To 2017 and Beyond!

A pragmatic approach to predicting our edtech future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Doug Mesecar

credit-io-education-imageCrystal ball predictions about the upcoming year in education are often compelling cases for bold, lofty ideas, but rarely fully consider public policy or government funding landscape. That is perplexing given that K-12 public education is almost entirely funded by taxpayers and for all practical purposes completely subject to governmental decrees.

It is crucial to look at the availability and flexibility of funding in education budgets, how new accountability and other rules will drive purchasing and procurement, and the focus on product efficacy.

Ultimately, it is imperative that states, districts, and vendors learn from past experience to improve the effectiveness of future products and services, especially edtech.

2017 is looking more positive than many prior years as restrictive funding streams are becoming more flexible; complicated regulations designed for compliance rather than innovation are shifting to a more outcomes-based analysis; and the formerly limited research or awareness of product/service efficacy is improving.

Funding Levels and Rules

Unfortunately, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be essentially flat, with only minimal gains in the last 20 years in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, despite a nearly 50 percent increase in total federal, state and local spending over the same period.

It is what is done with education funding that will ultimately produce a more equal and successful educational system. Although the impact of the major federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is still being determined, the changes it will bring to the overall educational system will be significant.

It is unlikely there will be large funding increases next year, yet the law’s new programs and policies provide more flexible funding that can be put to better use. Federal education spending is a small portion of the $600 billion spent annually for K-12, but it has a disproportionate impact on state and local uses of funds.

A significant new federal program is the Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant that consolidated 50 small, single-issue programs. These new funds are more flexible and can be used for activities supporting well-rounded educational opportunities; safe and healthy students; and the effective use of technology, which can get as much as 60 percent of the funds.

There is also a new, optional program for states and districts called “Direct Student Services.” These competitive grants to struggling districts can be used for credit recovery, AP or college-credit bearing classes, as well as personalized learning. ESSA includes an equivalent to the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, potentially putting significant additional funding into research-oriented innovation.

A number of changes to existing federal expenditure policies will provide increased flexibility to states and districts on how to use federal funds. These changes should alleviate some compliance headaches while allowing for more innovation, creating a “flexibility dividend” for states and districts.

Disruptive Policy Change

In the highly regulated and publicly funded K-12 education system, perhaps the most disruptive innovation is policy change. As the machinery of government creaks into motion with the passage of ESSA, power is shifting from the federal government to states and districts alongside broader notions of academic achievement.

Under ESSA, states and districts can take advantage of considerable new flexibility and authority to redesign and refocus accountability, testing, and instruction to better educate all of their diverse learners — without having to seek federal blessing. States must redesign their educational systems by the start of the 2017 school year to focus on more comprehensive, multiple-measure based views of student performance and success. ESSA is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and those that can manage mass customization that efficiently manages complexity and diversity will be well positioned.

A way to address this shifting paradigm is the use of educational technology (edtech) to effectively manage change and spark transformation of teaching and learning. If developed and used effectively, it can streamline time-consuming processes like lesson planning, content management, personalizing learning, assessment, data use and communications.

ESSA encourages personalized and blended learning through high quality, specific professional development and by defining important edtech terms, which will impact federal, state, and local funding and policy decisions, bringing more consistency and proficiency to how edtech is used.

ESSA is creating space for states and districts to use a wider array of learning models and providers and to report student outcomes in multiple ways. Big changes are afoot in accountability systems, as some localities have been allowed to move away from annual summative assessments, an opportunity that has system-level implications and likely to expand to a number of states in the coming years.

Efficacy and Outcomes

With helpful changes in funding and new opportunities with policy, how are states and districts to make impactful and timely decisions to meet their needs? All too often, the decision is made to build a solution internally, rather than to buy a solution externally. This binary ignores the growing opportunity to construct public-private partnerships, which can leverage the best of both sides of the equation. And, there is new emphasis in ESSA — and a growing array of tools — to improve the measurement of solutions, particularly edtech.

The importance of evidence-based activities is evident throughout ESSA’s programs (e.g., Title I, II, III and IV). The use of federal funds for activities and practices must have compelling research. “Evidenced-based” is defined in the law as either: 1. having a statistically significant effect on improving student outcomes as demonstrated by strong research studies, or 2. supportable with a strong rationale based on research findings or a positive evaluation.

Indeed, it is hard to go more than a few pages in any recent U.S. Department of Education guidance without running into an argument for, or a requirement to use, an evidence-based strategy. This emphasis welcomes more rigor and evidence to the selection of strategies, activities, products and services.

