Smart Cities: Chicago Develops in “Leaps” and Bounds

Symbolic of the new digital learning opportunity set, the director of New Schools For Chicago, Phyllis Lockett, spun out a new data analytics shop, LEAPinnovation, earlier this month and took the helm. For the last fifteen years, the best intervention was new school development; going forward, new tools that power new learning models is the emerging opportunity. “Tech innovation can empower teachers to pinpoint student needs, accelerate remediation, and help every student reach their fullest potential,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools. This fall the LEAP Pilot Network will sponsor short cycle trials of four literacy products for grades 3-5 to pilot in six schools.

Chicago, not New York, is the second city for education innovation according to EdTech leader Christopher Nyren, “For over a generation, Chicago has served as the epicenter of for-profit, technology-enabled education entrepreneurship and investment.” Chicago has an impressive list of established companies, respected investors, and a big crop of promising startups.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s belief in the importance of early learning is homegrown. “Chicago is the leader in early childhood education–no contest,” said Ryan Blitstein, Change IllinoisOunce of Prevention Fundadvocates locally and supports Educare centers nationwide. First Five Years Fund is a new breed of data-driven advocates for integrated early learning services for low income children backed by Buffett, Gates, Harris, Kaiser, and Pritzker.  McCormick Foundation advocates for public policy that improves birth to three learning opportunities in Illinois.

Backstory. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) serves more than 400,000 students in 681 schools. Led by veteran school chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago was an early member of the Portfolio School District Network. After a period of uncertainty, Mayor Emanuel made clear a commitment to innovation.

Arne Duncan took over from Paul Vallas as CEO of CPS in 2001. By 2003, Duncan had crafted a coherent effort to support struggling schools and to close and replace failing schools (similar to Joel Klein’s Children First in NYC). In 2004, Duncan, the mayor and the business community launched new school campaign Renaissance 2010 which resulted in 13 charter networks, 70 new schools, and laid the groundwork for the next-gen models work New Schools for Chicago is currently supporting.

Margot Rogers, then a Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation, spent four years shuttling to Chicago to support new school development and secondary school improvement.  “Few places–perhaps no city–have the deep private and philanthropic support that Chicago does,” said Rogers. “There’s lots of support for innovation, trying new things, and thinking in new ways.” She went on to serve as Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff during his first 18 months in office.

Ron Huberman followed Duncan and spent a year as CEO.  He launched extended learning time pilots utilizing 1-to-1 devices and laid the groundwork for almost 60 schools with 1-to-1 iPads. Huberman is now an operating executive atChicago Growth Partners and Prairie Capital.

Bright Spots. Tim Knowles created the best example of a university-based school improvement engine, under the umbrella of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), with a research arm, a talent development shop, four charter schools, and a school improvement engine (see full Getting Smart profile). UEI is working in 55 cities and 23 states.  Knowles said, “We have some very cool new tools and diagnostics in pipeline–all aim to focus schools and public on things we know matter most.” UEI has been hiring recently and was just awarded a $10 million grant from the Kersten family for college readiness.

In 2007, they discovered the importance of the ‘freshman on track’ indicator–a better predictor of high school graduation than race, income, neighborhood, and prior test scores–combined. A consistent focus on this indicator has moved the percentage of ‘freshman on track’ to graduate from 57% in 2007 to 82% in 2013, according to the new On-Track website that details the process and the research. “The fact the numbers have moved so far — despite two mayors, strike, school closures, 5 superintendents in 7 years — suggests all cities in America could move their hs graduation rates by 20 points, quickly,” concludes Knowles.

Five Early College STEM schools were opened in 2013 in partnership with IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola, and Verizon. Dual enrollment opportunities were expanded in 17 high schools. CPS will support International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in 10 existing high schools.

AUSL turns around the Chicago Public Schools’ lowest performing schools and trains teachers using an urban teacher residency model. AUSL managed 25 CPS schools serving over 14,000 students.

The Chicago Math Initiative launched by MIND Research Institute in 2009 resulted in 11 point increases in the percentage of proficient students in the 23 schools implementing the blended learning ST Math program.

A foundation executive said, “The mayor is very powerful, loves anything having to do with innovation or technology and has made education his number one priority.”  The CEO recently appointed Jack J. Elsey Jr. Chief Innovation Officer.  Elsey said, “Embracing innovation and technology–two very likely drivers of progress–will be critical for the success of our city’s schools.”

Charters. “Early on, Chicago was known to be one of the best charter authorizers, winning kudos from third party evaluators and others for the strength of their review process,” said Margot Rogers.  “As a result, a number of high quality networks have flourished.”

There are 44 approved charters operating on 130 campuses in Chicago and serving 55,000 students–about 13% of the student population.

Noble Network had 9 of 10 top performing non-selective high schools in the city–nothing innovative, just top talent and great execution. Chicago International is a mini-portfolio of 16 neighborhood schools including game-basedChicagoQuestPerspectives operates five high performing 6-12 schools.

Chicago Virtual Charter School was named one of Chicago’s best high schools by Chicago Magazine in their September issue. K12 Passport, another K12 supported school, is designed to assist students who have dropped out of high school recapture credit and earn their diplomas. K12 also supports the High School Diploma Program which provides computer-based high school classes for credit to inmates.

The three KIPP schools in Chicago have converted to blended learning. The 975 students from low income families are served by three blended learning models on four campuses (see feature). Executive Director April Goble found that actionable data, professional development, and strong classroom management is key to ensuring success of instructional technology. KIPP Create, a middle school opened in 2012, employs a large, flexible lab model. KIPP plans six K-8 schools serving 5,000 students by the end of the decade.

