Should “data literacy” be part of teacher licensure?

A Data-Rich Year - Infographic by the Data Quality Campaign

A Data-Rich Year – Infographic by the Data Quality Campaign

Data is a hot topic in education. In 2009, under Race to the Top, all 50 states committed to creating data systems with 12 key elements. These included tracking each student by a unique statewide identifier, and seeing what happens when they leave school: do they graduate? Enroll in college? Do they need remedial classes in college? In 2013, 41 states reported in a national survey that they had dedicated state funding to building these data systems, and that they trained principals and teachers in how to use them.

The Data Quality Campaign bills itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization committed to realizing an education system in which all stakeholders—from parents to policymakers—are empowered with high-quality data from the early childhood, K–12, postsecondary, and workforce systems.” They have released a policy brief with a set of recommendations and are holding an event in DC this afternoon to promote their agenda and specifically, the importance of data literacy to improve instruction.

Data-driven decisionmaking currently has a political image problem. It is often associated strongly with the use of scores on standardized tests, and with accountability and teacher evaluation systems that make much heavier use of the stick than the carrot. Many of the major figures in the Data Quality Campaign come from the accountability world, but this Campaign is clearly striving to put forth a more empowering image in which teachers use data to make better decisions, instead of data being used to make decisions about teachers.

In this vision, the campaign emphasizes, state test scores are a drop in the bucket. There’s a kaleidoscope of data that teachers might find relevant: demographics (English learners, free and reduced lunch, ethnic and minority status, homelessness), records of attendance, behavior, involvement with law enforcement, medical or mental health diagnoses, course grades and patterns, interventions, growth, teacher observations. All of this can bring crucial context to the student-teacher interaction, both in the moment and longitudinally.

On top of all that, students are increasingly spending time with learning software that generates a “digital ocean” of data, tracking mouse movements at tenth-of-a-second intervals. Some computer systems have the ability to log breathing, heart rate, facial expressions, even brainwaves.

The Data Quality Campaign cites several studies that show student achievement can improve when teachers are trained to use data and given the time to do it. But drawing useful insights from this chaos of dashboards, not to mention complying with all the reporting requirements imposed by states, can be a panic point for teachers. Many are overwhelmed as it is with the day-to-day work of teaching, and see the ever-shifting availability of different types of data as more of an imposition on their time than something helping them do their jobs better.

The Campaign’s recommendation to this end is likely to spawn its own controversy. They would like to see states use licensure exams to require teachers to demonstrate “data literacy,” as 19 states already do. And they would like to see data literacy covered in performance evaluations for teachers on the job.

Broadening data use beyond test scores, and giving teachers and administrators the time, training, and reinforcement they need to make effective use of data, seem like good moves. But five-0dd years into the data revolution, it’s a bit hasty to make data literacy part of the definition of quality teaching.

  • These data systems are very new, and we need more research to see what’s truly relevant for teaching and learning.
  • A large number of schools and districts are using a hodgepodge of antiquated legacy software and lightweight apps. Crafting a literacy policy before upgrading the infrastructure seems like putting the cart before the horse.
  • In smaller schools, where teachers get to know students well over time, they have less need to look at a printout to see how students are progressing, their strengths and special challenges. Data literacy requirements need to be crafted carefully to respect the wide range of contexts in which teachers do their jobs.

MOOC platform Coursera falls afoul of US sanctions

At least since MIT Open Courseware started in 2001, users around the world have been enjoying free and open digital educational resources. It’s consistently reported that around three-quarters or more of users of MOOC platforms Udacity, Coursera and edX come from outside the US, from nearly every country on the planet.

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

Until now.

Coursera, which has 21 million users in 190 countries, announced on its blog on January 28 that its online courses would no longer be available to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Not coincidentally, these countries are under US economic sanctionprohibiting any American business from providing goods or services. While Coursera had been operating under the assumption that its courses, which are free to users who do not select a “freemium” option such as Signature Track certification, did not violate these economic regulations, the federal government apparently found otherwise.

“We are a US-based company, we have to comply with US law. However, we’re fully committed to having access to as many countries as possible, and we’re actively working to make that happen,” Coursera founder Daphne Koller told me in an interview.

In an open letter to his students posted on the Coursera website, Iranian-born Professor Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, at the University of Copenhagen was a little more outspoken about the decision.

 I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!

