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Using Technology To Accelerate Student-Centered Learning: An Interview with Nonprofit Leaders
Posted on Thursday, June 30th, 2022 by Melanie Dukes
Innovative, technology-enabled interventions can play an essential role in personalizing the process of remediation and acceleration of student learning. This is critical as districts nationwide work to address widening learning gaps as a result of school closures caused by the pandemic.
In a recent webinar, we had a chance to talk with leaders from some of our Innovative Schools ecosystem grantee organizations—the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Transcend—who have a bird’s eye view perspective into whole-school redesign, innovation, and evidence building, to ask how we should define/think about student-centered learning, and how they’ve seen technology accelerate learning in schools. We also caught up with some of our direct impact grantee organizations who have a specific product focus—CommonLit, Khan Academy, Quill, and ST Math—to explore how technology unlocks critical insights for teachers, what tensions they face in product design, and more. The responses below were condensed and edited for clarity.
- Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE): Chelsea Waite, Principal, leads The Canopy project, which focuses on building collective knowledge about a diverse set of innovative learning environments.
- CommonLit: Michelle Brown is Founder & CEO of CommonLit, a nonprofit education technology organization dedicated to closing the opportunity gap by helping students unlock their potential through reading, writing, discussion, and collaboration.
- Khan Academy: Dina Neyman is Leader of District Success at Khan Academy, the #1 math resource used in classrooms, which offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom.
- Quill.org: Peter Gault is Founder & Executive Director of Quill.org, a nonprofit organization that helps millions of low-income students in grades 3-12 become strong writers and critical thinkers.
- ST Math: Nigel Nisbet is Vice President of Content Creation at MIND Research Institute, a neuroscience and education social impact organization that created ST Math, a Pre-K-8 visual instructional program that leverages the brain’s innate spatial-temporal reasoning ability to solve mathematical problems.
- Transcend: Anirban Bhattacharyya is a Partner at Transcend, a national nonprofit whose mission is to support communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.
It’s important that we continue to evaluate and innovate because our children change by the minute. Especially over the last two years, students have figured out how they like to learn, and I think we need to be respectful and responsive to that.
Let’s first turn to our ecosystem organizations. Chelsea, can you define “student-centered learning” for us—why is it so important?
Chelsea Waite, CRPE: When we think about the definition of student-centered, what’s key is that the word “student” is singular, and our systems of schooling were not designed to center every student’s strengths, needs, and preferences. They’ve largely been designed with an assumption of an average student that doesn’t actually exist. That design has produced deep inequities that have persisted for decades and deepened during the pandemic.
A student-centered learning environment considers each student as a unique variable, and is built to solve for that variable so that each young person can discover themselves and the world, develop strong relationships with their peers and adults, and find purpose that contributes to a community in ways that are meaningful to that student. Doing this at scale means that technology is a really critical resource. It’s not sufficient, but it’s absolutely necessary for bringing student-centered learning to scale.
We need to reckon with the fact that American schools have changed in the past 100+ years. Specifically, the diversity of students in our classrooms, and our country’s commitment to provide every child with a high-quality education has changed. Knowing this, what if we defined innovative and student-centered classrooms, not just by how modern they look, but by the way that they use new instructional models, technology, staffing structures, and the science of learning to support every individual student, especially those whom the system has historically underserved? That’s why student-centered learning matters.
Related to this, Chelsea, can you share the work that the Canopy project is doing?
Chelsea Waite, CRPE: Canopy is a collaborative project stewarded by CRPE and Transcend that involves hundreds of education organizations from around the country. The purpose of the project is to build better collective knowledge, which basically means sharing open data about how schools are innovating towards more equitable and student-centered learning environments. We crowdsource information about where and how schools are doing this and right now we have over 300 schools that are featured in a searchable data portal at canopyschools.org.
We learned, for instance, that four out of five of the schools in the most recent data updates say their innovation is designed to meet the needs of students who have been marginalized, which is promising. We’re also seeing that some of the most common practices relate to things like real-world, relevant learning that often takes place through projects supporting students holistically through mental health services and social-emotional learning. This is integrated throughout academics, creating culturally responsive and identity affirming spaces for students to learn, and flexible customizable instructional models that often leverage technology.
Anirban, tell us about Transcend and how you work with schools.
Anirban Bhattacharyya, Transcend: My role at Transcend is to work directly with schools and districts to build innovative models that are more student-centered. Transcend helps schools build new, innovative school designs, and improve their conditions for innovation. We also make sure that all stakeholders in the community are at the table—from students to parents, teachers, administrators, non-teaching staff, and other community members—making sure that everyone’s perspectives drive the design. We focus on helping schools continuously learn and improve rather than focusing only on large cycles of implementation that schools typically do. We believe that when implemented well, this can lead to extraordinary experiences as well as extraordinary outcomes.
What barriers are you seeing schools face right now and what helps accelerate their work?
Anirban Bhattacharyya, Transcend: I’ve identified a few barriers to acceleration in schools. The first is a collaborative approach. There’s so much knowledge at every level—from students, parents, teachers, and school and district leaders—that it’s critical to make sure any initiative starts with having everyone at the table. The second barrier is research and development (R&D). Unfortunately many schools are not funded to have R&D departments, so everyone pilots and tries things. Transcend tries to partner with districts to be that R&D department and in the best scenarios, the school can take over that work eventually.
Another important aspect of accelerating learning is increasing student agency, which begins with being transparent about data. It’s so hard for students to go through school and not know how they’re doing until they get a letter on a piece of paper, so access to data can be a big barrier. When teachers and leaders are able to talk with students consistently about their data, setting goals, progress monitoring, and even having non-academic conversations, it impacts how schools offer different modalities.
Lastly, I also think it’s interesting to look at how schools are coming together and changing the inflexibility of time, space, and student grouping. There’s no reason why schools need to be equal sized boxes. And if they are, then how do we use these boxes in a flexible way rather than batching students by their birth dates? We don’t always need the same amount of time for each type of activity and if we break down this barrier, we can provide more consistent opportunities for student-centered and technology-driven learning.
Turning now to our direct impact organizations. Can you briefly share what makes your technologies cutting-edge, and how that supports students, families, and educators?
Peter Gault, Quill: At Quill, our question is: how can we use recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to be able to automatically serve feedback to students, giving them that practice and coaching they need to become strong writers? In the 21st century economy, so much of what we do is writing, so by equipping young people to build key writing skills, we can make a huge impact on their lives.
In our writing tool called “Reading for Evidence,” students read an article covering social studies and science. Once they finish reading, they’re given a series of writing activities to engage deeply with the text. Quill focuses solely on free-response writing, rather than multiple choice, as a way of engaging students in the text. We see writing all the time where students will put in general and vague statements. Up until now, there hasn’t been a way to evaluate their writing and give them feedback using technology. With Quill, we can say, “That’s true, now be more specific.” We’ve developed the most advanced AI ever created for a K-12 writing tool so that we can provide this precise and specific feedback for students and coach them on how to become strong writers. We now have more than 5 million students using our tools.
Nigel Nisbet, ST Math: Feedback is one of the richest ways technology can be integrated into the learning process. At the MIND Institute, we draw our inspiration from neuroscience research going back 40 years at UC Irvine. The outdated misconception is if all you do is put the correct information in front of children at the right time, somehow that’s going to create the learning process. Actually, students need to be active in the learning process. That act of trying, failing, and then figuring stuff out fundamentally defines the critical learning process. And so, feedback is important.
Several million students use ST Math on a daily basis, and it really is the application of neuroscience to the learning process. Our mission is to ensure that all students are mathematically equipped to solve the world’s most challenging problems. The critical piece is the students. We’re very committed to the idea that all students need to be a part of this effort, but they can’t just know math—they need to be able to use mathematics to solve problems. We need students growing up with a mindset that they can actually tackle and solve the very challenging problems that are obviously here with us going forward. That’s what ST Math does.
Dina Neyman, Khan Academy: As a nonprofit, Khan Academy is focused on how to best support the teachers, parents, and learners that come to our site. We try to make sure that we support the whole ecosystem of learning, and that students are at the center with a full support network around them as they’re engaging with the content. We believe that all learners should be given the opportunity to develop understanding over time, work towards mastery, and build a growth mindset. Students are in the driver’s seat when it comes to Khan Academy and they have choices in how they learn. We believe that instruction should be grounded in understanding where students are and what they need, and that over-assessment is detrimental to instruction.
We have “Course Challenges” that are student initiated assessments. When a student believes they’re ready to level up, they can try a challenge and see how they’re progressing towards their current grade-level standards. We want to make sure that students are working on grade level, and have seen the TNTP research about the importance of accelerating learning, especially in our post-pandemic world. We know we need to be very cautious with students working below grade level, so our goal is to present grade-level content and then support acquisition of that current grade-level content as needed. This way we make sure that we’re not giving students work that is well below their grade level, but instead are keeping them on pace.
Michelle Brown, CommonLit: We need to ensure that all children are getting appropriate, rigorous grade level-aligned instruction. The way that we approach personalization for students is building ladders of access that are personalized to rigorous content. The CommonLit platform has elements that are personalized, like translation tools that are available in 35 different languages, a mobile-optimized website, and supports for students who are visually impaired. If a student’s Internet goes out in the middle of a lesson, our platform will enable them to stay online and keep learning with the class. We think about this in terms of equity and access, and language.
CommonLit’s efficacy research is what makes us so cutting-edge. Our algorithms are still pretty nascent and we want to test them. Right now, we have predictive algorithms in motion that we’re testing based on our efficacy research. Our research is showing that at higher levels of dosage of CommonLit, we are accelerating student learning beyond what we see in a typical year. For all of the cutting-edge tools that we have developed and deployed, we test along these outcomes to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction.
The outdated misconception is if all you do is put the correct information in front of children at the right time, somehow that’s going to create the learning process. Actually, students need to be active in the learning process.
Technology-enabled tools are able to offer real-time analytics and personalization, which can unlock critical insights for teachers as they differentiate instruction. How do each of your solutions provide insights into student learning and help supplement teachers’ roles?
Michelle Brown, CommonLit: We believe that ELA learning starts with a high-quality text, and one of the ways that we’re collecting data is through annotations. Students can make notes during their reading throughout the text that teachers can see and respond to in real time. We are enabling teachers by giving them the data collected all in one place, on one dashboard that works like a heat map. You can see your classes moving through the text, and tell which details are popping out for students and what they’re saying about them. Teachers, in real time, can then go back and respond.
Our newest offering, CommonLit 360, is the first open educational resource (OER) interactive curriculum that exists. It is enabled and empowered by data fed from our assessment series. This includes formative assessments and benchmark assessments that are integrated into the back and forth between teachers and students, which is when learning happens. We also have an on-demand professional learning portal, which includes 60 on-demand, virtual trainings, putting teachers in the driver’s seat to select the training they want to do, when they want to do it. These learnings are content-specific and aligned to the instruction that they will be teaching the next day, and include real classroom footage of teachers navigating and teaching a lesson with this technology. It helps teachers connect the dots of how to create this tech-enabled and student-centered experience.
Nigel Nisbet, ST Math: ST Math has a backend system that provides teachers with data, and drills it down to standards alignment. We’re a mastery-based program, which means that students move at their own pace. As students are moving through a program, we measure their learning. The most critical question for teachers is, “When is that learning not happening?” We believe the teacher is the primary intervention tool, so a lot of our professional learning focuses on getting students to talk about what they’re doing and how they’re solving problems. We found that the best way to help a student who is stuck is for the teacher to know how to intervene. When we talk about the value of teacher time, from our perspective, the most important thing is queuing the teachers up to spend that time critically when the students need it most. Built into ST Math, we have quizzes built into the system so we can see students’ progress through math standards, and we can also track the students’ quiz results before and after the intervention.
Peter Gault, Quill: Quill is designed to be used by teachers in classrooms. In-classroom products need to provide that more robust data that teachers need, especially when evaluating hundreds of students at a time. But, building robust teacher tools poses unique challenges. We try to have layers to our data so that at a high level, teachers see a simple color-coded system for how students are performing. Teachers can also drill into the data and see which students need additional help and how to support them. By having all this robust data and then giving teachers the ability to drill down into it, we enable them to identify those specific challenges their students are facing.
The last piece of this is rolling all that data up into learning gains. We just launched a new feature that shows learning gains over an entire year by doing a pre- and post-assessment. Data serve both the day-to-day purposes of helping teachers identify needs, and also show progress over the course of a year. Doing both of those things requires careful thinking about what exactly teachers need and how those needs are unique from administrators and parents.
Dina Neyman, Khan Academy: We track how students progress along their grade-level content skills. One of the awesome ways that we see Khan Academy used is within the flipped classroom. That means that the night before class, students’ homework will be to engage in the instruction: to watch a video, look at examples, or work with an instructor. Then, students come to class the next day and teachers have the opportunity to work with them in small groups. We’ve seen a lot of success in flipped classrooms. Teachers get the gift of time and have the opportunity to group students together, allowing them to respond to each other and engage in rich discourse, which is so important.
A student-centered learning environment considers each student as a unique variable, and is built to solve for that variable so that each young person can discover themselves and the world, develop strong relationships with their peers and adults, and find purpose that contributes to a community in ways that are meaningful to that student.
What tensions do each of you face when you think about how to design a student-centered product? For example, how do you balance designing for different models of classroom instruction, or how do you balance designing for efficacy versus student engagement?
Nigel Nisbet, ST Math: Anything that’s innovative is going to encounter tension when you hit the ground, and we encounter that quite a bit at ST Math. We have a program that looks like a puzzle-based learning system and people sometimes ask, “Where’s the math?” They’re not seeing it because of the visual nature of a lot of the problem solving. “Where does the teaching happen?” That tension is a big one, and it’s something that we continually have to grapple with among both teachers and administration.
You have to find the people within the system who are your champions. Getting their results helps us demonstrate why this is something that works at a larger scale. You should be able to see large scale multi-thousand student studies showing efficacy improvements across multiple states. ST Math has that evidence, so when people ask, “It looks so different. How does this really work?” we can work with leadership and teachers to help them feel comfortable. That’s a major part of the challenge and the work that we do is leading people down this path of innovation and showing them that it’s exciting to go down this path.
Michelle Brown, CommonLit: It feels like CommonLit is an idea factory. We have so much data—there’s 7 million active students on the platform! We had an idea, for example, that at the end of our curriculum units, we could have students do a culminating presentation and write social media posts taking action on something in their communities. It gives students agency, but we had to take a step back and say, “Wait a second, are we certain that is better than having students write a five page research paper?” The research paper is what they will be expected to do when they get to high school.
We face these tensions all the time, both on the macro level, when thinking about our curriculum and content, and also for the student experience. We could ask students, “What do you think might happen next?” in a paragraph, as they’re reading, but we realized that that was disruptive for students and was an equity issue for students that already struggled with ADHD. The devil is in the details when it comes to design. It takes thoughtfulness, research, and an appetite for R&D from schools, edtech companies, and philanthropies.
We need to ensure that all children are getting appropriate, rigorous grade level-aligned instruction. The way that we approach personalization for students is building ladders of access that are personalized to rigorous content.
Dina Neyman, Khan Academy: It’s important that we continue to evaluate and innovate because our children change by the minute. Especially over the last two years, students have figured out how they like to learn, and I think we need to be respectful and responsive to that. For example, some students would prefer a presentation where they can get up in front of the class and share their learning verbally, whereas others might be shy and less forthcoming. Giving students the opportunity to show what they know and what they’ve learned in different ways, and offering them different modalities is critical now. I think our students are more well-equipped to understand their own learning and to advocate for themselves. It’s a constant battle; we need to make sure we’re age-appropriate, and modality-appropriate, and that we offer students high-quality rigorous content, so they can engage in the way that’s most comfortable for them.
Peter Gault, Quill: There are two interesting product challenges around writing: One is the tension between typing and multiple choice, and the second is about computers versus phones. When we launched Quill, our direct competitor used a drag and drop interface for writing, while we require students to type out their sentences. We learned early on that students at low-income schools often don’t get typing practice, so the amount of time they were spending completing Quill exercises was longer and slower. We had to consider: should we move away from that typing interface and move to drag and drop? Or are we going to embrace that we are a writing tool and this is just required to use the tool? That was a decision we made early on and we stuck to, and we’ve seen schools spend more time on this problem now.
Chelsea Waite, CRPE: There’s a highly differentiated market out there for tools that fit into classrooms to make instruction better for students, deliver better outcomes, and create better experiences. And then there are tools that are designed for classrooms that are run extremely differently. My big question is whether one leads to the other. Are we tilling the soil for classrooms that are radically different and more student-centered by introducing tools that are more plug-and-play? There is a need to develop high-quality edtech interventions, and to think about building an ecosystem that can support schools and systems to adopt these interventions in ways that fundamentally help children.
Thank you to Brittany Sullivan and Paula Longoria for your contributions to this blog post.
Header image courtesy of Compare Fibre