10 Things the Human Resources Department Should Do to Advance Next-Gen Learning

As the learning landscape continues to change for students, teachers, and administrators, it creates new challenges and opportunities for school districts and network support services, especially Human Resources (HR). Next generation learning, which is blended, personalized, and competency-based, requires new skills, new roles and a new mindset for educators.

Leading comprehensive talent development requires HR departments to create strong partnerships with school leaders and their supervisors, with preparation programs, and with technology vendors. Following are the 10 things that HR departments should do to foster next-gen learning.

1. Update hiring profiles. Teacher and leader profiles ought to reflect the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to teach and lead in an increasingly blended and personalized environment. Given how profound the changes are, a detailed suite of qualifications are much more helpful than traditional position descriptions. For example, see the iNACOL Blended Learning Teacher Competency Framework.

Summit Public Schools provides a great example of a competency map that includes four levels of expertise (ranging from basic to expert) across seven dimensions of effective teaching (for example content, assessment, use of data and technology). Teachers demonstrate, and supervisors and peers assess competencies using multiple observations and data sources.

In addition to hiring, gaining clarity on what teachers and leaders should know and be able to do creates a common vision for professional development and classroom observations.

2. Demand that preparation programs deliver competence. Share your teacher profile with other districts and networks and attempt to build support for a common description of quality preparation. Take the profile to leading preparation programs and tell them your district won’t hire teachers unless they match the profile.

Incorporate the profile in the teacher hiring process. Use it to draft questions. Ask candidates to model a next-gen lesson during the interview.

3. Develop a systematic method of talent identification. There are hundreds of thousands of teachers off and running, using the digital resources they can find, and they’re encouraging students to do the same. School and system heads need to figure out what’s actually going on in classrooms and how to leverage teacher leadership to build and accelerate the digital conversion. (See upcoming paper “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” from Getting Smart and Digital Promise that will launch in May.)

Fulton County identified four teachers in each school and offered them training and networking opportunities. CityBridge trains teacher leaders in Washington DC.

Working with school leaders and supervisors, HR departments should develop a systematic way to identify and maintain a roster of talented teachers with leadership potential. An HR information system should help.

4. Create a lattice of developmental roles. Blended school models create new roles like multi-classroom leadership. OpportunityCulture from Public Impact identifies several new roles and opportunities to use technology to leverage great teaching. (See New Staffing Structures Piloted in Nashville Schools.)

Houston created leadership opportunities so that teachers who want to stay in the classroom do not have to move into administration, but instead can lead capacity-building processes in areas of instructional technology, assessment and other initiatives. Such opportunities, along with a reputation for innovation and rewarding good performance, have led to a 90 percent teacher retention rate.

Converting traditional schools to next-gen learning involves many projects, time bound initiatives with specific deliverables. Teacher leaders can serve on or lead project teams. It creates a cost effective staffing solution and valuable leadership development opportunities.

We use the term lattice (rather than career ladder) to denote a varied sometimes nonlinear career progression of jobs and project leadership opportunities that provide a breadth of experiences. According to MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough Florida superintendents have been, “Purposeful in creating wide range of experiences for leaders – it really helps.”

5. Shift to competency-based development. A system that supports competency-based development begins with a map that outlines what you need to know, different ways to learn it, and a variety of ways to show what you know. Those three ingredients, as outlined in

Preparing Teachers For Deeper Learning are key for any form of competency-based development, whether talking about student learning to any form of job training. (As mentioned, watch for the leadership sequel next month.)

A robust system will have various iterations of a map outlining what educators need to know to be able to do, which may vary based on level, role, environment, and more. The different ways of learning can be formal and informal, online or blended, on-demand or scheduled, self-sought or part of a systematic program.

The competency map and career interests should drive an individual development plan that includes learning goals for the current role and a career goal. The plan should be powered by online resources on a platform like Bloomboard.

To envision a competency-based development system in action, imagine if each time a teacher leader is assigned a project management role, they could receive a digital playlist of learning experiences to support their new role (both content knowledge and process skills) and an experienced mentor to provide real time support and guide reflective learning. A relevant sequence of supported projects would be far more valuable than a masters degree, and better preparation for being a principal than conducting student discipline as an assistant principal.

6. Create a team of next-gen learning school model experts. Most school leaders will need help developing new school models. HR should convene and develop a team of people (internal and external) who will become the go-to experts on how to develop and staff next-gen school models. This team will identify needs and hiring criteria, ensuring the right roles and the right people to support next-gen learning.

This team should include HR professionals and blended learning coaches that consult with principals on blended learning models and related staffing options available to them. Depending on the needs of the school, the work of the team may range from consultative (providing expert outside advice on how to change staffing requirements) to prescriptive (outlining a plan to ensure improved results).

