Preparing Educators to Blend Learning

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One of the most important aspects of creating successful blending learning environments is preparing educators to effectively manage the students, data and tools available to them. In this final post in the 3-part series on Zaya.org, Soma Vajpayee, Co-Founder & Director of Training, shares some insights on how they are identifying and preparing educators to run Zaya Learning Labs in India.

I’m baffled by how we prepare educators to create personalized, differentiated learning environments by asking them to all sit through the same 6+ hour training session and then hand them a binder of materials to review on their own. (Isn’t this exactly what we want tech to help change in our current learning processes?) Luckily more and more players in the edtech space recognize that in order for tech integration to truly impact learning outcomes, educators need to be prepared to lead and guide students through these new learning experiences.

The key to blended learning is the ongoing feedback, which I believe is actually more important than the content itself if we see the goal as developing critical thinking skills and not just  knowledge acquisition. We are wired to learn by doing and responding to immediate feedback, which educators need just as much as the students do.

Improving teacher PD is a major issue and even startups that are not specifically targeting the K12 space are taking on this challenge. Coursera has a growing number of Teacher Professional Development MOOCs geared towards educators looking to improve their understanding and instruction in their rapidly evolving classrooms. Last fall Vajpayee and I attempted to participate in their Blended Learning MOOC, but unfortunately neither of us made it past the first couple weeks. (This hints at the core issue with purely online PD as my early optimism waned quickly.) With this in mind, she recognizes that while there are numerous resources online, her ability to engage her instructors during their offline sessions is critical.

Adding to that, a growing number of educators are participating in self-directed PD, supported by tools such as Sanderling and Twitter chats that encourage educators to connect and share their experiences. Vajpayee created the Zaya Learning Community group on Facebook to organize and stimulate sharing within the Zaya community.

Vajpayee shares some of her thoughts from the past year of recruiting and training the first set of Zaya educators.

How did you recruit the educators to run the first set of Zaya Labs? 

Identifying the right educators to lead our programs is an important part of our process. Zaya has partnered with Teach For India (TFI) and other women’s empowerment programs like SNEHA and to selectively screen candidates who have the knowledge, passion and energy to pilot these early programs with us. Our most effective early educators have been TFI teachers as they are a bunch of motivated and young people who are mission aligned to improve the education standards by using technology as an accelerator.

How are you blending the training sessions for your educators?

Once we’ve identified those individuals they participate in a 3 day, in-person orientation conducted in a blended learning fashion using the rotation model. From the very beginning we model for the educators what we want them to be doing with the students and believe this is incredibly powerful for them. They themselves experience the new learning style we seek to create for the students.

The initial teacher training program was formulated based on detailed competency required for a Zaya teacher like pedagogy, technology and classroom management, which includes reviewing case studies from Rocketship, KIPP and learnings from other blended learning sites. We are also creating our own library of resources which includes research on blended learning and “how to” technology related videos and feedback/ideas videos from our advisors.

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During first two months of implementation we invest a significant amount of time coaching and monitoring each class. Using a detailed teacher rubric (formulated by a volunteer from UCLA) we are able to measure at a micro- competency level where each teacher stands. This is done more frequently at the beginning of the session and then once more at the end.

Based on early feedback we are developing self-paced modules for the teachers to refer to on a regular basis. We are curating the content from free resources and making our own videos with expert teachers.

Even with all the high-quality content we’ve made available online we directly see the importance of face-to-face time. We meet once a quarter to hold small discussion sessions and share success stories. This is an iterative process and will be refined as the platform becomes stronger and Zaya will be more attuned to working with more diverse group of educators.

What could be done to share learnings across different sites and even programs beyond Zaya?

The real magic in blended learning is collecting and analyzing the data effectively to improve instruction, and doing this well is extremely difficult. Even at the top blended learning sites in the Bay Area I observed some of the challenges they face given all the different software tools that don’t communicate with each other.

Beyond that, are we even collecting the right data? We should think more about how data is being mined for “student interaction” with the content and how they are learning it. We need to be able to look beyond which videos students watched and the exercises they completed.

Lastly, we need a uniform tagging nomenclature followed by content providers and shared across schools, content providers and teachers that are mutually agreed upon so that students benefit. The US seems to be moving towards this with the Common Core but there is still quite a ways to go.

Embracing Schools as Customers

Often times the various demo days and edtech press all tends to blur together in a cloud of buzz words (a la adaptive platforms, flipped classroom), however, Imagine K12’s recent batch of edtech startups sounded distinctly different. With 13 teams presenting, one of their largest batches to-date, there was a noticeable shift in tone as many of the startups were not afraid to say they are selling to schools and are actually generating revenue. From the “ramen profitable” startup DeansList kicking off the day to YC and Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education closing the show sharing they have “4,500 schools using their product, all of which are paying customers.”

