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A Digital Tool to Unlock Learning

New York Times
September 19, 2012
By David Bornstein

When we think about education reform, we usually focus on teacher quality. The big battleground in education revolves around holding teachers accountable for their performance. With all the focus on teachers, however, one group that is often forgotten as a key learning resource are the students themselves.

One way to help students gain agency over their own education is through technology. Despite the Internet revolution, the field of K-12 education has been relatively slow to respond to digital media. That’s why I paid a visit last week to the site of a promising experiment in digital learning in New York: the Bea Fuller Rodgers Middle School in Washington Heights.

Last year, CFY, a nonprofit organization, provided home computers (and arranged for discounted broadband access) to every one of the sixth grade students in the school. (Almost all the school’s families are Hispanics who qualify for the federal government’s free or reduced lunch program. Currently, half of all Hispanics in the United States lack broadband.).

In addition, CFY provided a four-hour training for the students and their parents in a free Web-based platform CFY developed calledPowerMyLearning which contains 1,000 (soon to be 2,800) digital learning activities and games from across the Web that have been carefully selected and categorized by teachers and education specialists. Finally, CFY provided onsite training to the school’s sixth grade teachers in how to integrate PowerMyLearning into their classrooms (practicing what educators call “blended learning.”)

Despite a November start, the program appears to have made a big difference especially for struggling students. The school reports that the percentage of last year’s sixth graders with learning disabilities who met or exceeded standards in math (testing at level 3 or 4) increased by 36 percent, while the percentage of students who had been below standard (testing at level 1) decreased from 23 percent to zero.

These results are striking, but they have to be put into context. Bea Fuller Rodgers is a small school with about 20 teachers. It has a dynamic principal, Kristy De la Cruz, and some very caring and committed teachers. So it’s too early to draw conclusions from the results. But what caught my attention was simply how excited and effusive everyone was, including the students, about PowerMyLearning.

All of the teachers I spoke with admitted that they had had reservations when the platform was introduced to them. Tristan Wright, a veteran teacher who teaches struggling students, had been wary of technology until she tried out the platform one weekend with her 9-year-old daughter. Daniel Matta, a six year veteran who teaches math, said his first reaction was: “Oh, no, not another thing. It won’t work.”

Now they both say that the digital learning not only increases student attention and engagement in school — a finding that conforms with research (pdf, p. 37-42) — but has also encouraged students to take ownership of their own learning and made it easier for teachers to differentiate instruction without embarrassing students. “After 12 years, it’s completely changed my experience as a teacher,” said Wright.

PowerMyLearning has hundreds of activities for each grade level that are linked to the Common Core State Standards (which have been adopted by 45 states). Teachers assign “playlists” of activities to students based on student needs; they can track what the students do at school and home. They also share data from performance tests with students so they can guide their own learning as needed. (In the fall, parents will also be able to create playlists.)

“We’ve found that the students want to know the reality,” explained the principal, Kristy De la Cruz. “They know when they’re struggling and they want to know how to work on it. This blanket assumption that ‘I’m dumb in math’ has changed to ‘I need to practice fractions.’”

That’s exactly what Maria de Leon, a seventh grade student, did in partnership with her teacher. “I created my own playlist,” she said. “Five activities for math and five for reading. Based on things that I needed help with.”

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is creating environments in which children feel safe to try out ideas. When children are asked questions in class, it’s inherently stressful — like being on stage. When you learn from a person you’re always conscious that that person is thinking about you. In his classic book, “How Children Fail,” John Holt noted that, unlike toddlers who are undaunted experimenters, many children in grade school become more concerned with avoiding embarrassment than learning new things.

After years of embarrassments or failures, some children grow so guarded they won’t even make eye contact with teachers. That was a problem that Tristan Wright faced with one of her eighth grade students, who resisted her efforts to connect. Then, one day earlier this year, she handed him a laptop opened to a math game that dealt with the concept of slope. “The next thing, he was doing it,” she told me. “And then he started asking questions. He showed up to my next session and we agreed that he could continue working with the computer. He still struggles with effort, but it opened up a door. It changed our whole relationship.”