7. Provide tiered support. A system of earned autonomy and tiered support focuses district resources where they’re most needed and gives high performing schools autonomy to design innovative learning experiences.

A tiered accountability system would allow a phased shift to personalized learning by allowing top performing schools to select a blended model and staffing structure independently, and enjoy more hiring autonomy. Low performing schools receive more directed support in staffing structures and hiring.

8. Improve employee relations with better service and systems. Strong employee relations are a key component of strong community (and voter) relations. Whether seeking to meet daily needs such as managing benefits, payroll, and easy access to web-based forms, HR professionals have an opportunity to deliver on promises and build trust as they serve employees. In doing so, they will foster happy constituents who will also be the best advocates for the district. Delight both employees and the community with progress toward your vision.

Renee Hill, of Riverside USD (featured in the Talent Development chapter of Smart Cities) suggests that delighting internal customers is more than a friendly attitude, it’s striving for great solutions. Renee said, “Now, we iterate. Start, check, modify, restart or continue, repeat. There is no time to fully develop solutions. We operate in outline form, draft outline form, even. Outline a plan and get busy!”

9. Build a better hiring bargain. When doing the above things, HR professionals and hiring managers can offer a great hiring bargain to new employees. Something like, “We offer the kind of teaching you want to do, more rapid advancement opportunities than most districts, great growth opportunities and competitive pay.”

Districts and networks can work with the local chamber to meet the needs of new teachers, including pursuing support for housing stipends where needed.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier said they seek to improve internal talent through recruitment, opportunity and reward. They recruit often and early through partnerships with universities and Teach for America. Grier and his team turned that around with the largest TFA partnership in the country by offering big signing bonuses and by marketing the opportunity. They made visible changes at each school and invited candidate teachers to visit and talk to students who could attest to the turnaround underway.

10. Craft better agreements. Schools are social institutions, the health of which depends on the many and varied agreements crafted among stakeholders. When it comes to employment and role agreements, HR has an important job, including the responsibility to shape better agreements that are suited for next-gen learning.

District, network and school leaders should help teams operate at high levels under existing conditions and periodically reshape those conditions for the benefit of students. Reshaping conditions requires stakeholder conversations that create a shared vision and a series of agreements that keep a school community moving forward.

Stretch role. Leading this talent development agenda can be a stretch for a previously transactional HR department. It requires a partnership with school leaders and their supervisors, with preparation programs, and most importantly with employee groups.

In addition to being a stretch for HR professionals, HR information systems aren’t up to this task list. Building an HRIS that promotes blended, personalized, and competency-based professional growth is a big impact opportunity.

HR departments need the full support of their superintendent and board. They need the opportunity to learn from organizations with well developed talent development strategies. If the community includes some well run organizations, a community advisory board on talent development could be helpful.

The most important shift is a change in mindset from compliance transactions to a system wide (even citywide according to Terry Grier) view of talent development. HR can’t do it alone but they can create partnerships that exert a big sphere of influence on the development of teaching talent.

See also:


Tom-Vander-Ark-75x75Tom Vander Ark is founder and CEO of Getting Smart. He is also a partner in Learn Capital and a director of iNACOL, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners, Strive for College, and Bloomboard.

What is Learning For?

Recently, the Getting Smart team explored ways to inspire a love of learning, the importance of the social and emotional learning, and the role relationships play in learning. In this article, Valerie Hannon writes about the need for a radically transformed education system. She asks: What is Learning For? In order to embrace our 21st century challenges, we can (and should) create discourse around why we learn.

This article was originally published in the European Journal of Education, Vol. 50, No. 1, 2015. It has been adapted in length for publication on GettingSmart.com.

Valerie Hannon

Why revisit the old question?

Can we not take the purpose of learning for granted? Since Aristotle, via Confucius, Voltaire, Dewey and a host of others, the question of purpose has been posed and answers proposed. Some solutions have aspired to the status of eternal verities: intrinsic, somehow, to the human condition. Others have been — self-consciously or otherwise — more ideological. Moreover, the question has classically been framed in terms of ‘education’: i.e. the purposive arrangement of experiences to promote learning. In contrast, humans cannot help learning. We are wired for it, and, because of that, our evolutionary status progressed.

But if we conflate the two issues and ask the question: “what should be the purpose of organized learning experiences in contemporary conditions?” then we have a very important and massively consequential question, which is, paradoxically, scarcely addressed in public discourse.

Debates about the question have never taken place in conditions such as the human race currently faces. These include:

  • Existential threat to continuing life on the planet within a few generations
  • Resource depletion of fundamental resources — water and food — and their inequitable distribution in a globalised context
  • High levels of destructive violence (again, posing potential existential threat) often accompanied by fundamentalism and intolerance, with the concomitant issues of immigration and dislocation
  • Technologies of awesome power and transformational scope (including of the very stuff of evolution and human beings), which pose threats, but also hold the potential to solve some of the challenges we face — many of which are of our own making.

