21st Century Teacher Toolkit

The world of technology has brought vast changes to just about every area of our lives.  From the devices, to the communication tools, to the ever expanding world of the internet, our world continues to change very rapidly.  The world of teaching and learning is no exception and as educators we are faced with this ever changing landscape.  Today, many apply the term “21st century”  to new methods, skills, understandings, and ways of thinking that define what education in a connected world should be.  As educators, our task is to prepare our students for this exciting and fast paced world, and as such this requires us reimagine the role of an educator.

What does 21st century teaching look like?  Sound like?  How is it different than the past?
It was these questions that led to the foundation of this blog post.  During our most recent professional learning session, several teams of the teachers of Pen Argyl Area School District met and discussed their views on what characteristics, skills, or  dispositions are important to 21st century teaching.  This list has formed our 21st Century Teacher Toolkit.  

  1. CD Team Creativity: 
    Teaching styles should accommodate various learning styles, set time aside for students to work creatively, allow for choice, and provide differentiated approaches to subject comprehension. Students should be encouraged to approach thinking/problem solving “outside the box”.
  2. 7th Grade Team:
    Open Minded/Flexible:  It’s important that as teachers we are willing to try new things with technologies and that we are willing to take risks with unique assignments and lessons. Teachers also need to be willing to adjust to new technology and the issues that come with working with technology as well.    

    1. http://www.teachhub.com/teaching-strategies-what-21st-century-educator-looks: As the link above mentions, teachers need to be willing to work with whatever is thrown their way and make is a  meaningful learning moment.
  3. 6th grade team:
    Collaborate and Communicate – By use of technology, students are able to collaborate with each other regardless if at school or at home. Teachers can provide guidelines and rubrics to students that are readily accessible.  In addition, feedback from teachers/peers can be immediate and constant to guide towards success.  
  4. The Outsiders:
    Being able to facilitate issues with chromebooks or lessons (Skyward, Google, CDT and Study Island testing, etc.)  
  5. 8th grade team: Know your Audience:
    Being a 21st Century teacher means we need to be aware that we have 21st Century students. We need to be aware that the ways they communicate which are very different from what the teacher may have been raised with. The students are using shared GoogleDocs to speak to one another, talking to one another in different classrooms. We need to stress the permanency of the communication and that consequences can come from these not-so-private on a school network conversations. We also need to be aware of how pop culture affects how our students think and that certain appropriate and inappropriate behaviors may come from these outside influences. Our job is to help guide them to the best use of these “cool” things to make their learning fun, relevant, current, and yet appropriate.
    LINK: 13 Essential 21st Century Skills for Today’s Students
    LINK:How 21st Century Thinking Is Just Different
    LINK: Today’s tech: How kids communicate in and out of school
  6. As a reflective teaching process
    Use of technology in our classroom isn’t just limited to showing new material or practicing, but can also be used for us to measure growth and achievement. As teachers, it isn’t enough for us to simply plan a lesson using the latest technology and present it. We must reflect upon how the lesson went after it is taught. This involves asking ourselves questions such as “what went well? How did the students react? What could be improved? How might the students get more out of the lesson?” We can also ask our students to reflect on their experiences with using the technology in the lesson. How did they feel the lesson went? Do they feel the technology aided/enhanced their understanding of the topic taught? Do they have any ‘technological suggestions’ to improve the lesson? (yes, sometimes our students may be more technologically savvy than some of us!) Our use of technology in class today can help guide our teaching in class tomorrow if we are willing to reflect and evaluate.
    Link: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept09/vol67/num01/What-Would-Socrates-Say%C2%A2.aspx
  7. Link:High School:  Chromebooks are not taken out unless there is a specific assignment during the class period


Blending Research and Technology

Why Blended Learning?

It’s a question that as an educator that can be answered many different ways and from many different perspectives.  Many point to the prevalence of technology in the “real world” as a primary motivator for integrating technology into the classroom, and though there is some truth to this, there is a body of established and emerging science that supports the use of blended learning on a much deeper level than just the casual observance of real world use.

The cognitive load theory was developed through a study by John Sweller in the late 1980’s. The study focused on the ability of learners to  exert metal energy or effort in the solving of complex tasks.  It was through this research, that Sweller suggested that instructional design can play a critical role in the ability of learners to digest and understand a large cognitive load.  The study revealed that learners varying in the following capacities:

  1. Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the difficulty of the subject at hand.  Ideas that are more complex presumably will be more difficult for learners to understand.
  2. Extraneous cognitive load is the method of content delivery.  Instructional designers make intentional choices on how and when to deliver content to the learner.  As the level of difficulty of the Intrinsic load increases, it is important to consider ways that we as teacher can reduce external cognitive stresses, in other words efficiency.
  3. Germane cognitive load refers to the cognitive load that drives the creation of schema.  In essence this refers to brain power and how we are able to understand and categorize new information.

