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.

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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.

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.

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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.

The Meet Education Project

Kudos to Nick DiNardo, member of the Pearson Online Learning team, on launching the Meet Education Project. This podcast series showcases educators and edtech innovators from around the country and I’m honored he invited me to share my experiences building bridges in the edtech community through TeacherSquare.  In our ~30 min chat we discuss the edtech ecosystem in the Bay Area and beyond, highlighting some of my favorite players Imagine K12, 4.0 Schools, EdTechRI and more.

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While podcasts may seem dated, I am actually a fan and find they are a great way to directly hear from some of the thought leaders in this space.  My favorite is Audrey Watters’s Hack Education series with Steve Hargadon, which I hope they’ll bring back sometime soon. (Their most recent one is from Feb 11, 2013.)  I put one on during a run and find it’s a great way to learn from others doing inspiring work in education. If you have any feedback for Nick or me, send it our way.