7 Ways PBL World Models Project-Based Learning

We’ve been writing about what makes for a great conference or professional learning experience. As Getting Smart staffers hit the road this spring and summer, we’ll be bringing you big ideas in conferences and in education from our fellow travelers.
One event we are excited about is PBL World, a conference focused on innovations in Project Based Learning (PBL) hosted by Buck Institute for Education (BIE) in Napa Valley, California this June. We recently published a podcast that featured the folks at BIE along with students and a teacher from the Highline School District near Seattle.

When you attend a conference that focuses on gold standard Project Based Learning, you really hope the conference not only talks about high quality PBL but also models PBL done well. With that in mind, we bring you 7 ways PBL World gets it right.

1. It’s differentiated

Conferences that allow for personalized learning based on roles and experiences are the best. PBL World offers the introductory PBL 101 workshop and more advanced PBL 201 options as well as a Leadership Academy and Coaching Academy.

2. It’s interactive 

There are opportunities for connecting with other organizations and companies. This year, the team at BIE has partnered with EdSurge to conduct a workshop with edleaders and edtech companies about the tech tools needed to do high quality PBL.

3. There are opportunities for informal connections

There is plenty of time to relax in California sunshine during the long June evenings– there’s time for a nice patio conversation or a long walk to reflect on the day’s learnings. There’s also time to ruminate with others in small group conversations throughout the day’s sessions. Although the learning was rigorous, the pace last year felt “just right.”

4. It’s worldly

Conferences should have diverse speakers, facilitators and participants. At this year’s PBL World, there will be project-based learning educators and leaders from around the US and around the world. Last year, I was in a session with a minister of education from Japan. We were able to chat about how PBL is being applied in Japan, and I also got to practice my (limited) Japanese (my sister lives in Japan and is fluent, so I made a nice personal connection). Hearing how PBL is applied in diverse settings offers opportunity for rich ideas, cross collaboration and learning from others.

5. It’s in a great location

We’ve written about how conferences do it right when it comes to how they use the location. This conference is in the sunny, world-famous wine region of Napa Valley. Last year when I attended PBL World, I ran into a friend of my husband’s from Oregon and she and I got to spend time chatting and soaking up the gorgeous scenery.

6. The students are front and center

At this year’s PBL World, there will be student exhibitions on the first day. When educators are grounded and steeped in practical applications and discussions around student work, it reminds us all of what is possible with PBL. There are also two amazing student speakers, Briana and Leona Das, sisters and co-founders of Tribe Awesome, where they highlight ‘inner awesomeness’. They both worked with BizWorld.org and have won awards for their entrepreneurship.

7. The core values are modeled throughout the conference

This year’s conference will have an explicit focus on equity as a driver for engagement in high quality PBL. Equity as a touchstone is the most important conversation we can be having in education. It’s everyone’s responsibility to bring it up, talk about it and relate conversations back to the purpose of high quality project-based learning. When you head to PBL World, expect to bring that lens and your own experiences into the conversation and learn from, and listen to, others.
Tom loves to say that if there is no joy, there’s no learning. When we visit schools, one of the first things we notice is if people are joyful. The same thing is true at conferences: If adults (and students) are having fun and laughing they are also open, relaxed and ready to learn.
PBL World is held this June 13-16 in the Napa Valley, California. To learn more, see PBLWorld.org and follow the conversation leading up to the conference at #PBLWorld. Register today before it sells out, which it always does.
We’ve been writing about great education conferences and what big ideas are happening in professional learning. Do you have a can’t-miss edu conference? Building off the success of our 23 Can’t Miss Edu Conferences, we will be updating that this spring. Email [email protected] with the title “Edu Conferences” to contribute any ideas for upcoming posts.
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4 Strategic Decisions to Take When Planning a Competency-Based Education Program

Paul Bowers
Competency-based education (CBE) is on the rise in higher education. With competency-based education, institutions can help students complete credentials in less time, at lower cost—with a focus on real-world learning that leads to greater employability. This versatile model benefits the student, the instructor, the institution and the economy.
Public Agenda, the policy group supporting the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), estimates that there are as many as 500 higher education institutions considering or developing some form of CBE program. Eduventures reports there are more than 150 existing programs enrolling over 200,000 students and projections show that number could top 500,000 by 2020.

Managing the Move to CBE

CBE is complex, because of the shift away from the traditional building blocks of educational programs – time, classrooms, group-pacing, credit hours and semesters to name a few. And CBE is fraught with uncertainty because these shifts break boundaries established by regulation and accreditation, especially with respect to financial aid. Regulatory and accreditation policies are just beginning to catch up.
Pearson recently released a framework, the CBE Playbook that provides a guide to help educators seeking to develop CBE programs deal with the twin challenges of complexity and uncertainty and design approaches that fit into the particular constraints and context of unique institutions. The playbook provides a framework that outlines seven key work streams to focus planning efforts on essential details, processes and decisions, and to coordinate efforts across the whole institution – a necessary element for successful CBE program development.


The heart of a CBE program lies with defining and shaping competency claims – what skills and abilities students will master – into a systemic framework and then defining the precise assessments and measures that will be used to demonstrate mastery of each competency. But once the framework for competencies and assessments has been outlined, the next challenge is to craft an overall program model that addresses the details for how learners will progress through the program, how they will be supported, and how the institution will design processes that will integrate a new model into a traditional system. It is here that the complexity and uncertainty really take hold.

