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Learning by the Thousands

Can high school students learn in MOOCs?
By Wayne D’Orio

In less than four years, massive open online courses have been hailed as the next big thing to hit education—and disparaged as an empty promise where very few of the students complete the courses they sign up for.

You’re probably aware of the basics about MOOCs: After more than 150,000 students signed up for Stanford University’s first course in 2011, companies such as Coursera and Udacity, which pair with universities or other companies to offer content, seemed to sprout up overnight. MIT and Harvard, later joined by other universities, then created the nonprofit edX to offer classes for free. Today, more than nine million people take MOOCS, choosing from more than 1,200 courses.

Most K-12 administrators have been able to ponder the merit of MOOCs from the sidelines, as these classes have mostly involved college or post-secondary students. But with edX’s recent announcement that it will offer 27 courses next fall specifically for high school students, the question has landed right on administrators’ doorsteps. They have to wonder, will this work for my students, and if it does, how will it change how we educate our kids?  

Students are ready for it, says Anant Agarwal, edX’s CEO. The group surveyed high schoolers and found that 95 percent of them asked for advanced courses. Indeed, 150,000 of edX’s current 3 million students are in high school, he explains.

But that isn’t the only reason edX is expanding. Agarwal knows that many high school graduates aren’t ready for college, having to wade through remedial classes at university prices before they start earning credit. “We want to fix that,” and the courses offered should help, he says. edX will start by offering 15 AP classes among its 27 courses for high schoolers. It hopes to add 100 more high school courses in the next few years.

Another reason for the expansion is that a disproportionate number of edX students are teachers themselves. “It turns out that teachers want to know other ways of teaching a course,” Agarwal says. If a high school chemistry teacher can watch a Georgetown University professor teach chemistry, why wouldn’t they, he asks.  

The courses are all free, but for a varying fee, students can earn a certificate, Agarwal says. Of course, students in AP classes can sign up to take the AP test in the spring.

The certificate is also an answer of sorts to the conundrum posed at the start of this story. If course completion rates hover around 4 percent, as a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education showed, are MOOCs worth it? Yes, Agarwal argues, because when students are asked to pay between $25 and $100 for a verified certificate, the completion rate jumps to 60 percent. (edX’s general completion rates are 7 percent, Agarwal says.)

Students are using certificates to help them get accepted to college, while teachers use them to get continuing ed credits, he adds.

In the end, though, “you can’t judge a MOOC by the same metrics” as a regular college class, says Agarwal. “If you pay $50,000 to attend college, you’d better pass. MOOCs are free. A lot of people take classes just to learn something new.”

Image: Spanic/iStockphoto

Lessons Learned: Launching a SLO Initiative

By Jo-ne Bourassa

In Georgia, as in many states, approximately 75 percent of teachers teach subjects that are not assessed by state tests—for at least part of the instructional day. To meet the student growth and academic achievement component of Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, teachers of these non-tested subjects must implement student learning objectives (SLOs) to gauge student growth.

As one of the original 26 Race to the Top districts in Georgia, Bibb County School District jumped in early on to launch a SLO initiative. In the first year of the pilot, during 2012-13, the Georgia Department of Education required that 52 SLOs be given. To help districts prepare for this, the DOE provided training in assessment alignment and SLO creation.

In Bibb County, we decided to use a pre-test/post-test format to determine student growth over a semester or school year. Several challenges became apparent during year one.

Year One Challenges

To start, we faced a steep learning curve and a massive amount of work. As part of Georgia’s system, student growth and academic achievement are measured by student growth percentiles in tested subjects, or SLOs in non-tested subjects. Only 25 percent of our courses provide growth percentiles through Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Testsin grades 4-8, or end-of-course tests in high school. That meant we were now responsible for creating and administering SLO assessments—and arriving at SLO scores—for 75 percent of our courses.

To save time, we initially used public-domain SLO assessments created by other districts. This, unfortunately, meant our teachers felt no ownership of the materials. In addition, the administration and grading of the 52 pre- and post-tests caused almost all other activities to come to a halt. The tests took two to four days to administer. All were done via paper and pencil, which consumed our paper and copying budgets. The student scores (about 52,000 scores) were collected by hand on an Excel spreadsheet and sent to the central office for summarizing.

