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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2018 EdTech Awards Now Open

2018Awards your time to shineThe EdTech Awards recognizes people in and around education for outstanding contributions in transforming education through technology to enrich the lives of learners everywhere. Featuring edtech’s best and brightest, the annual recognition program shines a spotlight on cool tools, inspiring leaders, and innovative trendsetters. Finalists and winners of the 2017 EdTech Awards were announced in March. The 2018 EdTech Awards program is now open for entries, enter here: 2018 Entry Form.

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Building the Best Learning Platform

For technologists in education, teacher input is key.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kenneth Chapman

CREDIT D2L.pngAs technologists focused on the education space, we’re constantly striving to stay on top of the needs of teachers and their goals in educating students. That means we’ve talked to hundreds of teachers over the past few years as we’ve worked to re-imagine the K-12 experience for this generation and beyond.

Our conversations have been inspiring and revealing:

  • Teachers love teaching. They love creating that spark and motivation in their students.
  • Teachers are passionate. They put their heart into creating dynamic and memorable learning experiences for their students.
  • Teachers face enormous time constraints, so every new activity has to be for the benefit of their students.
  • Teachers are incredibly resourceful. They find what they need, whether it’s tools, content, or technology, and plenty of it.

When it comes to technology, some of the teachers we’ve spoken with have been big, progressive innovators — the types who will seek out any technology available to deliver the learning experience they want for their students. We’ve also talked with plenty of teachers who have that same vision, but who struggle to learn and use the dizzying array of new technology available to them. That may be because of age – teachers who didn’t grow up with tech tools may find them harder to master in general – or because of a lack of time and administrative support. Often, it’s a combination of these things.

It’s our job in edtech to work to remove barriers to technology for everyone, from students to teachers to parents to administrators.

Unfortunately, that means many teachers just don’t have the training, time or tools to deliver the best learning experience for all students. And so, as we’ve spoken with teachers over the past two years in particular as part of launching our innovative new product platform, we’ve been constantly thinking about the needs of all teachers, in all situations.

Teacher resourcefulness is an amazing thing to witness, and we’re in awe of the way teachers across the spectrum manage to make their classrooms work, and to make learning happen despite some very tough challenges. Resourcefulness has a flip side, however, in that it creates challenges for K-12 leadership, IT departments, schools, districts, states, and even the teachers themselves.

After all, a successful K-12 learning ecosystem can be thought of as a stool with three legs:

  • Curriculum, which is content and activities that line up to the standards and outcomes districts wish to teach to;
  • Instruction, which is how material is presented and organized for students into a cohesive learning experience;
  • Assessment, which covers the huge variety of tools and methods teachers use to evaluate and document student progress.

The problem with a creative, ad-hoc approach to using tools, content and technology is that there’s little or no connection among the instruction, the curriculum, and the assessment parts of the stool. Moreover, there’s little coordination among teachers, and far too much duplication of effort. Making connections manually means more work and demands on the teacher’s already precious time, and little sharing with teachers who are still struggling to master technology.

Next-Gen K-12 Learning Platform

Instead, a modern K-12 learning experience is one in which teachers can still use all the tools they love – including Google Classroom, LearnZillion, and much more — but do it within a single learning management platform, one that takes care of the time-intensive setup and communication demands on teachers. By incorporating everything into a single platform, the right LMS gives novice teachers a robust and easy-to-use set of tools in one place, with one learning curve and one log-in sequence. Advanced teachers can use what they already know, but can access, organize and share it much more easily.

For administrators and other education leaders, moving the district’s education technology under a single umbrella allows much better management in general, including issues like user access and privacy, accessibility, and mobile access. The LMS, rather than individual tools, acts to ensure that everything is supported, that login is the same for every tool, and that content can be shared appropriately with others.

With this approach, the LMS acts as a “hub” for the district, creating a means to roll out new initiatives in a consistent and scalable way. When legislation like ESSA looms, districts have a scalable and centralized way to implement their strategies.

For example, parent engagement is now the law under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, there are questions around how much money will be assigned to ESSA plans and to what extent they will be enforced. Under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, states need to submit their ESSA plans this September, including plans for parent engagement.

Because parent engagement is tough to do well, it serves as a good example of the sort of challenge districts face with diverse systems. Parent engagement needs to be done consistently and well across all students. To reach out to parents effectively, schools and districts will need common, easy-to-use communication tools, such as offering parent-teacher conferences via video over mobile devices, or giving parents secure access via a web portal to their child’s work.

That’s where a new generation of LMS platforms can shine. The right platform can make it easy for parents and teachers to connect effectively and often, using tools that are easy and familiar for both sides.

Involved parents lead to greater student outcomes – in the classroom and beyond. The right LMS can make it easy for parents to be a fly on the wall in their child’s classroom, creating a connected community that drives student achievement.

As their partner, it’s our job in edtech to work to remove barriers to technology for everyone, from students to teachers to parents to administrators. That means enabling all of the amazing teachers we’ve talked to, and all of their counterparts all across the technology spectrum, to use the best tools and techniques out there to be the very best educators possible.

Kenneth Chapman is VP of Market Research at Desire2Learn. “I exist to share my passion and expertise for how beautifully conceived and designed technology can have a transformative impact on learners everywhere,” says Ken. Follow him @D2L

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The Aspirational Thinking of the API Economy

The API economy is changing the world. But will it change edtech?

GUEST COLUMN | by Micheál Heffernan

CREDIT Learnosity.pngThere are innovators in every age and walk of life. It’s something that bonds people across different times and cultures – just about everyone can appreciate a good idea once they understand its context and impact, but such clarity can be elusive.

