When Do Students Love Homework?

By: Jakub Piwnik 

We share pictures of our food. We let everyone know where we spend our weekends. We’ve given an online dimension to almost every aspect of our lives. Social Learning Networks now do the same to homework.

Searching for the most hated things on the web, you may expect to find a long list of our world’s problems. The first place however usually goes to school. And more precisely to what comes after. And that is homework. Try to find a high school student who can’t wait to get home after school and sit down to do the assignment for the next day’s Math class. Sounds unreal? Maybe. But this isn’t the first time when the new technologies  would make something that seems unreal come true.

It’s easy pointing out the shortcomings of our education systems. Not many are so eager to find and apply a solution. Many educators fear that the development of social media will have a negative impact on the education of young people. But then people were afraid that the emails will stop people from being able to handwrite, which hasn’t happened.

Students should be directed to reliable sources, because getting essay ideas from Wikipedia or answers to a test from a Facebook group is not necessarily the tried-and-true way to go. But fear not, there are plenty of options to choose from. Teachers’ blogs, online courses and trustworthy knowledge sources. As for the practice, the peer support social networks provide the solution. An example is Brainly.

This global social learning network embraces the idea of using new technologies in education. With successful local versions of the platform in Europe, Asia and South America, the launch of Brainly.com, the social network’s English version, introduces the concept to American students. Additionally to its peer-to-peer platform, Brainly gets involved in educational initiatives. Brainly CEO Michał Borkowski explains: “Our vision is to see students from all over the world benefiting from our educational peer support system.”  The launch of Brainly.com, the company’s new English version, coincides with the release of mobile applications for iOS and Android.

An educational website lets its users solve their school problems and homework. And how exactly does that all of the sudden make the students love helping others? That’s the amazing fact about peer support and online collaboration. After introducing the concept to more and more countries around the world, we’ve noticed that as soon as users get engaged in the community they become more and more involved. The gamification elements we applied make solving tasks and explaining difficult subjects fun.

Brianly.com introduced a system of points. In order to ask a question users must spend some of them. For start, each new user gets a fixed amount of points, but as they use the platform, they run out of them. Problem? Not at all. Now they need to engage more and start helping others. This way the community stays forever active.

Of course every student uses the site differently. There are those who only answer questions to get points. On the other hand, some users mostly enjoy helping others and at the same time practice their favorite school subjects and get a “teaching experience”.  For those most active and effective (on Brainly the quality of answers is what counts!) we’ve got special rankings. This way we introduce a bit of a “competing experience” to the process of studying.

Brainly brings together over 20 million unique users every month. It’s most popular among European students. In Russia only there are over 10 million unique users monthly. But the new countries where we launched enjoy the concept as well. Every week we’re breaking user count records in Indonesia and Romania. Now the English version is growing too, letting the American and other English speaking pupils profit from the benefits of social learning.

We’re happy to see how the concept works all over the globe and how young minds from all corners of the world begin to engage in the learning community. The important thing is that Brainly is not just another Q&A website. We pay a lot of attention to the educational nature of our content. Over 300 volunteer moderators (students, teachers, parents, PhDs, professors, specialists) continuously supervise the genuineness of the answers and explanations published. And last but not least, using the platform is free, which is always quite convincing.

Traditional education is important and we understand its significance. Still, it has many shortcomings and may not be ideal for all of the students. Brainly takes what’s best in offline student collaboration and brings it to the online space, where all users, regardless of their language, nationality, age or anything else, can exchange knowledge and skills. You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. Whatever we do, it’s somewhat unlikely that the students won’t use new technologies in their education. Perhaps the point is rather to get them to use the right ones.


Jakub Piwnik comes from Kraków, Poland and has recently become a Bachelor of International Business Studies. Since 2013, he’s been working with the English language version of Brainly social learning network, which became his hobby.  If you’d like to connect and talk about edtech or anything else, connect with @BrainlyGroup  or Brainly.com.

