Very Social Studies

A Texas teacher’s perspective on her unique students and their shift to digital textbooks.

GUEST COLUMN | by Stacy Brown

CREDIT Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook.pngI am a sixth grade Social Studies teacher for Burkburnett Independent School District in Burkburnett, Texas. My district is blessed, and all of our students have an iPad. The iPads are essential for my classroom as we regularly use rich online content in my class and have recently shifted to digital textbooks. As do most teachers, I too have students with different learning needs and abilities. The Social Studies “Techbook” we use has allowed me to connect with my students like never before. I received permission from three of my students’ parents to include them here. I wanted to pick a blend of students to share our experiences with you.

As any good teacher would do, we pull our lessons together from a variety of resources. The digital resource is our primary guide and where we always begin our planning.

Let me introduce three students with different learning abilities: vision impaired, dyslexic, and general education. I think it is unfair to single them out due to their disability, so they are just my students from here on out.

CREDIT Stacy Brown student1.pngKylie is a very bright child who enjoys learning. The digital textbook will read everything to her. She can and does use a text-to-speech feature to complete some of her assignments. She enjoys typing, but there are some days where that is not desired. She has the ability to toggle back and forth from typing or text-to-speech to record her answers. Kylie is able to adjust her learning in a personalized way which allows her to keep up with her classmates.

CREDIT Stacy Brown student2.pngMy second student I would like to talk about is Brandon. He is a studious young man who learns by doing. He has learned to work around any limitations by using the tools provided in the digital resource. He consistently uses the feature to have the text read to him while he follows along. Just like Kylie, he toggles back and forth using the keyboard and the text-to-speech component to record his responses.

CREDIT Stacy Brown student3.pngMy third student is Brealie. She has an active mind and enjoys learning at her own pace. She prefers to be in control and is very inquisitive when something grabs her attention.

We do a lot of projects that involve collaboration and sharing ideas in my classroom. The Techbook’s text-to-speech continually enhances the literacy process for all of my students. The resource has built a bridge for many students with special literacy needs.

Throughout the year, I have modeled how to use the features in the digital textbook many times. I wanted everyone in the class the features, if they chose to. That alone has been the biggest blessing for all of my students who have different learning needs. Now, they all fit in because they can make adjustments for their learning needs and preferences.

Let’s face it, Social Studies has not always been an interesting topic for a lot of students. The online resource is uniquely designed, so there are continuous comparisons for history past and present. The students are more engaged when it has relevance to them.

This is my first year teaching with the Techbook. I am not going to lie; I was very overwhelmed with the wealth of information at my fingertips. Initially, I questioned why some topics were briefly mentioned in one chapter versus another, but I have learned the resource continually spirals with the majority of concepts. Every concept gets covered, but they are spread out through the school year. I firmly believe this has helped my students achieve mastery with different concepts because a concept does not “go away” when I am done teaching that chapter.

There are two teachers who teach sixth grade social studies at my school. We serve approximately 230 students. Between the two of us, we have approximately 16 years in social studies. I am technology driven, and she has used traditional textbooks in the past. This has been an interesting journey bringing in both of our teaching styles. Together, we are embracing the online capabilities more each day. As any good teacher would do, we pull our lessons together from a variety of resources. The digital resource is our primary guide and where we always begin our planning.

Our Techbook includes a Global News Wrap each week, based on current events. We watch the three to four minute video as a class first. Students are allowed to watch it a second time on their own before they pick one topic to take a position on. Then they complete a writing prompt in their Assignment Builder. Some students type; while others use text-to-speech. I always remind them to speak into the microphone like it should be written for an English teacher. I believe this will help them in other classes as well.

CREDIT Discovery Education global wrap.pngHere is an example of how well our digital textbook spirals around events. The Global News Wrap for 02/01/17 discussed the wall that President Trump wants to build between Mexico and the United States. We had an depth class discussion about this event.

A few days later, we were continuing our unit on Europe. The topic for the day was, Overcoming the Berlin Wall, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. In our digital textbook, snippets of video and text made the subject really come alive for the students.

Brealie was immediately intrigued. Her hand went up promptly, and she asked for me to pause for a moment. She wanted to know more about the wall President Trump wants to build compared to that of the Berlin Wall, which came down with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I told her that was a great question, and we would be looking at similarities and differences about both the following week. She asked if she could go ahead and start doing research on her own. As if I would tell her no! I was thrilled by her interest in both and her desire to learn more about them.

Previous generations used traditional textbooks and atlases that could not be updated until the next adoption and publication. It was impossible for them to stay up-to-date with current events and they were not designed to be interactive, either.

We live in a world where technology has provided instant access at our fingertips. I want my students to know how to take charge of their own learning in ways generations before them were not able to. Previous generations used traditional textbooks and atlases that could not be updated until the next adoption and publication. It was impossible for them to stay up-to-date with current events and they were not designed to be interactive, either.

Our digital textbook is a living document which updates as world events do. It is also a safe environment for students to explore and do research in. We always begin class research in it. I will be the first to admit, there are times when I feel my students are teaching me something new about their digital textbook. I love and welcome these moments. They allow me to demonstrate my eagerness to learn while collaborating with my students. I hope this type of learning will continue being used in my district for many years to come.