Mid-Year Changes

By the end of the first semester in year one, it became clear that teachers, students, and parents did not take the SLO assessments seriously. They even joked and complained about students taking “SLOW” tests.

So, in December 2012, we decided to change our SLOs to GLOs — growth learning objectives. We also switched out the labor-intensive assessments for instruments we already had for PreK-3, including AIMSweb for reading and math in grades 1-3; district writing assessments for English language arts in grades 1-3; Gkids portfolio pieces for kindergarten ELA, math, and reading; and Bright from the Startportfolio pieces for PreK literacy and numeracy. We had to live with the assessments in the other grade levels until we could write our own.

Year Two Revisions

For 2013-14, our district was required to have at least one growth measure for every certified teacher from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. This included P.E., fine arts, and career, technical and agriculture education (CTAE) teachers, as well as any class for which a teacher did not have an existing GLO or student growth percentile. This necessitated the creation of 100-plus additional GLO assessments.

We knew this would be a nearly impossible task without technology. So, after issuing an RFP and evaluating several systems, in January 2013 we selected the SLO Module from Performance Matters, along with the company’s assessment and data management system. Then, from February to July, we revised and developed 100-plus GLO assessments in ELA, math, science, social studies, P.E., fine arts, and CTAE.

In June and July 2013, we conducted training on the Performance Matters platform for our administrators and testing coordinators. Then, in August, we administered the GLO pre-tests in all 41 schools via plain paper scanning and online testing. Instead of having to collect the pre-test data on a spreadsheet, the results were automatically available in the company’s system, which also made it easier to send to the DOE. In addition, our teachers could now see the baseline assessment results and growth targets for each student. This allowed them to more easily monitor students’ progress toward the growth target during the school year, and identify what their students needed and which standards they needed to focus on to reach that target.

We went through the same process to administer the post-tests. Even though we were now administering twice as many assessments, we saved a significant amount of time and energy over the previous year, when we had to gather and analyze the data by hand. Our teachers and administrators could now access the target score and the results data from the pre- and post-assessments for each student under each SLO. With the SLO Module’s automatic calculations, teachers could see whether or not each student met the SLO, as well as the overall percentage of students achieving the SLO by class or by course. In addition, school leaders could use the data to group teachers into the appropriate ratings category—exemplary, proficient, needs development, or ineffective—on the SLO portion of their annual evaluations.

Lessons Learned

Here are some key takeaways from our successful launch of an SLO initiative.

  • Develop clear and concise test administration instructions to guide school testing coordinators and teachers through the pre- and post-test process.
    We created a spreadsheet with “administration notes” for each course. These notes instruct testing coordinators and teachers how to administer and score each test, which eliminates confusion and ensures consistency in each course.
  • Form two teams of teachers to develop SLO assessments—a team of writers and a team of reviewers.
    Having a team of writers and a separate team of reviewers not only improves the quality of the assessments, but it also encourages teacher buy-in since they are actively involved in the test-creation process.
  • Train teachers on test development and assessment alignment.
    Within each course, teachers should be able to determine which standards are most important for students to master the course and prepare for the next grade level. They should be able to plan what percentage of course time should be spent on each of these “power standards,” taking into consideration the percentage of the test that will cover the standard. They should be able to dissect each standard and identify exactly what students must be able to know, understand, and do to demonstrate mastery. They should also be able to articulate the depth of knowledge of each standard, so the assessment item can match that level of cognitive complexity.
  • Allow at least six months—and a large team of teachers — for the development, review, and input of the SLO assessments.
    It is also important to gather input from teachers of English-language learners and students with disabilities who can provide insight into what, if any, modifications might be required to meet specific needs or individualized education plans.
  • Create an item template to ensure consistency.
    Instead of purchasing an item bank, we collected items from a variety of sources, including state-released tests, or we developed our own. Each item was created using a template, which included the following fill-in-the-blank components: question number, DOK level (1-4), curriculum code, question stem, answer choices A-D, and correct answer. Having this template made it much easier to review and vet the items, before we put them into the assessment and data management system.