However, the question of how districts and schools can make evidence-based decisions still looms. Thankfully, there is a growing crop of potential resources, including one from the USDE called the Ed Tech Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach, which joins the ranks of other tools and methods from private or quasi-public organizations like Learn Trials, the Jefferson Accelerator and Digital Promise. In their own way, each is trying to solve for the fact that traditional research does not adequately meet the needs of quickly and successfully evaluating rapidly changing education technology.


Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier are no longer pie-in-the-sky ideas. Not coincidentally, venture funding in the edtech sector has been strong, estimated to exceed $2 billion over the last 5 years, much of which is focused on making the educational experience more engaging, individualized and accessible for students. With the policy and funding environment changing and improving, this investing may well grow in 2017.

Ultimately, it is imperative that states, districts, and vendors learn from past experience to improve the effectiveness of future products and services, especially edtech. Technology can amplify good teaching, but technology cannot replace poor teaching. Properly implemented by states and districts, these new funds, policies and evaluations can help the educational system produce better, scalable outcomes for students.

Doug Mesecar is VP of Strategic Partnerships for IO Education. Previously, he led virtual and blended learning solutions for Edison Learning, the school services and education technology implementation for Sylvan Learning, and math and strategic initiatives at Scholastic Education. Doug has served in senior operational and policy roles at leading education companies, the U.S. Department of Education, and in Congress. Contact him through LinkedIn

Posted in guest column | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Shoulders of Geniuses

How an innovative, adaptive approach gets kids the tailored math education they need.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Javier Arroyo 

credit-smartickIn 2009, the homework topic was brewing again. Schools were rethinking long-standing homework policies. Parents wanted to know whether homework really impacted achievement and researchers were continuing to try to determine the necessity and importance of homework. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, most Western countries were not making much progress. (PISA measures reading, mathematics, and science literacy for 15 year olds around the world every three years.) In 2009, the U.S. average score in mathematics literacy may have been slightly higher than the U.S. average in 2006 but it was not measurably different from the U.S. average in 2003.

We help children develop “grit” — that quality that combines motivation, tenacity, and effort, and is one of the greatest signals of future success.

Meanwhile, government officials looked into the future, with its focus on technology and science, and put out the call for more kids to consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. This just wasn’t happening: too many kids perceived math as difficult or boring.

We asked ourselves, “How could we get more kids interested in STEM learning and close the achievement gap at the same time?”

In 2009, after-school programs like Kumon were still considered state-of-the-art, even though the overall method was still similar to what had been developed in the ‘50s. Parents had to drive kids to a classroom where kids attempted to master problems for an hour or more, often multiple times a week. In this day and age, did it really make sense to have kids still using paper and pencil? And, like any classroom, there could be a wide range of math abilities. Some kids got left behind.

We thought, we do better with online learning methodologies. We could update the education model and take advantage of the latest technology. For example, we could use technology to assess and track a student’s performance data and use it to provide the most appropriate lesson immediately. Immediate feedback is important. Our program would adapt to each child who used it. We could introduce gamification, to give children incentives to finish their lesson. And we could put it all online so parents would not have to drive kids to classes; they could do it all at home.

After researching attention span as it related to learning, we found that 15-20 minutes a day of math education with our online format was optimal. Children can be fully focused for that period of time. Like unlocking any kind of achievement, daily practice is the most beneficial. A schedule of rewards keeps kids engaged long enough for them to see results themselves.

We launched my company in Spain in 2011. Our team of over 40 diverse specialists continues to look for the best learning techniques and how we can help kids learn. More than 25,000 children have used our platform.

Parents tell us that the custom approach works for their children. Some kids have low self-esteem because they think that math isn’t for them. Our approach builds their confidence. We know there are no children who are born with some sort of difficulty with math: there are children who have lost the “rhythm” at school. We can bring them back with access to specific tutorials when they need them. Alone with the computer or tablet, there’s no peer pressure. In the classroom, embarrassment and peer pressure can keep them from raising their hands and telling their teacher that they are lost.

Our solution may be focused on math logic problems in the program, but it also helps with reading comprehension. Parents get feedback on their child’s session as soon as they finished. Our tutor app helps parents get a clear sense of how their child is doing.

Our platform is not a game but we do use a virtual world to help keep students motivated. When they’ve finished their daily session, children can play with their avatar, in a virtual bedroom where they can place the things that can be purchased at the virtual store. They use the currency, or “ticks” that they earn for every correct answer. When they are finished with a lesson, our program sends them a diploma with the name of an important mathematician because we want them to appreciate that their progress was made on the shoulders of geniuses.