Never before was the very planet’s future (at least as a liveable home to humans) under threat. Nor had we developed technologies with which we ourselves will, in the foreseeable future, merge. Old narratives about economic competitiveness or personal fulfilment are plainly inadequate. Today, learning has to be about saving our species on this planet, and in conditions which do justice to our aspirations for good lives.

Another dislocation with the past arises in the democratization of this question. Previous generations had it answered on their behalf by élites supported by experts. Prevalent industrial educational models reproduced stratified societies. Today, an education worth having is not just that defined by others. As the channels for learning have opened, individuals (almost) anywhere can define, design and achieve their learning goals without institutional or state mediation. The collective task, perhaps, is to help to shape those individual learning goals in order to address the greater challenges and possibilities we face as a species and in our communities. If learning’s purpose is to secure our survival in conditions which are better than just tolerable, we can consider the challenges in four clusters.

Four Levels of Purpose for Learning

Challenge Cluster #1: Planetary/Global

Collectively and individually, we have to learn to live within the earth’s renewable resources. This entails not just learning how to redirect new technologies, but also to be responsible consumers and reshape economies so that they are not predicated on endless growth and limitless consumption.

Challenge Cluster #2: National/Local

As economic turbulence and restructuring proceed apace, learning to earn a living through ‘the start-up of you’ must gain center stage. In our increasingly longer lives, we must learn to expect and embrace change of job, career, field, skill-set — not once, but regularly. And as economies will increasingly depend upon entrepreneurship and creativity, so too will individuals, both for material well-being and their own satisfaction.The processes of learning and earning will become symbiotic. So, as there will be no sharp distinction in start- and end-points of education and work, learning’s purpose and function will be intrinsic to working life. Learning to make a living successfully and contribute to the new economies will entail learning to think and act ‘green, lean, and eco’. It will also mean learning to adapt to work with automation, and with co-workers who are robots.

Challenge Cluster #3: Interpersonal

It is relatively recently that learning to live well together has come to be seen as a purpose of learning. As we become more reflective (and knowledgeable) about the conditions for, and skills involved in creating and maintaining healthy human relationships, we recognize the scope for learning in this space. The damage done to individuals through dysfunctional families; the scarring of societies by sexist and racist behaviours — from atrocities to discrimination — is incalculable. Again, fast-changing conditions in this century increase the urgency for education to address this cluster of challenges. Changes to family structures and multicultural communities provide the diverse contexts within which learning to relate authentically and respectfully takes place. But education needs to equip learners with the knowledge base and the skills to acquire empathy and insight. Engagement in the arts of all forms is one route for achieving this. Finally, learning to care for and nurture others must moreover extend well beyond family ties: demographic changes are creating aged societies, not all of whose denizens will remain healthy and independent till death.

Challenge Cluster #4: Intrapersonal

Learning about and within our own selves presents the ultimate frontier — and for some thinkers is the precondition for authentic learning in other domains. The notion of ‘self’ will change; humans will have access to more and more forms of enhancement (physical and cognitive). Humans must learn to deal with exponentially increased levels of artificial intelligence applied to everyday life; to a gradual incorporation into our own bodies of powerful technologies. Life journeys will be much longer, centenarians not unusual. Taking early personal responsibility for health and fitness will be a precondition for later well-being (in addition to preventing the collapse of health systems because of lifestyle illnesses like the obesity epidemic). Dignity, purpose and social engagement will be the dividends of continuing to learn. And lastly, the spiritual dimension cannot be omitted. Increasingly, in mechanised, technology-infused, confusing modern life, the need for mindfulness, awareness, inner silence and balance will demand to be met.


This short contribution has dealt with the ‘why?’ not the ‘how?’ of organized learning. It is immediately clear that current education systems are not even close. Radical redesign is needed, and it is urgent. The disjunction with the conceptions of the past arises in recognizing that today, learning is so intimately entwined in every aspect of life, throughout life; for everyone; and in a context where we will incorporate and merge with learning technologies. The dimensions of learning may stay the same, although the emphasis has shifted from the individual to the collaborative and the social. We are still addressing values, dispositions, knowledge and skills. Of these, values have been the least considered and yet are perhaps the most critical. There is an enduring response to this question of learning’s purpose. It consists in wisdom — though redefined for our post-modern context.

For more on innovations in learning, see:

Valerie Hannon is a Co-Founder of Innovation Unit in the United Kingdom. 
Follow her @valeriehannon.


Photos via Innovation Unit.