In a fourth country, Syria, Coursera initially suspended access, before discovering an existing exemption in the sanctions for educational resources. Koller says that they are working intensively with the US State Department to get a special license for the remaining three countries as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, would-be students who sign in to Coursera and whose IP addresses identify them as being from one of these blocked countries will be able to browse the courses, but not enroll or watch any of the videos.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

So far, Coursera, a for-profit, seems to be the only MOOC platform that has been flagged for violation of these sanctions. The company has an existing relationship with the State Department to offer “Learning Hubs” combining MOOCs with face-to-face interaction at US embassies around the world.

The descent of sanctions raises an important issue in the political and economic future of digital educational resources. MOOCs are often touted as a means to overcome the vast disparity in global access to education. But dozens of US universities are investing significant resources to create and run MOOCs–by some estimates, $50,000 to $100,000 per course. Public institutions, in particular, have a taxpayer-supported mission to serve the people of their state first and foremost. This mission is challenged by the trend of universities recruiting large numbers of out-of-state and international students who are willing to pay higher tuition bills. It might be equally challenged by the phenomenon of MOOC platforms based in the US that primarily cater to the needs of millions of foreign students.

What is the proper division of resources and priorities here? One proposal is that the US government specifically support the creation and dissemination of open-licensed digital educational resources for the good of everyone on the planet. Nonprofits might have a role too.

By coincidence, Coursera yesterday announced a strategic partnership with the charitable foundation of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire whose other investments include the New York Times, to expand educational opportunities in Latin America. The Slim foundation previously partnered with Khan Academy, and offers its own open courseware site Academica.

The Coursera partnership includes translations of courses into Spanish, focusing on professional development in areas like health, education and technology, plus the creation of a network of in-person “learning hubs” throughout the region. The Slim Foundation already operates 3600 “digital libraries” in Mexico; at some of these locations, facilitators will be hired to help students discover and succeed in Coursera courses, and the programs may involve the use of volunteer tutors as well. This initiative marks a move from an online-only MOOC model to one that recognizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. “What we’ve found is that when there is a protected space for facilitated discussion, this can lead to significant increases in retention,” Koller said.

However, these opportunities will not be available to Spanish speakers in Cuba, at least for the time being. The protection of “protected spaces” for intellectual development only goes so far.

How to shift kids’ screentime toward reading

A new survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center shows that for children 2 through 10, less than half of their two-plus hours of daily screentime is spent with any kind of “educational” media, mostly passive videos. As kids get older and start to make more of their own choices, that proportion actually drops.

Two new ed-tech products that have launched in the last couple of weeks, Wandoo and Epic!, are taking different approaches to this issue, aiming to make reading, especially, more fun and engaging for kids.

Wandoo, out January 21st, is made by Evanced, a company that started out selling software to libraries, including products that helped them manage their summer reading programs. In 2011 they were acquired by a company that makes educational games and supplemental materials, and started exploring how to expand their product line. By coincidence, Evanced CEO Rob Cullin had a cousin, Lindsey Hill, who was an award-winning elementary school teacher. She often started out her school year by having students sketch an “interest tree” identifying their passions, pursuits, or places where they could be the “resident experts” for a classroom. “Right at the door we’d create these relationships and they’d grow throughout the entire year,” she said. “They’re the experts on what they want to learn about.”

We hear a lot about interest-driven or personalized learning. Years of research by John Guthrie at the University of Maryland demonstrates the strong correlation between children’s engagement in reading (their motivation to read, their interest in reading, and the effort they consequently put forth to get meaning out of what they are reading) and their achievement in literacy. In one 2004 study Guthrie found,  the correlation between engaged reading and scores on the NAEP, the “nation’s report card,” was stronger than the correlation between those scores and any demographic characteristic (socioeconomic status, family background, income, ethnicity, gender). In other words, highly engaged readers from low-income backgrounds outperformed uninterested readers with every social advantage.


Wandoo’s interest finder

On January 24th, Evanced launched a software product called Wandoo that updates the “interest tree” idea. Children 6-13 log on to the platform to find and rank their top interests. In the beta version, the system includes around 3000 possible interests, assembled from user surveys, from Disney and Angry Birds to “puppies” and “spending time with family.”


Wandoo sample interest tree

Once they’ve built their tree, kids can start to get recommendations for media, both books and videos, to check out, review, and add to the tree. (Evanced hopes that these interest-driven recommendations will be superior to the familiar type based on “those who bought this, also bought that.”) The app is free to use. Eventually the system will allow students to contribute their own interests, and in the later school years, their own pieces of content, like stories and essays. The creators envision kids using the software to battle boredom at home, and to make connections between home and school. “We found the key to motivation was in the child’s keenest interests,” says Rob Cullin.