So what does this mean and how does blended learning provide us with a pathway to better student outcomes?

Deliberate planning with the use of technology is critical because computers can have a negative impact on cognitive load.  Computers can serve as a distraction to learning thereby increasing the extraneous cognitive load and decreasing learning efficiency.     Despite the potential pitfalls of technology on cognitive load it is important to recognize that learning with the use of technology can provide educators a valuable ally in learning. Below I explain 3 specific ways blended learning can aid in growth of student learning.

  1. Data-  For as long as there has been teachers, there has been educational data.  Formal or informal, this data has been used to help drive instruction for 1000’s of years, unfortunately as a teacher for 20, 25,  30 students it can be difficult and time consuming to gather the data necessary to drive instruction to deeper levels.  Technology and more specifically blended learning can now afford classroom teachers the time to not only collect data, but take action on data that is mined through online work.  Diagnostic tests, Learning Management Systems, and various applications can serve as a critical tool in understanding where students are academically, and thereby can pave the way to more efficient instructional design.  Efficiency in instructional design can help reduce the extraneous cognitive load placed on students and provide them with the path of least resistance depending on their needs.
  2. Freeing up working memory-  Blended learning provides teachers a number of ways to make content easier to digest for their students.  The ability of teachers to chunk content using learning or content management systems means that teachers can plug and play instruction at just the right moment.  We all have limited working memory capacity, and at times it can become overloaded.   Online learning tools, accessible via the web 24/7, provide the learner the just in time information needed to meet their needs.  By removing the overload on the front side of instructional delivery that typically pervades traditional learning practice (lecture), we can provide students the time and support necessary to build long term memory.
  3. Enriching- Cognitive theory and research shows that the larger amount of background knowledge one has on a subject, directly relates to their ability to process information.  Technology can provide educators with limitless access to materials that can be shared with and accessed by students.  Providing students additional content to enrich the curriculum is not only good practice form a classroom management perspective, but it is also sound cognitive practice.
  4. Auditory and Visual Access-The internet has a wealth of instructional materials available to students.  One challenge in that is there can be conflict in the way we present information visually to students, slowing the process of learning.  Providing visual information along with an auditory component can help close the gaps that visual information alone may leave.  The first thought here is the wealth of video already created through various video platforms such as YouTube, Ted ed, and the list goes on.  Besides already created content their are a large array of educational applications that create opportunities for teachers and students to screen cast their work.

Blended learning and technology has the ability to be transformative to education, however we must be intentional with the way we design and deliver learning experiences for our students.

For more information on the Cognitive Load Theory check out some of the links below.


Educational Psychologist: Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does not Work


Cognitive Load Theory: Helping People Learn Effectively



Our Digital Transformation: Building a Vision for the Future Together

The district that I have had the privilege of working in for the past 7 years has been steadily transforming from a technology standpoint, and this year we have reached an incredible milestone of rolling out more devices than we have students in our district.  Access to high-quality digital devices and resources is paramount to the development of today’s youth as the world that leveraged books, pencil, and paper for learning is evolving at a break-neck pace.  Access is hardly the end game however, and it was last year that our district, took the Future Ready Pledge with the intent to transform the practice of teaching and learning over the coming years and beyond.  As we approach and move beyond the digital “tipping point,” it was clear that a strategic plan to disrupt traditional teaching practices leveraging technology-based and infused pedagogy was crucial for our district stakeholders.  With this mindset, we began the process of engaging our stakeholders in a year-long series of events to set a course for the future.  This post is a retrospect view of the past year and 3 critical steps we took, to advance our digital transformation.

 Ownership and Trust

Leaving behind traditional paradigms in favor of a new model of education involves a tremendous amount of change, that inevitably affects the entire school community.  We made it a priority from the outset to engage all of our stakeholders including administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members.  Throughout the planning process, they provided varying views and perspectives essential for building public support for our change.  Providing a platform for which stakeholders can build a sense of ownership is a powerful motivator for change. Besides hosting face to face meetings with our stakeholders, we tried to elicit additional feedback from our students and teachers with the use of a district designed and aggregated survey, informal conversations, formal observations, and student interviews.  As we move forward we hope to continue to build on the conversations of the past and further develop a sense of trust with our stakeholders through follow ups and especially social media.

Vision Planning

We began our change process by articulating our vision for the future of learning in our school district. When planning a vision, tapping into the varying perspectives of all stakeholders is paramount.  Once we compiled a cross section of all of our stakeholder groups (Admin, teachers, students, parents, and community members) we began the vision planning process.

Over the last year, I have spent much of my time listening, watching and engaging with thought leaders through social media and have quickly learned that leadership is about asking the right questions.  To this end, we engaged our stakeholders with comprehensive surveys meant to gauge teacher and student readiness as it pertains to the use of technology.  These surveys provided a very valuable backdrop for our conversations on vision planning, as it provided context for our stakeholders on the current lay of the land.  There is something to be said about avoiding data till the vision is defined so as not to skew perceptions, however, in planning for the diverse needs of our district we found it helpful to have a consistent basis from which to plan.

Our use of questioning to engage our stakeholders continued in our vision process and we focused on a simple question “Imagine, five years from now, a local TV station has decided to create a documentary on our school district.  What would this documentary be about?  What would the cameraman see in his tour of our buildings?”  This question drove our stakeholders over the course of a couple meetings to our final vision:

“The PAASD will provide a collaborative learning environment that will challenge each student to explore and expand upon their own unique strengths and ever changing interests. State of the art technology will blend seamlessly within the teacher-guided/student-driven educational experience stretching beyond the walls of PAASD buildings and out into surrounding community. Through this global educational experience, students will acquire the 21st-century skills necessary to become productive citizens engaged in all facets of society.”

Within our discussions, there were many underlying ideas that moved us to our final vision, and it’s worth mentioning that a major focus was not on the technology, not on the content, but rather on the skills, attitudes, and experiences of our students.  With the world constantly changing the focus in our discussions shifted to tools that we can and should impart in students experiences that are adaptable to a changing world.  Some of the thoughts in no particular order included:

  • Risk takers
  • Community minded
  • Student agency
  • Lifelong learners
  • Four C’s
  • Digital Citizens
  • Student Driven Experiences
  • Self-advocacy

Actions that Map to Goals

After creating and defining our vision, the next step was to begin to plan our the strategic objectives that would guide our boots on the ground.  Our work eventually led us to 3 specific initiatives that were designed to look beyond the integration of technology and focus on setting the foundation for broader systemic change.  In our district we chose to highlight digital learning opportunites, digital citizenship, and stakeholder and professional development.  As this year kicks off I am very excited about the future that is in store for my school district.  We have already seen a few milestones with regards to digital learning and innovation including rolling out more devices in the district than we have students, serving our 100th student through our own cyber program, and beginning with some of largest groups of hybrid and fully online distance learners.  Though we have reached access milestones it is now more critical than ever to see through our digital transformation and begin to tackle redefining what school is.



Playing Outside of the Lines: Making the Most of Blended Learning

If this were a State of the Union address there would be a concerned undertone to some of what is being said here.  Technology has permeated much of the K-12 educational system, but to this point, there are still misconceptions regarding what blended learning is and isn’t.  As a regular attendee to a local educational technology conference, I have seen first hand that in many cases there is a belief that technology is about the apps and online programs that one uses as the game changer.  Sessions focus on smashing together as many apps as possible to drive engagement and assist in achievement.  Though the use of apps may be engaging, they are not revolutionizing the way we conduct day to day business.

Technology is a tool   

For many years computers have been touted as the solution to many challenges education faces today, but if computers are to be a game changer, there must be a deeper understanding of how computers can be used to effectively change the traditional narrative in our classrooms.  This blog post will attempt to shed some light on how we can maximize our access to new technology and make the most of blended learning.

  • Let’s rethink our pedagogy-  The traditional model of the teacher being the gatekeeper to information is no longer relevant in an age when you can learn just about anything you want as long as you have an internet connected device.  As the classroom teacher, we should be critical in the way that we evaluate our role in the education process.  Digital devices in the classroom provide the teacher a number of ways to move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.  By tapping into resources available online we can essentially outsource ourselves in the interest of being able to focus on a much more individual level with our students.  Finding ways to incorporate sustained inquiry, self-reflection, and problem-solving. 

    In the past, the primary focus of education was to produce factory workers capable of a basic, albeit a wide-ranging set of skills.  In such exponential times where change is constant, focusing on compliance is a grave mistake.  Critical to the long-term success of our students is fluid intelligence, in other words being able to adapt their skills and knowledge to fit the context of a challenge.  It is these skills that will provide our youth with the ability to stay relevant professionally in a world that faces profound change.

  • Connecting beyond the walls-Traditionally books have been the main way to connect students to the outside world.  Technology affords teachers and students the ability to connect with other far beyond the walls of the classroom.  Research, experiences, connections, learning is no longer relegated to textbooks and the knowledge of the teacher.  The on-demand age means that students can learn anytime or any place, so long as they are connected to a device.  What kind of skills are required in a connected world?  How are we helping students empathize with the diversity of the world around them?  How are we teaching students to build capacity to structure and connect to their own learning networks?

    The questions above are questions we should be considering as a part of the planning process.  Embedding skills that get our students to connect beyond the borders of the classroom mimic the needs and expectations of a connected workplace where logistics, communication, creativity, and problem-solving rule.


  • Modular Design-Relating back to my first point, digital delivery of curriculum allows for a much more modular design to education.  In traditional education models, learning is teacher delivered and centered meaning students had to always keep pace with the middle of the road approach a teacher would decide on.  Flexibility in this scenario is minimal and doesn’t allow for flexible learning options, pathways, or timing.  Online curriculum delivery gives the teacher the opportunity to plug and play learning activities that best support the learner’s needs.  Supports can be delivered in a “just in time” manner providing students the support they need to further their own learning constructions.

    To be fair, modular design is possible without technology, however, technology has the ability to make this process more efficient.  Teachers and students  can use technology to learn, relearn, and demonstrate competency in virtually any order desired making the learning process less linear and more personalized.

The traditional constructs of education, I teach therefore you learn, must be overhauled to support our students.  Technology provides us with the opportunity to break down those traditional barriers.  Let’s end the culture of compliance and begin to let students play outside the lines.


Blended Learning: An Annotated Guide to the 4 Main Models

Digital devices are becoming more and more common in the classroom, and at its core, a digital device (computer, tablet, netbook, etc) is nothing more than a tool.  The computer and other digital devices are nothing more than tools,  and cannot in and of themselves be the solution to all of the changes and challenges we face in preparing our students for today’s world.  The most successful educators will be the ones who leverage these tools to promote teaching and learning that was once not possible prior to the use of these digital devices.  The Clayton Christensen Institute has been a thought leader in the field of innovation across three specific sectors, one of which being education.  In particular, they have invested in significant research supporting movement towards blended learning which they explain must meet the following three criteria:

at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;

at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;

and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

A very important distinction must be made at this point, and that is blended learning is not about how many digital tools, gadgets, or devices you or the student uses, it’s about leveraging the access that these devices provide to enable a more personalized approach to instruction.  The purpose of this blog post is to focus on ways that educators can make the most out of blended learning.

A critical first step to any educational endeavor is planning towards your intended outcomes.  What is it that you want your students to learn, experience, take part in during their time in your classroom.  Blended learning models vary from one to the next and not all models are suitable for all intended outcomes.  Students and teachers may flex through multiple models in a unit or even lesson depending what types of outcomes are desired by the designer.  Within this process, it is important that teachers consider what type of blended learning model best leverages technology to meet the intended learning outcomes.  Take a look below to see how each model works and some of the advantages each has to offer.

These first two blended learning models can be implemented within the confines of an individual classroom, or could be a part of a larger school design/structure.

  1. Rotation Model
    1. Station Rotation– In this model students rotate through a series of stations typically within a classroom in which one or more of the rotations include instruction delivered online.  This model is an excellent starting point when you are starting out in blended learning. As an entry point, the station rotation model provides teachers a way to begin to shift their role to the guide on the side by using technology to deliver a portion of the instruction through one of the stations.  Stations also provide the teacher and student a chance to interact in a small group environment that can help a teacher hone in on student needs. The figure below shows a basic template for how a station rotation classroom could work.
    2. Lab Rotation- Students rotate into a computer lab to conduct part of their coursework online.
    3. Flipped Instruction- This instruction essentially flips the role of classroom and home activities where students use the time at home to gather information, read, view videos or other materials on the topic to be discussed the following day.  The time in the classroom can then be dedicated to applying that knowledge gathered and dig deeper into a subject.  Flipped instruction, in theory, helps stretch the amount of time that can be used for learning by offloading typical face to face instruction to the online setting.
    4. Individual Rotation-  Students will rotate through a specific “playlist” of activities that is designed by the teacher.  These activities take place both on and offline, and each playlist is unique to the needs of that student.  This model has shown promising impact for students as the continuous
  2. Flex Model-  Students receive most of their instruction online while spending a majority of their time in a face to face environment.  The teacher supports students through individual and group instruction on an as-needed basis.  This model can vary depending on the needs of the students’ needs, physical space available, staffing, and other factors.  The flex model is another good entry point for teachers looking to dive into blended learning.  There are many resources available online that not only deliver curriculum, but can also better inform teacher instruction to meet the needs of their students.

These next two models typically occur as a part of the larger school structure or design and are not models that can be implemented by individual teachers within the confines of his or her individual classroom.

  1. A La Carte-  In this model, a student who usually takes a majority of their classes in a face to face environment may take a course completely online.  In this model, students may pick and choose from face to face and online courses.  Though challenging for some students due to the nature of online learning, this model can help schools expand their curriculum to include courses that were once not possible to offer.  This disruptive model delivers new options to students in a way that can help personalize their learning environment, pace of learning, and choices available.
  2. Enriched Virtual Model- In this model the teacher typically works in both an online and face to face capacity.  Students have required meetings with teachers as determined by the class and or teacher, but the majority of course delivery is done online.  In this model students and teachers typically do not meet every day.

Station rotation and flex models can be easily adapted to work within the confines of an individual classroom, and either model can be a good entry point for teachers making the transition to a blended learning style classroom.  Moving a portion of curriculum online allows teachers greater flexibility in the use of their time.  Rather than being responsible for delivery of all instruction, the teacher now has the ability to be more involved in the progress of each student.  Instruction and assessment can occur in much tighter loops, helping drive student progress and growth.