Four Strategic Decisions for Success

In the CBE Playbook, four strategic decisions for planning a CBE program are identified as the most essential starting points. The choices made in these four areas form the foundation for all of the other implementation details that will shape the success—or failure—of the program.

  1. Program Management: What is the most appropriate organizational model for our CBE’s program roles and responsibilities?

Program management defines roles and responsibilities for those involved in the program. The organizational model goes beyond simple roles and responsibilities. It often speaks to how the institution views the degree of constraint the CBE program has to fit into. Usually, fitting CBE into existing organizational models corresponds to a recognition of greater levels of constraint that the CBE approach has to live within. A lot depends here on factors such as institutional size, mission, and scope of adult/CBE program, scale of CBE program and executive vision and leadership.
There are four major program management models:

  • A departmental model where the program is managed within the existing disciplinary unit
  • A coordinating management model where the program is managed through a distance learning or adult education office
  • A separate business and academic unit with budget and academic accountability,
  • A cross-institutional model where the entire organization tends to be focused on alternative education models.
  1. Program Design Approach: What approach will we take for how students complete the program?

The CBE model potentially changes educational delivery in two significant ways: time and place. At one end of the scale are programs that are entirely self-paced, where learning occurs apart from any classroom setting. Other program models are still bound to both classroom and seat-time measures of learning progress. Hybrid models combine aspects of both approaches.
The three main choices make when designing a program are:

  1.    Classroom-based or self-paced
  2.    Semester/term-based or non-term based
  3.    Credit hour-based or direct assessment

These choices have significant implications for other aspects of the model, including tuition, student support, financial aid, and accreditation.

  1. Accreditation and Financial Aid: What is our strategy for seeking accreditation and financial aid approval?

The overall strategy for accreditation and financial aid is closely related to the program’s design. The U.S. Department of Education is concerned with preventing financial aid fraud, and most of the regulations governing financial awards and disbursements have been developed around traditional program delivery practices, term structures and definitions of student progress.
There are three potential strategic approaches to accreditation and financial aid:

  1.    Credit hour-based or semester/term-based
  2.    Direct assessment
  3.    Blended

This decision is perhaps the most significant of the four because it determines the basis for accreditation approval and financial aid compliance. Direct assessment has the highest bar for compliance and the greatest uncertainty because the federal financial aid implications are still emerging here. The blended option refers to programs that seek to do only a part of the requirements in a CBE format, usually keeping CBE components to less than 50 percent of the total program. Staying below the 50 percent level avoids some of the requirements for accreditation and financial aid.

  1. Program Strategy: How do we select or validate program choices for CBE development?

Program strategy takes into account the fact that CBE initiatives don’t emerge in a vacuum; they usually arise from a particular need for a program area or degree. It is important to think about the program strategy by evaluating the appropriateness of providing a CBE program, and also considering which programs or degrees that might be offered in the future. It is also essential to consider what the development strategy will be and carefully evaluate market research. Leaders at higher education institutions still tend to overlook the importance of solid market research that evaluates both program supply and demand, along with basic research about the nature of the potential student population and the regional and local needs of employers.
Most CBE programs tend to focus on broad areas in disciplines that seemingly lend themselves to the approach, mostly at the associate and bachelor’s degree levels. But there is growing interest in CBE certifications in healthcare, IT, and manufacturing. Recent data suggests that there is a potential explosion of these new programs on the horizon, so it may be difficult to gauge now what the supply side for CBE delivery will look like in the future. Nevertheless, it is essential to consider the potential program development strategy and carefully evaluate market research.
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Paul Bowers, manager of higher education consulting services at Pearson. Follow Pearson on Twitter, . 

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Honest Self-Help for Students, Teachers and Learning Professionals

I’m addicted to self-help books, which, I suppose, could call for another self-help book for that malady. However, Cary J Green’s Leadership and Soft Skills for Students: Empowered to Succeed in High School, College, and Beyond took me a bit by surprise because I was reading it not to help myself (or so I thought!), but to help my students. The phrase “soft skills” caught my attention because the definition has gotten muddied by the sheer number of people touting its importance. I like Cary’s definition though:

Soft skills are a collection of abilities, behaviors, and attitudes that increase your effectiveness.

The focus on “soft skills” that initially interested me quickly morphed into a broader underlying morality. The author’s emphasis on integrity, fairness, and dedication are central to his message; soft skills are certainly addressed and are a part of Cary’s philosophy, but there is no doubt that leading a principled life is at the center. The earnestness with which Cary shares is magnetizing, drawing the reader in because we trust the author.
bigbookThe book is framed by Cary’s 3 R’s–Readiness, Relationships, and Results. Though it is a systematic approach, rather than the more traditional narrative embedded with wisdom, I found it refreshing. In fact, the most enjoyable part of the book to me was knowing how to use it intuitively and get the most out of it. Don’t misunderstand–there are lots of great stories, but the stories are secondary to the lesson to be learned, which is the unique aspect of Cary’s style. For those of you who’ve struggled to fit Tony Robbins’ “Hour of Power” into an already overloaded schedule, or if you’ve spent whole afternoons trying to decipher the hidden knowledge in Napolean Hill’s Law of Success, you’ll love how this book is user friendly. Interestingly though, despite the simple structure, I did feel I heard the echos of these “greats” of self-help. Cary’s examples are honest and inclusive, allowing all types of readers to connect.
I kept having to remind myself that I needed to look through my “teacher lens” because Cary’s positive approach compelled me to want to think about myself, which is the mark of a great self-help book. The ability to invoke deep desire for introspection and reflection is characteristic of the genre; however, I’m really excited for the potential uses for this book that aren’t about me but rather my students.
For students, the exercises in this book will prove to be thought provoking and eye opening. I particularly liked his chapter “Prioritize” because I spend so much of my time as an educator attempting to help students figure out how to begin, what to do when they hit a roadblock, and how to manage their time by blocking out specific hours to complete a project or paper. Particularly important here is his admonishment to “Make these time blocks and activities a priority, and do not miss these ‘meetings’ with yourself.” This advice is so valuable because in our hectic lives, what we don’t schedule, doesn’t happen.

Here are a few other key takeaways:

Commitment is essential. If you choose to do something, you must dedicate your time and energy to it.
Down but not out. When things get complicated or there’s a bump in the road, you have to learn to get back up and keep going or opportunities will pass you by.
Ultimately, it is our relationships with others that truly matter. Professionally, it is important to make good impressions and network, even if it doesn’t feel natural to you at first.
Don’t make a habit of giving your problems to your boss. Solve as many of your own problems as possible, even if it means doing more work. Your boss is inundated with problems, and you don’t want to seem like one of them.
Though the focus is on students, any good purveyor of this genre knows that as long as we are seeking change and improvement, we are all students of ourselves and our circumstances. I like how Cary challenges us all to “Dare to set big goals, put aside your doubts, and move ahead.” He then goes on to cite the book as a prime example of just that. There is a unique humility in that admission, a tone not often found in books that are designed to instruct. Too often, the authors feel they have to know everything, be everything, and project that they are capable of anything. The reader though, in this case, gives Cary more credit for following his own advice and writing a successful book, truly appreciating the advice all the more for seeing the author “practice what he preaches.”
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Stuff You Should Know About Renewable Energy

Check out Al Gore’s new TED talk, it is a remarkable speech told with stunning visuals. It makes a compelling case for action and, compared to his Academy Award-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, has a more optimistic tone.
Gore’s TED Talk has a beautiful arc with an engaging mixture of stories, video, and charts. He honed his storytelling with presentation genius Nancy Duarte on Inconvenient Truth (See her new book Illuminate and listen to a Danny Iny’s interview with Nancy).
There are three important EdLeader takeaways from this speech:

  1. Advocacy: this TED talk is a great example of case making and visual storytelling. Educators can learn a few things from environmentalists about advocacy.
  2. Integration: the speech is a reminder that the pressing global issues of our day encompass science, behavioral economics, and politics. Young people deserve the opportunity to grapple with massive issues and weigh possible futures.   
  3. Investment: Gore’s speech illustrates that together government incentives and private markets can produce breakthrough technologies that actually change the trajectory of life together on this planet.

To the last point, Gore notes how quickly America has reversed course on coal (see diagram of retired and defeated plants) and boosted investment in renewables–spending on clean energy capacity is now about double that of fossil fuels. “Can we change?” Gore suggests the data says, “Yes.”
Two of the most remarkable charts in Gore’s presentation illustrated the exponential growth of wind and solar capacity. Wind capacity (below) beat 2000 predictions by 14.5x.
The growth of solar even more dramatic. Compared to predictions from 14 years ago, there is 58x more solar capacity than was expected. Cost has dropped 10% per year for 30 years, an example of what Gore called “revolutionary breakthroughs.”
Gore closed with the words of poet Wallace Stevens, “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” He equated the fight for environmental sustainability with all the great fights for justice and equity in history. He’s optimistic because, “he will to act is a renewable resources.”

Friends in the fight

Gore isn’t the only one optimistic about renewables. Bill Gates is increasing his advocacy and investment. He spearheaded development of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition with a $2 billion investment. He recruited Jeff Bezos,  Marc Benioff, Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, Jack Ma, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Meg Whitman, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Bill made a guest appearances on a great episode of Stuff You Should Know last week (he was Josh and Chuck’s first guest). He was making the case for investment on Fareed Zakaria GPS this morning, “It’s a long lead time problem that needs investment today.”
Like Gore, Zakaria pointed to “grid parity,” the point at which alternatives are cheaper and more plentiful than coal. Gates said there are three ways that could happen

  • Further investment reduces the cost of solar and wind by factor of 3 and improves storage;
  • Use artificial photosynthesis to make gasoline directly from the sun (it’s promising enough that Obama mentioned this in the State of the Union); or
  • Make nuclear energy cheaper and safer (he thought fourth generation reactors could do that).

On the role of government, Gates said almost everyone agrees on funding for basic research. But it gets tricky when governments moves into the venture space and starts picking winners. Gates said “risk taking part should be in private sector,” through initiatives like the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
Educators should encourage young people to grapple with these complex multivariate problems. Educators should learn from environmentalists to make the case. Educators should take heart from the progress of exponential technology–the future is closer than it appears!
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Defining and Differentiating Personalized Learning, Blended Learning and Competency Education

The trending nature of our education language creates serious problems for schools and EdLeaders when multiple descriptions and words are used to describe similar or entirely different models or movements. This is a nomenclature problem that thankfully leaders like iNACOL are addressing. In this blog that originally ran on iNACOL.org, Natalie Able shares Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Educationa paper that describes terms like personalized learning, blended learning and competency-based learning and their key nuances in greater detail so we can all get on the same page.

Natalie Abel
For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to offer every child a world-class, student-centered education through competency-based, blended and online learning, providing every learner with powerful, personalized learning experiences. However, for the past several years, the fields of personalized learning, blended learning and competency education were having definitional issues, with the terms often used interchangeably or without thorough understanding.
In a rapidly-evolving sector, it can be difficult to understand and keep up with the constant onslaught of new terms and practices. Often a lack of clarity on terms such as personalized learning, competency education and blended learning can negatively impact implementation. If the same words mean different things to different people, confusion and frustration can arise, and this creates a serious problem for schools and leaders. If we don’t use common definitions, communication breaks down and it becomes harder to learn from one another.
As Chris Sturgis explains, we have a language challenge. It’s vital to differentiate these terms to calibrate the field’s understanding and bring cohesion to the field, while creating shared meaning on the various new learning models in development. Making sense of these key terms and understanding how they fit together frames the field’s understanding and supports the shift to next generation learning models and new school designs.
Communicating using the same lexicon is essential to sharing promising practices and avoiding potential pitfalls as we shift toward personalized, student-centered learning environments. By developing shared understanding, the field can innovate and scale faster and more efficiently.
iNACOL - Mean What You Say report coverRegularly-published, field-tested definitions prove useful. By clearly articulating the definitions of these terms, the field can close communication gaps and advance toward next generation learning with increased clarity, effectiveness and scalability.
iNACOL has taken steps to define key terms in the field to generate shared meaning and challenge misconceptions and misunderstandings. Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education describes these terms and their key nuances in greater detail.
By setting definitional standards, we aim to close communication gaps and build the bridge from theory to practice. This will further empower the change agents–from classrooms to statehouses–those building a groundswell of support for competency-based, blended and online learning.


maximizing CBE and BLEach year, iNACOL surveys thousands of experts, leaders and practitioners as new learning models emerge around the globe, and their feedback helps to inform iNACOL’s evolving definitions. We also engage in research and receive feedback from experts through surveys, focus groups, webinars and interviews. By grounding our definitions in the realities of those experiencing the shift toward personalized learning, we can shape the narrative around next generation learning and challenge misconceptions, showcasing the potential of truly student-centered learning.
Below are iNACOL’s definitions of personalized learning, blended learning and competency education that can help illuminate the path forward in policy and practice through knowledge building. Together, these definitions provide context setting and expand the field’s knowledge base. As new learning models develop and scale, it is vital for both practitioners and policymakers to understand the key nuances of these terms.

Personalized Learning

Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.
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Blended Learning

Any time a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience” (Horn & Staker, 2013).
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Competency Education

In 2011, iNACOL and CompetencyWorks led a summit bringing together 100 innovators in competency education for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high-quality competency education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Learn More:

Stay tuned for upcoming blogs in this “Mean What You Say” blog series which will investigate each of these concepts individually as well as portray how these terms fit together.
What do personalized learning, blended learning, and competency education mean to you? Let us know in the comments below or on twitter at @nacol.
Natalie Abel is a Program Manager at iNACOL. Follow Natalie on Twitter, .

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7 Key Findings From the Babson Online Report Card

This post presents some highlights from Online Report Card – Tracking Online Education in the United States, the thirteenth (and final) annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. The survey is designed, administered and analyzed by the Babson Survey Research Group, with additional data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson, WCET, StudyPortals, and Tyton Partners. The study is aimed at answering fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education.

1. Enrollment of Students Taking At Least One Course at a Distance

With more than one in four students (28%) taking some of their courses at a distance, these courses seem to have become a common part of the course delivery modality for many students. More than two-thirds (67%) of students enrolled in “At Least One” distance course do so at a public institution.


There is variation in the proportion of students taking “At Least One” course at a distance by sector:

  • 27% of public institution students took at least one distance course.
  • 23% of private non-profit students took at least one distance course.
  • 60% of private for-profit students took at least one distance course.

Judging by the enrollments, private colleges may view distance courses as primarily a tool to service distance students. Public colleges, on the other hand, appear to incorporate distance courses for both on-campus and distance students.

2. Change in Distance Enrollments

Distance education enrollments continue to grow at a healthy rate, showing a 7% increase overall between fall 2012 and fall 2014. The growth in distance enrollments among public and private non-profit institutions during this time of overall enrollment decline is noteworthy. Many institutions are continuing to add distance education programs and grow existing ones even while campus-based enrollments are declining.
The 2012 to 2014 growth represents 403,420 additional distance students over this two-year time period. Comparing 2014 distance enrollments to data from 2012 reveals great disparities by sector:


  • The not-for-profit sector experienced tremendous growth (26%, or 196,054 students).
  • The for-profit sector experienced a significant decrease (-10%, or -101,045 students).
  • Public institutions experienced a 9% growth (308,411 students).

The for-profit sector almost fell to last place among sectors enrolling the most distance education students. This is a remarkable outcome, considering the for-profit sector led the private, non-profit sector by more than one-quarter million (297,521) enrollments in 2012. In 2014, that difference fell to only 422 enrollments.

3. Decreasing Overall Enrollments

The growth in the number of distance education students is all the more impressive given the shrinking overall enrollments in higher education during this same time period. Overall enrollments decreased by 248,091 students from 2012 to 2013, and then by a further 173,540 from 2013 to 2014.
The combination of shrinking overall enrollments and growing distance enrollments means that the number of students not taking any distance education course has decreased even faster, losing 434,236 students between 2012 and 2013 and 390,815 from 2013 to 2014. There were 825,051 fewer students not taking any distance courses in 2014 than two years earlier in 2012.


4. Distance Enrollments by Vary Type of Institution

There are nearly five times as many undergraduate enrollments (4,862,519) as graduate enrollments (966,307) among students taking at least one distance education course. Public institutions represent nearly three out of four (73%) distance education enrollments at the undergraduate level. Private, non-profit institutions represent 12% of undergraduate distance enrollments, while private for-profits institutions represent 15%.
5. Distance Enrollments Highly Concentrated in Small Number of Institutions
Babson-banner4Students enrolled in distance education are highly concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. There were 4,806 active degree-granting institutions open to the public in fall of 2014 in the IPEDS data files. The 5,828,826 fall 2014 students enrolled in distance education courses were spread across 3,324 (69.2%) of these institutions. However, almost half of these students are concentrated in just five percent of the institutions: the 247 institutions with 5,000 or more distance enrollments represent only 5.1% of all institutions, but 49.1% of the student enrollments. The 80 institutions with 10,000 or more distance enrollments represent only 1.7% of all institutions, but command 29.8% of all distance enrollments.
Looking at this in another way, the top 1% of all institutions represents 29.8% of distance enrollments, and the top 10% of institutions represent 64.5%. Having close to two-thirds of all distance enrollments in only 10% of all higher education institutions is a very high degree of concentration.
Long-term Strategy. Over time the proportion of institutions agreeing that “Online education is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution” has shown small year-to-year increases. Results for 2015 show the largest-ever drop in the proportion of institutions reporting that online education is critical to their long-term strategy: from 70.8% in 2014, to 63.3% in 2015. Examining this drop reveals that those institutions with online offerings are just as positive as ever, but those who have no offerings are no longer saying that it will be part of their future plans.


6. Faculty Skepticism Remains High

Even after a decade of substantial growth in the number of schools with distance offerings and the number of students taking these courses, the level of skepticism among faculty has remained very high. Only a small portion of academic leaders report that their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy of online education.” The trend over the past several years has been one of little change from year to year. A continuing failure of online education has been the inability to convince its most important audience – higher education faculty members – of its worth.

7. Learning Outcomes


It is always hard the judge the quality of something where there is no universally agreed upon metric. Such is the case for education – where there is no single measure of education quality – either for face-to-face or for distance education. Therefore, it is important to understand that chief academic officers are reporting their personal perceptions about the relative quality of online and face-to-face instruction.
The proportion of academic leaders that rated online education as good as or better than face-to-face instruction was 57.2% in 2003. The relative view of online quality has improved over time, with a pattern of slow but steady improvement in the relative view of online learning outcomes from 2003 until 2012, where 77.0% of the respondents rated online as good or better. Results since then, however, have shown been less positive, with the responses for 2015 showing only 71.4% rating online as good or better.
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Jeff Seaman is director of the Babson Survey Research Group. Follow Babson College on Twitter, .

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Using UX Principles for Designing Curriculum

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Explosion, and all over social media people shared their memories the event. In fact, most people remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time of the explosion, given that the memory of the day were seared into our minds. Though only in second grade, I remember Mrs. Dudley turning on the tv, while we watched the news coverage together in a silent, dark room (I happened to be sitting on the left side of the room, near the tv). Likewise, just about anyone who was living in this country at the time can tell you what they were doing on September 11, 2001 or November 22, 1963, on account of the the intense emotional experience of these tragic events that the entire country felt.
We now understand that memory is largely shaped by emotion, whether good or bad, as much as by anything else. The hippocampus, which is responsible for creating our memories, is also directly involved in processing emotion, and so on a neurological level, memory and emotion are closely linked, on account of the role that emotion plays in focusing our attention (see John Medina’s Brain Rules). In other words, experiences that activate emotional responses are more likely to be stored in our long-term memory by the hippocampus.

Knowing this, how might we use emotion to create more effective learning experiences in schools? It turns out that user experience designers may be able to help us learn how to use emotion more effectively in our classrooms.

User experience design (UX Design or UXD) has quickly become one of the more important areas of focus in the startup world, with UX jobs in no short supply. According to Luke Miller, author of The Practitioner’s Guide to User Experience Design and a design researcher who teaches UXD for General Assembly, UX design is “designing to serve the needs of others” (p. 19). Miller describes the main ideas of UX design using the “LEMErS” acronym, first shared by Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group:

  • Learnability → How easy is it to accomplish basic tasks for the first time?
  • Efficiency → Once learned, how quickly can one perform tasks?
  • Memorability → How easy can one reestablish proficiency after time away?
  • ERrors → How often are errors made and how are they handled?
  • Satisfaction → How pleasant is it to use the design?

When creating, for example, a new app, designers keep these ideas in mind to ensure that users have a positive an experience as possible, lest they never return to the app. In considering the LEMErS principles, interface designers have learned to make use of swipe gestures in mobile apps. Not originally a feature of smartphones, swipe gestures now comprise some of the most common and essential features of mobile apps, with designers taking advantage of their ease and familiarity to enable us to complete a wide variety of tasks using only our thumbs. Tinder, in fact, now reports 1.4 billion swipes per day!
Most of our curriculum development in schools targets content, including what focus areas to cover and writing assessments for these focus areas. When I first began teaching Latin at the middle-school level, curriculum design, to my mind, primarily involved pacing out content over the course of the academic year. I believed that, because I had passion for the Latin language and Roman culture, so would the majority of my students. In other words, I simply assumed that experience follows curriculum and that, if I have fun with Latin, so will everyone else. In making this assumption, I violated the most basic principle of design, namely, that my design choices should serve the needs of my students, which are very different from my own.
To help us better understand our users, Miller and other UX designers rely on user profiles to give them a better idea of how their users might interact with their design work.

For educators, we can create similar student profiles summarizing who our students are so we can better understand how our students are interacting with our course content.

For example, we might have Janie in our class, a 12-year-old 7th grader who, in addition to Latin, has six other classes a day. She gets up at 6:30am to be on a bus by 7am, which takes at least 45 minutes to get to campus, thanks to Los Angeles traffic. She barely has time to eat breakfast, before starting classes, and most of her classes involve sitting in her chair while her teachers lead her through course material. She has 30 minutes for lunch, in between meeting with teachers and taking care of other tasks. After classes end at 3pm, she stays on campus until at least 5pm to practice lacrosse or do homework (in the offseason), and so she rarely gets home before 6pm. When she does get home, she has family obligations until around 8pm, at which time she finally starts her homework. Janie repeats this day as much as 180 times over the course of the year.
With this in mind, it’s now more clear to me that Janie will seldom be interested in my lectures, regardless of how many engagement strategies I use, including my best jokes. Instead, she’s more interested in chatting with her friends, who she seldom has extended time to chat with during the course of the day. Because she’s not engaged as fully as she could be, there’s little chance of her truly learning the material I’m covering in class, and homework, no matter how interesting, is going to spark her interest, when she’s stuck doing it at 9pm. To help her learn Latin as well as she can, I need more than the right course pacing and lively course lectures.
Just as UX designers design apps to be easy and pleasing to use, we can design our course experiences in ways that facilitate student learning most effectively using the  “LEMErS” principles outlined above. Many educators are already doing this through the use of technology, collaborative space, and student-centered practices like “genius hour” and project-based learning. We, of course, want our curriculum to be learnable without taking too much effort, and we certainly want our students to remember what they’ve learned long after our courses end.
But I think we still have some work to do in understanding who our students are and discovering how to engage and motivate them in more meaningful ways, and this is where UX design may have something to teach us.

Using UX design principles within a set of principles that govern what we can call “curriculum experience design,” we can try to build our curricula around the experiences that students have in our courses.

Most critically, it is more apparent than ever that we should build our curricula around story, which is one of the central tenets of good UX design. “The key [i.e., to great design],” Miller says (p. 73), “is thinking of yourself as a storyteller and designing with all the complexity and richness of human emotion in mind.” In this way, machines designed to interact with people are taking on more human-like features to improve the overall quality of the interactions (think Siri, for example).
Given the power that story has to affect our attitudes and rouse an emotional response, as neuroeconomist Paul Zak has argued, we have every reason to take advantage of storytelling as a learning tool. By first understanding our students as “users” of our curricula through the profiles we should build for them, we can then consider how create the kinds of experiences that allow them to learn most efficiently and effectively. When writing curriculum, we can consider the following questions:

  • What story does your course content tell?
  • How does the course tell its story and drive emotions like excitement and surprise?
  • What role do our students have in telling or even creating the story?

Curriculum, then, becomes more than a assemblage of content topics and a calendar of dates for assessments: in other words, it’s more than a collection of dots.

A compelling story helps us to connect the dots together within a narrative that, when done well, can help students to build an emotional connection to our course content, thereby helping them to learn it better.

And by taking an active role within the story, we can build stronger empathetic connections to other characters in the story, in the process learning more effectively not only our course content but also critical social and emotional skills.
In mu Latin courses, for example, the exploration of Roman culture moves us through grammatical content (see more details here), while telling the story of how Romans interacted with each other. We view grammar vocabulary as a growing and evolving organism, using what we know to help make connections to new material, while project work challenges us to build a story around personas we create through investigation of geography, mythology, physical space, culture codes, and more.
Our story has a beginning in September, when we “onboard” our students by setting the background and establishing the rules of our world, before moving into a middle and a conclusion. It’s critical that what we’re doing in the middle of our story necessarily depends on what we did earlier in the story and likewise sets the stage for the conclusion of the story at the end of the course. Similarly, I can see how science courses can tell the story of inquiry and understanding, English the story of ideas and communication, and history the story of people and our motivations.

At a recent conference in a discussion about teaching the humanities, a English teacher lamented that he’s been having difficulties teaching literature because he wants his students to have the same experience that he had when he was first introduced to the field. Though his intentions were nothing but noble and honest, his approach is unfortunately doomed to failure, since we shouldn’t expect our students to react to our course content and fall in love with it in the same ways we may have on first encounter. As our sample user profile of 7th-grade Janie above shows us, students may be in very different places from us for a number of reasons. Consequently, when designing curricula, just as when designing a new mobile app to be learnable and efficient in use, we can let our content tell a story and lead our students through it as participants or, even better, as authors.

Engaging stories gives students opportunities to connect with course content in their own ways and takes advantage of the way the brain uses emotion in creating lasting memories. And as story helps us to focus our attention, it will also help us to learn more effectively.

I’d love to learn more about the ideas that others have for curriculum experience design and creating a story within their courses, so please feel free to share ideas in the comments below. Let’s work to “change the UX of schools,” as Dominic Randolph, Head of School at Riverdale Country School in New York, has urged:

In addition to Luke Miller’s The Practitioner’s Guide to User Experience Design, some other great books on UX design include the following titles:

And see General Assembly’s list of the top blogs by UX designers.
For more blogs by Moss, check out:

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Interaction With Digital Content: 5 Actions to Look For In Your Students’ Online Experience

A key component to any blended learning implementation plan is to identify the platform and curriculum that will best support your goals and best align with your strategy. As we enter into an increasingly digital world, where students are spending more and more time online, it is critical that we ensure that this time is relevant, engaging and meaningful. Active, blended environments offer students an online experience that requires them to engage in meaningful, authentic tasks.
Online lessons should not assume students as passive listeners who are merely consuming content, but instead create learning opportunities with students as active participants in the learning experience. We asked our friends at Apex Learning, how they ensure they are creating curriculum that supports active learning and they pointed out that it comes down to what the students are doing online. Are they observing, inquiring, creating, connecting and confirming? Content should help students build anticipation for knowledge and should require analysis and critically thinking.
Wondering if your students are getting the most out of their online experience? Watch and listen for what sort of work is being asked of them. Below is a list of key verbs that signal active engagement. Is digital curriculum asking students to:

  1. Observe. Look at this. What do you see? What’s different? What’s the same? Are there patterns? Find objects, information and words. Observing can happen with images, charts, graphs, maps and text excerpts. Observing is very similar to exploring. It can be freeform or focused. It can allow students to see and discover different things, or it can encourage them to seek out something in particular. Observing happens naturally when curiosity is present. In academic settings, curiosity may have to be generated in the teaching for observation to feel real and legitimate.
  2. Inquire.What do you wonder? What questions do you have? What information are you looking for? What information should you look for? Reflect.
  3. Confirm. Get answers to your questions. Show me how that works. Help me check my work. Make sure you’ve got it. Say it in your own words. Summarize what you know. Check your facts. Check your understanding. Check to see if your prediction was accurate.
  4. Connect. What are the relationships between these things? Are there categories and subcategories? Is this related to my life or to something else I’ve studied? Is this claim supported by the information? What parts make up this whole? What’s it like? What’s it not like? Can I analyze it?
  5. Create. Try it. How would you solve this problem? Make or say something that hasn’t been made or said before. Write, compose and draw. Synthesize. Express. Imagine: What if?

When it comes to digital instruction, we can’t allow this to be an online version of bad teaching. What we need is online tools and resources that support the strategies and best practices for teaching that we have long known to be true. If your digital curriculum is simply digitizing your textbook, then you are missing out on the opportunity for genuine personalization, active engagement and increased outcomes.
For more on how to create an engaging and connected online experience for your students in whichever way you learn best:

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It’s Time to Raise the Level of Education Debate in the US

Matt Williams
It’s time to discuss how to best educate our students for life beyond high school as they enter an ever-changing, increasingly innovative, interconnected workforce where many of their future jobs have yet to be created.
It’s time to think forward. It’s time to close achievement gaps and help all students succeed. It’s time for America’s students to once again compete on an international stage.
We’ve been through a significant number of debates for both the Republicans and the Democrats. Has the debate on education been substantive? Nope. Have the candidates offered a vision for education? Did the moderators press them for one? Nope. Has anyone articulated that education is foundational to systemically solving key issues such as national security, economic development and viability, immigration, or poverty? Nope. Have we heard how in a global, interconnected world we need to transform our system to not only remain competitive but lead? Nope.
Isn’t it time the candidates, in both major parties, to address this key issue? We believe so. The issues of the moment are obviously pressing and consuming.  Without a robust vision for education in our nation, the bedrock for our children’s and grandchildren’s well-being, our collective future is, at best, unclear and at worst, perilous. Education is foundation for national transformation.

And it’s time we ask those running for President to rise to the challenge.

This is why KnowledgeWorks created the Education Playbook for the Next President of the United States. This set of policy proposals was developed with a lens towards transforming our education system and not just tweaking the status quo. With that lens, we believe by using strategic foresight and partnering with educators in both traditional and innovative environments, we have developed five key policy proposals which drive innovation and results:
First, we encourage support and flexibility for States that want to voluntarily develop and improve systems of competency-based education. These systems, will allow students to learn and master the skills and knowledge they need to be successful through a personalized learning approach that is geared toward the needs of each and every individual learner.
Second, we recommend support for States to develop digital registries of personalized learning opportunities that utilize innovative partnerships with business and postsecondary institutions. This effort would spur educational innovation by accessing the learning and instructional power in schools, higher education, and out-of-school organizations to develop and validate successful learning opportunities and pathways to college and career readiness.
Third, partnerships of States and institutions of higher education should be supported to improve certification and develop a new pipeline of educators that can implement personalized learning approaches. This will harness the educational power across the spectrum, from community volunteers to full-time classroom teachers.
Fourth, our nation’s federal student aid system should be redesigned to pay for the actual acquisition and demonstration of knowledge and skills, not simply covering the costs of credit hour courses that may not lead to any actual learning. This approach would allow students to access their total amount of Federal aid at any time during their academic careers, allowing them to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the workplace at a pace that works for them.  
Finally, we recognize the need to support a new approach to investing in education technology through a competition to spur new ideas and approaches. This support can incent technological innovation away from simply digitizing print media, and instead focus on new ways to impact learning.
The fact is that education is too important to gloss over. It is too important to play a mere cameo role in this election year. Education is too important to not address substantively as we select our next leader. As a nation, we must transform our system of education in the United States and we need to hear how our next president proposes to do that? Shouldn’t that be part of the job interview? I invite you to engage with us and with our Education Playbook and spread the word if you’d like.
Join the conversation using #EdDebate and visit educationplaybook.com to learn even more.
For more from KnowledgeWorks, check out:

Matt Williams is VP, Policy and Advocacy at KnowledgeWorks. Follow Matt on Twitter, .

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Next-Gen Personalized Learning for ELL Students

Almost 5 million students across the U.S. were English Language Learners in the 2012-13 school year–nearly 10 percent of the overall student population. The number of English Language Learners increased by 60 percent over the previous decade.
Closing the gaps. With the new Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government has made teaching English Language Learners a priority through stronger accountability provisions and the authorization of additional funding. At the same time that our country is growing in diversity–approximately 1 in nine public school students is an ELL student–schools have to serve students with vastly different backgrounds and needs. English Language Learners face many challenges in school and test results show they are behind their non ELL peers:
On recent assessments, 14 percent of fourth-grade English-language learners were proficient in math (compared to approximately 40 percent of non ELL students). ELL students also have lower graduation rates than their peers. ELL students are less likely to graduate in four years, at approximately 63% (compared to a national average of 82%).
Demographics. English language learners (ELL) make up nearly a quarter of all California elementary and secondary students. At the local level, 25 school districts serve almost a quarter of all ELL students.
The Migration Policy Institute also reminds us that immigrants make up 13 percent of U.S. residents. Add U.S. born children immigrants and the number nearly doubles to 80 million people and almost a quarter of the population.
Students who are non-native English speakers often do not do as well in school as their peers who speak English. This is a problem that the NEA has said is “deeply rooted, pervasive, complex, and challenging.”
What does next-gen personalized learning look like for ELL students? Addressing the growing challenge of diverse learners are new tools and blended learning models. Some applications are specifically designed for ELL, some literacy tools have useful accommodations, some content is automatically leveled. Some Texas districts have adopted dual language strategies. Some newcomer schools use immersive and collaborative strategies. Some school networks use a variety of blended and intervention strategies to support ELL.
We are conducting an analysis of promising new tools and instructional strategies supporting English language learners and teachers. The culminating publication will feature strategies, tools, policies and supports for students and teachers in the field.
We would like to hear from you about what works. We’d welcome a guest blog from ELL teachers and school and system leaders serving ELL populations (see our guest posting policies).
Following are specific questions we’ll be exploring:


  • What specific instructional strategies work well for English language learners?
  • Are there specific strategies that work well for particular student groups: elementary or secondary, refugee students,  weak or strong literacy skills in their native language?
  • What strategies works when a cohort has one predominantly native language? Do different strategies work when students have many different native languages?
  • When are dual language strategies most important and effective?


  • What ELL tools and applications are effective?
  • What adaptations to literacy tools are important for ELL?
  • What content adaptations in other subjects are important for ELL?
  • What adaptations to learning platforms and assessments are important for ELL?

Engagement and Professional Learning

  • What do students need to acquire English?
  • How does your organization communicate with ELL students and their families?
  • What do teachers need to support ELL students? What gaps exist and what would you recommend?

Policies and Supports

  • What policies support various English language learners?
  • When and how should dual language immersion be supported/encouraged?
  • What incentives and supports should encourage native language proficiency?
  • What kind of training and certification do ELL teachers need?  Basic education teachers?

This project will create resources that focus on implementable tools for teachers and instructional leaders that illuminates what is working at the field level and what gaps are present.

2 Ways to Share Your Ideas

  1. If interested in contributing your story and ideas to the series, please submit a guest blog to [email protected] with the subject line “ELL.”
  2. To share your favorite ELL tool, tip or strategy, please tweet us @Getting_Smart using the hashtag #SupportELL.

This blog is part of the Supporting English Language Learners Series with support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned for the culminating podcast, infographic and publication.
For more, see: