Remake Learning Remake Learning is a network of people, projects, and organizations in the greater Pittsburgh region that are empowering children and youth by creating relevant learning opportunities through the compelling use of technology, media, and the arts. Sat, 11 Feb 2017 04:59:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Challenge, Collaborate, & Create in Chartiers Valley Fri, 27 May 2016 14:03:29 +0000 The latest in our occasional series of guest posts from Remake Learning Network members sharing stories of their work in the field.

Walking past Chartiers Valley sixth grade science classes during the month of May is always an adventure. You’ll hear a lot of buzzing. You’ll see a lot of lights flashing. You may even smell the remnants of a recent spark in the air.

It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s learning in action.

Each year, Chartiers Valley Middle School students take their understanding of circuits to the next level with an engaging hand-on approach. They begin with an introductory unit on the basics of circuits. Then, equipped with a basic understanding of how circuits work, they roll up their sleeves, grab a screw driver and get to work.

Every student has a different toy or electronic. Some are their own personal belongings, while others have been donated to the project. Either way, students are working with something that interests them.

It’s that connection to something personal or of interest that really drives an inquiry based lesson. Students begin the project full of questions. As they dismantle their toy, they explore, research, discuss and reflect until they find the answers to their questions. Or, in most cases, begin to pose even deeper, more scientific questions.

It all began when Ms. Sara Benis, Chartiers Valley Middle School Gifted Coordinator, and her students took a trip to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh where they participated in a workshop that focused on taking things apart in order to get a better understanding of how they work.

“It didn’t take long to realize that we could run a similar project at our school and reach all of our sixth graders, instead of just a handful of students,” said Ms. Benis, who connected with sixth grade science teachers Ms. Allison Machusko and Mr. Ron Moreschi to turn her vision into a reality.

Another bonus to doing the project at Chartiers Valley? More time. The lesson takes place over several weeks instead of one day, which enables students to dig deeper and take ownership of their learning.

“The expectation is that students will really develop their projects,” said. Ms. Benis. “Not only are they learning the inward workings of their childhood toys, they are creatively designing usable products out of recycled parts.”

Dismantling toys is just the beginning. Once students have a collection of parts, they are tasked with creating something new.

“Students are in complete control of the outcome,” explained Ms. Machusko. “From taking apart their childhood toys to designing – and rewiring – something new, students quickly become invested in their learning.”

This year, Chartiers Valley Middle School Art Teacher, Ms. Sharlynn Mavrich, is involved to help take the project to the next level. Ms. Mavrich will give the students a few tips for creating aesthetically pleasing products.

“The world isn’t magical,” said Ms. Benis. “Through this project, students begin to really recognize that basic science is everywhere.”

The main academic learning revolves around understanding simple circuits. However, this project goes so much deeper. Students learn how to motivate themselves. They learn how to collaborate. And they learn how to create.

“I hope the students learn how to challenge themselves through this project,” said Ms. Machusko. “We provide them with basic instruction to circuits and then it’s up to them to take charge of their own learning through hands-on exploration.”

Students are engaged from the moment they walk through the door each day. They come to class armed with new ideas they are eager to try. They work diligently throughout the entire period. Some days the bell will ring at the end of class and nobody moves toward the door. They want to be right here. In class. Learning.

“There is never a dull moment from the start to the completion of this project,” added Ms. Machusko. “But my favorite part is the excitement you can see on their faces when they make the final connection and their new creation works!”

An Age-Old Push for Science Literacy, With New Tools Tue, 24 May 2016 12:00:05 +0000 Back in the 1990s, a group of private and public officials and academics joined forces in support of nationwide science literacy. The benefits of a strong science education were manifold, they said, with important applications in civic life and the workforce.

“In learning science, students describe objects and events, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations of natural phenomena, test out those explanations in many different ways, and communicate their ideas to others,” wrote the people who eventually developed National Science Education Standards, guidelines for K-12.

The great questions of the future—how to manage and share the world’s natural resources, say—would demand decision-makers with strong scientific training, they said. Even students who weren’t destined for such positions of power would be most successful in any field if they were science-literate.

“The business community needs entry-level workers with the ability to learn, reason, think creatively, make decisions, and solve problems,” the authors wrote.

Sound familiar? Our contemporary calls for learning that breeds innovation and critical thinking echo those of the past.

But in the 21st century, an era of entrepreneurship and global competition, these skills may be even more valuable. For those growing up in an age of melting ice caps and other climate concerns, science education can produce a sense of urgency and curiosity that leads young people to examine their surroundings through a critical lens.

Our contemporary calls for learning that breeds innovation and critical thinking echo those of the past.

A few years ago, an effort similar to the one in the 1990s yielded the Next Generation Science Standards. Sixteen states have adopted the standards, and most others have expressed interest in them. They urge the teaching of classic science concepts, only with a bit more context—an effort to encourage students to pursue careers in the field. That means teaching underlying ideas that span all science subjects, as well as teaching the practices of scientists and engineers.

“Science literacy” is a broad term, but at its core is inquiry. Students who learn science are encouraged to question how the world works, why natural phenomena occur, and what information is trustworthy. Take the scientific method, that step-by-step process most kids learn around fifth grade. At first glance it is a rote process to be memorized. But it trains young learners to devise questions and make observations, eventually putting informed hypotheses to the test through technical experiments.

The fundamental purposes of science education have not changed much in recent decades. What has changed are the tools available to stoke young people’s curiosity and help them search for answers. Bunsen burners and nature documentaries are now supplemented with uncanny visualizations and robotics kits.

Take Maker Camp, soon to be in its fifth summer. The partnership between Google and Make: magazine leverages video-chat technology to give any teenager with an internet connection a sneak peak into the practices of professional scientists and engineers. One year, participants took a virtual field trip to NASA, where they got to watch a telescope being assembled live.

Elizabeth Babcock, public engagement officer and dean of education at the California Academy of Sciences, has explained that digital technology has become part and parcel of her institution’s science literacy programming. A photosynthesis visualization at the academy brings visitors on a virtual journey through the molecules in a redwood tree. In other cases, digital media initiate genuine engagement, giving learners a more active role in their own science education, Babcock told Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning. After learning about the science and dangers of plastics, teenagers in an academy afterschool program launched a social media campaign to educate their peers.

When employed right, digital tools can support critical inquiry and give students immersive access to the vital issues of the day. That’s been the worthy goal of science education since its start, and one that is all the more urgent today.

Anyone who follows national politics knows that there are big barriers to widespread science literacy. Political and religious interest groups have worked to ban climate change curricula in several states and to prohibit officials from speaking about it publicly. A Yale study found that social consequences of caring about climate change, not a lack of scientific understanding, were the main cause of adults’ apathy about the topic.

That’s particular cause for developing science literacy at a young age. Information saturation, political interests, and societal forces are all at play in the adult world. Before they enter it, young learners need the capacity to parse through information, ask thoughtful questions, and act on the answers.


Accountability Expands Under ESSA Tue, 17 May 2016 12:00:04 +0000 “Accountability” became a buzzword during the decade-plus reign of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The impetus of the act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was to “turn around” public education, seen as failing children for too long. The sweeping reform mandated annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school. States that did not demonstrate “Adequate Yearly Progress” faced teacher dismissals and, at the extreme, being shut down.

The problem, said critics, was the narrow definition of success—based almost entirely on standardized test scores. The draconian penalties forced schools to focus their energy and resources on preparing students for testing, leaving no room to consider more thoughtful or innovative approaches to education.

States will now track student progress on a wide range of measures.

With the law behind us, states may have an opportunity to devise more meaningful systems of accountability.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law at the end of 2015, states are required to track schools’ and students’ progress on a wider range of measures. They have some flexibility in selecting the measures, so progress is no longer defined by—and severe consequences are no longer tied to—the narrow Adequate Yearly Progress mark. Like NCLB, states’ new accountability systems must include scores from annual testing in math and reading. But another academic indicator is required, as is the graduation rate for high schools (also required under NCLB), English language learners’ proficiency, and at least one other measure of school quality or student success. States have a variety of options for this last indicator, which could be a measure of school safety, say, or of access to advanced coursework. But the indicators must be well-tested, comparable, and applicable statewide.

Some states are experimenting with more comprehensive accountability systems, modeling practices that others could imitate. Even before the law was on the books, several states received NCLB waivers so they could craft more thorough systems of accountability. Last year, 10 states at the forefront of those efforts formed the 51st State Working Group, a cohort that compares successes and hurdles in redesigning accountability. The group’s name references a framework devised by education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger to consider what education policies a hypothetical 51st state might implement to best prepare students for academic, personal, and professional success.

In two recent reports, the Learning Policy Institute and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education catalog some of the working groups’ efforts, “data dashboards,” that help track and diagnose areas that need improvement to broader measures of progress. In Kentucky, for example, an accountability system gives the most weight to measures of student success and achievement, but also factors in program reviews and professional growth. There is also an effort to reflect local needs in tailored approaches.

In California, eight school districts are adding measures of improvement and quality to create a more comprehensive accountability system. The resulting school quality report card prioritizes academics but also includes indicators of chronic absenteeism, expulsion rates, and social-emotional skills. However, some teachers’ unions condemned the effort for failing to seek educators’ input, which points to the importance of more inclusive decision-making when revamping accountability systems.

Under NCLB “accountability” took on a stigmatizing definition.

Other states are opting for additional measures of success that better track the development of critical thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity. For example, some states are using waivers to experiment with performance-based assessments designed to measure these skills. Removing the nearly singular significance from math and reading scores affords teachers and districts some flexibility in adopting instructional practices that encourage 21st century-appropriate learning.

If all goes as planned, ESSA will yield systems that comprehensively tackle improvement, responding to shortcomings with thoughtful and productive interventions. ESSA could indeed hold schools and districts accountable—a worthy cause that had taken on a more stigmatizing definition in previous years.

STEM Has Roots in Early Childhood Tue, 10 May 2016 12:30:21 +0000 A child marvels at a butterfly that has emerged from a cocoon in her backyard.

A toddler plays with building blocks, balancing a small one on top of a big one.

A baby learns the concept of cause-and-effect by putting his hands over his eyes.

These young children are all engaging in a rudimentary form of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning. Adults might associate the term with middle school science fairs or technology start-ups, but the truth is the youngest kids are capable of, and naturally inclined toward, STEM-type learning.

“As any parent knows, children are born curious,” said Roberto Rodríguez, deputy assistant to the president for education. “They’re born natural scientists.”

Rodríguez was kicking off the Early STEM Learning Symposium at the White House on April 21. There, officials, educators, researchers, and education technologists gathered to celebrate—and call for more—innovative STEM learning geared toward young children.

Research shows that even the youngest brains are capable of beginning to understand STEM concepts, but only if they are given the opportunity to explore and discover. Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington professor of speech and hearing sciences, has studied how children’s brains grow based on experiences they have starting at seven months.

“To get all the foundations of STEM into the brain early in development, we have to let children’s natural curiosity” blossom, Kuhl said at the White House symposium. “Playing with objects like blocks, playing with water, will feed that brain that wants to tinker with objects, and wants to have an effect on others in the world.”

But why devote a day at the White House to the topic? Because STEM learning can start early, and the STEM achievement gap does too.

A recent study published in Educational Researcher found that girls, as well as children who are racial or ethnic minorities, English language learners, or from low-income homes, demonstrated lower levels of science achievement as early as third grade. These kids typically continued to lag through middle school.

“It’s not a level playing field,” Kuhl said. “You can see, by the age of 5, huge effects of the opportunities to learn.”

Young learners lose out when adults underestimate what they are capable of. With well-paying jobs increasingly demanding a workforce that is well-versed in math and technology, it behooves the public and private sectors to make sure all children have access to STEM education, said leaders at the White House event. That support includes proper compensation and professional development for early learning instructors, said Secretary of Education John King.

Some researchers and companies have created products geared toward developing STEM skills and interest among young children, including those in groups that are underrepresented in the fields.

GoldiBlox is a popular engineering toy designed for girls. The kits, for kids as young as four, include construction pieces and a story that presents the player with a basic engineering challenge. Some of the toys come with action figures—racially diverse girls who carry laptops along with their capes.

Scratch, the free programming language for older kids and teens, has a younger sibling called Scratch Jr. The tool introduces coding concepts to kids ages 5 to 7, who can program games and interactive stories.

In conjunction with the White House event, dozens of organizations made commitments to further STEM opportunities for young learners. The administration also recognized efforts by public and private actors, including a handful in Pittsburgh. The Fred Rogers Company was recognized for its professional development, family resources, and peg + cat,” a TV show that teaches math to preschool-age kids. The Grable Foundation was also recognized for investing in hands-on STEM learning and technology for early childhood educators, and the White House named the Frazier School District in Fayette County, Penn., for overhauling its curriculum and professional development approach to support early STEM learning.