Another challenge for teachers like Wright is differentiating instruction for students at different levels without stigmatizing them. Today, schools are being required to serve children with wide ranges of abilities and special needs. The old way of differentiating instruction was to separate kids in groups or classes and assign different exercises. No matter how the labels were disguised — you could call one group the Eagles and the other the Falcons — the kids knew the difference.

Technology offers another path. For example, Wright had an eighth grader who had trouble with basic addition. “I could never go to her and say, ‘Today we’re going to work on adding.’ It would just be devastating to her,” she said. “With PowerMyLearning, I found I could assign her activities and she didn’t even know what skills she was working on. She was just playing. And for the first time, she started to like math.”

“People aren’t going to believe me when I say this,” she added. “But when the kids are using technology, they don’t care what other kids are doing. They’re just focused on the activity.” The students are less self-conscious, so they try more experiments. If an answer is wrong, the computer gives feedback, and they can adjust — quite a different experience from saying the wrong answer out loud. Technology offers students different ways to visualize information. And students can continue working at home. “Sometimes the teacher doesn’t explain it to you as well as a computer,” added Lisa Lora, a seventh grade student. “And there are no interruptions. No one is shouting answers. You can concentrate and go at your own pace.”

Often, the students work in groups, rotating from station to station. As students figure things out they’ll show their partners. “They don’t even realize they’re teaching each other,” said Wright. “It just comes out organically.”

~~~~~

CFY was founded by Elisabeth Stock in 1999, when Google was a year old, Internet access was dial-up, and the “digital divide” was emerging as a serious educational problem. The organization began by concentrating on helping low-income students do better in school by improving their learning environment at home. Since then, the organization has provided home computers and training to kids and parents in 50,000 families in five cities. An independent study (pdf) in 2007 reported that its approach led to significant increases in students’ math scores. In recent years, the organization has moved to deepen its work in the classroom.

Stock, a social entrepreneur and an engineer with degrees from M.I.T., decided to target sixth grade because research indicated that it is a pivotal year in a child’s development. “It’s the age where children are starting to push away from their parents but also they’re still young enough that when you say, ‘You did a great job on your test, they blush,’” she explained. “It’s the age where school becomes more rigorous and if kids fall behind, it’s a predictor of them dropping out.”

De la Cruz said that because a parent or guardian in each family receives training in PowerMyLearning at the beginning of the school year, it leads to more conversations about education at home. Kids and parents play games together. A survey three months after the start of the program found that average television watching had declined an hour a day. “The parents are very aware that their children love technology and use it every day,” said De la Cruz. “And they want to know how their children are using it and how to support it.”

Over the past decade, this need has grown more pressing as a new gap has opened up: the “time wasting” gap. As technology and broadband continue to spread, and educational software products proliferate, not enough effort has gone into packaging and delivering free high quality online learning activities that teachers, parents and students from low-income or low-education backgrounds find accessible and engaging.

That means activities that children can use for different learning issues without direct adult support, that work for different learning styles (e.g., games, visualizations and simulations, not just videos), material that is accurate and teaches concepts, that is adaptive, that supports group learning and children with special language needs, and doesn’t assume that families have up to date computers. Those were some of the requirements for PowerMyLearning when it was launched in 2010. “We wanted to build something that was flexible, that teachers at different levels of comfort and expertise could take advantage of, that treated them as professionals, and at the same time was really engaging for the students,” said Stock.

This year, the Gates, Broad and Kellogg foundations invested $7 million to build up and spread the platform so that it can be used by schools across the country. CFY will be expanding its intensive school partnership program to eight or nine schools this year and will be reducing its costs per school so that the program can be scaled further. In the meantime, any student, parent or teacher can use PowerMyLearning for free.

“I used to think I would fail math,” said Juan Guzmán, a seventh grade student, who loves playing a baseball math game. “Sometimes teachers would go too fast for me. But I like PowerMyLearning because I can take a break if I get tired.”

“The main thing is that it feels like I’m not in school,” he added.  “I’m just playing a game. But then when I finish I realize that I learned something. It’s weird.”

“Yeah,” added Maria de Leon: “I never thought that fun could go with learning.”