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Creating a Coding Tool that Everyone Can Use

Christian Diemers attends the
Technical University of Munich, and it's there that he developed a vision of the future from his work. This vision has taken him to the 2017 World Finals of the Imagine Cup in Seattle, the world’s premier innovation and technology competition. Christian sees real value in the different working styles he encounters while sharing ideas with friends around the world, as opposed to having everyone using the same methods and techniques.

His Imagine Cup project, Koicode, is a web-based platform that provides visual scripting and code visualization for beginners. It features a complete visualization process for computer programs and the possibility to create methods with a visual scripting tool. As Christian says in our interview below, coding is the future. He says that everyone needs to learn coding and computer science. His innovative idea Koicode helps people learn programming in an intuitive way, giving them the skills to create their own innovations.


Interview with Christian Diemers

Further Reading:

The New York Times - Teaching Kids Coding, by the Book

T|H|E Journal - Report: Makerspaces, Coding, Robotics Pick Up Momentum in Schools

The Orange County Register - Status Update: Coding school for kids opens in Irvine


About Christian Diemers:

Christian HeadshotChristian Diemers is currently studying Informatics: Games Engineering at the Technical University of Munich. In addition to his studies, he enjoys organizing events.








About Dr. Rod Berger:

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Trying to Make Academia More Interesting One Boring Lecture at a Time

Data Flowing

Ilya Slolvev and his friends, like typical college students, spend time in lectures – many fascinating, and some utterly boring. It was the boring lectures that were the inspiration for Boremeter, an app that monitors an audience’s involvement. Boremeter is based on neural networks and computer vision algorithms, and allows users to analyze interest (or lack thereof) from the audience at lectures and presentations.

As Ilya says in our talk below, “Sometimes very clever people talk about very interesting things in very boring ways.” Boremeter can help change that. It’s an idea that is gaining steam. Ilya and Boremeter made the world finals of the 2017 Imagine Cup, an innovation and technology conference that showcases some of the world’s top university students. Boremeter is making the world more interesting – one boring presenter at a time.

Interview with IIya Solovev

Further Reading:

Quartz - The college lecture is dying. Good riddance.

Fast Company - Tech In The Classroom? We’re Asking The Wrong Question

Purdue Research Foundation News - Smart phone app seeks to bridge gap between lecturers and students


About Ilya Soloviev:

IIya Solovev HeadshotIlya Soloviev is a student of Applied Mathematics and Information Science at the Higher School of Economics in Russia.








About Dr. Rod Berger:

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.


A Warning Device When It Isn't Going to Be a Stroke of Luck

What were you doing when you were 17-years-old and in high school? Were you changing the world? Mohammad Rimawi isn’t your typical 17-year-old. He and his team members recently competed in the 2017 
Imagine Cup World Finals. His project, DocStroke, is a portable device that helps diagnose diabetes and other stroke risk factors through retinal imagery using a non-dilated eye.

15 million people suffer stroke worldwide each year. DocStroke provides an inexpensive way to determine the risks of stroke using ocular image processing and machine learning.

The portable Panoptic ophthalmoscope can take images of the eye fundus with a five times larger view, even if the pupil is not dilated. DocStroke calculates risks of a stroke with calculations based on the eye fundus image taken from the patient through the ophthalmoscope and information provided in a patient questionnaire.

DocStroke has shown surprising accuracy. And at 17, Mohammad has shown surprising focus. DocStroke is saving lives, and doctors are already taking notice and requesting the technology. Mohammed and his team are working hard to make sure that DocStroke will be available to help alleviate many of the sufferers of the 15 million strokes worldwide. Listen below as I talk to Mohammed and we discuss his team's invention and what it feels like to be making a big difference in so many lives at such a young age.


Interview with Mohammad Rimawi


Further Reading:

Mass Device - Study: New infrared imaging technique could help detect heart attack, stroke risk

UNSW Sydney - Methamphetamine use linked to heightened stroke risk in young

Harvard Gazette - Inflammation reduction cuts risk of heart attack, stroke


About Mohammad Rimawi:

Mohammad Rimawi Headshot (1)Mohammad Rimawi is a 17-year-old student from Amman-Jordan, where he attends Jubilee High School. Mohammad is the graphic designer and business manager of DocStroke, and competed in the 2017 Imagine Cup World Finals.







About Dr. Rod Berger:

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Bio Engineering Meets Computer Science to Shape the Future

VR Cave

Thomas Galeon is an engineering student from the French university of
Ecole Polytechnique, located in the Palaiseau suburb just south of Paris. Thomas, along with partners Alexandre Brenellière and Maxime Bourliatoux, entered the Imagine Cup. The Microsoft Imagine Cup is an innovation and technology competition held at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond Washington every year. The winners of local and regional championships across the world come to the Pacific Northwest to compete for a prize package that will enable them to make their dream a reality.

His project, Overskill, targets seven core abilities and is designed to train the mind and the body simultaneously using mixed reality.

Thomas comes from a bio engineering background, and says Overskill gives users insight into how the brain works under stress. His partners have a computer science background. Their ability to analyze data filled in the missing pieces, allowing his team to create the Overskill app. The app uses a new Microsoft product called HoloLens, a self-contained, holographic computer; it enables the user to engage with digital content and interact with holograms in the space around them with no other props.

In my talk below with him, Thomas said he believes this new technology will shape the future and hopes his journey in the Imagine Cup will allow him to meet other creative students eager to help build the world of tomorrow.

Interview with Thomas Galeon


Further Reading:

Mashable - A new hologram that is brighter and cheaper

Omaha World-Herald - Robotics, holograms, augmented reality, oh my!

International Business Times - Merge VR Launches Merge Cube


About Thomas Galeon

Thomas Galeon HeadshotThomas Galeon is a second-year engineering student at Ecole Polytechnique near Paris and will be specializing in bio-mechanical engineering in September. Born into a French family in London (UK), Thomas did a French Scientific Baccalaureate in the British capital. Thriving on challenges and eager to solve real world problems, he moved to France to study engineering.

Ecole Polytechnique has a rich military tradition as it was used by Napoleon to find the best armament engineers. As part of his first-year military training, he chose to work at the Paris Fire Brigade and led an ambulance team of three fire-fighters on more than 300 rescue operations. Witnessing first-hand the health issues the most vulnerable were facing daily convinced Thomas to study bio-mechanical engineering, determined to apply his critical thinking to ensure diseases and accidents are detected as soon as possible using monitoring devices available to all.