Stacy Brown is a teacher at Burkburnett ISD in Burkburnett, Texas. She graduated from Midwestern State University with a BS in Social Studies 4-8 and from University of Texas at Arlington with a Masters in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. She has been teaching for 10 years, married for 27 years, and is as excited as ever about the upcoming school year. Write to: stacy.brown@burkburnettisd.org

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The Helping Kind

A dedicated educator brings a big heart, meaning, and joy to learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero


CREDIT Matt Ohlson CAMP OspreyMATTHEW OHLSON

Title: Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership; Facilitator, C.A.M.P. Osprey – connecting students with athletes, mentors.

Org: Taylor Leadership Institute, University of North Florida – Jacksonville

Reach: High school students, teachers, education leadership.

Fame: 2017 EdTech Awards honoree

Quote: “To overcome geographic and financial barriers faced by our high-poverty, urban/rural partners throughout the nation, we harness the use of ‘virtual leadership mentoring’ and videoconferencing technology.”

Looking ahead: “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of an educational mentoring network that will connect university faculty and students with K-12 teachers and students to positively impact learning and leadership development.”

Write to: matthew.ohlson@unf.edu 


If you look closely, you’ll see them everywhere: dedicated, passionate people who take immense pleasure in helping others. A 2017 EdTech Award honoree, Matthew Ohlson is a great example of such a person. Through his work with CAMP Osprey, Matthew (pictured above holding his 2017 EdTech Award with ardent supporter UNF Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Diane Yendol-Hoppey) has demonstrated his commitment to using whatever tools he can, applying those to bring others around him up. CAMP (Collegiate Achievement Mentoring Program) Osprey is a leadership-mentoring program in which collegiate student leaders serve as mentors to at-risk K-12 students. To overcome geographic and financial barriers faced by their high-poverty, urban/rural partners throughout the nation, “we harness the use of ‘virtual leadership mentoring’ and videoconferencing technology available on the UNF campus,” says Matthew, who works with a local school district to effect change. “The district is far from the resources of a major university, but through the virtual mentoring program, students are able to meet weekly with their collegiate mentors.”

I’ve made it an extremely effective practice to surround myself with those who challenge, inspire, and make me a better leader. 

The United Way and Jefferson Foundation featured this model as an exemplar for technology integration and community impact. In addition, the data from the pilot program has been presented at SITE, AACE, AERA and UCEA as well as numerous journals. Participants in the pilot program experienced increased GPA’s, increased attendance and decreased school suspensions as well as research presentations at AERA, SITE and UCEA.

Matthew has a Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Policy with a specialization in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida. He also received comprehensive leadership training from the New York City Leadership Academy and the Schlechty / Hohmann Principals Academy. His K-12 experience includes roles as a 15-year teacher and school leader in the Boston Public Schools and the Florida Global School. In higher education, Matthew served as a clinical instructor at the University of Florida, Director of the nationally recognized C.A.M.P. mentoring program and leadership facilitator at the Lastinger Center for Learning. Matthew has also conducted comprehensive program evaluation for state agencies and helped to develop the new Florida Education Leadership Exam (FELE). Most recently, he served as an educational consultant with the Florida Department of Education, training educators and leaders throughout the state as they transition to the new curriculum standards.

In this exclusive EdTech Digest interview, he talks about the programs that matter to him, how they help others, who has helped him in his life, the power of technology in learning, and where he thinks it’s all heading.

What prompted to you to found CAMP Osprey?

Matthew: The Collegiate Achievement Mentoring Program (CAMP) idea was developed to create an intergenerational leadership mentoring partnership between collegiate student leaders and K12 students. The CAMP was based on an “apprenticeship” model where college students refined their own leadership abilities while teaching these same college and career ready skills to students in schools throughout the region. The CAMP program, now called CAMP Osprey at the University of North Florida,  has seen significant success in only the first two years of implementation including increases in program participants, increased student achievement and external funding to support on campus experiences for our mentees in grades 4-8. One major barrier we saw during our program expansion was reaching high-needs students who were restricted by time (scheduling) and geography (distance away from campus). The innovative use of virtual mentoring has helped us to expand our impact to mentor students in high-needs rural communities and schools as far away as Miami and Raleigh. http://jacksonville.com/news/2016-04-09/story/more-degrees-and-training-preventing-young-people-finding-keeping-jobs

What does this mean for the students to connect with athletes, mentors? 

credit-matthew-olson-phd-putnam-county-fl-with-unf.pngMatthew: Our hands-on activities and leadership curriculum developed through my role at the Taylor Leadership Institute help to ensure that mentoring goes beyond just making friends but rather, towards a more significant, outcome-based experience. We expected the K-12 to change in a positive way and this has proven true with increased achievement, attendance and decreased behavioral issues. Yet, we never expected the positive outcomes experienced by the collegiate mentors including increased confidence, time management, ability to work with others and empathy.

This mentoring experience also helps to instill a fervent belief that college is attainable thanks to our face-to-face campus trips and our virtual field trips: https://indd.adobe.com/view/1bd595b6-c18a-4b4d-b1be-e914a90c0f6f

Who in your own life has been a mentor or inspiration? how/why?