“It’s us rethinking how we’re doing education,” said Frazier Elementary principal Kelly Muic Lombard, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’re implementing the 21st century slant, which is kids being creative, developing their problem-solving skills, and helping them be better collaborators.”


Aspiring Artist Discovers Digital Expression Fri, 06 May 2016 13:19:14 +0000 Isis Allen, a 7th grade student and aspiring artist, likes that she is able to explore and learn new things after school. Allen is one of a handful of students at Cornell who is developing digital literacy skills as part of Digital Corps.

Last year, middle school students at Cornell stayed after school to remix the web using tools such as Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Webmaker. Students also built and programmed Hummingbird Robots, learned some basic computer programing principles using Scratch, and experimented with MakeyMakeys. Cornell’s Digital Corps program is part of an initiative led by The Sprout Fund to help students develop digital literacy skills.

Sprout’s Digital Corps program recruits educators and professionals and trains them to become digital learning coaches

In both in-school and out-of-school settings, students are paired with Sprout-trained mentors who “…work side by side with youth to demystify robotics, code websites, program mobile apps, investigate online privacy, and empower the next generation of digital innovators,” says Ani Martinez, Program Associate at Sprout and manager of the Digital Corps. “There is an array of other programmatic partnerships that have influenced the Corps’ curriculum and ways of thinking (and vice-versa), including (but not limited to) APOST, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Teen Services Programs, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western PA, Hear Me, and The Pittsburgh Project.”

Students at Cornell have been anxiously awaiting the return of Digital Corps and the district was looking for funding sources to keep the program active. Fortunately in January, Cornell received word that our 21st Century Learning Community grant through the U.S. Department of Education was approved. The grant brought back a wide range of after school activities for our students, including Digital Corps.

Susan Dunning, science teacher, second year Digital Corps mentor and former engineer, was ecstatic by the news. Dunning says, “Digital Corps gives me the opportunity to introduce programming, engineering, design thinking, and robotics to my middle school students.”

The Cornell School District seeks to provide students from Coraopolis and Neville Island with a challenging and rigorous education that prepares them for success. Digital Corps helps fill the void between what students are learning in class and many of the trends in our digital world. It allows our students to explore their interests and become creators of digital content.

Back in 7th grade, Isis is currently modernizing the Grimm’s fairy tale of Rapunzel by building a robotic knight that climbs the princess’ hair. She says, “Digital Corps is fun because you get to try new things and experiment with what you want to do.” She is really looking forward to gaining access to the school’s 3D printer so that she can make a unicorn. Perhaps she will create a robotic unicorn?

Where else is the Digital Corps happening?

Digital Corps lessons and materials are being used by educators and mentors in out-of-school programs throughout the Pittsburgh area, including these neighborhood-based community learning sites:


How can you use Digital Corps lessons in our program?

To help give even more students opportunities to gain the essential digital literacy skills they need to fully participate in today’s world, Sprout’s Ani Martinez and Digital Corps members created resources for youth workers to use to set up their own digital literacy learning sessions.

Check out all of the Digital Corps Teaching Kits including:



The Potency of Peer-to-Peer Learning Tue, 03 May 2016 12:30:30 +0000 Last month, the New York Times Magazine gave some prime real estate—its cover—to a computer game.

Regular readers of this blog might not be surprised to hear that the game was Minecraft. Users of the wildly popular activity design and build complex landscapes out of virtual blocks, avoiding monsters and competition along the way. The level of problem solving and creativity the game demands has earned the admiration of educators as well as parents who might otherwise shun video games.

In his cover story, writer Clive Thompson presents Minecraft as a tool for 21st century learning. It challenges players to tackle any problem that comes their way, employing out-of-the-box ideas and persevering in the face of challenges.

“It’s a world of trial and error and constant discovery,” Thompson writes. The game is so open-ended that players can do something akin to programming it themselves. “Minecraft encourages kids to get under the hood, break things, fix them. … It invites them to tinker.”

Last month we wrote about the potential and perils of putting kids in charge of their own learning. Some iconoclasts claim kids can go it alone so long as they have the right tools, while others see promise in self-directed learning that is guided by adult mentorship.

Minecraft is a testament to what kids can do on their own. Thompson gives us snapshots of an 11-year-old boy who exploits the random movement of a Minecraft-world cow creature in order to booby-trap his friends, and a fifth-grade girl who solves a circuitry problem that was inhibiting her gameplay. (With 40 percent of its players being female, Minecraft has reached an audience that is typically underrepresented in the tech scene.) There are no instructions or “help” sections in Minecraft, Thompson explains, so kids are forced to explore and trouble-shoot themselves. It’s an empowering task most game players aren’t given in an era of sleek, user-friendly tech.

But the complex game has also given rise to a different dynamic. Beyond just teaching themselves, kids are taking the initiative to teach others. The game “offers many opportunities to display expertise, when you uncover a new technique or strategy and share it with peers,” Thompson writes. It is common for young players to record their own tutorial videos, upload them to YouTube, and share them with their friends.

Connected learning,” a new model that capitalizes on a young person’s immersion in digital technology to encourage curiosity, also promotes “peer-to-peer learning.” The theory posits that putting students in the role of the teacher—be it for a single activity or an entire semester—builds confidence and social bonds. It is empowering for a young person to realize they possess knowledge or experience that is valuable to others. And the advent of social media has made it especially easy for young people to share advice and pose questions to their peers.

Putting students in the role of teacher helps build confidence and social bonds.

In an authentic learning environment, young people are given opportunities to pursue their interests, which requires a reevaluation of traditional teaching structures, said cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito in a CLTV webinar in 2013.

“Kids talk about how different it is to get critiqued by someone in a more formal position versus a fellow passionate obsessive about their area of interest,” said Ito, co-founder of Connected Camps, where hundreds of kids play Minecraft together.

In California, high school student Shilpa Yarlagadda found that she best understood a confusing concept when it was explained to her by a friend who had struggled with it as well. The teenager co-founded Club Academia, a site where students could upload their own tutorial videos. (The videos were vetted by teachers before they were published.)

“I really believe that the best people to solve problems are the people who face them,” Yarlagadda told KQED. “In the field of education, those people are students, and I think it’s unfortunate that we’re often left out of the conversation.”

On the CLTV webinar moderated by Ito, educators discussed the challenges of bringing peer-to-peer learning into a classroom. When students have the steering wheel, one teacher said, they tend to drive a bit off the curricular course. Another said educators have to make sure the same students don’t always dominate the lessons.

Regardless of what it looks like, peer-to-peer learning requires some scaffolding from adult mentors, said Paul Oh, then a senior program associate at the National Writing Project. But when it is well-organized, he said, it is a powerful framework.

Most adults have also had the rewarding experience of teaching something to a colleague or friend. Maybe you have to re-teach yourself something first, or recall how it first clicked for you—but in the process of explaining it, you are likely to understand the concept even better yourself, get a confidence boost, and feel good about spreading your knowledge.

For kids, who are rarely in positions of authority, these feelings are magnified.

Demystifying Learning Frameworks: The P21 Framework Fri, 29 Apr 2016 15:11:05 +0000 Check out the original post for the full list.]]> The P21 Framework is a model for incorporating 21st century skills into learning. It was developed by a coalition of the US Department of Education, businesses including Apple, AOL, Microsoft, Cisco, and SAP, and organizations involved in education such as the NEA. Collectively, this coalition is known as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. It was first published in 2006 and has been continuously updated, most recently in 2015.

Overall Goal

This framework was created to combine a set of competencies that emphasizes 21st Century Skills for students and supports teachers in teaching those skills. It uses core academic subjects as a vehicle for  teaching life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, and information and media skills. These skills allow students to be better-prepared for today’s highly collaborative, innovation-focused workforce. For this reason, student outcomes in this framework are often described in terms of the future impact they will have for students when they seek employment.

P21 has the advantage of being a very general framework. It covers a lot of subjects and many potential strategies to train teachers and influence student outcomes. Its broad base allows it to be easily adaptable for both in-school and out-of-school activities. Details on the components of each of these outcomes are available on the P21 website.

Theoretical Basis

Much of the P21 Framework’s basis comes from a belief that children need the proper opportunities and avenues to gain the skills for careers.The coalition formed in an attempt to better prepare children for the challenges of the modern working world, and this framework is motivated by a desire for college and career-oriented education. The skills that the P21 lists are considered crucial for success in the workplace by all sectors.

The foundation believes that work environments are more complex in today’s society, so students must be able to integrate the traditional academic core with interdisciplinary skills that are more reflective of those complexities. They will gain these skills by integrating core content and interdisciplinary themes, and engaging in activities that promote Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration–the P21’s research-based 4C’s. Many of these opportunities for integrating core knowledge and critical thinking skills stem from technological literacy and related areas like media literacy. These literacies are translated into a list of competencies that students should master by the time they leave school.

Competency Basis

The core academic subjects include traditional subjects (Language arts, math, science, history, etc.) as well as a cluster of interdisciplinary subjects including  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business, and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy. These competencies measure the outcomes of student learning.

P21 recommends that instruction in these subjects incorporate opportunities for students to also gain additional competencies critical for success in the 21st century:

  • Learning and Innovation Skills (the so-called 4Cs) are Creative Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. These skills were picked for their use in complex work environments. Many of these skills have a design thinking flavor to them.
  • Information, Media, and Technology Skills are the tools that students will learn to master both digital and non-digital media. Media is used as a creative tool, but also as an object to be evaluated for accuracy, effectiveness, and ethical considerations.
  • Life and Career Skills are the habits and mindsets that students should develop when they learn from this framework. Some of these skills are internal, while others are based on interactions with others. These skills include accepting feedback, working in teams, and adapting well to change.

Instructional Approach

This framework is primarily directed toward in-school interventions, but it can be applied to out-of-school activities as well.

Support systems are the portion of the P21 Framework designed to give teachers the tools to influence student outcomes. They include guidelines for assessments, professional development, and learning environments to ensure teachers are prepared to work within the framework.These systems are designed to encourage teachers to create lessons and assessments based on the key subjects, while involving technology, and inquiry- and problem-based learning in lesson delivery to help students build 21st century skills.

P21 highlights Exemplar Schools who are evaluated based on their implementation of the core content, use of engaging teaching methods, and presence of the following support systems.

  • Standards and Assessments focus on the skills associated with 21st Century content and measure mastery through standardized testing, inquiry- and project-based learning, and portfolio development. Assessments can also be enhanced by technology to provide students with a new medium for creative expression and feedback from the teacher.
  • Curriculum and Instruction teaches 21st Century Skills as both individual competencies and as tools to be used to navigate the core curriculum.
  • Professional Development gives teachers the skills to integrate 21st century themes into core content through projects and inquiries and to support that integration with technology.
  • Learning Environments support teachers who collaborate and create relevant learning experiences for students involving 21st century skills. Well-planned environments encourage group work and provide equitable access to technology.

Method of Assessment

P21 advocates for a variety of assessments, including standardized testing and project and problem-based assessments. Additionally, P21 assesses schools by allowing districts to apply to be considered Exemplars.

Example: Avonworth School District

21st Century Innovation & Collaboration at Avonwroth High School / Photo: Brian Cohen
The P21 Framework awarded Avonworth School District with the title of “Exemplar School” thanks to their effective use of the framework in curriculum design. Tom Ralston, Superintendent, says the framework “has helped our educators to view learning through an important lens that embeds collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication into learning experiences for children.” He saw its adoption as a way to make sure the district’s students are trained as the problem solvers and self-guided learners that are needed in today’s workforce. The district has created experiences that introduce teachers to community members working in fields related to their content area to help them create innovative, relevant lessons. Ralston has helped create an environment where teachers feel they can take risks in their lessons to help students develop the positive characteristics that will help their students succeed. “The acknowledgement that Avonworth High School has been recognized as a P21 Exemplar School is a wonderful affirmation of the educational program that our teachers and administrators facilitate for students,” says Tom. The P21 Exemplar status has been a source of pride for the district, and it has helped them work to prepare students for the future.

External Resources

Educators See Election as Boon for Digital Learning Tue, 26 Apr 2016 12:00:28 +0000 Madeline Fonseca, a senior at Oakland Tech High School, recently filmed a video in which she described her struggles since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported her mom about four years ago for overstaying her visa. She and three other students produced and submitted the video as part of KQED’s “My Backyard Campaign” project, which received more than 100 submissions from young people filming videos on their smartphones about issues like gun control, climate change, education, abortion, and criminal justice.

“I hope by sharing this story, people can see how unequally we’re being treated, how families are being separated, and how much it affects us kids,” she says in another video KQED produced about her work.

Everyday there’s another head-scratching headline about the 2016 election. But if you look past the unprecedented happenings among the campaigns and candidates, there’s something else new: educators and young people like Madeline are using the election to tell their stories with digital media and learn about the political process in new ways.