Thomas is enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. He is part of the Start-Up Cabinet at his university which organizes many events, including one of the largest European Start-Up Weekends. Combining his desire to innovate and help others, he hopes to start his own biotech start-up. The Imagine Cup was the first step of that journey.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Affordable Technology in the Classroom - Canadian Style

Education Scrabble
Ben Kelly is a technology teacher at Caledonia Regional High School in New Brunswick, Canada. He is also a very popular education personality on social media (especially Twitter) who advocates for ed tech tools in the classroom. One reason for his popularity is his clear enthusiasm for technology as a teaching tool for future careers. He sees his primary job as getting his kids ready for the rest of their lives.

Ben uses and credits Twitter as the social media platform that most significantly impacts his connection to professionals and was the avenue for his discovery of new technology tools for teaching. One example he cites is Soundtrap, a music and audio recording cloud service that brings the functionality of GarageBand to all devices used in the classroom. He used Twitter to discover the Microsoft HoloLens and become one of the first teachers in North America to use one in the classroom. Minecraft is another technology tool that Ben heralds as an across the board useful tool in helping inclusivity needs.

The kids seem equally as excited as Ben in using technologies in school. As he puts it, “I love what I do every day. Who wouldn’t? I get to come in here, and I have HoloLens on my left, Soundtrap on my right, Minecraft in front of me, and drones behind me.”

It’s clear that Ben Kelly loves his work and the students at Caledonia Regional High School are the happy beneficiaries.

Interview with Ben Kelly

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:    Ben, it's fun to finally meet you face to face. I've heard so much about you. I see you on social media. You are an active professional in education. Is that fair to say?

Ben Kelly:  That is fair to say, yes. I love it. (Laughter)

RB:  Let's start with that. Tell me a little bit about social media and your affinity for it and how you've used it not only to share what you like to do best, or your best practices, but a way to connect with the greater community of educators outside of Canada and here in the U.S. specifically.

BK:  I'm not the type of person who feels that my Facebook should be shared professionally. That's usually a very small collective group of friends and family. I was looking for something that could share my students’ work and my work a little more broadly than the district office which is a few kilometers away.

I stumbled across Twitter, and I get really discouraged when I hear how Twitter is going through financial troubles. I really can't wrap my head around that because, for educators, Twitter is the answer. My career has just boomed and blossomed through the roof since I found Twitter, and I think I put my finger on it recently.

I think it's because you're always supposed to find someone smarter than you, and you're always supposed to find someone who’s got a little more knowledge than you. Locally, that can run out pretty quickly, or it becomes that everyone is on par.

Twitter has given me a global perspective so that when I sit down at the table with parents, students, and other teachers, I'm not drawing on what's happening at the district office down the street. I'm drawing on the entire world at my fingertips; and I can say, “Listen, guys, we're behind the eight ball on this” or “We are leading in this.”

It's really good to get that global perspective.

Minecraft In School

RB:  Do you also feel you get a head start on researching technologies that do not cross your desk at some moment, and if you see it on Twitter from someone at a different level or a different experience or a different environment, that it gives you a head start on their review or their recommendation?

BK:  Nearly a hundred percent of the initiatives that happen in my class and my programs came from Twitter. I think we had one of North America’s first Hololenses ─ Microsoft HoloLens ─ in the classroom and we're developing for that. I would have never known about HoloLens or the Surface Studio if it wasn’t for Twitter giving me the heads-up and these *wow* videos that appear.

Of course, as a teacher, you set your mind to bring it in.

Soundtrap is another one. How would I know about a Swedish music company revolutionizing GarageBand, essentially, and bringing it online to the cloud?

There's no way that would have reached me if it were not on Twitter. And Twitter seems to be the platform that reaches out to most educators. I love the fact that I can flip it and share it with even more ─ hopefully, picking up someone else along the way.

RB:  I know from reading your op-eds and pieces on the web that the power of audio and technology in education is something that you're really passionate about, and we were saying off-air that we're finding a number of different academic departments are also seeing the light. They are saying, "Wow, if we can integrate technology with audio in ways that students learn for different disciplines, we may really have something."

Tell me what we have not been paying attention to and how you see technology impacting audio and learning.

BK:  No offense to the other software but for years GarageBand was the staple in audio education. However, that comes with pricey hardware; and for the longest time, a lot of schools couldn't afford Apple hardware to get their hands on GarageBand.

All of a sudden, this software out of Sweden comes out and it's Soundtrap; and it really is the answer that a lot of people were looking for. It's like the “hallelujah moment” where it's GarageBand with the same systems and the same way of recording but now it's in the cloud and available to Chrome devices and Microsoft devices. Both companies ─ Google and Microsoft ─ have struggled for decades to find a creative solution for audio engineering.

There's been third-party software, but it's never been mass-adopted or anything like that.

Soundtrap offers that solution for everybody ─ Apple included. You can put it on an Apple device, on a Google Chrome, and on a Microsoft system. It is a solution for one hundred percent of the classrooms in North America.

Soundtrap 1

RB:  Ben, let's talk about the technologies that are exciting you that you're finding not a lot of people are hearing about that they should. What is exciting to you and what are some areas that you're still looking for answers for innovators to say, “Wait a minute, we need to answer these questions and come up with this innovation”?

BK:  Minecraft in the classroom is huge. I can't understand why it's not being adopted on a huge scale. I realize that there's a Windows 10 component to it and some Office 365 accounts now linked to it and there are some hiccups, but I really do believe after watching the power of Minecraft happen in my room that it is the answer. If you believe in universal design for learning and how students have several ways of representing and presenting their work, Minecraft just solves all of these things. It's inclusion in the classroom.

There are no behavior problems when using Minecraft to demonstrate something.

Minecraft is a big one. I really believe that it should be first and foremost in a lot of people’s minds.

I wish there were a little more advancements on game development in education. The game development market is absolutely huge.

I was telling the kids today that I'm sharing a lot of the game development processes, but there's not much of an audience yet. It's almost like it's not even on the educational radar at this moment.

RB:  What are they missing? I often hear the opposite that there are so many technologies that are gamifying themselves. So from your perspective, what are they missing?

BK:  If you’re gamifying the subject matter… You're right; I see that more broadly. There is some gamifying going on. But in the aspect of actually developing games, students have the hardware and the software available to them ─ free. There are companies like Unity that will give you a free copy of their $1500-dollar license on SketchUp, anytime you want to develop assets for a game. Again, their software is available for free if you ask the right people for it.

I really think that people are unaware that these massive-costing software are available for educational services for free.