With our newsletters and blogs we also want parents to know that math achievement is earned. Kids need to practice and they need to expend effort. My company helps children develop “grit” — that quality that combines motivation, tenacity, and effort, and is one of the greatest signals of future success.

It’s now 2016. We just launched in English in the States. Our goal is that no child “hates math” because they don’t understand it or that some children can’t excel because they feel bored at the classroom. We deliver tailored math, perfect for each child.

Javier Arroyo is founder of Smartick, an online math education platform for children built with proprietary artificial intelligence adapting to each individual child’s learning style. Write to:

Posted in guest column | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Finding the simple basics of a field with the power to change lives.

GUEST COLUMN | by Karen Panetta

credit-karen-panettaIn computer science class, students learn how to think in a structured and logical manner. This allows them to break down problems and develop algorithms that consider all scenarios, not just the obvious ones. When we design and write code to do a specific task, students are learning how to anticipate uses and misuses. It forces them to test for cases outside the intended functionality.

Computer Science Teaches Transferrable Skills

The courses that teach these skills are algorithm and software engineering. While most computer science curriculum reinforces theory by using programming languages to implement concepts or investigating computational efficiency, these programming skills are raw. The raw skills are what companies are looking for. But, as the languages change and new technologies are introduced, students will rely more and more on the fundamental concepts that will help them understand the next programming language.

Computer science has the power to change lives by creating simulations. It can replace animal testing, provide modeling for space exploration, create vehicle and safety analysis, and so much more. It has applications in robotics and medical imagery, too.

Years ago there were languages like COBOL, Fortran, Bliss, ADA, Pascal and now it’s C, C++, C# and Java. Learning these operating systems has helped computer engineering students forge new paths into cloud computing and has given rise to the development of robust computer networks. The goal for the student is to build these networks with reliable computer power without the daunting complexities of underlying computer technologies.

Real-world Application Fosters Student Engagement

Today, computer science programs are taking a different, pedagogical approach in order to attract a diverse study body. And what has become clear is the importance of engagement early on in those programs. Without it, students have shown to make a quick exit, especially if the course overloads on theory or programming syntax without any relevant real-world application. Students want to learn how to program mobile apps, control robots and incorporate multimedia components in a useful way. They want to manipulate animations, produce colorful data visualizations and find creative ways to interact and accept input. It’s activities like these that stimulate the mind and build confidence around their abilities in computer science.

With the advent of cloud technology, millions of people have gained accessibility that they never had before. It has paved the way for new and emerging fields in computer science, like ethical hacking, cybersecurity and global health. And with each new field, students have the opportunity to step up and push the boundaries of computer science to combat resulting challenges or limitations. Those who stay current will find themselves in higher demand for opportunities after their educational career.

STEM is Bigger than You Think

We must do away with putting filters on our youth and telling children that they need to be the very best in math and science to enter computer science coursework. An algorithm can be taught and explained through the basic steps of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; although there’s no math in that equation, there’s logic and structure.

We must also appreciate that every child is different and has different interests. Just like some students may not like sports, some students may not enjoy writing programs to control robots. It is important to provide students with a variety of experiences and projects. Educators and parents need to be aware that youth will typically use a single negative experience to convince themselves that all the STEM fields are not a good match for their interests or that they are not smart enough to pursue those fields.

It is also very important to show the big picture of all of the incredible career opportunities that there are for computer scientists and others in the STEM field. We have to get rid of the notion that careers in this line of work involve sitting in a cubicle or dark basement programming all day and sacrificing a social life.

Computer science has the power to change lives by creating simulations. It can replace animal testing, provide modeling for space exploration, create vehicle and safety analysis and so much more. It has applications in robotics and medical imagery, too.

Computer science classes that incorporate these types of real-world solutions help to retain and attract more underrepresented groups of individuals, and that includes women. Together, with a global community of engineers and educators, ideas will be shared freely and opportunities will be available to anyone who wants to make their mark on the world.

Karen Panetta, an IEEE Fellow, is Editor-in-Chief, IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine and a Presidential Awardee for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education and Mentoring. Write to:

Posted in guest column | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cool Tool | TheTalkList

The software landscape to learn language fluency just got better with the second release of TheTalkList – Your Virtual Immersion Program. With so many choices to work on language skills, many are asynchronous tools that hook up students to content, but the tougher and more critical component is to conveniently hook students up to an actual person to practice with. In other words, this is why people can get an A in language classes, yet can’t carry on a conversation in the learned language. So, what if you could select the language tutor of your choice at the price you could afford? TheTalkList has created an open education platform. This means that it’s a come-one, come-all site. Andres Abeyta, founder of TheTalkList has this philosophy: “Everyone on the planet has the ability to speak their native language, describe their local geography, and engage you with their rich culture,” he says. So, “Finally, there’s a platform that unlocks this value for any member in a user friendly environment.” His platform uses a patent pending P2P video environment with language learning widgets, an innovative use of just enough structure for a language lesson with tools that bring dynamic feed content to the lesson, including tutor guides, images, translations, and news feeds. As in real life where no single conversation is the same, the platform supports the latest pedagogical methods focusing on contextual conversation to improve language learning. Join their worldwide community, or see them featured on stage at New York EdTech Week.