What Educators Can Learn From Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger had a public life. He was a critical pedagogist who questioned the status quo, and through his music, attempted to make sense of cultural situations and circumstances. He was active politically and socially, and once said, “The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.” With all the current talk about Common Core Standards, I can’t help but wonder why there is not a larger focus on civics education, on creating thoughtful and informed citizens who care enough to get involved, and are liberated to make a difference. This is what educators can learn from Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger came from a family of educators, and he sang in schools for more than 70 years. He said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. I would call him a critical educator, which, according to Peter McLaren in his book Life in Schools, is an educator who “Endorses theories that are, first and foremost, dialectical — they recognize the problems of society as more than simply isolated events of individuals of deficiencies in the social structure. Rather, these problems are part of the interactive context between individual and society (171). In my first semester course, students examine the question, What is the role of a citizen in a democracy? In second semester, we look at poetry, lyrics, words, songs, and the power of music. A question students explore is, Which song has shaped your political and social view of the world? Pete Seeger’s songs not only shaped political and social views of the world, but changed them. He saw the good connected to the bad, and through his music, encouraged young people to participate in spite of domination, and encouraged activism instead of passivism. So what can we learn from Pete Seeger?

First, we need to go back to the basics, to a world where participation, contribution, and generosity are honored, to a community where people take care of each other, are given an education that embraces our individual strengths, weaknesses, styles, and quirks, and celebrates them, rather than tests the passion and life out of them. We must return to what it means to be educated, not by a textbook alone, but through life experiences, challenges, accomplishments, and mistakes. We must care again. Do the Common Core standards ask that our young people care? Become active? Get angry, outraged, and inspired enough to do something about it? Or do they ask that students sit by and let life and learning happen to them?

I support the Common Core Standards. I believe in rigorous, scholarly work. I am a Common Core Ambassador at my school site, I have presented at numerous conferences in favor of Common Core, have written about it here for Getting Smart, and I although I firmly believe in the standards overall, I think we are missing some major pieces, and are doing our students a disservice if we continue to focus on literacy alone, without emphasizing compassion and community. The Common Core standards do not use the word civics anywhere in the document. How can we educate students without addressing civic education?


Pete Seeger lived a life of contribution.

(Photo credit pinwords)

In the Introduction of California ELA CCSS, it is stated that students who are college and career ready in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and language, demonstrate independence, build strong content knowledge, respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline, comprehend as well as critique, value evidence, use technology and digital media, and come to understand other perspectives and cultures. The entire focus here is on obtaining skills, to prepare for the next thing, and to be successful on assessments.

We must have a bigger picture plan. The transition to CCSS has been focused on assessments, curriculum, and materials. The focus should be on creating citizens, and in doing so, implementing the Common Core standards to achieve the bigger goal. I aim to use English Language Arts to teach students. We should aim to use Common Core Standards to develop citizens. I’ve asked this before, and ask my students in my courses — “What is the purpose of school?” If it is to prepare students for the next thing, whether that is college, or career, then we will continue to have “educated” students who know nothing about democracy, who do not have a deep-rooted appreciation for understanding and engaging actively in a civic and political life, rather than people who possess skills, knowledge, and attitudes that allow them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives

I highly recommend you read The Civic Mission of Schools, created by CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic learning & Engagement) in 2003. The goals of civic education are listed below:

Competent and responsible citizens:

1. are informed and thoughtful; have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the fundamental process of American democracy; have an understanding and awareness of public and community issues; and have the ability to obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives.

2. participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs.

3. act politically by having skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish public purposes, such as group problem solving, public speaking, petitioning and protesting, and voting.

4. have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should. Pete Seeger was all of these things, and essentially, the CCSS are asking teachers to create competent and responsible citizens, but we focus on Smarter Balance, resources, and loads of money to spend in order to implement them rather than address WHY it is important to have them. If the focus became citizenship rather than standards, students would become more motivated. Plus, this is easy to do.

Are there barriers and factors working against educators with the even the best intentions? Of course. Some include teachers fearing criticism for addressing topics that be be considered controversial or political in nature, the movement for high-stakes testing, and school-based extracurricular, and schools wanting to experiment with different approaches, and are prevented from doing so (The Civic Mission of Schools pages 15-16). Are there others since 2003 that come to mind?

Below is a graph that outlines the changing priorities when it comes to seeking an education. According to CIRCLE, “In 1968, for example, 86 percent of incoming college freshmen claimed that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was a high personal priority. By 2000, this proportion had been cut in half. In 1968, 42 percent of incoming freshmen said that becoming “well-off financially” was a high priority. By 2000, this proportion had risen to 73 percent.”

Are students today interested in political discussions and public issues? Should they be? Should the Common Core support that?

Civics benefit teachers and administrators, as well as students. Not convinced? Read “Civics in the Common Core” by Web Hutchins, where it is stated,

“Through promotion of the Common Core State Standards, the Obama administration and its allies orchestrated one of the most dramatic assertions of federal power into K-12 education since Brown v.Board of Education in 1954, but failed to promote civics where it counts—in the common core’s package of standards and assessments. These documents determine what will be taught, and what will not be taught, to more than 40 million children across the United States. Because the core is barren of civics—the word does not appear in the 66-page standards document for English/language arts—the imperatives of the “not tested, not taught” mindset will diminish time for citizenship education, as it did under the No Child Left Behind Act.”

How can we determine what students should be taught without including civics education? What are your thoughts on the subject?

Rest in Peace Pete Seeger May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014

(Photo credit rivertownkids.org)

Tech Tool Review: VideoNot.es

Videos are a great way to flip your classroom or extend the learning past the school day.  But how can you gather your student’s thoughts or questions about the video? VideoNot.es is a great way to do just that!

VideoNot.es is a website and a Chrome app. It links to your Google Drive. When you associate your Google account with VideoNot.es, it creates a new folder in your Drive called VideoNot.es.

I recently used VideoNot.es with my Tech Apps class when I had to be absent. I emailed my students a short video explaining the app and the assignment. We were in a unit on communication and presentation skills. I wanted them to watch a TEDx video of a young man talking about his education. It’s called Hackschooling. I chose the video as an example of excellent public speaking and because the young man was younger than them. I wanted them to be able to picture themselves doing what he was doing.

I sent them the link to the video. VideoNot.es supports YouTube, Khan Academy and Coursera videos. I’m hoping it will support TED videos soon but the video I chose was on YouTube.

After linking their Drive to VideoNot.es, students copy and pasted the video link into the box on the left side of their screen and click load. The video loads on the left side of the screen.  The right side of screen is for taking notes.  They can type as they watch. I asked them to tell me what they noticed about his presentation style. They could comment on the content if they wished. Students can play or pause the video as they need.  

The students then share their notes with me. What I love about VideoNot.es is that I can match the student’s comment with where the video was at that time. This can help you pinpoint exactly where students become confused. Or exactly what they have questions about. It can also help you know when the material is crystal clear.

VideoNot.es integration into Google is also a big plus. The students have all their video notes in the same place to refer back to. When they open the note, it launches VideoNot.es and the video is still there. No more searching for the video again. You can also send your notes to Evernote.

There are two things I have trouble with in VideoNot.es. It’s not easy to move between accounts. I have a personal and school gmail.  n Chrome if I open VideoNot.es with my personal account first it’s difficult to get it to switch over to my school gmail.  The only work around I’ve found is to clear the history. My other issue is comments or feedback.  Once the document is shared with you, you can add comments. You can type at the end of a student’s comment or go to the bottom and begin your comments.  But the typeface looks the same. There’s no way to distinguish my comments from the student’s original comments other than saying “from Mrs. B” or something similar.  But, in the grand scheme of things those are minor.  Overall, my students and I loved using VideoNot.es.

Better Assessment of Teacher Preparedness

When it comes to determining preparedness to teach, there is a nationwide movement from credit accumulation to skill demonstration.
Pearson, through its Evaluation Systems Group,  supports about half the states in their educator licensing efforts. The other states use Praxis or other tests developed by ETS.   This part of Pearson has its roots in a 2006 acquisition of National Evaluation Systems. Pearson VUE provides computer-based testing for the educator licensure assessments and, more broadly, administers other assessments for professional and technical certifications in test centers in 175 countries.
Pearson provides operational support to Ray Pecheone and Linda Darling Hammond and the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE)  on offering an assessment focusing on engaging candidates in demonstrating their understanding of teaching and student learning in authentic ways. edTPA is a performance- and portfolio-based approach that can be used as part of a multiple measures assessment system.  The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) says, “It is comparable to the licensing exams that demand applications of skills in other professions, such as medicine, architecture, and law.” To date, seven states have adopted policies for using edTPA.
edTPA is one of several approaches that Pearson is currently supporting for pre-service teachers. Further along in the educator professional continuum, Pearson also provides operational support to the NBPTS assessment program including developing the portfolio and assessment center tasks and educator scoring of the assignments.
This quarter, the Getting Smart team is studying competency-based teacher preparation and the future of qualifications. When we talked to Jon S. Twing, Managing Director of the Pearson Assessment Centre, he said that as states consider ways to implement their initial and professional certification assessment processes, there may be more uses of approaches that are similar to the NBPTS assessments and edTPA.
We asked Twing about competency-based approaches to the preparation and development of teachers.  He found it analogous to end-of-course exams in high schools (which he likes) and said it “provides an opportunity to teach intensely, test and certify mastery and then move on.”  He hopes that focusing on only one credentialing strategy wouldn’t be part of an agenda to move away from having multiple measures.
The movement to add more demonstrations of skill and dispositions is challenging, but supports authenticity.  Incorporating these measures with other forms of evidence such as coursework and course-related tests has “potential positive implications for colleges and the whole process of accreditation of the colleges,” said Twing.
Pearson is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. 

Opportunity Begins with the Promise of Student-Centered Learning

From opening words reflecting upon the power of education, the President’s address mirrored his commitment to ensure each American has access to a world-class education. This year’s State of the Union continued this pledge and reflected upon priorities such as STEM education, affordable higher education and the preparation of tomorrow’s workforce through initiatives such as ConnectED, with the goal of connecting the country’s students and schools to high-speed broadband and digital learning opportunities. The focus on innovation and education as drivers of opportunity for America’s students and the country was well received and a job well done.
iNACOL, too, applauds the continued efforts of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and policy leaders such as Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton. The Administration has placed great emphasis on spearheading innovation and change within our public school system. The Race to the Top programs have driven a strategy providing a greater focus on personalizing learning for each and every child. Because of this, there is renewed emphasis on how our schools and classrooms can individualize instruction for every child’s needs, provide greater equity through new learning models, empower practice through online and blended learning, and focus on moving from a one-size-fits-all education approach toward competency-based pathways.
As the President noted, “those who go all in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.” And innovation breeds innovation. We believe in empowering student-centered, personalized learning that allows students to have tailored learning opportunities for each student’s strengths, needs and interests. In focusing on personalizing learning and opening access, new school models can unleash the promise and potential of each and every student in ways never before possible.
What our schools and our children need is a redesign of our education system to provide true equity of access and opportunity for every child to find success through student-centered policies and personalized learning environments. Technology has enabled true personalization in almost every facet of our lives, and we believe it can assist our schools and teachers accelerate every student’s achievement and success. Only then will we unleash the full potential of the next generation of American education to meet the promise of our democracy and society.

Tom Vander Ark is a director at iNACOL.

Alpine Advances Online and in Blended Learning

Alpine School District , the largest in Utah, serves more than 73,000 students in 80 schools in a sprawling area south of Salt Lake City. It has among the lowest per-pupil-funding in the country, but strong academic results. The district has several partnerships with local companies resulting in school-wide improvements and individual student success stories.
PLC improvement strategy. Academic results were mediocre when Garrick Peterson became principal of Lakeridge Junior High.
The school is now recognized as ‘elite’ by the state. A stakeholder report monitoring progress over the last decade shows that English proficiency rates grew from 65 percent to 95 percent. Math proficiency improved from 55 percent to 92 percent. Professional Learning Communities (PLC) were at the heart of the data-driven improvement strategy.
Peterson now directs professional development for the district where he introducedMasteryConnect powered PLCs. A platform for sharing assessment items, MasteryConnect Powers Solution Tree PLCs and many school and district formative assessment systems.
When Joseph Jensen became principal of Orem Junior High in 2009, he followed the same formula and created professional learning communities and used data to inform instruction. “He has changed the culture of Orem Junior High by using compelling data, holding everyone at the school to high expectations and tirelessly working to improve student achievement,” said Superintendent Vernon Henshaw. Jensen was named one of the 2014 Utah Secondary Principals of the Year.
Online innovations. The district built 50 digital courses that are delivered on BrainHoney from Agilix (headquartered in the district). Agilix and Mastery Connect are completing an integration to support the growing number of teachers to leverage MasteryConnect content within a blended course.
East Shore Online High School had over 14,000 course enrollments last year, its first year of operation. Most enrollments, and the associated funding, remains at their home school. Alpine high schools provide a classroom where students can take as many online courses as they would like.
“Students come to us within a variety of contexts,” said McKay Jensen. “Many do need to make up a failed class; many are trying to make room in their schedules for other subjects or extracurricular activities, other are simply looking for a different experience than they are getting in there traditional classroom.” Jensen adds, “The unifying feature is that the students need an online or asynchronous option, and we are prepared to deliver that option for students in a variety of contexts.”
Credits are awarded in 1/8 units. “Students are more likely to come away with something if the enduring record (credit on a transcript) happens earlier and more often,” said Jensen. The micro-credits add flexibility and boosts student motivation
This helps student in a variety of contexts—remediation, acceleration, etc. It’s primary affect is in motivation—the road to the praise earned by accomplishment is shorter, and encouragement to go a little bit further is easier to communicate because the students are generating a tangible take-away.
“We help students generate skills and credit—and the student, with help from their counselor, is able to apply those skills and credits into whatever context the student needs,” said Jensen.
Alpine Online is a full time K-8 school that features Rosetta Stone and K¹² World Language courses.
The Alpine School District is a good example of a district innovating with local ed-tech partners to better serve students.
MasteryConnect is a Learn Capital Company where Tom is a partner.

My Generation’s Biggest Challenge

By: Aidan Weltner
My generation’s biggest challenge is having the courage to change the K-12 public education system. Take old thinking and completely turn it inside out. Analyze what works and create an entirely new system.
In too many aspects of our current education system we find that we are being pushed to do things in one particular way.  We learn how to get the answer of a math problem in a very specific way or not stray from instruction in a science experiment. Even when we read a book we are expected to come to the same prophetic conclusion that is accepted by society.
We are learning in a fenced environment with no room to explore or be curious. We do not get to tinker or ramble.
We need to inspire future generations to be creative, innovative and self-confident. We did not evolve to have the most complex brain on earth to have it restricted by a system that does not allow for these characteristics.  We are falling behind as a nation in education not because we are loosing intelligence, but because we are educating in the same way we have been for 100 years. We will not progress as a nation if we continue to let the system hold bright minds back.
I want my generation to value the future generations. We have to be the ones who change what a public education looks like. We have to be the ones to inspire others to think about a child’s mind as our most precious resource.
We have to have more classes in school that focus on teamwork and creativity. Those classes need to start at the beginning and never stop. Lessons and classes will also need to be focused on collaboration while also keeping a healthy mix of individual achievement. We will also need to break the old habit of teaching every child the same way. Children will need to be grouped into different learning styles and abilities, no matter their age.
Our students need real-world interaction: they need to experience accomplishments that really matter and connect to the world outside the classroom. Give a child a task with no restrictions and you will be amazed at the results. Children of a surprisingly young age can solve real-world problems in ways that no one has ever dreamed of. They are not allowed to do this in today’s system. It is imperative that we give our students confidence at a young age and show them that they can make a difference in the world.
Changes like these do not come easy.  We must come together and convince everyone that the way we operate now is not conducive as we move on and progress.
My generation can do it. We will change the way the world thinks, one kindergartner at a time.
Aidan Weltner is currently a high school student in the state of Idaho. 

Rapid Path for Proven Performers is Great; Also Need Innovation Authorization

In the last few years, the charter school policy pendulum has swung from quantity to quality.  The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA, where I’m on the National Advisory Board), the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, where I’m a director), the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and state organizations like the California Charter School Association, have all come out strongly in favor of rigorous authorization for new charters and strong accountability that results in the non renewal of charters failing to hit quality benchmarks.
This trend is mostly great–it has increased the likelihood that new schools will hit expected benchmarks and more likely that failing schools will be closed. However, the unintended consequence is that it is harder to get new blended and competency-based school models approved–dampening innovation at a time when it is desperately needed.
Education is in the early innings of the shift to personal digital learning where environments are blended, progress is competency-based, teaching is team-based, and online opportunities are numerous. This historical shift across so many fundamental dimensions suggests a need for more innovative new schools and a more differentiated approach to authorization is needed.
Differentiated authorizing.  A year ago I suggested that states should have 7 authorizing pathways including:

  1. Standard: first time applicants proposing a single school.
  2. Expedited: a short-form application with quick turnaround for operators of two or more high performing schools with potential for multi-campus approvals.
  3. Innovation: potential for conditional approval (i.e., shorter time frame with more review) for innovative school models that incorporate novel assessment systems, performance-based progress, unique staffing and compensation models, distributed learning (i.e., multiple locations including community resources), blended institutions (i.e., high school and college) and/or year-round learning.
  4. Statewide: virtual operators seeking to enroll students statewide (or across a region under a reciprocal charter agreement) on a full or part time basis.
  5. Turnaround: a two step process that would 1) create a list of certified vendors and 2) match them with turnaround or restart opportunities.  The first step could include collaborative solution development like Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority partnership with Agilix.
  6. Conversion: a pathway for conversion of public and private schools with a requirement for state (not district) authorization to ensure real charter status.
  7. Subject: a pathway for statewide providers for one or more subjects (e.g., English, foreign language, STEM, etc). Louisiana Course Choice has made exciting progress on this pathway.

This week, NACSA issued a policy paper lending support to the expedited pathways for proven providers: Replicating Quality: Policy Recommendations to Support the Replication and Growth of High-Performing Charter Schools and Networks. These recommendations are important for states to consider particularly after watching Santa Clara County deny top performers Navigator and Rocketship.  Proven performing networks should have an expedited pathway to opening new schools. An overview of NACSA final recommendation reports are also available.
While a few districts are encouraging innovative school models (see our recent feature on Miami) there are few examples of authorizers proactively seeking innovation–most remain one dimensionally risk averse.
National grant programs like Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC, where I’m a judge) provide a framework for innovation and financial support for new school applicants.  Some applicants attempt to launch or convert schools within public school districts.  Others propose new charter schools.  Most applicants are edupreneurs working independently from proven networks and have a very difficult time raising money and getting new charter schools approved.  That’s why states need to proactively support new school proposals with innovation authorization pathways and why every city needs an incubator like 4.0 Schools.
Washington State.  Today my home state approved six new charters including two from the most innovative secondary network in the country–Summit Public Schools.  It was also great to see Green Dot’s proposal approved.  Their track record and capacity suggests that these will soon be the best public schools serving low income students in Washington State.
Also today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $500,000 grant to Charter Board Partners, a nonprofit (where I’m a director) that will work with charter schools in Washington to build strong, strategic boards that help schools and students succeed.
However, based on NACSA recommendations, the risk averse state board turned down a number of good proposals–a signal that the process discourages new operators and new approaches.
Even proposals supported and heralded by NGLC were turned down like Out of the Box Learning Studio (OBLS,see NGLC profile) supported by the Northwest Deeper Learning Foundation (where Caroline is a board member).  Reviewers dinged OBL for not having a facility lined up.  They also didn’t get the Buzz-based personalized curriculum (see feature on Michagan EAA’s development of this innovative platform for more on this proven platform).
As a result of the denial, Hannah Williams, OBLS, will be fund raising to tread water for another year rather than planning to open a school.  It’s an awkward and expensive process for an edupreneur with a national network of partners that just want to open a great school serving low income students.  I feel her pain–I’ve experienced this torture test as a grant maker, board member, and prospective operator–in every case I was confident that the proposed schools would have provided significantly better educational options for families than those that exist.
The NGLC grant process is encouraging innovation.  The Washington State charter school application process is discouraging it.  We can do better. It’s time for states to update 20 year old charter laws and for states new to the game to create a pathway that supports innovative new school models.
The most important trend in learning is the viral adoption of new learning tools and resources by teachers, students, and parents. They are ready for new schools that embrace new learning opportunities–it’s time for our public policy to catch up.

Introducing Our Widbook E-book

After two weeks of reading, analyzing, and working through Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” my American Literature students have completed their assignments and, ultimately, created our first, collaborative e-book. Before we take a look at our virtual study guide, let’s review the plans and activities that crafted this original project.

The Lesson Plan

No real magic here. Just a simple plan to have my American Literature students understand Irving’s well-crafted, Faustian short story. Students were asked to demonstrate a thorough, deeply analytical understanding as it related to tone, mood, diction, style, purpose, descriptive language, figurative language, symbolism, and overall theme. For a more detailed description of the lesson plan, please click here.

