Speaking Up About Simulation

The importance of bringing learners to places where they normally wouldn’t be.

GUEST COLUMN | by Len Scrogan

Simulation [sim-yuh-ley-shuh n] – An interactive experience that imitates, models, or replicates more complex phenomena.

credit-speak-up-simulations-reportFor nearly twenty-five years, I have been teaching with simulation. In fact, I made an early career out of it, having designed more than five commercial simulations and employed dozens more in my teaching. That was why I was delighted to see a recent report highlight the importance of simulation in learning contexts.

Published late June, the annual Speak Up survey, From Print to Pixel: The Role of Videos, Games, Animations and Simulations within K-12 Education, provides some real insight into the world of teaching and learning with technology (Speak Up is an initiative of Project Tomorrow®, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the empowerment of student voices in education.) The Speak Up Project surveys K-12 students, parents, and educators annually about technology for teaching and learning. This most recent survey polled 415,686 K-12 students, 38,613 teachers and librarians, 4,536 administrators, 40,218 parents and 6,623 community members representing over 7,600 public and private schools and 2,600 districts around the world. Represented schools from came from urban (25 percent), suburban (40 percent), and rural (35 percent) settings. According to Project Tomorrow®, “This survey represents the largest collection of authentic, unfiltered stakeholder voices on digital learning.” You can see why. And the truth is: educators of all stripes regularly use the Speak Up data to inform their programs and practices.

The use of educational simulation in the classroom offers schools a palpable return on investment.

Now back to simulation. Simulations allow learners be in places they normally cannot be, allow learners to change variables and thus explore the simulated environment, or take learners on a ‘discovery’ journey with a concrete end in mind. Simulations can also provide a safe harbor for experiments or experiences that would otherwise be extremely dangerous or difficult to conduct. This latest Speak Up report recognizes the emergence of pixel based digital tools, specifically, videos, games, animations and simulations, as legitimate vehicles for learning. “The pervasiveness of these engaging and interactive forms of information transmission [such as simulation] …cannot be underestimated,” the report states. There’s no surprise here.

According to the Speak Up report, over 80 percent of principals surveyed indicated that digital content (including simulations) “increased student engagement in school and learning”; and over 60 percent of those surveyed felt that this content “increased the relevancy and quality of instructional materials.”

So how does simulation work? Why is it so effective? Let’s take time to hang our hat for a moment on one clarifying example: a technology drawing consistent crowds at educational conferences for the last four years is the zSpace STEM Lab. zSpace is a Silicon Valley company offering what I call “a near-holographic hardware platform,” one which really turned heads at the recent ISTE 2016 edtech conference in Denver. The sweet sauce for this platform is its effective use of simulations. zSpace is an effective learning platform (currently used in 400+ school districts) because it offers more than a thousand interactive virtual reality models and simulations, along with an entire range of learning advantages, uniquely available through educational simulation:

Rich visualization. A fourth-grade teacher from the St. Francis Schools (MN), Holli Hillman, clarifies: “the visualization [of simulations] is often so rich that it provides an experience unlike anything one can offer through lecture or even hands-on; of course, the teacher can still provide elaboration, clarification, and guide discussion…”

Imitation or modeling. Simulations can replicate complex phenomena or processes. Abstract concepts can be understood in the mind’s eye, in ways that are easier to understand for learners.

Painless repetition. Simulations permit frequent watching, pausing, scrolling, replaying – repeating as needed. And we know that repetition encourages mastery and comprehension.

What ifs. Simulations often allow learners to change variables, to conduct experiments, to see “what if…” Exploration, experimentation, investigation, and inquiry are made truly possible.

Noble failure. In the 2016 National Educational Technology Plan, the authors highlight the noble failure features built into zSpace’s simulations. One zSpace simulation, for example, allows students constructing a motor or building a battery to make mistakes and retry, learning throughout the process. The iterative learning processes behind simulation—viewing, understanding, hypothesizing, trying, testing, discussing, questioning, tweaking, fixing, and then trying again – that’s the stuff of learning.

Simulations are not only powerful visual learning tools—they offer considerable classroom and cost efficiency, as well. Simulations save time: both instructional time and preparation time. In the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District in New York, Jordan Pekor, an AP Physics teacher, explains: “You can get a lot more done in your 42-minute period. Setting up these labs would be impossible in these kinds of timeframes, but you can walk into my zSpace lab and have things saved for the students and all ready to go.” Simulations can also enable teachers to conduct learning experiences that might otherwise be dangerous or risky. And combining simulation with more expensive hands-on experiences can lower the quantity and cost of consumables used in schools. There’s no question: the use of educational simulation in the classroom offers schools a palpable return on investment.