Posted in cool tools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Willingness to Do Better

For one teacher, innovative space is key—and her stats show it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Julie Marshall

credit-steelcase-classroomMost classrooms are furnished with stationary desks in neat rows and columns. They’ve been this way since I started teaching more than three decades ago, and I’ve long felt constrained by the traditional physical classroom space. I lectured from the front of the room as students mindlessly copied notes and completed drill and kill worksheets. They used to raise their hands to ask permission to speak or leave their seat. This was long before iPads, smartphones and the internet changed the way today’s students are learning and today’s teachers are teaching.

The modern design of my room is the link between new technology, new pedagogy, and student participation.

Learning happens everywhere and it certainly does not have to take place seated at a desk inside four brick walls. Over the years I’ve tried many things to better engage students. I augmented my classroom with throw pillows, beanbags and even a claw foot tub creating a comfortable but interactive space where students were encouraged to collaborate. I often assembled and conducted class under a large oak tree furthering the concept that learning better takes place in a relaxed yet structured setting.

After 30 years of teaching, last year, following the installation of an active learning classroom [made possible by a grant from Steelcase Education], I saw my students engage and succeed at a new level. I finally have the classroom technology to match my educational philosophy. Tables and chairs, equipped with wheels, are easily assembled and re-assembled into groupings to facilitate the day’s learning needs whether involving the whole class, small group or individual study. Lecture, note taking and drills have been replaced with project-based multi-disciplinary units anchored by state standards. Hurrah!

My students are re-energized and collaborate in ways that simulate today’s work environment. I utilize the interactive white board to introduce the fundamental blocks of each lesson, making it easy to incorporate video clips and historical quotes and keep kids interested. One-to-one technology (iPad, laptop) places the world at the student’s fingertips as they research self-selected topics. Personal dry-erase boards are used to capture initial ideas, develop basic outlines and encourage group discussion. Students are learning from each other, respectfully questioning and challenging opinions as they re-think possible solutions together.

I decided to track and analyze three quantitative measures of student performance:

  • Percentage of completed work;
  • Growth in MAP scores; and
  • Change in end-of-year grade.

Data was available from my 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 language arts classes. Upon analysis, the overall percentage of assignments completed nearly doubled from 54 to 96.46 percent. The percentage of students exceeding their Northwest Evaluation Association reading goal also almost doubled, increasing from 35 to 62. The percentage of students not meeting their NWEA reading goal decreased from 47 to 22. Finally, the percentage of students increasing their end of year grade from the previous year climbed from 81 to 95, a 17 percent increase with an average grade point improvement of 5.8.

Nearly every day, students are giving multimedia presentations of their work. They are truly showing they understand class materials and sharing their knowledge with their classmates and adapting as they will need to throughout their life.

The modern design of my room is the link between new technology, new pedagogy, and student participation. Something as simple as a more engaging space has had a significant impact on my student’s success.

The outdated environment and regimented practice did not match my vision of a borderless classroom where open conversation and collaboration is welcome. Many teachers still use traditional classroom settings, methodologies and resources; whether out of insecurity or fear of professional evaluations and test scores. My classroom is proof that needs of the 21st century learner are better met in an innovative environment. Space impacts behavior and daily behavior in the classroom leads to success.

Learning is no longer a series of mindless, meaningless tasks as students visualize how education applies to their life and future. As a teacher, my role is to facilitate student ownership of the learning process as they attack real world problems through research, critical thinking and problem solving. Learning for understanding is important, but the ultimate goal of education is to teach students how to adapt to change, utilize technology and succeed in whatever they do. These active learning classrooms support that goal.

Julie Marshall, Ed.D., serves as a seventh-grade Language Arts teacher at Saluda Trail Middle in Rock Hill, SC, and an adjunct professor in the Richard C. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University. She has over 25 years of classroom experience at elementary and middle school levels in conjunction with seven years at the university level. Julie is an avid grant writer and was one of the inaugural recipients of the Steelcase Active Learning Center grants including Eno technology, innovative furniture, and staff development. Write to:

Posted in guest column | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment