Q&A Wednesday: Shawn Rubin, CEO of Metryx

(reposted from EdTechTimes.com)

The Metryx Mobile Tracker  is a new application that gives educators an easier way to conduct formative assessments and monitor student progress on the fly.  Metryx CEO Shawn Rubin recently took the time to lend is his insights on trends, obstacles, and the future of edtech.  Check it out below.

What is the biggest trend in education technology that we should be watching?

Well, let me start by saying I’m not sure that I’d call any of the pieces I’m going to talk about as trends. I get nervous when educators speak of these things as trends. Certain tools and software themselves may be trendy, like the iPad, but the boom in the EdTech space is real and it’s real for four reasons.

The first and most important reason is that the world has changed dramatically in the past five years.

Five years ago if you rode a subway, sat in a park, or even dined in a restaurant people had their phones and their music playing devices in their pockets. As soon as the web became standard on the majority of phones that people own, these devices became a constant presence and US culture was profoundly changed.

This change has not gone unnoticed by students. They see adults attached to their phones, tablets and computers and they want in! This shift of priorities and modeling on our part has also shifted students’ expectations of what learning should be like in the classroom, “Why should I work with this pen and paper when I know that most adults are communicating by phone or computer?”

The combination of a nationwide Common Core set of standards, a boom in touch technology and mobile devices, and the onset of cloud storage are the final three coincidental rollouts that when combined caused the investment world to take a renewed interest in the EdTech market, ultimately driving innovative blends of the three.

The coalescence of these four circumstances is in no way a trend. One without the other three would still be beneficial to a classroom. However, the four combined are powerful enough to change the climate of the classroom significantly.

In my opinion the technologies to watch are the inexpensive yet flexible ones that make EdTech more accessible to the masses. Enterprise level software that promise to do everything on one platform don’t allow for enough innovation or communication with other tools. The focused, flexible, and nimble software that leverages the cloud, can be used on any device, and is built around the Common Core will be the ones that get the most classroom usage moving forward.

There are some great ones on the market today, but the truth is that any device we are talking about today will be completely irrelevant in three years time. Unless the current EdTech companies continue to innovate on the products they have they are going to find themselves quickly useless in this rapidly changing space.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles in adopting technology in the education space?

Professional development and training are by far the biggest obstacles to full-scale adoption by teachers in the EdTech space. Despite the excitement and level of activity within the national EdTech scene, the reality is that these tools and devices are only penetrating a small proportion of classrooms across the country.

Some education leaders will claim the “chicken or egg” explanation, saying, “Why would we train teachers if we don’t have the money to purchase massive amounts of hardware,” but these leaders fail to see the benefits of an iterative approach to training teachers on education technology.

Even in cash strapped districts where budgets are being slashed, the acquisition of hardware will become easier as it becomes cheaper. Students will have more access to their own devices as technology becomes more ubiquitous in daily life, and in the next 10 years 1:1 computing will become more commonplace in classrooms.

Should teachers start from scratch at that point or can we roll them into the future prepared for what is coming next?

Right now, the reality is that classroom computer penetration is limited to a motivated teacher here or a visionary principal there. Even when a district or statewide initiative gets funding it is often a challenge to fully implement because the time for training teachers on technology is not given the priority it deserves.

The professional development impediments are pervasive. Teacher training programs are slow to adapt and continue to churn out young teachers who are adept at operating their smartphones, but have little understanding of how to integrate that same phone into a blended learning classroom.

The most depressing piece of the digital divide between the EdTech pioneers and the EdTech avoiders are the children stuck in the middle. The students know which teachers in their buildings are the ones exploring and tinkering with technology and they want those teachers. Even sadder are the ones who have those teachers, but know that next year all the growth they’ve made with their blogging, video creation, or even adaptive online curriculum will disappear because they are moving to a classroom that doesn’t do these things.

Where do you see education technology going in the next 5 years?

I don’t think that anyone has a solid understanding of where EdTech is headed. There are some people who feel that automatic grading algorithms are the future. Others believe that augmented reality will transcend the limitations of our brick and mortar schools. Some feel that online or distance learning will keep improving and that this will allow for greater flexibility and engagement through personalization of instruction.

I agree that all of these will improve in five years and perhaps one of them will take the lead as the wave of the future, but what I believe even more is that education is so behind in terms of innovation and that the circumstances are so ripe for growth right now, that the next two years, let alone five years, are going to be like nothing we could even imagine and that the hardware and software that we dream about now are going to seem as antiquated as the Palm Pilot.

One hope I have for the EdTech space in five years is that it solves the data sharing issues that currently limit the tools and their impact on students. Blogger Audrey Watters has written much on this subject. She talks about the need for product APIs that allow EdTech tools to send data back and forth, ultimately allowing a student from one tech heavy school to move to another district that uses completely different systems and software without having to start that student’s digital data portfolio from scratch.

The Common Core has gone a long way towards naming the skills and concepts that we want students to have, but until we agree on a common system for labeling these outcomes we will continue to struggle to connect our tools and products in the seamless manner that they should.

It’s one thing to be able to get Student Information System data (Student name, birth date, Student ID, etc.) to talk across platforms, but it’s another thing to log into one account and see a student’s Socrative scores, Metryx data, Dibbels DataPARCC scores, digital portfolio, blog entries, etc., all integrated into one beautiful dashboard of student information with targeted links or app suggestions that could help the teacher to better personalize instruction for each of those students.

The EdTech world needs to embrace the same national system overhauls on which the Healthcare industry is working. Right now, I’m most interested in reading and learning about Semantic Technologies as I believe these “Meaning-Centered” technologies have the ability to link more products, making principals and teachers lives easier while also increasing students’ ability to work anywhere, any time, and way they want to.

Thanks so much to Mr. Rubin for his contribution.  Check back tomorrow for an EdTech Times Startup Spotlight on Metryx.

Common Core or Guided Reading

-By Timothy Shanahan, University of Illinois at Chicago (From ShanahanonLiteracy.com)

Recently, I’ve been fielding questions about guided reading (à la Fountas and Pinnell) and the common core; mainly about the differences in how they place students in texts. Before going there, let me point out that there is a lot of common ground between guided reading and common core, including high quality text, the connections between reading and writing, the emphasis on high level questions and discussion, the idea that students learn from reading, and so on. Nary a hint of conflict between the two approaches on any of those issues.

Not so with student-book placements; on that there is a substantial divide. Guided reading says go easy, and common core says challenge them. Easy, according to F&P, means placing kids in books that they can read with better than 90% accuracy and with high reading comprehension (and they make no distinction between beginners and more adept readers in this regard). For common core, making it challenging means placing students, second grade up, in books that would be frustration range according to F&P; books that students would read with markedly lower fluency and comprehension on a first read.

How can these schemes be so different?

Fountas and Pinnell advocate for a system of text placement that has been widely and long accepted in the field of reading (I’ve previously written about the sources of those ideas). F&P add to that a philosophical position that maintains students learn best from figuring things out themselves from reading, rather than from the explicit instruction a teacher might provide. In their plan, much of the teacher’s work is devoted to accomplishing an appropriate placement of students in texts, and they strive to minimize the distance between what a text demands and what students can now do current so that students can scale these small challenges with minimum teacher input.

Any student/text differences can be reduced even more, in the F&P scheme, by providing background information about the text through picture walks and the like. Over time, by reading texts that gradually get harder, students learn to read by reading books that they understand and enjoy. F&P are candid that book placement does not always work out and that, under such circumstances, teachers may have to provide mini-lessons or other supports. Nevertheless, they stress the importance of minimizing the need for such supports. As good a job as they do in demonstrating how to get students to the correctly leveled texts, they provide surprisingly little info about how and when to advance students to higher levels; students may languish at a level since there is no well-worked out plan for ensuring progress.

By contrast, the common core intentionally would have teachers place students in texts that are more challenging. The CCSS levels, if accomplished, should allow students to read well enough by high school graduation to be college and career ready. Traditional placement schemes lead to students completing high school approximately 2-3 reading levels below what is actually needed—that’s why so many students require remediation in college.

The more challenging text placements presume that teachers will provide extensive scaffolding, explanation, support, and teaching to enable success. Since the common core is not, by and large, invested in any particular instructional methods (close reading push is a notable exception), it can set text levels based on learning goals and the very real need to get students to particular levels before they graduate, rather than trimming the text levels to fit pedagogical philosophy.

I think most common core advocates would say, “The issue is not how much teaching teachers have to do, but how much students can learn in the time we are working with them. If teaching students with more challenging texts leads to greater amounts of learning, then we accept the burden of having to teach more.” Fountas and Pinnell, too, want kids to learn, but their philosophy is that this learning works best when kids negotiate the reading system on their own, and that justifies the idea of not demanding too much in terms of text difficulty. For F&P how you learn is as important as what you learn.

F&P’s version of guided reading has been around for almost 20 years, but there are other versions of the idea that go back much further. There must be a lot more research evidence supporting their approach than the one now being espoused by the common core. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We do not have studies showing the effectiveness of guided reading over other approaches.

Many teachers might respond: “Studies or no studies, I know guided reading works because I have taught with it and my students make good progress.”

There is absolutely no question that students can learn with guided reading (that they have learned with it, and that they will continue to learn with it). Guided reading is widely used in U.S. schools. But there is an issue of opportunity costs here; would students learn more if they were placed in more challenging texts? We, of course, can never gauge the success of the alternatives that were not tried.

Studies, quoted in previous blogs, show that students can make real learning progress while matched to a variety of text levels, though they tend to do best when matched with more challenging texts than guided reading advocates recommend. Thus, placing students in easy text CAN lead to learning, but placing students in more challenging texts and then making sure they can successfully negotiate them (through rereading, analysis of information, etc.) may lead to even greater success.

At the end of the day, the disagreement is philosophical rather than empirical—it is about the desirability of teaching. If you think it is better for kids to figure things out with minimal scaffolding, then it makes sense to control the degree of challenge; too much difficulty would only lead to failure and frustration. However, if, on the other hand, you think it is okay to provide students with as much support as they might need to engage successfully in a particular task, then limiting difficulty too much would reduce the opportunity to learn.

In general, I think the common core approach is the right one – it puts greater emphasis on teaching and long range learning goals than on text placement. And, yet, we are depending on educators –including me – who were prepared more to place students in books than to teach them. The success of the common core depends not just on the use of more challenging texts (that’s the easy part), but on whether teachers will have the patience and foresight to provide sufficient and appropriate scaffolding that will help the students to figure out the meaning of a challenging text without being told what it says.


Mobile Formative Assessment; A One Device Solution

(re-posted from Free Technology for Teachers)

Formative assessment has been stuck in a rut for years but tablets and Smartphones have the potential for increasing the amount of formative data that teachers collect and use on a daily basis.

The combination of touch screen devices and cloud storage allows teachers to create a manageable flow of connected data, collected on the fly using mobile platforms, but ultimately available for reflection and action steps on any device with Web access.

Unfortunately, not enough teachers know about the power of their own personal handheld devices. EdTech buzz is usually focused on tools that require one-to-one or at least a large amount of classroom computer availability, but so much can be done with one handheld device and access to the cloud.

Student facing assessment platforms like Compass get a lot of attention along with student response systems like Socrative, but both require students to have their own devices they can use to beam back formative information directly to the teacher.

These apps are great if teachers have the devices, but in order to increase the actual numbers of teachers who are using these tools to personalize instruction we need to shift our national focus toward how these tools can be used when a teacher has a personal tablet or Smartphone at their disposal.

The Highlander Institute has been working with teachers on a three app system that collects all of the ongoing formative data a teacher might need in order to more efficiently and effectively group students for differentiated instruction.

There are many formative assessment applications on the market, but each one has its limitations. We’ve chosen the following three because they are cloud based, free, and they complement each other’s weaknesses.

Evernote: (E-portfolio Formative Assessment) Set up one folder for general classroom observations, then make a dedicated folder for each student in your class. Instantly your phone or tablet becomes your eyes, ears and brain. Collect visual data, record audio, and add notes as you have time. Later, process all you collected and decide who achieved mastery and who you need to meet with the next day. Read more

Metryx: Missing from the current app market is the ability to track a percentile score in a flexible and ongoing basis. Teachers using exit tickets, online activities, pop quizzes, problems at the board, or just oral questioning need a way to document their students’ correct or incorrect responses in one centralized location. Metryx is the on-the-fly, flexible formative tracker that allows teachers to choose a skill, choose a student and take in quantitative or qualitative data. Metryx also analyzes and graphs the data automatically and separates students into groups based on how close they are to achieving mastery. (Currently in beta with Version 1 ready for the fall).

Educreations: Sometimes a yes or no answer is not enough. You need a way to sit with that student and observe the ways they attack a problem. Place a tablet with Educreations between yourself and the student and hit record. Everything they write, everything they say, and their step-by-step process will be recorded on the screen for you to review later, share with colleagues or parents.

There are other formative assessment apps we like for specific and targeted tasks, like PickMe for randomizing classroom student responses or ClassDojo for tracking positive and negative behaviors over time, but the three app system described above is a great entry point for teachers with limited hardware, but a strong desire to use more formative assessment.

* (Disclosure notice: the author is also the CEO of Metryx)

Highlander Dissemination Project Yields Strong Year 1 Results

As part of a two-year charter dissemination project funded by RIDE, Highlander facilitator Dawn August has supported school-based literacy reform initiatives at Whiteknact and Oldham Elementary schools in East Providence RI over the past school year.

The project model was developed by HILL for Literacy in Woburn, MA, and proven at the Highlander Charter School from 2008 – 2012.  Over that period, literacy rates for K – 6 students at Highlander Charter grew from 46% proficient on DIBELS in the fall of 2008 to current levels of 84% proficiency.  From 2008 – 2011, the performance of Highlander students on the state literacy NECAP exam has increased from 50% to 69%.

The project in East Providence began with a comprehensive literacy needs assessment, which included teacher and administrator perspectives, a teacher knowledge survey, and a survey that rated current literacy practices against research-based norms.  Teachers at both schools were trained in using DIBELS as a screening and progress monitoring tool, and participated in five sets of grade level data meetings over the course of the year.  Individualized support was offered to teachers as they implemented targeted, differentiated instructional plans in the form of co-teaching, observations, co-planning and debriefing.  Teachers were also invited to participate in a weekly graduate level seminar course on the foundations of reading instruction.  School principals and reading specialists met monthly for personalized professional development opportunities.

Year 1 DIBELS data shows that both Whiteknact and Oldham are following Highlander’s improvement trajectory.  Between 2008 – 2009, the percentage of students reaching grade level benchmarks at Highlander increased by 13 points.  Over the current school year, reading proficiency levels increased by 13 points at Whiteknact and 17 points at Oldham.

Congratulations are due to the school leaders and the talented educators at both schools.  The project work will continue at Whiteknact and Oldham during the upcoming school year with the goal of each school gaining an additional 10 percentage points in reading proficiency levels by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, the district of East Providence will work with the Highlander Institute to expand the initiative across the other six elementary schools starting in the fall of 2012.