The Big Idea

Learning to Blend

An "edtech" expert on the next generation of learning

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We live in a world in which technology is increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, and at least a basic level of technological literacy is becoming as elemental a part of future success as a high school diploma. In contrast to the outside world, however, our classrooms largely remain the province of static textbooks and traditional, non-responsive methods. Shawn Rubin aims to change that. He is a former classroom teacher, and now the Director of Technology Integration at the Highlander Institute, a charter school in South Providence. His tech startup, Metryx, of which he is CEO, builds assessment software for teachers that can be used on all mobile platforms. Both on the local, and increasingly on the national, level Rubin has become a respected voice on integrating technology into the classroom. We asked him to tell us a bit about it.

You're a big advocate for incorporating technology in the classroom. What do you mean specifically? What kind of technology? How does it help?
Technology is only as good as its implementation. I am a huge advocate for education technology that is well built and connected to teacher professional development. Technology that arrives on a teacher’s desk without support is only hurting our chances of transforming education.

When education technology is done right it can be transformative for classrooms and schools in multiple ways, but there are two that I feel are most important.

First, it raises student engagement. Children see how tied in adults are to technology. In our daily lives we are running around texting and tweeting, but we send them to school to fill in boxes on photocopied worksheets. They have a right to feel cheated. They see the power that online tools have when they are at home and they are not wrong to want this same level of engagement in their learning at school. Teachers who are able to harness the power of video to explain complex concepts, or podcasting to capture student voice, or even programming so that students can build their own digital world – the students know this is the future and they don't want to be shut out of it when they enter their school buildings.

Second, education technology allows us to better personalize instruction for students. Some educators believe that if I teach it then the students should get it, but most educators understand the importance of catering their instruction, differentiating their methods, and thinking about the individual child as they prepare their lessons. Some students get today's skill already and need to be pushed further, some just need more practice and some need to have the whole thing retaught. Good teachers take the time to develop and deliver content at all three of these levels and more; however, it is not an easy thing to do. Education technology and blended learning make this process easier for teachers, which allows more students to be working and interacting with skills and methods that better match their needs and learning styles.

What does this type of tech-based learning add to the classroom and the student experience? How does it fit in with or enhance the more traditional curriculum?
When it's done well, education technology can transform the student experience in the classroom, and organize the teacher's workflow so that students benefit.

Classrooms have forever suffered under their static inability to engage students in real-world problems and problem solving, but tech-based learning breaks down the walls of the classroom. Traditional textbooks, which are made and purchased every three to five years are a poor substitute for the internet, which can connect students to every periodical on the planet, videos made by content experts, news podcasts that bring the voices and issues of the world to their headphones, and even video conferencing where students in Providence can participate in a project with students in Argentina. The internet provides no limits. This can be intimidating for teachers who have little understanding of the possibilities and safeguards, but for teachers who are ready to fly further with innovation in their classrooms education technology provides unending opportunities.

In addition to bringing more of the outside world into our classrooms, education technology helps teachers to manage their time honored systems for delivery of content, ongoing assessment of student understanding, and data that can drive instructional decisions. Consider the mobile formative assessment tool that we have been building out of the Highlander Institute, called Metryx:i

As a classroom teacher I used to walk through my classroom taking in quantitative data and qualitative notes about my students on a clipboard that never left my side. Every few days, I'd have to take all of those notes and data points, organize them, synthesize them, analyze them, and then make decisions about how to group my students based upon any valuable insight that I gleamed from this process. This process was essential for me to be able to give each of my students work that met their needs and challenged them at the level they needed.

With Metryx, this is all done for the teacher in real-time. The teacher takes in data through any mobile device. The data aggregates automatically into organized graphs and charts that show student learning and growth. Then the tool uses these scores to help the teacher create groups based upon how well the students have mastered each skill that was assessed. What used to take days is now done instantly and the students benefit because the teacher has more time to spend on creating targeted lessons and activities instead of grading and managing data.