A La Carte and the enriched virtual model are not typically associated with an individual classroom.  Both provide much more in the way of student agency and as a result, must fit within a larger design for instruction occurring at the school-wide level.  Both models provide schools with an opportunity to redesign school experiences that can begin to personalize a student’s experience.

Blended learning has immense potential to have a positive impact on K-12 education. One of the key factors in whether or not schools are able to transform the learning experiences of their students hinges on the concept that technology is a tool and not the answer.  How and why we use the tool will be the differences between successful transformation or simply digitizing the past.

For more information and research regarding blended learning, check out some of the links below.

Blended learning models- http://www.christenseninstitute.org/blended-learning-definitions-and-models/

Blended learning researchhttp://www.christenseninstitute.org/blended-learning/

Blended learning articles, blogs, and other resources- http://www.edutopia.org/blogs/tag/blended-learning

Pokemon Go and the Future of Learning

Unless you have been not paying attention to anyone between the ages of 13-30 over the past two weeks, you’ve probably heard of a new mobile game launched about two weeks ago called Pokemon Go.  This new game produced by Nintendo is a mobile augmented reality game in which the user tries to catch little critters called Pokemon.  As of 2 days ago, USA Today reported that Pokemon Go has been downloaded 15 million times, in only 11 days!  Daily user rates have surged past those of other viral apps that have been released in the past 24 months, and it shows no signs of slowing down.  After playing the game myself for the past several days, naturally, it gets my gears turning, thinking about the possibility of gamifying learning.  What if Pokemon Go was a platform that could be replicated but for the purpose of learning about your environment?

For those who are not familiar with the premise of Pokemon Go, the game is a mobile platform that can run on either Android or IOS and uses a device’s GPS to traFile_000.pngck movements.  The kicker is that the GPS is overlayed with a Pokemon rich environment that changes and adjusts with the movements of the user.  Users can catch Pokemon as they spring up in the environment, visit Pokemon Gyms that are physical landmarks in our environment, and also visit points of interests along the way to gain additional items.  This augmented reality game puts the user of the device in a digital world that interacts with the world in which they physically occupy.  The game is only 12 days old, but has quite a stir the VR world, so much so that several other VR developers have seen significant impacts on their stock prices because of the bullish VR market this game has caused.  One can see groups of people from all different ages walking around searching for Pokemon, visiting different locations, and interacting at local gyms.   It is an interesting thought that devices, long believed to be isolating people from each other, can have such an engaging and collaborative effect.

File_001.pngWhat if this engaging augmented reality environment was redesigned for learning?  What would the reaction be if instead of chasing down Pokemon, kids were allowed to chase down and meet historic people, places, or find historical artifacts that connect them to the past in ways a textbook could never do.  This game contains many key elements needed to build a mass following that could potentially be leveraged for a game designed for learning.

  1. Short feedback loops, drive user interest as they uncover new Pokemon and capture them.  Leveling up Pokemon and the player gives them incentive to keep pushing.
  2. Games can build complex linguistic skill sets including media or digital literacy.  Beyond that, the specific language used within the context of a game helps build rich contextual language amongst users.
  3. Innovative gameplay and engagement bring users back time and time again.
  4. Though more open world at this point, it is possible that story modes are developed that help build a story around the player.  Playlists could potentially provide another layer of engagement that isn’t yet available.

Mobile learning is a largely untapped market in education.  There has been a lot of speculation as to the effect VR and augmented reality will have on the future of education, and I think what we are seeing with Pokemon Go is a glimpse of the potential of these tools in the field of education.  With what will most likely be 25 million downloads within the next couple of weeks, we would be wise to take note of the behaviors that new technologies and tools such as this illicit.  It is a lesson that can help provide insight as to how to leverage technology to drive engagement.

Is this a glimpse into the future of learning?


The Rise of Online Learning: Why We Should All Take Notice

The results are in!

Online learning opportunities being offered in K-12 public schools is on the rise nationwide. To this point, there have been several challenges facing research focusing on online learning in the K-12 sector of education.  Lack of data, clear nomenclature, and the explosion of school choice as well as the proliferation of technology, have all played a role in the slow development of studies focusing on the growth of online learning.  Despite these challenges, there is an increasing body of work that suggests a clear rise in the volume of students engaging in coursework in an online environment.  For the sake of conversation, this article considers online learning any course in which the primary delivery of content occurs on an online platform.  The purpose of this definition is to eliminate the inclusion of blended learning environments, so as to narrow the focus to courses where content delivery is online versus a face to face environment.