Foundations College Prep, a new 6­–12 school opening 2014, combines a rotational blended model with a teacher residency program.  Intrinsic Schools is also a new 6-12 blended model combining adaptive learning and expert teaching. CEO Melissa Zaikos is a star with deep CPS experience as a Broad resident. Both Foundations and Intrinsic are NGLC grantees (see profiles).

Charters in Illinois are support by an association headed by a talented attorney, Andrew Broy, recruited away from the Georgia superintendent’s office.  To my list of great charters, Andrew added LEARN Charter School NetworkUNO schools, and some great single campus charters: Rowe Elementary; Locke Elementary; Polaris Charter Academy; Institution Career Academy; and Chicago Math and Science.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is based in Chicago. NACSA launched an aggressive quality improvement effort urging authorizers to non-renew low performing charter schools.

Growth in charter enrollment means lots of empty or below-capacity district schools–more than 150 according to some facilities experts. Chicago illustrates the need to separate school operations from provisioning facilities.

Foundations. The Chicago Public Education Fund, run by former TFA exec Heather Anichini, is investing in talented principals and enabling effective educator teams to reinvent classroom learning. Last year their Summer Design Program enabled a cohort 16 principal-led district and charter teams to work with experts to confront specific instructional and engagement challenges (see video). The goal is to create up to 75 citywide proof points. The Fund supported the blended math program Teach to One in two CPS schools (see feature).

Chicago is home to a number of foundations with education focused missions:

Impact Partners.  Pat Ryan launched the Inner-City Teaching Corps in 1991 and the Alain Locke Charter School in 1998.  He launched a leadership development program in 2011 and rolled them all together this year. Rob Birdsell joined The Alain Locke Initiative as its first Chief Executive Officer in December 2012 after leading the urban Catholic high school network Cristo Rey.

Chicago is also a huge after-school market. After School Matters is a non-profit organization that offers Chicago high school teens innovative out-of-school activities. Orion’s Mind is the active after-school tutoring program. One of the largest Girl Scout Troops in the US has a cool digital learning space.  Innovative young youth development orgs includeFree Spirit Media and the Chicago Youth Voices Network.

Josh Anderson leads TFA Chicago which has 500 active corps, 1786 alumni including 109 school administrators. New Leaders has trained 200 leaders over the last decade.

Education Pioneers’ Chicago and Midwest site developed over 40 Graduate School Fellowship projects with most of the regions top impact players. This year EP will expand into local and state policy partnerships.

Social emotional learning “teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically,” says Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (See feature.)

Other youth resources include:

“We are having a big conversation in the city about how we do diffusion between school and not-school. The arts folks already did this. STEM folks trying to figure it out,” said Kemi Jona, a prof at Northwestern and fellow iNACOL board member.  Jona said the active conversation is, “What is the role of out-of-school? To be an incubator for innovation or to babysit kids?”

Jona adds, “Don’t forget our world class universities: Northwestern, University of Chicago, UIC, NU, Depaul, Rush, IIT, and Loyola.”

The Illinois drag. Some cities benefit from productive state policy, not Chicago. Illinois perpetuates inequitable funding–kids in affluent district get about $1000 more than kids in poverty. Digital Learning Now gave Illinois an Fgrade for education policy given the lack of student access to online and blended learning including a moratorium on virtual schools (see page 13 of Keeping Pace for a visual image of how bad online opportunity is in Illinois). A national policy insider said that Illinois has a “real lack of leadership on EdReform generally much less digital learning.”  Illinois does get some credit for leadership on early learning.

Illinois Pathways, funded through Race to the Top, is a state-led STEM education initiative designed to support college and career readiness. Illinois Pathways hosts Learning Exchanges in ten industry clusters and the Illinois Shared Learning Exchange (ISLE) is a promising planned build out on top of Shared Learning Collaborative.  All of these big collaborations sound promising but complicated.

With the shift to personal digital learning, Chicago kids would benefit from coherent state policies aimed at equity, options, and innovation.

Education Industry.  Chicago has a long history of learning innovation. DeVry launched career schools more than 75 years ago and was one of the first to serve returning vets under the GI bill. Chicago is also home to Career Education Corporation which serves 90,000 students from 90 worldwide campuses and online.  The University of Illinois developed PLATO system, the first computer assisted instruction system about 50 years ago.

“Chicago is a leader in the ‘profitable-but-boring’ category in the education sector,” as one local observer said. Those boring companies have been fetching 5x revenue in 2012 transactions. Chicago is the home of the School as a Service business model with nearly all of the leading players in this segment (excluding 2U). Two Chicago-based big higher education services firms were acquired in October.  Wiley bought Deltak, a higher ed services firm, for $220 million.Pearson purchased EmbanetCompass for $650 million. A more targeted partnership model,  All Campus, spun out from its former parent in October 2012 and has since added a dozen new university partners. Everspring, providing full-service, customized online educational solutions, is yet another example.

In the ‘speaking softly’ category, when you hear Follett you may think library, but the $3 billion private company provides universities, schools and libraries a wide range of tools and services from content to e-commerce. Last June Follett launched a $50 million venture fund, managed by Atrium Capital.

In the ‘wow, are they still around?’ category, Encyclopaedia Britannica and World Book are both headquartered in Chicago and both of are experiencing strong traction selling curriculum and research products to school districts and libraries.