Minecraft Villiage

RB:  How do you evaluate technology, Ben? I'm always interested in the ways in which we do that. Is it something that we need to continue to build a skill around?

You hear people talk and it's like they hadn’t updated their own software in the way in which they're looking at technology because it continues to change. Every day is something different.

If we look back to even a year ago, there were things that were going on that today we would probably shake our heads at. But that's okay because we need to not fear the failure part of it.

How can we get better at discerning the quality that is out there?

BK:  I've rated technology for over a decade now. I've rated it in one way for a long time, and that is: “Will it lead to careers for my students?” Because, otherwise, it's just fun and games.

We can support hobbies all we want, but unless we're talking about productive lives through lucrative and important careers, it's just fun and that's where you get the label on some of the technology initiatives in school; it's just being fun.

If you can make it relate to a career, then you're talking about a serious technology that we should consider.

Most recently, it's been the 7Cs, the 21st-Century skills of collaboration, creativity, citizenship, character, computational thinking. The Cs ─ if the technology can support those for me ─ they are priceless.

I rate the Cs higher than the actual curriculum documents that we get from the province, and I'm not sure if I'll be fired for saying that. I really believe that the 7Cs are what's going to translate into jobs for us, Canadians ─ and in North America. It will put us ahead of the competition versus the curriculum outcomes that they're still insisting some kids learn.

RB:  Given those 7Cs, in Canada, do you see where the corporations are looking at those 7Cs? Are you connecting the dots in Canada like we are starting to here in U.S. where we try to communicate what we're teaching kids in schools to skills that apply to the workforce, etc.? Are they doing that in Canada?

BK:  They are. There are certain organizations. I'm part of a group called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. It's under Dr. Michael Fullan out of the West Coast of Canada. He's got some research which is basically the 6Cs. I added the computational thinking because it sounded more pirate-ish ─ sailing the 7Cs and for other reasons, I'm sure.

But then you have companies like Microsoft who are leading the way. They're acknowledging STEM. They're acknowledging the 21st-century skills as being just as important, if not, more important than the actual curriculum.

I don't want to put words in their mouth but that's the feeling I'm getting. I think it's coming along. I think companies from the smallest ones to the largest ones ─ like Soundtrap, for instance, out of Sweden ─ are really embracing this skills that will lead our students to a successful career and life in the future.

Drone 2

RB:  We'll close with this. Ben, you have a lot of energy and I would imagine that it is infectious with your students and your colleagues. Tell me a little bit about that.

I think we don't do a good job of profiling those who bring great enthusiasm to education. And we need to because young people in your classes are going to be the next Ben Kellys, hopefully.

The only way it will happen is if kids see it as something exciting and something that is changing all the time for the positive and brings learning.

Tell me a little bit about that level of enthusiasm. Is this something that you're conscious of or is it just your pure love of your job?

BK:  Number one, I do love what I do. I love what I do every day. Who wouldn't? I get to come in here and I have HoloLens on my left, Soundtrap on my right, Minecraft in front of me, and Thrones behind me.

Who wouldn't love to come into that atmosphere every day and get to work with students?

The students run to my room, in general, just because it's a technology class. It's generally a class that students can love from Grades 6 through 12.

I’d like to think that it's because of my stories and the humor I provide in awkward situations and stuff like that. I'd like to think that there are other reasons that they're running to the room.

I run a lunchtime Minecraft crew that fills the room; so that's another safe place for them at lunch to go, work and create.

We have grade sixers using Unity 3D to make Xpod games at lunch. It is the enthusiasm. They would have never picked up that Unity 3D if it weren’t for me showing it off.

Peer-wise, they see the smile on my face when I come in the building and I think they equate it to hard work.

We have the Tiny House Program down the hall, one of the first in Canada, where we actually have students building tiny homes for clients.

I believe the enthusiasm is contagious. It doesn't work with all. I'd like to think it works with all but it certainly doesn't work with all teachers and kids. But it's paying off. It helps.

RB:  I think it's wonderful and it is a testament...I wish, as a parent (I've got two little ones) that they will be able to experience the Ben Kellys of the world because it's so important. It is fun. It can be fun.

You've found a fantastic career path and we wish you continued success. Thanks so much, Ben.

BK: Thank you.


Further Reading:

Next Reality - Microsoft Wants to Make HoloLens the Future of Education

Edscoop - Cloud-based music tool engages students on a new level

T|H|E Journal - MusicFirst LMS for Educators Adds Collaborative Tools to Suite


About Ben Kelly:

Ben KellyBen Kelly is a teacher at Caledonia Regional High School at Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick, Canada. Ben is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, Apple Distinguished Educator, Global Minecraft Mentor, New Brunswick STEM Teacher of the Year 2017 and Soundtrap Ambassador.

He started Canada’s first K-12 Dronography Program, and his students work daily with the Microsoft HoloLens, Xcode, and Swift and other empowering technologies.

Follow Ben Kelly on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

More and More, the Presentation Is the Key to Success

Top-flight international universities like the American University of Beirut are producing young entrepreneurs with world class ideas. You don’t often think of Lebanon as a hotbed for EdTech start-ups, but it's quickly becoming one. 

I met Anis Assi at the 2017 World Finals of the Imagine Cup, a competition that gathers some of the best young minds on the planet. Anis’s project, BL!NK, uses technology to help students and professionals evaluate their own presentations. In an entrepreneurial world, the key to success is often in the presentation.

In the near future, when it comes to success, if you don’t BL!NK, you may miss it.


Interview with Anis Assi


Further Reading:

CNBC - Top 3 public speaking tips by the world champ of public speaking

TeenVogue - 9 Public Speaking Tips to Get Over Stage Fright

Tech Republic - Develop your public speaking skills and advance your career


About Anis Assi

Anis Assi HeadshotAnis Assi is a Computer Engineering major at the American University of Beirut. With team Bl!NK, he has competed in the Imagine Cup for three years, winning the nationals in 2015 and making it to the finals this summer. Currently he is interning at AT&T in Florida and will be graduating from the American University of Beirut in 2018.





About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

If He Had His Way, It Would Pay to Recycle in Dubai...Literally

Recycle GlobeGrowing up, Mohamed Hassan watched as other people used their ideas to create success and build legacies. The observation inspired him to use his creativity to make his ideas come alive. He became interested in technology and found that it provided him with the ability to test ideas and bring them to life.