One particular study that has been conducted year over year with a focus on online learning in education has been conducted by the Babson Survey Group.  This survey of 2,800 Chief Academic Officers (CAO) revealed once again that distance learning has and will continue to serve as a critical part of the long-term academic strategy amongst most (70.8%) higher education institutions.  Though large-scale studies of the PreK-12 scene are few and far between, the Babson Survey group conducted a survey amongst a diverse group of 441 high school administrators and found that 80% of these administrators they have at least one student taking courses fully online.

Over the last two years, I have served as my district’s Virtual Learning Coordinator whose primary responsibilities for the development and day to day operations of our virtual learning program. The virtual learning program in our district has expanded considerably over the past two years in terms of the variety of courses being offered to our students, the specific function the course serves, as well as the level of the programming offered.  Accordingly, we have expanded to include credit recovery, Advanced Placement, enrichment based, remedial,

As a district, our need for virtual learning opportunities quickly became a priority for several different reasons, the most pressing of which, was a large percentage of our student population was leaving the district for cyber charter schools . Pennsylvania has fairly liberal legislation with regards to student populations, meaning that students have a lot of freedom in choice of their learning institutions.  This legislation opened the gateway for many students to pursue alternative learning environments, something most public school districts were not prepared for.  As a result, many types of charters and specifically cyber charters found a niche market that was relatively untapped and saw massive enrollment spikes promising individualized and personalized online instruction.  Though not all of these cyber charters delivered on this message, they won considerable market share that virtual learning won in the mid-2000’s.  In light of the expanding options available to students of Pennsylvania, many schools are reevaluating what defines the school experience.  This rise in online learning is not limited to Pennsylvania.  A study conducted by the Babson study group revealed statistics that point to a nearly 12 fold increase in the number of students taking online courses between 2001 and 2007.  Estimates at that point tallied nearly a million students across the US taking online courses as a part of their K-12 studies.

Given the massive growth of the world wide web, it is reasonable to suspect that online learning opportunities will grow in parallel especially as the cost of entry for teachers and learners continues to diminish with each passing year. Below I have listed some reasons why it is imperative that we begin to incorporate and promote online learning opportunities for our students.

  1. Future Ready Skills-   Being a life long learner is a critical skill for all of our students today.  As the needs of our world’s economy changes, so do the skills needed to be an active participant.  Online learning will form an important piece of those skill sets in many different sectors.  Private sector  organizations have been, for many years, utilizing the abilities of online learning to help prepare their respective workforces with essential skills and knowledge necessary for adequate preparation.  The private sector utilizes varying types of online learning across many different platforms.  With such widespread use of online learning in the workplace, presenting students with the opportunity to engage in online learning environments, particularly those that require an element of independence, will better prepare them for future training they may receive. Online learning in the workplace is not the only example of the practicality that offering online learning in our school offers,  higher education has become a hub for online learning in various capacities.  As mentioned above nearly 3 out of every 4 CAO’s feel that online learning is essential to their institution’s long-term academic strategy.  The flexibility of the online learning environment has proven to be one of the keys to success, of online learning in this area.  Micro-credentialing, badging, and other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are all offering individuals the ability to pursue interests through the use of online learning.
  2. Credit Recovery- Many schools face the challenge of remediating students who fail core courses because of resources such as time and money.  Particularly in small districts that can’t afford to staff a teacher for all disciplines, online learning can fill a large void that can assist students who may need to recover credits lost during the school year.
  3. Expanding Curriculum Options-  Equity is a significant challenge facing our schools today.  Where you go to school should not dictate the opportunities available to you, and online learning can help schools fill in the gaps that may exist in their curriculum offerings.  Schools leveraging online learning have the ability to offer to their students a wide variety of curriculum offerings that otherwise may not be possible.

Online learning, if leveraged properly, can serve an excellent tool that can allow schools to increase learning opportunities that will not only benefit their students while in school but in the future as they pursue interests beyond K-12.

White Space: Time Well Spent

This post comes as a bit of reflection to the preparation and completion for Edcamp Lehigh Valley.  The “unconference model” design that Edcamps employ is something that in some cases, can be lacking in the development of students, teachers, and administrators alike.   In this post, I reflect on the value of creating time for white space.

Mark Johnson, in an article for Harvard Business Review, wrote that white space is “at one ubiquitous and frustratingly ambiguous.¹”   Though used in a variety of ways in the business world, the term more often than not stands for opportunity.  Johnson’s view of whitespace in this particular article identifies white space, not as an external desirable, but rather an internal signpost designed to allow people within a company the opportunity to explore, think, and reflect.  It is this definition of white space that made an appearance in my reflections of Edcamp Lehigh Valley.

At the core of the Edcamp movement sits the idea of whitespace.  Prior to Edcamps springing up across the country, there were few opportunities for educators across a region to connect, let alone have deep conversations about the topics that interest them.  Throughout the day of the event and even beyond,  I heard repeatedly the excitement that this whitespace to have deep conversations generated.  The day to day grind that teaching can sometimes bring does not afford educators much time to explore, discuss, and reflect.  Whitespace is critical to the process of creatively and collaboratively problem solving, one of the tenants of innovative organizations (Leadership Geared for Innovation), and as such needs to be something that schools consider creating time for.