Start-Ups.  Chicago is home to a diverse range of companies leading the shift to digital:

  • PrepMe (now a part of Ascend Learning) provides adaptive learning across K-12, while its founder Karan Goel is now launching his new venture GetSet
  • BenchPrep provides mobile B2C test prep solutions that are moving toward BTB
  • VLinks provides the corporate learning solution LearnCore
  • MentorMob supports development of learning playlists
  • MediaChaperone is a parent engagement platform
  • Youtopia a student engagement platform that provides gamification tools
  • supports interest networks
  • DigEdu enables teachers to design and delivered personalized learning on any device
  • eSpark Learning makes sense out of elementary iPad learning
  • Wowzers is a game-based elementary math solution from the Brain Hurricane team
  • Collaborative Learning helps teachers align instruction and curriculum standards
  • SchoolTown is a social learning platform
  • ThinkCerca supports Common Core aligned literacy instruction
  • SkateKids produces elementary reading and thinking games
  • Starter League will teach you how to code and market web apps
  • WyzAnt will help you find a tutor and, with a whopping $21 million in funding from Accel, is going global and mobile.

Investors and Bankers.  “Chicago-based funds have completed over 15 venture investments,” according toChristopher Nyren, “in the education market and represent over $2 billion in combined assets under management.”

Leading venture investors and some of their current education investments include:

Additionally, Chicago is home to one of the leading education super angel investors, Deborah Quazzo, who has separately invested in more than 25 EdTech startups including CleverDegreedDreamBox,

ImagineK12LightsideMasteryConnectNoRedInkNovoEdParchment, and Presence Learning.

“Chicago private equity funds have also completed over 30 separate platform investments in the education market and those funds still focused on this sector represent over $6 billion in assets under management.” said Nyren, “No city features more such experienced investors as right here with SterlingChicago Growth, HCP, ConcentricMaximPrairie,Prospect, and more.”

Chicago is home to talented advisors and merchant bankers including GSV Advisors and Christopher Nyren ofEducated Ventures (who, in addition to his advisory work, has also invested in local Chicago education start-ups All CampusMentorMob, Get Set, and Wellspring Higher Education).

“Overall tech space is getting hotter with the creation of TechStars Chicago and 1871, and the impact investing/angel investing is scene is growing centered around The Impact Engine,” said Ryan Blitstein.

Chicago has great universities and generous foundations supporting innovation in early learning and afterschool. UC’s Urban Education Initiative is driving improvement locally and nationally. There are great charter networks and a few bright spots at Chicago Public Schools. Phyllis Lockett’s move from schools to tools is symbolic of the EdTech explosion in Chicago which rivals New York and may be second to the Bay Area in EdTech startups and funders. Lockett will help connect teachers to the tech sector while advancing short cycle trials and iterative development. Keep an eye on Chicagoland.

This post contributes to the #SmartCities Series- for more information on the upcoming book, see here.

Thanks to Tim Knowles and Cornelia Gruman, Phyllis Lockett, Christopher Nyren, Ryan Blitstein and other contributors.

A Graphic That Itemizes The Educational Value Of Video Games

“As the debate continues whether or not video games are good or bad for us, we must pause and truly analyze the components of a video game. Video games offer players rich data displays, forcing players to process information and statistics quickly. They also offer intriguing and creative storylines to help spark interest and inspire players to create their own stories. Finally, video gameplay now offers the opportunity for collaboration to solve problems—a skill necessary for the future workforce. This wonderful graphic produced by and presented at TeachThought offers readers ways video games help players develop essential skills, and experience a truly immerisive and engaging media type.”



Now Teachers Encourage Computer Games in Class

Many teachers are beginning to repurpose video games into valuable learning tools. Whether it is Minecraft for an architecture class or Angry Birds to teach physics, students are using games to explore educational content in an interactive manner. Video games of today also teach what is referred to as ‘soft skills’ which would prove ‘hard’ for students that do not develop these skills in the digital age. Read this article from Stephanie Banchero to hear from some insightful teachers and their stories of digital game integration into instruction.”


via The Wall Street Journal

A growing number of education experts, school districts and companies are applying what young people love about games and gaming to new tools for teaching core subjects. But do they work? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has the Short Answer.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

These seemingly playful adventures represent a new frontier in education: videogames as teaching tools. Though it’s still a budding movement, scores of teachers nationwide are using games such as “Angry Birds,” “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion. In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

The movement is driven by a generation of young teachers who grew up with computer games, a national push for innovative teaching methods in K-12 classrooms and a need to reach children whose obsession with videogames sometimes desensitizes them to the traditional, slower-paced classroom lectures.

Proponents say videogames can be powerful classroom instruments that prod students to think creatively to solve complex problems. They provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies. And they can empower students to work together to conquer specific tasks.

Fail and Try Again

Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, says videogames allow students to explore, be curious and persist through negative outcomes. “In many of these games, the best way to learn is to continually fail and then reassess and try again,” he says. “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

imageMinecraft: A medieval village created in “Minecraft” by Rocky Point high-schoolers for elementary-school kids to use.

Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, says he liked building virtual cities in “Minecraft” during his after-school club because it let his “imagination go wild.” He adds that the game, which his teacher now uses in his architecture course, “taught me how to work in a community to get things done.”

The use of games in school isn’t without its critics. Opponents say games are addictive and violent. Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning.

Teachers have long used computerized games designed specifically for education. But the new wave of innovation takes popular videogames and transforms them into learning tools, often creating lessons around the Common Core math and language-arts academic standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Some companies are even experimenting with building assessments directly into video games.

Shari Hiltbrand, a 49-year-old middle-school physics teacher at the private Kinkaid School in Houston, began using “Angry Birds” in her classroom two years ago. For the uninitiated, the game, a product of Finland’s Rovio Entertainment Ltd., prods players to slingshot feathery critters of various sizes onto wood, rock or glass towers where pigs hide. To knock out the pigs—and move to the next level—players must get the birds’ trajectories just right.