EdTech 10: Launches, Reports and Transitions

It has been a big week for reports from Digital Learning Now and Pearson, launches from Knewton and IMS Global, and transitions for companies like Scholastic and leaders like Heather Staker.

As our nation celebrates the national and state teachers of the year, it’s worth stepping back to examine the role of HR departments in fostering next-gen environments for teachers to blossom in.

West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, and Florida were among the states we profiled in anticipation for this week’s launch of the 2014 Digital Learning Report Card (details below).

We’ve also been busy preparing for the launch of “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” with blogs from co-author Karen Cator on lessons learned on leadership from Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, and ways EdLeaders can develop skills in six areas of deeper learning.

Have EdTech news in mind that should make next week’s list? Tweet it with #EdTech10.

Digital Developments

Making The Grade. Earlier this week Getting Smart Advocacy Partner Digital Learning Now released their fourth annual Digital Learning Report Card that evaluates state progress in advancing high quality learning opportunities for students. Many states made great progress this year, how did your state rank?

Data Shaken, Not Stirred. Education partners can now track district capital improvement projects with SchoolBondFinder.com. Launched by the Amos Group, this is the first comprehensive service that uncovers relevant capital projects, and tracks progress of districts to support organizations in the bond funding process.  

Put A Badge On It. IMS Global, with support from Mozilla Open Badges, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Badge Alliance announced the launch of the IMS Digital Credentialing Initiative. The initiative will build on IMS’s leadership in competency-based learning, by aiming to further the adoption, integration and transferability of digital credentials, including badges, within institutions, schools, and corporations.

N00bs Welcome. Digital Compass is a new interactive gaming platform that supports students grade 6 to 9 in learning digital literacy and citizenship skills. Creative credit, self-image and identity are among the issues addressed on the platform based on lessons from Common Sense Education’s K-12 Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum.  

Blended Schools & Tools

Getting Personal. Personalized Print Learning Solutions is a new system from Knewton and HP designed to make adaptive learning materials available across print and digital platforms. With the system, publishers can create personalized print content for schools that primarily rely on printed text.  

Dollars & Deals

Done Deal. Scholastic’s EdTech arm will now be under the umbrella of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). The two sides reached an agreement that totaled $575 million in cash. This acquisition positions HMH as the preeminent leader in intervention curricula and services. Scholastic’s Read 180 is included in this move.

Stem Gems

Reporting Back. Pearson has highlighted how MyLab & Mastering supports engagement among HigherEd students studying STEM in a report dubbed, the 2015 Science and Engeineering Efficacy Report, v.5. The report focuses on identifying “at-risk” (better known as “opportunity youth”), adaptive learning, flipping classrooms, and student engagement.

Higher, Deeper, Further, Faster Learning

Horn On HigherEd. Our friend and fellow disruptive innovator Michael Horn shared some important news and insights this week on the state of online and blended learning in HigherEd. His recent Forbes article looks at the limitations of data from the annual Babson report and reflects on big news this week from ASU, the announcement of an online freshman year option in partnership with edX. We agree with Michael, this is a big deal.

The Big “D”

To Whom It May Concern. In response to the US Senate Committee on Health, Ed, Labor & Pensions’ paper on consumer information, PostsecData submitted a letter in an effort to assist the committee as it works to improve HigherEd policy. The letter by the collaborative that’s made up of 27 supporting organizations recommends the creation of a student unit record system at the federal level, and protocols for ensuring the privacy and security of student data.

Movers, Shakers & Groundbreakers

Rule of Three. Elaine Shuck was sworn in as President of the US Distance Learning Association. Heather Staker made the shift to adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute and launched ReadyToBlend. Deborah Gist is also settling into her new role in Tulsa after securing the position earlier this month.

For past EdTech 10s, check out:

Why Mentors Matter

Sarah Vander Schaaff

During my senior year in high school, just about when the pressure of life and the ambivalence of graduation overwhelmed me, my dear drama teacher summoned me to his office from gym class. We both needed a break, he said. We hopped in his red and white pick-up truck and headed to the best bakery in Austin.

Mr. Preas was my mentor. He taught me the discipline and craft of acting, and took my work seriously, even though I was a young performer. He believed in me and encouraged me to have faith in myself. One day, probably a few months after that muffin run, when a telegram arrived stating some good news about my place in a national arts competition, he burst into my typing class and read the note for all to hear. Our typing drill simply had to wait, as he read the short sentences with Texas pride.

Mr. Preas smoked during rehearsal; swore, at times, and had little patience for the juvenile behavior of those he called yahoos. But he was devoted to his job, and he was devoted to anyone who wanted to learn. He entered my life during the rocky but exciting time of adolescence and gave me a place to explore friendships, dramatic literature, the human condition, and even heartache. He was exactly what a young person seeks in a mentor. Parents may provide unconditional love, but a mentor’s encouragement means something else: it means the world outside your familial nest sees something in you.