So how do we create whitespace that allows for educators to take the time to have discussions, reflect, and explore without pressures and influences of the current situation?

  1. Social Media- I am absolutely fascinated by the potential of social media to create whitespace for educators.  Twitter has become one of my favorite development tools and is essentially PD on demand.  The ability to connect and have conversations with some of the leading minds in the field of education both locally and beyond has been far more powerful than any class I have ever taken.  Twitter chats and searches have afforded me the expand my thinking and connect with new people, in a way that would not have been possible before.
  2. Depth over Breadth-  So much to do and not enough time!  This is the reality that many educators are dealing with.  If we are able to afford educators the whitespace needed to explore and reflect, then we must focus on depth vs. breadth.  Overloading plates with things to do does not necessarily move the needle faster, and in fact, can have the opposite effect.  Critical to the growth of any organization is the ability to explore and reflect on work being done to push the envelope.  By focusing on fewer areas, it creates more time to engage in the depth of the work you are choosing to  focus on.
  3. Summer, summer, summer time- the summer time is a perfect opportunity to take time to reflect on the past year.  Each year I have found that the summer is a great opportunity to look back on the past year and the work that I have done.  The summer is personally my favorite whitespace for a couple reasons.  First, I can block some time to reflect on the challenges that I have encountered over the past year, and more importantly think about possible solutions.  Second, I find that this time keeps me sharp during the “down time” during the summer.  Like our students, I personally, feel like I lose a step or two if I am not spending some time reflecting, troubleshooting, and reworking.

Creating whitespace can be a challenge with so much to do during the school year, but to troubleshoot some the challenges we face, whitespace is time well spent.


Leadership Geared for Innovation (Part 1)

Innovative.  It is one of the first words that is equated with successful organizations in today’s rapidly evolving world.  Without a doubt, those companies or organizations that master innovation, are those that are most adept at dealing with the rapid change technology has brought upon us.  In education, the “traditional” practice of leadership has not produced a model geared for growth, in contrast to what can be seen across the private sector in companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook.  Faced with a rapidly changing world, schools are now beginning to ask the same question those same companies have been asking for the last several decades and that is “How do we continually push and scale innovation?”  In this first of a two-part blog post, I will discuss my views on how we best address this question through the lens of leadership.

Before looking at how certain organizations and their leaders are facilitating innvoative leadership, it is important to discuss the “traditional” paradigm of educational leadership. Traditionally, K-12 organizations have taken on a top-down approach, where each tier of the organization dictates the actions of the ones below them.  District and building level leaders, in this model, would be the driving force for the vast majority of  organizational decisions, and their decisions would then be passed on to those below them .  Top-down management is most effective when the person making the decisions knows exactly how to best make the product and the market conditions within which this product will be deployed.  For the sake of brevity, I will focus on only two challenges this management style can pose in a dynamic or rapidly changing environment.One of the obvious challenges, particularly when it comes to education, is the needs of our students beyond graduation (the market) are changing rapidly, and the skills they come in with and leave with (the product) are to say the least dynamic.  It is naive to suggest that any one person would be able to understand ,in it’s entirety, the needs of 100, 1000, or 10000 students in any given school district. I think generally speaking, most educational leaders have acknowledged this challenge by starting to move down the road of innovation by creating strategic objectives that can help promote it (innovation).  In a top down model of management implementing these objectives and this type of change, can be a major challenge. The consistency between leaders and buildings can lead to “dead zones” where innovation rises and falls with those who decide to get on board.  Scaling innovation and leading innovative schools can be a very dynamic challenge for just a couple of the reasons above

So if the traditional paradigm of leadership, ie. the few making decisions for the many, is not the best model for promoting innovation, what is?  To be clear there is no one size fits all answer to this question, but there is research that points to some of the tenets of leadership that can promote innovation.  This section of the blog contains some elements of one of my favorite TED Talks via Linda Hill’s “How to Manage for Collective Creativity.”  In order to understand what leadership leads to innovation, we must understand the space in which innovation not just exists but thrives.  Based on research of many leading companies, Linda and her team found 3 specific areas that leading companies were able to navigate and replicate to scale innovation.

  1. Creative Abrasion- Friction.  Innovation really is about unleashing the talents and passions of many people  from different dispositions and backgrounds.  Collaboration amongst these groups inevitably leads to friction but it is the productive discourse that leads to truly groundbreaking and innovative ideas. collaborating.
  2. Creative Agility- Moving on the go.  With technology rapidly disrupting many parts of our world, the need for action, reflection, and adjustment is one that is going to become more important that a 5 10 15 year plan.  Agility is what will allow an organization to rapidly redeploy resources where needed to meet the needs of the consumer.  In this cases our students.
  3. Creative Resolution-The middle ground.  Creative resolution is the ability of an organization to resolve challenges by effectively selecting the best solution, which may or may not, take into account multiple solutions.