I happened to meet Mohamed at the 2017 Imagine Cup World finals. His team, Green Jam, is made up of university students from the American University in Dubai. The UAE has a goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030. Mohamed noticed that the recycling stations in Dubai were rarely used correctly and set out to improve the situation. His solution was to create automated public recycling stations that automatically sorted recyclables and also rewarded individuals for their use – a technology that can be used not only in Dubai but cities worldwide.

Interview with Mohamed Hassan

Further Reading:

Waste Management World - Project for Paper Recycling Launched by Dubai Culture

Gulf News - Over 48 tonnes of paper collected for recycling

Construction Week Online - Dubai’s Dnata cuts ground equipment waste by 110t


About Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed Hassan HeadshotMohamed Hassan attends the American University in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. He is a student of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department. His Imagine Cup team, Green Jam, was the winner of 2017 United Arab Emirates National Finals, and competed in the 2017 Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle.




About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Virtual Classrooms Blend with Brick-and-Mortar Around the World

Digital Learning copy
The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is THE pioneer institution of online and blended learning. It’s fair to say that it has long since become relevant in many places other than Florida; it has reached across the nation and beyond to sixty-five other countries. Dr. Polly Haldeman, FLVS’s Chief Customer Officer, has been helping lead the expansion charge.

FLVS is evolving from a blended learning platform for public school students in the state of Florida to a multi-national curriculum licensing operation. When asked about the content created by FLVS, Polly says, “What we have is quality, rigorous, and full of integrity; and it’s built upon the principles of educators and all the great things that we know that we should do for kids.”

Polly is a Florida native who grew up in a rural area, where she graduated high school with a class of 13 students. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, a Specialist of Education in Teacher Leadership, and a Doctorate of Education. She has been with FLVS for nearly 14 years and has grown with it through all the changes that have happened over that time. All indicators point to Polly leading FLVS into an even brighter global education future.

Interview with Dr. Polly Haldeman

Interview Transcript:

Dr. Rod Berger:  Polly, it's nice to spend some time with you today. I'm continuing to get very interested in what we're doing globally. I think what's compelling about Florida Virtual is its origins in the State of Florida and how that has expanded to provide services and opportunities around the world when we're thinking about ministries of education and groups that are trying to understand virtual education, blended environments and satellite campuses.

With that as the backdrop, what is it like to be in charge of and to work on the global scene with regards to Florida Virtual and how has that changed since your time being at Florida Virtual?

Dr. Polly Haldeman:  I've been with Florida Virtual for almost 14 years, so I have a good perspective on the changes, the growth, the implementation, and just a lot of different viewpoints. I think that the greatest thing in having a global audience is that we can partner and learn from a variety of different implementation models; and specific learning needs that are addressed by our global clients are things that we can take back and learn from, too.

It's not just all about what we do and how well we do it and sharing that. It's about that exchange back and forth of best practices and all the things that are going to benefit kids at the end of the day.

Digital Table copy

RB:  Tell me a little bit about where Florida Virtual is at when we're thinking about the growth globally. How many countries is Florida Virtual in and what is the appetite for a virtual learning environment?

PH:  Today, we're in 65 countries ─ and it could be in a variety of different ways. Obviously, we have our global school so students can come on a tuition basis and take courses from us just like what our Florida students do as part of the state’s public education system.

Globally, they come, and they take a course or two. Mostly, though, our business is in the area of licensing our content to other school districts, schools and, and even states.

Educational centers, there's a variety of different customers’ profiles that license content for whatever ─ they're virtual (or blended, now, even) needs are.

So I think that is the area in which we see the growth.

RB:  What does it say about the market that they are reaching out wanting to license the content? I think a lot of people thought that they could figure it out but it takes a lot of time and money and research and to review that research and application to follow that through. Is that part of the reason why you think people said, “You know what, who’s been doing it the longest and who knows what they're doing?”

PH:  “Why reinvent the model when they created the model?” is what we really hear. We welcome folks to do what they think is in the best interest of their students but what we've found is that we do it pretty well.

What we have is quality, rigorous, and full of integrity; and it's built upon the principles of educators and all the great things that we know that we should do for kids. And you really can't go wrong there.

But I think one of the common things I hear from my position is that folks go and try to develop, but they forget about the maintenance of that development or the idea that you can use open-ed resources for so long, and then you might need more, and then you've got the license things and then you've got copyright things.

There's just a lot to it, and we have spent twenty years doing just that. So we become natural at it, so to speak. And so, why don't you take your program and implement it the way that you need to and we'll take care of the content?

Digital Book copy

RB:  A lot of people want to try to predict where education is going, and that makes for a great fodder for discussion at conferences and Twitter chats and the like.

But I would think that from your position and you start to see what's going on based on the questions that you receive from other countries or states that are looking to license content that if you really had to, you might be able to make not just a prediction but sort of color in some of the lines with where we may be going and understanding the people’s concern which is “Is something going to be always, exclusively virtual? Is it going to be blended? How do we preserve what we have with brick and mortar and accentuate the positives?”

Where do you stand in that not to sort of say that you've got to have one opinion but, I guess, that you would see some things that might be some markers we can all take from an industry perspective?

PH:  From a personal and professional perspective, I've always been a fan of online learning simply because of the access. I've grown up in rural Florida. I would graduate from the smallest public high school in the state of Florida a class of 13 kids ─ yeah, really really small.

I didn't have access to anything more than the other 12 kids that needed whatever course we were taking. I didn't get advanced math; I didn't get all these foreign languages beyond the Spanish every other year.

So that's why it started the way it did for me, personally.

But what I've noticed is that we had to move too far beyond. It's really about access, and that access doesn't necessarily have to mean that you're either all or nothing, virtual or not.

I hate to be cliché because it sounds like “blended” is the word of the day, but it really is being able to maximize access opportunities for kids in the way that they need it.

And the school districts and schools and parents should all have a say in that, and we enable the facilitation of that much, much easier. We don't have to draw a line in the sand that “Here's the way it's going to be forever and always.” Our courses allow them to change and fluctuate and meet the needs however they need to meet them for any given year.

In the future, it's more of that. Of course, I can imagine a time where there's just a whole lot more virtual, but at the end of the day, I don't see in my foreseeable future that parents of kids are going to not be able to work and stay home with their virtual students. There still has to be a location or a place where kids can socially interact even in person and do labs together.

I think a good blend of virtual and access that allows the brick-and-mortar experience to be developed and implemented. I think, together, is what we're going to see.

