Getting Smart’s Top Stories of 2015

2015 was HUGE for We launched a podcast, went mobile responsive, released 18 publications, hosted two successful crowdsourced thought leadership campaigns in GenDIY and Smart Parents and published a record-breaking 1,127 blogs on the Getting Smart blog, The Huffington Post, Medium and Education Week. Here is a recap of our top stories to catch up on before the ball drops.

As you ready the party poppers, make sure to sign up for the weekly Smart Update so you don’t miss out in the new year. Okay, now our top five most viewed blogs:

Hands down the most viewed blog in 2015 by a long shot. This one features the scoop on 13 of the largest gatherings on digital learning, three not to miss regional conferences, and for good measure, six worth checking out. With all the standout conferences which is the one that should really make your calendar for 2016? In my opinion that would be the iNACOL SymposiumHere is our photoblog from this year’s symposium.

Coming in hot as the second most viewed blog is this collection of podcasts your should subscribe to today. Undoubtedly, one of the most read topics in 2015 was on podcasts. Google search “education podcasts” and one of the first results you’ll find is our 50 Educational Podcasts You Should Check Out blog. Ask our team, “What’s new?” and you’ll hear about how we’re learning on the go with podcasts. Ask our teacher bloggers about new practices they’re trying in their classrooms and you’ll hear how their encouraging reflective learning with podcasts. And for kicks and gigs, here is the most listened to Getting Smart Podcast of 2015:

Our annual showcase of districts worth paying a visit to was the third most viewed blog in 2015. They are big and small, urban and rural, east and west–representative of the American education challenge. These 30 districts are changing their community trajectory by working on blended, personalized and competency-based learning. Most are making career preparation–including communications, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration–a priority.

Fourth place goes to this dual Smart Parents – GenDIY blog. It’s an honest reflection from a dad who pulled his daughter from her traditional school to attend a code school. “These last 12 months have been a strange adventure for myself, my wife, and our 16 year old daughter Katya,” Joe says in the beginning of the piece. Joe and Katya’s journey to Dev Mountain and Katya’s newfound success in programming is a quintessential story of a Smart Parent and a GenDIY student charting a course to a career.

At number five is this gem. If you’ve followed our weekly EdTech 10 news series, it’s no surprise that we love Twitter. Not only is it a powerful way to engage with a large audience, but it is also a super efficient way to gain and share knowledge. Looking for new education leaders to follow in the new year? This blog is for you.

Teacher voice is the backbone to our blog. From comments and tweets from teachers who provide often the most insightful feedback, to our network of teacher bloggers like Amber Chandler, Moss Pike and Alesha Bishop, teacher engagement is the lifeblood of Are you an educator with a killer blog topic worth sharing? Email [email protected] with the subject line “Teacher blogger” for more information on guest blogging opportunities.

2015 saw the rise of maker everything. This infographic from LittleBits shows how the “Maker Movement” has developed into “Maker Ed” and provides additional resources for joining the “Maker Ed” movement.

Now that you’ve seen the movie (or even if you haven’t), this blog shares 12 ways teachers and parents can help kids extend and apply what they saw in the movie to use as a springboard to teach about the brain, Social Emotional Learning (SEL), and life in general.

The blockbuster film for education this year was Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed. The star of the film is High Tech High in San Diego (featured here), a place where teachers have the freedom to shape projects that culminate in public exhibitions. This story of students at High Tech High preparing for conducting their term-end Presentation of Learning is an inspiring picture of what many of us hope for millions of American students.

School visits are a great way to learn and are key to developing an innovation mindset. Based on a couple thousand school visits and with help from colleagues and readers, we’ve compiled a list of 66 U.S. secondary schools worth visiting.

2015 was finally the year of mobile. Push-based web, where information is delivered to us, appears on the verge of replacing the search-dominant web we’re most familiar with. This blog describes how educators will soon have much more sophisticated ways to know learners and connect them with powerful learning experiences.

In 2015, many of our popular blogs were about design thinking. Stanford d.School has teamed up with the folks at IDEO to marry professional learning with design thinking. What if simple hacks could transform a school culture? IDEO’s Sally Madsen explains in this blog that was part of our popular Deeper Learning blog series and Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning paper.

We wrote a lot about student-centered learning in 2015. This handy checklist provides important information for parents to know what to look for when touring a potential school with their children, whether it’s your neighborhood, district, public, private, or charter school. A student-centered classroom and school helps create deeper levels of engagement through a more personalized learning environment and allows for learners to thrive- by putting them in the driver’s seat. This blog was part of our popular Smart Parents series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

We’ve had many blogs this year about the rise in project-based learning, including this one by Lucy Kosturko, which features great project ideas for a PBL classroom. We appreciate the actionable tips and resources in this one, which was also featured in our publication, Getting Smart on Tomorrow’s Classroom: Free Innovative Tools, Resources and Apps.

2015 brought a new focus on the power storytelling for the Getting Smart Team as tool for inspiring action. This blog asks how do we teach and rally students around positive core beliefs? And, how do we come together to mobilize schools, districts and organizations to step out and create the learning experiences we all hope to see and experience? Part of the answer is storytelling, and this blog shares five reasons why educators should start creating storytelling opportunities for students.

For more blogs in our mini #YearInReview series, check out:

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9 Resolutions & 9 Resources for Your Project-Based Learning Classroom This Year

If you are teaching in a Project-Based Learning (PBL) classroom or aspire to bring high quality PBL to your classroom or school, we bring you nine resolutions to follow for creating engaging and effective projects in the new year. Follow these resolutions and you will be on your way to activating students’ interests and building a strong culture to support high quality, gold standard PBL in your classroom or school.

Resolve to assess student learning, both formatively and summatively.

We almost always have some sort of summative assessment. In successful PBL classrooms, teachers don’t wait for deliverable or final product. Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning says, “If the teacher isn’t assessing all along the way, then the final product will not typically show the high quality of success.” He explains, “You don’t want to undermine the quality of the final product by taking away the scaffolding, but you want a sense of individual student levels of understanding throughout that flow.” Ron suggests building in smaller assessments, in some cases on demand assessments, at multiple times before the final project: “Don’t wait; check along the way.”

It’s amazing what can be learned from students in just 5 minutes. A “turn and talk” or an exit ticket can be one quick way of assessing progress. For more ideas, see Authentic Assessment: What You Can Do in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years.

Resolve to be project managers (and teach the students how to be project managers).

Teachers should teach students how to chunk down bigger projects into daily tasks. Project management tools can help. Teachers can help students organize schedules and tasks, and set deadlines to keep things moving.

Use this project planner (or find one that works well and then build in time to teach students how to use it).

Resolve to reflect.

I had a sign in my PBL classroom that said: “Reflection isn’t just for mirrors.” When my students took the time to reflect at the conclusion of a project, they learned more about themselves, their own strengths (and struggles) and each other through the reflection process.

Use Gallery Walks as a tool for reflection. Encourage the use of protocols, the public sharing of work and peer feedback as a way to create a culture of PBL and reflect on the work.

Screenshot 2015-12-28 13.22.36

Resolve to let students have voice and choice.

The most important shift in a PBL classroom is what happens at the student level. Students can take the lead by tracking their own projects using project management tools and skills. According to John Larmer, editor in chief at Buck Institute for Education (BIE), an organization devoted to spreading gold standard Project Based Learning, in his blog about student voice and choice: “Having a say in a project creates a sense of ownership in students; they care more about the project and work harder.”

Check out the Building a PBL Culture in the Classroom blog. It includes tips for activating voice and choice.

Resolve to make projects count.

Use standards to plan projects and make sure they address core content knowledge. In a rigorous project, students are activating and learning standards-aligned content, while building 21st century skills such as collaboration and critical thinking and meeting other deeper learning outcomes.

Many of the existing resources teachers use to align lessons and units to standards can be applied to designing projects too. Check out online project libraries, searchable by course/content, to find standards-focused project ideas. There’s this Google Hangout featuring BIE’s national faculty and Larmer discussing standards-aligned projects.

Resolve to tap adult experts and mentors as part of the process.

Teachers engage in helping students connect to adult mentors who can support the project process. As Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius, suggested in his keynote at PBL World (a conference that brings educators together to immerse themselves in all things PBL), adults in the real world who support projects help make them MORE real.

Read this piece by John Larmer about how students make their work public by collaborating with outside experts during a project. Experts can act as content experts, mentors, and even “clients” for real-world projects. They can provide real-world critique to improve students’ products. At the end of a project, experts can ask students questions during presentations that a teacher or other students might not ask.

Resolve to include student interests.

A project is more engaging — and lead to more powerful learning — if students find it personally meaningful. If they care about the topic, the products they choose to create, or the real-world issue or problem they’re tackling, students care more about doing high-quality work. Writes Larmer, “a project can have personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.

Watch Most Likely to Succeed, a new film about student-centered learning and hold a discussion with other educators and even students about student-centered approaches to learning!

Resolve to share it and show it.

You and the students can decide how students will share their work publicly. We love ideas such as posting an article on a blog, presenting in a performance-based assessment, publishing or creating an online portfolio of work.

Transform your PBL Classroom with the 4 P’s: posting, presenting, publishing and portfolio.

Resolve to be resourceful.

Engage in meaningful professional learning, whether through attendance at specific PBL workshops, in a professional learning community, or through your own online explorations. Make sure your work is related to your own professional growth plan, and then be prepared to share your learning with other staff members to grow the PBL culture at your school.

There is a website called PBLU with many K-12 “ready to go“ projects you can use in your classroom.

If you are interested in learning more about gold standard PBL, check out BIE resources and upcoming PBL professional learning opportunities: What are your resolutions for your PBL classroom or school this year? Comment below and share your PBL resolutions and comments at #PBL.

For more on project-based learning, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Scaling Up: Give Money and Advice this #GivingTuesday

#GivingTuesday is a good chance to scan the nonprofit landscape for worthy causes. In addition to donations this fall, your favorite nonprofit may be a good candidate for scaling advice.

Nonprofit organizations are formed with a charitable intent around a mission–an opportunity not to be missed or a problem to be attacked. There are some good reasons for forming a nonprofit corporation (one that qualifies as tax exempt under IRS code section 501(c)(3)):

  • You are eligible for private and government grants (not typically available to for-profits).
  • Unlike a loan, If you receive a grant you don’t have to give the money back.
  • Donations are tax deductible for your donors.
  • If you make a profit, you don’t need to pay federal corporate income taxes and, in most instances, do not pay state corporate income, franchise, excise, use, and sales tax.
  • You may receive generally favorable treatment from educators skeptical of private enterprise.

There are a couple downsides to forming a nonprofit corporation. The first is the loss of control. You need to put together a board of directors that become your boss–and they can fire you. You may be subjected to more scrutiny because your finances are open to public inspection. If your organization grows and becomes profitable you can’t sell it. Nonprofits may pay lower salaries and have less incentive compensation than for-profits that can make it a challenge attracting talent.

The final disadvantage, and the subject of this, is the challenge of bringing a nonprofit to scale. For nonprofits, scale means more fundraising and more headaches but probably not a lot more remuneration–lots of hard work, more risk, and not a lot more reward.

Despite inherent disadvantages of the nonprofit structure, there are big problems to solve and solutions that should be brought to scale. This blog outlines strategies and lessons for extending impact.

Dave Lash has spent 30 years studying innovation. He’s learned some useful lessons on how systems change, how human beings develop, and the role innovation plays. Starting with a couple ideas from Lash, following is a list of 10 tips for expanding the impact of a nonprofit organization.