Matthew: My parents, both urban teachers, served as my early mentors and inspired me to become an educator in the Boston Public Schools where I served proudly for more than 10 years. Recently, I’ve had the honor of being mentored by Ms. Muriel Summers of AB Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary (Raleigh, NC). I first met Muriel when she took a chance on a fledgling CAMP (Gator at UF) mentoring program http://webarchive.wcpss.net/blog/2011/03/university-of-florida-gators-help-combs-magnet-elementary-gators/ and created our first multi-state mentoring partnership. From there, I have been able to learn from and with her unwavering support for doing what is best for students. Ironically, another leader who has served an inspiration was someone I am actually mentoring. I have been mentoring Dr. Earl Johnson of Matanzas High School each month and in that time, I’ve learned so much from him about being a humble, determined and servant leader. There are countless others and I’ve made it an extremely effective practice to surround myself with those who challenge, inspire, and make me a better leader.

When we look at ways to create opportunities to make education meaningful and make education joyful, where teacher strengths are touted and student passions are ignited—that’s where education is headed, those are the brights spots ahead.

What is the power of technology in learning?  

Matthew: As a former Principal with the amazing Florida Virtual School, I will never forget our foundational phrase: Any time, any place, any path, any pace. Technology can truly be a catalyst for change and a tool that can overcome barriers. First as a tool to bring the world to students – I’ve witnessed firsthand students from other cultures across the globe learning together in a virtual classroom, college professors from Research 1 Universities  teaching groundbreaking ideas to students in migrant faming communities and urban school students participating in virtual field trips in national parks and landmarks throughout the country. Technology also brings voice to students where regardless of learning strengths or styles, students can learn, share and collaborate in a way that gives every student the opportunity to be engaged and demonstrate deeper knowledge. Moving beyond traditional call and response and fear-inducing public presentations using a script or notecards, students can now use text to speech, animated videos, presentation software and variety if other tools to access, manipulate and present knowledge in a form that is engaging to each student.

Where is education heading? any bright spots ahead?

Matthew: When we look at ways to create opportunities to make education meaningful and make education joyful, where teacher strengths are touted and student passions are ignited—that’s where education is headed, those are the brights spots ahead. Rather than focusing solely on the gaps and weaknesses, we can start to look at the gifts and talents of our students and educators and expand upon them. I believe choice should also be at the heart of the direction we are headed. Are we offering students choice in the learning path, their potential career path, etc.? For example, look at the ways that Flagler County Schools, a small rural district in Florida, has been creating dynamic “Flagship programs” where students can learn specialize in tracts in fields such as Aerospace and robotics to financial literacy and even a firefighting academy. Phase 2 of the UNF CAMP Osprey model will be harnessing this idea with leaders in career fields serving as mentors to aspiring scientists, engineers, artists, educators and executives. The face-to-face and virtual mentoring process and resources are universal and are being piloted in schools where experienced teachers and principals are mentoring beginners in the field to offer support, guidance and the sharing of best practices.

What purposes did you begin with getting into the education field that are now being fulfilled?

Matthew: I wanted to make a difference in the community where I grew up, Boston. As my role expanded and I saw so many needs in the field of education, I felt that pursuing my Ph.D. from a place like the University of Florida would allow me to implement policies and practices that I know would eventually help students and teachers. These dreams have become a reality where I have been able to create a mentoring program at three major universities (UF, UNF and NC State), help leaders in districts throughout the nation to develop a school culture that leads to significant and lasting change and to use technology to bring equity and resources to those students often bypassed in our current system.

Any words of wisdom to other educators out there regarding their impact on students? 

Matthew: With many of the schools I work with, I use a performance framework focused on consistent monitoring of the ways each educator is making a difference in the life of a child. Not vision statements that collect dust or overwhelming evaluation models, a simple process where every week, every staff member in the school takes 5 minutes to document the impact they made: in the life of a child, with a colleague, with a parent/guardian/community member. Each week the theme changes between student, colleague and greater school community member. This simple process serves numerous functions- it build s a strong school community focused on collective impact, it allows for a clear opportunity for positive reflection to show that you are making a difference and can show opportunities for growth when the evidence is not present. My advice always remains grounded in the positive impact you are making as an educator, a school leader and as a policy maker.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize about CAMP Osprey, your work, edtech, anything? 

Matthew: The collaboration between the UNF College of Education and Human Services, The Taylor Leadership Institute, UNF Admissions and our community partners has been instrumental in our implementation, expansion and success. In addition, throughout the semester we embed the themes of leadership, happiness, success and service from  the following videos and empower our participants to demonstrate how they:

Through the power of edtech, we would love to see the EdTech Digest “family” look at ways to expand this replicable model/network of “virtual” leaders.

Excellent! Let’s do that. Alright well thank you, Matthew, and again congratulations on your continued success.

Matthew: Thank you!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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Good News for Literacy and Learning

Reading between the lines with Newsela Founder and CEO Matt Gross.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Matt Gross Newsela.jpgReading on a level a student can connect to, and a window to what’s happening in the world—that’s the basic gist. Matt Gross (pictured) is Founder and CEO of Newsela, what one might call a “literacy technology” company. Newsela publishes daily news from top sources at multiple reading levels, for struggling, on-track, and advanced readers. The edtech startup is “dedicated to transforming the way students access the world through words,” says Matt. “Our team combines powerful technological know-how with real-world experience earned in the classroom, the newsroom, and the boardroom,” he says.

They accomplish their mission through publication of high-interest news and nonfiction articles daily at five levels of complexity for grades 2-12 using a proprietary, rapid text-leveling process. By combining relevant and interesting nonfiction content with standards-aligned assessments, their platform gives educators a primary solution to dramatically improve students’ literacy skills.

For me, I feel like I’m coming full circle, to come back and put a hundred percent of my focus on the thing that I care about the most, which is: lighting a fire in students.

Matt has an interesting nineteen-year career in the education sector, for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurship, and product development and distribution. He was Executive Director of the Regents Research Fund, a privately funded affiliate of the New York State Board of Regents and Education Department that helped lead the implementation of Race to the Top–driven education reforms.

Reporting to Education Commissioner John King, Jr., he oversaw the organization’s growth strategy, public–private partnerships, talent acquisition, and day-to-day operations. While at the Fund, Matt led the development of EngageNY.org, a web application providing teachers and administrators with resources for implementation of Common Core state standards and teacher and principal evaluations. Since its August 2011 launch, the site has been viewed over fourteen million times by educators in all fifty states.

Under Matt’s purview, the Fund raised over $9 million in support from many of the nation’s largest and most well-known education funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Robin Hood Foundation.

Prior to joining the Fund, Matt was Vice President of Planning and Resource Development at Pencil, a national leader in building private-sector partnerships with public schools that improve student achievement. He led a wide array of initiatives at Pencil, including the development of the Pencil Exchange, a social media and relationship-management application for business–school partnerships now used in over 400 schools nationwide.

Earlier, Matt spent several years managing entrepreneurial ventures, including as co-founder and President of out-of-home media company Submedia, which secured over $6 million in venture investment, $2 million in annual bookings, contracts with multiple government agencies, and licensing agreements in Europe and East Asia. He co-holds two patents for Submedia’s technology. Matt began his career as a Teach for America corps member, teaching music at C.S. 50 in the South Bronx. He serves on the School Leadership Team of P.S. 101 in Queens, which his three boys attend. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University.

In this wide-ranging long-form interview, Matt responds to questions about lessons that have shaped him, what kind of patent he holds, what drives him as an edtech startup founder, thoughts about standards, his take on fake news, advice for edtech startup founders, the future of learning – and Instagramable beverages. So, pull up a good cup of coffee (or whatever your favorite beverage might be) and enjoy!

I was just listening to your talk at ASU GSV.

Matt: I stole my own thunder. What am I going to say now?

I don’t know! But it was really interesting listening to you talk about your son and school and I thought, Wow! here’s a guy who’s really passionate about education and technology. With that intro, I have about a dozen questions for you, wondering if you’re up for those, if you have time for that?

Matt: Yeah, hit me.

You worked in education for almost 20 years now. Any lessons from your days back teaching in the Bronx, teaching music, that informed your current approach?

Matt: That was a long time ago. Lessons from teaching in the Bronx. I guess the thing about the Bronx for me was that the difference between a good day and a bad day in school was whether my students were engaged. You think it’s easy in a music class, but it’s not. Especially because you have kids just for one day a week. You have them one day a week, one class a week, so somehow you just have to grab their attention.

There are some days, when I taught the students to play Let it Be on the glockenspiel, there were two parts. They played a harmony. Then they sang along to it. At the end of the song, there was just like this hush, and the kids were wide-eyed and looking at each other just like, yeah! That was a great day. That was a day I most remember at school.

Engagement. It’s funny, for me, engagement—I put a backseat on engagement for many years as part of the education reform movement, and so much of it that was about test results, accountability, and structure, school structures, and things like that.

For me, I feel like I’m coming full circle, to come back and put a hundred percent of my focus on the thing that I care about the most, which is: lighting a fire in students.

Victor: Well put. I’m going to skip around a little bit, hope you don’t mind, then we can come back to any themes you want to revisit or emphasize. You’re a patent holder, or a co-holder. What are your patents for?

Matt: I am. I am the co-holder of a couple patents for out-of-home advertising technology, or out-of-home display technology. I started up a company in the late 90’s with a college friend, an astrophysicist, that we developed a display that goes on the walls of subway tunnels, and you see a motion picture advertisement outside the window of the train. A lot of people say it’s kind of like one of those flip books. That’s what I hold a patent in.

That’s pretty neat. Well, it’s been a while for you. What’s the genesis of your entrepreneurial spirit? You’re involved in an edtech—well, I wouldn’t even call it a startup anymore—and you’ve been going for three years now. What would you say inspired you – family? Mentors? A teacher? Or just yourself and your own drive?

Matt: I’ve always had this desire to start things, and this almost sort of blind disregard of the barriers dramatic change. My earliest memory of that, it goes back to high school when interestingly I was the editor of the high school newspaper. At the time, it was all paper, publishing three issues a year.

I came in as Editor-in-Chief, and I said, “No, I want to do it every month,” to which all of the previous editors and the people in the school administration said, “That’s ridiculous. That’s impossible, but good luck to you.” Then sure enough, we went ahead and did it.

I always start with the question of, “Isn’t it ridiculous that …” and then try to fix that problem. That’s been the case of a few things in my life. I’d say Engage New York was a big one of those. That was actually John King’s idea. Are you aware of Engage New York?

Yeah, yeah. A little bit, but please keep talking, and you can totally monopolize this conversation, because I’d love to hear everything you’ve got to say.

Matt: I just wanted to see if you had some background on it. John King, we were working on rolling out the Common Core, and the state was about to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars, more than half its Race To The Top funding, on trainings that would be given to representatives from districts, and would be some of the teachers.

