Stakes Are Too High For High-Tech Mistakes

Stakes Are Too High For High-Tech Mistakes


Technology’s power to individualize learning and improve student outcomes has caught the attention of districts, schools, educators, policy makers, companies, entrepreneurs, investors and families. Indeed, the vision of a rigorous, personalized learning experience for every student is in many ways predicated on the potential of technology to help teachers differentiate instruction and students take ownership of their learning.

However, little is known about what actually works. Schools and districts often must rely on anecdotes or advertisements. Educators are often on their own to integrate off-the-shelf tech tools developed far from schools. And companies often face school bureaucracies that may keep breakthroughs from even getting through the door.

Launched in April 2014, Chicago’s LEAP Innovations bridges the gap between education and innovation for teachers and students in pre-K through college. LEAP brings technology into classrooms and helps educators integrate it into a personalized learning environment where they use it to tailor instruction to each student’s skills, interests and goals. Headquartered at 1871, Chicago’s incubator for digital startups, LEAP also helps companies address unmet needs in education.

LEAP currently runs three initiatives: training and programs for educators and tech companies through our Collaboratory; grants and coaching for principals to put in motion ambitious, whole-school personalized learning school models fueled by technology through our Breakthrough Schools program; and our Pilot Network, which works directly with forward-thinking entrepreneurs, companies, principals and teachers to identify, implement and evaluate personalized learning techniques and edtech products based on the schools’ needs.

The LEAP Pilot Network attempts to answer three equally important research questions:

  1. Do tech tools enhance learning gains in schools using personalized learning models?
  2. Are some personalized learning tools and approaches more effective for certain students?
  3. What readiness requirements exist for teachers, schools, and students to successfully implement personalized learning models and tools?

We select schools based on readiness indicators in several domains, including leadership capacity, instructional rigor, collaboration among staff, and vision for personalized learning. We select companies from those that apply by relying on an expert curation panel comprised of educators, learning scientists, curriculum experts, and other stakeholders. The selected schools and companies in the Pilot Network participate in a 34-36 week evaluation process that has several distinct stages over an 18-month period.

The process for schools begins in January, with school teams participating in intensive professional development sessions to prepare for a successful pilot, learning about IT readiness, scheduling, personalized learning, and more. This is followed by a school year of piloting that begins the next fall, complete with in-person coaching and onsite observations to capture and share teaching practice, and allow insight into whether the schools’ vision of personalized learning is being implemented as planned. We also evaluate qualitative and quantitative feedback on student academic growth.

We are currently running pilots in 15 Chicago schools representing more than 100 classrooms, including traditional, charter and Catholic schools, reaching more than 3,000 students. Our second cohort of 17 schools is now undergoing a semester-long professional development program to prepare them for pilots next year.

The LEAP Innovations approach to research and evaluation offers real benefits. Our goal is to help districts determine which tech solutions merit widespread diffusion, as well as how to best deploy them to quickly generate successful at-scale adoption. At the same time, we aim to provide companies with insights from real-world classrooms, credible data about their tools, and visibility with district decision makers. Our research methodology takes into account how the products are used, by whom, and for how long. Context matters. Implementation matters. Teachers matter. Together, we believe this will help unlock the limitless potential of each student.

Amy Nowell is Director of Research at LEAP Innovations.

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