Friday, November 11, 2011

Meta-Learnings from Day Two of VSS'11

For me, Day 2 of iNACOL's Virtual School Symposium, consisted of a little bit of humor, some "debate" about the gathering and analysis of data and many practical approaches to blended learning. It's always good to start off the day with a laugh.

As part of the opening keynote session, Jeff Pittman, a teacher for the Florida Virtual School for the past 5 years, traced his professional background. He explained that the pressures of having to cover a mandated curriculum every 90 days caused his enthusiasm and creativity to wane. How did he know that it was time to leave traditional teaching in a "brick and mortar" school? His epiphany took place one day when he was teaching a class and realized that not only was he boring his students, but he was boring himself! And, even worse, there were 20 minutes left in the period and time seemed to be frozen. A few weeks later he found a new and reinvigorated teaching life as a virtual teacher for Florida Virtual School.

Here are some observations and perspectives I picked up during the rest of the day during sessions:

  1. It is heartening to hear how much data is collected on a daily basis about student performance. Using a commercial platform allows us to develop an accessible history of each student and the platform can be updated by learning from the successes and challenges of other sectors that collect similar types of data. However...what teachers really need to know is how "stuff works;" they need the data at their fingertips so they can make decisions for each class they teach and the data has to be "teacher-friendly." In other words, the issue of data collection and analysis is another sub-topic of the general theme of "Open Source vs. Commercial Platform"
  2. How will analytics change our lives? When we can use them to demonstrate mastery and competency while living with all the reporting mandated by the government and the funding realities that come along with those mandates. We need data on 21st century competencies, not high stakes assessments. Teachers want data that will help them impact the learning process so that they can impact outcomes. As I sat and listened to those people who deal with the challenges of data collection and reporting, I couldn't help but be slightly envious and ask myself the question, "When will we in the Jewish day school world be at the point of having this discussion/debate when it comes to the domain of Judaic studies?
  3. In contrast to yesterday, today I heard explicit reference to how the blended model can save money (at least, over a period of time). Money is ultimately saved by increasing the student:teacher ration. This discussion was always within an appropriate larger context--offering quantitative data and qualitative anecdotal evidence about how using one of the formats of blended learning increased scores on standard tests or how empowering this type of educational approach is for students and teachers. In order for me to better understand how money is saved I would appreciate seeing some budget numbers over the course of 3-5 years.
  4. Many of us have used variations on the "station" model for many years in our teaching. It was a staple in early childhood education 30 years ago when I ran a pre-school. Adding the online component seems to be incremental and not revolutionary. The counter-argument offered was that in this updated modality teachers are liberated to be "teachers" and students are more empowered to take charge of their own learning.
  5. When a visitor from "across the pond" asked why most of the models being used and highlighted were "conservative" in their thinking and approach and we were still discussing taxonomies, we were reminded that at this conference last year there was no taxonomy and how this is an emerging field that is still searching for a common language. It was also reassuring to learn that the practitioners who are out there "doing this" are focusing on dreaming and implementing and not labeling.

My final impression of the day and the conference is that there is an excitement, a passion and unbounded energy to grow this burgeoning field in ways we can't imagine. NCLB, Common Core and other acronyms and jargon used in this educational domain will continue to be part of the daily dialogue. But that unbridled enthusiasm to integrate online and blended learning into what currently exists and to move us to different and better educational horizons that will eliminate what currently exists is a present and future that is surely coming and we, in the day school world need to be part of these discussions. And thanks to foundations like the AVI CHAI Foundation, we are!

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