Based on her research, Linda Hill describes the three cornerstones of innovative leadership as being collaborative problem-solving , discovery-driven learning, and integrative decision-making.  It is the ability of organizations to not just find creative ways to problem solve, but more importantly “unleash the talents and passions of many people.”

When working through this post, I read an article by a local leader, blogger, and educator Ross Cooper titled, “All the Wrong People in all the Wrong Meetings.”  What really resonated with me in his post was the message that  schools are the workplace of a large group of people with a diverse array of skills and talents, and often times those resources go untouched. In the traditional model of leadership, most decisions are made at the same administrative level, thereby not maximizing the talents in the room.  Ross’ post goes beyond the research and looks at five simple ways schools can begin to leverage collaborative problem-solving.  I highly recommend checking out his article and his additional content on curriculum at http://www.rosscoops31.com/.

Leadership is about creating the space for people to work together and tap into their skills and talents, to tackle the challenges that organization may face.  Is that space being created in your school?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this brief series, I which I will take a look at some ways we can collaboratively problem-solve and tap into the creative potentials of our schools.

Linda Hill- “How to Manage Collective Creativity”

Ross Cooper- “All the Wrong People in all the Wrong Meetings”

Why all Schools Should Storytell.

It is indisputable that we are in the greatest information distribution age of all time.  Cost of entry into the content market has never been lower.  It seems each and every year there is a new platform that revolutionizes how people tell their story.  Myspace, Youtube Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, and the list goes on.  For much of the last decade, schools have steered clear of this topic for fear of what may pop up on a feed or in a comment section.  While there are those that deliberately engage in social media for the sole purpose of causing trouble, we must not let fear govern our action as trouble makers are hardly new to schools.  The major difference in the case of the online world is that these people operate in a “gray” area that typically lies outside of school and thus it’s jurisdiction.  Though fear can be a powerful motivator, I believe that we must shake this fear and become our own storytellers for some of the reasons I will address in this blog post.

  1. Trust: As the face of education begins to change more rapidly in an attempt to better prepare our students for the future, we are leaving behind long withstanding traditions about what school is and what it looks like.  This can be a very unsettling feeling for many people, especially when we ourselves don’t necessarily have all the answers.  The comment that I have heard over and over again from parents and even some teachers is, “this was not how I learned!”  This comment typically comes from a lack of understanding and trust for the systems of change being put in place. Building trust amongst all stakeholders is critical for any change; without trust, buy-in can be slow or virtually nonexistent.  With such a cheap and easy entry point to digital storytelling, via social media platforms, schools can help build and create a sense of trust that was once not possible.  Social media can provide a digital window, into which all stakeholders can view change in action.  Developing a social media strategy can provide a valuable way for schools to begin to build trust with their stakeholders.
  2. Emotional Connection:  Going as far back as Cavemen, people have always had the desire to tell their story.  Though the platform by which we storytell has evolved a bit from cave walls to mobile devices, there can be a strong emotional connection when we connect through storytelling.  From social media to biographies, to reality TV, the underlying theme here is that they each tell a story.  So what happens if we tell a story about our school?I’ll take this argument to a personal example.  Last week the Game of Thrones caused a huge stir amongst its fans some plot twists that resulted in the loss of one of the original characters of the show.  The result was a firestorm of feedback across several social media platforms.  Though this character was not real, the reaction was as if the character was, and this can be directly attributed to the strong emotional connection that develops through the act of storytelling.

    Is it not plausible that a strong social media strategy would stand to create an emotional connection with the stakeholders that create a school’s community?  I would argue a resounding yes.  Though there may be a cost of time, there are virtually no other barriers that stand between a school and digital storytelling.  Pictures, videos, anecdotes, all can provide a view into the lives of our students and build an emotional connection with those who have a vested interest in the future of our schools.  I think worth mentioning here is that the story of our schools has for too long been in the control of those on the outside looking in.  Social media creates an opportunity for us to tell our own story.

  3. Community Building:  With the world becoming increasingly transient, communities that may have once been virtually untouched by the outside world, may now be in the throes of unprecedented change.  The district that I currently work in is one such example.  The prevailing dynamics of the past are all but gone, and to a great degree that has changed the community dynamic.  How can storytelling create a community?Digital communities exist all around us and in some cases, these communities are even more tightly knit than their physical counterparts.  Leveraging the power of storytelling through social media platforms has and will continue to create strong digital communities. The emotional connection that can be associated with digital communities can and will continue to compel action in some cases, and if such a community can be established online, it is entirely possible that these communities can transcend the digital world and exist in our physical world.

If we don’t tell our own story, who will?