Empower is a tool for designing, creating, and assigning standards-based curriculum for students and teachers. It is meant to be a supplemental instructional tool for teachers and professional development facilitators.
Users can design lessons, units or courses for proficiency based learning. They can group knowledge and skills, sequence the skills, and define what student success looks like for each one. Users can create activities, assessments and playlists that are aligned to standards and assign them to students.
Students complete the activities online on the Empower platform and submit their work digitally using the tool. Then, the teacher or facilitator assigns a score for each completed activity or assessment based on the descriptions of success associated with each skill or standard. Multiple choice assessments created within the tool can be automatically scored.
- Design a standards-based scope and sequence for a unit, course, or curriculum
- Create rubrics with descriptors for every standard in the unit, course, or curriculum
- Create and assign individual learning activities
- Create and assign individual assessments
- Create and assign units or courses called “playlists”
- Track student performance on individual activities and standards
- Students can submit multiple types of work digitally (including text, audio, presentation and video files, as well as free-form drawings)
It’s clear that educators were partners in designing this product. The evidence is in the subtle details that only teachers would notice. For example, when creating assessments users can align individual items to standards and assign a maximum achievable score (MAS) to each one. The MAS (usually 1-4) correlates to the cognitive difficulty of the item. This means that teachers (or PD facilitators) can see if students have mastered specific standards, and can tell the level of knowledge at which they have mastered the standard. Then they can grade their students on the standard accordingly.
Hypothetically, a teacher could create an assessment with four assessment items that are all aligned to the same standard but that require different levels of knowledge (i.e. one recall, one comprehension, one analysis, and one evaluation). Each item would be assigned a different MAS (i.e. MAS 1: recall, MAS 2: comprehension etc.) If the student answers the MAS 1 and MAS 2 questions correctly, but miss the MAS 3 and MAS 4, the teacher knows that the student understands the basic concept but still needs to work on extending his or her knowledge to truly achieve mastery of the standard.
There are also a few critical nuances around the assessment experience. When taking an assessment, students can add text-based rationales for each item explaining why the correct answer is the correct answer. Students can receive detailed score reports immediately after taking multiple choice assessment that can include these explanations to support real-time learning.
Course creators design rubrics for each individual standard that include sample assessment items for each level of performance so that teachers know exactly what students at each level can do. The rubrics are used by teachers when evaluating student work.
There are also tools for differentiation. Not only can students attach and submit a variety of multimedia files and documents for projects and activities, but they can also create and submit free-form drawings in Empower to showcase their learning through a different medium. Features like sub-playlists allow teachers to provide students with choice and alternative routes to learn the same skill. One type of sub-playlist, the Learning EXCELerator, automatically creates a playlist with three parts: learn, practice, and assess. These three parts represent the minimum pathway for learning or reviewing information, and can be used as a quick review of prerequisite skills before tackling higher level concepts and skills in the unit or playlist. Lastly, students can create their own Empower playlists to showcase their learning on a topic and share the playlist with their teacher.
Additionally, one of the biggest value-adds is the level of control the tool provides for course creators and teachers. For example, teachers (or facilitators) individually assign content to students and determine the appropriate pace for each student. They determine what mastery should look like for each standard or learning target for each activity, and grade projects and student work that is digitally submitted. For the learning cycle to continue, the teacher or facilitator must be an integral part of the design and implementation.
The Empower platform user interface is simple and visual making it easy to use and to navigate. The graphics and color-coding simplifies the process of creating a scope and sequence, a lesson and/or a unit.
Types of Schools Using It
- Empower is used in over 55 districts with over 100,000 student accounts.
- Mostly K-12 public school districts with 4,000 students or less that are interested in implementing a performance-based instructional model for student learning and teacher professional learning.
How It Works
District’s using Empower typically have a central administrator, or course creator who sets up the standards and rubrics that will be used for all of the content in Empower. Then, any user associated with the district, including teachers and students, can create content in Empower.
When setting up Empower, the course creator must first determine the sequence of knowledge and skills, as well as the performance indicators for each one.
