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Tiny School Ecosystems: The next wave of education entrepreneurship?

April 17, 2015 | By | No Comments

Food trucks have upended the idea of what it means to launch and operate a restaurant. The Tiny Schools Project from 4.0 Schools aims to take a similar approach—supporting prototypes on the way to creating full-scale schools.

But what if creating “full-scale schools” isn’t the goal? What would it take to incubate and sustain an ecosystem of tiny schools to meet the specific needs of students and families?

Tiny School Ecosystems would build on the growing confluence of home schooling, co-op and low-cost private schools, and anytime-anywhere learning. They would be fueled by digital resources, badging and micro-credentialing, funding portability, and the need for greater attention to parent and student satisfaction. Traditional schools could also create tiny schools, just as brick-and-mortar restaurants host “pop-ups” and launch their own food trucks.

With the right supports (see A Backpack, a GPS, and a Sherpa for Learning) students and families could take an “Education Dim Sum” approach to learning – hopscotching across tiny schools to assemble custom pathways to college and careers.

There are certainly significant challenges to overcome, and we’d need intensive investments to mitigate the education equity problems this evolution could exacerbate.  Considering the number of people and organizations that could establish tiny schools, and the pent-up demand for customized learning options, Tiny School Ecosystems could be the next wave of education entrepreneurship.

The ABCs for education data sharing

March 9, 2015 | By | No Comments

Looking through the list of sessions at SXSWedu this week, I’m happy to see so many that focus on data sharing.  We’re making good progress figuring out the mechanics of data sharing, privacy, and security. Over the next few days I’m also hoping to hear more discussion on these critical questions for education data sharing:

-> What data should we share and with whom?

-> How can data that is shared be understandable and actionable?

-> How can we maximize two-way data sharing among schools, community partners, parents, and students themselves?

-> How can data be for and with students, and not just about them?

Education data can be overwhelming, so where to start? When working with schools and community partners, I encourage them to begin by focusing on the ABCs: Attendance, Behavior, Course performance, and College access.

Attendance, behavior, and course performance measures are anchors from research by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University and Diplomas Now. A summary of research using these as indicators for student success is here.

My go-to resource on measuring and using school attendance data is Attendance Works. They focus on the research-based measure of “Chronic Absenteeism” which is defined as missing 10% or more of school days for any reason. We also need to evolve attendance measures to track and share participation in learning outside schools.

Behavior measures go beyond tracking disciplinary actions to include deeper measures of behavior, safety, and school culture. Systems like ClassDojo and Edmodo can be leveraged beyond classrooms for collaboration among teachers, parents, and community partners. Some of my favorite tools for measuring and sharing data on school culture include Tripod and YouthTruth.

Sharing course performance measures becomes even more useful when schools use mastery-based grading. Curriculum standards can be turned into a tool for communicating student progress with systems like Mastery Connect or JumpRope. The Flamboyan Foundation in Washington, DC is demonstrating how sharing formative assessment data with parents can build partnerships to improve academic results.

Outside of school, digital badges are a way to tell the story of learning across a person’s life regardless of where or when that learning occurs. Digital Badges can help young people own their learning data and share it across multiple environments. Students like sharing their badges they earn outside school with their teachers to show them a more complete picture of their skills and knowledge.

Tangible and actionable measures for college access include college exploration, SAT/ACT completion, college applications, and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion. Family and community partnerships, informed by data, can help students make progress in each of these areas.  Other measurable areas of focus for college access, and tools that partnerships can use to address them, are detailed in the very useful College App Map.


Building strong solutions for education data sharing will require more than technology platforms, security measures, and privacy protections.  Schools, community partners, families, and students need to collaborate to build new data-sharing ecosystems that maximize student engagement and learning. Focusing on the ABCs for data sharing is a good place to start.

Your Edtech initiative is going to #FAIL

March 4, 2015 | By | No Comments

failOne of the things I’m looking forward to the most at SXSWedu next week is the LAUNCHedu competition for early-stage education ventures. (I’m a member of this year’s advisory board.) One of the essential things each of these start-up teams should consider is that their ventures are going to fail. I don’t mean “failing forward”—which is an expectation of the innovation cycle. I mean is that at some point, things are likely to get very bad.

Edtech entrepreneurs—be acutely aware that some of the following things may happen:

Here are 5 things you should do to prepare:

Anticipate failure. Make an exhaustive list of possible failures and have a plan to respond with action and communication for each. Seek outside viewpoints in making these assessments. Engage strategic communications experts, even if you don’t think you need them immediately.

Lead with results instead of press releases. This may be counterintuitive given marketing and fundraising demands. Overpromising and underdelivering has plagued the edtech sector, and raises the stakes when you fall short of expectations.

Listen to your critics. Recognize that you are working in the hyperpoliticized world of education, where it’s likely someone will pounce on your shortcomings regardless of your motives and the value of your efforts. The higher profile your enterprise, the more likely it will attract critics. Don’t ignore rumblings that may be relevant, even if they aren’t directly about your venture. Seek out critics and engage them as partners to improve your work.

Make building partnerships a first-order priority. There is no such thing as just-in-time relationship building. Invest in partnerships at the same time you invest in programming. You’ll need friends to help you weather the inevitable rough spots you’ll encounter. Think broadly beyond schools and build partnerships with national networks, influential advocates, local governments, and community-based organizations.

Engage your users through collaboration. True engagement means moving beyond traditional approaches of communication and outreach toward collaboration and co-creation. If the teachers, families, and students you seek to benefit are invested in the shared success of your venture, they’ll be your best allies when things get tough.

Your optimism and perseverance are essential to your edtech venture, but remember that preparing for failure is part of preparing success.