How do you prepare teachers to adopt this approach? How do you get more traditional educators to buy in to it?
Teacher preparation is the special sauce that makes it all work. There are a few tech savvy teachers in the world who can pick up any software, tinker with it, and then identify methods for making it work in their classroom. These teachers are the exception not the norm. Most teachers, no matter how often they use their own personal cell-phone, get extremely nervous when they are given new technology and software without training.

There are a multitude of opinions out there as to how best to train teachers. Some people think it can be done with videos. Some people think that bringing in the vendor for a day or two is the best approach, and others promote the train the trainer model. To me, it doesn't matter how many of these three approaches you use within any school, if there is not a point person for every teacher in that school to go to with questions around the software and hardware on a consistent basis then that school will only get trace instances of teacher adoption.

A few districts in RI have taken the lead on this work. Woonsocket has created district wide tech integration specialists. These people are not tech admins. They couldn't set up a server. They may not know how to configure a router, but they understand the classroom and they are solely focused on learning about new free and paid software so that they can bring it back to their teachers in small doses of professional development. Using after school workshops and in class demonstrations these tech integration specialists are not only planting seeds of edtech usage in their schools, but also coming back on a consistent basis to water them.

Many schools have these folks, but they are unnamed and unpaid for the extra work they do. Maybe it's the guy who spends a lot of time at the Apple Store, or a woman who used to work at IBM but now teaches 4th grade. These people are valuable assets and every school has them. School leaders need to invest in them if they want to see educational technology transform their buildings.

How do you integrate technology into struggling school districts? How do school systems that are already financially strapped afford this kind of hardware and training? How do schools that are struggling just to get children to read at grade level incorporate these kinds of advanced approaches?
There are a tremendous number of studies being done right now regarding the cost of moving schools to blended learning. These conversations are heavily politicized because they involve decisions around jobs and teacher salaries. I won't touch them with a ten foot pole, but if you are interested in learning more, the Innosight Institute has a lot of research and data on these funding questions.

My focus is on implementation and I feel that it's the struggling schools that need blended learning and education technology the most. Students are tuning out and dropping out because they are not engaged during school. Like it or not, technology has a strong wow factor with students. That engagement will not last unless the technology is used well, but ultimately technology can be the hook that causes students to run into the building as opposed to just counting the moments until they are allowed to run out.

Once you have a struggling student tuned in and engaged, then educators must deliver instruction and content at the level that matches each student's needs. Adaptive software like Lexia and Dreambox learning have the ability to make problems harder for students who are doing well and offer embedded accommodations to students who are struggling. The software saves the student's profile and no matter where or when they logon they are seeing problems that match their learning path.

Other products like LearnZillion or Khan Academy use video to help explain complex concepts to students and because students have the ability to pause, rewind and replay at their own pace, it is more beneficial than a teacher standing and delivering once at the front of the classroom.

The edtech market is currently working at a frantic pace to solve all of the pain points that are affecting students and student learning. These tools are by no means fully baked and the teachers are by no means fully ready for these tools, but it is clear that for all students, especially the students who struggle in school, that education technology is going to be an essential tool for closing the achievement gap.

How can these technologies apply and be adopted into Providence schools specifically? What are the opportunities? What are the obstacles?
Providence is on the cutting edge of this educational technology boom thanks in great part to the partnership between the Highlander Institute and Pleasant View Elementary. The Highlander Institute has been piloting and honing best practices around blended learning and edtech integration for the last two years with teachers at the Highlander Charter School, and last May, the Highlander Institute teamed with Gara Field, principal of Pleasant View Elementary, to submit a grant to RIDE for money to create the first fully blended learning school in the state.

Since last summer, teachers at Pleasant View have gone through extensive training in using SMARTboards, laptops and iPads to run blended learning in pre-k to fifth grade. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it is already clear that these practices are working as attendance at Pleasant View has gone up, behavior problems have gone way down, and teachers are reporting incredible increases in student engagement.

Providence needs to seize this opportunity to bring more of its administrators and teachers into Pleasant View to learn how to teach in a blended learning classroom. Even if the technology is not yet available at each of the other Providence public schools, it will be soon enough and now is the time to begin training these educators so that when the computers arrive they are ready to get up and running quickly.

See Metryx at work:

Metryx from Metryx on Vimeo.