To being this process the course creator must define the set of skills they want students to learn. These sets are often linked to national education standards like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), or professional teaching frameworks (i.e. Marzano, Danielson). Standard sets that are common like the CCSS can be preloaded into Empower by 3Shapes. Standard sets that are less common (i.e. IB standards) or that are self-created (i.e. How to differentiate instruction using iPads) can be manually entered into the system by the course creator.
After the knowledge and skills have been defined and organized for the course, the next step is to sequence them. The course creator can create both long term and short term courses. For example, he or she can create a scope and sequence for all of the knowledge and skills outlined in the Common Core standards for K-12 math, or he or she can create a scope and sequence for a 3-week course on how to facilitate productive student conversations in elementary school classrooms.
Once the standards are set and the scope and sequence has been defined, the course creator builds individual rubrics for each standard or learning target. The default rating system is a 4-point scale (i.e. Marzano’s 4-Point Rating Scale) with one as the lowest level of cognitive difficulty and four as the highest level. Administrators add descriptions of what students should be able to do at each level of difficulty for the standard; most schools and districts consider level three to be mastery. If a district wants to customize the default 4-point scale, they can work with 3Shapes to make it happen (i.e. A-F scale, 0.5 increments, descriptors like “emergent” and “developing”).
Administrators can also add a sample assessment item next to the description for each level of difficulty on each rubric. This helps users understand the types of tasks that students should be able to do at each level of difficulty for that standard.
After the standards and skills have been defined and individual rubrics are created, users can begin creating learning activities, assessments, and units or “playlists” that are aligned to them. Each piece of content is saved in Empower’s content repository. Any user can create activities or playlists (i.e. teachers, administrators, professional development leaders, students etc.). They can be kept private (i.e. only the user has access), can be shared with a group (i.e. a school), or can be shared publicly (i.e. across a district). System administrators determine the settings for each type of user.
When creating an activity, a user must first give the activity a title and align it to a standard or learning target. Multiple standards or targets can be aligned to an activity. (Activities must be aligned to standards or targets for them to be graded in Empower.) There are five steps to building an activity: instructional resources, vocabulary, organizers, questions, and directions.
To begin creating an activity, the user is prompted to first add instructional resources to the activity’s resource bank. There are three ways to do this. They can upload their own materials such as videos, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, or mp4 audio files. They can add external links to webinars, blogs, and educational websites (i.e. Khan Academy, Learnzillion, etc.) by clicking on a link and adding the URLs. They can also integrate content from YouTube, Google Search, Google Image Search, Google Drive, Guru, Compass Learning and OpenEd so that users can perform searches of the Internet from within the platform.
After adding instructional resources, the user can add vocabulary words that students will need to know and questions that students will need to be able to answer. They can also add graphic organizers to help students structure their thinking during the activity.
Finally, directions for the activity can be added and saved. The user can drag and drop instructional resources from the bank into the directions, creating a step by step list of things to do with the resource embedded into the instructions.
Users can also create and search for assessments in Empower. The Dynamic Assessment Tool allows them to pull from a bank of assessments. The user identifies the standards, the level of rigor, and the number of questions. The system will pull assessments from the repository and automatically create the assessment.
However, users can also create their own assessments. To do this they click on the link “Assessments” from the homepage. Once inside the assessment engine, users can create assessments or search for assessments by standard, keyword, or user. The first thing to do when creating an assessment is to align the standards or learning targets and select a max achievable score for each one. Each assessment can have more than one standard or target aligned to it.
Next, the user chooses the type of assessment he or she would like to create (i.e. formal assessment, quiz, practice test). Then he or she decides how the results should be displayed for students (i.e. summary statements, raw scores, or raw scores plus rationale), whether it should be timed, and whether the questions should be randomized.
After adding the directions, the user is ready to create the assessment items. Empower supports multiple assessment item types including single select, multiple select, true/false, and fill in the blank. All of these can be auto-scored by Empower. In addition, written response items, essays, drawing, and matching can be added; however, these assessment items must be manually graded by a teacher or facilitator. Each assessment item is aligned to a standard or a learning target, assigned a max achievable score (MAS), and given a maximum number of points out of 100.
The user adds the question text and the answer choices to the item using a text editor that supports hyperlinks, images, videos, attachments, and specific mathtype. As items are completed they are saved as a list in the left sidebar. Users can toggle between the items and can preview each one in “student view.”
Lastly, users can include an explanation with each item. These are called rationales and they explain why each answer choice is or isn’t the correct answer. The rationales can be included in the students’ score reports as corrective feedback to support student learning.
In addition to individual activities and assessments, users can also create groups of content called playlists and share them with others. Playlists can include any type and amount of content that a user wants to group together as a lesson, unit, or course. For example, a playlist could be a 7-day thematic unit on measurement, a 30-day novel study on Mark Twain, a 90-day interdisciplinary STEM project, or a 2-day introductory course on how to use Google Apps for Education.
A user can deactivate specific parts of a playlist that students have already mastered. When these individual students login to Empower, they will see specific parts in their playlist as greyed-out. This allows teachers to differentiate based on mastery. Although not required, students can still access the content if they would like to review it.
Moreover, the playlist creator can require students to complete a sequence of activities, or let students self-select the order in which they would like to complete the playlist. Lastly, the teacher can require students to receive a passing score on an assessment before moving on to the next activity, or let students continue on regardless of the assessment scores they receive.
To create a playlist or search for a playlist, a user clicks on the “Create” tab from the homepage and selects “Create a Playlist.” There are then five steps to creating the playlist: Big Idea, Target, Activity, Assessment, Sub-Playlist and Culminating Application.
Focus (“Big Idea”)
The focus of the lesson, unit, or course is communicated through the “Big Idea.” This is the part of the playlist where the user explains the educational purpose of the course or curriculum. The user also aligns the playlist to specific standards or learning targets.
Next, playlists can have branches, or alternative pathways, by adding an element called “Sub-Playlists.” These are miniature playlists with their own settings contained within a larger playlist. Sub-Playlist are often used as a way to provide choice for students and to differentiate learning within a lesson or unit.
Within a sub-playlist, there might be 3 activities but students can choose one of the three to complete. Once one activity is complete, the student can move on with the rest of the playlist. Another example might be a sub-playlist with three different assessment types. Students could choose whether they would prefer to take a multiple choice test, write an essay or create a visual representation with a drawing.
One special type of Sub-Playlist is called the Learning EXCELerator. The Learning EXCELerator is a semi-automated mini-lesson used to review isolated skills aligned to the playlist. Each standard or learning target that’s aligned to the playlist can have its own Learning EXCELerator or mini-lesson. The mini-lesson always leads students through the pattern: learn, practice, and assess.
The Learning EXCELerator is often placed at the beginning of a playlist to activate prior knowledge or to provide immediate skill remediation for students before they get into higher order tasks. It can also be used as a resource bank for students to reference as they work. These playlists can be optional or mandatory depending on the settings that have been chosen.
Tests & Projects (“Culminating Application”)
The last part of a playlist is the “Culminating Application.” This element usually comes last and is often a summative assessment in the form of a test or a project. All of the standards that were aligned to the playlist should be represented in the assessment. The playlist creator can provide students with a choice to promote differentiation and interest. Students might be able to choose between creating multimedia content (i.e. video, audio, animation), writing short stories, researching a topic, taking a long-form test and more. (Some teachers have even given students the option to reteach what they have learned by creating their own Empower playlist on the material and sharing it with teacher.)
Lastly, users can create badges associate with content in Empower. Badges are used as an incentive system for students as well as tool for documenting learning and credentials. To create a badge a user hovers over an icon in the playlist and then clicks on the green trophy that appears. Then he or she adds a title, a description and a custom design, and then assigns points to it. The user publishes the new badge and and saves it to the specific element in the playlist. When a student completes that part of the playlist, he or she will be awarded the badge.
Teacher Set Up
Once the standards are determined and the content is created, teachers and facilitators can begin using Empower as an instructional tool. One of the first steps in implementing a performance-based model is to enter student performance data into the tool so that students and teachers know which standards have already been mastered, and which standards need to be worked on. Empower can integrate external student assessment data by importing CSV files and XML files. Teachers can also manually check-off the standards they know their students have mastered using the Gradebook Spreadsheet (discussed later on).
Next, teachers can either create content or search for content to assign to students. Content can be searched for in two places. First, teachers can navigate to the activity-builder, assessment-builder, and playlist-builder engines and search for content in each repository. The content can be searched by standard or learning target, keywords, or by the user who created it.
When a teacher finds something he or she is interested in assigning, he or she clicks “Assign,” which appears next to the content in the search results. Content can be assigned to individuals or it can be assigned to groups, and due dates can be added. Groups are manually created by teachers based on student data.
The other way that teachers can search for content is by using the Target Browser. The Target Browser is an interactive bar-graph that displays the scope and sequence of the standards or learning targets associated with the course or curriculum (i.e. K-12 Math). Each standard or target is graphically represented as an individual block, lying in a row in sequential order like a stack of unifix cubes.
Student data can be overlayed on top of the Target Browser data so that teachers can see the holes their students have on specific learning targets. Teachers can use this data to better plan instruction and sequence learning.
When a teacher clicks on a learning target in the Target Browser a pop-up appears with additional information about the target. Not only can the teacher see the rubric with performance indicators for the target, but he or she can also see links to aligned activities, assessments, and playlists. When the teacher clicks on one of these links, he or she will be taken back to the activity-builder, assessment-builder, or playlist-builder engines to view the content and assign it to students.
Content that teachers assign to students appears on the student homepage and on the student’s dashboard. When a student logs into Empower, he or she can see any new assignments or messages that teachers have sent to them on their homepage. This information appears like a Facebook-esque news feed with hyperlinks under the “Notifications” sidebar on the right of the screen.
An icon of a house, located on the left in the main navigation bar, will take the student to their individual dashboard. The student dashboard is meant to prioritize information for students so they only see the activity they need to work on that day and the activity that will come next. In addition, students can see their current pace towards mastering a specific standard. A progress bar displays the planned rate of completion and the students actual rate of completion so students know if they’re on pace, ahead of pace, or behind pace. (The pace is set by the teacher or central administrator and can be adjusted for individual students.)
Students open the activity from their dashboard and begin. The student sees the components in each activity that the teacher designed (i.e. vocabulary, questions etc.) and can create and submit their responses using the student workspace.
From the student workspace, students can open documents that are attached to the activity, upload their own documents and save them as attachments (i.e. PowerPoint, Word, Videos etc.), create written response in a text editor that includes mathtype, add web links, and create free-form drawings on a digital whiteboard. Students can also bring in documents from their Google Drive. When the student is done, he or she clicks “submit” and the teacher or facilitator is notified in Empower. The submitted work is stored in the student’s portfolio, also referred to as their “locker.”
If the student opens an assessment from his or her dashboard, the student will simply begin taking the assessment in Empower. If the quiz or test has questions that can be automatically graded by the tool (i.e. multiple choice, true/false), then the student receives a score report after completing the assessment. If the assessment requires a teacher or facilitator to grade the assessment (i.e. open response), then a notification is sent to the teacher.
Depending on the settings, the student can move on to the next activity or must wait for the teacher to grade the assessment. In addition, if the student does not receive a passing score on the quiz he or she can be prompted to retake the quiz after reviewing the content in the playlist (or additional resources the teacher has added).
When a teacher logs into Empower, he or she sees assignments and notifications on their homepage. The teacher dashboard displays a list of the activities and playlists that the teacher has assigned to students.
When the teacher clicks on one of them, he or she can see the playlist and each student's current status. Students are also broken out into three different groups so that teachers can track their progress for the entire content area. Students are grouped as either “on or ahead of pace”, “caution” or “behind pace”. For example, if the third item in the playlist is an activity, the teacher might see the number seven floating above the activity graphic, indicating that seven of the assigned students are currently working on the activity. The teacher can drill down to find out more information like the students’ names.
The teacher can also see the work that each student has submitted, review it, grade it, and mark the activity as complete. Depending on the settings, when the teacher marks the activity as complete, the students can move on to the next activity in the assignment (i.e. playlist). The teacher can also send direct messages to students from the dashboard or within a specific assignment to create a feedback loop.
Empower has two different gradebooks: the “Task Gradebook” and the “Grading Spreadsheet.” The “Task Gradebook” is where scores on individual assessments and activities are kept. Auto-graded assessments instantly appear in this gradebook, however the rest of the scores are added manually by the teacher or facilitator.
The “Grading Spreadsheet” is the place where the final, cumulative scores for each standard or learning target are assigned. Teachers or facilitators manually enter these scores into the Grading Spreadsheet online or select a feature called “update overall” in the Task Gradebook. When this feature is turned on, scores that are entered for standards or targets associated with individual activities in the Task Gradebook will automatically be imported into the “Grading Spreadsheet” as the overall score for the standard or target.
Teachers can add comments to scores in both the Task Gradebook and the Grading Spreadsheet. They can also export the information into Microsoft Excel and print it. Schools and districts can work with 3Shapes to configure the information in the grading spreadsheet to meet their report card requirements.
Lastly, as students progress through their assignments, teachers can monitor how they are doing from the Target Browser. The Target Browser is meant to be a tool for searching and filtering for information on specific standards in a course, as well as at-a-glance monitoring of current student progress and performance on standards or targets in the overall scope and sequence for a course .The latter is often used to manually group students and to inform instruction.
In addition, teachers can select groups of students from a drop down menu to be displayed on the Target Browser. This allows teachers to see the standards or targets that students are currently working on. The teacher can click on each target to see more information about the students and their performance on the standard. This allows teachers to see which standards most students are working on, which students are behind, which students are ahead, and which standards have mostly been mastered
When a group of students is selected and overlayed on the Target Browser, the teacher can choose “% complete” to view the percentage of each standard that these students have completed. Lastly, teachers can search the Target Browser by entering keywords into the search field. Only standards or targets with the keyword will appear.
How It Is Used
Educate is designed to be a tool for differentiating learning. The tool is not intended for delivering complete virtual courseware that is consumed independently in isolation. As such, many schools and districts use the tool as an aid for differentiating instruction and for facilitating project-based and competency based learning. The tool is currently being used by over 100,000 students at about 55 different districts.
For example, at Red Bank Elementary School in Lexington, South Carolina students use the tool for completing student projects. The teachers create activities that list the project’s directions. Then, students work together in groups to complete the work and create culminating videos. They upload the videos and submit them to their teacher to be graded. By default, the submitted videos are saved to students’ profiles which then become their digital work portfolios.
As of fall 2014, Lindsay Unified School District in Lindsay, California and Auburn School Department in Auburn, Maine are beta testing Empower prior to its release in 2015. Both districts have used the flagship product, Educate, for several years and been active partners in the product development process.
Lindsay was a awarded a $10 million Race to the Top grant in December of 2012 to accelerate individualized learning as a part of their performanced-based learning initiative. The district needed a tool to help them keep track of student performance on standards that would also let them create and deliver differentiated instructional materials. With the help of the grant, Lindsay worked with 3Shapes to develop and implement Educate (and Empower) in their district.
Today, Lindsay uses Empower to design learning across the district around a proficiency based model. Students work on content that is aligned to standards and skills that integrate with the teacher’s overall curricular plan. Most students are assigned content based on their performance data but in some cases, they can choose content (i.e. secondary English language arts units).
Auburn School Department, a member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, wanted to implement proficiency-based learning across their district. Auburn believed that this would only be possible with highly transparent curriculum and a strong instructional framework. They partnered with 3Shapes and began using Educate.
To get started, a group of Auburn teachers and curriculum specialists used Marzano’s Instructional Framework to unpack all of the standards and complete their instructional design. Then, they chose to pilot Educate (and now Empower) with a few interested teachers across the district. Auburn’s district-wide implementation strategy is based on gradually releasing responsibility and teacher choice. As such, teachers across the district have varying levels of experience and exposure with the tool and use it differently.
For example, the most experienced teachers might be creating and assigning standards-based learning activities, units, and assessments that students independently access and use online during independent work time in class. The teacher might use shared activities from the content bank as a part of his or her lessons and students might actually grade their own work themselves by using the learning target rubrics as a self-evaluation tool.
Others might be using the tool to simply promote student ownership of their learning. Students in these classrooms might simply use Educate, as a tool for tracking student mastery. Students can login and find the standards and skills they have mastered and what they need to work on next. In some cases, these students might also use independent resources from the content repository for isolated skill remediation or acceleration during independent work time in class.
Auburn recently piloted a full competency-based Algebra I semester course. Armed with two teachers and Empower, students worked independently at their own pace and filtered in and out of small group lessons with their co-teachers. According to Auburn, the pilot was an academic success but even more inspiring was the effect the model seemed to have on student engagement and motivation. After the course ended in the spring, over 80 students chose to attend summer school to continue working on their Algebra skills and to proceed on to more advanced math.
Lastly, Lindsay and Auburn are planning to apply the same learning principles now used for students, to teachers and administrators. Both districts have developed a plan to implement Empower as a district-wide professional learning tool. There are also 30 other districts in Maine planning to use the tool for professional learning. Warren School District in Arkansas is planning to do the same.
As of fall 2014, the plans have been created and work has begun on defining professional learning standards. The next step is to create and find aligned instructional resources and assessments for formal and informal learning opportunities. The tentative goal for the first phase of this roll out is spring 2015.
Auburn plans to use a cohort of teachers and professional developers to help design their professional learning curriculum. One of the first courses they plan to create will be an introduction to Empower, followed by content on integrating instructional technology in the classroom. In addition, this team will work on developing and implementing a badging system for credentials earned (inspired by the Boy Scouts of America) using the Open Badges framework.
Data & Reports
Empower tracks student performance data. The assessment engine automatically captures and scores responses for items that are multiple choice and fill in the blank. In addition the grades, or proficiency levels, that teachers input into the grade book are captured for each student. Lastly, student work that is completed online and submitted to teachers will also be saved and associated with the student’s profile.
Administrators can also run reports and print them. For example, an administrator can run a report that shows what learning target every K-12 student is currently working on. Custom reports can be created to pull any data that’s captured in the system.
Setup & Implementation
To get setup, one of the first things a district must do is add student information into the system (from their SIS). This can be added manually (i.e. CSV file) or it can be integrated. Empower can integrate with several SIS systems (i.e. Infinite Campus, Aeries etc.). In addition to student information, administrators also work with 3Shapes to upload any other content integration needs they have (i.e. assessment items, content partners etc.).
3Shapes works with each district to customize the tool to fit the needs of each district. Most often these customizations are minor adjustments (i.e. A-F grading scale) and settings (i.e. information sharing). The district then chooses the knowledge and skills, or standards set, and uploads it, or 3Shapes can upload it for them if it is a common set (i.e. Common Core State Standards).
Currently 3Shapes works closely with their partners to train the administrative staff on how to use Empower. As of fall 2014, they are in the process of creating an online course in Empower about how to set up the tool and how to use each feature (i.e. “Login 101”). 3Shapes plans to make the curriculum available to all users in the future as a training and implementation “self-help” repository.
3Shapes trains one person at each district to be the site administrator. This person usually has a deep knowledge of the product and how the district uses it. If district employees have questions about Empower, 3Shapes requests that they first contact their site administrator. If the site administrator finds that he or she needs assistance, the site administrator can call the 3Shapes customer service hotline anytime during business hours on Monday through Friday.
Empower is device agnostic; it can be used on desktop, laptop, or any mobile device. It currently integrates with other products in two ways. One way is by providing integrated search features and the other way is by integrating specific school data and licensed content.
- Google Search
- Google Image Search
- Google Drive
Content & Data
- Infinite Campus
- NWEA formative assessment items
In addition, 3Shapes also offers server hosting for districts that need it.
3Shapes is actively seeking out content providers to integrate with so that content is easily available in Empower playlists. If a district uses a specific content provider they want to integrate, 3Shapes will work with the district to make it happen.
3Shapes actively partners with schools and districts to test and build new product features that are available for all users. If a school or district wants a custom feature, like a tool that tracks students’ sports eligibility, they can work with 3Shapes to build it for a fee.
In addition, 3Shapes supports several versions of their product to accommodate each district’s preferred timeframe for change. They will allow partners to use an older version of the product until they feel ready to update to the newer version.
The platforms starts a $4 per student per year for schools with 10,000 or more student users. For schools with less users the tool can range from $4 to $13 per student per year. Teacher licenses are included in the per student cost.
Are you a teacher or administrator who has used this product? Be the first to share your experiences with others by writing a Case Study: