Cool Tool | Little Magic Books

Most kids in this digital age — digital natives — are more interested in iPhones and iPads than books. However, Pew research shows 65 percent of parents think the value of reading printed books to kids is still extremely important. Little Magic Books hopes to bridge the two. A unique hybrid of traditional print books and smartphone apps, it’s a new medium that aims to literally reframe the smartphone with a physical book. An innovative combination of print and digital, it allows for engagement with print media like never before (check it out and you’ll see why, it’s a genius idea), and an interactive reading experience with your children. Created by an app developer with over thirteen years of experience, new father David Fahrer sought out to combine the special experience of reading together with the benefits of app-interactivity. The Little Magic Books app is easy to use (it launches in three clicks). The first book in the series, “If I Owned A Zoo”, will be followed by more books and series now in the planning stages. The books are compatible with any smartphone in any size, from the iPhone 4 to the Samsung Galaxy Note, and aim to revolutionize education with technology. Funding on Kickstarter now, check it out here.

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Cool Tool | Localist

LocalistOne of the only interactive calendaring platforms, Localist helps to increase engagement and improve student life for 1.5 million college students at institutions across the country. According to the students at Localist-using schools, 75 percent of university students think the online calendar is the most important part of a school’s website. The platform supports student engagement on campus through online event calendars, mobile apps, newsletters, and social connectivity. It allows for full social media integration that gives users the opportunity to do more than just share basic event details; users can see which events are trending, how many people attended previous events and who has RSVP’d for upcoming events. Now powering more than 100 calendars across the country, including web calendars for Cornell University, Georgetown University, Columbia College Chicago, University of Rhode Island, and Ithaca College, education officials are choosing it because it also increases event attendance, helps students find their way to campus venues and saves time. It eliminates the need for extensive training and saves administrators anaverage of 8,000 hours of work per year over other calendar software. Check it out.

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Virtual Exchanges

Complementing in-person exchanges with online discussion forums in a movement to bridge cultures. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT YALLAHThe idea for Youth Allied to Learn, Lead and Help (YALLAH) was sparked from two 18-year-old participants in Qatar Foundation International (QFI) exchanges: Fahad Al-Nahdi, a Qatari from Doha, and Damon Mallory, an American from Boston. After two exchanges, they and their peers wanted to learn more about each other’s respective cultures. In August 2010, Fahad and Damon approached QFI with a proposal, Youth Allied to Learn, Lead and Help, a student-focused online forum for the alumni of QFI’s programs. “YALLAH” was to serve as a private, safe space that would allow the students to continue their

The forum has provided our students with the ability to continually open their minds to other cultures and help make the world a better place.

interactions, help them to understand similarities between their cultures and make a positive impact in their communities. Now in its fourth year of operation, YALLAH has proven to be a good example of Virtual Exchange, a movement meant to complement in-person exchanges, but reaches a greater and more diverse number of participants. Fewer than 1 percent of young people participate – or are able to participate – in international exchange programs. By employing a wide variety of technologies and educational pedagogy, virtual exchanges makes it possible for every young person to access high-quality international and cross-cultural education. Studies have shown that education exchanges and study abroad programs are among the best means to prepare young people for a world faced with increasing global challenges. They increase young people’s inclination and capacity to deal effectively with difference and to communicate and collaborate across cultures. In this interview, Jennifer Geist, the moderator of YALLAH and Francesca Carpenter, QFI EdTech Officer, answer questions about the program, its highlights and the true value of virtual cultural exchanges.

Victor: How does it work?

Jennifer: YALLAH has three main components:

1) Bridging cultures: The YALLAH Forum is a facilitated bilingual space where every piece of content produced by the students is translated in three languages: Arabic, English and Portuguese. This enables peers in QFI’s Cultural Engagement programs in Qatar, the U.S. and Brazil, to share ideas, solve problems, and get to know each other better across geographical and language divides – in addition to exploring news, music, art and games. With expert-facilitated discussions, the students are challenged to share their own perspectives and experiences on important topics.

2) Taking Action: We know our students are committed to making life better for others and YALLAH helps them to do just that. Students use the forum as a tool to design, conceive and implement their community service initiatives, while experts in social entrepreneurship and community service provide the expertise and guidance to help.

3) Collaborative Learning: QFI, in partnership with Meedan, launched YALLAH 2.0 in September 2011. The updated version of YALLAH facilitates collaborative projects, such as movie production.

Victor: Because YALLAH is a multi-lingual space, how do the participants bridge the language barrier? 

Francesca: To help facilitate interactions and bridge language barriers across YALLAH, QFI partnered with, a leader in online social networks that facilitate collaborations across languages. Meedan helped us to develop custom hybrid translations on YALLAH, allowing the students to easily communicate with each other regardless of spoken language and increasing the students’ familiarity with English, Arabic and Portuguese. We feel proud of being able to provide a way for these peers from all over the world to be able to connect, where they otherwise probably wouldn’t have had the ability to do so.

Victor: What can you say specifically about the value and benefits of YALLAH? 

Jennifer: YALLAH has been a proven way for QFI students to not only continue to learn about each other and their respective cultures, but also to share insights on important global topics and collaborate on projects that benefit others. Our students believe in making a difference and YALLAH gives them the tools and opportunities to do just that. The forum has provided our students with the ability to continually open their minds to other cultures and help make the world a better place. A valuable platform indeed!

Victor: Can you provide me with a specific example about how students have participated with the online forum? 

Francesca: One great example from this past year is the YALLAH Cookbook, which is a fantastic collaboration that brings together 22 recipes reflecting the culinary heritage of students from Brazil, Qatar, and the United States, along with the unique family stories behind them. In line with the larger QFI mission of helping to the make the world a better and more well-connected place, all proceeds from the cookbook benefit global anti-hunger organizations – Heifer International and Kids Can Make a Difference.

Victor: How does the program encourage collaboration among students? 

Jennifer: YALLAH encourages students to identify and research areas of interest, as well as provides them with the tools necessary to work together and address them. Students collaborate among themselves using the forum as a vehicle to design, conceive and implement their initiatives. Additionally, QFI provides students with access to experts in social entrepreneurship and community service to give them the information and tools needed to take action in their local communities and elsewhere.

A great example of how YALLAH encourages collaboration among students is the soccer film project. In spring 2013, participants on the YALLAH platform, along with QFI staff, created and implemented a landmark collaborative filmmaking project involving students from Qatar, Brazil, and the United States.  Over six weeks, 15 students honed the technical skills of filmmaking. Additionally, they learned the art of storytelling and the cross-cultural collaboration skills necessary for working across three continents and four languages; Arabic, English, Portuguese, and Brazilian Sign Language.  The short film used football as a lens to look at students’ cultural experiences in three countries. The project was presented at the 2013 International Education and Resource Network conference in Doha where student presenters and adult facilitators showcased the film and explained the creation process and outcomes from this pilot project.

Victor: How does YALLAH contribute to QFI’s mission as a whole? 

Francesca: QFI is dedicated to providing students with the skills that will enable them to be engaged global citizens and YALLAH greatly helps to support this mission through its focus on collaborative learning and taking action. 

Victor: Are there any challenges you’ve faced with the forum?

Jennifer: I attribute the current success of the forum to three main improvements which have emerged over time. Firstly, YALLAH was formed in 2011 and is now in its second iteration. The latest design (Aug 2012) addressed usability issues and is partly responsible for the improved quality of participation. Secondly, developing a core group of student leaders who understand the value of the forum has been critical in creating a student-centered culture, which has taken time and patience.  And finally, access to dynamic material that reflects a strong organizational mission has made YALLAH an inspiring place to be.

However, success is often met with challenges along the way. Devising ways to engage more of the outliers and “lurkers,” as well as new QFI students, has been challenging.  This often takes some kind of adult or face-to-face influence to create the spark or initial incentive. The home page is essential in providing more clarity about the possibilities the forum offers, so that lurkers might explore more widely, and new students become interested in participating. Also, YALLAH is primarily a forum for dialogue, but we provide many important resources for our population and it can be a challenge to communicate where and how to access these resources regularly.

Overall, the biggest challenge is garnering the patience to gently and constantly prod students to engage, as we compete with a plethora of options in a high school student’s life. That being said, it’s important to anticipate the needs and interests of the students because the best incentive for them to stay engaged is sheer interest and the sense of belonging.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?

Jennifer: I believe we are in a major transition period when it comes to education, and technology is largely responsible. Not only does technology provide us with enormous possibilities for teaching and learning, but it has also changed the needs and goals of education.

Quality content is still a critical component of education, but how we find it, analyze and synthesize it, and use it to generate knowledge is even more important now. In addition to meta-cognition, I believe that media literacy is the most critical thing we can teach right now. As constant consumers of media, the vetting of information has become increasingly difficult and is now an essential life skill. Understanding media and information is a dichotomous process, and I believe students must produce their own media in order to fully understand the complexities of what they are consuming.

And finally, educators must focus on standards of ethics. Technology is challenging so many of our assumed human rights: privacy, ownership and autonomy. It is exposing youth to a variety of belief systems and challenging their cultural norms. It is still the responsibility of adults to propose guideposts and boundaries to ensure an ethical use of technology that students can feel good about following, while still questioning everything that they are exposed to. I think this is a very exciting time to be working in education for these reasons.

Any words of wisdom to leaders working in and around education and technology?

Jennifer: Components of good programming include:

1. Opportunities for collaboration with strong scaffolding for how to organize a team and work together.

2. Small measures of success along the way, especially in a generative learning project.

3. Focus on skills, interpersonal, interpretive and presentational, rather than content. Students will find the content.

4. Recognize many different faces of “leadership”.

5. Build in opportunities to generate, analyze (question) and review the code of conduct for engagement.

6. Find out what students know already, and build on it. Teach them to notice how they are learning so they can apply it again and again.

Victor: And what do you think, Francesca?

Francesca: This century’s students were born into a technological age and their comfort level with technology puts them at an advantage. They are open-minded and unafraid of the possibilities’ that technology can afford them.

So, it is our job as educators and leaders to tap into that excitement and enthusiasm. We are afforded students’ automatic buy-in and acceptance whenever the incorporation of technology is mentioned. Therefore, we should think strategically about how to best use the tools and equipment available to meet the needs of the students. Consider using technology as a vehicle to connect different cultures so that the students’ interactions drive the learning process. Think of alternative ways to present content that will capture student’s attention and keep them engaged in learning. This can be accomplished through problem based learning and collaborative team projects.

Technology must be used in an authentic and practical manner. It is important to keep in mind that technology can function as a tool that is student-centered, relevant and promotes higher-level thinking and rigorous instruction. IT can also be used for teachers and education leaders as a data-gathering tool. This helps inform the educational and instruction decision making that must take place to customize learning to individual student needs. Lastly, it can allow students to make connections with their community that help shape their view of the world, politics, social and cultural similarities and differences.

Victor: Any final thoughts?  

Jennifer: Educators and leaders should not be afraid of technology. Learning is a lifelong process that includes everyone. Educators should take risks and think strategically about meeting the needs of all learners.

Victor: Thank you Jennifer, and thank you Francesca! Best to both of you and to the program. 

Jennifer: Thank you, Victor!

Francesca: Thanks, Victor!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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SaaS Explained

Why more SaaS options are needed in K-12 education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Benjamin Heuston

CREDIT Waterford InstituteOver the past decade, the software industry as a whole has seen a swell in adoption of cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) applications. The higher education market is no stranger to this growing trend, but K-12 providers have been slower to adopt these distribution models.

That’s bad news for our schools, which stand to see great operational and financial benefits from cloud-based programs and SaaS sales models. Here is SaaS explained and why K-12 schools – like their higher education counterparts – should consider SaaS as a way to get the most out of their technology investments.

What is SaaS?

You’re probably already using SaaS programs everyday – even if you don’t realize it – with products from companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix.

SaaS subscriptions better align the interests of schools and the vendor than in the traditional model. 

SaaS is a software distribution model where the application is hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over the Internet. In SaaS, customers license an application for “use in the cloud” as service on demand, and pay for what they use. It’s an alternative to the standard (and quickly fading) software installation model where a user has to host the software on their own server, install it, configure and update it.

Think of SaaS like a software rental. With SaaS, schools would have a subscription to use computer-based curriculum, for example, for a period of time, for a certain number of students, and would pay for only the software they’re using.

Benefits of SaaS

Cloud-based curriculum and SaaS delivery models offer schools many potential benefits. In my opinion, the top five are as follows:

1. Lower costs. With SaaS subscriptions, schools reduce costs across all major areas of their technology budgets: hardware and software; maintenance; and staffing. Gone are the large upfront costs for on-site hardware and software licenses that are common financial burdens in the traditional model. Having the SaaS provider manage the IT infrastructure also means lower IT costs for hardware and software, and frees up the people previously needed to manage it all. Finally, because they are maintaining one master version of their product, vendors can produce and support their software at lower costs, which are then passed on to customers, creating greater value than traditional models. All of this helps to keep IT budget costs more consistent and lower – two common challenges we often hear from schools.

2. Painless, continual access to the latest technology. Because a SaaS provider manages all updates and bug fixes, these are installed automatically, giving schools continual access to the newest and best versions of curriculum without any additional investments. There are no new application licenses, no patches for customers to download or install. Schools don’t need to add hardware, servers or IT staff if their usage increases; the SaaS provider does it for them. This means schools can adapt as fast and as much as needed, providing the best for their students, without incurring extra costs. Having a single, master version of the software also means vendors can quickly develop and roll out new features and updates without worrying about supporting multiple versions of their product. Schools, in turn, benefit from this increased rate of innovation.

3. Better customer service. SaaS subscriptions better align the interests of schools and the vendor than in the traditional model. Because the relationship is ongoing and reliant on subscription renewals, it’s in a SaaS provider’s best interest to offer the best possible product and customer service, including continuing to offer relevant improvements and respond quickly to customer feedback. SaaS vendors are motivated to help schools get the most out of their product; they can’t afford to simply close a sale and not follow-up.

4. More flexible and transparent budgeting. Currently school districts have large up-front investments in solutions that then take years to justify.  By moving to a subscription model schools can now align the costs of the program with the current year’s budget.  In addition, if a given program didn’t work out as well as anticipated, the cost to shift to a new provider is drastically reduced, allowing for faster, more flexible introduction of best of breed programs.

5. Anytime, anywhere learning. For those SaaS applications that involve cloud-based curriculum, it is now possible for children to learn wherever they are, a significant improvement over the current approach where a child can only use a certain computer for a designated amount of time.

Yes, some school districts might not be a good fit for SaaS, and all districts must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of SaaS versus traditional commercial software before making a purchasing decision. But having choices is a good thing, and given these significant benefits, there aren’t enough SaaS choices in the early education market right now. It’s time for early education technology companies to catch up with other software industries.

Benjamin Heuston, PhD, is the President of Waterford Institute, a nonprofit research center that creates personalized, cloud-based instruction for children aged Pre-K to 3rd grade.

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Informed Decisions

ConnectEDU CEO discusses how to unlock student success. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Evan Nisonson of connectEDUDoing big things with statewide education intiatives in Montana, Massachusetts, Texas, Hawaii and Michigan among others, ConnectEDU is a technology company helping students make connections between education and career. Their services include data management for both K-12 and postsecondary, enterprise deployments, and evaluation and assessment tools, among a wide range of other offerings. CEO Evan Nisonson joined ConnectEDU with the acquisition of Epsilen, where he also served as the CEO. Prior to Epsilen, Evan served as senior vice president of strategy and portfolio management at SunGard Higher Education, an education

How can data help teachers make decisions on individual students more rapidly? We have a great opportunity from an educational perspective to get it right. 

company that provides software and services to help institutions find better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect. From 1999 to 2005, Evan was director of e-learning solutions at WebCT, an online proprietary virtual learning environment system known today as the Blackboard Learning System. Prior to that, he was a UCLA instructional technology coordinator, overseeing implementation of academic and related technologies for the university, and he previously was a lecturer in the English department at Loyola Marymount University. Evan received a bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia College in 1984, a master’s degree in English from Loyola Marymount University in 1995 and a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1999. In this far-ranging interview, he discusses what he believes are the keys to student achievement.

connectedu logoVictor: The Common Core is at the forefront of education discussions. You have two recent Common Core initiatives-an Education Data Portal built for New York state and a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge. Could you tell us more about them?

Evan: My experience with Common Core initiatives began while I was CEO of Epsilen, an edtech company selling an online social learning platform. We participated in the EdSteps project in 2010. The project occurred during the very early stages of the Common Core initiative and ultimately tried to answer the question “How do we implement Common Core successfully?” by introducing students to the new vocabulary around Common Core. The project turned out to be a great chance to familiarize the Company with the ins and outs of the Common Core initiative early on and has helped as we’ve gone on and tackled the bigger aforementioned projects at ConnectEDU.

The Common Core initiative in New York State is a very forward thinking way of addressing how to implement the Common Core. Essentially, this project utilizes data and recommendation engines as a way to create transparency and immediacy for educators around the Common Core. We’ve coupled data and the efficiencies of technology to create a dashboard that makes the data immediately accessible, consumable, and applicable to the day-to-day activities of education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge is looking to answer the same questions as New York, but in a more open-ended way. We’re partnering with a content provider to see if there’s a way we can bridge the gap between Common Core and eventual career preparation.

All three are working towards answering a central question, but in different ways: what is the best way to implement the Common Core?

Victor: Many schools sit on a wealth of data, yet they struggle to derive any meaningful insight. How do you see technology playing a part in informing educators?

Evan: When you start talking about data and its value to educators specifically, it’s all about time. How can data help teachers make decisions on individual students more rapidly? How can data help educators assess student comprehension more quickly? And most critically, how can data be used to accelerate the process of reinforcement or remediation to intervene on a student’s behalf?

CREDIT connecteduIf educators accept this as the main purpose of data in the classroom, the value of data for teachers then becomes based in helping them keep better in touch with their students in ways that would normally be impossible because of time constraints. Unfortunately, there’s a perception that incorporating data is a tool to manage teachers. In the past, superintendents and state officials could use data as a way to assess quality of teaching. If implemented with this narrow goal in mind, this use misses the mark. Data should be utilized as a tool to help teachers better support student success, not solely as a measuring stick for teacher management.

Victor:  Why is personalized learning such a big focus of education technology these days?

Evan: The whole notion of personalized learning shines light on the fact that learning is not an institutionalized homogeneous experience but rather one that is individualized.  Technology overcomes the barriers to achieve this level of personalization by providing insight into a student’s capabilities while also helping educators create an individualized roadmap that students can follow and educators can support.

Victor:  Cloud and Big Data technology have been the buzzwords in technology the past couple years. How is access to these two technologies changing the education landscape?

Evan: The attraction of cloud technology for education is the same as it is for any other industry. Cloud technology ultimately makes technology resources more accessible and available. While it’s debatable that it drives down the overall cost of technology, it does allow education organizations to focus on their core mission, as opposed to having to devote time and resources to technical support.

In terms of Big Data, the concept will ultimately be useful at a macro level as it’s providing a horizontal view of how education is happening in a given context and then using that as a common denominator to how an individual or very specific cohort might be doing over that common denominator. That’s useful perhaps not for educators themselves, but for school principals, district superintendents, states, and policy makers.  For example, wouldn’t it be great if a teacher could know all the students that have successfully mastered a specific Common Core objective and where their students place in the district, or across their state, or even nationally? Big Data helps you identify large common denominator groups, but it also helps you understand trending.

What’s not being done right now with Big Data, and where I hope Big Data goes in education is the determination of student readiness for specific careers that they might encounter or need to be prepared for down the road.  That would be ideal.

Victor:  Why is ConnectEDU so focused on connecting education to college and career readiness? Can you give an example of how your technology is helping do this?

Evan: This is the number one question we have to solve as an American society and as a global economy. At ConnectEDU, our technology empowers students by informing both their academic and career decisions to lead them down a path of achievement and success. We’re working with multiple states – Massachussetts, Hawaii and Michigan are a few – and countless schools in this way. We also help employees play a more collaborative role in education, connecting with their future talent on internship, job, and experiential education opportunities.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?

Evan: I think there should be more active collaboration amongst the primary, secondary, postsecondary, and workforce constituents. We need to figure out the alignment of Common Core to career preparation in addition to teaching our students reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need to teach them the analytical and the soft skills that are critical for their success. We tend to assume that those are skills that are encouraged, but what we’re seeing now is that learners aren’t prepared as they progress to the workforce.  We have a great opportunity from an educational perspective to get it right — if we’re really open about what some of those skills are, and how they can be encouraged and reinforced through greater collaboration with the aforementioned constituents.

Victor: What guidance or advice might you provide to education leaders facing down issues and challenges relevant to technology?

Evan: Educators need to be honest and open about the objectives they’re trying to achieve with technology. They need to focus intensely on what those outcomes should be and make certain that the technology initiative gets the proper support, buy-in, and understanding from key constituents. Ultimately, technology initiatives succeed or fail for a variety of reasons, but for me, the primary one is lack of clarity or consensus around the true outcome of what you’re trying to achieve. Be clear on this and your initiative is set up to succeed.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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