Innovation Alive and Well

At Penn State, a new network and a national edtech summit.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rosemarie Piccioni

CREDIT Penn State EdTech NetworkAdvances in technology are pushing higher education into new realms. From the continuing growth in online degree programs, to incorporating mobile devices and multimedia into teaching environments, educational technology is being used to help improve student outcomes. Penn State is developing an EdTech Network to expand the educational technology sector in State College, Pennsylvania. The goal of the network is to attract entrepreneurs and develop relationships with companies by providing opportunities for collaboration with Penn State faculty, staff and students.

The goal is to accelerate the transfer of new ideas into useful products and processes.

Penn State’s EdTech Network is part of the $30 million Invent Penn State initiative announced by Eric Barron, president of the University, in January 2015. The mission of Invent Penn State is to leverage the University’s size and broad research strengths to be a driver for job creation, economic development and student career success. Educational technology will be one of several areas, including energy, food security, environmental protection, health care, manufacturing, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, where the goal is to accelerate the transfer of new ideas into useful products and processes.

EdTech Summit

The team behind the EdTech Network is a part of Penn State Outreach and Online Education (OOE), a unit of the University led by Vice President for Outreach and Vice Provost for Online Education Craig Weidemann. OOE also leads the team fueling the international reach and nationally ranked programs of Penn State World Campus.

To further advance Penn State partnerships, the EdTech Network will host a summit at the University Park campus November 2–4, 2015. Select companies, investors, alumni, entrepreneurial students and faculty who specialize in educational technology will be invited to attend. Segments of the summit will be live streamed including a presentation by Jaime Casap, Google’s chief education evangelist.

Students Succeeding

Penn State’s EdTech Network growth has already begun with the expansion of a partnership between Penn State World Campus and InsideTrack, a leading student success organization that supports colleges and universities in improving student enrollment, completion and career readiness. As part of a four-year agreement, the California-based company will co-locate six full-time employees and four student interns to an office on the University Park campus.

The expanded partnership with InsideTrack is the network’s first step towards creating similar partnerships with other educational technology companies to develop environments that will help students succeed.

Rosemarie Piccioni, Ed.D., is Director of The Penn State EdTech Network, with a mission to facilitate student success by improving the accessibility and quality of higher education through the use of innovative educational technology solutions. Write to:

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Four Steps to Success

A pioneer heading up one of the longest-running edtech entities shares his secret formula.

GUEST COLUMN | by Ed Gragert

CREDIT iEARN globeOnline educational programs, projects and networks often pride themselves for longevity if they are five or (gasp!) 10 years old. If the former, they might have been created after the most recent downturn in the economy. If the latter, they may have been launched after the dot com bust of 2000. But imagine an international online education network still going strong after a launch in 1988! From a pilot project linking 12 schools in Moscow in the (then) Soviet Union with 12 schools in New York State, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) has grown to become a global network with iEARN organizations in over 140 countries involving over 40,000 member schools and two million students each day — using technology to engage in online collaborative project-based learning. I am often asked how it’s been possible that iEARN has extended its reach and participant base so widely — when all but one or two other networks from the 1990s have failed. I will explore what I think are the four reasons for its success.

1. Mission Driven

From the outset, iEARN has not been purely a technology nor an academic network, in which students solve problems and teachers perhaps compete for prizes and awards for their projects.

CREDIT iEARN quilt“Making a difference” has been a key component of the network from the outset and is built into every collaborative project. When teachers propose new projects — in addition to information on the ages of the students to be involved, curriculum applications, specific activities and culminating action or outcome from the project — a key question asks how the world will be a better place as a result of the project being done — resulting in reflection from the very outset on the “why” and mission, and in designing project activities that address the larger issue of quality of life on the planet.

(Pictured: Students impacted by the earthquake in Bam, Iran with the comfort quilt sent to them by students in the US.)

iEARN has sought to change how students learn through collaboration (rather than competition) in order to prepare them for working together globally on project work and later in careers. We want students to graduate from high school knowing that they can make a difference, and one of exponential size, when and if they work together with others everywhere in the world. As a corollary, if students are to model collaboration, then prizes and awards for individuals and projects — creating winners and losers in the network —actually damage the sense of community and process of working in teams to collaboratively problem-solve.