Len Scrogan is a Digital Learning Architect at the University of Colorado in Denver. Write to: len.scrogan@future-talk.net

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Disrupting Your Revolutionizing

Three key questions early edtech should address.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rich Yang

credit-education-comThere has been dramatic growth, adoption, and innovation in the edtech space. Many educational companies tout digital products like virtual reality, assessments, even entire new digital platforms – all with the promise of revolutionizing learning or “disrupting” the classroom. Yet, if you observe today’s classroom, the vast majority still rely predominantly on pen and paper ‘printables’ as the primary learning tools, while digital technologies remain early in adoption.

In our experience, we see a similar disconnect between the buzz of new digital technologies and the actual behavior of millions of teachers and parents. With over 5 million monthly active users – roughly half teachers and half parents – we see that almost two thirds of our user engagement is on the printable side (e.g. downloadable worksheets) and one third on the digital side (e.g. digital games and flash cards).

Ultimately, what determines a technology’s quality is how it affects learning.

Importantly, consumption of our digital products is growing rapidly. Digital products offer exciting new ways to engage students and create new opportunities for personalization and assessment. Even so, we believe that the focus by some media solely on digital technologies ignores the bigger challenges teachers and parents face to help students build an early foundation for school success.

At the heart of education, children need to develop foundational math and reading skills to succeed in school. Based on our teacher and parent user data, we see that millions of kids struggle with these core skills, and their parents and teachers face fundamental challenges in trying to help them. Interestingly, our data is a proxy for behaviors not only in the classroom but the struggles to learn at home as well. We have found three fundamental questions can help teachers and parents overcome these obstacles.

  1. What are the most essential or important skills my child needs to learn?
  2. How can I employ different methods to keep my child engaged?
  3. Where can I find an educational solution that connects these important skills to the learning needs of the child?

The answer to the first question is incredibly important as it addresses the goal. “These are the concepts or skills my child or student needs to know.” This is the end, whereas everything else is just the means. We believe most of edtech is more focused on the means than the ends. By contrast, we believe content is “king.” Content will always be the means to learning.

Yet, how learning is achieved is important as well. The answers to questions two and three address these means. First, teachers and parents struggle with how to engage their students. In our work, we employ a mix of learning resources, both analog and digital, that allows educators to address learning in many different ways. Different learning types offer more engaging opportunities for the child. People learn in any combination of ways and varying formats, not only keeping things interesting but also engaging more senses simultaneously. Studies have shown that multi-modal learning (learning through various methods and media) allow for more efficient learning and conceptual understanding. It also works toward the development of the whole child, meaning it engages them in various facets like cognitive, creative, and physical activities.

Second, teachers and parents struggle with where they can find what they need. Ask most teachers where they are discovering their learning resources and they most often say Google or Pinterest. Fortunately, there is a new generation of learning resources and platforms that address this need, and we believe there will be dramatic changes to the edtech landscape.

Ultimately, what determines a technology’s quality is how it affects learning. Existing technologies like printables continue to play a critical role in combination with emerging ones. Much like how books continue to be printed, bought, and borrowed despite the proliferation of Kindles and iPads, paper and pencil (and manipulatives, outside playing, etc.) will and should coexist with advancing digital technology. Thus, as part of a community of educators, learners, and businesses that work together to shape children’s futures, we must ensure the focus is always on the learning outcome – the end.

Rich Yang is co-CEO at Education.com, a leading online destination for educators of students pre-K through fifth grade.

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Attempt Your Moonshot

We need a new plan for education, and we’re closer than we think.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sylvain Kalache

credit-nasa-and-linkedinI’d like to share with you the story of how I went from LinkedIn employee to making a contribution to planetary defense. Back in April 2015, after a successful docking between SlideShare and Linkedin, I realized it was time for me to attempt my moonshot: training software engineers at scale. The tech industry has been changing our world for decades, from Margaret Hamilton—who wrote the software that brought Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon in 1969—to the self-driving car from Tesla on its way to saving hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Software is changing human destiny.

Yet centuries-old methodologies are still attempting to educate today’s skilled workforce, but its efficiency is increasingly fading. Within the next decade, the U.S. economy alone will lack tech talent to fill over 1 million open jobs. As Jeff Weiner says (1:55 min), “the world has never had innovation moving at this rate, and this is outstripping our ability to train the workforce for the jobs that are and will be and not the jobs that once were.”

A New Plan

We need a new plan for education, an alternative to traditional college education models in order to train the next generation of software engineers at scale.

Instead of the regular passive learning method where students spend their days listening to teachers and taking notes, I posit that students’ time is better spent being taught via projects.

Students instead learn by creation and solving problem. As astronauts learn by practicing again and again in simulations to be ready on the D-Day, students are learning to code by building systems and applications.

And that is what I created with Julien Barbier: Holberton School.

We announced the opening of our new, innovative school in September of 2016, while we were assembling brand new Ikea furniture. I could not have imagined that only seven months after the school started, one of our students would be accepted into a prestigious program to accelerate breakthroughs in planetary defense.

credit-holberton-schoolBut that student, Sravanthi Sinha, was accepted into one of the most famed engineering internships in the world—NASA’s Frontier Development Lab in California. The interns, gathered from around the world, came to help NASA plan for a potential cosmic Armageddon. They worked on finding the best way to protect the earth against meteorites, modeled the meteorites, and then figured out how to find freshly fallen ones using drones and deep learning. Program Executive at NASA, Victoria Friedensen, said that their work brought up an amazingly innovative solution to a, well, quite important problem: protecting the earth.