Digital Classroom copy

RB:  Let's close with this, Polly. One of the compelling narratives in education is the role the publishers play in content curriculum. If you have a different opinion, correct me if I'm wrong but the virtual world and thinking about blended environments has given us cause to reflect on how we consume curriculum, how we want to interact with it, and where is it more beneficial to a physical environment. And where we can enhance it in an online space.

What are we seeing with curriculum and content? The interface between student and the topic of the day or what they're learning and how we can better provide it. So that we avoid what you and I went through, which was the "one way" and "the only way" whether you were in rural Florida or the suburbs of Detroit like I was?

PH:  That's a great question. I won't give you a high-tech answer although the answer probably is very technical. I think the user is defining the experience more so than ever.

Back in the day, Mr. or Mrs. Smith defined the experience with the textbook, and you went in sequential order, and you went chapter by chapter, and that was the experience.

I think, now, it's led by where the students are at and taking them to some point. The great thing is that time is not even a factor anymore ─ at least; virtual doesn't make it that it has to be.

So it's user-led, and I think how analytics are now capable of the student experience versus learning outcomes, and how that all feeds together is booming.

The curriculum should not limit the ability for a kid to go and move at whatever speed, rate, and direction they want. It should facilitate it.

I think that we're going to see more and more of that. It's pretty exciting if you really think about it.

Cosmic Creativity copy

RB:  I appreciate what you said about time. That's a piece where kids understand school and learning as just a part of life, and it's not something that is eight to three like we were saying when we were growing up.

You can start to dive in because it's just a part of what you do. You can gravitate towards things that you like and, hopefully, it keeps kids connected to what we all care about - education.

Polly, it's been great to catch up with you. There's got to be an analogy with pulling up with your car there and having a conversation about blended environments and moving at the speed of light.

Safe travels and we'll look forward to catching up with you in the near future. Thanks, Polly.

PH:  Thank you.


Further Reading:

Education Week - Is Blended Learning at a Tipping Point?

Chalkbeat - How Colorado could see more “blended learning”

Sierra Star - Individualized, unique education


About Dr. Polly Haldeman:

Polly HaldemanDr. Polly Haldeman currently serves on the Executive team at Florida Virtual School as Chief Customer Officer, where she is responsible for defining local and global sales strategies; and providing program support and ensure client satisfaction.

Polly is a Senior Leader with more than 11 years of online education experience. She is credited as a creative and resourceful leader with exceptional skills in analysis and strategic planning. She has a successful track record of exceeding student enrollment goals and exponentially increasing annual franchise revenue and profitability. Polly is recognized as an avid relationship builder, who excels in customer satisfaction, creating partnerships that promote both effective online education solutions and drive revenue.

Follow Polly Haldeman on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter.

Teaching Tech Enthusiasm to the Next Generation


Shawn Patrick Higgins is a Computer Science and Technology Teacher at Parkrose Middle School in Portland, Oregon. Although computer science has established itself fairly well at the high-school level, technology in the middle school arena is still a bit of a unknown and untested education tool. Shawn combines his enthusiasm for computer science with the creative arts to help his students learn and thrive. He strives to get his middle school kids passionate about computer science through game making and coding.

Shawn focuses on using audio with his teaching, because stripping the visual component out simplifies the learning process for students. Many of his students are Title 1, and may not have the computer skills that other kids have when coming into Shawn’s program. Shawn creates audio projects using collaborative Soundtrap software and uses tracks extracted from already established video projects. By removing the visuals, Shawn uncomplicates the task thereby helping younger kids with little or no experience understand and jump into production with both feet.

By using cloud-based services, Shawn’s kids can access their projects from anywhere, including home, which boosts their enthusiasm level. Shawn’s energy is infectious as demonstrated in the interview below, and it comes through clearly in his interactions with his students.

Interview with Shawn Patrick Higgins

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:   Shawn, it's nice to spend some time with you. You are in a much more comfortable environment than I am today. I'm jealous!

Shawn Patrick Higgins:  I didn't realize we'd have a video component to this, so don't mind the unmade bed and the laundry on the floor.

RB:  It just means you're busy working hard. I like that.

SPH:  Yes. I got home a second ago, and I was running a little late so I didn't have time to properly clean up as much as I should but ─

RB:  No! Look, you're in education. There's a lot going on. And I wanted to talk to you… I read a piece in EdScoop and the title was How a Cloud-Based Music App Adds New Energy to Computer Science Instruction.

I think of computer science back when I was in school ─ I'm 40 now; I've passed that threshold ─ but it was very different back then than what it is now.

Catch up the audience to computer science in teaching children. How has technology impacted your ability to add excitement with students when leading them in that fashion?

Computer Brain

SPH:  I think one of the main things if I'm talking to someone and introducing myself especially when I talk “I'm a middle school teacher” and they go, “Oh, what are you doing?” ─

“Computer Science.”

“What would that look like?”

I also say, “Creative technology,” and I combine those two aspects although from state to state and from district to district, there isn’t a unified vision of what that looks like.  There's CSTA ─ Computer Science Teacher Association and IFDE and their standards, but those standards are all over the place.

A big thing that is happening all over the country; and all over the world - there are a few select countries that are beating the United States out.

Surprisingly, Vietnam has one of the most comprehensive K-8 introduction to computer platforms. They do a lot of offline stuff which was kind of bizarre especially compared to the United States and where we should be at.

There have been a lot of changes, so there's a kind of the original technology class. It's typing and at this point, it’s in the Office Suites.

But what that has evolved to on a middle school level looks very different. Computer science is starting to thrive and doing well at the high school level. There are a lot of focused efforts to expand. They just introduced a different AP exam that incorporates Scratch and some of the intros to coding languages where they focus on concepts, instead of a specific language and syntax.

But at the middle school level and the elementary K-8 level, computer science is all over the place.

What we're trying to do is get students passionate about using technology in creative ways, and it becomes game-making. There are partnerships with Minecraft and things like that.

Microsoft has had a big push as they picked up Minecraft two years ago. Code.org is also up in Seattle on the West Coast has been super huge and influential in building this entire idea and structure of what computer science looks like K-8 and in high school as well.

That's a general update.

Girl Browsing

RB: I appreciate the update. I'm glad to know other people are like me in wondering exactly how computer science has evolved from a curriculum and how you interface with students in that way.

Tell me about the audio component because I know that that was one of the things that you discussed in the article. Tell me about the power of audio and technology in the way you have been looking to integrate it into the work you're doing with your students.

SPH:   Right! I think there are two different ways I focus on incorporating audio. One is with my students. I focus with students and I've been teaching in a school that's over ninety percent Title 1. Many students don't have a lot of access to technology at the middle school level and some students haven't had hardly anything in elementary.