When we launched our GLO initiative more than two years ago, we had no idea how much work it would be to create and administer the assessments, and then crunch the data for each GLO to determine if students achieved the academic goals set at the beginning of each course. The use of technology has allowed us to automate and streamline the GLO process and ensure more accurate calculations for effectiveness ratings for our teachers. It also gives our teachers easier access to the data they need to inform their instruction, so they can meet the primary purpose of the SLOs — to improve student learning in the classroom.

Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa is the Race to the Top coordinator for the Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia.

Image: credit: Zero Creatives/Media Bakery


The Keys for Empowering Black Male Learners

How to make the best use of the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

 By Baruti Kafele

Whatever other gains have been made in American education in the past decade or two, there is a continuing crisis when it comes to young black males, who graduate at a rate of just 47 percent. I believe the biggest challenge for American education is motivating and inspiring black males to strive for academic excellence. I also believe this is attainable, and the federal My Brother’s Keeper initiative is one step toward this vision. Below, I’ll outline how a Young Men’s Empowerment Program, such as ones I’ve created in previous schools, must be a key component of My Brother’s Keeper initiatives.

For readers unfamiliar with My Brother’s Keeper, it is a White House initiative to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” The President’s Task Force is working to identify programs and policies that work in our communities to help young people reach the following six milestones:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or career
  • Completing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

The reality is that in the academic realm, we typically discuss the plight of black males within the context of the overall achievement gap. In doing so, we’re addressing this as an academic problem, which it is not. When we analyze the national achievement data of black males, it becomes glaringly clear that this gap in achievement occurs in virtually every district in the country and across rural, suburban, and urban areas. There are deeper issues that often go unaddressed in schools.

Peer pressure and gangs are the two biggest challenges I’ve witnessed affecting my students (and these are by no means unique to the communities I’ve served). The feeling among so many black males is that it is uncool to be smart and that succeeding in school means they’re “acting white.” This results in black males coming to school wearing invisible masks and thereby adhering to this black male code of conduct, academically speaking. Teachers all too often attempt to teach to the mask rather than the student because they do not realize that he is wearing a mask.

I have contended for many years, based on national data that shows upwards of 70 percent of black children are born into a household where there is no father present, that this is a crisis. We are asking black males to perform proficiently in the classroom when far too many of them are struggling with home issues that start them off on unequal footing. Due to the lack of male role models in their homes, schools, communities, and even the media, they are confused about their roles as young men.

To address the challenges that arise from a lack of black male role models and to help young black males gain an understanding of who they are, I launched the Young Men’s Empowerment Program in a middle school where I was principal, and then brought it with me to Newark Tech High School when I became principal there.

The purpose of the YMEP is to teach my male students about both manhood and their history. The overall development and leadership of the program was, and is, a sustained collaboration between my staff, community partners, and me. The community partners contributed greatly to the overall climate and culture of the school and to the academic, social, and emotional growth and development of not only my black male students but to all of my male students. The YMEP components include:

  • All-male empowerment assemblies/meetings with black guest speakers (Power Mondays)
  • All-male empowerment classroom meetings with black guest speakers
  • Small-group and one-on-one mentoring sessions led by men of color
  • Opportunities to meet and spend time with black male college students, successful black males in their work environments, and men of color in political leadership roles
  • Dress for Success days
  • Father-son programs
  • Positive Rites of Passage programs

School counselors play a crucial role in making this program work. They identify and locate the role models who come to the school to work with students. Staff members can reach out to local organizations, neighborhood associations, religious institutions, and even individual community members—we have found that there are many men who would love to come into their local schools to speak to or mentor students but have never been approached. Before this occurs, however, a committee of staff members should conduct a needs assessment of their male population. The following questions should be raised:

  • How will we go about bringing men into our school to speak at our empowerment meetings?
  • What kind of follow-up will we have for the speakers to engage in?
  • Will the meetings be comprised of single grade levels or will grade levels be combined?
  • How frequently will the meetings occur, during what time of day, and how long will they last?
  • What do the girls do during the male empowerment meetings?
  • Which staff members should be involved?
  • What topics will be discussed and what activities will we engage students in?
  • What are the goals of the male empowerment meetings?
  • How will we measure the success of the program?
  • What are the possibilities of partnering with corporations, businesses, and other agencies?

Our YMEP was rooted in what we coined “Power Monday”—a day to focus on empowerment. All male students were required to wear a shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and a belt. The intent was for them to look empowered and ultimately to feel empowered. For the actual empowerment program, we had a meeting with one grade level on the morning of each Power Monday. These meetings typically lasted for two hours. I, along with other male staff members and men from the community, would engage the students in a wide variety of discussions pertaining to the many facets of manhood. I wanted the students to be exposed to men from all walks of life, so I went into the community and literally recruited men to be a part of what we wanted to accomplish with our male students.  

As our test scores began to rise to a level of national recognition over the six years that I was principal of Newark Tech, it was clear and evident that our YMEP, with a concentration on Power Monday, was making a tremendous difference in the lives of our young men. If similar programs become a part of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative across the nation, more schools can experience this success.

For more information on the public and private sector groups that have pledged time and money to recruit mentors, share information, and more, look at the My Brother’s Keeper Fact Sheet. To find out more about becoming a mentor and bringing change to your community, check out serve.org.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author of Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success (ASCD, 2013) and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (ASCD, 2009). Under his leadership, Newark Tech High School in New Jersey went from a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized as one of America's best high schools in U.S. News & World Report.

On this new episode of ASCD’s Whole Child Podcast, Baruti Kafele and ASCD’s Sean Slade discuss how knowing your students, intentionally creating a positive school climate and culture, and making learning relevant set the stage for student motivation and achievement. They’ll pay attention to how making meaning for students is an underutilized, but effective, strategy.

Listen to the episode:


Image: Blend/ MediaBakery


Debating Race in School

How race affects tracking, placement, and more in public schools.
By Wayne D'Orio

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, race remains a huge factor in education, affecting tracking, who gets suspended, and where the best teachers teach, said Geoffrey Canada during a panel discussion at a recent Broad Foundation awards event in New York City.

Canada, the president of Harlem Children’s Zone, drew on his career in teaching, and his own childhood, to articulate the many ways race continues to influence education. He spoke on the panel Race in America’s Public Schools with former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Russlynn Ali, a former assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Education.

Canada spoke most passionately about how schools continue to track students, even if that word never gets uttered. “The data is very clear—the darker you are, the poorer you are, the less of a chance that people are going to believe that you are going to be successful,” he told a crowd of more than 100.

“Adults assume they can tell whether a 7-year-old is ever going to amount to anything,” he said, referring to experiences during his childhood. While he was tracked in a high-performing class, he said, his brother wasn’t. “My mother freaked out. She went to the school, used some bad words, and got him in a better class.” His brother recently retired as an engineer for a nuclear power plant.

Today’s system is less overt, Canada said. Many students of color don’t take high-level courses in middle school, and are thus unable to qualify for or keep up with advanced placement courses in high school. “If you start worrying about AP in high school, it’s too late,” he warned. At Harlem Children’s Zone, he fixed this by upping the rigor of classes offered to seventh and eighth graders.

The panel turned to a discussion on discipline discrepancies, and Ali explained how data proves that black and brown students are disciplined much more severely, even as early as in kindergarten. “This problem has been pervasive for a long time,” she said. Black girls are disciplined more harshly than boys of every race except boys of color, said Ali, now the managing director of the education fund for the Emerson Collective, an organization concerned with social entrepreneurism.

Canada agreed, saying, “We’ve allowed a set of behaviors to become criminal. Kids are tossed out in the blink of an eye. They don’t learn how to manage their behavior.”