We were on the brink of these trainings, three months away, and John says … And this is another lesson for my career. John says, “You know, districts are incredibly valuable, but I’m worried that when it comes to actual classroom practices, that if we don’t get the information directly into teachers’ hands in a way that’s user friendly, adjustable, easily searchable, then they’re just not going to do it. We can’t just wait for the districts to, and hope that they’ll train their teachers effectively enough.”

I said, “Yeah, I agree.” He said, “Well, what I’d like you to do is work with the curriculum team to create a website that will serve as a definitive common core implementation resource for the teaching of all 3 million students in this state. I need you to do it in 90 days.”

I said, “Okay.” That’s what we did. We pulled together this website, and the state completely rebranded the state essentially, because we thought of is this, as this bureaucracy that stood in the way of progress, that provided accountability measures, and dealt with state taxes and things like that.

All of a sudden, people were turning to the state as—the teachers were turning to the state as a resource that could actually help them. That was wonderful, and gaining the trust of teachers and the gratitude of teachers for this resource was extraordinarily gratifying to me.

Today, New York is the most widely used Common Core implementation resource in the country. California or Michigan, or wherever you go, you’re going to see New York as a resource.

You’ve played a leadership role in development of Regents Research Fellows, the team of leaders helping to implement Common Core, and other Race To The Top reforms. You also raised a substantial amount of money from many of the, should I say, ‘usual suspects’ – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford, Hewlett, Carnegie Corporation, Robinhood. There’s been a tremendous amount of controversy over Common Core. There’s been many who just flat-out detest it. Why do you think that is?

Matt: There are definitely some loud voices of folks who detest the common core, but if you go to the typical rank-and-file teacher, it’s just simply not the case. I wasn’t the creator of the common core, but I am a supporter of the common core for the mere fact that it elevated standards, and it was a single standard that governors of various states, it wasn’t a federal initiative, but the governors of various states said, “Hey, we need to have some common standards and a common benchmark.”

What teachers really want is not for the standards to change around again, because they’re just dealing with so much whiplash. I don’t see a whole lot of signs that the Common Core’s going anywhere. There are some states that have moved away from it, but even in those states, Common Core standards generally look—or if they’re new standards, look a whole heck of a lot like Common Core standards.

What we quickly realized was that teachers wanted engaging content that was organized, well-structured, accessible, and interactive in every subject that they teach.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as they’re rigorous standards that kind of look like the standards from other states so that it’s easy for states to prepare curricula, and it’s easier for folks like us to develop things that meet those state standards. That’s the most important thing.

Let’s talk about Newsela. You addressed the needs of billions of students, adults, English-language learners around the world, anybody really struggling to understand the content that they want to read. You have a transformative literacy tool. I think it’s pretty brilliant, the concept, excellent theory brought into practice of this rapid text leveling process. Any thoughts, any word about that? There’s about a million educators, 10 million users now. What are you most excited about right now and how about in the near future?

Newsela.pngMatt: There’s actually 13 million students and well over a million teachers at this point who are on Newsela. What Newsela is … One thing I would take slight issue with is that Newsela is a ‘literacy tool’. What Newsela is, is a reading platform. What’s the distinction?

There are just pure literacy tools out there, tools that their sole job is build phonemic awareness, vocabulary, textural structure, and deal with questions like that. That is a part of what we do, but we’re designed to do something much more, which is to make the reading experience great no matter what you’re reading.

Reading is what we’re delivering. That’s why we publish content across subject areas. We started off with news content, and that’s how we made a name for ourselves. What we quickly realized was that teachers wanted engaging content that was organized, well-structured, accessible, and interactive in every subject that they teach.

Newsela image.pngWe responded by publishing biographies and resource documents, and descriptions of what is the Solar System? What is Dark Energy? So that teachers in English, science, and social studies classes really across the board, in grades 2 through 14, can have access to content that their students would really typically enjoy and could interact with, and so that teachers could keep track of what their students have read, whether they read it at all, whether they understood it, how long they spent reading on it, so time on task.

That’s the experience we want to deliver across content areas. A single place where students can read everything, that’s organized, accessible, far more engaging, and where teachers can keep track of what their students are doing.

I didn’t really necessarily want to wade into all of this, but there’s what is being called fake news, there’s Trump—and your Newsela, and you’re kind of at the intersection of where students and teachers and learning happens with news and current events, in part at least. Any thoughts about that? I know you probably been asked about fake news already, but did you have any comments or further comments you’d like to make on that?

Matt: Yeah. Fake news is bad. What we want students to do is … We say it in our mission; we want students to read closely, think critically, and be worldly. We select content from highly reputable sources. We’re not just randomly scraping the Internet for any kind of stuff that might reinforce students in the echo chamber thinking, or teachers’ thinking. We’re selecting from highly reputable sources. That’s step one. That’s probably the most important battle, the battle being fake news, be sure that your source is reputable. That’s step one.

Step two is, we spend a lot of time on news literacy programs, well before the most recent presidential election, because it’s just part of the reading engagement process. Being able to discuss whether something is truth or fiction, whether something is fact or opinion, is part of what makes the reading experience great and valuable.

It sounds like you have a lot of friends in high places, investors deeply committed to education, technology, or whatever they might be committed to. Okay. Then, the Washington Post is a reputable source—what would you say to people who wouldn’t think that that’s a reputable source?