The fall of my senior year in college, I left Evanston and caught a flight back to Texas. My folks had since moved so I stayed with a high school friend who helped me get to Mr. Preas’ house.  I sat at the side of his bed while he rested, his body truly ravaged by the effect of AIDS.

One day, back at college, I took a jog by the lake. I felt something that, to this day, I cannot describe accurately in words. It was a feeling—something in the air. I got back to my room and a phone call told me Mr. Preas had died. “Carpe Diem” he had once told me, and now I knew I’d need to do it without him in my life.

When I started teaching drama about ten years ago, I hoped I could live up to his dedication and influence. But deep down I knew: he was inimitable.

So, what does it take to be a mentor in this world of rules, most there for good reason? And what does it take, as a parent, to trust another adult with the privilege of earning our child’s trust and respect?

I think that’s the rub in this day and age. As parents, we are vigilant about protecting our children from adults who might take advantage of them, emotionally or physically. As teachers, we are cognizant of the protocols for teacher-student interaction. (Can you image pick-up truck rides off campus during gym class today?)  And certainly students feel pressure to earn good grades. And the fact is, some will shy away from an inspirational, but “tough” teacher because they’ve heard it will sink their GPA. It’s a strategy that reminds me of the proverb comparing the benefits of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to catch one for the rest of his life. How can a young person make that choice unless we give them permission to seek knowledge rather than perfection?

If we’re willing to say that mentors are essential, and if you have your own “Mr. Preas” in your life, then perhaps you’ll agree that they are, then we need to be willing to do what it takes to make room for the mentor relationship in our children’s lives.

How do we do that?

I believe the over-riding principle is: be present. The buck stops with you, the parent.

Teachers, coaches, instructors, and other possible mentors often have reputations that precede them. It’s good to hear what others have to say but it’s more important to do your own due diligence. See them in action. Listen to what parents whose children are similar to your own child have to say. Context matters. So does your child’s temperament. And check your ego at the door. It’s how the relationship supports your child, not the wow-factor of the mentor’s name that ignites a child’s own initiative.

Be present by listening when your child discusses a mentor. Why does he or she feel a connection? Are they inspired? Are they growing? Or are they intimidated and made to feel that their efforts aren’t good enough?  I’d say those are red-flags. I know some will disagree.

We’ve all read stories about a coach, or teacher, or some other trusted adult, facing punishment for having violated the mentor relationship. It’s fear of this that makes many parents justifiably cautious. Be armed with facts, and give your children the skills to develop their own boundaries and instincts. A great book to help with that is Gavin de Becker’s, Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane). Mr. de Becker is an expert in predicting violence and his book has special relevance in the context of examining the mentor relationship.

And finally, be sensitive to the moments of transition when your child leaves one mentor for bigger things. It’s an inevitable evolution, if the mentor and you have done your jobs. In all that excitement of graduation, or advancement to another level, or other moments that imply a “good-bye” give your children the chance to express their fear and sadness that a particular phase in their lives is ending.

Gone are the days of red pick-up trucks and runs to the bakery during gym class.

And I miss Mr. Preas every day.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Sarah M. Vander Schaaff writes the weekly blog, The Educated Mom. She is the managing editor of media and content for Mindprint Learning. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. Follow her @educatedmomMP.

DLN Report Card: Student Achievement Backpacks in Utah

The fourth annual Digital Learning Report Card examines each state’s progress in implementing policies that give students access to high quality digital learning. These advances promise to revolutionize the current K-12 education model by giving students access to far more courses and allowing them to learn in their own way and at their own pace. This annual report card is produced by Digital Learning Now (DLN), an initiative of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), a Getting Smart Smart Advocacy Partner. The Digital Learning Report Card grades each state’s 2014 digital education policies against the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.

Today, we look at Data Backpacks in Utah. This blog first appeared on The EdFly Blog.


The way student records and transcripts are currently managed doesn’t meet the evolving needs of teachers, students and parents.

Only the most basic of information follows students into the classrooms they enter each year. This is a problem because teachers have little visibility into a student’s learning levels, preferences, strengths, motivations, needs and personal accomplishments.

But what if students entered each course or classroom with a digital backpack of data with this information for their teachers and parents?

How would this improve a teacher’s ability to tailor learning to meet the needs of individual students? How would the personalization this offers contribute to deeper learning and improve college and career readiness?

In 2012, Digital Learning Now and Getting Smart asked these questions in a paper called “Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles. The report argued that the current way student records and transcripts are managed is insufficient to meet the evolving needs of teachers, students and parents.