Villaraigosa addressed the thorny issue of tenure, arguing strenuously against it, while maintaining that he’s not anti-union, “What if I ran [for office] and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ve been here the longest,’” he said, to laughter. “We can’t have every decision made on how long you’ve been there.” He said that teachers instead should be paid based on their performance.

Canada agreed, noting that without merit pay, good teachers are often tempted to flock to better schools. This leaves students in inner-city schools with the newest or weakest teachers, he added. “You can’t teach AP classes if you yourself barely know geometry.”

In one area, however, Canada said race is not a factor. “Great teaching has no color,” he proclaimed. He argued for teachers who have both passion and knowledge. “People give up on these kids too quickly. Loving your students isn’t a prerequisite for great teaching, but it certainly helps.”

Image: Linda Rosier/New York Daily News via Getty Images

Top Stories for Wednesday 10/1

US College Enrollment Down

Second year in a row, student enrollment is decreasing. EdNews

Apps Created for Ed. Data Mining

Apps being developed to explore electronic ed. data. HechReport

UMUC Wins Intl Cybersecurity Competition

The UMUC Cyber Padawans hack their way to a win. WashPost

“Deeper Learning” Schools Excel

A study shows students have better test scores and people skills. EdWeek

DOE Creating Level Playing Field for Students

New education guidelines work to end racial inequalities. NYT

Top Stories for Thursday 9/25

Students Coding for a Purpose

HFOSS project creates “software for humanity”. HechReport

Nashville Parents Fight School Closings

PAC pushes back on Dir. of Schools. EdNews

Teaching with Banned Books

Teachers demonstrate the value of banned books. HuffPost

Lessen Standardized Testing?

US Rep and supts. drive to reduce standardized testing. PBS

Clinton Voices Opinion on Charter Schools

Former Pres. Bill Clinton advises charter schools to step up. HuffPost

Top Stories for Wednesday 9/24

Denver Students Walkout to Protest Curriculum Changes
Resistance builds to reviewing AP History course. Chalkbeat

Hillary Backs Girls Ed Worldwide
New initiative will earmark $600M for 14M girls in next 5 years. Time

Did AYP Actually Improve Results?
Study attributes better scores to NCLB accountability. EdWeek

Beating Back Poverty
New book highlights Cristo Rey Network's success. Forbes

Wealthy Kids Smarter Web Surfers?
New report says so, but finds all students lack online literacy. NYTimes


5 Steps to Inquiry-Based Learning

Unsure about how to make the shift to inquiry-based teaching under the Next Gen Science Standards? Follow these steps to lessen teachers’ anxiety.
By Ronald J. Korenich

As school districts begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), they may find teachers and staff are worried about how to implement inquiry-based methods of teaching. For many teachers, inquiry-based instruction can be scary, or at the very least, require a leap of faith.

I know this first-hand. More than 10 years ago, in my role as district coordinator of elementary education for Fox Chapel ASD in Pennsylvania, my charge was to implement inquiry-based instruction for both science and social studies.

Teachers wanted to provide quality instruction but were uncomfortable because they didn’t feel equipped. When students engage in inquiry, lessons can take many twists and turns, and teachers were concerned they wouldn’t have the content knowledge to answer student questions or wouldn’t be able to tie in the overarching concepts students were required to know.

Although progress was gradual, the end result was such an improvement in both teacher confidence and student learning that I don’t think any other method of learning is even an option now.

For any district moving from a non-inquiry-based curriculum to an inquiry-based one, there will always be a steep learning curve. Here’s what we learned in my district.

  1. Start with pedagogy, but don’t forget content. Teachers need to know the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning—their role, students’ role, how to implement the lesson—in addition to the content. For better or worse, you can’t learn one without the other. In the beginning, though, most of our training focused on pedagogy. We walked teachers through sample lessons: what might happen during a lesson, how to handle veering off-course or unexpected experiment results. Teachers were excited to see that once they knew strategies to capitalize on those moments, incredible learning occurred.

  2. Rich materials are crucial. Schools must not only choose materials that are robust in content for their science curriculum but also those that provide teacher support. Publishers that provide training sessions or whose materials are tied to Web-based support are the most helpful. In my district, teachers also appreciated curriculum that was structured so they could take specific steps to reach student goals.

