Rethinking the Learning Experience: Part V

Changes in educational delivery systems require new management tools. If education is to be personalized, there have to be mechanisms in place to track, analyze, and interpret the information required for individualized learning.
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To begin the fifth installment of Rethinking the Learning Experience, let's take a brief pause to review exactly where we stand:

Our model for education was built for a world and learning environment that no longer exists. Today's learning environment shifts so drastically from one day to the next that, even for those in the business, it is nearly impossible to predict where we will stand in just a year's time. The good news is that just because our education system was built for a previous generation does not mean that it can't be updated.

This change is more than possible -- it is happening. With each passing day our computers get faster, which in turn makes our data-mining stronger, allowing smarter decision-making, which in turn makes our computers faster, and so on. Lather; rinse; repeat. This is the beauty of the burgeoning era of the digitized education -- change occurs rapidly, not simply over the course of generations, but over the course of assignments. If an idea proves to be unworthy, we have instant recognition and can pivot accordingly. Technology is not the answer to our educational woes: people are the answer, but technology expedites the proof.

So far, we have discussed how regulatory reform and the disaggregation of educational content have drastically shifted methods of delivery and consumption in learning. We have focused on the tools and paths newly available to the student -- but what about the teacher? After all, despite the cries of concern over the coming professorial apocalypse associated with blended learning and iPad-penetration, we can be sure that the teacher will remain integral to the learning experience. The best technologies in the classroom are and always will be the systems that help teachers, not replace them. As content shifts from static to dynamic and social media enters the classroom, it is increasingly necessary to shift unneeded weight off of teacher's shoulders and put their focus squarely where it should be: easing the development of eager young minds.

Changes in educational delivery systems require new management tools. If education is to be personalized, there have to be mechanisms in place to track, analyze, and interpret the information required for individualized learning. For teachers, these management tools increase their capacity to spend time on task, devoting more of their energy toward the student's needs and less toward ministerial duties such as data collection, assessment, and reporting.

To accomplish this, they will require the proper training and support on how to best incorporate these information systems into their instructional methods. Additionally, infrastructure software management efficiently facilitates the passing of data from student to parent to teacher to administrator, and even to the state and federal government, where decisions can be made using real-time information direct from the classroom. These tools create an immediate link in knowledge and capacity between all participants in the education system.

The past decade has seen the rise of the Student Information System (SIS) and the Learning Management System (LMS) within the classroom walls, software services that provide infrastructure to schools and districts alike. Traditionally, LMSs have been used to organize course content, post announcements, turn in or hand out assignments, create wikis, store grades, host communication between teachers, students, and parents as well as a variety of other in-class functions. Meanwhile, SISs meanwhile serve to manage more of the administrative duties of a school: course registration, progress reports, bus schedules, lunch plans, etc.

Ultimately, these information and management systems serve as the backbone of the K-12 learning experience, expediting the grunt-work that previously prevented teachers from dedicating additional time for students or creating more thorough lesson plans. By saving teachers hours of administrative work every week, these systems enable more time for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers to enhance concept mastery and develop creative and critical thinking skills through action.

Unsurprisingly, there is a significant connection between the rise of the management system and the rise of cloud hosting services like Amazon and Rackspace. Where previously schools had to pay a significant toll for a data-hosting system, as the information needed to be housed locally on massive, expensive servers, they now have the option of choosing web-based services that can be accessed from a variety of devices from any location with an internet connection. Not only has the price of operating these systems come down significantly (the effect of the freemium model of distribution being another factor to this equation), but the ease of access has made the services far more user-friendly, leading to a more engaged user. When it comes to data, the more engagement there is, the more value there is, and the correlation is exponential.

The reality is that LMSs and SISs are increasingly becoming harder to define, as each has begun to steal functionality from the other, and vice versa. Other trends include the penetration of parent-engagement within these systems, as well as built-in social capabilities. While the classroom infrastructure landscape is still dominated by legacy players (Blackboard is the dominant player in the LMS field with significant penetration in K-12 and Higher Ed, and Pearson's PowerSchool currently supports over ten million students in 65 countries through its SIS), startup competitors are beginning to penetrate the market via the freemium model, and in the process are blending SIS and LMS functionality in order to differentiate from the big dollar competition that is often slower to refine and adjust their product. Through the freemium approach, companies like Engrade, LearnBoost, and Schoology have gained user-bases in the millions, and have certainly gotten the attention of the top dogs in the space (Blackboard's Spring acquisitions of the open-sourced communities Moodlerooms and NetSpot perhaps serving as the clearest example).

The latest iteration in the development of the management system is the integration tool. By now, most schools have spent a few years using these management systems, and we have reached a point where many of our schools are tied to legacy products or utilize multiple systems for their SIS and LMS needs. However, companies like Clever and LearnSprout are attacking the problem of mining these distinct systems that do not talk to each other and excavating the treasure that everyone in the education world so desperately seeks: Data. As Rip Empson surmises of data systems in his Techcrunch review of LearnSprout:

"Schools use these systems to store huge amounts of sensitive student information (class lists, attendance, grades and allergies, etc.), but they differ widely from school to school, which, among other things, forces developers to manually integrate with each unique system, making it difficult for their cool educational software or apps to achieve any kind of scale."

We often talk about the "silo effect" in the education community, wherein schools and districts house valuable data in multiple, sealed off locations that significantly dampen their potential value. K-12 school districts are a fickle beast and are often slow to evolve in general, so the thought of getting them to drop a legacy LMS or SIS in favor of a new (and theoretically smarter and more efficient) version is a difficult proposition to say the least. The process of moving to a new infrastructure solution would involve hundreds of hours of manpower simply entering data, not to mention the time and energy spent learning the new system itself. The likes of LearnSprout and Clever provide clean, easily-digestible APIs to make transition and integration of multiple systems and applications a far easier pill to swallow. This new movement in the management systems landscape will serve the role of significantly speeding evolution within K-12 data (and beyond). The impact will be substantial, albeit indirect, on the way our children are taught.

The simpler the data system, the more connected these "silos" become, the more automated we can make K-12 housekeeping, the more a teacher can do what they do best--do what the taxpayers pay them to do: TEACH!

Tom Segal is an analyst at Rethink Education, a company which invests in educational technology.

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