2. Decentralized Structure

The “flat” technology we all use in the online educational community defies hierarchy and central power structures. When iEARN created its global structure, Dr. Horatio Godoy from Uruguay gave sage advice. He asked why adopt a nation-state structure from the 19th century when the technology we were pioneering did not respect traditional national boundaries. Indeed, the terms “country” or “nation” did not appear in the 1994 International Constitution. Instead, a “Center” was defined by affinity group and services (professional development, support for student project work, working relationship with the ministry of department of education, local legal status and administrative structure, etc.) that it provided its members, not by its geography.

It was a revolutionary model reflecting and honoring the technology, rather than trying to fit an old organizational model to a new global technology reality. Independent iEARN Centers assumed responsibility for their own programs and teacher support in their own languages, cultures and educational systems. This meant registration as national organizations with close working relationships with their Ministries of Education. They were not “branches” of a US organization.

3. Honoring Teachers, Not Technology

CREDIT iEARN teachersFrom the outset, we realized that teachers did not need another curriculum to teach. Instead, they put what they were teaching in a collaborative project format and educators in other countries adapted it to meet their own state or national curriculum requirements. iEARN became a network of teacher-designed and implemented Project-Based Learning, long before that term began to be used and advocated. Being the “owners” and implementers of the projects, teachers were naturally invested in their success, quality and longevity. Teachers continue them because they see enhanced student learning and a motivation to learn. (Pictured: Teachers in Pakistan working and learning together to implement projects for their students.)

iEARN realized early on that the key to success in this field is not the technology, but professional development. Educators are not often taught how to collaborate with another class in their same school. Yet, in iEARN we expect them to work across geographic boundaries, cultures, educational systems, languages, time zones and with technologies that are probably new. To develop teachers’ skills in these areas, iEARN professional development is most often handled locally in accordance with local languages, cultures and educational context. In 2001, iEARN also started offering international online courses to educators on how to integrate technology-enabled project-based learning into the classroom. These courses enabled educators to interact with global educators, enabling them to experience international exchange first-hand, and ensuring that they quickly overcame the learning curve to integrate international technology-assisted project-based learning into a wide variety of curricular areas. The focus on teachers is integral to iEARN success.

4. Sense of Community

Teachers want to meet others who share their educational vision. iEARN has created a global technology-enabled community of educators who know that students learn better by using technologies to facilitate peer interaction internationally.

For many countries in the network, the very access to such a global community is something to be valued and cherished. In the late 1990s, I had the chance to visit a rural girls’ school in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The disparity between school resources in different communities was dramatically apparent. Electricity was sporadic and the school had no running water. Internet access was through a dial-up telephone line to one computer that was allowed to connect every several days through a store-and-forward system that uploaded student work over several days and downloaded new incoming messages during a 15-minute connection at midnight.

At the girls’ school, I was greeted by the principal. She welcomed me into her bare office and we sat side-by-side near a coffee table on which sat a thick binder of papers. She opened the binder to the first page and I was taken aback that it was a message from me —along with a photo of me in my own office in New York! As she thumbed through the first 20 pages of a binder with at least 60 pages, each one carefully protected in a plastic sheath, she carefully explained that these were welcome messages, from fellow educators around the iEARN global community. She noted that her teacher had posted a message in the iEARN Teachers Forum saying that her school was new to global networking and looked to others for advice and support. In response, messages had arrived from educators around the world, offering words of welcome and support. This binder and its messages were a treasure. They represented the reality that this school was now as much of the global core as any other—taking the school’s teachers and students out of their geographic, economic and technical isolation.

To further this sense of community and sharing, iEARN, since 1994, has hosted an annual international conference every July in a different country to enable teachers to share with their peers how they had integrated technology into various curriculum areas. I hope you will join us at the 2016 conference in India.

The above four characteristics have played a key role in iEARN’s development and expansion over the past decades. They will undoubtedly serve the organization well as it moves forward in the coming decades.

As the first Executive Director of iEARN, Ed Gragert helped expand the program globally to become one of the world’s largest primary and secondary educational online networks. An education technology pioneer, he has worked tirelessly with a team to create a unique project-based, Internet-supported learning network that now daily engages 46,000 schools and 2 million youth in 140-plus countries. Write to:

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Cool Tool | bird

A small wearable that turns any space into an interactive playground, a student can put it on his index finger and communicate directly with his devices so he can easily interact with digital content and media. He can touch, push, pull, swipe and grab content from anywhere in the room. The device is sensitive enough and has sufficient depth perception to accurately recognize the entire spectrum of interactive methods. As the company, MUV Interactive, promotes, “if you can see it, you can control it.” What’s really cool is that they invited a bunch of students ages 7-15 to try it out for themselves and produced a video that shows what happened. Looks like fun, and it’s really up to a student or teacher to decide what to use it for in the classroom.

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Really Logging In

It all starts with authentication (but it doesn’t end there).

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Peterson

CREDIT Dell SoftwareThis September, tens of thousands of students will arrive at higher education institutions ready to study. Every one of these students needs access to online resources, not to mention the access required by faculty, staff, and even alumni. Every institution is faced with a number of questions: How do you set passwords for all these people? How do you manage the onslaught of inevitable “password” related requests (“I forgot my password”)? How do you ensure that those passwords are safe? And above all, how do you ensure that each of these individuals can get to exactly what they need to get to, without opening the door to resources that they should not access?

Following these tips will mean higher education institutions will avoid potential data breaches and keep end user populations happy.

It goes without saying that authenticating your identity when logging onto the University’s systems is vital for all three user populations, especially in an age where Universities are a key target for attacks. Recently, George Mason University had over 4,400 individuals personal information breached and Butler University has warned more than 160,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff, and past applicants that their personal information was exposed during a data breach in 2013. Therefore it is vital that these user populations’ unique authentication needs are addressed in a way that maximises productivity and minimizes security risks.

Current students need a simple login process to ensure they frequently use it. One easy way to think about this is to keep the login process as close to their social media experience as possible. However, if they leave the institution it needs to be possible to restrict access, in order to prevent students from accessing unapproved data or systems.

Faculty and staff have similar needs to employees in any other corporate organization. They both need and want easy access, but this must be kept specific to their role and all access should be secure and appropriate, in order to maintain security and avoid data breaches.

Alumni, whilst often overlooked, still need limited access yet it needs to be convenient, only giving them access to the appropriate materials, due to the potential for donations from this population. In addition, alumni need to be able to access the systems forever, even if they only log in once a year.

For all three of these user populations the need for passwords will not go away, because users reject anything which makes it harder for them to access the material they need. Therefore for higher educational institutions looking to achieve secure authentication, the following top tips are a good starting point.

Having a good password policy with consistent enforcement is key. Institutions should be clear on the policy and outline it to all user populations upfront. Going further, having a single sign-on is a great option for institutions as it enables greater security by avoiding users writing down numerous passwords, in order to remember them. This also means that in one go users can be stopped from accessing information they no longer need to access. Alongside this multifactor authentication is a great way to ensure security. Finally, to truly prevent breaches institutions should look at authorisation, meaning what people have access to once they have entered into the system. Institutions should strictly control what people can access and this will differ according to which population a user sits in.

This concept of role-based access control is critical. Defining access based on who a user is and what someone with that demographic should and should not be able to do will overcome the vast majority of security concerns. If at the very core user identities and accounts are aligned to granular definitions that include what is and is not allowed for that particular role, then authentication simply becomes the means of proving who the logging in entity is. – authorization is taking care of the heavy lifting of enforcing what that logon allows the user to do and access. Combined, authentication (controlled through string password policy and streamlined through single sign-on) and authorization (based on specific user roles, rights, organizational policy, and comprehensive provisioning workflows) provide access. The right access, every time, all the time.

Following these tips will mean higher education institutions will avoid potential data breaches and keep end user populations happy.

Todd Peterson is IAM Evangelist for Dell Software.

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Watch and Learn

This co-founder believes everyone has a right to an affordable, quality education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Adrian Ridner arms folded no braceletAdrian Ridner is the CEO of, an online education company he co-founded with company president Ben Wilson.  In 2002, Ben and Adrian were Cal Poly graduates frustrated with the rising cost of college and the lack of tools for empowering students. They decided to team up and start with the mission of making education accessible. After over a decade of work, is now a profitable, self-funded company that has taught over 10,000 lessons and reaches over 15 million students a month. Adrian (pictured center; arms folded, no bracelet) leads the engineering, product, business

One thing that modern technology does have over the Ancient Greeks is that it is in everyone’s pocket and at different times can ping people back into the learning ecosystem. 

intelligence, and creative teams and pushes to embrace a culture of innovation. He was born in Argentina, spent a large part of his childhood in Venezuela and Brazil, and consequently loves soccer and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. He earned an MS in Computer Science from Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo and currently serves on the university’s Engineering Advisory Board.

What are your thoughts on education in general these days?  

Adrian: Education really hasn’t evolved much. How we teach and learn basically hasn’t changed since the Ancient Greeks. A classroom is still roughly 30-50 students sitting around a teacher who is in charge of both delivering the material – many times repeatedly – and tracking each student’s individual needs.  Academia as a whole has been slow to adopt new technologies, so it’s up to individual students and teachers to try a lot of platforms and embrace change. Education has gotten more expensive for everyone – look at the skyrocketing costs of tuition over the last decade and record levels of student debt. Technology can help solve this problem, but so far it hasn’t impacted education the way, say, Uber transformed transportation.

What is the greatest problem facing edtech?

Adrian: I think the greatest problem with education in general is the high cost and the lack of accessibility. As to why edtech hasn’t solved this yet:

  1. You need to rethink educational content from the ground up if you are really going to shift how we learn. We especially need to take into account all different devices, screens, richer media formats, and student attention spans and learning styles.
  2. Once you have the right content (quality, breadth, format), you have to really personalize the learning experience.  Edtech so far has mostly replicated the existing classroom model, by taping lecturing instructors and putting them online.  The challenge is to use technology to do things you could never do offline.
  3. Edtech underestimated the level of motivation that people have for online classes and forgot there is usually an end goal to studying.  We can enhance motivation by embedding game theory and psychology at large into educational platforms, but it’s not easy. The challenge is combining platform motivators (rewards, challenges) with the real world external goals of each student (passing an exam, gaining a job skill, earning a degree) – and doing this on the scale of millions of students.

How has edtech changed K-12 and higher education so far?

Adrian: The scale that you see in edtech can indeed help lower costs and improve learning efficacy. A traditional teacher in their lifetime can only get in front of a limited number of students, but online they can reach tens of thousands, which generates a lot more feedback to take in. We are in the early stages of correlating across millions of data points that optimize the learning experience. Also, edtech tools have started to free up teachers from having to focus on the content delivery, so they can focus more on each student.

Where does edtech go from here?

Adrian: One of the major problems that we have to solve in edtech is the issue of motivation. Learning doesn’t have to be a chore.  A lot of people have an intrinsic love of learning, but others need to be motivated by both internal and external things. One thing that modern technology does have over the Ancient Greeks is that it is in everyone’s pocket and at different times can ping people back into the learning ecosystem. But it’s been a long time since anyone has made learning truly enjoyable. Until you crack that, edtech won’t be able to truly move the needle the way it wants.

Why did you decide to start your company?

Adrian: I was born in Argentina and moved around South America a lot when I was a kid. I got to see how big an impact the education that I received had, and how much the lack of an education affected some of my family and friends in terms of what they could achieve. The fact that there were kids who wanted to learn and couldn’t really bothered me. Then I came to the US, became a computer science graduate student, and saw all these amazing things we could do with technology – but that we hadn’t done in education. That bothered me even more.  We are poised to make education accessible in a way that was not possible in previous generations, but it seemed that not enough people were tackling the problem with enough urgency. We wanted to help students, so that’s why we founded

What formative experiences helped you arrive at this current approach?

Adrian: Even in the U.S., my college experience was eye-opening.  When Ben and I took general education classes in college, we weren’t in 30-50 people classes; we were taking Psych 101 or History 101 in a theater with hundreds of students.  We could barely see the professor.  The professor would write on something that resembled a whiteboard.  You couldn’t read it.  You couldn’t even hear him with the people talking in front of you.  And this was at a prestigious engineering school – that was the best way for me to learn?  By the way, the class was so high in demand that I had to wait several quarters to take it? It just didn’t make sense.  And we’re talking about people who were at least fortunate enough to go

Fail fast and iterate. Look at the data and embrace what you get back. 

to college – there’s plenty of people who don’t have that kind of access in the first place.  Ben and I knew there have to be a better way. We’re trying to figure out how people can learn on their own, where there isn’t this kind of waiting list.  Our experiences informed our idea that we want a better way to learn – self-paced, fun, bite-sized and affordable. We experimented a lot, we tried a lot of formats that failed, we used data to learn what works and what doesn’t, and iterated our way to what we have today on

What business advice do you have for edtech startups?


1) Find a high-value niche and try to solve the main educational pain points that they have. Try to worry about scale later. If you try to tackle the whole problem at once, especially before you reach scale, it becomes very hard.

2) Fail fast and iterate. Look at the data and embrace what you get back. It’s been said many times, really focus on the problem, not the solution that you think you have. Let the students, let the teachers, let the data, let the market tell you how to approach the problem, and iterate. You can’t afford to not learn from your mistakes and spend too much time building before you put something out there and see what people think.

Excellent, thank you for your thoughts and ideas, Adrian!

Adrian: Thank you!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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