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“Long-overdue technological revolution” under way in education: The Economist


A revolution is under way:

At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.

In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively).

The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.

So says The Economist in its current issue.

The British-based news weekly takes a global look at what its headline writer calls “e-ducation.” What it finds is mostly hopeful. (“Used properly, edtech offers both the struggling and the brilliant a route to higher achievement. The point is to maximise the potential of every child.”)

But it also notes that “edtech will boost inequality in the short term, because it will be taken up most enthusiastically by richer schools, especially private ones, while underfunded state schools may struggle to find the money to buy technology that would help poorer students catch up.”

[That passage underscores the importance of  Innovations for Learning’s mission: We work in America’s largest urban — read “cash-strapped” — school districts as a nonprofit seeking to make tech-based education in the primary grades as available as possible.]

It’s an excellent overview, showing the impact of a phenomenon that has started in America and spreading across the world. It’s well worth your time.  Here’s the full version.

Illustration: The Economist


Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

lg.Cary and Mira (color)

Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 

Today: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms


In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

Innovation. It’s the name of the course

Indiana high school teacher Don Wettrick is so giddy about innovation that he’s teaching a course in it.

To be more accurate, the teenagers pretty much teach themselves. Wettrick’s main role is to set things up so this can happen. “My students, they teach me,” he says.

It’s the students who come up with subjects to explore and projects to complete. One kid, for example, had the idea of writing and publishing a book.

Wettrick’s response: “Let’s do it!”

Never mind that Wettrick didn’t know how to self-publish a book. He simply encouraged the kid to figure out what he wanted to accomplish and the steps it would take to get there. “We backwards-design everything,” Wettrick says.

They reached out to the worlds of business and tech and found experts in self-publishing. “You find that there are plenty of people dying to help,” he says.

The class began last fall with a dozen students, and already has reaped “amazing” results, Wettrick says — not least of which, being among the 8,000 winners selected to test the highly anticipated Google Glass (more about that below).

One group of kids worked with solar-energy companies to figure out how to get their school off the grid (getting the school board to implement the plan — that’s another hurdle). Another, inspired by a 60 Minutes segment, put iPads into the hands of autistic children.

Some students have started a site that enables kids to collaborate on books or videos on subjects that interest them. It’s called Student HackEd. For example, some students are holding a discussion on how teens can share knowledge globally through a high school MOOC  (massive open online course). So far, they have participants from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Uganda.

One politically-minded young man worked with the state General Assembly on educational reform and, with another student, started a TV round-table discussion show with the town’s local decision-makers.

“The class has provided me with the opportunity to do things that no pre-calculus class, no biology class, no traditional class can offer,” said the student, Connor Shank. “No other class can allow me to go the State House and talk to senators and congressmen and speak to them one-on-one.

“That’s real education. That’s innovation, and that’s the future.”

The high-energy Wettrick, 40, is a teacher at Franklin Community High School, outside Indianapolis. A dozen years ago, he quit teaching English to teach broadcasting.

His students were soon making documentaries about life around town, and he thought the works were so good that he started a film festival to show them off in a downtown movie theater. He also posted them on YouTube so that people outside their town of 25,000 could see them. Before long, the kids’ movies were getting 200 to 300 views. And the festival had expanded to include videos from schools throughout their own Johnson County, Ind.

Wettrick was floored by the quality of the students’ work, which grew out of the kids’ own passions and interests — such as this documentary about homeless teens.

Then he thought, why stop at filmmaking? Why not give kids other chances to let their imaginations loose and see what they can accomplish? By this time, the Indiana teacher was heavily influenced by thinker Daniel Pink’s TED Talk (5.2 million views to date) and book, Drive

“Freedom and autonomy are the key words of the class,” Wettrick says. “It’s up to the students to find a topic and then get two experts to collaborate with. When they’re done, they blog their findings.

“They also have to research the Common Core standards, find the ones their project deals with, and demonstrate their mastery of those standards.”

In February, a student named Briceson Hill saw a video about Google’s contest to find testers for its newest invention, Google Glass — a combination of eyeglasses and smartphone that puts online tools to use in real time — and quickly persuaded the Innovations class to enter.

Trouble was, the contest deadline was that very day. But in a scant two hours, the class wrote and produced a 15-second video featuring Wettrick — who normally talks at machine-gun pace anyway — rapidly laying out their case.

“If I’m selected, it won’t just be for me, It’ll be for my entire class,” Wettrick races to say in the video. “I run a publicly educated class called Innovations, and in this class we communicate and collaborate with other experts. This would allow us the opportunity to work with Google and then communicate our results to the world.”

Good news came on March 29. Google sent a tweet: “You’re invited to join our @googleexplore program. Woohoo!”

Wettrick is now waiting for word from Google to fly out to Silicon Valley and receive his pair of glasses, which will cost him $1,500 he says he’s happy to pay. He’s getting impatient. His seniors are graduating in a few weeks.

Once he gets the glasses, “I can be teaching a class and have other Google Hangout people watch my class,” Wettrick said in a TV interview. “I think that’s exciting, collaborating with people  — who knows? — all over the world.”

Not every class project has succeeded so well. “We fail beautifully. Nobody does that better,” Wettrick says exuberantly.

One student trained special-ed kids to run a coffee shop inside the school, but the administration closed it down after the cafeteria complained about the competition. Alternative energy-minded kids proved that converting Franklin Community High to solar would save money in the long run, but implementation will have to chill for want of $400,000 in start-up costs.

Nevertheless, Innovations projects keep expanding in scope. The class communicates all its doings on a YouTube channel called TheFocusShowOnline. And, increasingly, on Twitter, which Wettrick calls “the greatest educational development tool I’ve ever seen.”

“I’ve been connected with the world’s greatest teachers through Twitter. End of story.”

He urges other teachers to share what they’re doing, via Twitter or other social-media.

“I think our students are more savvy and innovative,” he says, “and it’s time people heard about the positive stories.”


— Story by Howard Goodman

Staff reflections: Jessica Nasset

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Jessica L. Nasset, Teacher Ambassador in Seattle

IFL photo

My dream was always of being a teacher. I can remember back in fifth grade asking my teachers if I could clean the chalkboards or help grade papers or to change out bulletin boards. I wanted to stay in at recess to talk with my teacher or go help out in another classroom.

I thought teaching would be the best job … and I was right.

To begin my quest to be a teacher, I attended Central Washington University where I received my Bachelors of Education degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. While teaching near Seattle, I attended Seattle Pacific University where I received my Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

From there I moved to Las Vegas, Nev., for a new adventure in teaching. After a few years, I knew that I wanted to continue learning how to be the best teacher I could be. With this in mind, I chose to complete the rigorous National Teaching Certification program from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

After a year of hard work, I was very pleased to become National Board Certified Teacher.

I have been working in education now for 10 years. My teaching history includes working as a K-8 substitute, and teaching kindergarten and/or first grade in Title I at-risk schools. I have also worked with a private school to create and establish a new kindergarten program.

During all of this, I always made an effort to volunteer, plan and oversee school fundraisers, plan and implement school professional developments, participate in family academic nights and offer my help to other teachers who were striving to become National Board Certified Teachers.

With my educational experiences in and out of the classroom, I found a real interest in teaching other teachers about education. After checking in with many of my educational contacts, I came across a non-profit educational company that was looking for a Teacher Ambassador to work with the Seattle School District.

Let me just say that finding Innovations for Learning was another dream come true! I have been able to indulge in my interest of helping other teachers, yet still work with young learners as well.

Having just come out of the classroom and being new to the “coaching” aspect, I am finding that the variety of schools, teachers, students, and classrooms to be of great interest. I am lucky to be able to visit multiple classrooms a day and see the variety of teaching and learning that is going on. There are so many different personalities, that it is fun to get to know each and every teacher and to see their relationships with their students.

Telling stories of my past teaching experiences and listening to current stories about teaching and learning, from teachers and students alike, easily creates my own relationships with everyone and helps to include me in the classroom dynamic. Sharing stories, whether it is with teachers or students, is what grows relationships and connects everyone together into one big classroom community and I enjoy being a part of that.

As a Teacher Ambassador I have had the privilege of coaching other teachers in their quest to enhance their reading instruction and to help them engage their students by adding educational technology into the classroom.

I have found that being a Teacher Ambassador is very eclectic in its job description. I am a teacher, a co- worker, a resource guide, a cheerleader, a technology guru, a reading coach, a “problem fixer,” a counselor, and a friend. I am the person who will praise your successes, help with your struggles, and lend an ear or a shoulder when you are just too overwhelmed to do one more task.

If I can do these things, and do them well, my teachers and their students will be successful. If they are successful, it will bring about a new path for technology and coaching in education, and that will in return have a big impact on the future.

A lot of teachers have asked me “why do love your job so much?” Well … here is my answer: I love education! I love to learn (about anything – random facts are my favorite, though), I love to teach (by inspiring others to love learning), I love to talk about education/teaching, and most importantly, to help other educators create a successful classroom.

I get to indulge myself in all of those aspects within my job. Nothing is better than being able to support a teacher by boosting their confidence with praise or showing them a new teaching technique and seeing a new spark of passion for their teaching! When a teacher is passionate about their teaching, the students will be passionate about their learning.

Engaging students in their learning is a key factor for academic success. When I walk into a room at the beginning of the year and am introduced as the “iPod lady,” I can already see the interest in learning rise. Students are very interested in and knowledgeable about technology. To be able to give them a fun, interesting and engaging way to learn and practice reading is very rewarding.

It is this interest in learning for both teachers and students that motivates me to do my very best as a Teacher Ambassador.

Jessica Nasset

Visions of change

Sometimes it takes more than words to describe the rapid-fire changes going on in education — or that are possible in education — right now.

Here are a few inspiring videos that show how the new technologies that are becoming familiar to almost everyone can excite and expand the learning process.

The one above is from It shows how students are leaping ahead of the education system in their use of cell phones and computers. That’s quickly changing their ideas of what they expect from school.

This one, from Norway, makes a strong case that educational institutions must play catch-up to prepare students for life in the 21st Century:

In this one, 18 classroom teachers from Mahoning County, Ohio, the area around Youngstown, describe how technology can integrate into all subject areas:

Let us know if you like these videos — we’ll look for more to share with you.

(Thanks to for bringing these videos to our attention.)

Innovations for Learning: The video version

Check out this wonderful video about Innovations for Learning. It gives a great picture of how IFL is helping children learn to read in public school classrooms.

It was produced by the group Make It Better, as a prize for winning one of its 2012 Philanthropy Awards.

Make It Better elaborates on Innovations for Learning’s work in this blog post.

We’re very grateful for the recognition!

(If you have trouble accessing the video from the links above, you can find it on our website.)

3rd-graders love iPads. Let us count the ways.

Here’s a charmer of a blog post from a third-grade teacher in Massachusetts who lists the changes she sees in her classroom every time the iPads roll in.

A weakening of attention spans is not one of the effects.

Far from it. Suzy Brooks, who blogs under the name Simply Suzy, says her students increase their focus, get to work faster, stay more engaged, and communicate better when working with the iPads. And the devices also help her make better assessments of her kids’ progress.

“Though digital solutions aren’t always the best fit in every situation,” she says, “there are many ways to enhance and deepen both learning and understanding through the use of technology.   I can only imagine how amazing school can be once I really get the hang of these buggers!!”

You can enjoy the whole blog post, complete with comic art, here.

Teacher: 3 takeaways from iPad conference

Here’s an indication of how fast technology may change education.

It’s only 2 1/2 years since Apple introduced the iPad. Last week, the group EdTechTeacher held its first iPad Summit, bringing together more than 500 educators and experts at Harvard Medical School to talk about this single device —  what it can do to revolutionize education.

“The conference was one of the most innovative and exhilarating experiences I have had as an educator,” says Jennifer Carey, a teacher from Fort Worth, Texas.

Carey blogged about the conference at her website. And she wrote an essay for the Powerful Learning Practice blog, summarizing her findings.

Her biggest takeaways:

The iPad is “is simply a tool – it is not the magical, shiny object that will innovate education.”

To be effective, the iPad must be more than a replacement program for, say, a word processor, but imaginatively used for tasks that weren’t possible before, such as creating digital stories on the fly.

And there was this insight, which especially connects with our work at Innovations for Learning: “Any integration of iPads in the classroom must come with professional development.”

You cannot simply “add iPads and stir.” Administrators must be prepared to fully support the faculty and students before any significant technology initiative is going to be successful.

Simply handing out iPads to teachers and students (and going over the security protocols) isn’t going to accelerate learning in your school.

Educators need to become skillful at using these tools and then think deeply about how to integrate them into the learning environment in powerful ways.

Here’s a wrap-up of the entire conference. A second conference is already being planned for April, in Atlanta.

Arab state takes iLearning leap

The world’s most advanced paperless classrooms are in … Dubai?

The United Arab Emirates handed out 14,000 iPads to all its college freshmen this September. UAE authorities hope not only to reduce the waste of paper, but to create a more engaging experience for students. They think the use of the popular devices will ultimate raising test scores and bridge the gap between classroom learning and workplace skills, the New York Times reports.

“Everyone’s on mobiles and iPads, so we thought this was the right time and place for what has now become the largest systematic deployment of any mobile device in schools in the world,” Jace Hargis, director of Abu Dhabi Women’s College and Khalifa City Women’s College, told the Times.

Tablet use is spreading, especially in the United States. According to the Times:

In autumn 2011, New York City public schools paid $1.3 million for 2,000 iPads distributed across the five boroughs, including 300 iPads sent to a high school in the Bronx. In Chicago, 200 public schools followed suit.

Younger students have benefited as well. Six middle schools in California began using an iPad-only algebra course created by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this year. And in Arizona, 36 kindergarten children were given iPads as a learning tool.

While iPads seem to be the tablet of choice, other devices are also being used. Kajeet, an American cellphone carrier, will give Android tablets to 120 public school students in Virginia and 180 to public school students in Chicago for the 2012-2013 academic year.

(Photo: Zayed University, via New York Times)

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