As someone who has been following and working in this space for the past few years, hearing these stats are a welcome change. This not only indicates that the investor side of the ecosystem has matured and has a better understanding of the K12 market, but it also demonstrates that more and more schools are deciding to purchase and pilot new edtech tools.

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As for the teams themselves, the pragmatist in me likes more enterprise oriented startups like SchoolMint, while the optimistic side is drawn to efforts like Kodable. SchoolMint’s appeal comes from the basic idea that they are saving schools/admins hundreds of hours by digitizing a process that is currently entirely offline. (And the fact they are already on track to $100k annual revenue is a sign they are addressing a real pain point for schools.) Similar to another IK12 alum, Chalk Schools, these products seem obvious and I think in several years we’ll look back and wonder why schools took so long to adopt these more streamlined and efficient systems.

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Kodable believes that even before kids learn to read they can learn the basic elements of programming. My 3.5 year old and I have tried out the app and I hope more schools and parents will find engaging ways like this to introduce loops and conditional statements to their kids. Kudos to Imagine K12 and the teams for kicking off the year on this impressive note.

Beyond Tech in the Classroom to Deeper Blended Learning

This is a follow-up post to Zaya.org: Bringing Blended Learning to the Base of the Pyramid.

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Soma Vajpayee, one of the co-founders from Zaya.org made her way to the Bay Area last September to observe some top-performing blended learning schools in action and is now working to incorporate those methods into their work on the ground in India. Zaya’s approach to blended learning in India is two-fold: 1) implementing blended learning in low-cost private schools and 2) creating new blended learning centers through their Learning Labs model. She optimistically recognizes a shift taking place from simply having technology (mainly tablets) in the classroom to actual blended learning practices that include dramatically different instructional practices with deeper emphasis on improving learning outcomes.

Vajpayee shared more of her insights and what she’s bringing back with her to Mumbai.

What were your expectations for the blended learning school visits?

My goal for this trip was to observe a few blended learning classrooms in the Bay Area, as it has been the fountainhead of innovation in education technology. At Zaya we have been researching various blended learning models, such as Rocketship, KIPP and Alpha Schools and it was inspiring to meet with those school leaders and hear some insider perspectives.

We have incorporated approaches from these models into our initial teacher training sessions to introduce our educators to new instructional practices and set expectations for these new learning environments.

What were some highlights from speaking with these people who are pioneering innovative teaching/learning practices?

I was so grateful to meet with some of the thought leaders in this space, including Greg Klein from the Rogers Family Foundation and Jennie Dougherty from KIPP. Given my focus on teacher training it was great to hear some of the innovative approaches around preparing teachers for effective blended learning instruction. Many people are focusing on developing the software and devices that is fueling this movement, but we believe developing educators to run blended learning environments is the key to successful outcomes for students.

Dougherty shared that KIPP’s seen early success “by creating ‘blended learning champions’ in each school who in turn trains the other teachers in the school.” Similarly, Klein has built a strong teacher feedback loop for his network of Oakland sites, with a few blended learning experts that provide on-going tech support and coaching. While these innovative schools are experimenting with different PD models, I noticed that a scientific and structured way to measuring the teachers performance seems to be missing.

Beyond teacher preparation, John Glover, Principal of Alpha Schools, shared that his key issues are data collection from the various learning programs they are using in the different subjects and also the accurate tagging of skills and competencies to the content.

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What struck you as the biggest differences between blended learning sites in the Bay Area vs. India?

The investment in hardware and infrastructure in the US is astounding. While I’ve read a bit about 1:1 methods it was another thing to walk into a classroom and see each student with their own Chromebook. Beyond the hardware, the investment in the connectivity was significant with one KIPP school sharing that their broadband setup cost ~$1M. These systems are all still very basic in India and it is unlikely to see schools make this type of investment.

With regards to the educators, they were extremely competent and it helps a lot that the typical charter school teacher is young and relatively comfortable using technology. In India, we see a huge variation in the quality of teachers and even fewer teachers who are proficient in using innovative ways of teaching. An interesting revolution that has started for the last 5 years is the influx of young and motivated individuals who join the workforce for two years of focused teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, through Teach for India. They create a change in the way teaching works in their isolated classroom, however, as you can imagine the bigger challenge is to sustain positive change beyond those isolated classrooms.

As for students, charter schools in the US serve a similar population of students as Affordable Private schools in India, so I noticed that there is a similar hunger to learn. The use of technology in the classrooms has instilled a new sense of engagement in their own learning which is really motivating our work.

Lastly, what innovative practices have you observed in India that could be shared to the US?

This is an interesting question since most of my focus has been bringing innovative practices to India. We at Zaya are working on an education solution which is an on and offline delivery model outside of the traditional school system. Our Learning Labs create blended learning environments where there is no internet or even electricity, and even space is a constraint. This innovative “class in a bag” package is definitely a scalable and shareable model.