Zaya.org: Bringing Blended Learning to the Base of the Pyramid

I first met Neil D’Souza in the fall of 2011 after hearing him speak at the Global Education Conference which just wrapped up this year’s sessions last week. As he shared his story of leaving his comfortable job at Cisco to travel to Mongolia and Indonesia to prototype ideas around improving educational opportunities for low-income kids, I was compelled to learn more about his approach. Even with the explosion of free online/OER content Neil was struck by all the hardware (remember OPLCs?) that sat around, under-utilized. One of the main reasons for that being lack of connectivity.

In just two years what began as D’Souza’s early experiments as Teach-A-Class in orphanages in Mongolia has evolved into Zaya.org, reaching 1200 students through 5 schools in 4 countries. EdSurge recently profiled Zaya’s progress in Mumbai, contrasting their slow approach with the tumultuous journey of the now infamous Indian edtech startup Educomp.

ZayaMumbaiLab

Zaya’s long and patient approach represents their deep focus on improving learning outcomes for low income students in a sustainable manner. To help support work in this sector the Zaya team has recently published a whitepaper (pdf), Overcoming Challenges to Bringing Blended Learning to the Base of the Pyramid, which explores some of the pain points they are tackling in implementing blended learning at affordable private schools in Mumbai, India. Some of these issues include “unreliable electricity, limited or no access to the internet, and a lack of funds to maintain technology.” Beyond the resource limitations and logistical issues, the report cites the main issues are knowledge gaps where “many school leaders and teachers do not understand how to use the technology, much less how to implement it.” Sound familiar?

The report goes on to outline a case study of overcoming some of these resource and connectivity issues by implementing the Zaya Lab Kit at an affordable private school (APS) in Mumbai. However, as with many edtech endeavors, the key challenge lies in overcoming the knowledge gaps by providing educators and school leaders with the training and on-going support they need to integrate the online content in a meaningful way. One of the co-founders, Soma Vajpayee is solely focused on the Professional Development (PD) piece; recruiting and preparing a team of educators to build the first set of Learning Labs. Zaya’s partnership with Teach For India (TFI) helps attract bright and energetic educators looking to experiment with blended learning practices in their classrooms, but training them to successfully run Learning Labs is a crucial and often over-looked step in the process.

In an effort to bring best practices around blended learning instruction to India, Vajpayee recently made her first trip to the US to meet with practitioners and observe schools experimenting with blended models. In the next two of this 3-part series I’ll cover Vajpayee’s tour of key blended learning schools in the Bay Area, including visits to Alpha Schools and the newly opened KIPP high school in San Francisco. I’ll share her insights and global perspective on blended learning, including what translates between learning environments in India and California and what is needed to prepare teachers for this “new” style of teaching.

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#Edtech Goes Back-to-School

“Tell me about your biggest problems, I’d like to fix them for you.” As well-intentioned as this sounds, it is a common request from tech entrepreneurs that often frustrates educators and school leaders. And unfortunately it is still how many edtech solutions are designed and distributed.

TeacherSquare wants to flip that model by creating opportunities that bring educators together as the influencers and creators of edtech solutions. This past Saturday, in partnership with Castilleja, we co-sponsored “Edtech Goes Back-to-School,” an invite-only event targeting educators and edtech enthusiasts to stimulate conversations around how to foster better innovation from within schools. The optimist in me hopes that the top-down policies and district-level decisions will be balanced by a grassroots, bottoms-up movement and meet in a productive middle that improves learning outcomes for all.

 The activities of the day were framed around several ‘how might we…’ questions that we collectively wrote based on participants’ responses to a pre-event survey. Questions like how might we:

…make EdTech more student-driven, student-led, and student-centric?

…give developers and EdTech entrepreneurs a better opportunity to observe, interact with, and serve students and teachers?

…build a community of EdTech learners, educators, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts?

We started the event with a mini design-thinking exercise (that participants shared was ‘inspiring and productive’) lead by the brilliant minds at d.cipher. Zanette Johnson and Marilyn Cornelius met while completing their PhDs at Stanford and upon graduating launched d.cipher to ‘transform complex challenges into innovative solutions’ with a focus on climate change, education and wellness. Their passion for this work was energizing and I was so pleased to hear that several schools are going to invite them to jumpstart future PD sessions.

Throughout the day many educators expressed common opinions about their experience with edtech and these were a few questions/comments that I heard over and over:

  • How can we take the focus off the tech? (The tech is great but it’s just one aspect of teaching/learning.)
  • How can we avoid tech implementation that is just for tech’s sake? (Investing in devices without any guidance on how that will impact teaching and learning.)
  • How can we be innovative while working in highly constrained systems, specifically with standardized test, grades, A-G requirements (It is not impossible but requires a certain mindset.)
  • Extracting meaning from the data is the biggest challenge and opportunity

This event would not have taken place without the energy and leadership of Gabe Lucas, Director of Technology at Castilleja and while it was hosted at an affluent private school, the audience and conversations spanned all levels of preK-12 and school types (district, charter, private, parochial.)

We often hear complaints about teachers being behind the times or not open to trying new approaches in their classrooms. This is not always true and I’m constantly inspired by the educators I meet who are leaning in to their PLNs and experimenting with different approaches. Events like this bring PLNs to life and are necessary steps in the right direction.

My hope is that one or more of the attendees will take a new idea and experiment with implementing that in their school and I’d gladly showcase those efforts here in a future post. If you’re interested in fostering a conversation like this in your school community, please join the TeacherSquare Community on Google+ or reach out on twitter @TeacherSquare.