“My Backyard Campaign” is part of a larger, national project from KQED and the National Writing Project called Letters to the Next President 2.0. In 2008, during the first Letters to the Next President project, teachers across the country guided their students in writing and publishing letters to the future president on an open-to-the-public GoogleDoc—which was brand-new at the time.

This time, the project reflects how times have changed. The issues have shifted, and so have the ways educators are using technology to teach kids about the election process, argumentative writing, and how to create their own media. Educators and young people can chime in to share their work with #2NextPrez, or participate in “annotatathons”—where young people in classes around the country can annotate the candidates’ speeches with gifs or videos. In the late summer, young people will be invited to formally publish their letters, in text and multimedia, to the new L2P 2.0 website.

All elections are tough to teach. But with both new technology and a contentious election, teachers are grappling with how to keep a classroom a safe space for students of all viewpoints.

Young people are using the election to tell their own stories.

“I really, really stress civil discourse,” Sue Witmer, a government teacher at Northeastern High School in Manchester, Pennsylvania, told the local news in a story about teaching the election. “There have been several times I’ve said, ‘Hey, we’ll all be civil while we’re tweeting even if the candidates aren’t.’ ”

Meanwhile, Ellen Shelton, the director of the Mississippi Writing Project and former high school teacher in Tupelo, Mississippi, stressed in a recent Educator Innovator webinar that teaching students to analyze the candidates’ arguments, accuracy, and rhetoric can be more of a learning opportunity for students than simply debating which viewpoint is right or wrong.

“Some students told me their opinions didn’t necessarily match their friends’ and families’ [opinions], so it took courage for them to do so in their own videos,” said Kathy Nichols, an English teacher at Pleasanton Middle School in Pleasanton, California, in an interview with KQED. Her students also submitted videos for KQED’s “My Backyard Campaign” project. “But it was nice for them to hear their own voice, and they were proud of themselves for doing it.”


Connecting Pittsburgh’s Past and Future Through Innovation Mon, 25 Apr 2016 12:00:21 +0000 Just a short walk from their classroom in the Sarah Heinz House, students from Cara Koloshinsky’s science class at the Manchester Academic Charter School (MACS) are digging into Pittsburgh’s past with the Senator John Heinz History Center and adding their voice to topics and themes explored in the center’s exhibit Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation.

Investigating the life stories and major achievements of a dozen Pittsburgh innovators, including global business leader H.J. Heinz, inventor of the bolometer and pioneer of aviation Samuel Langley, optical telescope builder Dr. John Brashear, and astronomer James Keeler, the students are looking for those qualities that are shared by all innovators, regardless of their field.

photo: Ben FilioWorking in collaboration with History Center educators, the students from MACS combined research and creativity to develop video tributes of innovators featured in the exhibit. They conducted research, wrote scripts, and found images to make their tributes engaging and approachable. Using the storytelling app Videolicious, students recorded their narration and put together minute-long videos using the school’s iPads.

“It seemed like a good fit because we are moving toward design-based learning in our school and have an emphasis on technology and innovation,” said Ms. Koloshinsky.

And students agreed. “I like being able to learn new apps on the iPad and to be able to create and edit the videos myself. I also liked that the innovator project was focusing on innovators from Pittsburgh because it shows us local people who have made an impact on history,” said a MACS student.

The History Center has included the student-made videos on its website, where visitors can learn about innovators like George Westinghouse, Rachel Carson, and Dr. Jonas Salk. “Our partnership with Heinz History Center has allowed the students to practice their research and writing skills while learning about history and science through a creative project,” said Ms. Koloshinsky.

photo: Heather MallakIn addition to their video tributes to the innovators featured in the exhibit, students added their own voice through a series of video interviews in which they explored their own creative characteristics, matching their experiences and traits with the qualities they discovered in the innovators they researched.

This collaboration has led to another—the History Center is also working with Pittsburgh Woolslair’s STEAM classes. After seeing the videos that MACS students had created, STEAM teacher Heather Laurent knew she wanted to get her students involved: “This opened the minds of our third through fifth grade students to think about themselves as innovators and to think about what attributes they possess.”

photo: Heather MallakWoolslair students recently piloted museum outreach efforts that take learning out of the textbook and into the environments where these innovators worked and lived. Fifth graders used the same scientific instrument employed by James Keeler to build spectroscopes that detect the rainbow spectrum of natural and artificial light sources. Students then used the same collaborative process used in Jonas Salk’s laboratory to compare healthy and diseased human pathology slides (and they had one tool that Salk never got a chance to use—iPad enabled microscopes). Third and fourth graders learned about the work of George Westinghouse with a design thinking activity that explored systems modification and reasoning.

These programs represent a new approach for Heinz History Center’s Education Department: exploring how the innovation and creativity of people from past has shaped the present while also considering how students can apply an “innovator mindset” to invent their own futures.

De-Mystifying Learning Frameworks Fri, 22 Apr 2016 12:00:30 +0000 Have you found yourself confused by all the new terminology being used to describe learning? Us too. That’s why we embarked on a project to distill the key elements of some of the new learning frameworks we’ve been reading about. Whether you’re an educator looking to demystify some of the buzzwords you keep hearing, or you’re entering the ed-tech startup scene, this series will help you speak the language of education innovation.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll dig into a few of the learning frameworks we’ve seen adopted by educators in the Remake Learning Network, as well as a few others that we’re just beginning to learn about:

  • The P21 Framework prepares students for college and careers with collaborative, creative, and communication skills.
  • Connected Learning facilitates the creation of learning environments where students can explore their interests around peer groups and mentors.
  • Deeper Learning encourages teachers to create project- and problem-based learning experiences with technology to prepare students for college and the workforce.

Though each framework uses different interventions, they all share the goals of improving learning outcomes, enhancing student engagement, and better preparing young people for today’s world. The series will cover these frameworks in more detail and give examples of their implementation in the Pittsburgh region.

We’ll be rolling out a three part series of blog posts detailing each of these frameworks over the coming weeks. But before we get started, we thought it might be helpful to dispatch with a few key definitions of words and phrases you’ll see over and over again.

New methods of teaching and learning require new vocabulary. Many of these words appear frequently in discussions about education, and many of today’s frameworks focus on these ideas. Below, you can find a list of buzzwords that are used often when describing these common learning frameworks.

  • Framework – A way of organizing a complex concept for better understanding and structuring its key elements for better implementation.
  • Competency – The ability to do a task effectively by using skills and applying knowledge.
  • 21st Century Skills – A catch-all term for describing the diverse sets of skills thought to new or particular to learners growing up in the early 21st Century, including mastery of digital technology, capacity for creativity and critical thinking, effective group communication and collaboration, and more.
  • Blended Learning – The combined use of traditional classroom instruction by a teacher and technology to deliver learning content to students.
  • Project- and Problem-based learning – Giving students an extended period of time to learn by working to solve a complex challenge, often collaboratively.
  • College and Career Readiness – A student’s preparedness to gain entry to and succeed in post-secondary education or entry-level employment.
  • Inquiry-Based Learning – A method of instruction that emphasizes the asking of questions and guiding students through a process of discussion, exploration, and reflection.
  • Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge – The combined mastery of technological tools and educational content necessary for an educator to effectively deliver technology-enhanced instruction.
  • Social-Emotional Learning – The process through which learners develop mindsets and skills to manage their emotions, relationships, decision-making, and goals.

Further Reading: Education Reimagined has been doing a long-running series in their online magazine comparing education today and education in the future. It covers some of these ideas while translating the vocabulary of yesterday’s education frameworks to more modern terms, and is worth a read for more information.

Can Kids Truly Be Their Own Best Teachers? Thu, 21 Apr 2016 16:40:34 +0000 Could there be life on Jupiter? What is sarcasm? What happened in Ancient Rome?

If you could ask and research any question, what would it be? How about: Can children teach themselves?

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Starting in 1999, Mitra began what he calls his “Hole in the Wall” experiment. He has placed computers in public spaces in impoverished neighborhoods in India—the first in a hole he drilled in a wall separating his New Delhi office from the neighboring slum—and let children have at them. Many figured out how to use the machines to research their own interests.

Sugata Mitra visits one of his Hole-in-the-Wall sites in India. Photo/TED Conference

Emboldened by the results, Mitra has adapted the process for other settings. As reported last year by PBS NewsHour, some U.S. schools are using his Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) approach. In SOLEs, an adult provides kids with computers and a research question, or helps them come up with a question themselves. The kids organize themselves into groups and spend an allotted time conducting a collaborative investigation.

“SOLEs work anywhere with an Internet connection, with or without teachers,” Mitra, who won a $1 million TED Prize, has said. With access to the right equipment, he added, what students are capable of teaching themselves is “astonishing.”

Mitra’s work is part of a growing movement toward self-directed, interest-driven learning. As we reported last week, approaches like deeper learning and connected learning posit that children are most engaged when they are empowered to use their personal interests, experiences, and skills as a jumping-off point for learning. Listening passively to a teacher’s lecture and later regurgitating the information on a test doesn’t always motivate students to engage with the material.

Mitra’s work, and his belief that children don’t necessarily benefit from adult participation in their education, has engendered both acclaim and anger.

“Thinking that technology alone and kids left to their own devices can educate themselves in the way that we hope and become the types of people they want to be, I think, is ludicrous,” Michael Trucano, senior education and technology policy specialist at the World Bank, told PBS.

Some say it is the job of an adult to introduce children to ideas that might not immediately capture their attention. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month, social psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams wrote that requiring students to do work that does not interest them or come easily can help them learn important skills like persistence, and also help them discover an aptitude for something new.

In the Hechinger Report, writer Anya Kamenetz praises Mitra’s support for kids’ curiosity but cautions against dismissing all tenets of traditional education, ultimately calling his project a “naive technocratic fantasy” that experiments on underserved students.

“The precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial.”

According to Trucano, Hole in the Wall lacks something critical: “A highly capable, competent, committed teacher there alongside [students] to help guide their learning.”

“What good teachers know is that the precise nature of teacher intervention is crucial,” educator Jeremy Harmer wrote after hearing Mitra speak. “Our job is to keep students on task, help them to focus, help them when they are having problems, find different solutions as problems emerge, be a resource and a prompter, a motivator.”

Critics of Mitra’s approach maintain that a computer is not a proxy for guidance and mentorship. But the Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for. Many educators and organizations are taking a page from Mitra’s book, exploring how to promote self-directed learning in and outside classroom settings.

A project at Northwestern University attempts to find the sweet spot between pure exploration and rigid structure. FUSE, an online learning program used in some schools and afterschool programs, guides users through science, technology, engineering, art, and math lessons. Structured like a competitive video game, FUSE is divided into “levels,” each with a flexible “challenge” that has kids building robots or mobile apps.

The Hole in the Wall project is a reminder that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for.

Participants are encouraged to pursue their own creative solutions to problems. In one challenge, students build a model of the fastest roller coaster they can imagine; in another, they design their dream home using a software program. (Once they beat that level, their next challenge is to help a virtual client rehab a building.)

The problems are open-ended, and the kids are encouraged to experiment. But help is there when they need it. There are video tutorials at their disposal, and peer feedback is built into the process. After trying to solve the problem on their own, kids can ask adult “coaches” for guidance. The adults provide necessary scaffolding, presenting challenges and pointing students in helpful directions.

FUSE’s hybrid approach—one part self-directed learning and one part adult mentorship—makes sense. But in an education landscape where only half of American students are engaged in school—becoming decreasingly so each grade level, according to Gallup—it’s no wonder that thinkers like Mitra propose pie-in-the-sky solutions. The Hole in the Wall project doesn’t have the evidence to back it up, but the status quo isn’t working either. So, hang onto healthy skepticism, but bring on the visionaries.

How Digital Promise is Helping Sow Networks of Learning Innovation, One Region at a Time Tue, 19 Apr 2016 13:00:32 +0000

Cricket Fuller

Over the last few years, educators, entrepreneurs, funders, and researchers have been joining forces to spur learning innovation in specific regions of the country and equip young people with the skills they need in a changing economy.

These “education innovation clusters” tend to draw people and resources from at least four regional sectors including education, the private sector, higher education and philanthropy. The Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh is an example of an education innovation cluster, with more than 250 organizations participating.

More recently, the education nonprofit Digital Promise and the Department of Education have started devoting resources to help the clusters grow.

We spoke with Cricket Fuller, project director for education innovation clusters at Digital Promise. Fuller helps education clusters get off the ground and find ongoing support. She and Digital Promise have identified 30 regions currently developing stronger clusters, and she thinks the field is at a turning point.

“This kind of work has been bubbling for a few years, but we are at a point where we are ready to hit the ‘go’ button,” she said.

In your recent crowdcast with Remake Learning, you mentioned the importance of new education clusters having a “harbor master.” What is a harbor master?

When you’re bringing together a range of stakeholders, we’ve learned it’s really vital to have an organization or an individual who convenes people—a “harbor master.”

