Technology Infrastructure at Rocketship (Plus a Few Thoughts)

Charlie Bufalino recently guest blogged at EdWeek on technology integration at Rocketship. In his post, he explains the four key features that blended models tend to want when they try to make sense of multiple digital content providers:

  • Logging in: single sign-on for students and teachers to all providers
  • Account management: creating accounts for students automatically, typically based on SIS data
  • Meaningful data: aggregating and synthesizing the enormous amount of data being generated by digital content providers
  • Goal-directed assignability: the ability for adults to direct digital content to focus on particular standards/concepts (as opposed to letting an adaptive “algorithm” drive this)

From my experience, this feature set generally aligns with the expressed needs of most blended schools, though different models have varying needs for this functionality based on their size, maturity and approach. Below are some observations having seen enough of these schools wrestle with technology decisions over the past several years:

  • If you only intend to implement one or two digital content vendors in a few classrooms, you probably don’t  need to purchase a third-party solution. However, if you are implementing a major blended learning initiative that involves several providers across thousands of students in multiple schools, you will likely want to purchase a solution that at least offers single sign-on and automated account management.
  • Virtually every school that implements blended learning says it wants to provide teachers with a dashboard that aggregates data from all providers from the outset.  However, providing this data to teachers in a way that is useful, and not overwhelming, is a real challenge. For that reason, I suggest starting small. For instance, many blended schools start out by simply flagging the students who are struggling in one or more programs. Over time, they learn what teachers really need and develop dashboards accordingly.
  • Similarly, many teachers express a desire for goal-directed assignability. In some models, this feature is essential to the instructional model. In others, however, this need arises because teachers are reticent to trust a “black box” algorithm like DreamBox. Interestingly, I have heard anecdotal evidence that teachers in the latter category become less reliant on this feature over time for two reasons: (a) it takes too much time and/or (b) they begin to trust the digital content.
  • Schools and funders should probably avoid developing custom technology solutions to address these features given how quickly this market is evolving (see below). It’s not always easy to wait on the market to build what you need, but then again it’s also not easy to build and maintain custom solutions either.

The good news for schools that are interesting in adopting blended learning  is the marketplace of providers that offer these types of features is growing rapidly. Startups like Education Elements, Junyo,  Clever and Eduvant and existing players such as Agilix’s Brain Honey have already been adopted by blended schools. Given the growing enthusiasm for blended learning, I have no doubt that others will join this list soon. To further catalyze market development, the Gates Foundation’s investment in the Shared Learning Collaborative is aimed squarely at solving some of the underlying infrastructure challenges, which we believe will lower the barriers for more organizations like these to launch and scale.

There is still a long way to go before implementing ed tech in schools is cheap and easy, but that day is coming. Lest we forget, easing the pain of technology integration and data reporting is the means, not the end. Student learning is and always must be the goal.

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