Matt: The Washington Post is a great source. It’s a 150-year-old newspaper with the highest journalistic standards. It’s one of many, many sources that we pull from. The Christian Science Monitor, NASA, and Associated Press. We use their content, these government sources, biography.com, Encyclopedia Britannica. We use a wide, wide, wide variety of sources.

Your business model, your investors probably are most loving of a profitable idea, but how is it that it is something that they do love? You have backers, and some very talented people on your advisory board. What makes them love what Newsela is all about?

Matt: What they love the most is our mission. We’re obviously growing incredibly quickly. Lots of people can grow quickly. What our investors, what my colleagues here at Newsela, our partners, and certainly our teachers have in common is that they all love our mission to unlock the written word for everyone. This is something everyone is committed to across the board.

They realize that we actually have a shot at doing it. It doesn’t seem like a star shot. It seems like something that’s within reach.

What are your thoughts, a little bit more broadly speaking now, on the state of education these days?

Matt: State of education these days. It’s a pretty common refrain for folks to say education is broken, education is broken, education is broken. Especially rich folks, especially folks in industry, hedge fund managers, even our Education Secretary has made comments to that remarks. Quite frankly, I think that’s a false and counterproductive view.

American schools are strong. Students go to school. They learn. Many get accepted in some of the best colleges in the world, and they go on to contribute to a growing economy. I will refute the notion that American schools are broken. American schools are teaching kids.

We have millions of teachers out there who are doing what they got into teaching to do, which is to grow young minds.

The challenge that I believe that educators have right now, is that digital media has transformed students’ daily lives just in the last decade alone. Schools are largely using the same paradigm that they’ve used for the last hundred years, and the same way of delivering content as well.

Newsela couldn’t have existed a decade ago, because there wasn’t really access to computers, there wasn’t a commitment to using those computers in the classroom, and there wasn’t a broad recognition that change does have to occur to keep up with today’s students. Now it does.

Teachers are caught in a near impossible position, which is that the old way of teaching just doesn’t land the way it used to. That’s a very fixable problem, and teachers want to fix that problem. That’s why you have well over 10,000 people attending ISTE, the largest education technology deal, and you have some from EdTech Digest attending I’m sure.

We have a couple of people going, yes.

Matt: There you go. That’s why you have blog post after blog post after blog post on education technology. Teachers and administrators know that we need to change in order to keep up with the digital media and enable the student population. They’re doing it. That’s exactly why Newsela exists today. Newsela couldn’t have existed a decade ago, because there wasn’t really access to computers, there wasn’t a commitment to using those computers in the classroom, and there wasn’t a broad recognition that change does have to occur to keep up with today’s students. Now it does.

32 million computers were shipped to K-12 schools in the last three years alone. We’re expecting to see double-digit growth again. Schools are committed to making this change. We’re excited to be partnering with them on that.

Let’s talk ASU GSV: Did you have a sense of sort of what the atmosphere was there? Any thoughts about your experience at the most recent one? Did you have a good time?

Matt: Yeah, I did. I actually got to see the Golden State Warriors extinguish the hopes of the Utah Jazz with an incredibly congenial and forgiving Utah crowd. That was great.

The conference was interesting. What was particularly interesting is that the old guard media publishers are far more open than they ever have been to partnership opportunities change, because they realize that the concept that three or four major players in education are going to be able to consolidate most of the market, is not the future, and it’s actually not the present either.

They realize that something has to change, so it was great to see some of the old guard publishers more open to those sort of partnerships with next generation education companies. That gave me some hope. That was exciting.

We all have to collectively decide as an industry that change is needed. I don’t know if the traditional education publishers are ever going to be able to fully come around. Their businesses are going to look very, very different five, ten years from now than they do today. Look at Pearson. They’re selling off their K-12 publishing units. That was completely unheard of just a few years ago.

Technology itself doesn’t do anything. It has to be applied, and you have to know why you’re using it in the first place.

They’re going to be very different businesses. They may be a lot smaller than they are today in K-12 education, but there’s certainly a place for them.

Did you form some partnerships?

Matt: Is it okay if I don’t comment on that?

Yeah. Probably it might be things that are in process, and I can see why. No problem.

Matt: Thanks very much.

Anything more you’d like to say about technology’s role in education?

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Technology itself doesn’t do anything. It has to be applied, and you have to know why you’re using it in the first place. I didn’t start Newsela because I thought, man, technology in the classroom could be so awesome. Technology’s so cool. I started Newsela because there were some specific problems that teachers and students were trying to solve.

One was that teachers were finding their students just weren’t engaged in reading. Another was that their students didn’t have access to the things that they wanted them to read, because it was at a level that was over their heads, or it was at a level that was so beneath them, that it was holding them back, it was leaving them bored. The teachers had no idea what was going on with their students’ reading, whether they read something and understood it, what about it they understood.

Teachers were scouring the Internet for content that they thought they’d let their kids try and get them to learn these—because they realized that textbooks just weren’t doing it, but their lives are a mess. They’ll look at 25 different websites and have a binder full of articles from dozens of different sources. It’s just an ungodly mess. We wanted to solve a bunch of those problems.

Technology has the power to solve those sort of problems better than offline materials can. I’m giving you real-time information, personalization, assessment, and analysis. These are things that technology can do very well.

What it can’t do as well is be that teacher walking around the room, some teacher who’s gotten some piece of information from software that gives you a little bit of more insight into students. Then the teacher can walk over to that student and use their human skills, their sense of empathy, picking up on little micro cues that the computer could never do, to understand exactly what’s going on with a student, give them some extra encouragement, to give them some extra help. That’s the role that we hope Newsela will play in the class, and not to serve as a stand-alone, we are now your new robotic teacher.

I think a lot of education technologies make that mistake. We consider ourselves a connector between teacher and student. Because if a teacher doesn’t feel like they can connect with their students, then they’ll check out or they’ll leave, and we can’t let that happen. Technology has to strengthen that relationship, not diminish it.

Excellent point. I’m going to tear in a little bit here, but then I can leave this alone: Any thoughts or ideas about Newsela being inherently political? Can you really claim to be neutral, ‘just helping kids figure out how to read’ – ‘just a literacy platform’? Or, are your sources pushing forward political propaganda, vested interests that really just want their outlook, their view of the world pushed down onto younger generations—your thoughts?

Matt: We absolutely do not work with content sources that claim that their opinion is news. We use valid sources that have the highest journalistic standards. Again, news is not the only stuff we publish. We publish stuff from across a spectrum. There will be different viewpoints espoused. We will, in fact, publish some opinion pieces because, especially our pro/con articles, pro/con is where we publish opposing points of view on a single topic, because teachers want that debate in the classroom. That’s the heart of a really great social studies discussion or English class discussion, even a science class discussion.

For example, we publish articles on like whether we should be building super carriers. There’s a pro point of view, and there’s a con point of view. We think that debate is central to democracy, but more importantly for us, it’s central to a great class.

Very cool, then. You worked in education for-profit, nonprofit, entrepreneurship, product development and distribution. What advice would you have for an edtech startup founder these days?

Matt: Solve teachers’ and students’ problems, and solve a problem that they actually have, not one that you think they should have. I think there’s a big mistake that a lot of technologists who come into the education field make, which is they assume that school should be run a certain way, and they assume that something is a problem, where their users don’t think a problem at all. Therefore, their technologies fail. That’s one bad way to go.

On the flip side is, you have educators who come into the field, and they’re often sort of hyper prescriptive about their approaches to say like, we are going to fill all of these boxes in, and every single teacher, or need that a teacher/administer says, we’re going to put onto our platform, and that just introduces an extraordinary amount of complexity into the system.

What you want to do is focus on the problems that need to be solved, and then you want to focus on the one or two or three ways to best solve those problems and go great guns on those one, two, or three ways of solving the problem. Don’t dilute your efforts too much. Do what you do well, and do that extremely well.

Just curious, do you drink Strawberry Frappuccinos or any kind of drink like that?

Matt: Do I drink Strawberry Frappuccinos?

I don’t know what that is pictured, but my middle-schooler had one of those a little while back, and I see it on your site now. You guys definitely have some timely stuff that at least middle schoolers are really looking at.

Matt: You’re talking about the article on Instagramable beverages?

Yes.

Matt: That’s great. No, I think the most Instagramable beverage I’ll drink is probably a Margarita, but that’s just as close as it gets.

CREDIT Newsela Instagramable Beverages.pngIs there anything else you want to say about education technology, edtech, this whole industry of edtech now? Or, any other thoughts about things that you’re working on?

Matt: Here’s the stuff that we’re most excited to work on. First of all, we’re adding a tsunami of new forms of content to ensure that teachers are able to use Newsela as a central reading resource for what they’re teaching, so there’ll be more an aspect on that to come. That’s one big area for us. We just want to be able to cover as many topics as we possibly can, because teachers love their students reading on Newsela, so we want to give them as much stuff to read as possible.

Second, we’re making it a lot easier for teachers to figure out which content aligns to whatever curriculum that they use. In fact, we work with school districts to custom align text sets of articles. Text sets is something that is a huge hit on Newsela, essentially playlist. Teachers have created over 50,000 of these text sets, but we create custom text sets for school districts, and we’re making it much easier for teachers to find text sets and units of studies essentially that align to whatever their curriculum is.

Teachers, they just want to save time, and they just want the answer. We don’t want to have to have them poke around too much, so we’re going to be making some big improvements on that as well.

Our sort of deep R&D efforts that we can’t talk about as much, are focused on what we would call augmented reality for reading. Imagine you put on some goggles and the words on the page transform into something different with new information, ways to interact with it, worlds above and below and alongside the text. That’s a lot of what our R&D efforts are focused on right now. We’re really excited to see where those efforts take us.

Some big announcements in the next few months or so?

Matt: I’d say so.

Excellent. Well, you’ve been a real sport answering all these questions, and I really appreciate you taking time out. I’d like to interview you down the road as a follow-up. Thanks a lot for your time—looking forward to talking again later.

Matt: My pleasure. Thanks for all the shining a light on education technology. It’s so important these days.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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To Leap Ahead

Using digital portfolios to transform the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Chris Besse

CREDIT FreshGrade progress.pngThe Germans have a saying, vorsprung durch technik. You’ve probably heard it before—Audi has used the phrase as a slogan for 30 years. Roughly translated, it means ‘progress through technology.’ There’s no single word that is an exact English equivalent of ‘vorsprung’, but ‘to leap ahead’ comes close.

Today’s generation is more at ease with technology than any that have come before them. Technology is changing the way students learn and the way teachers teach. To see ‘vorsprung durch technik’ in action, you need only look at digital portfolios and the way they are enabling educators to drive change in assessment.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”

Thanks to advancement in technology, combined with research validating observational methods and support from public policy, educators are moving beyond the reliance on summative assessment and traditional letter grades. Using digital portfolios to document and capture learning, teachers can combine traditional grading with ongoing feedback. This method allows for enhanced communication, greater ownership of student learning, personalization and parent engagement in the learning process.