Lack of understanding is certainly one issue having a big impact on many of today’s most brilliant innovations – a huge number of which are technology based, meaning they often remain inaccessible to non-technologists.

It will be the role of APIs to allow developers and product managers to realize and refine their vision so as to create a better learning experience.

In spite of this, even the most dedicated Luddites among us would be hard-pressed to ignore the spate of advances that technology has afforded in areas such as communication, finance, entertainment, or travel. In fact, if you own a mobile device (and there’s a strong chance you do, given that over three-quarters of Americans adults own one), then you probably use lots of applications every day. For example, you might use your phone when looking for directions. Or maybe you use a fitness app to monitor gym activity. Perhaps you use your device to share images with friends, or get the news, or bank online.

Living in an Interconnected World

The ease with which you can perform any of these tasks is a testament to just how intuitive their design is. It is also because they are designed to work together so that you can put them to use anytime, from just about anywhere. The thing that makes this integration possible represents one of the modern era’s greatest, and possibly least well-known, innovations – the API.

What is an API and Why Should I Care?

The API acronym stands for Application Programming Interface. It’s not the most exciting name in the world, which is a pity because APIs enable some truly exciting possibilities.

But before we get into those, let’s try giving them some context.

Though they’ve been around for some time (since around 2000), APIs have not come close to entering the public consciousness until relatively recently. For this we can thank the rise of mobile devices along with a corollary increase in the use of social media – both of which were pivotal in accelerating the popularity of apps, which we use daily to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things.

However, without APIs there would have been no such surge in popularity. In fact, there might not even be any apps at all, as pointed out by Ian Clarke in the Computer Business Review:

“APIs are the unsung heroes of the application economy. Applications wouldn’t exist without them.”

The truth is that without APIs the apps we all use everyday wouldn’t function as we’ve grown to expect. There would be no integration, no fluid user experience, and, well, no point really. Which brings us to the core of why APIs are so important – they’re built, in essence, to allow data to communicate with data.

It’s a purpose that becomes pretty clear when you think about the API name again: application programming interface – that is, an interface between apps. To look at it another way, an API essentially performs the role of helping two strangers speaking different languages to communicate with each other.

Who uses APIs?

This is where things start to get interesting. Because APIs perform a communicative function between apps with potentially disparate codes, they create endless possibilities for integration and innovation across industries and user types.

The huge value that this flexibility offers is clear from even a cursory glance at some of the companies employing APIs as a cornerstone of their service: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Salesforce, Spotify, Uber, Netflix, and Stripe. Obviously, this tiny list includes some giant companies, but would any of them be as successful if APIs didn’t let them freely integrate their features with myriad other companies and platforms around the globe? Most likely not – but because they were quicker to leverage the potential of their APIs than everyone else, they gave themselves a major head start on their competitors.

As a result, companies are no longer treating API development as merely an area of high potential; they are prioritizing it as part of their strategic business plans. In fact, one global study has found that 82 percent of businesses in the UK have already done so, with one-fifth using APIs to drive their revenue growth.

What are the Benefits of APIs?

But that’s just business – what about the actual benefits to real people? And what does any of this mean for the edtech industry?

As implied, APIs allow companies to scale quickly by syndicating their products and increasing their audience reach. For developers and users, however, they open up near-endless possibilities to transform day-to-day activities. As ProgrammableWeb (a tech news and repository site) put it, the potential of APIs “is limited only by the imaginations of developers and the capacity of the API provider’s infrastructure.”

By bringing systems together, APIs give users a sense of effortless mobility. Their simplicity makes all kinds of services instantly accessible. Customers gain massive benefits from speedier development cycles since the applications they use are constantly evolving behind the scenes, thereby offering a tangible sense of moving with change rather than resisting it.

APIs – Imagining the Future

In spite of this, the use of APIs in education is still pretty low, at least when compared to other industries. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that just 3 percent of spending in education goes towards digital compared to 35 percent in other content-based industries.

Still, vision precedes action, so let’s take a moment to imagine how APIs might be used in an edtech context.

Let’s begin by picturing a high school student learning about the American Civil War. She wants to better understand the timeline of events, their import and order, but is finding it difficult. The student takes a test on the key battles of the Civil War. The data is fed back into the cloud and an integrated software gives the student further options to watch some short videos detailing the Battle of the Ironclad between Monitor and Merrimack, or browse related visual materials such as infographics or VR tours on the conflict.

Later, the student is given the option to join a live discussion on the topic with fellow students from around the country. Afterwards she retakes the test. Her score is processed and the learning materials she’s used are awarded scores based on their learning impact. In doing so, students with similar difficulties can later be offered similar solutions – or others – until the system locates the content that works best for them. This is also shared with teachers, who can discuss the best-performing content in class with their students, reinforcing key points.

All of these separate actions could be provided by a number of apps, owned by different companies – yet the APIs act as points of integration, transforming raw data into a series of communications. Without them, developers or product owners would face the monumental task of having to create such an open ecosystem on their own, and thereby risk falling prey to the perils of ignoring the lessons of the past.

Though the imagined scenario above might not be the most progressive vision of education’s future, that is beside the point. Someone else’s vision will be; and it will be the role of APIs to allow developers and product managers to realize and refine their vision so as to create a better learning experience. As long as users remain at the heart of the process, such aspirations are bound to eventually become achievements.


Micheál Heffernan is a brand journalist with Irish-based edtech company Learnosity.

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