Epic! screenshot

Epic! screenshot

Epic!, a new iPad app launching today, is taking a different approach to the screentime problem. Their idea is to get kids to read more by making it a more seamless, appealing experience online.
Of all of kids’ average two-plus hours of screentime, according to the recent Cooney Center survey, only five minutes is spent reading e-books. Epic! co-founder Suren Markosian, who formerly worked in video games, says a big part of that is the user experience.

“I was spending more time with my son Max after I sold my last company. I tried to get him to read more books on the tablet–it was his favorite device. What I found is that he could easily download lots of games for free, he could watch unlimited videos, but it was not very easy to find and read a book on the tablet.” Most books must be purchased separately, requiring permission from adults, and then they need time to download, which can tax a child’s attention span.


Epic! has created a subscription service that is launching with a few thousand ebooks, from picture books up to chapter books, for the 2 to 12 age range. For $9.99 a month or $79.99 a year, kids can instantly read any of the books with just two taps. They have signed the first-ever electronic subscription deal with big publisher Simon and Schuster and signed up independent publishers as well, and hope to keep adding and expanding their selection.  The system automatically logs your reading time, offering the opportunity to earn badges and rewards for reading. In initial testing, kids were spending ten to 12 minutes a day with the books; it may not sound like much, but if you’re doubling average daily time reading ebooks, that is a major improvement.

Guest Post: SXSW Edu Director on how educators are like digital creatives

Note: For the next 12 weeks I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation for one weekly guest post. In addition to helping bring new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015.

This guest post is by Ron Reed, Executive Producer of the SXSWedu conference, which takes place in Austin, TX from March 3-6. Several Hechinger Report writers will be featured on the conference program, which also includes Diane Ravitch, Wendy Kopp, and Jeff Charbonneau, the National Teacher of the Year. 



Education was a programming theme at SXSW Interactive for several years and after a series of focused education sessions hosted at Interactive in 2010, it was clear that there was great and growing energy and enthusiasm for the topic. The same way seismic shifts in the music, film and technology industries fueled the growth of SXSW, the convergence of technology and innovation has set the stage for tremendous disruptions in the field of education. As a result, SXSW launched SXSWedu in 2011, to broadly address innovations in learning and to celebrate educators as rock stars, the same way SXSW supports musicians, actors and new media inventors at SXSW Music, Film and Interactive.

The education focus of SXSWedu recognizes that, as with other SXSW events that celebrate creativity and innovation, educators are digital creatives, too – artists who practice the art of engagement each day. SXSWedu seeks to celebrate and support education by convening the diverse communities of stakeholders to envision how collectively they can help modernize teaching and learning. 

SXSWedu convenes a community of forward-leaning education practitioners from K12 and higher education, as well as business industry, legislative and policy leaders. The event has doubled in attendance each year since its launch; an estimated 8,000+ attendees are anticipated for the 2014 SXSWedu Conference & Festival.

Topics at SXSWedu 2014 cover a diverse swath of interests identified by the community, driven in large measure by crowdsourcing. Trending topics at this year’s SXSWedu include: blended and personalized learning, the importance of big data and privacy concerns related to that data, and the next iteration of MOOCs, given learnings from initial deployments. Additionally, there is keen interest from attendees about new strategies to close the achievement gap and to engage all learners. The maker movement – and more broadly, STEM education – as well as the integration of arts into the curriculum are also vibrant and prominent topics. Further themes that are addressed in this year’s program at SXSWedu include:

  • Accessibility & Special Education
  • Achievement Gaps & Educational Equality
  • Civic Engagement & Philanthropy
  • Global Connections & International Approaches
  • Standards, Assessment & Accountability

One of the goals of SXSWedu is to mash up the different education stakeholders, believing that bringing together a diverse community with shared interests and passions in a relaxed, fun and collegial environment, creates opportunities for personal and professional growth and learning.

We believe that through this interaction and the shared successes and challenges, the opportunities to learn new strategies and best practices from one another leads to both inspiration and renewal.

Chineasy reinvents language learning through design

Less than one in five American public school students take a foreign language. Last year, a $27 million federal grant program funding foreign language instruction was cut, leaving schools scrambling for funding. 


But there are more free and low-cost online resources out there than ever before for language learners. There are web tools like Duolingo and Livemocha, online courses from the Foreign Service Institute, iTunes , and the BBC, and there’s always the option to find subtitled videos for further practice on Youtube.


One new resource that’s drawing lots of attention is Chineasy, a system for learning to read and write Chinese characters made memorable through clever illustrations. ShaoLan, a Chinese-British venture capitalist with a technology background, is the daughter of a calligrapher, with a passion for breaking down barriers between Eastern and Western culture. Her collaborator, graphic designer Noma Bar is the creator of the pictures.

ShaoLan’s mission is to create a full set of memorable enhanced pictograms and animations to help people learn 200 basic characters or hanzi necessary to become literate in Chinese. The illustration style is simple and whimsical.

ShaoLan started working on the Chineasy idea as a hobby for two years in her spare time. “I really started doing it for my children,” now 8 and 10, she says. Growing up in London she wanted them to become literate in Chinese and sent them to the local Chinese club, but “They have a really short attention span. They would learn something and forget it right away.” She decided to try and make it more fun and yes, easy, for them to learn.

She delivered a highly popular TED talk on her system last year, which drew attention from all over the world, conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish a book, which is coming out in March with both an ebook and app versions. Recently even more people are hearing about the project because the book, the Chineasy Illustrated Dictionary, won a 2014 “Life Enhancer” award from the design magazine Wallpaper.


The project’s Facebook page, where they post short lessons and quizzes, has over 44,000 likes. It’s become a hub for a community of peer learners, consisting of both teachers at all levels from elementary school to college using the Chineasy pictures in their classrooms, combined with many enthusiasts using them on their own to pick up the rudiments of the language. “They may be moving to China, or living in China, and most of them found learning Chinese daunting and frustrating,” she says. “So many are advanced in terms of speaking and understanding, and they come back to me and say they didn’t realize it could be so easy to learn how to read and write.”

ShaoLan also posted recently on her blog that the Chineasy system is proving helpful for children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, who may have trouble reading and writing Western languages. “I got a very long email from a mother whose daughter, age five, has learning difficulties and has to do home schooling. When she was reading an article about Chineasy, her daughter was sitting in her lap. She saw a picture of 8 characters. In 3 minutes she started drawing them.The mother was thrilled to know that her daughter had started writing Chinese characters.” ShaoLan is currently seeking experts to collaborate with to extend her system and provide more materials useful for children with learning difficulties.


Chineasy isn’t the first attempt to simplify the learning of hanzi. What it is is a masterful use of the tools of social media, design and technology to help spread a free educational resource far and wide. By being simple and highly visually appealing, by illustrating her work with shareable videos, by community building across a host of different networks (here’s Chineasy on Pinterest and Twitter), by being free, downloadable in multiple formats, and collected into a print book as well, the idea has spread far and wide. ShaoLan’s next two Chineasy projects are a 10 minute video introducing 40 or 50 characters, for further reinforcement, and a new book coming out next year that will provide a framework for basic useful phrases and conversations in spoken Chinese, while giving the historical and cultural framework.

There’s a world of open educational resources out there that don’t have the same kind of savvy to get themselves noticed–and there’s lots of educators who could benefit from such resources but maybe don’t have the time or energy to find them.

Guest Post: The Future of School, Piece by Piece

Note: For the next 12 weeks I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation for one weekly guest post. In addition to helping bring new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015.

This guest post is by Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, a 3-year-old early-stage education incubator that brings people with classroom experience into the entrepreneurship process. They run programs in New Orleans, LA and New York City, NY. Follow 4.0 on Twitter at @4pt0schools and 4.0 Schools on Facebook. Learn more about 4.0 at

Candler blogs at You can follow him on Twitter at @mcandler.


4.0 is a community of passionate people building the future of school, one piece at a time. There’s only one requirement for members: a willingness to challenge the status quo in schooling. We invest in people who refuse to accept that school in its current form is what kids need to thrive in today’s global world.

More than 300 people have completed training in experimentation and innovation at 4.0, and almost 50 have teamed up to launch more than 20 new businesses and schools.
I wanted to share a few examples of problems members of the 4.0 community have attacked so far and share a few problems we want to attack next. If you’re interested in attacking good problems, we’ve got programs and money to help you do it.

caption: Dimitric Taylor, graduate of 4.0 Essentials intensive. Photo courtesy of Dear World.

caption: Dimitric Taylor, graduate of 4.0 Essentials intensive. Photo courtesy of Dear World.

Some questions we’ve started to answer.

Q: Can we get kids more psyched about learning by teaching them to make stuff?
A. It is decidedly so.
Maker State started as an effort to start stand-alone maker spaces (where parents could bring kids on evenings and weekends to learn programming, electronics, 3D printing, and how to design their own clothing.) In the first few weeks of piloting, Maker State founder Stephen Gilman realized schools wanted maker spaces, too. He signed up seven in a few weeks and is teaching schools new ways to teach Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, Math.
Q: Can we give teachers and parents customized learning interventions for every child?
A: Signs point to yes.
Branching Minds plans to help people understand what’s blocking a kid from learning a specific skill or piece of knowledge by providing feedback within seconds of answering a few simple questions. Their pilot gets under way in a few weeks when they start testing their first offering – a web search tool that brings the functionality of WebMD’s Symptom Checker and Amazon’s Marketplace to teachers and parents 24/7.
Q: Can we make hiring a substitute teacher not suck?
A: Without a doubt.
My wife spent part of our first year in California subbing. The kid part was great. The “figuring out where to be, when, and what adults you were supposed to help” sucked. It was painful for schools and teachers to find a good teacher who could keep learning going. This is why teachers are like camels.
Enriched is like an Uber for hiring. Through subscriptions to Enriched, schools can help Enriched screen talent that’s aligned to their culture ahead of time, letting subs jump right in and increase learning while teachers take the breaks they need to sustain themselves.
We give members of the 4.0 community money and training to hack on good problems.
Every few months, we give members of 4.0 a chance to win money to spend on prototypes and solutions to their favorite problems.
On January 20th, in Brooklyn, NYC, we’ll hear from members who are working on some promising new solutions to hairy problems in education. A panel of teachers–that’s right, teachers–will give away $10K to the group with the most potential to make teachers more awesome. The crowd will give someone else another $10K for the idea they like best.
Pitch Night is open to the public and one of the most exciting events we run. Join us if you’re near New York.
We’re putting Lean methods like “failing fast” and prototyping to work in education.
There are hundreds of big, hairy problems that need more curious people attacking them. A few weeks ago I proposed 4 Frighteningly Ambitious Experiments in Education for 2014:

  1. Set up skunkworks in No Excuses schools.
  2. Start low-cost private schools in the US.
  3. Put coders in public schools.
  4. Pods of parents quit private schools and go out on their own.

To encourage teachers and technologists to work on these problems (and others they bring to us), we’re partnering with EDesign Labs to run a 12-week Prototyping Bootcamp this Spring in New York City. Teams will prototype new digital learning tools and experiences and test them in the field with kids and peers. Apps are due February 3.

We don’t know what the future of school will look like, but we’re determined to build it, one curious experimenter at a time. Are you one of those curious people? Then what are you waiting for? Get started at

How Schools Can Succeed Without Tests


The Danville Independent School District in the small city of Danville in central Kentucky has just 1800 students. But they are currently experimenting with a transformational model for public education that’s being watched closely across the state and may spread further still. The district has applied for an exemption from this spring’s state tests, in favor of “performance assessment”– multidisciplinary, semester-long research projects that students present to panels of teachers plus outside observers, in the manner of a PHD defense, to satisfy the requirements of the Common Core curriculum.

A historic marker at Bate High School in Danville.

A historic marker at Bate High School in Danville.

“I feel like on a standardized test you’re really showing what kids don’t know,” says Dr. Amy Swann, principal of Bate Middle School and one of the leaders in the transition to performance assessment.  “In the performance you can show what they do know. You can honestly scaffold it for special needs.” Danville’s schools have made the move to eliminate all multiple-choice tests with the exception of ACT and ACT practice tests. Instead, students will complete projects like having sixth-graders design their ideal country. “It’s 21st century skills; not just paper and pencil but speaking, listening, teamwork,” says Swann. It’s about applying what you learned, not just recalling content. It seems to go so much deeper and mean so much more.”

 What makes this experiment especially notable is that Kentucky was out ahead of the nation in adopting the Common Core and has administered Common Core aligned state tests for the last two years–tests created with Pearson, not the two Common Core assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, which are not expected to be fully ready until the 2014-2015 school year. The federal Department of Education is touting the Common Core tests as a major improvement over current tests, but this district is saying (and experts agree) that in practice the current tests really are the same-old multiple choice and they’re just not meaningful enough to spur deeper learning.
Swann says her problem is not with the Common Core itself. “It does ask for a lot more applied knowledge, and speaking and listening and so much more than will ever be on that [multiple choice] test. It kind of makes me sad that even though these great things are in those standards, if they’re not assessed, than teachers won’t necessarily cover them or they’ll brush past them.”Project-based learning is backed by research. The feedback that comes from performance assessment is designed to be more detailed, actionable, and personalized for students. But what about accountability? If students don’t take standardized tests, how will we know how well they’re doing?

Simple: use real-world metrics that actually matter.

The Kentucky school leaders decided to adopt this model after meeting with the Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 small public high schools in New York that have been exempted from Regents exams and other high-stakes tests since 1998.

