Meet the Wizards of Blended Learning

Blended Learning

Meet the Wizards of Blended Learning

By Brian Greenberg, Rob Schwartz and Caitrin Wright     Dec 11, 2015

Meet the Wizards of Blended Learning

Who is Matty and why might he be the missing link for blended learning success?

Walking into a second grade classroom at Aspire Monarch Academy in Oakland, CA, two months into the school year, you would not expect a new administrator to have deep connections with kids. As Matty enters the classroom, though, the kids light up with excitement, eager to show him what they are working on. His title is “Blended Learning Teaching Assistant” (BLTA), but what he really does is straddle the line between teaching and technology—working equally with kids, teachers, and administrators to be the school’s jack-of-all-trades.

At the Silicon School Fund, we work with a lot of schools as a funder of new blended learning models. Many of these schools hire someone to direct blended learning on their campus. What schools may not get right, however, is the right mix of teaching and technology.

At Aspire Monarch Academy, Matty Sung demonstrates new software to students, plans lessons with the instructor, co-teaches and troubleshoots software to make sure it’s working. When they encounter a problem, Matty and the Aspire staff create a system to address it. Jen Green, the school principal, says of Matty, “He is right at my side and at the sides of our teachers in rolling out our blended learning program.” On any given day, Matty is a teacher, coach, thought partner, data analyst, troubleshooter, project manager, and cheerleader. Matty is a bit more humble about his role. “I do what needs to get done in order to make our teachers and students successful and that looks different every day.”

In short, Matty is a Wizard. In most cases where blended learning is working well, there is a great Wizard somewhere behind the scenes serving as a bridge between teaching and technology. Organizations use different titles for this role, but the Wizard is consistently the glue that brings together the instructional goals of the school and the technology that enables it.

What Makes a great Wizard? We believe there are five key qualities.

Loves the Data

One of the most important roles of a Wizard is helping teachers simplify all the data from their online tools so they can make decisions. Jin-Soo Huh, the Alpha Public School’s Wizard says, “Teachers can get buried in the data. I try to help them use it to truly personalize learning for each student. This often means uncovering the 1 or 2 data points that will really drive student learning the most, and for each program that is different.” The Wizard streamlines the back end for teachers so they can use the data to diagnose and prescribe what kids need. Few teachers have the time or know-how to pull all the data from these programs and make sense of it.

Marries Instruction to Technology

A Wizard needs strong enough instructional chops to hang with teachers and deep enough tech knowledge to figure out where technology can improve learning. The Wizard is the one who calls other schools to figure out which software is working the best. The Wizard wants to pilot new ideas in a classroom within days of identifying a problem. The Wizard is relentless in documenting learning so that great ideas spread from classroom to classroom and school to school.

On the Leading Edge

Wizards don’t need to be Cisco certified, but they should be an early adopter who really likes tech and isn’t afraid to call tech support and scour blogs for solutions. They likely have a wearable, use Slack, read Wired, and jump at the opportunity to beta test software. People like this often already exist in our school systems and are usually underutilized. Tapping into a potential Wizard’s excitement for tech can propel blended learning from “meh” to magic.

Rapid Prototyper

More than anything, Wizards are action-oriented. They don’t want to sit through endless meetings—they want to build prototypes and test them out in classrooms. The Wizard is always learning, tweaking, and documenting. Lizzy Choi at Summit Public Schools talks about her work to ensure continuous improvement within Summit. “We keep learning and iterating based on what we are seeing from our teachers, students and the data.” The Wizard resists the allure of a “perfect” solution, preferring a series of tests and trials to figure out what works. Through thoughtful documentation and sharing the Wizard brings others along and spreads ideas across the school. We’ve seen Wizards tour other teachers through prototype classrooms, write internal blogs and take 60 second videos to send out weekly. Great Wizards understand how important “change management” can be because involving stakeholders and presenting ideas so that others can best accept them is as important as finding the actual solution.

Puzzle Master

Lastly, Wizards can see beyond a single classroom and think about the broader ecosystem. The Wizard understands what it means to try something new for the first time—how change-resistant schools can be, how little free time classroom teachers have, what a problem it is when the tech does not work as promised. Wizards communicate effectively , and they share information in a way that allays fears and helps others to embrace the change. Wizards rethink professional development and recruitment to align existing systems to new classroom models. Elena Sanina supports the development of Wizards at Aspire and says, “The Wizard can take the Blended Learning Handbook and actualize it for an entire school with each teacher starting at a different point. They provide the scope and sequence of the plan and intentional, targeted support during implementation.”

At Silicon Schools Fund, we’ve seen several versions of the Wizard, both at the school level and the district level. We’ve collected a few different job descriptions that organizations have created when recruiting for this role and have included three samples here as a springboard for hiring your own Wizard.

Education for Change, Director of Technology and Innovation

Cornerstone Academy, Blended Learning Coach

ACE Charter Schools, Blended Learning and Innovation Manager

Lastly, a word of reality. It’s pretty unusual to find any one human being who perfectly possesses all five of these qualities. Hogwarts aside, there is no school out there minting fresh young Wizards. What we’ve found essential is that the organization understands exactly what they want from a Wizard and that the Wizard is excited to tackle the school’s vision even without all the skills or expertise. The Wizards profiled above didn’t show up looking like this. They learned on the job and got coached up. But they did bring the right mindset, a student-and-teacher-focused orientation and deep passion to personally help transform schools.

Our strong advice is to look within your team for the candidate who most fits the description above and who is excited to truly bridge instruction and technology. Then get your Wizard talking to others in this role in other organizations. Finally, the leaders on the academic side of the house, (principals, Chief Academic Officers, Department Chairs, and Assistant Superintendents of Instruction) need to embrace Wizards as key partners, really bring them into academic decision making and use them as key levers for change. Aspire has generously shared their Blended Learning Teaching Assistant Handbook – a great starting point for anyone thinking about this role. So go find your Wizard-in-the-Making, and share with us below what is working in your school with this role and what we might have missed.

Brian Greenberg is the CEO of the nonprofit Silicon Schools Fund.

Rob Schwartz is a partner at the Silicon Schools Fund and a former teacher, principal, Chief Academic Officer and Executive Director in the education sector.

Caitrin Wright is a partner at the Silicon Schools Fund with experience leading strategic work in the philanthropic, management consulting, and education sectors.

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