  3. Schools need to accept initial teacher missteps. Teachers may not be completely successful at first, and that’s to be expected. Rather than view these experiences as failures, schools and districts need to understand them and continue to support the teachers. We found that sharing “mistakes” during professional development sessions provided some of the best learning opportunities.

  4. Teachers need to accept mistakes, too. It can be difficult for teachers to pull back from “teaching” and let students pursue their own conclusions. However, when teachers create an environment where kids aren’t afraid to be right or wrong, they are much more inquisitive and engaged. The teacher can always turn “wrong” answers into learning opportunities by pointing out common misperceptions or by making a connection between the mistake and critical learning content.

  5. Professional development needs to be ongoing. Training for inquiry-based learning is continuous. For example, we were surprised in one of our schools that a simple unit on levers and pulleys generated sophisticated questions that required physics knowledge. The district brought in more content training on physics, and as a result, both the students and teachers achieved a depth of knowledge on the subject that we had never imagined previously.

When most of us think back on what we know, we realize that we’ve learned best when we were actively engaged in the learning but had someone supporting and guiding us. It’s the same for elementary students. Teachers who understand how to meet students where they are and guide them along a path of inquiry are engaging students in the real work of scientists. Today we have the opportunity to encourage children’s natural curiosities, coach them on how to interpret what they’re discovering, and help them understand the impact of what they’re learning while they acquire important knowledge about science content and process. This engagement and resulting depth of knowledge is where we want our students to be in STEM subjects. Other teaching methods can’t achieve this, which is why implementing inquiry-based learning, although sometimes bumpy at first, is so critical in today’s schools.

Ronald J. Korenich, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and former coordinator of elementary education at Fox Chapel Area School District, Pennsylvania. He is a member of TCI’s Science Advisory Board.


Image: Creatas/Thinkstock

Shopping Smart.edu

Shmoop buying-softwareWorried about how to evaluate software before you buy? Consider these seven tips before finalizing that PO.

By David Siminoff

If you surf www.SnakeOilSalesmen.com you will find the pantheon of educational technology products that didn’t work. Lots of promises. Lots of noise. No tangibly good results for our kids. Waste.

 It’s a story replayed too many times in our districts, and the world of technology is getting more complex, more ripe for abuse.

 When you buy tech, you wear two hats—you play both offense and defense. You are trying to let your students take advantage of truly new things (e.g., iPads), not rehashes of the past (“new” paper textbooks). You take risks: Will the technology work? Will it actually teach…better? Will it deliver the value it promises in helping our children find dots of light in the darkness of educational space?

You mitigate risk as well: If you play it safe, you…don’t get fired. (See the guy who managed the LAUSD iPad debacle for details.) You order paper texts—they don’t need batteries. You…do the same thing your predecessors have done for 300 years. The kids get their education, more or less. And they move on. Defense.

The “right” answer probably circles a balance of both offense and defense. I present to you a series of what I believe should be key questions you ask of your vendors in defining that space:

1. Can you spot “lazy” tech?

Is the “brand new” technology just an old paper textbook whose pages have been scanned, copied. and pasted onto a vanilla web page? Brilliant. Cutting-edge technology. Bazinga.

Is the “new” product essentially the same thing the company offered three years ago, but the cover/title page has been changed to include the words And now with Common Core!? It always had the Common Core. Somebody took a day or two to numerically tag the Common Core grids. Is this a reason to shell out money for a “new” product?

When companies offer “new” products that leave you scratching your head, then it’s likely you are buying an empty basket.

2. Can you believe it's not butter? (Or, is the data real or not?)

Can you trust that the product actually works? Is there quality data, which backs up the supposed findings? (“Quality” means a smart 15-year-old can understand the data.) The sample size was big. There are testimonials from people who actually implemented the product. The product actually worked—i.e., it wasn’t just a “paid study.” And the post-tech-application result was demonstrably better than the control group’s. If the product is really good, it’ll let you track to the individual student, the classroom, the area of study, and time spent on the platform.

3. Is this a transaction or a relationship?

Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of the room the minute you shake hands with your vendor? Big companies are publicly traded entities run for shareholder profits. They have sales quotas to hit and pressure to sell, sell, sell. Small companies have pressure as well—but their “greed” is often more of the long-term flavor (healthy) than the short-term flavor (think: your last stockbroker).

Don’t be misled by large companies who claim to have 10,000 service center employees, but when you reach out, nobody returns your calls. In many small companies, you get the founder or top officer who cares about a long-term relationship actually working. Their company’s survival usually depends on it. They’ll do right by you (i.e., do what they say they will do)—or they will die fast.

4. Should you test the system?

Yes. Here’s an easy one: Send an email to the company’s Contact Us button with a clear, reasonably simple question and see what happens. Just because it has a big PR firm/marketing agency that claims to have great customer service doesn’t mean that it actually does. And to be very clever, if you work for a gorilla like LAUSD, don't send the email from that vaunted account. Send it from your personal account and see if you get a quality reply any time soon.

5. Is there fair value in the product? 

One of the reasons that I started Shmoop was that I found myself responding angrily to the textbooks my children were bringing home. To wit, the history book was basically the same one I had in high school 30-plus years earlier—little if anything had been added to give context and relevance to the vast changes in society today versus the 1980s. Yet the textbook cost $220. It was still unfathomable on many levels, not Internet-friendly, and used the same $5 words that made the teacher feel smart and the student feel stupid. If the new technology doesn’t feel like a leap forward over whatever was in the past (think: iPad relative to a laptop), it’s usually a pass.

6. Does the vendor truly love its own product?

Love matters. It’ll keep us together, it hurts, and it’s a battlefield. Founders know all of this about their products—they love them. Sometimes the product loves them back, and other people fall in love with the same simple clarity or voice or vision that the product imbues to its category.

 Small things matter—is the product actually updated regularly, or does it just say it is? Digital is designed for regular updates; paper not so much. Is the product easy to implement without requiring that the teacher have a Ph.D. in computer science?

Does it serve pages well on an iPad, an old Dell laptop with an Explorer browser, on a Samsung Mega, on a new Mac?

7. The acid test: Do students actually use the product? Do they, perhaps, love it?

If they do, it “will love them back” in nonobvious ways. Take an ungodly boring task like studying for the SATs, or reading Kants, or diagramming orbitals. If the new tech makes that process painless, maybe even fun-ish, then the student, who fights to spend the least amount of time possible on a given task, will spend much more time. And learn more. Perhaps the student will “feel” instead of just “know” the topic.

David Siminoff is the founder and chief creative officer of Shmoop University, www.shmoop.com.

Image: Olaru Radian-alexandru/Hemera/Thinkstock

Education: The Most Tech-Savvy Industry in America?

In recent years, technology use in the classroom has advanced leaps and bounds.  But how does education stack up compared with other—better-funded—industries such as finance or retail? 

Better than you might have guessed. According to a new study from Fiberlink, an IBM company, when it comes to app adoption, the education sector is way ahead of the game.

The study, which looked at mobile devices managed by Fiberlink, found that education accounts for 33 percent of all public apps and 28 percent of all custom apps adopted in the last 14 months. That’s more than any other industry listed.

Fiberlink believes that education’s chart-topping app-adoption numbers are part of a larger push toward mobile technology in the classroom. The company also cites cost and accessibility as two reasons educators are gravitating toward the app store en masse, stating: “Off-the-shelf laptop solutions can cost a pretty penny, while apps are generally more modestly priced, with a broader variety.”

The types of apps that administrators put on student devices ranged from organizational platforms (Google Drive) to creative tools (iMovie), with the ever-popular iBooks leading the pack.

Here are the Top 10 Public Apps in Education:

  1. iBooks
  2. Google Drive
  3. Pages
  4. Evernote
  5. iMovie
  6. Dropbox
  7. Google Earth
  8. Educreations
  9. Notability
  10. Numbers

Learn more about the data here.

-Catherine Logue



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.