Building 21st Century Learning Environments

What if construction were designed to support ongoing change?

GUEST COLUMN | by Betsy Maddox 

CREDIT DIRRT img.pngWe’re 17 years in to this century yet we’re still seeing newly built learning environments that pay closer semblance to those constructed around the time of the industrial revolution. At the same time we’re seeing dramatic changes to the way we educate and learn, rapid advancements in technology, and other hurdles difficult to predict. Education interiors must be flexible and adaptable or they’re outdated before construction even ends.

We’ve had misguided and fleeting fits and starts of evolution in these spaces for our students. Remember the surge in open classrooms within school buildings around the 1970s? Students were encouraged to collaborate, overhear their neighbors and move around. The interpretation and physical manifestation of what students need was prophetic, but the curriculum lagged. Consequently, the open classroom concept was short lived.

Until now, estimates were the best a builder could offer.

Now, we see the pendulum swinging back to the open concept, but this time curriculum drivers are echoing spatial needs. Architects and designers are charged with creating the perfect mix of spaces that support different sized groups, various levels of collaboration, emerging technologies and future flexibility within those spaces. It’s not enough to have the prescribed number of classrooms to accommodate a certain number of students.

As a result, we’re seeing a significant shift from a teacher-centric model to a student-centric model. Instructors are now facilitators and coaches. Students are no longer empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge; instead they’re active participants in their own learning. For an example, catch a private screening of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary highlighting San Diego public charter high school, High Tech High.

At the same time, public learning institutions are under a tremendous amount of pressure to spend money prudently; these are your tax dollars at work. In school design and construction, you often get one shot, one bond referendum, to make your community’s dreams come true and ultimately to positively impact the lives of generations to come. Once the project is set in motion, you sit with eyes winced and fingers crossed, hoping you got it right. You hope the end result will still be relevant the day the doors open, let alone 40 years from now. Flexibility within that space becomes critical in order to avoid the space becoming quickly outdated and ineffective.

But, what if the construction was fundamentally designed to support ongoing change? What if you could embrace the ignorance of not knowing what the future holds?

A client of mine once said, “You’re not driving the same car you drove in the 60s, you’re not using the same computer you bought five years ago, why should we build buildings the same?” He’s right.

A prefab construction method, or manufactured construction, responds to these challenges. How does it impact the way we design, build and use learning spaces? Manufactured construction always mitigates labor, the biggest construction expense. When manufactured construction is backed by end-user controlled technology, it becomes extraordinarily fast while tailored to the school’s exact needs. Projects are created custom and charged according to the amount of materials used, not according to deviations from a standard offering. With this model it can actually cost less.

These manufacturers use CAD-compatible software to create interactive 3D environments for you to explore before finalizing an order. The same software integrates all phases of a project, complete with instant and detailed data manufacturing, delivery, installation and reconfigurations. Instant and detailed pricing (with no surprises or contingency fees added) makes budgeting and scheduling easier and more accurate. With limited budgets and timelines, this predictability over costs and completion times is essential. Until now, estimates were the best a builder could offer. The 3D nature ensures stakeholders actually understand the space and are better equipped to make confident decisions quickly – further reducing time.

User requirements are considered right from the beginning and included during all stages of the design process to ensure the space seamlessly supports the needs of diverse user groups. From acoustic management, to integrated technology, to incorporating natural light and writable surfaces, you get the freedom to build an environment that helps elevate performance and outcomes.

All components of your custom order are manufactured in a controlled off-site environment for consistency and quality, and they can arrive on site in the sizes specified with finishes already applied, within four weeks of finalizing your order. There are no off-cuts, drywall dust or indoor air quality issues to worry about, just fast and clean installation that can have your space complete and ready for students by the end of summer or winter break.

This approach supports the ever-changing needs of your organization by allowing adaptability for the future, full integration of technology and equipment, and the surfaces become functional learning areas (think writable, tackable surfaces). Faculty members can meet students wherever they are in their learning sphere, whether it’s high-tech or low-tech.

In my travels throughout North America, the excitement around this new approach to construction is palpable. Educators who’ve used it comment that it’s fast, cost-effective, minimally disruptive, and their technology is seamlessly integrated and permanently accessible for servicing and upgrades. Although the initial draw is often aesthetic appeal, school teams quickly learn from experience that manufactured construction is a cost-compelling and more practical approach with multiple benefits. It’s faster, cleaner, provides better communication in the planning stages and allows for accurate budgeting.

Betsy Maddox is an Education Specialist at DIRTT, a leading technology-driven manufacturer of highly customized interiors including build-outs in both primary and post-secondary institutions. Besty is particularly interested in sustainable environments that support learning outcomes.

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Beyond Programming Language

How to choose the best coding bootcamp.

GUEST COLUMN | by Steven Harms

credit-devbootcampEvery year, more students are turning to coding bootcamps to learn the skills that will fast-track them into one of the lucrative technology jobs awaiting qualified applicants. Around half of the jobs with salaries in the top income quartile ($57,000 or more per year) require some coding skills – and people are taking notice. In fact, according to a recent Course Report study, nearly 18,000 students will graduate from a coding bootcamp in 2016 – a substantial increase over the 10,333 who graduated in 2015.

It’s important to find a bootcamp that not only offers a rigorous technical curriculum, but creates an accessible, inclusive, and supportive environment.

With shorter graduation timelines and a curriculum structure focused on practical application, bootcamps are changing both the delivery model of programming education and the time commitment required to learn coding. With these changes come questions, particularly from prospective students, about choosing the right bootcamp to meet career objectives. Given the investment of both time and money and the number of bootcamps on the market, it’s important for students to choose wisely. Here are three criteria to consider for those who are thinking of attending a bootcamp.

Consistency in Curriculum

Just like most industries, technology is subject to changing trends, but that doesn’t mean a bootcamp should regularly shift its core curriculum. Often, prospective students – particularly those with little or no prior coding experience – choose a bootcamp based on whether it teaches the programming languages listed in an aspirational job description. It’s entirely reasonable to scour job postings and extract the most frequently used frameworks or techniques, such as JavaScript, OOP, React, Angular, or Angular 2 and choose a bootcamp based on its support for these terms. However, students must look beyond that, for a program that has a firm grounding in fundamentals and teaches them to be nimble and adapt in a new work environment.

Hiring managers care less that a new developer has mastered a specific language and more about an applicant’s ability to reason using programming principles, to understand and communicate the theory of programming languages, and to work outside of a pattern. A bootcamp can help prepare students for coding careers by staying abreast of trends, and it should be nimble in its ability to dial up the focus on a particular language or framework based on the current market need, but its guiding mission should be rooted in those foundational skills because, in the end, great engineers – schooled in the fundamentals – will always produce great products.

The Right Career Support System

If a prospective student is going to put the time and financial investment into a bootcamp, it’s important to know that the bootcamp is also planning to invest in his or her long-term career success. To take advantage of all that a bootcamp has to offer, prospects should choose one that provides reliable post-graduation career support even after graduates land their first jobs, one that directly connects graduates with a network of companies with the capacity to hire developers and one that nurtures a community of alumni who are working as programmers in diverse industries. While none of these benefits may guarantee landing that dream job, they do set graduates up for the best possible chance of success and a solid return on their investment.

A Judgment-Free Environment

Whether a prospective student has no prior work experience or is looking to make a career shift, the transition into a developer role isn’t easy. The first day at a coding bootcamp can be intimidating for those with little or no background in web development, so it’s important to find a bootcamp that not only offers a rigorous technical curriculum, but creates an accessible, inclusive, and supportive environment. The right bootcamp culture challenges and pushes students, but acknowledges that there is a lot to learn and that confusion is inevitable.

In fact, it will empower students to embrace the confusion for the sake of learning. The program should be a supportive place for those new to programming, and it should value the diversity of perspectives that they bring to technology. It should facilitate open communication, self-awareness, and collaborative learning to help students build self-confidence and develop an appreciation and desire to work with others, particularly those from underrepresented communities in tech. 

Bootcamps are an excellent way to accelerate the education process and get a jumpstart on a new career but, as with any major decision, prospective students should approach the information gathering process with a critical eye. By exercising due diligence and asking the right questions, students can choose the right school to meet their career objectives and set themselves up for the best possible chance of post-graduate success.

Steven Harms is Director of Curriculum at Dev Bootcamp. Write to:

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The Uncommon ‘Happy Path’

As thruway to graduation and career success becomes more elusive, mobile can help.

GUEST COLUMN | by Brook Bock

credit-blackboard-happy-pathIn edtech software development, we often talk about the “happy path” – a best–case scenario where the student goes through a sequence of activities completely as expected. In software, as in life, the happy path can be more fiction than reality. When we talk to educational institutions about the path of a student from enrollment, to attainment of a degree, to gainful employment, it is clear the technology and processes that support a happy path student journey are insufficient. Why? The happy path isn’t very common. More students transfer schools, change majors, and even get interrupted on this path than go through it in a straight line.

We need to take into account students’ lifestyles, their expectations of technology, and their desire for instant access.

We need to redefine this journey, noting that we are guiding students on a messy path, but one that can lead to success. Technology can support the student journey in a fundamentally new way by reaching students where they are every day – on their smartphones.

To help institutions drive positive outcomes for their students, we need to address what comes before the class, what comes after the class, and the experiences in between. Students need readily available, up-to-date, and easily understandable information about career options, degrees, and courses to make informed decisions – and they need it at their fingertips. Advisors, too, need a more holistic understanding of student sentiment, plans, academics, and risk profiles.

The power of mobile

Mobile represents an enormous opportunity to help students find success. Students are on their mobile devices for hours each day. As we think about how to better empower students on their mobile devices, we need to take into account students’ lifestyles, their expectations of technology, and their desire for instant access. Students are already on their phones to access their coursework, grades, and other class content. We need to unify the student experience across planning, learning and advising – regardless of the student journey.

To truly unify the experience, we need to make sure students have an integrated mobile experience that meets the expectations of today’s mobile lifestyle.  Let’s dive deeper into each key pillar to uncover how mobile can help students on their education path. 

Planning: We know students struggle with planning – both the administrative task of scheduling and the critical tasks of identifying desired career and degree goals based on one’s interests. When planning lives in a silo, students experience a disconnect between their day-to-day lives and what happens after graduation.  Mobile allows students to connect their tactical everyday activities to their long-term goals. It is an opportunity for students to actively engage in small chunks of their educational journey at a moment’s notice. We should enable students to explore interests, identify desired careers, and then plan their journey – all on the device they keep in their pocket.

Learning: When students think of school, they group all aspects into buckets – learning, extracurricular, advising, planning, etc. Mobile provides an interface for various aspects of a student’s journey to seamlessly come together in one place. A unified experience across planning, learning, and advising will help students feel more connected to both their school and their long-term goals.

Advising: Mobile allows student support and advising to become much more personalized, relevant, and timely. The more students engage in activities on their mobile device, the more advisors are able to learn about student wants, interests, needs and struggles. The phone is a way for students to relay sentiment, as well as quantitative data that give advisors a more holistic view of their students, while also providing a better experience for students. Plus, mobile allows for quick communications via text, email, and video chats.

Not all students will end up on a happy path, but advances in mobile technology provide a great opportunity for institutions to help students reach academic and career success. Among my colleagues, while we understand the happy path may be fiction, through mobile innovation we hope to help empower institutions and their students to find something better: happiness.

Brook Bock is Head of Mobile Solutions at Blackboard, Inc., where she focuses on bringing innovative and engaging mobile apps to students and faculty. Write to: and follow @BrookMBock

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The Five Pillars of Quality EdTech Content

Re-examining the goals and purposes of our arena.

GUEST COLUMN | by Nanda Krish

credit-wisewireFor educators, the old standby of textbooks still works in the modern world. However, as educators know, relying solely on books in an age where information is more available than ever does a disservice to everyone across the education chain: from administrators to teachers to students to parents. Technology is capable of delivering information instantly and on a massive scale, and the goal of the edtech industry is to make this happen in smart, efficient ways while maintaining the highest standards of quality.

The edtech industry needs a way to make supplemental material available in an easily accessible and searchable way — all while ensuring quality content.

Educators have been making use of online resources to supplement textbooks and curriculum since the rise of broadband access more than a decade ago. However, finding materials that offer both high quality and specific lesson objectives can be challenging due to the overwhelming volume of content indexed by search engines. With increasing student-to-teacher ratios generally increasing, particularly in public schools, time is a valuable commodity for teachers. Thus, the edtech industry needs a way to make supplemental material available in an easily accessible and searchable way — all while ensuring quality content.

In today’s global, hypercompetitive society, the stakes are high and the pressure on students and teachers is intense, but fortunately, the opportunities to find and deliver high-quality lessons are myriad. Current edtech platforms are among the best tools for teachers and students looking for educational resources, as they deliver valuable learning content across a wide variety of topics. Challenges remain as the industry works out kinks to achieve technology standards for content and delivery that ultimately benefit the end-user. Like any technological leap, this journey comes with many bumps in the road. The following five pillars are the key pillars for platform and content developers on the path to a fine balance between cost, quality, and quantity:

Convenience. Teachers today have an enormous number of responsibilities. Not only are they committed to delivering high-quality curriculum; they are generally facing high student-to-teacher ratios while on small budgets. Bite-sized supplementary material that can be easily searched for and discovered online is one potential solution for time- and fund-strapped teachers. These resources can be added to existing lesson plans or assigned as a whole to small groups or individuals, which is ideal for teachers leading classes of diverse learners with varying interests and at all different ability levels. Today’s digital market provides powerful search engines for curated, topic- and standard-specific material that can be downloaded as needed and customized to suit a teacher’s specific needs.

Depth. The competition for college acceptance, grants, and scholarships is fiercer than ever before, and in many cases, test scores play a significant role in these decisions. Thus, students need quality materials to prepare for assessments. This means having quick access to detailed instruction and practice assessments with the goal of fostering deep understanding on both conceptual and applicative levels. Edtech libraries and marketplaces work well in these instances due to the depth of catalog and immediacy of distribution, but only when the quality of content is consistently high.

Affordability. Cost is a factor for both educators and students. Educators are dealing with increasingly shrinking budgets at a time when demands and pressures are higher. Students come from all backgrounds and may not be able to afford preparation material for AP exams or college courses. For teachers, being able to select and purchase digital content from a catalog in bite-size pieces allows them to optimize their budget, particularly when they can propagate it into further customized materials. For students, affordability is one of the top priorities of supplementary content. The digital realm allows them to focus on quality, quantity, and cost.

Metrics. The wonderful thing about digital content is that it can be a dynamic and living thing, updated and optimized as needed. However, this only works when effective feedback is delivered. That’s why detailed metrics can provide close-up looks at what is working, what isn’t working, and why, along with which content is the most popular, which is too difficult, and which simply isn’t connecting. In order to do this, effective analytics and feedback tools need to be integrated into content—this must be established at the infrastructure level of edtech platforms.

Quality crowdsourced material. The internet has been a double-edged sword for many industries. On one hand, it provides instant access and unlimited information. On the other hand, that information often varies in quality and depth, causing users across the board to spend far too much time searching for valuable, credible resources. Edtech platforms need to embrace the ability to aggregate content from contributors all over the world, yet also commit to strong vetting processes. This can help a platform establish itself as a brand that can be trusted and develop a reputation as an industry leader.

In the end, technology is only as good as its content. Without high-quality materials, it’s an engine without a destination, an exercise in technical achievement rather than tangible progress. For the edtech industry, the goal is then to deliver on all fronts: craft an infrastructure that promotes distribution and analysis, generate content that hits specific needs, and ensure both consistent quality and ample choice. With that, teachers and students can take control of their destinies, with society as a whole benefitting.

Nanda Krish is CEO of Wisewire, an education marketplace for sharing, creating, exchanging, and purchasing premium quality content. Follow him @nanda_krish

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Data: The Key to Customized Instruction

Laying the cornerstone for the development of educational improvement at every level.

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | by Eliot Levinson and Bruce Thoren

credit-blegroupIn the 1950s public education was a monopoly. Students had to attend their neighborhood schools. Education has evolved into a market with options. Many states and districts now allow students to attend a variety of publicly funded and regulated options:

  • Local public schools
  • Public charter schools
  • Online virtual schools, or
  • Open enrollment schools in their own or adjoining communities.

There is a need to move past the spreadsheet and have an effective, easy-to-use dashboard and data analytic tools that can dig into skill development.

The market forces are growing:

  • High-quality schools and districts that were losing enrollment due to aging demographics are marketing the quality of their programs such as language immersion, STEM or technology, higher scores, and improved educational outcomes. A district with 25 percent empty seats can fill those seats with out-of-district students who are attracted by the nature and quality of the programs. The increased dollars follow student enrollment, so filling seats is critical to a district’s financial success. The flip side is that many schools lack resources because their enrollment has dropped
  • Charter schools have demonstrated mixed results. Some of the nationally known charter school groups like KIPP, Khan Academy, and Aspire perform well due to their high standards, consistent curriculum, and ongoing professional development, which create positive outcomes. On the other hand, some smaller community-based charter schools with limited enrollment and/or poor management fail to attract students. If they aren’t recertified by their chartering authority, they fall out of the market.
  • Online virtual schools, despite some poor outcomes, appeal to large numbers of alternative students and homeschoolers and provide online courses for public schools, such as advanced foreign languages or calculus. Smaller public high schools typically don’t have enough demand for these kinds of courses to warrant providing their own.

Effective Data Use – The Secret Sauce of Successful Schools In a Market Environment

Data is the cornerstone for the development of educational improvement at the student, teacher, school, and district level. To illustrate the point, I recently visited four districts in an open enrollment state. Each of the districts was at a different stage of data usage:

District 1 – Laying Out the Basic Data District 1 is a rural elementary district with a second-year superintendent. Prior to the superintendent’s arrival, performance had fallen significantly, teachers had not been evaluated, and there were no strong principals. The superintendent has brought in two new principals and a data analyst who tracks weekly performance in each classroom. In addition, the district has begun a PLC (Professional Learning Community) program, every 3-weeks benchmark tests, and an adaptive assessment every three months. The combined process of the PLCs and publication of the test data enables the superintendent to identify teacher performance and provide teachers needed support by the analyst and the PLC. District 1 is taking the first step of laying out a baseline of data.

School 2 – An Independent Data Model School 2 is a K-12 school with an experienced psychologist who has developed an easy-to-use system for the last decade that enables teachers to identify student entry points in each subject and to repeat the easy-to-use instrument every three weeks. Teachers discuss the results in order to determine remediation and next steps for advancement. The psychologist is very active in determining the cognitive learning style and the type of intervention that is appropriate. This school finds the state department’s data demands excessive with “too much information and no actionable data.” The school has remained on the highest performing level of all schools in the state.

District 3 – New Superintendent With No Use of Data District 3 is in its second year of low performance determined by the state in two of its three schools. It has a very veteran staff, and the school board, well connected to the staff, micromanages. The new superintendent does not yet feel able to work effectively with the board. The superintendent believes he will need to wait for retirements and hiring of his own staff before taking data-based action for improvement. Data – The Key to Customized Instruction

District 4 – Advanced Use of Data District 4 has a fourth-year superintendent and has just constructed a new school with capacity for an additional 100 students. Before the new addition, the district was bringing in 28 percent open enrollment students. There are two teacher coach analysts who collect data on all classroom, benchmark, and administer adaptive tests that are put it into a complex spreadsheet. The district has a very intense PLC program and has improved its performance from the low middle to among the highest in the state. Teachers own the data as their own. They do not see it as a requirement from on high. The superintendent is trying to work with the state to develop a dashboard for all teachers so that they can dig deeply into the skills of their students.

Takeaways For Growing the Use of Data

  1. Using data effectively is a multi-year process starting with laying out the basic data and gradually growing it with PLCs so teachers own it.
  2. The tools for data analytics are still limited. There is a need to move past the spreadsheet and have an effective, easy-to-use dashboard and data analytic tools that can dig into skill development.
  3. Effective use of data demands a team—the superintendent, coach analyst, principals, and the PLCs) that collectively owns the data.
  4. Testing data must be gathered regularly for it to be useful to teachers. Last year’s state test data is not helpful to teachers on an ongoing basis.
  5. Adaptive assessments are good but tend to be underutilized, providing only quarterly data and not being used to their fullest capacity to analyze skills.
  6. Data must be seen as informative and helpful by a teacher and not as a threat. That is why PLCs and collaboration of the staff are critical.
  7. There is a need for a data analyst coach to work with teachers and principals.
  8. The curriculum content has to be evaluated as well as teaching and learning. Sometimes the content is inadequate and should be changed.

Data is key for school districts to effectively compete in the education market. Until the school and district effectively use data, there will be no gains in the greatest benefits in the use of digital curriculum and assessment.

Eliot Levinson, Ph.D., is President of the BLEgroup, a PCG Company. Bruce Thoren is Superintendent of Shoshoni Schools in Wyoming. BLEgroup is an organization of 200 leading edtech decision makers who collaborate to present thought leadership on critical issues to improve education with the integration of technology. Write to:

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