Highlander Institute Receives Multi-Year Funding to Expand Programs

In an exciting development for the RI educational landscape, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.78M grant to Highlander Institute for the expansion of Fuse RI and the EdTechRI Testbed.

Launched in 2014 to “ignite education through blended learning”, Fuse RI is a no-cost solution for districts interested in leveraging technology to personalize learning for all students. This shift is critical to preparing students for success in our fast-changing world. The two-year project recruits educator talent across the state as Fuse Fellows, who are paired with Fuse Partner Districts to develop model classrooms, policy, systems, resources and professional development.

Fuse RI is the brainchild of Shawn Rubin, Highlander Institute’s Chief Education Officer. Over the past two years, Fuse RI has trained 34 Fellows to work in 18 districts, developing an interconnected web of professional learning, data and structured change management to over half of RI.

“Blended learning is gaining momentum in public schools across the country as a way to deliver instruction that is personalized while empowering the development of 21st century skills. At its core, blended learning combines excellent teacher instruction with quality education technology tools that enables some element of student control over time, place, path, and / or pace,” says Rubin.

The EdTechRI Testbed will train and support approximately 40 teachers across 12 schools in the Providence Public School Department, studying the impact of math and reading software and personalized learning platforms A goal of this project is to help educators become more informed consumers in this digital age, giving them the tools to determine whether a particular technology product is the right fit in their classroom. “School districts rarely have the time, funding or expertise to conduct these studies,” says Cameron Berube, PPSD’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction. “Schools and districts are left making decisions on products based on anecdotal information.”

Under the terms of the grant, the Highlander Institute will support eight new Fuse Partner Districts for two years through the mobilization of 27 new Fuse Fellows. “All project processes, systems and resources will continue to be made open source to support wide scale replication of our work in interested cities and states”, says Dana Borrelli-Murray, Highlander Institute’s Executive Director. “And with each year’s success, we anticipate national interest in this homegrown model, further showcasing RI as the country’s leader in blended and personalized learning.”

“As part of the first cohort of Fuse Fellows we were asked to push ourselves, challenge our thinking, create our own learning and widely share this with others. This has been the best professional learning experience I have ever had, and I have no doubt that we have — and will continue to make a difference in Rhode Island.” Tracey Nangle, Teacher, North Smithfield Middle School, Cohort 1 Fellow.

Remarks from Fuse Fest

On June 9, 2016, Highlander Institute hosted Fuse Fest, an event to celebrate the “graduation” of our inaugural cohort of Fuse RI Fellows and Partner Districts. We asked Tracey Nangle, a middle school teacher from North Smithfield and Cohort 1 Fellow partnered with Central Falls to give the keynote address. Thank you Tracey for a wonderful speech, and thank you again to all Cohort 1 Fellows and Districts who have contributed so much to the evolution of this Fellowship!

Here are Tracey’s remarks:

We made it! Two years of what can only be described as organized chaos has led us here…And it feels pretty good, am I right?

For some reason we all agreed to this! And it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was recruited by Eric Butash. Eric was determined that someone from my district and his former district, North Smithfield, would become a Fuse Fellow and as we all know – Eric can be very persuasive when he wants to be! I, and all of you, had a love for technology and we were using some in the classroom so why not apply and see what would happen?

We all showed up at those summer interviews in Highlander Institute’s furnace of an office, only to be led to the third floor where it was even hotter. There we all sat, trying to ignore the fact that we were dripping with sweat while we attempted to answer questions intelligently. Apparently, we can think while sweating because we all made it through and were chosen as the very first Fuse Fellow Cohort.

We came together for our summer boot camp two years ago not knowing each other and not truly understanding what the fellowship would entail, but intrigued and energized by this eclectic group of people at Highlander Institute. As it turned out, we all made a very wise decision when we accepted their offer of a two-year fellowship.

That first week of training had all of us questioning what we had gotten ourselves into. Information flew at us at a fast and furious rate! I was very happy to have people sitting next to me whispering helpful remarks to me as often as I was whispering helpful information to them! It was confusing, fascinating, challenging, took many of us way out of our comfort zones, and ultimately, a really fun experience.

We left that training with our heads spinning and strangely, more excited than ever. We had met some really interesting cohort members, been reassured by the fact that these Highlander people really did know a thing or two about blended learning, and with a more complete picture of what it was that Highlander Institute was trying to accomplish – not a clear picture by any means, but we had been given a glimpse into the huge topic of blended learning and a sense of how much learning we all had to do.

All along the way we have been asked to push ourselves, to challenge each other and our own thinking, to create our own learning and to share that with others, and also to give our opinions and feedback about our learning. All of that has combined to make this the best professional learning experience I have ever had. The description I just gave of what we were asked to do is what all of us want to create in our own classrooms every day. That is authentic, meaningful, and lasting learning. The people at Highlander Institute may have been creating this fellowship as we were experiencing it, but they have created a remarkable model that will only become better with time. Time and time again I have been blown away by their passion, their responsiveness to our feedback, their level of commitment to excellence in education, and how very nice all of them are. We could not have asked for a more knowledgeable or admirable group of mentors.

The essence of this experience for me however, has been all of you – my fellow Fellows of Cohort 1. What a gift it has been to meet people who share my interests and who possess such tremendous talent. You are all so generous in sharing what you know and are able to do. There was always someone to turn to and I knew that if I sent out a call to the Fellows, someone, and usually many more than one, would respond with really useful information and advice. Over the last two years I have sometimes felt like I was in over my head but I never felt alone. For that I thank all of you. A special thank you to Simona, my awesome partner. Working with you and the Central Falls school district was really rewarding; when one of us zigged, the other one zagged and we got it all done!

There is something special about being the first. It could have something to do with the fact that we were the guinea pigs in this experiment! Having suffered through this together has made us an entity unto ourselves. We’re good together and there is value in maintaining our connections and sharing our ideas and challenges as we move forward.

We have and will continue to make a difference in Rhode Island. We’re ready. Congratulations to all of us on a job well done and thank you to our wonderful mentors at Highlander Institute.

When in Chrome: One district’s attempt to unhook the teacher from the front of the classroom!


When leading a district’s technology department, one’s main focus is often keeping the “trains running on time.” The opportunity to make any track changes or buildouts often comes during the summer breaks or in between vacation schedules. Unfortunately, most of this time is spent cleaning up data on the backend and disconnecting/reconnecting classroom equipment in the front end so that rooms can be cleaned. There have only been a few times in my career when I truly witnessed a district-wide equipment rollout that has had a transformative impact on the classroom level. One such instance took place in Lincoln Public Schools.


Meet Mark Gadbois, IT Specialist for Lincoln Public Schools and former middle school/high school science teacher. He leads a team of 4 in order to support 7 schools, 3500 students, 400 teachers, and over 2000 devices. With the district providing a Chromebook for every teacher, Mark and his team found themselves thinking of ways to support integration between the new devices and the classrooms’ mounted projectors. Faced with buying hundreds of HDMI cables and creating yet another item to connect & disconnect during the summer months, they had to think creatively.


Mark opted to leverage Chromecast in every classroom. A Chromecast is a device designed by Google to plug into any HDMI/USB port on any display device. Using a laptop or mobile device, you are able to mirror a copy of the Chrome web browser tab to a projector wirelessly.  A few Chromecast shortcomings worth pointing out: it does not completely cast your entire screen but only the Chrome browser tab you choose and it will not show your mouse cursor. However, at $35 per Chromecast, this was both a practical and economic solution.


Brilliant! Why not? Heck, in reality, you can spend close to $35 on a decent 25 foot + HDMI cable anyway. The thought of just plugging an HDMI-ready device into your projector and walking away seems simple to an average user of such a device. However, from an enterprise IT perspective, there are several things you need to consider when planning such an endeavor:


  • Purchasing

When it comes to purchasing consumer-end devices, many education channels don’t tend to carry these items in inventory. In the case of Lincoln Public Schools, none of the district’s purchasing partners could secure the quantity of Chromecasts to meet Lincoln’s needs. Enter Best Buy Education, who not only had the stock but could also deliver the devices in time in “retail packaging.”


  • Management
    • Like any consumer-end product, there are very few central management or provisioning tools to manage a large deployment of Chromecasts. Without these tools, it leaves the provisioning of each device to be completed by hand.    Welcome to the IKEA-like model, where you exchange your time and labor for cheaper prices. This was the case for Mark and his team. They spent between 5-10 minutes in each classroom configuring dedicated Chromecast devices (steps included joining the network, naming the device, etc.). To power the devices, they used the USB port on the back of the mounted projectors. They also used the “audio out” ⅛ jack on the projector to feed the sound back down to the teacher’s desk for external speakers. It requires the run of a ⅛ stereo or RCA cable to provide a solution. Otherwise, most projectors have a speaker that can offer some type of mono sound.


  • Physical Security
    • How do you keep these 3” HDMI “dongles” from becoming the next hot thing to disappear from school? With a $35 pricetag for the Chromecast, most would say “what’s the point?” However, the real point is the loss of class time if teachers are left without the device installed and functional. Mark and his team engineered a one-of-a-kind security method that required a length of chain, blank keys, spray paint and glue. They sprayed the keys black, epoxy glued the keys to the Chromecast and chained the key to the projector. Simple yet effective! The process took no longer than a few hours combined to complete all 200+ devices.


  • Bandwidth
    • As this is a consumer product, there is no best practice guide or data around how much bandwidth is consumed by multiples of devices on the same network.  Mark understood that this territory had not been charted or documented, and therefore decided to create a separate wireless network (locked down by MAC address) where the devices would be allowed to roam freely without having or causing any network issues. In the first year of implementation, his team has only allowed teacher Chromebooks to connect to the casting network. As Mark stated, “The last thing we need is students taking over another teacher’s projector from around the school. Can you imagine those work orders?” To date, he has yet to see any significant impact of the Chromecast on internal or external bandwidth.
  • User Training
    • Everyone knows that when a new device shows up in the classroom, teachers will be looking for some type of training on how to use it properly. This was probably one of Mark’s easiest tasks. He has automated certain tasks to make implementation easier for his users. First, he pushed the app from the Chrome Webstore to all devices, then permitted certain Chromebooks the ability to join the casting wireless network. The end user only has to be shown how to connect to the casting wireless network and how to cast their Google Chrome browser window. This process takes less than 60 seconds!


Since the initial purchase (around $7,500 for 200+ Chromecasts) and deployment (with a duration of less than a week) last July, Mark has seen this transition as one of the most successful classroom deployments. The feedback from his teachers has been overwhelmingly positive and appreciative. They love the flexibility of not being tethered to a cable 6 feet from the wall in the front of the room. Instead, teachers are using the device to show multimedia content, share student work, and offer collaborative work spaces for their students. IT department endeavors like these sometimes gets lumped into the “it’s just IT magic” bucket and never get the attention they deserve.


This type of innovation by Mark and his team demonstrates the potential for increased engagement, for both students and teachers, via creative thinking by IT specialists. Encouraging your IT team to think out of the box can have a long-lasting, transformative effect in classrooms across your district. For more information, please visit Mark’s Deploying Chromecast in Enterprise website, contact him via email mgadbois@lincolnps.org, or follow him on Twitter @MMgadbois!


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!

Q&A with Michaela Comella

The Institute is excited to welcome Michaela Comella to the team as our Rockstar Administrative Assistant. Read below to learn more about her!

Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander:

At Highlander, I’ll be responsible for reception, event planning, helping the office run smoothly, and assisting Dana with various tasks.

What’s your background?

My background is in Elementary Education. I taught third grade for twelve years at the same elementary school I attended as a child.  While teaching third grade, I was also able to work with preschool through eighth grade students through the various roles I took on within the school community and being the Organizer/Director of several special events. Following that, I was a stay at home mom for two and a half years.

What are you most looking forward to with this new position?

 I’m most looking forward to helping Highlander to grow in an organized, efficient way interacting with everyone in the office, and being a part of the amazing new things being implemented in classrooms around the state.

What’s your self professed ninja-power?

My self professed ninja-power is adaptability.  I am able to wear many hats and feel comfortable in a variety of situations and settings.

Q&A With Michael Klein

As the Director of Knowledge Sharing and Growth, Michael is responsible for overseeing the refinement, dissemination, and scaling of the Highlander Institute’s work. Michael is passionate about project-based learning, educational equity, and professional learning networks as means of empowering teachers and providing students with the skills they need to succeed. Michael was a founding teacher at High Tech High’s newest middle school in Chula Vista and worked as an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn and Harlem. In addition to teaching, Michael worked as a research assistant to Tony Wagner on his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, and has experience as part of two fast-growing education technology companies supporting district leaders. Michael earned his undergraduate degree at Vassar College and his Master’s in Education at Bank Street College in New York City. He lives in Providence with his wife.

Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander

I will be working with the team to refine, disseminate and scale the amazing work that Highlander Institute is doing. My goal is to make sure that any district or state that wants to bring blended learning to students and teachers through programs like Fuse can do so with Highlander’s support and expertise.

What’s your background?

I’ve been an educator for my entire career. I started my career as an elementary school teacher in New York City, where I taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade in Brooklyn and Harlem. Through a teacher-friend, I connected with Tony Wagner and was lucky enough to work with him on his book Creating Innovators. From there, I moved across the country to be a founding teacher at High Tech High’s newest middle school in Chula Vista, CA, where I worked with an incredible team of educators, students, and families to build a project-based learning school. After High Tech High, I worked for two fast-growing education technology startup companies, where I supported district leaders across the country and internationally.

What are you most looking forward to with this new position?

I’m most looking forward to learning from all the incredible Fuse Fellows and Fuse Districts and having the ability to contribute at every level: supporting great teaching and learning in the classroom, school, district, and state!

What’s your self-professed ninja-power?

My ninja power would have to be putting theory into practice. I am definitely a theory nerd, but I believe that in education, as with the rest of life, theory needs to inform what we do in our classrooms and our lives every day.