Last But Not Least 

As President John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. nation, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

I challenge more of us to become involved in disrupting the education system.

Students, parents, investors and software companies need to react to the faltering education system that is currently in place.

Education is one of the most important foundations of our society, and yet it is one of the last industries not to have been successfully disrupted. The amount of work to be done is enormous, but the outcome can be a game changer for the next breakthrough of the human race.

But indeed Jeff Weiner, we are closer than we think.

Sylvain Kalache is co-founder of the Holberton School, a project-based alternative to college for the next generation of software engineers.

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Cool Tool | Woot Math

CREDIT Woot MathIn the Spring of 2014, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers conducted a multi-site randomized controlled trial that studied several forms of software-based adaptivity and demonstrated that Woot Math’s adaptivity contributed significant effects in learning and retention. In other words, this adaptive learning platform is effective at helping students learn math faster than by traditional means. And when it comes to overused terms like personalized, adaptive learning, Woot Math is the real deal and rightly deserves to call themselves that. It is a personalized progression of lessons designed to build number sense and mastery of fractions and decimals. It adapts the content in real-time to meet individual student’s needs, the content is designed to align with standards, and it understands that teachers know who their struggling students are and what concepts they are struggling with. The dashboard enables the teacher to easily customize a student’s goal, and the software adaptively presents the appropriate content to reach this goal. A lot of teachers are raving about this cool tool for good reason. Learn more.

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Meeting in the Middle

Innovative ways for underrepresented and underprivileged students to access STEM.

GUEST COLUMN | by Frank McCallum

CREDIT Alberta Distance Learning Center.jpgThere are plenty of conversations and predictions about the economy of tomorrow, but leaders and influencers agree that honing future workers’ STEM interest and skills will play a central role in their success. However, when resources, finances, and flexibility get in the way of education, it becomes educators’ responsibility to meet students halfway.

The landscape changed with the introduction of MOOCs and similar online resources in the late 2000s; enrollment boomed, students could learn on their own time and at their own speeds, and the variety of available online classes, even now, continues to grow. What isn’t as frequently discussed is who benefits most from this change in learning delivery: minority and underrepresented students.

This is where distance learning shines. It offers opportunity for those students living in remote locations or those who just don’t have access to the resources they need.

A unique partnership is underway in Alberta, Canada, to provide distance learning opportunities grounded in STEM to disadvantaged Indigenous groups. The Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) is a public school with a provincial mandate to support underserved students and reaches 40,000 students at 600 schools annually. Now, ADLC is using a grant from nonprofit STEM advocacy organization FIRST® (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology), to bolster its digitally delivered STEM education program, granting underrepresented students new access to STEM learning opportunities that will help them lay the foundation for a successful future. Supported by a grant from FIRST, ADLC is complementing its online STEM courses with hands-on robotics experiences run out of its campuses throughout Alberta.

There are marked discrepancies between Canadian minority groups and their non-minority peers when it comes to educational access and success. Of Canada’s aboriginal population, 16 percent live in Alberta, and nationally, 49 percent live on a reserve or settlement. While 82 percent of students in Alberta graduate high school, only 53 percent of aboriginal students achieve the same. ADLC’s goal is simple: To introduce more indigenous students to robotics, build their confidence and give them a reason to stay in school.

Now more than ever, it is critical for young people to be educated and well-versed in science and technology. STEM subjects can be intimidating for any student, but for distance learners, it can be daunting enough to discourage a student from engaging. By encouraging minority and aboriginal students to consider these fields, and by providing them a well-supported environment to do so, we are building a diverse population that is poised for success in a future that will require skilled STEM talent.

This is where distance learning shines. It offers opportunity for those students living in remote locations or those who just don’t have access to the resources they need. And, when a little more hands-on experience is needed (as is often required in STEM fields), innovative programs like ADLC’s partnership with FIRST gives students the ability to apply their classroom learning and put knowledge into action.

While every distance learning community differs in its structure and engagement model, the goal remains the same: to support young people and to foster positive learning experiences that encourage them to be lifelong learners who can forge fulfilling futures. When it comes to providing innovative ways for underrepresented and underprivileged students to access STEM, a push in the right direction can change a life.

Frank McCallum is principal at Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC). He has been teaching for over 20 years. Since starting his teaching career in New Brunswick, Frank has worked in the far north as part of the Northwest Territories public school system before moving to Alberta. Starting in northern Alberta, he became involved with outreach education and video conference instruction. This led him to ADLC and a wider world of distance education possibility. He has been with their school division, Pembina Hills, for the past seven years as an administrator both within ADLC and the school division’s virtual school setting. Write to: frank.mccallum@adlc.ca

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