For most of these ed cluster regions, that harbor master is still playing an essential role. They are still at the heart of that ecosystem, similar to how the Sprout Fund was in the early years of the Remake Learning Network. We’re now starting to see several clusters that are moving beyond one single leader and giving their network a new name, a new brand, and defining membership or participation criteria. It’s great to be able to point to Pittsburgh and Remake Learning as an example of how a network has evolved  their leadership role as their network grew.

How have clusters evolved or changed recently?

For the past few years, we’ve been talking about very organic, informal, and sometimes one-off partnerships with people in education spaces. Now, Digital Promise and the Department of Education are encouraging more structure. We’re talking about moving away from informal conversations to more formal coalition building.

Digital Promise has identified more than 20 regions currently growing ed clusters. Map/Digital Promise

So, to back up a second, why exactly is formalizing these ed clusters such a step forward in the first place? Why is that better than having informal, organic meetings?

I think that’s a really important question. It’s not better if you don’t have the organic, place-based community collaborations, or an overarching sense of trust or mission. If you don’t have that, a formal structure that feels top-down is going to alienate more people than it ends up bringing to the table.

But the reason people are seeing value in a more formal organization is because without that, you end up spinning your wheels. The region doesn’t come together around an initiative or a particular vision. How do you have a purpose if you’re just a bunch of people talking and occasionally doing a one-off project here or there?

The key is to not lose that broad stakeholder base, and to not become a bureaucracy with a really rigid set of criteria for membership— but to still have some level of structure that supports you and lets you engage stakeholders more effectively toward a goal.

That’s a very nuanced way to look at that. So how do you and Digital Promise support these education clusters?

There are four main ways. First, we’re supporting regions by providing toolkits on things like funding, research, governance, communications, and partnership building. Those will be published by this fall.

We’re also providing technical assistance for six regions over the course of two years.

We’re also going to keep convening clusters on the national level. We’re forming an advisory board, as well as an online directory of all the clusters around the country, what they’re working on, and how they’re organized.

Sectors that typically participate in ed clusters. Graphic/Digital Promise

Lastly, we’re also working on brand recognition for “education clusters.” It’s a very insider term at this point. But we think we can elevate the concept. That will give more credibility to people doing this work and help engage stakeholders. We’re also establishing a formal network with a brand with some basic participation criteria.

Are you also helping clusters measure their impact?

Yes. Measuring networks’ effects is a real challenge. We know ecosystems are having incredible impacts on student learning, but we need to make sure that we have the evidence to capture that in a way that’s compelling to stakeholders.

 We know ecosystems are having incredible impacts on student learning, but we need to make sure that we have the evidence to capture that in a way that’s compelling to stakeholders.

Which education cluster really interests you right now?

There is really exciting work happening in Southeastern Kentucky with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. A consortium there has brought together 17 school districts to help revitalize teaching and learning, with a specific eye toward helping students find college and career opportunities that will also diversify the region’s economy.

There’s a tremendous sense of place-based identity and pride in Kentucky, but there is a lack of diverse economic opportunities right now. The best and brightest students tend to leave the region and the region has experienced a population drain. Leaders there want make sure kids have a great K-12 education, but want to see that education more connected to opportunities in the region. Though it’s in the early stages, they are interested in making an innovation hub that would help incubate startups and connect university STEM programs with K-12 students across the districts in their region. 

What’s the biggest mistake you see early education clusters make?

You want to make sure you have the right people at the table, and broaden beyond the traditional, expected stakeholders.

The flip side of that is that you want to start with a small enough core group of people who are willing to work together. We’ve talked to folks who started really broad and nothing moved ahead. There wasn’t a sense of a core group of committed people committed to a single goal.

You’re in Washington now, but you got your masters at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. What do you miss most about the city?

For every weekend for a month, my husband and I used to bike the Great Allegheny Passage. We’d follow the bike path all the way up the river. It was great because you’d see so many areas of Pittsburgh. You see a lot of older, industrial buildings and old train tracks, and you also see an incredibly vibrant skyline and new areas of development.

Simple Steps to Ed Reform are Anything but Simple Thu, 14 Apr 2016 13:00:19 +0000 Last summer, Lory Hough published a piece in Harvard’s Ed. Magazine called “Does It Have to Be So Complicated?” The story outlined a number of simple, streamlined ideas that have been proven to have big impacts for students’ achievement. The ideas are powerful and are often supported by compelling evidence. But actually implementing them, as many educators know, is anything but simple.

 Acknowledging these difficulties, isn’t it still worth promoting evidence-based ideas, even if implementing them is inevitably going to be a long, uneven, uphill climb?

For example, Hough points to the large body of research that finds starting the school day later helps teens focus and decreases drop-out rates, depression, and poor academic performance.

The article also points to the notion of scheduling physical movement during the school day, or using a school’s open house as an opportunity to talk with families about learning. Several anecdotes highlight the powerful impact of helping students access free transportation by paying for public buses.

Another idea was to send personalized text messages to students who are accepted into college to remind them of important dates and tasks they need to complete in order to actually enroll. As many as 40 percent of students who are accepted to a post-secondary institution do not enroll in the fall, and texting these simple “nudges” has been shown to increase matriculation by 4 percentage points.

Meanwhile, over at The Hechinger Report, Corey Drake writes about “four small changes” most schools aren’t using yet that can improve math learning. For example, making time for students to solve problems verbally to help them practice grappling with explaining basic math concepts.

Sounds great, right? Why not implement all these ideas tomorrow?

That’s where the tricky part comes in.

Education reform is complex. Even the best, most proven, ideas are difficult to put into place. Consider changing the time of the school day—how would that affect students who need to work after school, or need to take care of younger siblings? Or the suggestion of asking math students to solve problems verbally—how should teachers make extra time in their classes for that activity? As Hough describes, education “is probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society.”

Part of what adds to the complexity is that schools and educators have been burned before by simple, “straightforward” ideas. Why not put a ton of computers in every classroom? Or give every student in Los Angeles an iPad? Without support for curriculum development or teacher pedagogy, it turns out technology alone does not improve learning.

Acknowledging these difficulties, isn’t it still worth promoting evidence-based ideas, even if implementing them is inevitably going to be a long, uneven, uphill climb?

For years, advocates objected to the dismal level of nutrition in school cafeterias, which about 32 million children eat at every day. After years of demands by researchers, parents, educators, and students, in 2012 the USDA issued new rules for healthier school lunches with less salt and fat, and more vegetables, whole grains, and fruit, for the first time in 15 years. It was small progress on one big idea, but new research shows the new regulations are working and kids are eating a healthier lunch.

“The creation of public school for all children—boys and girls, the rich and the poor—was, in itself, a big idea,” writes Hough. “In order to make some big initiatives yield bigger benefits, educators need to look more often at simple ideas that have proven to help.”

Adding Depth to the Classroom Tue, 12 Apr 2016 12:00:42 +0000 At High Tech Middle in San Diego, sixth-grade students walked into class on their first day expecting a lesson. Instead, their humanities teacher asked them: “What are your questions about the world and about yourself?”

The kids scribbled their queries on Post-it notes, sticking them around the classroom. After a few days, the walls were covered. The humanities teacher and a colleague who taught the same students math and science combed through the questions, uncovering a common theme. The students were curious about the end of the world.

The teachers developed a curriculum that sought to answer the students’ questions. Throughout the year, the students completed projects on the Mayan calendar, tsunamis, famines, and wars—and even wrote a book about what they learned. The lessons met the state standards in all subjects.

High Tech Middle sixth-grade students at work on a robotic project. Photo/Melissa Daniels

High Tech Middle sixth-grade students at work on a robotics project. Photo/Melissa Daniels

San Diego’s High Tech High network practices “deeper learning,” an educational approach with a growing following. Advocates say deeper learning improves equity in and outside the classroom. Using students’ experiences and backgrounds as a springboard, the system engages kids—particularly those who fall through the cracks in traditional schools—and prepares them for success after graduation.

Deeper learning seeks to cultivate the critical-thinking skills and creativity demanded in the real world. Companies like Google have declared test scores “worthless.” Leading colleges and universities, too, are on track to replace standard applications with portfolios that give a fuller picture of a student’s achievements in high school. They are looking for candidates who have more to offer than textbook knowledge.

The term deeper learning came into the lexicon in 2010, when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation used it to describe an educational approach that encourages problem solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, and a belief in oneself alongside mastery of content. Implementation varies, but at its core deeper learning is student-centered, project-based, and interdisciplinary.

The ideas behind deeper learning are age-old, but new research and applications have given rise to a movement. A Gallup poll found that young workers who reported learning 21st century skills—those promoted through deeper learning—were twice as likely to say they had high work quality. In a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of employers said a job candidate’s ability to think critically, communicate, and solve problems was more important than their college major.

New research and applications have given rise to a movement.
 Deeper learning shares values and methods with other contemporary learning-science theories. Connected learning, for example, similarly posits that students’ interests are the ideal launching pad for learning, as well as academic or professional opportunity. Connected learning differs a bit in that it emphasizes technology and digital media creation as tools for empowerment and civic engagement. But advocates of both approaches believe that learning should not be confined to the classroom, and that young people learn best when the material is relevant to their lives.

Educators are quick to explain that deeper learning is not an all-or-nothing system. Replacing one memorization-based lesson with a group project is a step in the right direction. In other cases, entire schools like High Tech High are dedicated to the approach. At IBM’s P-Tech schools, deeper learning permeates every subject. Even the algebra classwork involves writing and presenting. Each student is paired with an adult mentor and completes a paid internship with a chance for a job after graduation.

Experience as entryway

For Megan Cicconi, director of instructional and innovative leadership at Fox Chapel Area School District, it is imperative that educators address how schools are failing at-risk kids. “With underserved populations, there’s a lot going on socially and emotionally that doesn’t afford students the luxury of dedicating cognitive effort to playing the game” of school, she said.

That’s why deeper learning makes a lot of sense to her. “It validates students’ knowledge and experiences,” and makes them realize that school is for them, she said. With project-based learning, a student’s musical skills, or leadership and collaboration skills picked up at an after-school job, become useful in the classroom.

Makerspaces and afterschool programs like the Carnegie Library of Homestead’s provide a “third space” for deeper learning. Photo/Ben Filio

“We focus on what the student is bringing into the classroom as a resource,” said Lara Evangelista, principal of Flushing International High School, at a discussion hosted by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and Jobs for the Future. “Many of them bring in life skills at a young age.” Many of her students are not fluent in English, but they are taught that their native language is an advantage, not a hindrance. A native language project is part of a series of performance tasks required for graduation.

When Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High, taught public school English, he made a habit of never asking students questions to which he knew the answer. A classroom can feel divided when some students are better able to memorize the content of a book than others. But all students can use their own unique background to offer an interpretation of a passage, said Riordan, who gave the keynote address at a recent deeper learning conference at High Tech High.

Administrators at schools that embrace deeper learning say the numbers speak for themselves. High Tech High, whose admissions process is a zip-code-based lottery, sends 96 percent of its graduates to college. A recent study found that attending a school that promotes deeper learning increases a student’s chance of graduating high school in four years by eight percentage points. (However, something about the types of students and teachers who choose these schools could skew the results of the study, which was funded by the Hewlett Foundation.)

“We ask teachers to do what we ask students to do: work together in groups, think deeply.”
Still, skeptics wonder whether student-centered, project-based learning withholds important, if sometimes less interesting, classic content knowledge. “Before they can apply it, they’ve got to learn it,” said education researcher Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, at the LPI event.

Riordan is often asked, “What about the Great Books?” He likes to tell an anecdote about a High Tech High class in response. When a teacher there realized many of the area’s homeless residents were veterans, she partnered with a local veteran’s center and had her students interview the vets about their experiences.

At the same time, Riordan said, the teacher incorporated study of Beowulf into the unit. In the poem, the bard sings the warrior’s story to honor him. Bringing that tradition off the page and into contemporary experience, the students also composed poetry using the veterans’ own words from the interviews.

“That’s deeper learning,” Riordan said. “When we offer students experience, it becomes a platform from which they can explore a whole variety of other texts.”

Teacher as facilitator 

In a deeper learning classroom, the teacher’s role changes. They are no longer the “sage on stage,” Cicconi said. They facilitate the learning rather than control it.

High Tech High students exhibit their science projects. Photo/Alec Patton

High Tech High students exhibit their science projects. Photo/Alec Patton

But the job is every bit as critical. Teachers work to understand and respect each student’s background and strengths, Riordan said. Social-emotional development is vital preparation for the real world, and teachers who know their students well help foster those skills. In many deeper learning schools, students are matched with formal mentors who guide them through the emotional and academic trials of youth.

That’s partly why informal learning spaces—libraries, museums, afterschool programs—and their staffs play an important role in cultivating deeper learning. These “third places” create a continuum of learning between students’ personal and academic lives. The idea is to give youth the opportunity to parlay their passions and skill sets into learning and career preparation. Networks like Remake Learning convene programs—be it makerspace Assemble or Spanish language and culture center El Círculo Juvenil—that make learning relevant to young people.

But none of this happens on its own. What do teachers and administrators need in order to implement deeper learning? In short, a lot of support. The High Tech Middle teachers could never have crafted an entire curriculum around students’ questions had they not had a built-in hour at the beginning of each day to trade ideas with colleagues and prepare lessons.

“You need to look at what needs to change structurally,” Cicconi said. “Maybe it’s team-teaching in a high-capacity way. Maybe it’s block scheduling.”

Deeper learning principles also apply to educators themselves.

What do teachers and administrators need in order to implement deeper learning? In short, a lot of support.
“We ask teachers to do what we ask students to do,” Flushing said. “Work together in groups, think deeply.” At the San Diego conference, educators attended “Deep Dive” sessions, where they put their heads together to discuss challenging topics like emotional support for adolescents, community engagement, and developing curricula at the intersection of mathematics and art.

With that kind of hands-on training, “you experience what it’s like to be a learner engrossed in that deeper learning,” said Cicconi, who was one of hundreds of educators in attendance.

In that sense, deeper learning not only demands but also provides a framework for better professional development. High Tech High has its own graduate school of education program, integrated into the school system.

Schools and districts cannot go it alone, however, said Patricia Gándara of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, at the LPI event. The education researcher called for state and federal investment in professional development. In a Jobs for the Future report funded by the Hewlett Foundation, researchers say deeper learning requires rethinking traditional school credit and assessment systems as well as educator training.

During a break in the San Diego conference, Cicconi wandered the halls of High Tech High. She came upon an electronic Rube Goldberg machine that students had built together out of found materials. It demonstrated the domino effect of U.S. history, showing how one event gave rise to the next.

The fully functional machine could not have simply come out of a traditional history class, nor an art class. Instead, Cicconi said, it exemplified deeper learning’s special confluence of content, creation, and collaboration.

The students who made the machine “have absolutely mastered the different content areas, with different entry points,” she said. “They have created something that can teach others.”

How A Group of Teenagers Taught Me How a Television Show Should Be Made Fri, 08 Apr 2016 13:00:56 +0000 The Reel Teens Premiere Party!]]> First, a confession. I spent most of the 1990s working as a writer/producer on shows for teens at NBC. But this Saturday April 9, 2016 at 9 a.m. on Fox 53, a new show will premiere called “The Reel Teens” which is the show I am proudest of. It is made in front of and behind the camera by seventeen real teenagers from schools around the Pittsburgh region. On the show, these young people go to a Tolin Special Effects and see how monsters are made for movies and TV shows. They visit a musical festival and the studio of a hip hop group to discover how technology has changed the way we make music. They even get rare access to take their cameras inside Google to learn how teamwork and creative problem solving skills that they use when producing the show gives them skills to work at innovative companies like Google in the future.

Along the way, they make us laugh, introduce us to exciting people and places in Pittsburgh, and show us–mistakes and all—how they are learning to make a TV show in a way which is as engaging as most shows you’ll see on television. These students have received mentorship throughout the entire process from teaching artists and industry professionals including myself. But, the truth is we have learned more from them than we ever could have imagined.

Who are The Reel Teens?

The Reel Teens began as part of the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s Youth and Media program which was born right alongside the Remake Learning (then called “Kids & Creativity”). Recognizing that today’s young people, sometimes called “digital natives,” learn differently in a world where they are on screens seven hours a day and hold in their pocket the ability to Google any information in the world they choose. Taking inspiration from Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh innovator who used the new technology of his day (television) to improve the lives of young people, we set out to empower to use today’s creative technologies to be the makers of content, not just consumers.

For the past two years, some Youth and Media participants have become part of the Teen Film Crew, a team of emerging professionals that has been getting paid to make videos for Pittsburgh non-profits. They come to us from a wide variety of high school including PPS Allderdice and CAPA, Urban Pathways, Propel, Montour, Woodland Hills, and Seneca Valley to name a few. They all have their stories, but they came together each Wednesday afternoon to work together on shared projects.

They’ve made videos for Amachi Pittsburgh which works with kids whose parents are incarnated, Arts for Autism, the “Off The Record” fundraiser for the food bank; the students made a video about the Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Initiative with Jerome Bettis where NFL Films filmed our kids filming him. That last video got a shout out on ESPN and was retweeted by the Mayor. And over these past few months, they got the opportunity to make their own TV show.

Teens making their own television show?

As the teens gathered in the conference room that first day, I couldn’t help but smile as they walked past the Fred-A-Saurus, a dinosaur wearing a Fred Rogers sweater outside of the Fred Rogers Company next door to Steeltown on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Even Fred Rogers had worked at NBC for several years before he came back to Pittsburgh to help start public television. And he did his puppets on the Josie Carrey show for years as a floor manager before he got his own show. Oh, and he was an adult.

I should point out that these kids were not alone. We had our teaching artists who have been mentoring them all along, Jordan, Kris, James, and Haji. Haji had been one of our students and now, five years later, is a teacher–pretty impressive and even more so that he was a refugee from Somalia who did not speak English until he was 13. We also brought in, two Emmy Award winning producers, Michael Bartley and Tonia Caruso, who had produced thousands of shows between them, to help mentor the kids.

It seemed like a crazy idea to give teens their own show, but these young people were unafraid. And they had ambitious goals. They wanted to shoot pieces around town that they thought were cool—the Strip Music Festival, a mobile sculpting workshop in the old Carrie Furnace site, a special effects house where a former Teen Film Crew member was now working, oh, and they wanted to go to Google. I tried to explain to them that getting access to the biggest company in the world was probably not feasible as even “real TV journalists” could not get in. The kids shrugged it off, and started talking about skits they wanted to do. I pointed out that even SNL could not get half their skits to work most of the time. They were undeterred.

We brought in top industry professionals to give them tips including cinematographer Mark Knobil who has shot everything from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” to National Geographic specials; sound designer Chris Strollo who has worked on films like “Foxcatcher” and “Perks of Being A Wallflower”; Curtis Fuqua who has been everything from a stunt performer on “Olympus Has Fallen” to a teamster on the upcoming “Fences” HBO movie Denzel Washington is directing; and “Two and a Half Men” and “Mom” director Jamie Widdoes who we Elders all recognize as “Hoover”, the president of the Delta House in “Animal House”—a movie none of our teen film crew have even seen.

“The Elders” is what the Teen Film Crew calls those of us who are helping them to make the show. The only time the cameras were turned off was a meeting early on, when Jordan and Kris, and Brett who have worked with them since the early days of the Teen Film Crew, informed us that the kids wanted to speak with us. At the meeting, the students voiced their concerns about not wanting to be “puppets” as they insisted on not wanting to do anything that was fake and just trying to imitate adults hosting a show.

Had we created a monster? They were still in high school, but their instincts were pretty good. We had presented them with a few titles— “Entertainment Pittsburgh” or “Content Creators” which did not sound quite right. It was the kids who came up with “Reel Teens”—reel as in a film reel. I wondered how they even knew what film was, given the digital world they have grown up in.

So, the kids worked under our tutelage to plan out the first shoot which would be at the Strip Music Festival. They divided into groups and would take turns working camera, sound, lighting, production manager, being hosts, and many of the jobs those not familiar with the industry would not even know existed. Georgia, one of the teens from Montour, knew some members of the band “Nevada Color” who were headlining the festival and so she was able to get them to set up some interviews. Michael and Tonia went over with them beforehand what a typical shoot entailed. There was an equipment check and they were off.

The First Episode

I guess it wasn’t until the first shoot that I realized the difference between this TV show and the ones I had worked on for NBC and other networks. Most of the crew on “The Reel Teens” did not yet have their driver’s licenses, and so the “producers” and “directors” on the episode had to be driven to the Strip or take a bus.

Wanting to give the kids a little space, I waited to meet them at the second location, Klavon’s Ice Cream Shop. I slid into a booth at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor and asked the student producers and directors how the morning went.

Like in some bad sitcom, I got a variety of answers from “good” to “okay” to “we learned a lot.” Uh oh. Exactly what happened? I heard about how they were going to interview the first band in a bar—and well, the bar owner was a little nervous about having them around in the first place as they were all underage. Then, they had plugged in the lights and other equipment. Poof! All the lights went out—for the whole bar. There had been some yelling. They tried to apologize. A band was waiting to go on. So, they just got out of there.

They recovered though, and ended up doing some man on the street interviews and “set ups” which Michael Bartley had taught them. You know, “Hi, I’m Georgia.” “And I’m Alex.” And then chiming in together… “And we are down at the Strip District Music Festival….” Although getting that out on the fly surrounded by throngs at the festival proved harder than they thought.

Eventually, the five members of the next band they were interviewing arrived. This time, everything was set up. They took a deep breath, and Georgia asked— “How has technology affected the music scene?” The band talked to her about how all things are possible nowadays with social media. It’s funny. The Elders were part of a generation, which was shocked when “downloading” killed the music industry in their early part of the millennium. We realized these kids don’t even know what it is like to live in a world without Spotify. We realized that we could tell ourselves that we were teaching them how to make television. But, the truth is most of them have been posted videos on You Tube for half their lives—which was exactly how long YouTube has been in existence.

 The first day’s shoot ended okay, and the second group has now arranged for the whole Teen Film Crew to visit TolinFX. There, they all start to feel like professionals. Steve Tolin tells Josh how he had plans to go to New York or LA after he graduated the Art Institute, but he managed to start get jobs here—working on big movies like “Dark Knight”, “Jack Reacher”, and now “The Outsiders”. Steve talks about his own background when he was a kid, putting together monster masks in his kitchen. The teens interviewed Jazmin about her journey going from Westinghouse as a part of our Youth & Media Program to the Teen Film Crew to now getting paid to do her passion—making things– working as a special effects artist for Tolin Fx.

At the end of the visit, Steve demonstrated his patented Squib FX system which safely allows it to look Josh is being “shot” for the cameras with blood splattering everywhere. The kids loved it. As they called wrap, we noticed that these kids were getting good.

Just as we get a minute to breath, we get word from Google. They are considering the teens request to film there. But first, Patrick, a Global PR team member based in D.C., wants to talk to them via Google Hangout. The following Wednesday, the kids assemble in the conference room. Everyone is beyond nervous. Patrick’s face appears on the screen.

He is a cool guy and explains to the kids that they get these requests from reporters all the time. Before he can get have them come, he needs to know more about the story about why the kids want to go there—what is the story they want to tell. The four kids in the front in the Google group now feel a bit like they are in a firing line.

Sha’Ronda speaks first saying how she has heard about the unique work environment at Google, and thinks it would be a great place to work.

Patrick confirms that they do work hard at that, but asks what else makes them want to visit Google.

Gaige says he has been into computer programming since he was a kid, and it is his life’s dream to work at Google.

Patrick is supportive but moves on to Zabian, the most recent Reel Teen who has joined us from Pittsburgh’s Performing Arts School CAPA.

Z, as we all call her, says what she wants to know is how Google, the biggest company in the world, is giving back to the community. And not just this community, but they live in a global world, and what are they doing for communities around the world.

We all hold our breath, and then Patrick smiles. “You’re in.” He goes on to talk about how Google does see itself as a company that takes the communities they are in—locally and internationally—very seriously. He talks with the kids for a half hour, discussing everything from favorite books to whether Google really has “napping pods” that one of the kids has heard about. In the beginning of the discussion of going to Google, many of the kids felt like Google was only a place where geniuses worked. That it was out of reach for kids like them. But Patrick assures them that the teamwork and creative problem solving skills they are learning doing this TV show, are exactly the type of skills they will need to work at places like Google, and other companies like Google that don’t even exist yet. After all, Google was just being born along the same time that many of these “Reel Teens” were being born. And the problems Google has had to tackle, like how to organize 30 billion items that one could purchase online in a way that is smart for users, are problems, no one else has ever had to solve. As Patrick signs off, The Reel Teens start making their plans to film at Google, and we all wonder what we have gotten ourselves into…

To see all this and more, watch “The Reel Teens” on Fox 53 on Saturday April 9th. Or visit

App Opens New Chapter in Childhood Literacy Tue, 05 Apr 2016 13:00:18 +0000 Think back on your favorite children’s book. “The Rainbow Fish.” “Curious George.” “Green Eggs and Ham.” Reading is a critical part of childhood, but for too many low-income families, children’s books are an expense beyond reach.

That’s why last month the Obama administration announced that it is helping teachers, parents, and children download thousands of ebooks on smartphones or tablets for free. Teachers and librarians in more than 66,000 low-income Title I schools, families on military bases, and special education teachers can now access those books with the new Open eBooks app.

To obtain the books, teachers or librarians sign up online and receive codes for each of their students. Students and their parents take the codes, download the app onto a smartphone or tablet, and select what they want to read. In the first week after launching the app, over 1,000,000 codes were issued to educators, according to the White House.

In addition to partnering with 10 major publishers, including Random House and Penguin, the White House worked with other organizations to create the app, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Public Library of America, and a nonprofit called First Book, which sells deeply discounted books (around $2) to groups serving children. The initiative was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, while the publishers contributed the content.

Unlike the case when borrowing an ebook from a public library, children and families don’t have to wait until the item is available or somebody checks it back in. They can browse titles and download at will.

“As a former teacher in a Title I school, I know an app like Open eBooks would have been a game changer for my students,” Colin Rogister, a who helps to lead the administration’s ConnectED initiative, told EdSurge.

Opening the floodgates to thousands of free books is undeniably a bonus for advocates trying to boost early literacy. Research has found that kids from lower-income families have fewer books in their homes and often start school months or years behind their peers. Meanwhile, being read to and having books at home can be predictive of success in school. And one study found providing children with access to printed materials helped them read more frequently for longer periods and widened their vocabularies.

Media can help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision.

Books are only part of the equation. Despite national and local efforts to strengthen reading skills, two out of every three American children are not reading proficiently by fourth grade, and half of children from low-income families do not meet the low level of “basic” on reading tests. Meanwhile, technology (like the tablets and phones kids use to read ebooks) is often treated as a silver bullet or as harmful to children’s literacy.

In their recent book, “Tap, Click, Read,” Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine describe how a third option is needed—one where media and technology support reading and literacy in ways that were never possible. They say media could help literacy, but only if teachers and parents use it intentionally and offer supervision. Examples include Skyping or FaceTiming with a grandparent, watching videos of new animals after a field trip to the zoo, or conducting iPad scavenger hunts where kids take pictures of the words they are learning.

Accessing thousands of ebooks for free is another emerging example of this. About 8 in 10 Americans under age 50 own a smartphone, meaning millions of parents and educators are a few clicks from finding a book on a topic that interests their child.

There are other barriers to using technology to enhance literacy. Ten percent of Americans who own a smartphone lack in-home broadband (which can make downloading faster), in large part because internet connections are too pricey. And for parents who are stressed or overworked, it may be difficult for reading to take priority.

Literacy, like learning as a whole, is a complicated concept. Even if Open eBooks is a single step in the right direction to democratizing books, it remains encouraging to see government and national partners making literacy a priority.

Millennials Who Blaze Trails in the Innovation Economy Tue, 29 Mar 2016 13:00:12 +0000 Millennials are coming into adulthood at a time of high student loan debt, rising rents, and elusive financial security. On top of that, older generations lob criticisms right and left—they’re tech-obsessed, unprofessional, antisocial. You name it, millennials have heard it.

Faced with these obstacles and more, how are young people finding careers in an economy where meaningful long-term employment is increasingly elusive?

That’s what Craig Watkins, researcher and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his team wanted to know when they started their new project, Doing Innovation. The team has conducted more than 50 interviews with millennials and spent hours observing young people at home, work, and in social settings.

The work was inspired by a yearlong ethnography the team conducted at a public high school in Austin where many students, who are mostly from immigrant or low-income households, were graduating and entering an evolving workforce with few tangible career pathways.

So Watkins and the team went beyond school walls to connect with young adults who were already paving alternative pathways to careers—and is hoping to bring lessons back to educators, policymakers, students, and others.

“Doing Innovation is trying to provide examples of how young people are building this future,” said Watkins. When it comes to the kinds of skills young people today should be learning, he added, “we really think the answer lies with them.”

Lauren Foster talks about her journey to founding the website Stretch Recipes, during a webinar about new career pathways in today’s economy.

For example, in a webinar Watkins hosted last year, Lauren Foster described how she grew up in a food desert on the south side of Chicago and lacked experience shopping at grocery stores. Years later, she found that her little brother had trouble keeping to his food budget. She quit her job and created Stretch Recipes, a web site where people plug in their budget per serving and receive recipes that prioritize price and nutrition.

“I wanted to make sure people on extremely tight budgets are able to make it work, and not compromise their long-term health because of immediate costs,” Foster said.

For Adam Saltsman, his career pathway started after years of not being hired. He picked up freelance jobs here and there, and on nights and weekends he worked to create simple and addictive retro-looking games. Eventually, his games grew more popular and he became an independent game designer.

Doing Innovation highlights stories like those of Foster and Saltsman. From web design to painting, the young subjects work in a variety of industries but are all “trying to create alternative pathways to opportunity,” Watkins said.

Foster and Saltsman are among many millennials carving career paths that may not have been possible in a previous generation. However, the knowledge economy may provide new pathways for some, but the same social, economic, and geographical disparities that shape today’s economy mean resources remain uneven.

“Once you get into the realities of the digital economy, and especially once you add race, gender, sexuality, and class onto your assessment of its health, the picture becomes much more complicated and fraught,” Aymar Jean Christian, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, said in another webinar Watkins hosted.

While younger people are seen as “tethered” to technology, Watkins writes, his examples showcase “a generation that is figuring out how to leverage technology for social impact and opportunity.”

How do we help today’s young people develop the kids of skills and dispositions they’ll need to succeed in the knowledge economy?

“I think we are at a point now where we can no longer look at these skills as a kind of luxury,” Watkins said, referring to knowledge-economy skills such as creative technology use, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, or using technology to build connections with other people. But Watkins says the young people highlighted on Doing Innovation share more than those skills—they share an entrepreneurial, independent streak, too.

“These kinds of skills and dispositions—or attitudes— how do we help young people develop that disposition?” Watkins said, adding that he hopes his research will give educators a picture of how better to design opportunities for young people.

Millennials realize the path to financial security isn’t easy no matter what career a person follows. As Foster said, those who are trekking outside well-worn pathways know the difficulties that come with that level of instability and unpredictability.

“It’s a struggle. It’s lonely. It’s scary,” said Foster. “But when you look at your life, and say, how do I want to live it? There are some things you’re willing to sacrifice without a second thought.”


Casting a Vote for Learning Innovation Thu, 24 Mar 2016 12:00:28 +0000 Ah, election season—when a few hot topics are shoved into the national discourse, and others, like learning, get hardly any airtime. With politics on the minds of many, it’s a good time to consider what policy approaches could best promote learning innovation at the national, state, and local levels. Here is our wish list of broad topics we’d like to see at the forefront of learning policy.

Competency-Based Education and Learning Pathways

First, let’s look at how course credit is awarded. Traditionally, credit accumulation is based on “seat time”—a designated amount of time students are required to spend in a public school classroom. That means most students move through coursework and grade levels at the same pace. Under a competency-based model, students can progress once they have mastered the required content.

Some states, like Florida, have implemented personalized learning pathways in lieu of seat time requirements, expanding opportunities for students while ensuring that schools receive the same per-pupil funding. In Arizona, students get the same high school credit for content mastered outside of the K-12 system—at a community college or career prep program, for example.

As we leave behind No Child Left Behind’s “one size fits all” approach, increasing flexibility is key. The law’s successor, ESSA, opens the door to decision-making based on local contexts, without stringent federal standards that limit innovation. Already, waivers easing state requirements allow schools to cater to students’ needs and build robust interdisciplinary programs. See New Mexico, which pioneered a program last year that allowed teachers of STEM subjects to use waivers to teach other subjects under that umbrella. 


State and federal funding for education could be allocated to better encourage learning innovation. For example, the federal Investing in Innovation Fund supports cross-sector solutions to public education problems like the achievement gap. However, a critical complement is legislation like the Massachusetts Information Technology Bond Bill, which funds basic tech and broadband access to schools.

Computer Science Education

Analysts project that by 2020, employers will only be able to fill one-third of the 1.4 million computer science jobs with U.S. college graduates, suggesting a disconnect between what’s being taught in the classroom and what the workforce demands.

A number of states have toyed with different incentives for high school students to take computer science courses. In Pennsylvania, such courses can satisfy a math or science requirement; in Arkansas, they count as foreign language courses. Chicago Public Schools just made it a graduation requirement. But acknowledging that it’s often a question of access, not motivation, President Obama has proposed more than $4 billion for states and districts to offer computer science education. 

Career and Technical Training 

It’s time we say goodbye to the bubble test as we know it.
We recently wrote about how a high school education can—and must—put more students on the path to a successful career. Many states and schools have incorporated career preparation into the curriculum through in-school “career academies” and partnerships with local workforce, among other approaches. West Virginia high school students, for example, can take free online courses sponsored by Microsoft and graduate with an IT certificate. Schools in Louisiana are required to collaborate with businesses and higher education to offer a “career diploma” to those who want it. The challenge is to build career pathways for all students, regardless of whether they are college-bound or interested in a vocation.


It’s time we say goodbye to the bubble test as we know it. Assessment practices must be reconfigured to capture 21st century skills. In Tennessee in 2012, for example, the state required a new civics test to be a project-based assessment of “real world” situations. For example, some of the schools have students identify problems in their communities and propose policy solutions. While being conscious of the potential for bias and subjectivity in these kinds of assessments, creators of new tests can work to better evaluate the competencies this generation will need.

Networks 101 Wed, 23 Mar 2016 14:02:44 +0000 What’s a network? A powerful way to harness collective resources, skills, and ideas. Why should we adopt them? Read on. 


Everywhere you go, from TED Talks to education conferences, people seem to be talking about networks. Especially in Pittsburgh. But what exactly is a network?

In a classic definition, a network is simply “webs of human collaboration and exchange.”

When you think of networks, think of a coral reef. Each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone. Photo/USFWS - Pacific Region

When you think of networks, think of a coral reef. Each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone. Photo/USFWS – Pacific Region

But a network creates its own magic by the force of those webs of exchange. Because networks are made up of colleagues and strangers alike, they “enable diverse phenomena – whether information, emotions, germs, or money – to diffuse through them,” as network expert Nicholas Christakis writes in “Connected.”

Networks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from social networks like Facebook or our family and friends, to “clusters” of businesses in a city or region (a “cluster development” approach to economic development), to “innovation ecosystems” like the Remake Learning Network.

The power of networks is that people or organizations in them gain from being associated with one another, and each individual or organization is more effective that it would be alone.

What do networks need?
    • A Purpose. Networks are organized for a specific purpose, and those in the network are aware of the purpose.
    • Knowledge exchange. They rely on (and promote) open innovation and avoid proprietary information-hoarding.
    • Collaboration. Networks are not top-down structures. They feature “horizontal” collaboration (ties between various groups that represent shared interests), but supplemented with “power brokers” who have the ear of people who can effect change.
    • Leadership. They have a quarterback at the center in a stewardship role.
    • A mix of relationships. Networks include a balanced mix of both weak and strong ties among members.


What makes networks most effective?  

Networks are most effective when they have a balance of weak and strong ties and when they have a balanced mix of voices. As Bruce Katz wrote in “The Metropolitan Revolution,” “If everyone knows each other already, it’s not a network, it’s just another meeting.”

Strong ties are akin to close relatives or close-knit neighbors. Think small towns and tight ethnic neighborhoods. Weak ties are networks of acquaintances, workmates, or others we regularly interact with, but are less formal or tight-knit. Think colleagues in another city or friends of friends.

In “Connected,” Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler underscore the benefits of a mix of ties using an example of a musical:

“Teams made up of individuals who had never before worked together fared poorly, greatly increasing the chance of a flop. These networks were not well connected and contained mostly weak ties. At the other extreme, groups made up of individuals who had all worked together previously also tended to create musicals that were unsuccessful. Because these groups lacked creative input from the outside, they tended to rehash the same ideas that they used the first time they worked together.”

The importance of a healthy mix of ties is best told by Sean Safford in the story of two Pennsylvania cities and their rebounds (or not) from the demise of the steel industry. In “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown,” he argues that Youngstown was hampered in its recovery by a network of too-tight elites who isolated themselves from other groups in the region. Allentown, on the other hand, had looser networks and cross-cutting relationships that bridged different groups. Allentown rebounded, while Youngstown struggled.

“If everyone knows each other already, it’s not a network, it’s just another meeting.”

Likewise, a reliance only on “experts” without community voice will limit a network’s effectiveness. The urban planner Jane Jacobs saw cities as rich networks, where diversity, mixed-use zoning, and density bred spontaneity and creativity. She advocated for less big-scale Planning with a capital p from top-down city governments and more organic planning with a lower-case p, emerging from the rich networks of neighbors and dense interactions on the street.

Ok, I think I get what a network is. But how do networks actually cultivate innovation better than people working alone? 

Just as they do in spreading gossip, networks also spread ideas. Networks are dispersed and open, rather than top-down and secretive, and as such the people and organizations in them can readily share fresh ideas and new approaches to an issue. If you’re doing great work alone in the garage, and no one knows about it, it doesn’t matter, says network expert and Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis.

A helpful illustration of the connections in an open, dispersed network that spreads ideas and innovation. Photo/Austin Hill

“Ideas need a tight ecosystem to foster creative growth,” states the Boston Innovation District manifesto. In essence, networks increase the returns to being smart: we get smarter by being around people who are smart.

Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, argues that networks spur innovation by “seeping into the cracks.”:

“Together, network members come up with ideas, vet for the best ones, try things out, make things better, and over time start to transform their approach to teaching and learning. As this happens, people nearby start to say: ‘Hey, something is different here. And it’s kind of cool. I can try this.’ From there, innovations seep more deeply into the cracks. … Ideas that emerged and grew ‘in the cracks’ have gained the credibility and strength needed to become a part of a more mainstream plan for educational transformation. This is how innovation spreads—and how networks have an impact.”

Why is it important for networks to be open and share information easily?

As technology activists say, information wants to be free. While that is the hallmark of the internet, transparency and the ability to easily share are also critical to networks, argues Surman of the Mozilla Foundation, an organization whose open-source approach to software development is much heralded. Making information, ideas, and processes accessible, or “working in the open,” as he says, is “the grease that lubricates the network, allowing ideas to flow and innovations to spread.

“When people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created. If the people building together are from different institutions, then the innovations spread more quickly to more institutions.”

More importantly, he says, “they make it possible for people to genuinely build things together—and learn along the way. This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough: when people build things together they tend to own them emotionally and want to roll them out after they are created. If the people building together are from different institutions, then the innovations spread more quickly to more institutions.”

How do networks make it easier to “go to scale” with an idea?

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, has argued that networks—in his example manufacturing networks in the U.S.—are critical in making the shift from idea to product, that is, going to scale with an idea

Equally important is what comes after that mythical moment of creation in the garage, as technology goes from prototype to mass production. This is the phase where companies scale up. They work out design details, figure out how to make things affordably, build factories, and hire people by the thousands. … A new industry needs an effective ecosystem in which technology know-how accumulates, experience builds on experience, and close relationships develop between supplier and customer.”

They need a network.

In education, as our own Playbook puts it, the same notion applies:

“Absent a radical shift in top-down educational policy, the best chance to equitably spread the adoption and speed the scale of innovative learning practices is through distributed, city-based networks.”

Has anybody actually put the network idea to work?

Economic developers regularly look to networks (or clusters, as they call them) for economies of scale, supply chains, and the pools of skilled labor they supply as the most effective way to spur growth. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter has shown that cluster development is a strong spur to wage growth, new industries, and entrepreneurship.

In that vein, the move today is to replace the isolated suburban campuses of major corporations of the past, which secret away their innovations, with broad clusters of similar businesses whose workers rub shoulders with others at local coffee shops or gathering spots, sharing ideas and benefiting from the rich source of skills, resources, and serendipity. Cleveland is a good example, with its hub of advanced medical technology manufacturing, built on the area’s rich manufacturing know-how and local universities and hospital systems. Others abound.

In the world of commerce, the Guardian writes in a review of the book “Future Perfect,” “collaborative peer networks outperform free-market arrangements all the time.”

Sounds like an interesting theory. But how do networks spur change in bureaucracies like education or government?

Government also can look to networks. Author Steven Johnson has called for a “peer network” approach to civic engagement and social problem-solving. A new kind of institution, peer networks—more network than hierarchy—he argues, can be put to work to solve tough problems.

“A growing number of us,” he writes, “have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems – the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools.”  The solutions are then shared so that the network’s “hive mind” can implement and improve it.

Bureaucracies and big systems like education offer something else. To truly spur fresh ideas, we need both the “bazaar”—the noisy chaos and serendipity of networks—and the “cathedrals”— where people cloister and do the hard work to bring new ideas into the world. Bureaucracies of experts are akin to the cathedral, while the network beyond the school walls is the bazaar.

Michelle Cahill, vice president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, calls learning networks (or “ecosystems”) that combine such expertise with the bazaar of the city essential: “At the heart of an ecosystem for learning is an ability to draw upon the assets of an entire city or community to support students.”

Is there an example of an education innovation network?

The U.S. Office of Education Technology spearheaded the Education Innovation Clusters initiative to support several such networks to create an R&D pipeline and accelerate the pace of innovation by bringing together education, research, and commercial partners.

Today, #EdClusters continues with the support of Digital Promise, the Congressionally-chartered nonprofit organization committed to improving the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.

What are drawbacks associated with networks?  

Not all networks are positive. Crime, contagion, and terrorism can all flourish in networks. Our networks also influence our health more broadly. A person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if his or her friend is obese. They can also exacerbate inequality. Those with college degrees have networks that are nearly twice as large as those who did not finish high school.

Ok, now I’m intrigued. What are different examples of networks in action? 

Networks are emerging in many shapes and forms across the nation today. Below is an abbreviated list:

Other communities with their own education innovation networks:

You can dig deeper on Education Innovation Clusters with a free Remake Learning Playbook crowdcast with Cricket Fuller, Education Innovation Clusters Project Directior at Digital Promise, on Thursday, March 24th at 4:00pm.


The Feds Put Testing to the Test Tue, 15 Mar 2016 16:50:35 +0000 Last month, acting Secretary of Education John King put out a clear call for testing reform.

“At too many schools, there are unnecessary tests without a clear purpose,” he said in a video address. Federal funds are available, he added, for states and districts looking to “audit” their current testing programs and improve the quality of assessment.

King was building on similar remarks from President Obama last fall. The administration at that time released guiding “principles for fewer and smarter assessments,” calling for tests that enhance teaching and learning and supplement other important classwork.

These statements come during somewhat of a new era for education. In December, Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), doing away with the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). At the center of the old law was frequent, rigorous standardized testing. Federal funding was linked to test performance, and consequences for failure to improve were severe, including teacher layoffs. Schools and teachers felt they had little leeway in lesson design and assessment strategies.

ESSA preserves annual testing in reading and math between third and eighth grade and once in high school. States must continue to report the scores, but they are granted a little more flexibility in determining their weight. States can create their own performance evaluation markers using other determinants of progress in addition to the test scores, and can decide how to intervene when schools struggle to meet the mark. ESSA does not go into full effect until the 2017-2018 school year but until then federal grants may be available for assessment improvement, King said.

What skills we should be assessing in the first place?

A common disparaging refrain during NCLB’s tenure was that it forced educators to “teach to the test.” A fair criticism—but what if, along with easing the emphasis on testing, the tests themselves were changed to better reflect and assess the competencies that students need. Included in ESSA is a pilot program for up to seven states to experiment with assessment methodology. For a model see New Hampshire, a state already using an NCLB waiver to create new state and local tests designed by teachers and administered in only three grades.

The increased flexibility gives us a moment to consider what skills we should be assessing in the first place. We’ve written that “21st century skills” has become a somewhat nebulous buzz-phrase. But at its core is an acknowledgment that a competitive economy—and unequal playing field—demands creativity, initiative, communication skills, and digital literacy. King put it succinctly in his video address when he said tests should measure writing, problem solving, and critical thinking, not rote memorization of facts.

In a manual for educators, the RAND Corporation introduces a spectrum of approaches to testing 21st century competencies. On the more conservative side are efforts to modestly tweak multiple-choice tests. Keeping to the classic model, some organizations are reworking questions to better evaluate critical thinking. A reading test, for example, doesn’t just evaluate comprehension, but has a student select quotes that best support an argument about a passage.

Far beyond the bubble test is the portfolio system. In Singapore, elementary students are tested based on collections of classwork and reflective journal entries. Some educators in the U.S. use this approach too. Of course, time and cost can prohibit such elaborate systems.

Quality testing reveals what a student needs or how an educator can improve.
There has also been movement toward learning with built-in, real-time assessment. EcoMUVE, a computer simulation made at Harvard, is designed to simultaneously teach and assess science knowledge, problem solving, and communication. The game doubles as a two-week course on ecology. Students move throughout a virtual setting, collaboratively investigating a realistic environmental problem. They decide what steps to take—whether to test the pH level of the soil, for example—and eventually write a letter to the mayor once they believe they’ve solved the issue. All the while, assessment data is gathered.

Regardless of what assessment reform looks like, the goal is to eliminate empty evaluations that waste students’ and teachers’ time and take away from meaningful instruction. Quality testing reveals what a student needs or how an educator can improve, so instruction becomes more effective and equitable.

Gathering information from administrators, teachers, and parents, three districts in Illinois last year evaluated the usefulness of local assessments.

“The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential,” said the assistant superintendent in one of the districts. “They provided valuable perspectives and kept us focused on one essential question: Does the assessment provide accurate and valuable information to positively impact student achievement?”

The results of the study led to the elimination of certain district tests, giving 12 hours of class time back to instructors. New professional development opportunities were also offered by the state.

So, as the federal government encourages this kind of experimentation and ESSA is ushered in, will standardized testing:

A) disappear
B) improve
C) stay the same
D) too early to tell

The answer is D, but efforts like those in New Hampshire and Illinois have suggested the potential for testing to shift from limited measure to valuable tool for learning.

Should the Internet be a Public Good? Tue, 08 Mar 2016 17:39:09 +0000 In a recent New York Times piece, a high school student in Donna, Texas, named Perla describes how she rides the school bus an extra three hours a day because she needs the bus’s wi-fi connection to do homework. Another set of siblings, Isabella and Tony, stand outside their school at 7 pm just to access its wi-fi hot spot and download their math homework on their phone.

The story comes on the heels of a new Rutgers University report that found that while 9 in 10 lower-income families can access the internet in some way, a quarter can only connect by smartphone, and half of those with a connection say it is too slow for reliable use.

In short, American internet service is falling behind. Americans pay too much, and average connections are sluggish when compared with speeds in many European of Asian countries. Huge swaths of rural America are locked out of any broadband access, and low-income kids without a reliable connection at home are struggling to benefit from a full education. Competition among providers is slim. Six in 10 Americans have either one choice or no choice in broadband providers.

Thinking about the internet like a public utility is a shift in how we have historically treated internet access, as well as how we think about what kids really need to access equal education.

Does it have to be this way? The short answer is no. But thinking about the internet as something everyone should have—like a public utility—is a shift in how we have historically treated internet access, as well as how we think about what kids really need to access equal education.

Going back almost 100 years, the country thought of access to communications tools very differently. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Telecommunications Act, which broke up monopolies and regulated companies that provided telephone lines, which the government saw as critical to the nation’s growth and prosperity

When the internet era arose, providers faced very little regulation, even as the web began to occupy the same importance in American life as phones once did. Last year, the FCC adopted “net neutrality” regulations that allowed it to regulate broadband a little more like a utility. For example, the new rules stop providers from purposely slowing down speeds or charging companies like Netflix to use internet “fast lanes” for their content. In a vote next month, the FCC will decide whether to reform its Lifeline program, which would expand a phone subsidy program to include broadband access for low-income Americans.

Still, the new net neutrality regulations don’t mirror the rules for telephone lines, which are still considered a public utility. The FCC won’t regulate broadband rates or enforce quality or availability standards. While cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., have created high-speed, municipal-owned fiber networks (Comcast tried to sue), many Americans are left with only one option, and it is often financially out of reach.

“We treated the telephone industry like a utility and people don’t seem to be surprised by that,” Susan Crawford, author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age,” told TIME magazine. “High-speed internet access plays the same role in American life. It’s just that these guys have succeeded in making us think that it’s a luxury.”

The “these guys” Crawford is referring to are Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, which doled out $44 million to lobby Congress in 2015 alone. But ask any student standing on the street at night just trying to download his or her math homework: the internet isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessary part of day-to-day life in 2016.

In today’s schools, the internet is critical for researching and in some cases completing homework. But the Rutgers University report found kids without internet access at home were also less likely to look up topics they are interested in—a world on knowledge they could tap into every evening. The report also found that 42 percent of lower-income families without home access said cost is the biggest barrier. And internet prices are up more than 21 percent since two years ago, reaching and average of $47 per month—the price of a tank of gas, an electric bill, or a unexpected parking ticket. For many Americans, an added monthly expense of around $40 is too much on a tight budget.

One of the most telling examples of how lack of home internet access exacerbates inequality comes from a district superintendent in Texas, who told the New York Times teachers try to accommodate students without access, but at the same time the district can’t “hold back on our use of technology in the classrooms” because it has to prepare children for the world awaiting them.

The United States shouldn’t be faced with this choice—hold back basic technology in classrooms, or leave kids without access behind. But without rethinking our philosophy on internet access, that choice holds us all back from realizing the full potential of the internet, and the full potential of today’s children.

Bringing Everyone to the Badging Table Tue, 01 Mar 2016 18:57:05 +0000 Back in 2012, The New York Times published a long article heralding digital badges as a likely supplement to—or even replacement for—traditional credentials like grades. Badges document skills and competencies, particularly those learned beyond classroom walls, and are gathered in an online portfolio. In the story, a software engineer described how he received many job offers from employers who saw his badge collection.