The Evolution of Communication

Traditional assessment in the form of a letter grade provides the student a snapshot of how they are performing at a moment in time. Letter grades do a poor job with providing teachers with data about a student’s strengths or weakness and give parents little information about how they can support their child. When it comes to telling us how much a child has grown, or what skills they have developed, a grade is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Digital portfolios have made it easy for teachers to capture learning and provide personalized feedback on the go. Instead of waiting until the end of term to report learning via report cards, teachers can communicate progress with students and teachers systematically. By capturing and documenting learning, teachers can collect evidence of the learning journey that can be accessed throughout the year. Assessment becomes more data-driven, feedback can be more constructive and testing less stressful for all parties involved.

The late Steve Jobs said, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” We are seeing educators and leaders doing some truly wonderful things with digital portfolios.

Take reading for example. Educators are using audio tools to track reading process, tagging that activity, and allowing students and parents to go back and hear throughout the school year how their reading has progressed. Parents tell us, “Not only am I hearing the progression but even listening to the way that the teacher is correcting my child has made me better at reading with them at home.” Stories like that come from a mindset of, “Let’s try to create some variables and give teachers a variety of tools to use.”

Helping Students Think Critically About Their Learning and Reflection

Using digital portfolio tools is an effective way to teach students the ability to think critically about the products of their learning and the development of their skill set. Thanks to research from leaders like John Hattie, we know that it is also an effective method of increasing student outcomes. Teachers like Samantha Wise, a 3rd grade teacher from Ohio, are having great success using this method.

“We are a school that loves to incorporate technology and 21st century skills, so we were looking for a digital aspect to our portfolio and reporting system,” said Wise. “I love using portfolios to share student work, communicate with parents and students, and to get the students involved in sharing their work and passion for learning with their family members. I have had the same class for the last two years, and it has been awesome to see their mastery of posting, commenting, and determining what to put on their portfolios. They are always excited to share the media they create, writing pieces, project progress and the mastery of the content they are learning.”

In some classes, where checking in with every student can be a challenge, digital portfolios offer students and educators a new channel for conversation and partnership. In addition to self-reflection, students are also able to draw attention to their work for help or celebration.

Allowing for Personalization

Growth looks different for every student. Educators have told us that using digital portfolios helps them know their students better. With all their communication in one place, it is easy for students to post questions and comments for teachers to view and respond to them. They also allow for students to pursue areas of interest outside the curriculum and demonstrate learning in those areas, or to demonstrate understanding of curricular standards in forms of their own choosing.

Digital portfolios “create another dialogue beyond the classroom,” said high school art teacher Sarah Scott. “It starts a conversation more than email does.” In class, Sarah can pick up on visual cues that students are struggling or excelling, but comments from students in digital portfolios provided her with a different perspective. Some students who were working very successfully were struggling internally with their creations and creative process. Sarah now uses those insights to directly address some of the general challenges for the group or the more specific challenges faced by individual students.

Parent Engagement

Parental involvement in a student’s education is consistently found to improve academic performance. Technology helps us increase parent engagement by bringing parents closer to their child’s learning. It can bring student progress directly to a mobile device in the form of notifications or an email summary. This means that parents can track their child’s learning journey wherever they are.

“I believe the real power lies in how digital portfolios connect home and school,” said 6th and 7th grade teacher Rob Heinrichs. “One small example can be found in how parents have responded to the speeches my students have done this week. I took video of every student performing their speeches and posted to their individual portfolios. Parents were able to watch their child’s speech only minutes after their child performed it for the class. They were able to give their child feedback right away. I also gave my students the task of watching their speeches and reflecting on how they could improve their public speaking. Finally, I have my own feedback for student learning. Portfolios make the reflective/feedback cycle possible in exciting ways that I have not ever been able to do so easily. My parents love knowing how their children are doing, and I feel like I am finally able to give meaningful feedback that students actually take to heart.”

When you can get students really focused on talking about their learning and demonstrate evidence of learning, then there is a real chance for change. Technology will continue to have a significant role in the advancement of education in general and assessment specifically. As technology advances, an educator’s abilities increase. That’s vorsprung durch technik!

Chris Besse is President and COO of FreshGrade Education Inc., a learning collaboration and digital portfolio platform company focused on making learning visible to meet the challenges facing teachers, parents, and students in a 21st-century classroom.

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Trends | A Question of EdTech Efficacy

CREDIT EdTech Efficacy Symposium.jpgIn Washington, D.C. just about a month ago, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Digital Promise, and the Jefferson Education Accelerator hosted a symposium focused on the role of efficacy research in the development, adoption, and implementation of educational technology.  The issues and challenges raised there continue to ripple outward across the education landscape and the edtech ecosystem and will continue to do so in the months and years to come. The meeting was the culmination of a year-long collaboration among stakeholders who would do well to continue to increase their work together in support of education technology: academic researchers; entrepreneurs; district and university leaders; investors and philanthropists; and teachers and professors. Highlights from the symposium’s over 55 presenters and participants with diverse ideas for moving efficacy to the center of the discourse concerning the development, adoption, and implementation of technology in education are all right here: Learn more.

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