It's trying to get them passionate about interfacing and making basic skills ─ all the workflow, how to save things even using a mouse in sixth grade. Some kids aren’t super comfortable saving a file, deleting a file, and things like that.

So, how to get students passionate is to get them involved. And that often is, if you talk about “Hey, we're going to create a podcast and edit some audio” in the abstract - it doesn't necessarily catch the kids. They're like, “What do you mean?”

Most students have phones that are capable of recording mp3. So they can record on their phone and get that sense of email but even that is building very basic level skills; and on a sixth-grade level, that can work well.

But if you talk about “Okay, if Drake and Rihanna want to talk about their feelings for each other, what we can do is we can find conversations that they're having and we're going to chop them off and make them talk to each other. How about that?”

And kids will go, “Oh, yeah!”

Or Drake and Chris Brown need to fight. If you try to create, try to focus on social media and pop culture and use that then audio is just manifesting something that they're interested in and creating a story with. We get that currency and that buy-in until they're like “Alright, we're interested in this project” and go from there.

Before, as we mentioned a little bit at the start, my background was actually in photo and video; my degree is in video before I came to teach. I've been here six years now; and the year before, I taught after-school photo and video classes with Portland Community Media, which is our local public access.

Almost all my audio projects are what used to be my video projects but we've taken out the visual layer, so it's a lot easier for younger students and students who haven't had a lot of experience. Jumping into Premiere Pro or something like that is kind of high level and pretty intimidating.

You try to strip out different pieces as technology. It's been evolving to this kind of cloud base where students can access it from home or they can access it in the classroom, they can keep working on the same projects.

My classroom is where I have found the most success in that the students can keep going.

I used to have an entire Adobe CSx six years ago and I got some licenses. But the kids couldn't use it at home.

Ultimately, I had to give that up in favor of the more cloud-based stuff and that was for the visual stuff; there's Pixlr. And just last year was the first time I got to use Soundtrap.

I tried to use Audacity and some of the free stuff but they can't access it from home. The easier you make it, the better. Make it cool and you make it easy. And that's how you get kids interested in the beginning.

If it's not either of those, you'll lose kids on both sides.

Troubleshooting Robot

RB:  Even the adults  - you'll lose.

SPH:  There's that, too. I get so involved and I've been doing it for a while, especially in Scratch which is the intro to programming language out of MIT. Scratch and LEGO Mindstorms both came from the same place. There is this whole idea of visual block-based coding as an introduction for students.

I think those are the two big ones. There are a lot of startups and a lot of newer things the last two or three years, but I think the old dogs in Intro to Coding are Scratch and Mindstorms.

Also, in Scratch, there's an audio tab, too. That's kind of how I focus my class ─

You asked about this earlier. In Scratch, there are three tabs. Sprites which is visual; Sounds and you can import your Sounds tab, and then there's the coding tab.

All the focus and I think rightfully so, has been on the coding ─ getting kids involved in coding. But in Scratch, there's not just the coding tab; there are the other two. There's the visual tab, the arts tab, and the audio tab.

How I sell what I do is “Okay, we're going to build up this pyramid and Scratch is at the top. But underneath it, we need to think about game making; we need to think about logic; we need to think about our visuals, our posters, our visual design; and we need to think about our audio.

So those are the three building blocks, that's how I visualize it.

RB:  Shawn, let's go into this. The folks who are listening to our interview, I'm sure that they can feel the energy that you have. Here's what I think is interesting and exciting.

When we find professionals and, more importantly, people who are passionate about working in education ─ and if you go down the rabbit hole with me...I think we do not do a very good job in education of marketing all the fun, interesting, innovative things that you can do (depending upon your talent or the areas that you enjoy to pursue) that are challenging to you.

We see that in other industries. But we don't often see it in education. The energy that you convey with what you're able to do with students and that it changes all the time ─ where does that come from? Do you get the same sense that I'm getting or is it just that I'm experiencing you as your students do -  which I would imagine they must adore you because you integrate things that are pop culture, things that they will experience when they get out that make it creative, challenging and fun?

SPH:  Yes. I'm in a unique position. I've been in this for six years. For the first three years, I think I was the only middle school computer science teacher in Portland Public Schools District. I think that there are two others that have that title now.

So I'm in a rare position because of this focus. And then, I'm in an even rarer position because we're a very small charter school. I teach all the kids.

Computer science as opposed to being this elective which is a very different class mindset ─ if it's elective, it's just the kids who are down that are like, “Yes, let's do this; let's focus on this.”

I've got everybody. So I think the focus and the passion are “I've got to make it interesting. I've got to be able to go where they're going, ” or I will lose kids entirely.

You need to be passionate about it. A lot of the kids were not primed to be interested in technology. I mentor all the girls in the class; we have about a hundred students this year and I teach everybody every day. So that's a unique position to be in on that kind of computer science coding model.

Being excited about is a product of what I set for the kids. If I can get excited about it, we can kind of keep that stirring around. When I've tried a couple of things that I didn't know well and I wasn’t excited about - they fell totally flat.

Girl Learning

RB: I think it's wonderful. To your point there at the end, the fear of failure is something that I think we're starting to embrace. It's okay whether it's at the building level, the district level, the teacher level, the student level, or the parent level.

I think that little small bit at the end is key to the whole thing to stay engaged.

It's been so nice to catch up with you, Shawn. Continued success!

The kids in your school are very lucky to have you and I can imagine what my career would have been like if I had computer science in your classroom.

SPH:  You would have probably got into podcasting a little bit earlier ─

RB:  [laughs] Thanks, Shawn.

SPH:  Absolutely! Thank you.

Further Reading:

EdScoop - A cloud-based music app adds new energy to computer science

Westworld - Big Gigantic Donates Computer Lab to Youth on Record

Money Magazine - This Coding School Will Pay YOU to Attend


About Shawn Patrick Higgins:

Shawn HigginsShawn Patrick Higgins has many years of experience teaching youth about video and creative technology, with more than 5 years experience teaching middle school computer science and managing educational technology. He specializes in project-based, collaborative learning in new media and fostering STEAM learning environments as a creative alternative pathway to student success.

Shawn is currently the Coordinator of Digital Literacy at Self Enhancement Inc, one of the oldest education and equity non-profits in Oregon. Self Enhancement is a charter school, after-school program and wrap-around family services organization focused on supporting high-needs youth of color in the Portland area.

Follow Sean Higgins on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

Authentic Assessment vs. Accountability: The Balancing Act

Chalkboard Test
Eric Simpson is the Director of Learning and Leadership Services at the Texas Association of School Administrators and is heavily involved in the Texas Performance Assessment Consortium, commonly referred to as TPAC. The consortium is comprised of 44 school districts; the purpose of the group is to advocate for community-based accountability in schools, something Eric says that schools and administrators are severely lacking.

Eric’s kids are enrolled in a member district, so his involvement in the TPAC group takes on a personal element. He feels a personal responsibility to influence schools, not just in his district but everywhere, and as he says, “stop going down a path that creates shallower expectations and shallower learning experiences based off of a very limited way of assessing learning.”

Listen to the discussion with me below as it demonstrates Eric’s openness to having hard discussions about the shortcomings of our current education system. He offers a refreshing willingness to examine concrete ways that we, as a society, might attempt to turn things around for the better.

Interview with Eric Simpson

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:  Eric, it's nice to spend some time with you. I will tell you that I'm pretty lucky in what I do because I get to talk with thought leaders in education that are tackling some very big challenging topics.  And I think what's going on in Texas is noteworthy and we should all know what's going on when it comes to how we're evaluating assessments, and we're talking about that as school leaders.

With that as the backdrop, tell me a little bit about TPAC. Spell that out for folks. Let us know its origins of that and how that got started so that we can see how it applies to us outside of Texas and what we can learn for districts that are currently not a part of it.


Eric Simpson:  It stands for the “Texas Performance Assessment Consortium.” We're rooted in the relationship between assessment and accountability and making sure that that assessment is authentic; that it is informative to all stakeholders in the system; and, above all else, that it tells a complete story of what's going on in a school district.

The way that this was started, in 2006 through the Texas Association of School Administrations, we had convened about 35 different superintendents who were looking at what it means to be future-ready and what it means to really be educating students for the 21st century.

In education, we talk about “21st-century learning and 21st-century preparedness.” We're seventeen years in, right? The 21st Century is here.

If we're looking at the impact of technology in education, the impact of technology on the culture and in career and in college, what exactly does that mean for traditional schools?

And so, these 35 superintendents came together to really author a new vision for public education in Texas. They constructed these five articles that they felt leaders needed to really pay close attention to, to further the way that we're serving the new generation of students.

Part of it is the way that we address the digital environment. With technology and with this new way of interacting with information, it's very different from the traditional system when you and I were in high school, which was about finding the information that was out there and reporting it back.

And so, the challenge was actually locating enough sources to be informed. So you'd go to the library; you're trying to get six or twelve sources on your topic; you're limited to what's in front of you.

The new way of interacting with that is that they have the opposite problem now. Students have a glut of information, and the trick is figuring out how to think critically and deal with that new information in a way that not only builds upon their knowledge but also useful in an authentic way for what they encounter in the workforce, in college, and everything else.

The thing is, this new environment requires new learning standards. And that's really what that Article 2 is about. If Article 1 is digital learning, Article 2 is about those new learning standards that have to be in place to make sure that students are encountering skill building that helps them succeed in that new world.

Articles 3 and 4 are about assessment and accountability. And the funny thing is that whenever they are running the assessment and accountability in Texas, we were part of the force that started the ever-reliance on standardized tests-based accountability.

The very first standardized tests appeared in Texas around 1980. It becomes high stakes around 1984.

So whenever you look at the adaptability of the systems in public education, we continue to innovate; we continue to try to differentiate for students, but so much of assessment is based on something that's designed to resist differentiation. That's what standardizations are there for, right?

Kid Reading

RB:  A lot of folks are talking nationally and looking at, as I’m sure you are in Texas, authentic assessment. Is that a point of discussion within TPAC when the superintendents are talking about how we make something authentic yet reliable when we're trying to understand how to allocate resources and better prepare teachers and support them as well? Where does the term “authentic” fit into this conversation?

ES:  I think you're right on. We feel like students are not experiencing tests or assessments in general that are representative of the actual experience they're having in schools and the knowledge and skills they're obtaining. They're not experiencing assessments that are meant to measure their amount of skill acquisition.

Their rank order tests are meant to compare them to other students within their age range. There's a selection of content that is tested, but it's not tested for mastery. Those test items are meant to separate high-, medium-, and low-achieving students in that subject area.

The schools are not receiving ratings; they're not receiving information based upon the actual work of students; it's based on just kind of one-time, end-of-year test that's supposed to represent how a student has developed.

What we've really tried to do in TPAC is focus on what educators actually learn about their students from the school year.

Assessment happens year round. There's assessment for the process. There's assessment for the actual skills that are learned. There are so many different pieces to assessment that, frankly, are ignored whenever we put so much pressure on one single test.

The schools and the districts receive their rankings based off of, largely, this end-of-year test; and what results is really an incomplete audit. You have one small part of what somebody does in school that is, then, applied to the rest of the school system.

We're going to be looking at a district as actually trying to do a performance-based assessment and have portfolios for students for each of their core classes.

There's no way to represent that in the accountability system at this time. It's all based on that one moment of assessment.

The same can be said with the assessment of a district. No matter how much work they complete and offer professional learning experiences to teachers to better differentiate it for students and to increase content knowledge of their teachers and increase pedagogy, that's just not apparent in the current system. They look very same as somebody else who perform the same on the test.

Though you can see certain gaps in student performance through those standardized tests, what you can't really see is any true causation for the problems.


RB:  Eric, let's dive in, if we can, to TPAC. I think it's really interesting. For those who don't work in education, there's a mystery about thought leadership in education and how we get to where we are now whether it's policy or practice.

Speaking of auditing and sort of changing the narrative if we're using assessment as sort of the backdrop, tell me about the conversations amongst the TPAC members as a method of sort of self-checking that even the way in which the conversations are going, the questions that are being asked that they are taking a new path or that they are challenging old narratives that we're trying to break.

I think it's human nature that we kind of just continue to repeat the wheel. And if we can do a really good job of having these open conversations about what we're used to seeing and challenging each other and sharing each other’s stories, that that's when we can really find a new method of interaction.

ES:  I think a lot of the challenge and thinking about the accountability system is making sure that it's meaningful to both the public and to educators. The educators need an accountability system that really can inform their practice and allows them to have some agency in areas they're accountable.

The public school is the bedrock of the community and so much of what we've done in accountability has been to take that agency away from local school boards and give it to a state agency that takes this incredibly complex system and distills it into something that's easy enough for the general public to understand and that can be understandable and useful for districts.

They end up failing on both sides because I think there's an inherent underestimation of the public when it comes to accountability reports. They say, “Well, it's got to be simple. Everybody understands A through F. We all went to school. We all have an A in something. We probably all had an F in something at some point.”

We get that scale. And so, we're informed if we see that there are schools of B or a C. We know what that means.

In actuality, we don't know what that means. It's an oversimplification in such a way that you feel informed but, really less informed than when you began.

RB:  And I think that's a key point. Even the acknowledgment from thought leaders like you to say, “Look, we can all come to an agreement that it doesn't give us the complete picture.”

It really does speak not only to the transparency of education for the teacher and the student but how we can incorporate the community and parents as well.

Do you agree?


ES:  I do. I feel like if the reports that we give the community can really engage them and the values they accept for their school system, and it's able to give them some tangible representations of the things that need to be worked on and the struggles in the system as well as the successes - then, you're really well-informed about your child’s education.

If you're looking at standardized test scores and overall printouts, you're really learning more about non-schooling factors than your schooling factors. And a lot of those are just not a surprise.

People know what they look like. People know the makeup of their schools. What they really need to understand is what the educators are doing to address all of the needs of their diverse community.

If you're in a compliant system, there's no way to really overachieve. You can't be more compliant. I mean, it's either you're compliant, or you're not.

And so, I think that's where people try to make these assessments do things that they're just not designed to do. You can't determine college-readiness with a compliance-based high school test. You can want that, and say, “Boy, we think if they scored this high on it, they're likely to do well in college.”

But, again, there's no causation. It's an illusion of being informed.

I think we all know that the only way to be informed about our students’ education is to be involved in our students’ education. I mean, you have to ask some really difficult questions, and you have to really engage with your school to understand exactly what's going on.

I feel like the state system, sometimes, unintentionally, discourages parental involvement in those questions. They say, “Here, we've given you the information. We've told you what that information means, and there's really nothing else for you to do besides either want it to be better or be happy that it's not worse.”

Whereas if we're really involving our constituents in setting educational goals for the system and holding the leaders accountable for those decisions right now, community-based accountability would be a greater accountability than we've ever faced.

School leaders were not being held accountable for what we're actually doing in our districts. It's an illusion of accountability.

“If your kids don't improve in reading, we're going to give you an unpleasant consequence.”

Everything is really about avoiding that unpleasant consequence rather than doing what almost every industry does which is setting expectations for professionals with those professionals being involved in carrying those expectations out and reporting out a preponderance of evidence that they have exceeded the expectations.


RB:  I agree with you there. There are a lot of kids who wish that their parents had that discipline at home.

Let's close with this, Eric. What is your hope with TPAC when you look back at it retrospectively? What's the goal that you personally have for the conversation, the community that has been generated around this consortium and looking at performance assessment and accountability and how that interfaces with the community?

ES:  I'm lucky enough to have my personal children actually going to a district that has decided to join TPAC. I feel I have a personal responsibility for making sure that my kids have a wonderful education and that they have a rich chance at deep, profound learning.

My personal hope is that we stop going down a path ─ as a profession and as a society ─ that influences that profession greatly, that we stop going down a path that creates shallower expectations and shallower learning experiences based off of a very limited way of assessing learning.

The thing is, the fact that the accountability system doesn't actually hold us accountable, that it doesn't actually give us a true accounting of the work that school districts do, that's unfortunate ─ and it can be better.

However, the thing that's actually damaging is the assessment and accountability system itself in the way that it incentivizes very, very narrow experiences for students.

The example I'd give is you would never ever spend a week giving a test prep packet unless you had a test to prepare for at the state level. There's no way that ─ as a practitioner ─ you would rely upon very limited worksheet-based, multiple choice-based ─

RB:  You'd lose your students.

ES:  You would ─ absolutely! The only way that activity is meaningful is if you have a test to prepare for and you have to tell your students, “Well, we have to prepare to this test so we've got to do this thing here and ─”

The tail wagging the dog, the small one-time assessment ends up influencing your entire year.

And I think the argument that people bring forward on standardized testing is “Well, it's only once a year.”

But it adds up. Yes, it's once a year for every subject that your state decides to test. But if it's high stakes, the teachers feel like you have to prepare them for that and the learning suddenly becomes secondary.

If we, as a system, make reading goals and we say, “Okay, our big goal is that we are going to have everybody reading on grade level by the time they hit tenth grade,” that's a different goal than “We're going to try to make sure that everybody passes an on-level standardize test on reading” because what that turns into is people trying to get students who read below grade level to pass an on-grade level test. And it sets us up for failure.

Instead, it really should be about the outcomes we're most concerned with, and that's the actual students’ skill development and getting them ready for post-secondary success.

Often, these tests serve a proxy for that and we begin to prepare for this proxy rather than actually prioritizing the skill acquisition itself. It's not because the leaders don't get it or because the teachers value the tests more. It's that the state values the tests more. It's that all of the decisions at the state level hinge upon that compliance piece.

And so, it becomes a very real threat to schools that struggle the most of receiving less support or receiving fewer funds. And it drags us all down.

Test Tubes

RB:  And it requires a breath of fresh air and an openness and a willingness to have a conversation about what is accountability and how we reevaluate what is authentic and not authentic. And that's when it's going to get fun to check in with you periodically to see how TASA and TPAC are working in tandem to expand the conversation.

I know that it is right there within your home state of Texas. But I think there's a lot that we can learn not only outside of Texas but globally as well because the global classroom is real and it's thankfully spreading to administrations and leadership development in a way in which we're changing the path of education.

Continued success, Eric, and thank you again.

ES: Thank you very much.

Further Reading:

My Plainview - Most area schools meet accountability standards

The CT Mirror - Feds give nod to CT’s plan for education accountability

Corpus Christi Caller Times - Corpus Christi, Texas fare well in TEA accountability

About Eric Simpson:

Eric SimpsonEric Simpson is the Director of Learning and Leadership Services at the Texas Association of School Administrators. Prior to his role at TASA, Eric served as a secondary literacy and language arts administrator for Lewisville Independent School District, a large suburban district north of Dallas. He also served as the English language arts content lead for the TASA on iTunes U project.

Simpson taught English at the high school and college level for nine years before moving into curriculum and professional development. Eric has presented at conferences for the National Council for Teachers of English and SXSWedu. In 2015, he was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Educator and received the North Star of Texas Writing Project’s Leslie Patterson Leadership Award for his contribution to literacy and writing instructional leadership.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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