Was this in the job description? Reflections on the growing use of data by modern educators

The first college class I ever took was Introduction to Statistics. It met at 8 am MWF and was full of freshmen like myself who didn’t know better than to register for an 8am class. Lessons were delivered in a dimly-lit lecture hall and revolved around bulleted PowerPoint slides. The professor was a dry septuagenarian with a slow southern drawl. All of this is to say… I didn’t learn that much.

Sure, I know the difference between median and mode and I can stumble my way through an explanation of standard deviation or bell curves. But I am by no means a stats geek. I don’t get excited by data the way my engineer husband does (the man monitors our solar panel production gleefully and makes spreadsheets of household expenses with gusto). Math is a foreign tongue in which I can order a coffee and ask for the restroom but have never achieved fluency. But this was never a cause of concern for me. After all, I was an English teacher. I like to read and write and debate. What use do I have for math? I pay someone to do my taxes and there is a calculator on my iPhone.

Turns out, the joke’s on me. Just as I entered the teaching profession, the teaching profession entered a new era: an era saturated by statistics and measurement. Data meetings, data walks, and data walls became part of our vernacular. Then came blended learning.

In just the past few years, educational software and digital tools have begun to spit out types and amounts of data that would have been unfathomable even a decade ago. Computer-based assessment has led to a level of nuance far beyond what was discernible through paper-based chapter tests and weekly spelling quizzes. But with the growing availability of data comes a demand for more and more sophisticated analysis.

We’re not just talking about reviewing a report to determine if students are on, above, or below grade level. We’re talking about students’ time on task, rate of growth, and level of mastery in specific domains (or even on specific standards). In order to make sense of the data, teachers must understand if the program is adaptive, if the scale is vertical, and if scores are norm- or criterion-referenced. They’re using scale conversion charts and triangulating multiple measures. I, and most of the teachers I work with, see the value of this bounty of information. But many of these educators also have a niggling thought in the back of their minds that sounds something like, “Am I doing this right?” Or maybe even, “Is this really my job?”

I wrestle with these questions often in my new role at the Highlander Institute, managing the EdTechRI Testbed. And, for me, the answer is: yes. This project matches teams of teachers from around the state who are interested in piloting new educational software with edtech vendors who are interested in getting feedback on their products. Over the course of a 12-week trial, teachers get access to the selected software, as well as some basic training and support in its use. In exchange, they agree to complete teacher and student surveys on their experience and to open their doors to trained observers who look for changes in classroom practice. At the conclusion of the trial, we analyze various data sources and issue a report on the impact of the software on classroom practice.

While the classroom support looks fairly similar to the work I’ve always done with teachers through the Highlander Institute, this project has also required me to step into some unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) territory. With the help of my colleagues with psychometric training, I have been learning the language of statistics and educational research. Our chats are now peppered with references to “n” size, reliability, regression, and bivariate analysis. I combine this growing analytic know-how with my understanding of the best practices of teaching and learning to, hopefully, help teachers achieve a level of personalization that was not possible (or manageable) without these tools.

Sure, at times I find myself thinking (or shrieking) “I don’t know this stuff! I’m a teacher!”  But I try to remember the wise words of growth mindset guru Carol Dweck who says that the most important word for a learner is “yet”. Allow me to reframe that thought: “I don’t know this stuff, yet.”

Like most modern professionals, teachers must be willing to evolve and expand our skill set. I, for one, wouldn’t want a retro surgeon or pilot who dismissed advances in modern technology in favor of doing things “the old fashioned way”. There is enormous potential in educational software that can shine a light onto student learning in a way that was never before possible. And there is potential in projects like the EdTechRI Testbed that can move us out of the realm of strictly gut feelings and anecdotes and to a place where school administrators are making purchasing decisions based on sound information (that includes more than just student achievement measures). But to get there, there are going to be some growing pains as we figure out how to do this work.

When it comes to the increasing role of data and measurement in education, I believe that, like other things that are good for us (yoga, green juice), a little is better than none at all. So we start small and commit to pushing ourselves a bit further each time until we reach a sweet spot where the data are truly informing and enhancing our practice. After all, the role of an educator will keep changing, but it will always require us to be learners.


I Brought My Students to a Blended Learning Conference and Lived to Tell the Tale


Kyle Wilson is a 4th grade teacher at Steere Farm Elementary School in Burrillville and a Fuse Fellow with Highlander Institute. He is an early adopter of blended learning in his district which includes his participation in a software testbed developed by the Institute and #EdTechRI. As Kyle’s work in blended learning continues to evolve, further personalization of his students’ experience is the priority. He holds a BS in Communicative Disorders from URI, an MAT from Roger Williams University, and is a USCG licensed captain. Kyle lives in North Kingstown with his wife and three daughters. Connect with Kyle via Twitter or through his blog.
Earlier this month as part of the 2016 Blended & Personalized Learning Conference, I partnered with Heidi Vazquez and her students from the Compass School to demo a station rotation model. Our goals were twofold: Emphasize the non-tech components of blended learning and showcase our piloted LMS, Agilix Buzz. Participants could see that so much of what they already do is "blended learning ready”. Our hope is that they left with a refreshed perspective and a willingness to give it a try.
The 21 eager students who joined us answered countless questions throughout the simulation. The large turnout was both unexpected and a bit overwhelming for the kids and myself. The looks on the their faces as they saw the long line of people waiting to get in was priceless! They took everything in stride and got down to work. As soon as it began, it seemed to be over. I assume that's the feeling you get when things run as they should.
Looking back on it, I couldn’t be more proud of the students’ effort and willingness to teach others. Their families also deserve so much of the credit. Saturdays are valuable and we appreciated that they took time out of their busy schedules to help make this event happen.
The conference as a whole represented a shift in approach compared to other EdTech conferences I’ve attended where sessions centered around tech tools and know-how. Instead, application and scalability became the theme which included embracing and refining the role of blended learning early adopters. As an early adopter myself, I appreciated the honest discussions with administrators from around the country. No one can deny that authentic blended learning is within reach when stakeholders are embracing the risks involved. It makes us better appreciate the rewards we are seeing in these classrooms.

Syrafuse April Update

In January 2016, Highlander Institute rolled out its first expansion of the Fuse Fellowship beyond the state of Rhode Island.

We are happy to report that SyraFuse, a new Fuse incarnation within the Syracuse City School District in central New York, just wrapped up its third successful month! Since early February, Highlander’s own Roshni Lakhi and Maeve Murray have worked onsite with 22 enthusiastic early adopter teachers during monthly 3-day trips to Syracuse.

Each visit includes embedded, personalized classroom supports and debrief sessions with at least 10 Fellows, as well as whole cohort meetings centered around important blended learning topics. The Fellows have all exhibited growth mindsets toward what blended can do for teaching and learning in their classrooms, pushed each other’s thinking, and supported each other’s work through Twitter, Office 365 collaboration, and feedback on classroom video footage. Six Fellows were even able to make the trip to Providence for BPLC16!

Unlike the Fuse RI Fellowship, the focus of SyraFuse during the first six months is getting Fellows up-and-running as blended learning experts in their own classrooms and schools. Starting in the fall of 2016, Fellows will then branch out beyond their own classrooms to work with other teachers and across different school sites in an attempt to scale the great work they’re doing.

To follow along with these educators on their blended learning journeys, follow #SyraFuse on Twitter!

Playlists…The Next Generation by Jason Appel

Jason Appel is a math teacher and Technology Integration Fellow at Barrington High School in Barrington, RI, with twenty years of middle and high school teaching experience in Rhode Island and New York City. He is currently a Fuse RI Fellow.

Read my first blog post for more information about my FuseRI project.

In a recent survey, a number of students indicated that they found it difficult to work with my playlists,like this one. They identified two problems. The first was too many tabs:

“click here” to watch a video (new tab)

“click here” to practice problems on IXL or Khan Academy (new tab)

“click here” to complete these problems on Formative (new tab)

The other complaint was losing their place. Many of my playlists are designed to be completed over the course of several class periods. Students found that they would inadvertently skip steps, or just forget where they were. At the same time, I struggled with my workflow during class. I needed three or four tabs open at a time on my iPad in order to monitor my students’ progress. It just wasn’t working as well as I wanted.

Around the time of the survey, I’d begun working closely with the developers of a tool calledFormative (check out the article I recently published at Edsurge.com about the relationship I’ve formed with them). Formative is built for formative assessment, but I read a hack on their new community forum about embedding outside resources directly in an assignment. This gave me the idea to try Formative as my playlist delivery tool. Edpuzzle already generates embed codes, so that would be easy. I then came up with the idea of adding a T/F question after each step, simply asking if it was completed. Answering True was an indicator to me and the student that he/she completed that step. My students came up with their own idea which I love. If they completed a step, say practicing a skill on Khan Academy, and wanted to move on, but felt like they might need to revisit that step later, they chose False instead of True. I liken this to putting a star next to something in your notebook as a reminder to come back to it. Here’s a recent example of a playlist introducing special right triangles.

I’ve been using Formative for playlists for over a month now and so far we are loving it. My students appreciate that everything is in one place. They also love the truly instant feedback they receive. I set my playlist assignments to “Instant Scoring” so any question that can be graded automatically is graded within a few seconds. I can quickly and easily score and provide feedback for “show your work” questions, and best of all I can monitor progress with one screen. I’m incredibly excited about the evolution of my playlists, especially because my students are loving the improvements.

There’s one more change I want to mention here. A few of my students said they didn’t like learning from a video. Now they have the option to ask for a mini-lesson instead. Most students (about 75% or so) are sticking with videos, but a small group prefer this new option. Some will watch a video, and then ask for a mini-lesson afterwards if they feel they didn’t understand a portion of the video. If you look at an example playlist, you will notice that I’ve added a mini-lesson option to go along with each video. My only comment to myself about this change is…duh. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, but this is why you must ask your students what is/isn’t working for them and then do something about it. Until next time!