Ms. Hiltbrand, an avid “Angry Birds” player, researched the physics behind the game and spent a few months creating a lesson plan. Today, her students spend a week playing the game and writing blog posts about the birds’ arc through the air, their descent and collision in terms of Newton’s law of motion, force, mass, speed and velocity.

In past years, Ms. Hiltbrand, a 27-year teaching veteran, had students learn these topics by crashing balls into each other on the floor or timing cars as they passed markers. But in the “Angry Birds” lesson, students are far more enthused and write blogs with “such amazing clarity and precision, I see a deeper understanding of physics,” she says. “I want my kids to be informed, scientific thinkers, and I saw I had hooked them.”

How Young Is Too Young for Tech?

How young is too young to be using an iPad or other touch-screen media device? What should parents do if they can’t get their children off the tablet? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer Image: Associated Press. Data from

Lauren Rubenstein, 15, says she had trouble understanding the difference between potential and kinetic energy—until the “Angry Birds” lesson. “It made sense to me because I could see it,” she says.

No one can say exactly how many teachers are using games in classrooms, but to give some idea, hundreds like Ms. Hiltbrand are discussing ideas in weekly webinars and Twitter chats and are posting videogame-related lesson plans on such sites as, an online database for innovative lesson plans. Organizations like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have pumped millions into research and the practice of gaming in schools. Since 2010, students have competed in the National STEM Video Game Challenge, a contest that promotes skills in science, technology, engineering and math by inspiring students to create videogames. Amplify, the education subsidiary of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal, has more than 30 educational videogames it will begin selling next year.

Soft and Hard Skills

Many teachers say they use videogames to develop students’ “soft skills,” such as self-control, persistence, self-confidence and ability to work in a group. A growing body of research has shown these traits are critical to success in later life.

imageD.L. Anderson for The Wall Street Journal: Students at Cape Fear Middle School in Rocky Point, N.C., play “Guild Wars 2.”

The Pender County Schools in coastal North Carolina use a games curriculum in 12 schools to develop hard and soft skills. Elementary-school students work together in “Minecraft” to build virtual villages and conquer such tasks as crafting a fishing pole to catch 10 fish, saddling and riding a pig, or building a mine cart and putting down rails to ride it on. Middle- and high-school students play “Guild Wars 2″ and go on quests to retrieve stolen relics.

Zeelie Scruggs, 13, an eighth-grader at Cape Fear Middle School in Rocky Point, N.C., says she looks forward to language arts class all week because she gets to play “Guild Wars 2.” “I like it because we learn how to work with each other to overcome challenges,” she says. “And we can keep trying something until we figure out the best way to do it.”

Lucas Gillispie, the district’s technology coordinator and architect of its gamification, smiles when his students talk about the classes and notes that they rarely mention the learning.

In the “Guild Wars 2″ class, students will analyze the mission statements of Avon Products Inc. and Nike Inc. before writing their own mission statement prior to the quest. They’ll write short stories about their character and they’ll read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and talk about choices in the virtual—and the real—world.

Mr. Gillispie calls it “ninja teaching.”

“The academic stuff is there,” he says, “but it is so subtly woven into the fun and engagement that they don’t realize they are learning.”

Ms. Banchero is the national education reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

New Mozilla App Reveals Web’s Secret Trackers

“As the preservation of our online privacy becomes more and more a subject of dubiousness, we have yet another spy tool to throw into our arsenal of digital domain self help. This article from Adam Sherwin for the NZ Herald talks about Lightbeam, Mozilla’s latest offering in the battle for online privacy.”


via The New Zealand Herald

Just who is looking over your shoulder when you browse the internet? This weekend, web users will be given a new tool to shine a light on the commercial organisations which track your every movement online.

Lightbeam, a download produced by Mozilla, the United States free software community behind the popular Firefox browser, is claimed to be a “watershed” moment in the battle for web transparency.

Everyone who browses the internet leaves a digital trail used by advertisers to discover what your interests are. Users who activate Lightbeam will be able to see a real-time visualisation of every site they visit and every third-party that is active on those sites, including commercial organisations which might potentially be sharing your data.

Mozilla wants users who install the Lightbeam add-on to Firefox to crowd-source their data, to produce the first “big picture” view of web tracking, revealing which third parties are most active.

Lightbeam promises a “Wizard of Oz” moment for the web “where users collectively provide a way to pull back the curtains to see its inner workings”, Mozilla claimed.

Mark Surman, Mozilla’s executive director, said: “It’s a stake in the ground in terms of letting people know the ways they are being tracked. At Mozilla, we believe everyone should be in control of their user data and privacy and we want people to make informed decisions about their web experience.”

Mozilla already offers users the ability to disable “cookies” – small files that download from websites on to a computer, allowing advertisers to target users based on their online activity.

Lightbeam will reveal the source of the third-party adverts, scripts and images stored on a web page which are linked to servers in other domains. An expanding graph visualises the interactions between the sites a user intentionally visits and the third parties which may not be welcome.

Mozilla had come under “tremendous pressure” from trade bodies over its mission to bring transparency to the web, said Alex Fowler, the company’s privacy officer.

The company said it was responding to increased privacy concerns following the revelation that the US National Security Agency had tapped into the servers of internet firms, including Facebook, to track online communication.

Changes to Google Drive on an iPad

Google Drive iPad

Google has made some changes to the way the Google Drive app works. If you are a teacher using iPads as a tool for learning, you might find this information helpful.

Earlier this week, Google took away the ability to create and edit documents in the Google Drive app and turned that app into a place to access and view resources that are stored in the cloud. Along with that, Google released two new free apps, Google Docs and Google Sheets. These new apps replace the functionality that used to be available in the Google Drive app, which means you need all three apps to create and organize content.

Educational Benefits of the New Apps

Work Offline

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the new Google Docs and Sheets apps is the ability to create and edit content offline. Now students can continue the work started in school, regardless of whether or not they have Internet access. This option certainly levels the playing field for students who are allowed to bring their school issued devices home since wifi is not something every student has access to at home. This feature can also come in handy when students are traveling.

Work Offline

Add Comments

Another benefit of the new Google Docs app is the ability to add comments to a shared document. Comments can be powerful tools for providing students with quick feedback in the 24/7 classroom. Students are likely to revisit their work if they know someone else will be commenting on it. Comments can be used for peer editing within the digital writing workshop, or they can be used to individualize writing instruction.

Unlike the traditional method of providing comments with a red pen, Google Docs comments actually disappear as the author resolves each one. This helps students see their progress as they work, and it gives them a sense of accomplishment as they revise their writing. Just tap on a word or phrase to insert a comment into a comment box.


Collaborate in Real Time

One additional benefit of the new Google Docs and Google Sheets app is the ability to collaborate with others in real time and view their names as they edit and contribute to the document. Adding this Google Docs desktop capability to the app provides mobile users with the opportunity to develop 21st century skills as they engage in real world learning experiences from the comfort of the 24/7 classroom.


Wish List

Although the new Google Apps offer improved functionality, these apps still do not match the capabilities available in the desktop version. Here is a list of features available in the desktop version that would be extremely useful additions to the apps:

  • Add the integrated Research Tool
  • Provide an option to view the Revision History
  • Include the ability to Preview and Insert Video
  • Launch a Google Slides app.
  • Create a Google Forms app.
  • Add filters and sorting capabilities to Sheets


Final Thoughts

I’ve been using Google Docs with teachers and students in the classroom since 2010 and I have been extremely pleased with the steady stream of improvements over the years. One of the biggest challenges I have faced as an instructional technology coach; however, has been trying to continue to use Google Docs as students transition from computers to iPads.

Although quite cumbersome, I’ve encouraged users to use the desktop version of Google Docs on an iPad for access to most of the full features. Unfortunately the inability to create Google Slides is not even an option on an iPad at this time so I eagerly await the release of the Google Slides App. Google says this app is on it’s way. I also look forward to improvements to the new Google Docs apps to match the amazing features available in the desktop version.

Google Drive Desktop Version

Bringing Authenticity to the Classroom

Authenticity—that is the name of the game! It’s the powerful force that makes teaching relevant for students. Students aren’t being impossible; they are being practical. Why would they want to learn something they will never have use for? Using authentic, real-world connections or scenarios demonstrates the need for students to learn the content or skill. Andrew Miller, one of Edutopia’s most insightful contributors, shares his views on creating an authentic audience, understanding their needs, and the importance of creating authentic products and the assessment practices needed to provide students with rich, meaningful feedback for academic growth.”


via Edutopia

Authenticity — we know it works! There is research to support the value of authentic reading and writing. When students are engaged in real-world problems, scenarios and challenges, they find relevance in the work and become engaged in learning important skills and content. In addition, while students may or may not do stuff for Mr. Miller, they are more likely to engage when there is a real-world audience looking at their work, giving them feedback, and helping them improve. This is just one critical part of project-based learning. However, maybe you aren’t ready for fully authentic projects. Where are some good places to start taking the authenticity up a notch in your classroom?

Authentic Products

Does the work matter? Does it look like something people create in the real world? It should. Much of the work we do in the classroom may not be like the real world. Wouldn’t it be great if it were? Now, I’m not saying you need to make every piece in your classroom completely authentic, but consider having your major summative assessments reflect the real world. If you truly want the work to matter, make your products not only look authentic, but actually beauthentic. Follow this link for a list to consider.

Needs Assessment

How do you make the work be authentic? One way to is to conduct a needs assessment of your community. You can facilitate students to conduct this needs assessment by having them design the type of data to be collected, collecting and analyzing that data, and then developing action plans. These action plans can include real-world projects that you help your students align to curriculum standards. Paired with authentic products, the work now matters to the community and can make a difference.

Authentic Audience and Assessment

Edutopia has a great section on Authentic Assessment that you can use to get started. It goes over definitions, features videos, and includes tools to help make the assessment process more authentic. Part of this is having an authentic audience to give your students feedback. Sometimes that audience can be parents, but often it’s made up of people who, in their everyday lives, do the same or similar types of work to what your students are doing in the PBL project. So instead of just a public audience, make it an authentic audience. Remember, this audience doesn’t just participate at the end of the work, but is engaged throughout.

Authentic Tools

When you partner with an authentic audience that can give honest feedback about the work, they may also be able to provide you with authentic tools. These tools might be construction-type materials, or they might be technological. Different work calls for different tools, and having the right tools can help students do more authentic work. As you plan your work and projects, find those real-world connections, and ask them what tools they use.

Whenever I build PBL projects, I try to make them as authentic as possible, not only because it helps engage students, but because the students start becoming social change agents. Education shouldn’t stop at engagement in learning — it should be about engagement in our world in community!


15 Things States Should Do Now

New tools and new schools are reshaping the opportunity set in education.  State policy is an important framework which can either encourage or dampen innovation. Digital Learning Now provides a useful framework of state policy recommendations.  To get started, here are 15 things every state should do now:


1. Embrace Core & More. Common Core State Standards are internationally benchmarked college ready expectations in reading, writing, and math. With online networks, they represent a platform for innovation allowing teachers to share tools, resources and strategies across state lines.  Like the 19 states that have joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, states should encourage career and civic readiness.


2. Shift to competency-based preparation of educators (see Preparing Teachers For Deeper Learning and Preparing School Leaders) and expand alternative preparation pathways especially those linked to high performing school districts/networks.

3. Support an incubator like 4.0 Schools to encourage edupreneurs. (See 4 reasons every city needs an incubator.)

Tools and Schools

4. Support new/transformed school grants modeled after Next Generation Learning Challenges grants.  New schools create important options for students and a picture of the future for educators. (See feature on CityBridge and NGLCin Washington D.C.)

5. Encourage schools to work in networks and use smart procurement to adoption of one of several IT stacks including student information systems, learning management system, social learning networks, open and proprietary content, and student access devices. (See Smart Series Guide to EdTech Procurement.)


6. Support improved broadband access to schools and homes with public private partnerships

7. Provide matching grants to districts and networks with a good plan to boost student access to take home technology (laptops & tablets).

Course Choice

8. Expand course choice options: full and part time access to online and blended options from multiple providers (seeLouisiana students gained online options, and 10 Strategies States & Districts Can Use to Boost AP).

9. Encourage all schools to provide coding and computer science options; allow substitution of computer science classes for math and science grad requirements; and support adoption of nationally recognized information technology industry certifications. (See advice from the experts.)


10. Encourage competency-based student progressions by requiring students to show what they know and making end of course exams available on demand. (See DLN section on Advancement; for more see CompetencyWorks)

11. Enable data backpacks–a gradebook of data that follows a student from grade to grade and school to school.

12. Encourage use of parent-managed comprehensive learner profiles.  As recommended by the Department, parents should have the ability to download a learner profile and share it with multiple providers. Give every student a digital portfolio (see features on EduClipper and Pathbrite)

13. Power equitable options with funding that weighted, flexible, and portable.

14. Support short cycle trials of promising tools and strategies and Proposals for Better Growth Measures;

15. Set a timeline for the digital conversion.  State leaders should frame compelling goals and encourage proactive planning around a specific timeline.  (see Blended Learning Implementation Guide 2.0.)


K-12 Schools Are Missing Out On This Edtech Trend

“Many teachers feel digital games can help their students learn in a fun and engaging way. However, schools still have numerous barriers. These are the same barriers that hinder many powerful, worthwhile initiatives in schools: money and resistance to change. Carmel Deamicis at Pandodaily reports on the wasted potential many schools face if they turn down and ignore innovative learning opportunities such as educational gaming.”


via Pandodaily

study by market research organization Ambient Insight says that edtech games are by and large not making their way into K-12 schools. The lead researcher on the study reported that information anecdotally.

It’s strange because that same study found that consumers are demanding digital learning games more and more, a topic explored by our very own Adam Penenberg in his latest book “Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking.”

Gamification is increasing due to the rise of mobile usage, our portable computers in our pockets. People are learning by competing against themselves or others in Web or digital challenges. Ambient Insight predicts that revenue from game-based learning will increase 8 percent internationally in the next five years, to $2.3 billion from the $1.5 billion it’s currently at. In particular, in North America mobile edugames are expected to grow 15.3 percent.

So where does that leave K-12 schools? You would presume incorporating gamification into teaching strategies. But not so, says Ambient Insight. Teachers are hesitant to bring games into the classroom, not because they question their effectiveness, but because of the costs involved. Instead, children are learning through edugames the most in the home, when parents purchase them.

Education Week reported education experts at the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit citing this very problem back in April: in order for schools to take advantage of gamification, they need better equipment. They need newer computer labs and faster Internet connections. On the panel, the founder of education gaming company Mindsnacks explained that he targets consumers and not schools because K-12 schools aren’t equipped with the tablets they’d need for Mindsnacks applications. Plus, it’s easier to scale with a consumer audience than the regulation burdened education system.

It’s an inherent contradiction between what edtech gaming companies are trying to do — disrupt education — and what they are — for-profit companies. As a result, it means they only disrupt education for the schools or students that can afford it. An unlevel playing field (pun intended).

There are ways for teachers to use gamification in the classroom without expensive edtech trappings. One teacher in North Carolina has introduced World of Warcraft themed lessons to his classes. Students team up in guilds to write riddle poems and challenge each other to solve them. In another class, a teacher uses Angry Birds to explain algebra, because the program uses a parabola without air resistance to calculate the birds’ flying path.

But such individual lessons won’t scale across school districts the way a software program might. Edtech games have the potential to change the way students learn, practice, and study if they were widely adopted in the education system. But at this point in time, they remain largely on the outside of it, targeting the parents who can afford it and no one else. It’s a shame.


13 Things you didn’t know about Mexican Coke

Andy Warhol once commented on the democratic nature of Coca-Cola by noting that a celebrity drinks the same Coke as a homeless person. But now he’s dead and wrong, because all the cool kids are flocking to a hipper, bottle-ier, more delicious Mexican version of the world’s most popular soft drink, which’s characterized by said vintage glass bottle, pure cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, and a richer taste/price tag. Read on for 12 facts about the popular Mexican soda, plus one potentially offensive commercial.

1. Mexican Coke has 10 more calories than the classic version (150 vs. 140) and is thus more likely to contribute to a North Pole-sized waistline.

2. Popular Science reported that non-glass bottling methods have the potential to slightly alter the taste of a beverage, with aluminum cans absorbing small amounts of flavor and plastic bottles contaminating the soda with very small amounts of acetaldehyde, the harmful cousin of acetaldrjekyll. So Mexican Coke needn’t worry about such things.

3. Despite listing sugar as the primary sweetener, Mexican Coke was found to have the same sucrose levels as plastic bottled and fountain drink versions in a study by the fatties at the North American Association for the Study of Obesity. It was found, however, to have a lower fructose-to-glucose ratio, making it slightly less likely to contribute to weight gain and high blood pressure.

4. “If you want to hide a secret, you must also keep it from yourself,” wrote George Orwell in the novel 1984. That is coincidentally the year that Coca-Cola made the switch to high fructose corn syrup, rolled out New Coke (conspiracy theorists insist it was a diversion), began their denial of the flavor disparity, and started hiding miniature video cameras in their bottle caps.
5. The official party line from Mr. Coca-Cola is that there is no perceptible taste difference between Mexican and American Coke and that, wherever it comes from, “it’s the real thing”!

6. Mexican Coke is also much more musically talented than its American counterpart.
7. The NYC ramen-slingers at Momofuku took flak on Twitter for selling the South-of-the-border cola for $5 a pop, which they defended, citing import costs and hipster taxes.

8. Proving they’re also on the cusp of breaking trends that have nothing to do with cargo shorts, Old Navy reportedly sells Mexican Coke at some of their stores, alongside vintage Coke tee-shirts that Mom thinks would look great on you.

9. The extra-deliciousness of Mexican Coke results in an insanely popular rate of consumption by our neighbors to the South, with each person consuming 675 servings of cola per year, compared to 394 in the US.

10. It’s the only soda endorsed by Black Dynamite.
11. If you get a Mexican Coke in Mexico, where they call it “non-American Coke”, you won’t see any nutritional information sticker — those get slapped on when the bottles make their way up here. Maybe they should think about it, though: they recently surpassed us as the most obese country in the West!

 12. A clue as to why Mexicoke still uses real sugar — Mexico produces twice as much sugarcane as the United States.

13. When interviewed by the only polite cameraman in the history of TMZ, Vincente Fox attributed the superior taste of his country’s cola to the hearts of the Mexican workers.

An Early Report Card on Massive Open Online Courses

MOOCs fascinate me because their potential for real disruption is so great. As this Wall Street Journal article by Geoffrey A. Fowler points out, they are far from perfect and are in the infancy of their evolution. But MOOCs point in a direction that is undeniable. In an age in which we are massively mobile, connected to experts and each other, and facilitated to teach and learn online, it is going to become impossible to deny students the right to take courses that originate outside their own schools. Distance learning was the first challenge to tenured teaching since tenured teaching was established. MOOCs take this to a new level. 

“They are more of an anti-school than a school. They represent learning opportunities without the money, grading, or requirements. You can take the entire course, take part of it, select what you need. When articles report that 90% of those taking a MOOC don’t finish, I have to ask: What does finish mean? When you are taking the course on your own terms?

“The age of professional education has arrived in a new way—making what you do available to anyone, on their own terms. Toward that end, I invite you to join my MOOC that starts this January 2014 on Digital Citizenship. Email me at for more information. It is, of course, free and available to anyone.”


via The Wall Street Journal

If the MOOC movement were in college, it would be time for a freshman report card. The assessment: great potential, but still in need of remedial work.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, went mainstream last year, heralded as the next great technological disruption in education. The big idea is that putting lecture videos and interactive course work on the Web will make it possible for top-notch university education to reach more students and allow for different styles of learning.

Already, MOOCs have shown they can attract students in huge numbers. The largest provider, Coursera, has drawn five million, and nonprofit provider edX more than 1.3 million. And while the majority are still based in the U.S., their learners come from all over the globe: Among edX’s students, 9% came from Africa and 12% from India.

Big-name schools have also signed on to the idea. Top institutions—from Harvard University to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Stanford University—and some companies have joined with MOOC providers to put courses online, free to anyone who wants to access them. Now more schools, to expand their student base and potentially reduce the cost of an education, are building online courses that cost money but offer actual college credit.

For all that great potential, though, MOOCs still have a lot of room for improvement. Early studies highlight a number of problems with the learning experience in online courses that educators are scrambling to solve. Perhaps most important: Staring at a screen makes some students feel isolated and disengaged, which can lead to poor performance or dropping out altogether. Often, more than 90% of people who sign up for a MOOC don’t finish, though many come to online learning with a different intent than would students at a traditional university.

“In large part, the experience is very good, but we see that there are problems, and there are a number of things that can be done that have promise,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “We are not even close to the kinds of conclusions we want.”

As educators sift through the research to see what works best and what needs to be shored up—or scrapped—here are some of the most important lessons they’ve learned.

People Need People: Interaction Matters

For all but the most self-reliant, online learning can be isolating. Perhaps the largest challenge MOOCs face is that students lose interest when they don’t feel engaged.

“The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant director of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. She has compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses, compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.

Some instructors help students feel connected by recording audio comments on assignments instead of writing them. Others record a fresh update video about what’s going on in the course each week. Then there are motivational messages. At Coursera, when students have work that needs to be done, the company sends them emails congratulating them on what they’ve already completed as a gentle nudge to keep going, says co-founder Andrew Ng. The company tried notes that simply reminded the students about what was due, but they weren’t as well received.

Adding manpower is another potential solution. In trial courses with San Jose State University that offer students college credit, MOOC provider Udacity hired mentors who stayed on top of students. “They are sort of your online mother,” says Ellen Junn, the provost of San Jose State.

Many experiments being developed at traditional schools involve blending online and offline learning, sometimes called flipped classrooms. Students watch lectures online at home, and then come to class to work on projects and interact with faculty. There’s some evidence that such hybrids can even improve student performance in traditional in-person classes. One fall 2012 test by San Jose State and edX found that incorporating content from an online course, Circuits and Electronics, into a for-credit campus-based course increased pass rates to 91% from as low as 55% without the online component.

Blended classes may well be the future of MOOCs. “We do not recommend selecting an online-only experience over a blended learning experience,” says Coursera’s Mr. Ng.

Even something as simple as having skin in the game can make students feel more engaged. Most MOOCs are free, so students don’t feel a financial bite if they drop a course or perform poorly. Coursera found that students who pay $30 to $90 for the company’s Signature Track identity-verification program, which confirms that they took a course and passed, are substantially more likely to finish the course.

Don’t Just Sit There: The More You Talk, the Better You Do

One way to provide personal interaction at mass scale is to get students talking to each other. Several studies suggest that many students who spend more time contributing to course discussion forums end up performing better. More than answering specific questions, the boards send a message, says Mr. Ng: “You are not alone.”

A study of the online-only version of edX’s course Circuits and Electronics offered in the spring and summer of 2012 found a mild correlation between the number of posts people made in the discussion forum and their final grades. Some 52% of the students who earned a certificate for the course were active in discussion forums, according to the study by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at Harvard.

The question, says Lori Breslow, director of the MIT laboratory, is why some students are active on forums but most aren’t. “We don’t know the answer to that question,” she says.

Boring, Boring, Boring: Long Lectures Don’t Cut It

Successful MOOCs have figured out that students can’t simply sit and listen to a long lecture. They break up lessons with quizzes and problem sets that must be completed before students can progress. In the study of the online version of Circuits and Electronics, researchers found that time spent on homework was the largest predictor of positive grades—more than time spent watching videos or reading. Among comparable students, one additional hour spent on homework across the whole course, with all other factors equal, meant a 2.2-point increase in total score on a 100-point scale (with a 60 required to pass).

MOOCs also have to figure out how to compete with the distractions of home life. The most students watch edX videos between midnight and 2 a.m., the organization says. Educators have to be sure that their lecture is compelling enough to keep students awake (and away from the refrigerator).

Along those lines, a study of edX student habits by Philip Guo, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester, found that certificate-earning students generally stop watching videos longer than 6 to 9 minutes. The median time they spent watching a 12- to 15-minute video: about 4.4 minutes.

All of which means MOOCs challenge professors to rethink how they teach. “Organizing the course around exercises and mental challenges is much more effective than around lectures,” says Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: MOOCs Don’t Work For Everyone

It runs counter to the access-for-all mission of MOOCs, but evidence is mounting that online learning doesn’t work for all students. The Columbia study of Washington community-college students found that all students performed less well in online courses than in face-to-face ones, but the gap was even wider among those with lower GPAs, men and African-Americans.

Some MOOC tests that target troubled students haven’t turned out well. This spring, San Jose State paired with Udacity to offer several for-credit courses online to high-risk students. Among students in those courses, pass rates were between 24% and 51%—much lower than the typical in-person pass rates of between 46% and 76% for a normal student population.

“It is not just the professor who sets up the learning environment,” says Ms. Junn, the provost. “It is also characteristics of the students that determine the amount of learning that occurs.”

One reason some of the high-risk students, including some in high school, might have underperformed is that those from disadvantaged backgrounds didn’t have access to broadband Internet access and personal computers at home. “They are not as familiar with using the technology,” says Elaine Collins, associate dean of San Jose State’s College of Science, who conducted a study of the university’s experience.

From the spring experiment, San Jose State says it learned it needed to better prepare students for MOOC learning. Some instructors have made students begin with self-assessment surveys and videos. They asked, ” ‘What do you think it takes to be successful in online education, and do you feel that you are ready for it?’ ” says Sandra DeSousa, a math lecturer who taught one of the San Jose State MOOCs. Asking those kinds of questions “improved the engagement right off the bat.”

The school’s MOOCs did much better on a second attempt, in the summer semester, though they were open to a wide range of students—not just high-risk ones. Some researchers have suggested colleges might screen participants for signs they can do well in for-credit online courses, perhaps even barring students from enrolling until they earn a certain grade-point average or take an online-learning workshop.

What the Numbers Show: MOOCS Can Teach Humanities, Too

Many popular MOOC sites were created by scientists. To the surprise of many, the sites are also useful for teaching poetry. “There was a real question of whether this would work for humanities and social science,” says Coursera’s Mr. Ng, who is also a Stanford computer-science professor.

Now courses in psychology and philosophy are among Coursera’s most popular, and student feedback and completion rates suggest that they work as well as ones in math and science. “Whenever someone says you can’t teach X online, half the time someone is already doing it,” says Mr. Ng.

There is at least one major holdout: Udacity, which has drawn more than 1.6 million students, doesn’t have humanities offerings, focusing instead on technical courses. And there are indications that online students struggle a bit more in English and social-sciences courses than in math and science ones. In the Columbia study of community-college students, Ms. Jaggars found online grades were lower in English than in natural-science classes when compared with grades in in-person classes. (The score differences may reflect the fact that many students with anxiety about math and science avoid online classes in those subjects.)

What remains a challenge are capstone projects like a senior thesis and very subjective exams, which are impossible for a professor or even a team to grade on a mass scale. Some MOOCs are experimenting with peer grading and self-assessment, but results have been mixed, and plagiarism is an issue.

Nonetheless, you can learn almost anything online—if you put your mind to it. Software entrepreneur Jonathan Haber has an undergraduate degree, but decided to dedicate a year to determining if MOOCs can provide the equivalent of a traditional liberal-arts degree. So far, the 51-year-old has taken 24 MOOCs, from statistics to philosophy. “Each course has its own strengths and weaknesses, and I haven’t seen any one discipline that’s stronger than any other,” he says. “I haven’t had any courses that are clunkers.”

Mr. Fowler is a deputy technology editor for The Wall Street Journal in San Francisco. He can be reached at and on Twitter @geoffreyfowler.