Four years later, digital badges haven’t quite wedged their way into the workforce the way advocates expected, but they have momentum. A recent U.S. News article lays out the prevailing attitude among employers: one part excitement, one part unfamiliarity. It cites a new survey of human resource managers in which 62 percent said they were interested in badges but needed to learn more.

The article takes a worthwhile look at whether employers are embracing badges as alternatives to traditional resumes. What’s missing is a discussion of their potential for learning innovation.

“Education is accessible anywhere you are, any time of the day or night.”
Digital badges were created to reflect and recognize nonconventional—often out-of-the-classroom—learning. A teenager graduating high school has likely amassed a slew of skills not evident in an SAT score or transcript. Maybe it’s documentary skills from messing around with a parent’s camera on weekends. Or game design chops from taking a free class at the local public library. It might even be an ability to engage the community, cultivated by bringing neighborhood kids together for a regular open mic night.

It does a disservice to both the student and the employer or college admissions officer to leave those skills out of the picture.

“Education is accessible anywhere you are, any time of the day or night,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking at the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers last year. “And we have got to create a system around that.”

Such a system, ideally, promotes both the skills young people have and the skills employers need. At the same forum, hosted by The Sprout Fund, Chris Arnold from the game design company Schell Games voiced many employers’ frustrations with the current credentialing system.

“Employers suffer from not being able to really accurately assess people’s skills and, worse, not being able to assess people’s passion,” he said.

Recent efforts like Cities of Learning (and it’s next evolution LRNG) in Pittsburgh and a handful of other cities brings badges to the people in a big way. Organizations use these platforms to design and issue specific badges to young people who gain knowledge and devleop skills through summer programs, classes, online activities, and internships. There are options for those who are passionate about politics, those who want to build robots, and those who want to hone their artistic practice.

The movement to adopt badging has stirred controversy. Some wonder whether badging does harm by turning every act of learning into something to be measured and assessed. They ask if we should be quantifying curiosity.

“Skeptics argue that introducing digital badges into informal education settings—where most agree they would have the greatest impact initially—could bring too much structure and hierarchy to the very places students go to seek refuge from formal achievement tracking,” writes Katie Ash at EdWeek.

But proponents say kids are either gaining these skills anyway or are motivated to do so by the badges, and deserve to be recognized for them. Badges can be particularly helpful for kids who don’t thrive in a traditional school setting, or whose families cannot afford enrichment programs.

Even with everyone on board, there are a lot of moving parts that present challenges to badging becoming the norm. Badges have to be standardized enough that they are meaningful, yet they have to be varied enough to correspond to different industries’ needs. Everyone from young people to parents, teachers, community mentors, administrators, and employers need to be part of the process.

That understanding was the genesis for the Sprout employer badging forum.

“Badging today is an exciting experiment,” said Cathy Lewis Long, The Sprout Fund’s executive director. But until it is embraced by higher education and industry—not to mention young people—it will remain just that. The answer, she said, lies in an “ecosystem” approach that brings everyone to the table.

Putting Kids on the Pathway From Classroom to Career Tue, 23 Feb 2016 16:25:59 +0000 Imagine as a high school student having the chance to not only discover your interests but turn those interests into a career. That’s what LRNG and other efforts across the country are hoping to do. And none too soon. Far too many kids get lost on the path from classroom to workplace.

Dropout rates at two- and four-year colleges, especially among low-income students, are high. Seventy percent of low-income students at four-year colleges and universities fail to graduate in six years. Obstacles abound: high tuition, insufficient financial aid, lack of guidance from adults, lack of direction, discrimination, maddening bureaucracy. It is easy to see how a student can fall through the cracks or feel like giving up.

Far too many kids get lost on the path from classroom to workplace.

Schools, the government, and businesses have begun working in concert to stem the dropout rate and create delineated “career pathways” based on the demands of area workforces. Colleges and employers join forces to outline the coursework and job-experience pathway, leading to higher wages for students and solid matches for employers. In Rochester, Minnesota, for example, the Mayo Clinic (the region’s biggest employer) and other medical employers helped develop a pathway for community college students based on the region’s need for health care workers. Many others have joined the school-to-work movement, including career academies and five-year high schools.

But what about students who haven’t found their calling? How do you help them discover a path that can lead to a well-paid and fulfilling career? That’s where LRNG and similar efforts can help.

Adapting the “playlists” concept we use to experience a curated selection of music, video, or other media, LRNG allows educators to construct learning playlists that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop vital competencies while exploring their interests. The learning experiences (or “XPs” in the parlance of LRNG) that make up the playlist can be face-to-face activities that happen in a local place of learning, or online digital experiences that a young person completes online. Young people progress through playlists by submitting evidence of their learning and at the completion of a Playlist, they’ll earn a digital badge to recognize their accomplishment. LRNG plans to link these badges to incentives for like access to mentors or internships with possible employers. Some playlists are being developed with help from companies like EA Games, which lend their knowledge of industry needs.

But the playlists do something more. They help young people develop the kinds of dispositions that employers are clamoring for and that can support a person in a world where what matters most is what you can do with what you know. As an executive told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “Young people who are intrinsically motivated—curious, persistent, and willing to take risks—will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.”

That kind of intrinsic motivation doesn’t come naturally to teenagers. It takes cultivating. Programs like MIT’s Little Devices Lab, where college students invent solutions to health care issues using everyday technologies, or makerspaces around the country, where teens solve problems and design solutions, are a start. Those kinds of labs allow youth to discover a passion while building a portfolio of skills that future employers will pay for.

More “third spaces”—beyond home, school, and work—are needed.

More important, they provide a foundation for lifelong learning. In “Mass Flourishing,” Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps argues for a rebooting of jobs to foster a sense of innovation, creativity, and problem-solving at work. People, he says, have “a desire to express creativity, a relish for challenge, an enjoyment of problem solving, a delight in novelty, and the restless need to explore and tinker.” It’s time, he argues, that we seize the imagination of all participants, from day laborers to white collar workers.

But getting there will take a rediscovery of the joys of self-expression, accepting change, testing oneself against others, experimenting, summoning imagination, exercising judgment, and feeling free to act on insights.

While some of this can happen in schools or online, the risk is that only well-positioned youth will benefit, those with access to these kinds of resources at school and home. That’s why a recent World Bank report notes that adults and youth will “need to continuously reevaluate and upgrade their skills,” and “much of that will happen outside the formal education system.”

More “third spaces”—beyond home, school, and work—are needed, particularly for low-income youth in struggling schools, to ensure that all youth have an opportunity to become entrepreneurs in spirit.

New EdTech Fund Forges Vital Ties Between Developers and Teachers Thu, 18 Feb 2016 20:42:34 +0000 Nesra Yannier is a fifth-year PhD candidate in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University whose background includes computer science, design, art, and education. She drew on these skills in creating NoRILLA, a classroom technology that teaches kids the basic physics of balance. Her prototype includes an app, a projector, some building blocks, and an electronic table that shakes. When students use it, an animated gorilla challenges them to build towers on the platform and predict which will fall first when an “earthquake” shakes the table.

Playtesting NoRILLA at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Normally, edtech developers like Yannier would be on their own when trying to connect with teachers and students to test their concepts in real-world settings. But Yannier is part of a Sprout Fund initiative called the Ed-Tech Refinery, which is supporting efforts by ambitious young visionaries to partner up with educators at schools, libraries, and museums in the Pittsburgh region.

Starting this month, Yannier will be working with first, second, and third graders and their teachers at Montour Elementary School to further test NoRILLA and make the product as useful as possible in the classroom.

Mac Howison, senior program officer for catalytic funding at the Sprout Fund, said the Ed-Tech Refinery is rooted in the idea that a city should leverage all its assets to support its education “ecosystem”—schools, libraries, museums, afterschool settings, and the private sector. And though there is a growing edtech cluster in Pittsburgh, it’s not easy for fledgling companies to get the time and money they need to conduct robust testing with educators. As a recent Digital Promise report found, less than half of technology directors interviewed said they were satisfied with the length of time it takes to bring technology to kids. By providing grants to educators who work with ed tech companies, the Refinery makes those connections easier.

By strengthening ties between teachers and techies, the Sprout Fund hopes to bolster education technology in Pittsburgh. Ideally, Howison says, startups will use the partnerships to make products that, once successful, will fuel job creation in the region.

Widespread adoption is certainly Yannier’s goal. For now, though, she has been running tests at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. She found kids learned faster when they saw the blocks tumble onto the table rather than simply collapse on a computer screen. Through her partnership with Montour, Yannier is eliciting feedback from educators about how best to use the platform.

 “A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want.”

“A lot of technology gets built but doesn’t get implemented because developers don’t listen to what teachers want,” she said. “I really want to get the perspective of teachers to make it more usable for them and easier for them to adopt.”

Since August, Montour School District has worked with CMU’s LearnLab to open an educational research center at the district high school. Teachers at Montour have been working with researchers to learn more about technology-enhanced education. Justin Aglio, director of innovation at Montour School District, said so far when teachers work with researchers who are also trying to learn, “it’s a safe way to take risks.”

“We really stress ‘how do children learn best?’ ” Aglio said. “Pittsburgh has amazing resources, so how do we capitalize on these resources to make the lives of our teachers easier and help our students learn?”

The Sprout Fund is accepting applications for a new round of Ed-Tech Refinery partnerships through the beginning of March. Yannier will continue working with teachers throughout the semester.

“I think we are both excited to see our students think like scientists,” Aglio said of the partnership with Yannier. “That’s our biggest goal—to help students experience hands-on learning and having students think critically.”

Report Finds Unreliable Internet Access Undermines Lower-Income Families Tue, 16 Feb 2016 18:58:58 +0000 Today in the United States, 9 out of 10 lower-income families have some form of internet access. But when it comes to how well they are getting online, new data exposes nagging imbalances in speed and quality.

A new report from Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center finds that many low- and moderate-income families are “under-connected.” This may mean, for example, that they can access the internet only on their smartphones, that their connectivity is unreliable, or that other factors make it harder for them to carry out basic online activities while impeding their children’s performance in school.

“It’s no longer a simple question of whether or not families are connected to the Internet but rather how they are connected.”

“It’s no longer a simple question of whether or not families are connected to the Internet,” the study’s co-author, Vikki S. Katz, associate professor of communication at Rutgers, said in a press release, “but rather how they are connected, and the implications of being under-connected for children’s access to educational opportunities and parents’ ability to apply for jobs or resources.”

The study interviewed 1,191 lower-income parents with children ages 6 to 13 and conducted 170 in-person interviews with lower-income Hispanic families. Researchers found a quarter of families below the median income level relied solely on mobile internet access—meaning they are able to connect via smartphone but do not have a computer. For those with both a computer and an internet connection, half said their access was too slow, a quarter said too many people share the computer to have reliable access, and one in five said their internet service was cut off once in the last year due to late payment.

For kids, an unreliable internet connection means a harder time completing homework and less opportunity to research their interests. A poor connection makes it harder, for example, for children and teens to pursue personal online projects or create websites and videos, which are vital to developing skills for future jobs. Just 35 percent of children with mobile-only access said they often looked up information about things they’re interested in online, compared to more than half those with home access.

The researchers found 40 percent of families lack computers or internet access because they cannot afford it. There are a number of discounted internet services, the largest being Comcast’s Internet Essentials, which offers $10-a-month service to families whose children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at public schools. (The FCC required Comcast to create the service as a condition of acquiring NBC in 2011 for $6.4 billion.)

But only 5 percent of people interviewed in the study have tried to enroll in a discounted internet service, and one in four reported being dissatisfied with the service because connection speeds were lower than for customers paying full prices. Comcast recently upped the Internet Essentials speed to a rate somewhat closer to the average American’s connection speed, but lower-income families say their options are still lacking.

In the coming months, the FCC plans to vote on reforming its Lifeline program, which started in 1985 as a subsidy to help low-income Americans pay for phone lines. The FCC updated it in 2015 to include subsidies for cellphone bills, but the upcoming vote will determine whether the program will add subsidized broadband internet service.

To push for that reform and other policy actions, the Media Action Grassroots Network, or MAG-Net, and other civil rights groups organized a Twitter town hall two weeks ago called #RightToConnect. Hundreds posted about how lower-cost internet would help in their lives or at school.

One problem, of course, was in hosting the discussion online. So during the conversation, MAG-Net tweeted recorded stories from people who lack solid internet connections and were unable to take part in the Twitter conversation. They also have a story bank to showcase how people would be impacted by changes to the Lifeline program.

“Not having internet service at my home is challenging for me and my family because I have to leave the house to use the internet somewhere else,” Roxanne O’Brien said in her interview with MAG-Net. “I have three children, and sometimes I have to leave them here by themselves, especially when I have to look for housing, because the service on my phone isn’t always reliable.”

As the Rutgers report makes plain, lower-income families struggling to get quality internet connections “too often go unnoticed as we celebrate the new progress and promise afforded by new technologies.”