  1. Build networks. Entrepreneurs lay the foundation for success by developing five networks: personal, regional, industry, innovation, and enterprise resources. Building connections is important because most big foundations don’t accept unsolicited proposals so you’ll need to find an opening and introduction.
  1. Lead users. Identifying your first customers/clients and deeply exploring their needs helps you understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Eric Von Hippel at MIT has been studying the sources of innovation for decades. In sector after sector, it comes down “lead users” who have the passion and persistence to keep working a problem until they find a solution. They are the first innovators although those that commercialize their discoveries usually get the credit. Lash suggests, “find, protect, and invest in lead users.”
  1. Lead donors. Now that you’re connected and informed, it’s time to raise some money. Crowdsourcing is a new option but it sure helps to have a lead donor to get things started. Lead donors may include friends and family, a local community foundation, or a national foundation focused on the problem you want to solve.
  1. Scale ready. Scaled impact requires a program or intervention with a strong theory of change or logic model. An evaluation of the program should determine whether it has been effective, if so why, and whether the program elements can be transferred to a new setting.
  1. Window of opportunity. It will help fundraising efforts if you can make the case that you’re working on an important problem and that you’re proposing a timely solution. Timing is more important than ever because most big foundations have adopted “strategic philanthropy” which means they have outlined a detailed change agenda; you’ll need to find yourself in their agenda, use their language and metrics, and hit their grant making window.
  1. Credibility. Perhaps most important to donors is that you appear credible as an organization–you understand the problem and have the capacity to do what you’ve committed to do. Reference projects, capable staff, and initial funding can all help boost credibility.   
  1. Fee-based. Successful nonprofits often develop a strong base of earned revenue to reduce philanthropic dependence. Charging for some of your services will not only improve your sustainability, it will encourage you to keep an eye on your costs.   
  1. Sweet spot. In many cases you’ll need to be able to describe a solution that is cool but not too cool. In Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, James Utterback discusses the gravity of the dominant design (such as the traditional school model) pulling down and crushing “deviant” efforts. But go too far from the dominant design and you risk losing credibility. The sweet spot for innovation is the orbit that balances these forces.
  1. Adaptive entrepreneurship. Amar Bhide wrote about successful entrepreneurship in The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. Lash built on Bhide’s work to outline four elements of adaptive enterprising:
    • Plussing from one near-term opportunity to the next;
    • Leveraging skills and assets in increasingly sophisticated and uncommon ways;
    • Upstreaming attention and actions on emerging needs and trends; and
    • Spanning disparate ideas and resources assembled through proactive cultivation.
  1. Capacity. The last step before a big expansion is building capacity. Make sure you have a plan to develop the people, systems and resources to go to scale. Consider management succession–who could do your job? Who could step up and manage a new location? Make sure your culture is scalable; how will new locations make decisions, treat customers, value resources?

These ten steps will help you build thriving nonprofit. Donors and customers/clients may be asking you to expand. It may be time to pick the right scaling strategy.

Scaling strategy

There are three basic scaling strategies: expand services, expand locations, or advocate for your solution.  

  1. Service expansion. If you are delivering value to a group of customers/clients it may be time to add new products and services. Focus groups and pilot projects can help you gain quick insights into the potential to create value. Donor discussions will help you understand if you can rely on your existing base or it new donors will need to be cultivated.   
  1. Replication. Adding new locations for your services can be accomplished by operating new locations yourself (like AAA) or by creating a network of semi-autonomous affiliates (like the KIPP school network) or something in between (like Communities in Schools which has local and regional affiliates that share an operating and measurement framework). The key to replication is figuring out what should be tight and what should be lose–what will remain common and where will local affiliates have flexibility? The answer depends on your value creation formula and the variability in context variables for each affiliate site.
  1. Advocacy. Rather than expanding to new locations, you could just share your success via open resources, success stories and advocating for productive policies. YouthBuild supports over 260 urban and rural local programs through public narrative campaigns and with policy advocacy on Capitol Hill.

Stay tuned for some working examples in our paper on Scaled Impact out next week.

For more check out:

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EdTech 10: 2015 News Stories Worth Remembering in 2016

Well, well, well… It’s that time of year again to look back on the progress made and say “that’s right!”

With 2016 just around the corner, this edition of EdTech 10 is all about looking back at the 10 biggest stories that crossed our desktops in 2015. But before we do that, here are six blogs that look back at 2015 in a mini #YearInReview series:

End of an era. In October, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his intent to step down. With Arne leaving office, his service will go down in history as one the most active for the Feds in U.S. education. Consider this news the beginning of the end of standards-based reform.

Signed into law. For education policy this was a HUGE year. President Obama signed into law the bill that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaces No Child Left Behind and holds significant implications for the field of K-12 education.

EdVestments. U.S. EdTech investment hit a record $1.9 billion, up from $1.4 billion last year. International EdTech venture investments added another $1 billion to the global total. The highlight reel:

  • Professional learning: Lynda ($186M), General Assembly ($70M), Udemy ($65M)
  • Platforms: Duolingo ($40M), Udacity ($105M)
  • School/program management: AltSchool ($100M), Hotchalk ($230M)

Going public. Alongside investments in EdTech, two big news stories emerged when it came to IPOs. Instructure, creators of Canvas, debuted on with a double-digit gain while McGraw-Hill Education readied for its IPO.

Secondary version 3.0. The Regional Next-Gen School Design blog series and culminating Getting Smart on Regional Next-Gen School Design shared the stories of NGLC’s Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools. XQ Super School applications opened this fall, and 2015 also saw the launch of NewSchools Catapult.

Listify. In 2015 we witnessed the work of over 1,500 leaders, organizations and companies who made a positive impact for learners. After two months of publishing about 20 ‘Best of’ lists, the Smart Lists series was the most widely viewed and shared series on

Now boarding. This year was big for the education conference circuit. The big four were ISTE (Wade), ASU+GSV (Chalmers), iNACOL Symposium (Lebron), and SXSWedu (Bosh). Here are 23 can’t miss education conferences to add to your calendar for next year.

Generation Do-It-Yourself. The close of 2015 brought the re-release of GenDIY. In partnership with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and eduInnovation, the GenDIY blog series on The Huffington Post and is cataloging their stories and generating a field guide for the new learning landscape.

Smart Parents. Just in time for back to school, Smart Parent: Parenting for Powerful Learning hit the shelves. The book features 60+ inspiring parent stories and and advice for parents on navigating educational options in the digital era.

Too much testing. The testing backlash that began in 2014 continued into and throughout 2015 with even Obama calling for limits. With the testing frustration news, the real news that the world is waiting for is better use of formative data. Good schools already know how their students are doing, and the news on testing this year echoed the fact that they don’t need a big test to tell them what they already know.

For more EdTech 10’s, check out:


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Online + Community-Based Learning = VSOE’s Personalized Path

Imagine if kids could learn anywhere anytime, taking full advantage of community assets, both following their interests and developing important skills and dispositions. It’s happening every day in Fort Pierce, Florida halfway between Miami and Orlando.

Virtual Schools of Excellence (VSOE) is an accredited independent school that operates operates online and on-site educational services and programs for private paying students, school partnerships, homeschool organizations, and Catholic schools.

IMG_6348Each student has a Personal Education Plan which guides a personalized blend on online and community-based learning experiences. Experiential learning is supported through community partnerships that support symposiums and rehearsals, work experiences and internships, and coaching with adjunct faculty with industry credentials.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Academy is a part of the model in Fort Pierce. High school students take part time online classes as needed and as they fit into their schedules.

A converted law office serves as the St. Andrew’s study cafe. Students drop in between community experiences including a culinary arts partner, Anytime Fitness, an art gallery, scuba and sailing partners, and a children’s theater.

Trina Angelone, CEO/President provided an example:

One student registered as a 10th grade student in August 2014; her personal education plan included on campus classes, online classes, dual enrollment at the local state college, and with an interest in photojournalism, teacher Curry Krasulak got her an internship with Historic Downtown Main Street’s newspaper, In Focus, and she has been published all year. With top test scores and the ability to self-pace, Allison jumped from being a sophomore to being a junior in January. She will graduate a year early and will have a couple of years’ worth of college credits completed.

vsoe 2Over 60 St. Andrew’s high school students participated in this partnership program and personalized their plans to earn marine science college credits through the local state college dual enrollment program, became scuba diving certified through a local dive shop, earned culinary arts credits as they learned how to decorate cakes through a local bakery partnership, and painted their masterpieces working with the downtown artists’ studios.

VSOE also serves autistic students “who want to do some academic work in a 1:1 environment with the VSOE academic coaches, take some elective classes on the St. Andrew’s campus to experience the mainstream social aspect so often denied to special needs students, all while also taking online classes worked in a flexible partnership to accommodate the students’ therapy, medical and other needs,” said VSOE principal Dr. Anastasia Legakes.

VSOE uses the PEAK platform by Fuel Education, as well as eDynamic Learning and NROC Math.

Some of these individualized courses of study are supported by Florida’s School Choice and Tax Credit Scholarship (Step Up For Students) and the new PLSA (Personal Learning Scholarship Account) Programs.

Plans include the expansion of the Fort Pierce Learning Centers for students interested in the performing arts. Curriculum for core classes is delivered through online classes, while music, talent development, talent management, contract studies, the business of the music industry, and much more is provided through a year-long “Visiting Artists and Professionals” rotational model.

“It is very important for us to be able to deliver a personalized education model that can be self-supporting and replicated, that any public or private school can implement and sustain if they are willing to engage in true systemic reform,” said Angelone.

The VSOE team has accomplished a lot in in 18 months–they’ve created a great next gen blend that combines online and community-based learning, full or part time. Students can co-construct their pathway. Teachers can also flex their schedule.

Online Learning Leadership

Trina AngeloneIf you attend the iNACOL Symposium every year you’ve probably met Trina Angelone. After 20 years as a teacher and administrator in Florida public schools, Trina launched the International Catholic Virtual School to serve low-income caribbean communities.

Angelone went on to found of VSCHOOLZ, an online learning platform and services company funded in part by Wayne Huizenga (Blockbuster, Auto Nation). VSCHOOLZ was sold to Calvert Educational Services in 2013. After supporting the transition, Trina left to found VSOE.

Angelone’s recent book identifies the need for reform of America’s public schools. Keep an eye on VSOE for a picture of the future of learning. 

For more check out:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

#YearInReview: The Best of 2015, 10 Predictions for 2016

With 2016 just around the corner we are looking back at a #YearInReview. Here are the first six posts:

A pretty good year. In this final post, we’ll recap 2015, a pretty good year all in all, and make a few predictions about the year to come.

Things got better in 2015:

  • US unemployment dropped almost a point to 5% (but is twice that for African Americans)
  • The economy grew by about 2% (while the Chinese economy slowed to 7%)

Positive long term trends continued to provide benefit:

And worldwide:

Things got better in 2015 except if you…

  • were in long commodities or a farmer (prices on oil, corn, coal down by almost a third);
  • lived in North Dakota or Alaska (the price of crude dropped from $66 to $36/barrels);
  • were investing for your retirement (flat market);
  • worried about gun deaths in the US (nearly 1100/month);
  • were in a health coop that closed; or
  • lived in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Tech was largely disappointing…

  • unless you owned a sliver of one of the 145 unicorns (startups valued at more than $1 billion).
  • The much-hyped Apple watch, TV, and music were yawners,
  • Amazon Fire flamed out, and
  • Most video games failed to live up to the hype.
  • Digital currency Bitcoin stalled but many came to appreciate the underlying Blockchain infrastructure, including security applications in education.

US EdTech investment hit a record $1.9 billion, up from $1.4 billion last year. A few of the highlights include:

  • Professional learning: Lynda ($186M), General Assembly ($70M), Udemy ($65M)
  • Platforms: Instructure’s ($40M plus an IPO), Duolingo ($40M), Udacity ($105M)
  • School/program management: AltSchool ($100M), Hotchalk ($230M)

With almost 200 investments it got a little easier for startups to find seed investment and a little harder to put together subsequent rounds. B rounds (second priced round usually requiring demonstration of a viable business model) fell from 21 to 15 and increased in size from $21 million to $32 million.

International EdTech venture investments added another $1 billion to the tally, for a total of $3 billion. There were a handful of really big deals in China (14 investments totaling $671 million) and lots of small bets in India (21 investments of $59 million).

Hot in 2016. Before turning to 2016, it’s worth remembering that no one predicted the drop in oil or the rise of ISIS in 2015.

  1. Prep for success. More schools and districts and networks will formalize their approach to developing success skills. Also called habits of success they include self-direction and perseverance, growth mindsets, and social skills.
  2. Better formative. More students are benefiting from lots of formative feedback in blended learning environments, but it’s still difficult to combine all that information. Maybe 2016 will be the year super gradebooks will be a killer app. Watch for the winners of the Assessment for Learning grant program (late January announcement) for signs of the path forward.  
  3. Secondary v3.0. In addition to regional Next Generation Learning Challenges funds, we’ll see a NewSchools Catapult and well funded XQ Super School grantees.
  4. Chromebooks. “Even if Microsoft is No. 1 in volume and Apple is No. 1 in revenue, from the growth perspective, nobody can beat Chromebook,” said Rajani Singh, senior research analyst at IDC. The dominance of Chromebooks will continue through 2016 dramatically increasing the percentage of 1:1 environments (here’s why).
  5. Mobile. Behind all of these trends will be more mobile access by teachers and students. The new year is time for schools and partner organizations to make sure their sites are mobile responsive.
  6. PBL. You’ll see more and better project-based learning in 2016. PBL benefits from several trends (including the first five). Great resources from Buck Institute and support from New Tech Network will help (CEO Lydia Dobyns describes how).
  7. Competency. A half a dozen states will make competency-based advancements to policy and assessment including eliminating seat time, adding competency components to graduation requirements, and using frequently scheduled secondary end of course exams. They may use an innovation zone (discussed here) an incentive for schools, networks, and districts.
  8. Micro-credentials. States, districts and networks will adopt blended and competency- based professional learning systems (as described in  Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning and iNACOL Blended Learning Teacher Competency Framework). Many will use the Digital Promise framework on the Bloomboard platform (listen to a podcast). With the shift to personalized professional development, schools should adopt the motto “No more boring PD in 2016.”
  9. Guidance and support systems. With more informal, modular and mobile learning options, expanding access to part time online learning (often called Course Access) and new postsecondary options, secondary students need stronger guidance and support–the spine of next-gen secondary schools (see paper). We’re hoping that translates into better guidance and support platforms in 2016.
  10. Helpful algorithms. Predictive analytics will continue to grow in importance and will inform everything from lesson sequences to lunch menus (see 8 ways analytics and machine learning are improving learning).  

Augmented and virtual reality hit $150 billion revenue in 2015 but they are a few years away from being widely used in education. In 2016 we’ll see a few more promising applications virtual field trips, science simulations, and career education. Call AR/VR an honorable mention for 2016.

All the best in the new year.

For more #YearInReview, check out:

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Taking Competency-Based Learning to the Masses: Sanborn Leads Competency Design Studio

Dr. Brian J. Blake, Ellen Hume-Howard & Brian Stack

To be named one of the 25 Districts Worth Visiting in November 2014 by Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart was humbling. To make that same list again in 2015 was an honor and a testament to the hard work of the district’s 200+ teachers and school administrators who have maintained a laser-focus on competency education and personalized instruction. For seven years, the educators of the Sanborn Regional School District have openly shared their journey of transition from a traditional to a competency-based education system. Doing so has been a part of our professional development and a reflection of our own practices.

By the time Tom named us a district worth visiting in 2014, we were already averaging 2-3 requests per month from schools and districts who wanted to come to New Hampshire’s seacoast to learn more about our school redesign and competency education work. Since that time we have been averaging two to three requests per week. As one could imagine, our little school district of just 1,850 students and 200 teachers isn’t equipped to handle visits on this scale during the school year. Doing so would take us away from our important work with our own students. Our first Competency Design Studio in the summer of 2015 was our solution to this dilemma.

CBE-studio-editIn our first design studio, we envisioned a place where schools and school districts could send a team to learn more about our competency model and have some time to work on their own. Whether they were just starting out or deep into the planning or implementation phases, our studio offered support and resources to teams large and small. That first year, we invited national competency education specialist and our dear New Hampshire friend Rose Colby to deliver the keynote address. She shared time that morning with Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s Deputy Commissioner of Education and Dr. Brian J. Blake, Sanborn’s Superintendent of Schools as they set the stage for competency education at the national level and at Sanborn. Over the next three days, teams worked closely with twenty Sanborn teachers and school administrators as they studied many of the design and implementation facets that schools are faced with when they do this work.

Creating the conditions to help others succeed is one of the highest duties of a leader, and one that we practice in our school district as much as possible. For the last seven years our district has strived to be a learning institution; where every member of the community is learning, improving, striving, facing challenges together, understanding learners, and sharing as a collaborative team. The power of this collaboration has sustained our progress as a district and the positive energy of collaborative practice has made room for inviting other districts to learn and share with us. The power of sharing collaboratively moves all of us forward.

CBE Studio1-editIn its second year, we hope to welcome back many of the teams who participated in the first studio as well as many new teams. The registration cap has been increased and we feel confident we can support at least double the number of teams as last year. A two-day “boot camp” has also been added for New Hampshire schools who are hoping to be considered for the Performance Assessment for Competency Education option, the state’s innovative school accountability waiver that in 2015 garnered a lot of national attention and was considered one of the catalysts for change with the new Every Student Success Act (ESSA) law that now encourages states to develop personalized learning systems similar to the ones created in New Hampshire.

Our design studio is planned for July 20-22, 2016 and will be held at our high school in Kingston, NH. Registration can be done using our online form. You can also email us at [email protected]. This summer, we invite you to come spend some time on the beautiful New Hampshire seacoast with some of the most innovative and forward-thinking school districts in the country as we redesign and reimagine our schools to meet the needs of all learners.

For more on Sanborn, check out:

Dr. Brian J. Blake is Superintendent of Schools for Sanborn Regional School District. Follow Dr. Blake on Twitter, @BrianJBlake.

Ellen Hume-Howard is the Sanborn Regional School District’s Curriculum Director. Follow Ellen on Twitter, @MrsHumeHoward.

Brian Stack is the Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H. Follow Brian on Twitter, @bstackbu.

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Four Steps to Transforming a School

It seems as though it really comes down to four. Four practices that, taken together, create a transformational school environment. What do I mean by transformational? An environment where students are achieving academically and taking ownership of their learning: exhibiting agency.

  • These environments can look many different ways, but are based on certain characteristics: they have a focus on academic rigor;
  • They create learning experiences that allow students to experience “flow”, where time and space drop away;
  • And they develop their own best instructional practices rather than trying to follow someone else’s checklist or pacing guide.

And they follow four higher level practices that entail their school culture.

Data-Informed Instruction

I say data-informed rather than data-driven, not to imply any lessening of rigor, but rather to emphasize the role of teacher judgment in instruction. In fact, rigor is what data-informed instruction is all about.

In many ways, teachers have always used data-informed instruction in the form of formative assessment – things like quizzes used to find out what students know and to re-cover areas where students are still confused. Today however, with technology, teachers have access to more data than ever and can drill down to get a more complete picture of what students do and don’t understand. For example, many software programs like McGraw-Hill’s Thrive support students working independently at their own pace, and sends an alert to the teacher if students are having trouble in a particular area. The teacher can then pull those students aside for immediate feedback and help.

The software also provides reports showing details of a particular student’s performance, the whole class’s performance, or performance on a particular question. This data shows up as a side effect of students working through their learning, without stopping learning to take a quiz or test. It is a form of “stealth assessment” that doesn’t make students feel as though they are being tested. This data used to be laborious to collect, but with technology it becomes automated.

Automated reports become incredible time-savers in data-informed instruction. They become the basis for instructional conversations. These conversations may be with the Principal as instructional leader – this approach is beautifully described in the book Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo. The conversations could just as easily be with peers in a data meeting or Personal Learning Community environment. The key is to first analyze what individual students are missing or places where the whole class is confused, then to tailor instruction to get students caught up before moving ahead to new content.

Student-Centered Pedagogy and Approaches

There are innumerable student-centered pedagogical approaches from Project-Based Learning to Inquiry to Making to Game Based Learning and so on, each with its own slightly different focus. The many X-based learning approaches do have some critical things in common though when done well, and it is these common denominators that make them so powerful:

  • Teachers gradually release control to the students, becoming coaches rather than keepers of information
  • Students take ownership of their learning
  • The conditions for intrinsic motivation are in place:
    • Autonomy. Control of what they work on, where they work on it, how they do it, when they do it and/or who they work with
    • Mastery. The opportunity for the deep learning that comes from a state of “flow”
    • Purpose. The learning is authentic and based on questions the students consider meaningful
  • There is a public presentation of student work to authentic audiences (Watch Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed for a great example from High Tech High)

There is a simple, yet incredibly difficult shift of mindset required for teachers to support student-centered learning. There is an uncomfortable giving up of control to students while providing a framework within which the students will work. This mindset is the core of the student-centered learning approaches and can always be applied to teaching and learning, transcending any particular pedagogy. And once teachers get used to it, they find their enjoyment of work as they can focus more on true teaching than controlling student behavior or laboriously pulling students along.

Continual Improvement and Innovation Process

Mastery of data-informed instruction and student-centered teaching can never be fully achieved.  That is a goal that can only be approached, not reached. There is always room for improvement and responding to a changing environment. To approach mastery, three elements are required:

  • Reflection
  • Experimentation
  • Analysis

A self-reflective practitioner will take time frequently to consider how their data-informed instruction and student-centered approaches are working. Are they achieving their goals? How can outcomes be further improved? Are the working goals the right ones, or do even the goals themselves need to evolve? This reflection often occurs intentionally as part of school-based Personal Learning Community meetings.

Then the practitioner will experiment with new approaches, analyze the results, and look for ways to refine his or her practice. He or she will share new insights with the rest of the community, look for feedback, then keep the practices that improve outcomes while discarding those that don’t.

Secret Sauce

The three practices listed above are the result of intentional practice and reflective process. However, there is one more element that is critical to making the others effective.

Every student must be known by a caring adult in the building, both academically and as a person.

Without this ingredient, the recipe for success falls flat.

Putting It All Together

When a student is known, when a student is intrinsically motivated, when a student takes ownership of his or her own learning, and when a student is caught up on concepts and understanding before moving on, that student is engaged in transformational learning.

It is common, when given a list of to-do’s to somehow leech the meaning out of them and believe you are following them when, in fact, you are still doing things the old way and simply renaming them.

So how do you know if you are truly on the path to transformation? Consider:

  • Are all four practices in place?
  • Do you hear conversations about student work and reflective practice in the break room?
  • Do teachers, students, and parents insist they could never go back to the old way?
  • Are there conversations about how goals are evolving in PLC’s?
  • Are teachers truly letting go of control? How do you know?
  • Are agency and academic growth equally valued and given equal priority in day to day decision making? How do you know?
  • Do students have voice and choice in what they work on, when and where they work on it, how they work on it, and with whom they work?
  • Are you seeing continual improvement in your data-informed instruction practices? How do you know?
  • Are teachers regularly experimenting with new approaches or instructional techniques and keeping what works?
  • Are teachers and students enjoying their work more than ever while accomplishing more than ever?

If most of these elements are a normal part of your culture, and all are “side effects” of putting the four practices in place rather than coached behaviors, then you are on the path to transformation.

For more blogs by Marie, check out:

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What’s on the Horizon for EdTech & Education in 2016

With the new year just around the corner we’ve been looking back at trends with a short #YearInReview series. 2015 was the end of an era of standards-based reform while #MakerEd was on the rise; it was year of the mobile (finally) and it was the year when we followed the rise of Chromebooks and machine learning. We saw 10 forms of crowdsourcing at work in education. This year we also highlighted over 1,500 smart people doing innovative work as part of the 3rd Annual Smart Lists.

So what does 2016 have in store for innovations in learning? We asked learning leaders what they see on the horizon, and what they hope will change for learners:

As new state and Common Core assessment results are released and gaps in curriculum are identified, there will be a growing and critical need for schools to focus on interventions that efficiently address areas in need of improvement. Effective, technology-enabled interventions will help address issues of student equity by allowing teachers to accelerate learning to meet the needs of all.

~ Aurora Martinez, Executive Director, Curriculum Associates

To provide a comprehensive overview of student achievement, districts, schools and teachers must focus on creating and utilizing a holistic system of assessments, one which balances diagnostic and mastery measures. By using this type of system, educators are provided with a wealth of student data to form instructional groups and differentiate and personalize learning and, in turn, improve student outcomes.

~ Kenneth Tam, Executive Director of Personalized Learning, Curriculum Associates

Now that the educational pendulum has swung back to the states, the environment is ripe for educational reform. Personalizing education will continue to accelerate and a reformation of what students do at school, what teachers do at school and how teachers are prepared for functioning in this environment will continue to evolve. As the number of digital natives begin to become the majority in this new environment ways of “doing school” continue to emerge and seed themselves as the new normal.

~ Tim Hilborn, Chief Instructional Officer, META Solutions

Education Reimagined sees 2016 as a turning point in the learner-centered education movement. We see more and more actors—educators, learners, parents, business and union leaders, policy makers, and community members—joining together in inventive collaborations. They are dramatically expanding the number of places that are putting learners at the center and challenging our traditional notions of when, where, how, with whom, and by whom learning happens. And, thanks to the passage of the ESSA, growing numbers of states will be inquiring into how some states are already effectively empowering pioneers. The time is now; the moment has arrived. Onward!

~ Kelly Young, Director, Education Reimagined

In 2015 I have witnessed that the tide is shifting quickly towards more authentic approaches for knowledge acquisition and application in the educational system. Teachers are able to utilize instantly available data to plan instructional approaches, provide more personalization to learning, gain a better understanding of student need, and then correlate those needs with student interests to optimize learning outcomes. Administrators are gaining the understanding that they must provide the proper environments (physical, virtual, and social) that will leverage learning as a reciprocal experience vs. something that is simply available and provided to students. Administrators, teachers, students and the community are making connections for learning opportunities and community needs. I envision that in 2016 schools will begin a transition into organically designed learning systems that reach beyond their brick and mortar and into their local and global communities to maximizing growth and capitalized on opportunity for our current youth.  

~ Lori Vandeborne, Professional Development Specialist, META Solutions (see feature on Lori’s coaching in Marion City Schools) 

Competency will be the focus of the conversation in 2016, and yet state policy is completely misaligned conceptually and practically. Unfortunately, because it is an election year, policy may continue to trump student progress.

I hope the promise of personalization may finally be delivered through technology.

~ Julie Young, CEO, Global Personalized Academics

As more districts and states across the country put in place the enablers for implementation of blended learning at scale (connectivity, devices, support for teachers, etc.), the top priority for the ecosystem will shift to clarifying exactly how teaching and learning change in the classroom: how exactly do the student, the teacher, the software, and the data interact to transform learning? Making competency-based learning a reality will be the key focus of this work.

I hope in 2016 that more teachers and principals take on the challenge of implementing innovative new solutions that are still being improved and perfected; this is critical for ongoing innovation! And I hope the sector overall will be patient in measuring the impact of blended learning–we need to wait until we are crystal clear about what the “it” is before we start measuring “whether it works.”

~ Scott Ellis, CEO, The Learning Accelerator

As educators evaluate digital curriculum for use in their schools they will become more discriminating and focus on specific outcomes. Questions they will ask include: Was this curriculum designed to meet this need? Has this curriculum been proven to achieve results? Has the efficacy of this curriculum been demonstrated?

~ Cheryl Vedoe, CEO Apex Learning

I predict that on school visits and meetings with school leaders, more parents will ask whether students engage in Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL will become more expected as an essential element of an excellent education like arts, music, and challenging courses like Advanced Placement.

~ Bob Lenz, Buck Institute for Education

My 2016 predictions are  blatant “wishes” for both discourse and action. I predict that 2016 will be seen as the turning point in re-thinking the educational arms race that has pitted parents, school boards, teachers and policy makers against each other, all in the name of preparing students for college and career. I’m talking about communities pushing back, causing us to re-examine our obsession on getting into elite colleges; to address the opportunity gap that perpetuates poverty and robs our youth of hope for a better future;  and demanding a higher ed system acknowledge that is too expensive and stuck in 20th Century practices. The  strides being made in transformed K-12 school districts throughout the U.S. can, and will, cause the kind of disruption necessary to accelerate innovation. 

~ Lydia Dobyns, President & CEO New Tech Network

At Harmony Public Schools, we are hopeful that personalized learning will continue to gain more attraction with practice-based, refined implementations of project based learning and data-rich blended environments across K-12. We see competency based approaches on the horizon and more work based learning opportunities for high schoolers formalized thru a badging system similar to micro-credentialing for teachers.

     ~Burak Yilmaz, Race to the Top District Project Director, Harmony Public Schools

Old Labels Start to Peel: I predict that increasingly easy access to online and blended learning resources in 2016 – and the concomitant rise of interest in competency-based pathways – will cause educators to start asking themselves crazy questions like, “How can we use this credit-recovery model for kids who want to accelerate through their original credits?” and “How can we make sure everyone graduates high school with college experience under their belt?” and “Why do we have grade levels, anyway?”

The Millennial Two-Fer: In 2016, schools will wake up to the fact that the millennial generation is changing education on two planes – as cadres of new teachers who take technology for granted as part of their fun, creative classrooms, and as parents who resist helicoptering but who also reject rigid and prescriptive approaches to education. Schools will need to respond to this confluence with tools and resources that ensure authentic learning experiences are also deep, rigorous and lasting.

~ Mickey Revenaugh, Director New School Models, Pearson ISDD and Co-Founder and EVP,
Connections Education

Districts and schools are focused on engaging students and providing access to quality STEM learning, which will inspire innovative teachers to take the lead in trying out new technology. Online resources such as Pinterest and Thingiverse will expose the applications of 3D printing for students to use in STEM-related projects, but we’ll soon see more collaboration. We’ll see a shift in both teachers and students from using 3D printers to create fun gadgets to using 3D printers as a tool to solve problems.

~ Erich Zeller, Instructional Consulting Manager, MIND Research Institute

The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 represents an important new chapter in US education. This development is a great opportunity for all of us to reimagine education and to think and act more intentionally about rich learning instead of narrow testing.

I foresee the end of the road for ‘one-size-fits-all’ and ‘teaching-to-the-test’ education systems as we instead welcome the advent of stronger personalized learning models that will support teachers and empower students in ways that scale for schools and districts of any size and circumstance. These new models will leverage a new class of learning technology that dynamically adapts in real time while enabling each unique student to direct his or her own learning. The high stakes summative era will give way to a more nimble and high impact formative era that will shift our focus to cultivating deep learning and individual growth for all students.

How can this be achieved? My belief is that dynamic, embedded formative assessment, based on real time data enabled by technology, will be a powerful education enabler in 2016. With in-the-moment information, Learning Guardians will have a richer, more complete picture of what an individual learner actually understands. And, just as importantly, Learning Guardians will have access to new insights about how to best guide each and every student toward lifelong success no matter where students live or where students are in their learning journey.

~ Jessie Woolley-Wilson, President, CEO & Chairman of the Board, DreamBox Learning

In 2016, I predict that online learning will hit the mainstream as K-12 education systems leverage technology to increase access to educational opportunities and seek improved equity. Blended learning continues to dramatically change instructional models by providing real-time, data-driven instruction and opening up multiple pathways for students to learn.

However, the biggest shift will be driven by education systems moving toward personalization for each student’s unique needs, interests, passions and competency-based pathways. New definitions of student success including a broader conceptualization of evidence of student mastery will expand to include project-based learning with student exhibitions and redefining what success looks like at graduation.

This is a turning point in K-12 education in the United States as education leaders explore the implications of a more flexible ESSA for state leadership, district local control and system alignment to set high expectations, close achievement gaps and, importantly, to redefine what it means for a student to be prepared for college, future careers, a living wage in a global economy and effective citizenship by rethinking conceptual frameworks of student achievement and ensuring equity.

~ Susan Patrick, President & CEO, International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL)

For more, check out:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Situated Learning: What Good EdTech Leaders Never Stop Studying

By Jason Ribeiro

District education technology leaders often bring a wealth of experience to the position. Be it a combination of time spent in the classroom, administration (or more commonly), working in Information Technology (IT) services, these leaders are often well-versed in most things education and technology. But how many of our senior officials can say the same about their knowledge of leadership? Beyond work experience, do our most trusted leaders receive the proper leadership training to guide interdisciplinary teams through often costly, high-stakes technology implementations? If so, situated learning should be a term they are well acquainted with. For those who are not, this adult learning theory could help redefine both your practice and work environment in the future.

Situated learning is the practice of learning knowledge and skills in contexts that mirror the way the knowledge will be used in ‘real life.’ Champions of this style of learning and leading believe that education is a process of forming meaning through experience. In the bureaucratic structure of school district governance, this is often a rarity.

However, great education technology leaders allow knowledge to be constructed through both discovery and active problem solving. How do they do this? They acknowledge that deep and meaningful learning can only occur when a context has been created for informal learning to happen with their teams. And the kicker is…these experiences need to take place in a social environment. Not behind a desk. Not in an email chain. People need to interact with one another for this type of workplace learning to occur.

Food for thought: Over 70 percent of workplace learning is informal, despite the millions of dollars organizations (i.e. school districts) commit to formal training programs for their employees (i.e. teachers, consultants, superintendents, principals, etc.).

So what do we call these magical informal, social environments? Communities of practice or CoPs. They are:

  • Naturally occurring
  • Comprised of an evolving collection of people
  • Allowing people to engage together in particular kinds of activity
  • Providing people with the opportunity to develop and share ways of doing things effectively

These groups typically have small numbers of members but their impact on knowledge creation and strategic planning can be quite powerful. Even newcomers who are hesitant to join these communities (and begin on the periphery) often move toward full participation as deeply engaged learners. Free from coercive pressures to attend sessions, learners feel comfortable engaging in authentic, shared dialogue about practical issues and concerns.

When applying situated learning to school district technology leadership teams, education leaders need to understand that their working environment has undergone rapid changes in the last five years.

Historically, educational technology was seen as an addition to the learning experience for students, not an inseparable component. With this extraordinary shift in people’s professional and personal lives, it is important that this real-world context is not forgotten. Another enormous shift in the school district system has been the increasing role of IT staff and the growing expectation that academic and IT partners work together in the procurement and implementation of educational technology. This is unprecedented and district leaders are struggling to bridge the gap between the two groups and help them understand the combined challenges of both the system network and the classroom.

Part of the problem in trying to create a more collaborative and trusting environment for team members is that large-size school districts are heavily managed, governed and resistant to change. It should come as no surprise that most of the instances of high-capacity teamwork and innovation in educational technology implementation are emerging from smaller districts, individual schools, or even micro-schools. Clearly the complex organizational and operational challenges facing district leaders are not small matters.

Communities of practice could help build trust and generate new knowledge in this uncertain time in educational leadership. While CoPs are often described as a naturally occurring process that underlies all knowledge and learning, new thinking is emerging that indicates CoPs can indeed be created and fostered. Perhaps this is the first step a Chief Information Officer needs to take in order to move their teams beyond their silos so they can begin to work more effectively and collaboratively.

For more check out:

Jason Ribeiro is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada specializing in Educational Leadership. Follow Jason on Twitter at @jason_ribeiro.