Inspired by the report’s vision to address these inadequacies, Utah policymakers set out to become the first state to make Data Backpacks a reality. And in 2013, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law the Student Achievement Backpack legislation. This law stipulates that by 2017 all Utah students will have a common electronic record that follows them to schools within the state.

Truly Personalized Learning. If parents, teachers and schools are working toward the goal of personalized learning, they need to know about their students. They need to understand each child’s learning style, interests and history so they can create a customized education that works best for that child.

Robyn Bagley, a school administrator and chair of Utah’s grassroots organization Parents for Choice in Education, asserts, “We can’t have personalized learning plans without a student data backpack.”

Utah’s Data Backpacks will give parents and educators a comprehensive view of each student’s progress and achievement so they can work with the student to create a personalized learning plan. Through these portable records, teachers and parents will be able to track student progress – not just in one class, but in every course on a student’s personalized plan. For example, a student taking an online course will be able to share her progress with teachers in her brick-and-mortar school.

Through this process, Utah and other states considering Data Backpacks must remember that the shift to this system will require additional security measures to protect student data privacy. This shift will also call for strong communications with educators, parents and other stakeholders.

Step-by-Step. In Utah, the State Office of Education is rolling out the Student Achievement Backpack legislation in three phases.

The first two phases – where Utah is currently focused – happen behind the scenes. Within these phases, the state has made student data cloud based and will expand Utah’s current Student Information System to include more information.

The third and final phase will include mobility integration of learner profiles that build upon concepts outlined in “Data Backpacks: Portable Records and Learner Profiles.”

Once all phases are complete, teachers and administrators will be able to tailor students’ learning experiences based on a learner’s profile. Profiles will include information like:

  • Course enrollments and history
  • Course grades
  • Teacher qualifications
  • State assessment results (including growth scores)
  • Student demographics
  • Summary attendance
  • Special education summary information

I look forward to seeing how Data Backpacks will empower teachers and parents in Utah, and nationwide, to customized learning from the moment students enter the classroom.

For on the Digital Learning Report Card, check out:

Erin Lockett is a Policy Coordinator at The Foundation For Excellence in Education. 

Fishtree: Learner Profiles Drive Adaptive Learning

After years as an executive in publishing, EdTech, and software, Terry Nealon had a vision that learning could be better for students and teachers. He believed a smart platform would make it easier for teachers to create compelling experiences and a student profile could help individualize learning.

In 2012, with former colleague Jim Butler, Nealon Co-founded Fishtree, the first learning relationship management (LRM) platform. It combines content from any source and type mode, automatically aligns it to standards, and delivers it on any device in ways unique to each learner based on their learning preferences.


Like Realizeit, another innovative adaptive platform, Fishtree was founded in Dublin. The company was focused on the market and impact opportunity in the US, and based on this Nealon moved the three year old company to Washington DC. Nealon said:

We scale 1:1 instruction with adaptive instruction driven by learner profiles. Fishtree brings together resources for every subject, aligns them to any standard or competency and then personalizes the experience based on specific learning profiles, while keeping in mind the user experience of the educator and administrator.

He realizes that an adaptive LRM is a new approach. The platform can be used as a stand alone learning environment or to make a legacy platform adaptive.

A lesson building module makes it easy to develop units by combining content from digital texts, user developed content, and open resources. Teachers report 50% time savings on lesson preparation. Students are seeing gains over 10% after three months.

Teachers can build their own assessments, draw from other assessments, and can auto build assessments from content.

Nealon recognizes that implementation is key to improved outcomes. He said:

The standard of implementation across the industry is poor and is hampering the belief of educators that technology can deliver on its promises. Fishtree insists on minimum implementation requirements to support educators and does so on an ongoing basis to build partnerships with users.

While the initial focus has been K-12, Nealon said, “HigherEd is outpacing all our expectations.” Programs associated with competency-based professional certifications have been particularly interested. Nealon continued in saying, “Scaling personalized learning to support thousands of individual students simultaneously means every learner can learn at their own time and pass, according to their needs and lifestyles.”

Fishtree offers a highly engaging user interface. The teacher and student view both have notifications in the left column, assignments and content in the right column. Content and functionality automatically adjusts for any screen size and data is presented in real-time. The interactive grade book allows teachers to identify gaps and remediate directly.

The recommendation engine driven by a learner profile queues resources that drives performance creating a unique learning pathway for every student.

Admins can see what is working across the institution in terms of resources and content, and can see down to the student level who is on track, off track or advanced and can answer the “what’s next?” question. Fishtree can integrate with pre-existing technology infrastructures included SIS, LMS, grade books, as well as reporting and analytic tools.

This blog is part of the Learning Platforms Series brought to you by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned in for the final published project, Getting Smart on Next-Gen Learning Platforms and check out additional posts in the series:

6 Categories of Deeper Learning Skills for Education Leaders

Karen Cator

Deeper learning is an umbrella term for the skills, understandings, and mindsets students must possess to succeed in today’s careers and civic life. They must tackle challenging interpersonal issues of cross-cultural understanding and conflict resolution, and the urgent global issues of our time, such as availability of clean water and nutritious and affordable food, poverty, and climate change. Increasingly, schools are taking a lead role in supporting students as they develop the critical deeper learning skills to address these challenges.

Classroom teachers with expertise in deeper learning skills can more successfully orchestrate these experiences for their students. To support teachers in developing their expertise, Digital Promise is building a system of micro-credentials based on deeper learning skills to identify and recognize teacher competencies. Micro-credentials are much more focused and granular than diplomas, degrees or certificates. As such, they are more flexible, and support educators with many options for both formal and informal learning throughout their careers.

While teacher competence in deeper learning is important, it is also essential for education leaders at all levels to understand, articulate and model deeper learning skills. Leaders who operate from a deeper learning mindset can support a coherent culture of inquiry and risk-taking in schools, essential for continuous and transformative improvements. For each of the six areas of deeper learning below, we identify ways education leaders can develop their skills.

  1. Master core content. Education leadership is its own domain, and learning the core processes, procedures, history, and language is critical as a basis for grounding analysis and decision-making in a local context. Much of this is learned through formal classes, as well as through reading, discussion and reflection.
  1. Think critically and solve complex problems. Leaders face a constantly changing landscape, political pressures, and daily challenging situations. They must be able to draw on tested methods and processes for analyzing a complex question, problem, or issue, identify its relevant parts or dimensions, and consider possible approaches. They must recognize facts, evaluate the reliability and validity of new information, analyze evidence, and incorporate ideas from multiple sources and perspectives. And, they must develop skills to change course when a planned approach is not working. This kind of critical thinking is a skill that can be theoretically learned in formal environments, but the ability to apply it develops over a lifetime of trial and reflection. Many effective leaders have a mentor to walk through situations with them, providing guidance and perspective.
  1. Work collaboratively. Leaders must build their trusted teams and develop shared leadership throughout the organization, including teachers and students. This means setting and reviewing goals, sharing information, listening, developing a culture of “yes, and,” and encouraging questions in order to work productively towards goals. Although conflict resolution skills and other skills of collaboration can be learned in a formal environment, the application of those skills as well as the benefits are learned on the job – every day.
  1. Communicate effectively. Of course, communication goes a long way towards staving off conflict and developing shared understanding. But leaders must be able to identify varied audiences and create clear, accessible, and useful messages tailored for each one. And, since communication is two-way, listening is critical and garnering feedback from reliable sources by engaging with questions, critiques, counter arguments, and suggestions are skills to be honed.
  1. Learn how to learn. Underpinning all of these skills is the motivation and ability to embrace intellectual, creative, and personal challenges that lead to growth and learning. Setting personal goals and keeping track of progress, recognizing what you don’t know, and understanding and finding support and feedback from others are the hallmarks of a lifelong learner. Taking risks and supporting others in taking risks requires understanding the role of mistakes, and even failure in supporting continuous improvement and learning. Reflection is a must.
  1. Develop leadership habits of mind. All of these skills contain aspects of the best habits for leading in the complicated, people-intensive endeavor that is public education. The best leaders are persistent and remain true to their core ethical values, even in the face of challenges.

Education leaders embrace and model deeper learning skills and encourage everyone within their organizations to do the same because, deeper learning supports a lifetime of learning!

This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series. If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

To learn more about our Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning series, see:

What Digital Learning Grade Did Your State Earn?

Getting Smart Advocacy Partner Digital Learning Now (DLN) released the 2014 Digital Learning Report Card, measuring each of our nation’s 50 states against the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.

DLN’s annual report evaluates state progress in advancing digital learning and high quality learning opportunities for all students. Each report card evaluates state legislative and policy efforts regarding learning systems, quality online instruction, course access, school models, data privacy and more. Lawmakers can use this resource to better understand how their state can improve and determine what other states are doing to create a “policy ecosystem” favorable for improved access and outcomes.

Highlights from 2014 Include:

  • Half of the states improved their progress overall
  • 14 states advanced one full letter grade
  • 9 states progressed to move out of the “F” category
  • 50 new digital learning laws passed
  • 422 previously passed laws were implemented and/or improved

New in this year’s report is a policy profile section that highlights the intention, implications and implementation of policies in states where efforts are worth noting. Those profiles are also highlighted in a report card preview blog series that DLN will continue to publish over the coming weeks. Early posts in the series include:

In addition to the report and blog series, the Digital Learning Now Report Card website features an interactive map, a tool to compare state scores and downloadable state profiles.

Questions or comments regarding the report? Join the conversation on twitter with #DLNReportCard.


Breaking Down Silos: eLo Enables Expanded Learning Opportunities

Kip Pygman

Building a network, and tapping into various sources for support and guidance is imperative for GenDIY students. As teachers look for new ways to support students paving pathways to careers, a new partnership is breaking down the silos that commonly exist across educational institutions to leverage the collective talents of teacher leaders to serve students.

Three Illinois suburban school districts recently launched the Expanding Learning Opportunities Consortium (eLo). For students, this means that if you are enrolled in “District A” you have the opportunity to enroll in a virtual course taught by a teacher from District “B” or “C.” eLo encompasses seven high schools. Beginning this August, students will have the opportunity to enroll in one of 14 virtual course offerings including five courses this summer.

The central focus of eLo is to provide students personalized, meaningful learning opportunities which utilize technology. Unique to eLo is the consortium’s commitment to use local teachers as course instructors. Student instruction is not being driven by a computer or a teacher from a for-profit organization. Rather, instruction is provided by one of the consortium’s own educators. Students are receiving personalized instruction accompanied with rigorous content developed and facilitated by a teacher from one of the three school districts.

As one may imagine, when you combine seven high schools in the consortium, natural complexities arise.

  • How may we develop processes that systematically work across three districts?
  • How may one effectively communicate with key stakeholders across seven schools?
  • What do we do if a student struggles in his/her online course?
  • What curriculum should we offer?
  • Who should facilitate the curriculum?

These are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. However, when all districts share a common “what’s best for students” philosophy, the answers to the complex questions will arrive. In fact, the answers are authentic because knowledge is built by the collective perspectives of leading professionals spanning three districts.

The feedback from students has been positive.

64% of students chose to enroll in eLo because they felt it would better prepare them for college and their careers. In addition, 42% of students stated an eLo course provided opportunities for them to pursue other activities as well as preparation for postsecondary experiences, which are currently expanding for GenDIY.


There is not a direct time period where all students access their course.

eLo-table-2-banner 92% of students felt their instructor was supportive.

eLo-table-3-banner 96% of students felt their assignments directly related to the content studied.


By ensuring eLo students receive rigorous instruction and the freedom to choose when and where they learn, the potential impact on our students is profound.

We provided students with the opportunity to share positive learning experiences in an open-ended format. Students provided insightful observations to their online learning experiences.

  • “I learned how to prioritize my work, manage my time, and work with other students in a group. This experience will prepare me for college.”
  • “Being able to do all my assignments on my own time was very convenient. This course made my schedule more flexible than taking the course in school.”
  • “I think the good aspects of the course were that during each week I had to learn how to problem solve and think independently. I found out more about myself because I wasn’t told exactly what to do by the teacher.”

eLo is an example of how GenDIY students are charting their course through unique learning environments and expanded course access. Does online consortia solve each educational hurdle? Does online consortia replace face-to-face instruction? Not quite. Online consortia, such as eLo, simply provide students more ways to learn that adhere to their needs.

Many high school mission statements include, “Ever-changing world”, “shared responsibility”, continuous learning opportunities”, and “quality producers”. The eLo Consortium provides proof and a means for schools to fulfill the promise of their mission statements to students. The vision, leadership, innovation, and determination of Indian Prairie School District 204, Naperville Community Unit School District 203, and Community Unit School District 200 is remarkable. These three districts have intentionally chosen to work alongside one another to benefit their students.

The Expanding Learning Opportunities Consortium recognizes postsecondary learning coupled with employee training are moving predominantly online. The eLo model will help students better position themselves in postsecondary environments, the competitive job market, and in the search of self construction. For more information about eLo, visit eloconsortium.org.

For more GenDIY blogs, check out:

Kip Pygman is the Director of Digital Learning at eLo Consortium. Follow the eLo Consortium on Twitter, @eloconsortium and Kip on Twitter, @kippygman.

PearDeck: A Fruitful EdTech Tool

If you have used edtech tools like Socrative, Kahoot, MoveNote, and even the now-defunct InfuseLearning, you must take a look at PearDeck. This interactive website and Google Drive app adds interactivity to any slideshow by integrating free-text responses, multiple choice answers, freehand drawing renditions, drag-and-drop indicators, overlapping visuals, and even embeddable YouTube videos. Mixed in with other fruitful classroom activities during the school year, PearDeck will definitely help produce student engagement and, ultimately, acquired knowledge.

No need to worry about investigating PearDeck yourself. Just take a look at these two video tutorials, and your classes will be ripe for a rocking learning activity.

Creating an Interactive PearDeck

PearDeck in Action

For more blog by John Hardison, check out: