Making Learning Fun

The family that makes together learns together.

GUEST COLUMN | by Heather Weiss and Gregg Behr

CREDIT MAKESHOPWhen families wander into MAKESHOP, they are greeted with an inviting array of electronic tools, circuitry, sewing needles, and saws. Educators at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh makerspace help visitors develop a project that family members can complete together. The idea is to build something physical while building knowledge and relationships at the same time – all while having fun together.

Maker education provides an accessible and fun pathway to connected learning for families.

In traditional schooling models, families have participated mostly at the margins, helping with homework or chaperoning field trips. Now, with the spread of anywhere, anytime learning, a school is just one setting where kids can learn. Connected learning posits that the best education begins with a child’s own interests. A range of institutions and mentors then help kids connect their passions to academic and professional opportunities.

This new learning landscape requires—and presents opportunities for—updated parental roles.

Parents are often eager to become more involved in their children’s education, but they may not know where to begin. The explosion of digital learning tools only compounds the confusion.

This curiosity is actually a fruitful place to start. Take maker education. Emphasizing exploration and risk, the hands-on maker movement creates abundant opportunities for families to get directly involved in their children’s schooling and learning. Ambitious and creative maker projects demand and inspire collaboration with parents and caregivers. At a MAKESHOP electricity workshop, kindergarteners and their fathers were presented with a pile of batteries and motors. Together, they designed and built functional inventions, including a handheld fan.

Often, tech tools and gadgets are new for both parent and child, giving each the chance to be a teacher, or the option for both to learn as peers. In other cases, the materials are low-tech but still offer prospects for cooperative learning. A MAKESHOP blogger wrote about a father-daughter duo who visited Pittsburgh and ended up spending two days at the makerspace sewing a fabric pouch for the family tablet.

The Harvard Family Research Project has spent years tracking the boom in informal learning opportunities, and advocating for wider access. High-income families outspend their low-income counterparts on extracurricular programs nearly seven to one, write Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane in Wither Opportunity?. Lower income families often have less time to dedicate to children’s educational enrichment, and less money to spend on expensive afterschool programs. By sixth grade, middle-class kids have spent 6,000 more hours in extracurricular learning programs than poor students, according to The After-School Corporation.

Public makerspaces give all parents and guardians an opportunity to play a supportive role in their kids’ exploration. The programming at places like Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP or the New York Hall of Science makerspace is designed to be flexible and interactive. The spaces facilitate connection between family members and also act as community resources. Like MAKESHOP—where low-income families can present an EBT card to receive $2 admission for up to four people—many maker sites are affiliated with museums, libraries, or community centers where families can join a social network or find access to other public programming.

In Pittsburgh, these spaces exist at the Millvale Community Library, where there are maker programs for kids and teens; at Carnegie Mellon University, where the CREATE Lab churns out community-oriented tech; and at Assemble, where the assorted community programming includes a summer camp that neighborhood kids can attend for free. The explosion of maker learning in Pittsburgh is part of the city’s effort to “remake learning” into a connected, inclusive, hands-on experience, and to expand these opportunities to all of the region’s young people. There are now more than 100 documented maker spaces in the Pittsburgh region.  At the National Maker Faire, The Remake Learning Network, will launch a new Playbook, designed to help scale learning innovations like those that are happening in Pittsburgh to other cities and regions across the country.

When families are involved, young learners have a framework for connecting their work at school to their life and community beyond campus. With parental support, kids are more likely to pursue projects and maintain focus. Maker education provides an accessible and fun pathway to connected learning for families.

Gregg Behr is the executive director of The Grable Foundation and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council, a civic leadership group advancing maker learning and learning innovation generally. Heather Weiss is the Founder and Director of the Harvard Family Research Project.

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MOOCs in Review

CREDIT CourseTalkA study of 74,000 MOOC reviews – from one of the world’s largest source of student-powered MOOC ratings – suggests online course providers should not be afraid to charge for classes, assign challenging workloads or point students to third-party review platforms. CourseTalk analyzed its entire review catalog and found:

  • Paid courses were rated, on average, 1.4 stars higher than free courses (out of 5 stars). CourseTalk users are willing to pay for good courses.
  • No direct link exists between hours of study required and course rating. CourseTalk reviewers do not penalize courses for heavy workloads.
  • The average course gets 4.18 out of 5 stars, with reviews submitted directly on CourseTalk averaging a half star higher than ones submitted on course provider sites. Students using third-party review platforms like CourseTalk seem especially satisfied with their learning experiences, perhaps because a vast, cross-provider catalog helps them find the right courses for them.

The study covers 7,500 courses from 46 providers. For more findings, see the full analysis, “What Reviews Divulge About Online Education.”

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Changes and Challenges

A view from within the edtech industry.

GUEST COLUMN | by Orly Fuhrman

CREDIT LingualyThe Internet is a digital playground for education and learning. Over the last few years, we’ve seen edtech startups climb the ladder of the venture capitalist portfolio to the point where some brands are now widely recognized and are beginning to change the way people engage with education. As desktops become more affordable and smartphone and tablet devices become the norm, the education market has grown to include students and teachers who actively participate in a variety of edtech platforms, both in and outside of the classroom.

This willingness of investors to fund edtech ventures has also seen a 180-degree shift in the industry, particularly since we introduced our own unique style of digital learning just a few short years ago. In the past, from a VC’s perspective, the market was too hard to break into because ventures required connections with schools, higher learning institutions, education boards, and solid monetization strategy. The pressure to slot into established teaching parameters is what brought about the initial change from companies like Coursera and Khan Academy, whose founders decided to tackle digital education in their own way. Now, ventures across the edtech spectrum — whether they are language platforms, personal dictionaries, translation apps, or applications that can be integrated into the classroom — see billions of dollars in investment each year.

As with any other industry, edtech continues to evolve. But through our own experience as an edtech startup, we see that global education needs a massive shift.

As with any other industry, edtech continues to evolve. But through our own experience as an edtech startup, we see that global education needs a massive shift in its structure to cater to a growing population that now has more access to information than previous generations. Students today no longer need to be restricted to rigid curriculums; rather, they require a more personalized medium to effectively take in information.

The Changing Ways of Edtech Platforms

Before adaptive platforms were the norm, digital content was king for most edtech ventures, especially for language teaching programs. Solutions that offered a “new” way of learning a language were concerned mainly with bringing existing content online, creating new digital content and structuring lesson plans—all of which took no account of the individual skill level or interests of the student. Although this approach made it easy for educators to create content and students to access it, it proved hard to get learners to actively engage with online lessons.

Now the industry is shifting again and turning away from content creation. While it is still important to have quality content, it is not the entire focus of the learning process. Rather, the importance lies in an educational immersion method that matches readily available content with the exact needs and interests of the student. This focus on customization has been the biggest shift in the industry. It is not just about sending students into the web equipped with a dictionary and Google Translate. It is about contextualizing real world content — available for almost every language — and applying it effectively to a new way of learning.

Technology’s Role

New digital devices — such as tablets and smartphones — that change the way students interact with language lessons have complemented this shift in edtech. Now it is easier for platforms to combine games with content and intuitive interfaces to engage their audience and, in so doing, match their style of learning with something they are actually interested in. has grown from a few thousand to over half a million users over the past year. It has evolved from being just a Chrome extension to a cross-platform app. The real power and opportunity in edtech startups lies in the possibility of ubiquity across portable devices: a user can sync to the cloud, refer to content and learn from it no matter where they are. For language platforms, mobile apps can now pro-actively remind users of words, prompt them to read articles in another language, or tell them exactly how to pronounce a word.

Applying Crowd-Sourced Content

A key trend within edtech is the shift towards a crowd-sourced means of digital content generation, including videos and sound bites. There are already a number of edtech language sites that enable people from around the world to teach other people pronunciation, commonly used words and phrases from their own countries. Simple yet effective platforms include Tatoeba, which is a database of useful sentences in many languages, and Forvo, which lets anyone hear exactly how words are pronounced in 325 languages.

As a language startup, we promote the expansion of educational content and the methods used to teach it. By leveraging tech and constantly applying new ideas for learning and engagement, edtech can provide a different perspective on the type of content that is taught and can personalize the experience, while learning from users around the world about what does and doesn’t work.

Orly Fuhrman is the co-founder of, a digital immersion platform that utilizes readily available news content from across the web to teach students of all proficiency levels a new language. The cloud-synced solution is available for desktop and mobile devices and supports 18+ dictionary languages.

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Embracing Virtualization

Four schools solve their biggest edtech challenges with a simple solution.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ilan Paretsky

CREDIT Ericom SoftwareVirtualization technology is changing the modern classroom. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies and HTML5 capabilities extend the reach and flexibility of students, staff, parents, IT personnel and administrators to enhanced educational experiences, far beyond the chalkboard.

Teachers and students are able to access all of their materials through the browser — the software is transparent to the user, meaning there’s no learning curve. Moreover, updating different applications and software for multiple and diverse endpoints no longer creates an IT headache.

Growth in online education and BYOD trends in the classroom are fueling the need for schools to adopt more progressive technologies. 