The Process

First, students were given access to a digital copy of the ascribed literature that was segmented into ten, distinct sections. The number assigned to the differentiated teams of three-to-four students directly corresponded to the section number within Irving’s story. After making a copy of the short story from my Google Drive, students were asked to create one, shared Google Drive document within their own teams. This crucial step allowed all students to read the entire short story while interacting verbally and digitally with their own teammates. Of course, if you have ever witnessed the power of sharing a Google Drive document, you can easily understand how cool this is for the students. In all honesty, however, I had a request to read some of the story as a whole class from a majority of the students who were complaining about the complexity of the text. They seemed to struggle with establishing a foundation of understanding from the beginning of Irving’s story. So, I was happy to oblige them, and on a cold, rainy Sunday I put together a new, interactive learning structure that was designed to guide the students through the first few pages and form a solid base of comprehension. Was the new learning structure perfectly successful? No. But two class days of “The Perimeter, the Players, and the Offering” had most students firmly entrenched in some rather complicated literature. From there, all teams were ready to finish the full story and embark on analyzing their assigned sections. Once the literary analysis, or Part 1, was completed, students were asked to tackle Part 2, which involved creating a video summary and symbolic picture of their assigned sections. Students were asked to submit Part 1 via a shared Google Drive document through our BrainHoney digital learning platform. For the Part 2 video summaries and pictures, each team simply submitted their corresponding and labeled cameras to me. From there, I downloaded all teams’ Google Drive documents as Word documents to my desktop and uploaded them to Widbook. After uploading all video summaries to our class YouTube channel, I simply embedded each video next to its accompanying section in the newly created e-book.

The Product

Am I proud of our Widbook e-book that will hopefully serve as a study guide for any student in the world? Absolutely. Is our e-book flawless. Absolutely not. Take a look for yourself. There is no doubt you will immediately envision the educational potential of combining a collaborative, creative atmosphere and a challenging lesson plan with such a cool and easy-to-use website. So, without further delay (but please imagine a thematic drumroll here), I present you with our Widbook e-book…a study guide for Washington Irving’s famous short story. Simply click here and begin turning the digital pages.

A Teacher’s Experience: What I Learned Working in Online Schools

A Teacher’s Experience: What I Learned Working in Online Schools first appeared on EdWeek on January 28, 2014.
By: Dr. Cherie Ichinose
With increasing participation of both teachers and students in digital learning, opportunities to better educate our youth are at an all-time high.
Technological advancements have transformed the school house into a limitless portal of accessible knowledge. Today more than 1.5 million K-12 students are engaged in some kind of online learning, according to The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Further, in a 2013 report titled “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning,” the Evergreen Education Group identified 30 states that offer full-time, multi-district online-school options in their education systems. Such schools accounted for an estimated 310,000 enrolled students receiving a full education regardless of their geographic location—an option that would not have been possible without online-learning technology.
I have over 16 years of experience teaching mathematics in traditional public schools, universities, and online schools. Following several years at traditional schools, I began teaching online through K12 Inc., a national operator of online and blended schools. I spent eight wonderful years working as an online teacher, primarily through one of K12’s partner schools, California Virtual Academy, working closely with teams of dedicated teachers, educators, and school leaders who shared a passion for meeting the education needs of every child. I held many roles at K12, including high school mathematics teacher, Title I teacher, and a lead teacher. Through my experiences, I came to realize much about the dynamic nature of online education and the potential it has to accelerate individualized learning.
First, it must be said that online schooling is not for everyone. It is not for every student, nor is it for every teacher. Some individuals are not well-suited for online schools, just as others are not well-suited for traditional schools. Both education models have unique characteristics that, depending on the person, can be seen as an advantage or disadvantage.

A Different Mindset

That does not mean, however, that one model is inherently better than the other. Unfortunately, a false narrative exists that traditional and online education models are in conflict with one another. From that narrative springs a number of myths and misconceptions. For example, one of the more common myths about online learning is that teaching online is easier than teaching face-to-face. I disagree. Teaching at an online school does not require any less professionalism, training, or education than are required at a traditional school. In fact, I would argue there is an increased level of diligence, compassion, and understanding required when teaching online. At the end of the day, no matter what your teaching platform, you are still a teacher, responsible for encompassing all that this prestigious title represents. Online teaching isn’t “easier” or “harder”; it is simply different, requiring a different mindset for both teachers and students alike.
On my first day as a teacher at a traditional public high school, I was eager to teach a new and impressionable group of learners. I came prepared with my syllabus and the lesson for the day, and I was able to immediately interact and connect with my students. My first day of online teaching varied little in terms of my excitement and enthusiasm. I prepared my syllabus and the lesson for the day and looked forward to meeting my students. However, I found myself waiting for my students to interact with me.
At first, I was bothered by the silence. Why weren’t they coming to me to seek all of the knowledge I wanted to impart to them? In the past, it required little more than walking into the classroom. The learning environment we shared was tangible; it was set in a single place and time. However, I soon realized my mindset was part of the problem. I couldn’t just expect students to reach out to me. In the online environment, I had to do more than just deliver content and wait for engagement. It was about building the teacher-student relationship in a different and dynamic way.
My interactions with students in online schools took place whenever and wherever the need arose. I met “virtually” with students where they were. This often occurred with the use of newer communication technologies like web-conferencing, email, text and instant messaging, as well as with traditional methods such as phone calls and letters home. I had countless “virtual” interactions with my students, all of which, in many respects, mirrored the interactions I had with students in traditional schools. My students embraced it and took full advantage of such opportunities. More importantly, their increased engagement led to significant improvements in their academic performance.
In the report “Learning in the 21st Century: 2010 Trends Update,” Project Tomorrow found that students reported they received more attention from their teachers and were more comfortable asking questions online than in the traditional setting. Why is that? I believe it is because online learning environments provide a rare opportunity for students to learn with constructive anonymity; they are free to journey through their learning experience without the pressures and judgments engendered by differences in academic need, socioeconomic status, or other circumstances. For many students this freedom is exactly what they need to thrive.
And yet it is important to clarify the difference between constructive anonymity and isolation, because they are not the same. While teaching at K12, I would hold live daily sessions open to both students and their parents. My goal was to provide an atmosphere where students would feel comfortable learning mathematics both as individuals and as part of a larger group. This keeps students present and engaged in the learning process. It is no secret that mathematics can be intimidating, and if students isolate themselves from their teachers, they will isolate themselves from the content.

Flexibility and Freedom

Though online students may work independently, they are not isolated learners separated from their peers. Online schools often have lively and robust communities, with clubs, school activities, field trips, service projects, and even proms and graduations. At K12, I was a part of graduation ceremonies honoring hundreds of students each year. I watched kids recount their experiences with each other and rejoice in their collective success, not at all concerned that their educational journey was traveled on a less conventional road.
The appreciation these students had for their teachers made a huge impact on me. I saw graduates honor teachers for the difference they made in their lives, even though they had never met face to face.
When I was with K12, I was given the opportunity to be a part of their National Mathematics Lab, a nationwide initiative designed to assist at-risk students in 5th through 11th grades. These at-risk students came to K12 schools sometimes three or more grade levels below in math after falling behind or dropping out of traditional schools. K12 teachers provided students in this program daily supplemental mathematics instruction both with the peer group at their school and on a national level with a mathematics content expert. This intervention helped many at-risk students achieve better academic gains and improved the chances that they would continue in their education.
It takes a high level of engagement and commitment for students to succeed in online schools, whether the student is at a remedial or advanced level. That is why, as I said earlier, online schooling is not for all children. The same holds true for teachers—online schools are not the right fit for all of them.
I can understand how some teachers, especially those new to online schools, may feel isolated from their students and their colleagues or experience early frustrations. Interactions between colleagues and students in online schools must be purposeful, active, and ongoing. I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing teachers over the years, both in online schools and face-to-face in traditional schools. I am blessed to have benefited from both relationships.
I started teaching online with K12 when my son was three months old and my daughter was two years old. I have continued to teach online ever since. Teaching online gave me flexibility and freedom to be a teacher and a mother and earn my Ph.D. without sacrificing the quality of any endeavor. A healthy work-life balance is important to teachers, and advancements in education technology—including online schools—have enabled many educators to achieve greater career satisfaction.
I’m an advocate for online learning. I’ve seen its successes, believe in its potential, and understand its challenges. I am not alone. Thousands of other teachers and professional educators across the U.S. have similar positive experiences. Having witnessed first-hand how online schools have successfully impacted young lives, I believe it is not a matter of if, but when, online education becomes the new benchmark for normative learning.

Editors’ note: Earlier this month, Education Week Teacher blogger Anthony Cody published a guest post in which a teacher chronicled the difficulties and frustrations she experienced in working for an online charter school. This article was submitted to us by another former online-teacher, now a university professor, in relation to that piece.

Dr. Cherie Ichinose, a former high school teacher, is an assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, in the department of mathematics. She is currently developing and testing both online and blended developmental mathematics courses at the university.
K12 Inc. is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.