappear that I began to believe the children.” She adds: “The user interface between iPads and Google Docs is not so great.”
Where they find tools
Voskuil described a running list of potential edtech products that Rocketship colleagues continuously add to: “I go to conferences, rely on networks of colleagues across the country. It’s a collaborative effort to keep the list going.”
Dawson described a “vendor-vetting system” used within SFUSD, and warned vendors in the audience against merely pitching their product to her, rather than knowing her districts’ needs:
“I will have vendors show up and just sit at my desk. But that doesn’t work. Know our pain points. We know what our pain points are. We have identified three of our pain points: we need collaborative tools, a video-streaming company… The same for credit recovery.”
At the conclusion of the panel, Quattrocchi posted a poignant final question: “If you had an extra $100 per student, what percentage would you spend on technology?”
In most cases, answers ranged from 25% to 50%, with Dawson clarifying that 50% would go to tech while the remaining 50% went to professional development for teachers. Wilson again proved the wildcard in the bunch: “I would ask kids how they want to spend the $100 online. Some of them would buy books, some would be electronic readers… it depends."