Performance Assessment schools in New York City have more poor kids and more English language learners than the average for the city as a whole. Yet their dropout rate is half the city average: 9.9% vs. 19.3%. Their college acceptance rates are 91% vs. 62.6% for the city. And the students are also more likely to persist in college, because, says Ann Cook, director of the consortium, they are truly prepared for independent work. For a task like writing a paper, Cook says, “Our criteria are taken from working backwards: What are college freshmen expected to do in terms of writing?”

The Danville school district requires permission from the Kentucky legislature and a waiver from federal officials to skip the state tests, and a decision won’t be forthcoming for months. But the model is already being demonstrated to education leaders around the state, and is winning converts. Swann says that after the first round of performance assessments took place in December, ” Everyone in fact who came in from universities, the state, and other places left inspired & excited.”


Guest Post: The Peeragogy Handbook

Note: For the next 12 weeks I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation for one weekly guest post. In addition to helping bring new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015. My first guest post comes from Howard Rheingold, an eminence grise in the realms of future learning styles and practices.

The Peeragogy Handbook is a peer-created and peer-maintained online resource for peer learners. The Web is a cornucopia of texts and tools for motivated self-learners, from YouTube and Google to Big Blue Button and Open Educational Resources. Never before has so much knowledge and so many communication media been available for learners. The Peeragogy Handbook is a resource for those who have the motivation and the access to online texts and tools, but who could use some help with group peer-learning pedagogy. The Peeragogy Handbook was created by a network of more than 30 volunteers around the world — and is open to anyone who wants to enlarge and improve it.

The Peeragogy community grew out of a Regents’ Lecture that I (Howard Rheingold) was invited to deliver at UC Berkeley in January, 2011. My lecture was about my experiences using social media to teach social media-related subjects at UC Berkeley and Stanford. My pedagogy grew more and more student-centric each year, partially because of the hierarchy-flattening tendency of online blogs, wikis, and forums, partially because I learned how to talk with students about how their learning experience could be improved, and partially because my classroom encounters led me to discover the work of Dewey, Vygotsky, Freire, Postman, Illich and others who have advocated student-centric, collaborative, inquiry-based learning for many years. The idea of enabling students to take more responsibility for and power over their learning — including helping the instructor redesign the course as it unfolds — is not a new one. What is new is the rich (if unevenly qualified) repository of knowledge as near as a search engine or a web-browser, even to those with poor brick-and-mortar schools, and the new and free or inexpensive means for peer communication via forums, blogs, wikis, chats, audio, and video.

While much of public education reform and improvement is directed at helping less motivated learners catch up, the Web is full of self-learners, from Instructables to P2PU. If you want to learn how to do something, YouTube is probably the best first place to look. My own trajectory as a teacher has been to learn how to support students in becoming active co-learners, something that schooling has immunized many against through schoolroom emphasis on compliance and absorption of material broadcast to them by authorities. At one point, following the path of inquiry, after 7 years teaching blended courses that combined three hours of face to face meeting with multiple online discussions between class meetings I asked myself what it would be like to teach voluntary learners wholly online, without the face to face element. ( Pursuing that same line of inquiry led to the question — can the teacher be eliminated? That is, can a group of self-motivated peers create and convene their own courses? While many self-learners are skilled in finding resources for themselves and in finding others to help them learn, what is now called for is a body of practical knowledge about how groups of peers can convene courses or learning spaces, find and qualify learning resources and activities, create syllabi, select online media, share the labor of facilitating conversations, assess their learning. At the end of my Regents’ Lecture, I invited those who were physically present and those who would view the video of my lecture or respond to my appeals on social media to join me in an effort to create a Peeragogy Handbook.

The convening of the Peeragogy Handbook community of co-creators was itself an exercise in Peeragogy. Volunteers from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, UK and USA who had never met began to experiment with online meetings, wikis, forums, shared note-taking media, and collaborative documents. Eventually we agreed upon media and methodology, creating a process for nominating, drafting, editing, illustrating, translating, and publishing chapters. When we felt that we had a critical mass of useful and vetted material, we published via a Public DomainWordPress version at

A new edition was published on January 1, 2014, as a contribution to Public Domain Day.

A variety of free PDFs, wikibooks, and inexpensive paper versions can be found by searching on “Peeragogy Handbook.” Translations have become available in German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Content creators, editors, illustrators, and translaters are invited to join the effort to expand the handbook and expand access — instructions for joining the community are included in the handbook. Or drop in on the Google + Community.

Testing through play

An entire New York City public school classroom has been transformed into a fantasy cityscape, with skyscrapers made of cardboard boxes. There’s a Statue of Liberty, an Empire State Building, a Flatiron Building, a Lincoln Tunnel, even a Roosevelt Island tram made of string, with a car held on with binder clips. The sixth graders are each dressed in their own interpretation of New York City gear, from a Mets uniform to a CBGBs t-shirt. They reel off a polished and coordinated introduction to the assembly of parents, siblings, teachers and outside judges crowding the room. They explain that the purpose of their construction is to throw away a piece of trash, with the message of keeping their city clean.

6th Grade / Rube Goldberg

Then it’s go time. A student “DJ” cues up “Empire State of Mind,” as another student rolls a marble down a ramp. It makes its way down to the “tram” and stalls there for several heart-stopping seconds. “It’s that New York city traffic!” ad-libs one of the kids. Eventually, gravity overcomes friction and the marble propels a tiny Cadillac through the “tunnel,” finally bumping a piece of litter into a wastebasket. Everyone cheers.

Quest to Learn is a New York City public school for the 6th through the 12th grades in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, and it’s unique in the country. Founded in 2009 in partnership with the Gates- and MacArthur-backed nonprofit Institute of Play, the entire school is organized around principles of games and connected learning. The students are constantly challenged to incorporate “21st century literacies” like iteration and systems thinking into their learning, to follow their own interests, to reach beyond the boundaries of the school, and to work together. The school’s ethos reaches its strongest expression for two weeks at the end of each trimester, when the students drop everything for an exercise known as Boss Level. During this two-week intensive, the students work in teams with their “home bases” (similar to homerooms) to incorporate what they have learned over the previous trimester and apply it to solve a new, complex problem.

The Boss Level challenges can range from writing a guidebook to New York City, to making a silent film, to a spring field day full of novel physical challenges. But the introductory Boss Level challenge for sixth graders is traditionally to build a Rube Goldberg machine. That competition is what I’m here to judge this December afternoon.

The student’s machines are built from regular household objects. They must accomplish a given simple task, like popping a balloon or watering a plant. They must incorporate a variety of simple machines, demonstrating knowledge of physics. There are optional creativity points for including a theme, like I Love New York or Winter Wonderland. As I see over the course of the day, teachers step back so the students can take charge. A huge amount of the value comes from the stressful collaborative process of designing, testing, and altering their machines. “We did it with teamwork, communication, and a positive attitude–sometimes,” as one of the I Love New York team members told the crowd. 

You probably have a warm memory of immersing in some sort of project or competition like this during your school years, whether during a sport, an extracurricular or even a class. What makes Boss Level different is the time and respect accorded to the experience, and the way students are guided to connect it with the rest of their education. As a MacArthur Foundation case study puts it, “Boss Levels confer academic legitimacy on creative activities that are typically absent or marginalized at conventional schools.”

6th Grade / Rube Goldberg  6th Grade / Rube Goldberg

Boss Level offers students many different ways to excel and make a unique contribution. If physics doesn’t grab you, you can take charge of the costumes, or stand outside the classroom and play a Christmas carol on the trumpet to usher in the judges. The choice of the Rube Goldberg machine beautifully reinforces the school’s theme of interconnected systems. In the process of designing and testing the delicate, ad hoc machines the students experience risk and failure–a major theme of the school overall.

But it’s not all just fun and games. There’s a real rigor to the competition. Our team of outside judges included an artist and designer, a contributor to the education site Brainpop, a technology entrepreneur and Quest to Learn Board member, and Neo, a representative from the previous year’s winning sixth-grade team. In part, the novelty of being judged by outside observers helps motivate the students to bring their A-game, and in the judges’ room we took our deliberations very seriously. We found ourselves arguing about the essence of creativity and commitment: should we reward the ambitious teams for trying harder or the “perfect” kids who played it safer? The best Rube Goldbergs have a sense of drama that comes from just barely succeeding. Some overly elaborate constructions fall flat, while other designs function perfectly but at a less-than-thrilling minimum level of complexity. Teams can lose points during the competition if something goes wrong and they don’t try to fix it.

Boss Level in particular, and Quest to Learn in general, tack strongly against the prevailing winds in public schools, where data-driven decisionmaking rules the day, and success is a matter of individual performance as measured on a designated day and time by standardized tests.  “Realizing Connected Learning principles in a public school setting is not without its challenges,” as the MacArthur case study says. “For one, Boss Levels can be seen as taking time away from preparing for state tests. While Quest hopes its students will score highly on tests, its students are evaluated against students who attend schools that place greater emphasis on testing. If the school cannot produce competitive test scores, many families will not apply to the school and the Department of Education could force it to change its leadership or even close. Given these realities, Quest is under constant pressure to scale back on less canonical offerings such as Boss Level, and it has had to diminish the number and duration of Boss Levels as it has matured.” Parents, too, have pressured the school to focus more on academics. “Additionally, the school has had to educate some parents about the educational value of experiences like Boss Level. Less-privileged families, in particular, have pushed the school to focus more on canonical pedagogic offerings, in part because their children’s options in the NYC school system largely depend on test scores. “

6th Grade / Rube Goldberg

According to New York City’s official ratings, Quest to Learn is only a “B” grade school, at the 44th percentile with a “C” for student progress. What’s not captured by these ratings is the school’s palpable sense of joy and camaraderie. The middle school years are the roughest in many ways and the time when many students make binding decisions about their future, whether they’re on a path to college or becoming permanently disillusioned with school. Quest to Learn appears to have cracked the code on inspiring a sense of commitment and focus in its students, a majority of whom are boys, who tend to struggle the most in school.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Neo, the seventh grader who joins us as a judge. “I was a lost cause,” he says of his school years before Quest to Learn. “I don’t test well. I would freeze up. I probably would have dropped out.” He got interested in Quest to Learn because he loved video games, but through the school he discovered a love of so much more. He wants to become a mechanical engineer and to uncover the mysteries of dark matter. He’s now thinking about applying to Bronx Science, one of the country’s highest-rated public high schools.

8 Ed-Tech Predictions for 2014, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part post on Ed-Tech predictions for 2014. The first part is found here.

I called up Dr. Jeff Borden, Vice President of Instruction & Academic Strategy and Director for the Center for Online Learning at Pearson to talk about what he’s seeing on the horizon for 2014.


5) Tablets: More schools will adopt these devices, says Borden (and we’ll see more schoolwide adoption vs. “bring your own device” solutions, because they are so much harder to control). He sees the market bifurcating, with Apple iPads remaining the “premium” choice and Androids becoming the mass-market “freemium” model.

iPads currently have 94% of the educational tablet market, and their popularity will continue at the high end, because the tablets are so up to date and the platform’s so easy to use, says Borden.

“They get to market so much faster, and iTunes is so much easier to deal with in terms of the apps marketplace,” he says.

At the same time, because of their lower price points, devices running Android and to a lesser extent Windows will begin to gain in popularity. “Companies like Google and Microsoft will find ways to bundle devices with curriculum and assessment–things relevant to educators,” says Borden. “A district superintendent is more likely to want to buy one rather than multiple solutions.”

I feel that this may be a Pearson-centric point of view; the best applications of learning with tablets that I’ve seen involve savvy, empowered teachers mixing and matching a variety of creative apps on the fly, rather than adhering to one prepackaged curriculum. However, Dr. Borden may be right that prepackaged solutions will gain in popularity even if it’s not the best outcome for learners.

Interesting note: when I ask Borden about tablets’ lack of keyboards, he says that may actually be a plus; brain science supports the notion that handwriting, including with a stylus, promotes retention of information, critical thinking and problem solving in a different way than typing. Keyboards win for efficiency, but voice recording and recognition can help supplement them.

6. A La Carte Learning:

This trend is perhaps more relevant to postsecondary and lifelong learning, but the idea of growing minicertifications, badges, and smaller “chunks” of learning has relevance to K-12 as well, especially as it relates to the gamification of curriculum and certifying or recognizing informal learning in subjects that traditional school doesn’t teach, like coding, for example. The hype about badges has been building since at least 2010, but this is still one to watch.

7. Constructivism Will Flourish:

Dr. Borden takes the interesting step of joining the trends of flipped-classroom, the maker movement, project based learning, challenge-based learning and employer-based learning under the single rubric of “constructivism:” the theory that learning best comes through engagement with real things in the real world. “It’s all about learning in order to create,” says Dr. Borden.”We’re seeing these ideas make their way into educational journals, research projects and grants.” Students will be building portfolios of authentic accomplishments and performances rather than seeking to score on standardized tests.

8. Competency Based Learning (CBL):

In 2013 the Department of Education opened the regulatory gates to college programs that certify learning, not seat time. Public, private, and for-profit institutions are already offering these programs, including at the University of Wisconsin, and the buzz is only going to grow in the coming years, says Dr. Borden.

The relevant point to K-12 is the theme of accountability drifting into the higher education space. “People are concerned that competency-based learning will lead to a NCLB mindset in higher ed,” says Dr. Borden. “We don’t want to see the proliferation of heavy testing that takes away from critical thinking and problem-solving. This debate will run for a long time to come.”

What trends are you watching in 2014? Let me know in the comments.

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