But most importantly – virtual desktop and application delivery provide better remote access, offering greater flexibility and involvement in the education process for everyone from the students to the administrators.

Remote access makes it easier for parents to get involved in their child’s education, and gain a better understanding of their child’s curriculum. It also allows students and teachers to have access to educational materials at all times, streamlining the communication process outside of the classroom. IT personnel and administrators can make updates to applications and infrastructure without the headache of physically touching endpoint devices, whether they are school-issued or not.

Virtual desktop and application solutions provide a step towards a simpler implementation of education technology and learning environments, including cloud adoption, online testing, security and the reduction of IT complexity.

Here are four examples of how educational institutions from K-12 to colleges and universities are embracing virtualization.

Movement towards the Cloud

Virtualization is making the move to the cloud easy for all levels of educational institutions, from K-12 schools to universities.

Greater Lawrence Technical School (GLTS) in Andover Massachusetts is in the process of transitioning to the cloud. As part of its one-to-one Chromebook initiative, GLTS is implementing virtualization technology to provide web-based access to Windows-based software (as well as Google apps) for every student.

With between 1,350 and 1,400 students and an expected growth of 375 students per year, GLTS needed a solution that was scalable and worked with their across-the-board adoption of Google technology as well as their legacy Windows applications.

The adoption of virtualization software greatly reduced their budget, allowing them to update a lab and make other necessary upgrades in various departments.

Streamlining the Testing Environment

With increasing national and state requirements for online testing, teachers need more computer time for their students. Schools are providing more hardware and software licensing to properly prepare their students for online testing.

Virtual access technology in the browser makes this an easy task as it allows schools to deliver the necessary applications without having to manage several hundreds or thousands of endpoint devices.

The Hapeville Charter School’s implementation of an affordable virtualization technology in June of 2014 helped them to better prepare their students for an online testing environment without compromising security.

They gained a turn-key mobile solution that expanded their computer accessibility by 400 percent.

Security for Students and Staff

The growing BYOD trend in universities and other higher education institutions is making security more of a concern.

Centrally managed, virtual desktop access gives universities more control over their applications, databases and online testing environments.

Access via the browser mitigates and sometimes eliminates device management and support costs on top of this security aspect – an important pain point for North Greenville University.

The university is using virtualization technology to drive key initiatives at the university such as BYOD policies and distance education, which require easy access to a broad range of applications from all types of devices. For them, security was a big concern, and being able to access key application through the browser mitigated this risk.

Reducing IT Complexity

Many types of virtualization technologies require software installation, but this is not the most desirable solution in an education setting.

Without endpoint installation, everything can happen in the browser. Updates and software changes are maintained and managed in one place, greatly reducing IT complexity and school IT costs.  Multiple device support becomes a Helpdesk pain of the past.

Penn State University recent transitioned to a virtual environment, reducing their help desk ticket generation by 90 percent – a huge alleviation of complexity for the IT department.

From a business perspective, the solution allowed the university to extend the learning environment to off-campus students and faculty, at home or during off hours, better facilitating remote learning and off-campus collaboration.

Growth in online education and BYOD trends in the classroom are fueling the need for schools to adopt more progressive technologies. Scalability, security and performance in a virtual desktop solution is necessary for education technologies to progress in the classroom.

Ilan Paretsky is VP Marketing at Ericom Software, a leading provider of virtualization technology that flexibly accommodates a wide range of learning scenarios,  providing educational institutions with the opportunity to extend the reach of their classrooms.

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Cool Tool | eZuce’s Viewme

CREDIT eZuceeZuce’s Video Collaboration Solution Viewme (formerly SeeVogh), is available to higher education institutions as part of the Internet2 NET+ initiative. Faculty, staff and students at member institutions can have unlimited access to the  video collaboration solution to support virtual classrooms, intercampus learning, extended office hours, study groups and many other applications. It eliminates costly setup fees, and provides free clients enabling every user their own meeting room. The solution integrates with legacy telepresence systems while delivering a high-quality, enterprise class video collaboration platform, and it supports Windows, Android and iOS-based mobile devices to facilitate immersive visual collaboration with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Jack Suess, VP for Information Technology and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a strong advocate. “UMBC was looking for something that was very easy to use, and didn’t require administrative setup, that worked with our enterprise H.323 systems,” he says, “and was inexpensive enough that we could deploy it to all faculty and staff without charging extra for it.” For Suess, this solution is the first product that hit all three. It currently provides visual collaboration for thousands of researchers on a global basis as part of the The eZuce SRN (formerly The SeeVogh Research Network). Check it out.

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