Archive for Richard

Online Learning: Disruption or Niche Product?

Michael Horn recently delivered a webinar through NBOA, titled, “Disrupting Class: Five Years Later.” In the book Disrupting Class, Horn and Clay Christensen applied Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to education. They concluded that online learning possessed the qualities of innovations from other industries that had started small, found a niche, developed further, and then displaced traditional practice. They boldly forecasted that 50% of all high school courses in the U.S. would take place online by 2019.

Going into this webinar, one might have expected Horn to backtrack or modify this prediction. We are now halfway to 2019, and online learning still appears to be a niche activity. In 2009, 1.0% of grades 9-12 enrollments took place online [Horn and Christensen]. In 2013, an estimated 5% of high school students took at least one online course (“Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning”), as compared with 13% of postsecondary students (“Changing Course:
Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States“).

In the webinar, Horn defended the 2009 prediction, stating that the U.S. was still on track to reach 50% of course enrollments online by 2019. He provided one important qualification, that the prediction now refers to online and blended learning. In this way, Horn has significantly shifted tracks from the 2009 argument. Horn also did not substantiate the claim with recent numbers, instead suggesting that hard numbers were hard to find.

The argument for disruptive innovation rests on several specific assumptions. One is that disruptive innovation follows an exponential S-curve, with slow growth at the start of adoption, then very rapid growth during majority adoption, and then slowing growth with the last adopters. Is online learning still growing exponentially, even in its early days? Even if so, early exponential growth does not by itself lead to full adoption, or else all schools might be Waldorf. Early enthusiasm for an idea can evaporate later.

The theory also requires several conditions, as identified in Disrupting Class. The innovation is much simpler and basic than the current products and services that it might displace. It meets the needs of nonconsumers, customers who would like to access education but cannot. The company or product is significantly separated from the main provider in that space, so that it can develop without being co-opted. The product or service meets an underlying consumer need better than the existing products or services.

Horn believes that online education, or more specifically blended learning, still meets these conditions. Online education continues to stand as an alternate model, in contrast to face-to-face education. Blended learning is currently less sophisticated than established, traditional schools. It is, according Horn’s examples, lower cost, due to facilities and staff savings. Horn also referred to his 2013 study of different forms of blended learning, demonstrating that a number of different models exist, though most still represent alternative forms of school.

Horn spent a considerable portion of the presentation describing the advantages of blended learning, such as personalization, individualized learning pathways, and student ownership of the learning process. In this way, blended learning might meet core student needs better than traditional schooling. Horn also believes that considerable nonconsumer populations have adopted online learning, which has helped the innovation get its start. According to disruptive innovation theory, this may provide the conditions needed for online learning to mature and compete with traditional schools.

Disruptive innovation theory has come under substantial fire for being neither scientific nor accurate, for example in a widely shared June 2014 New Yorker article. In the article, Jill Lepore excoriated Christensen for handpicking case studies, making circular arguments, and feeding off panic.

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

In the webinar, Horn summarily dismissed these criticisms, and not even by name. He simply remarked that “a lot of people don’t understand” disruption theory and then proceeded into his prepared talk.

Private school leaders may have read Disrupting Class and rushed to plan their own online schools. Horn cited Global Online Academy and Online School for Girls, and I would add the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium to the list of prime examples. However, one might be surprised to hear that Horn does not believe that disruptive innovation theory applies to elite private schools, nor does he think that online and blended learning will displace them. Private schools are defined by a selective admissions process and a high-end product, which is likely to stay ahead of online education in perceived quality. In addition, elite private schools have the resources to co-opt online learning if they choose to do so, and as perhaps GOA, OSG, and BlendEd already have.

Horn’s new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools is due for publication in November. Presented as a practical guide, the book suggests that “blended learning is one of the hottest trends in education right now, and educators are clamoring for ‘how-to’ guidance.” Given this description, I am not confident that Horn will further explore the theoretical and empirical basis for his arguments. However, as secondary schools have relied more on practical experiences and community sentiment (as expressed by enrollment) to craft program, perhaps this book will further inform private school leaders’ strategies for online and blended learning. If you cannot wait until November, you may want to read two of Horn’s prior articles on the topic, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” and “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to the theory of hybrids.”

 

Quantitative study of school programs

On reviewing last winter’s issue of Independent School Magazine, I was struck by stories of schools conducting rigorous studies of their own practice, particularly quantitative studies. Granted, the issue theme was “Assessing What We Value,” but turning the lens of assessment inward onto school practice represented a significant additional step in my mind.

In the article, “The Role of Noncognitive Assessment in Admissions,” the author described several schools that are collecting new information about students, traits that might help predict school success. One school (Choate Rosemary Hall) found statistically significant correlations between self-efficacy, locus of control, and intrinsic motivation (as reported by students) and GPA.

2013 E. E. Ford grant award winners included Castilleja School, to support the development of “meaningful and valid assessments of experiential learning, to apply these tools to improve the effectiveness of innovative experiential programs, and to share these best practices with other educators.” $1 million, three-quarters of this raised by the school, supports this effort.

I am following a similar path here at U Prep. Whether the question is the predictive power of standardized assessments or the meeting agendas of our instructional leadership team, I find myself quantifying behavioral data, seeking patterns, and sharing the information with people. Is this just coincidence?

While I have not rigorously studied and confirmed the possible existence of a trend toward quantitative program analysis (irony intended), it seems to me that several contributing factors might exist. Quantitative data is more easily collected, processed and shared than before. The setup of a Google Form is trivial, compared to the “old days” (actually just 10 years ago) when we used to write online forms in Perl on our school web server. Data visualization has grown as a field, to the point where major news corporations prominently feature beautiful, illustrative graphic representations of data, and programming libraries make the process easier. Publication and presentation tools easily incorporate such graphics. Use of data to support conclusions has remained a respectable practice, notwithstanding occasional misuse.

In years past, schools would rarely conduct quantitative study of their own work without substantial external help or an internal reassignment. This lent a measure of respectability to the work, as one would expect valid work from a consultant or internal member of the faculty or staff. Now, with people like me studying school practice within the scope of our full-time jobs, the risk exists that we will reach conclusions that are not well supported by the data or not well compared against results from other institutions. We have to be careful, as well as thorough.

Book Review: Making Learning Whole

Making Learning WholeIn Making Learning Whole, David Perkins provides a highly accessible, comprehensive summary of curriculum design principles that encourage thinking, engagement, and mastery. Perkins frames the discussion within a sports metaphor, comparing the way that young people play a “junior version” of professional sports to how students might master the fundamental concepts and skills of an academic discipline such as English or science. The concepts themselves are commonly expressed in the technical language of education theorists — zone of proximal development, experiential learning, and so on. Perkins wraps these ideas within an overarching framework of accessible, common language that is friendly and approachable.  It helps if you have heard these terms before, but Perkins helpfully summarizes each concept in case you have not.

Perkins addresses one of the most significant but not well-publicized core problems with education in the United States today: the epidemic of student disengagement with school learning. American schooling has become a chore that the great majority of students suffer through. Content is dry, disconnected from real life, and overly procedural. Although many students learn to play the game of school and find success, most leave so much engagement and learning potential on the table, and an alarming number fail outright. Some find their passion for learning outside of the core school program, either in co-curricular activities or through personal hobbies. Schools, not students, are the problem. Perkins would like to see teachers “make the game worth playing.”

Unlike some education books, Perkins does not limit the text to one education concept. Each of the seven principles of “making learning whole” includes within it several curriculum design principles gleaned from education research. For example, “work on the hard parts” encompasses practice activities, formative assessment, peer- and self-assessment, isolation/reintegration, six forms of knowledge, and instructive exercises. This makes the text a rich resource for learning the practice of curriculum design, whether one is relatively new to the field or a seasoned educator.

Perkins takes the sensible route between competing ideologies. While firmly constructivist, Perkins acknowledges the importance of basic skills acquisition and other hallmarks of traditional education. He thus avoids the pitfalls of binary education debates and emphasizes a holistic view of education. For example, when exploring “playing the whole game,” Perkins includes “project-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, community action initiatives, role-playing scenarios, formal debate, and studio learning.” Each of these learning forms has its books and proponents. Perkins skillfully emphasizes principles shared among these while acknowledging differences, an approach friendly to education practitioners.

The chapter on “the hidden game” is particularly powerful, as it treats fundamental flaws in thinking processes that pervade student (and teacher) work. Deficits in self-management, causal thinking, depth of explanation, and complexification affect not only learning but full participation in society. Perkins badly wants students to become logical, critical thinkers who achieve a depth of understanding that prepares them to more fully understand big, sometimes contentious ideas of our time: evolution, climate change, global conflict.

In contrast to some education experts, Perkins believes that quality curriculum is more important than quality pedagogy. Noting that students forget most of what they learn in school, one might think that the process of learning wad more important. Perkins is unwilling to throw in the towel on content, rather suggesting that reorganized content has a chance to stick.

The education profession badly needs more books like Making Learning Whole, which presents a wide range of teaching practices within a highly accessible, overarching frame. All too often, problems in education are reduced to simple forms that writers purport to solve with simple solutions. Perkins embraces complexity but also provides an opening for the everyday teacher, parent, or student to understand it. Perkins’ contribution may help the general public understand that education is a complex profession in which well-trained professionals should be supported and empowered to deepen their practice and give all kids the quality education that they deserve.

The Smartest Kids In the World

Each summer, U Prep faculty members read a choice of three books to kick off the professional development theme for the following academic year. This year, our professional development theme is “Teaching for Understanding,” defined as curriculum design and teaching practices that lead students to acquire deep, enduring understanding of subject matter and skills. The first book, The Smartest Kids In the World, asks what the United States high school education system can learn from comparisons to three countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Written by a journalist, the book meets our summer reading criteria of readability, thoughtfulness, and connection to our professional development theme for the year.

book-photo-smartestSome authors, it seems, try to write a book from material that would have done just as well as a magazine article. The Smartest Kids In the World is no such book. Impressive in scope, Amanda Ripley explores and connects several topics worthy of a full volume. Ripley begins by explaining the origin of the PISA test, the basis for recent comparisons of student performance among different countries. In several subsequent chapters, she tells the stories of three American high school students who each study abroad for a year. The three stories weave in and out through chapters organized connected to principles from education research. Making specific connections between research and practices supports Ripley as she explores the implications of the three students’ experiences. The appendices provide information useful to parents, such as Ripley’s take on things to look for when you observe a school and what PISA reveals about beneficial parenting habits.

Ripley repeats her primary message throughout the book: national education reform is possible, because here are three countries that have made massive changes over relatively short periods of time. Finland rocketed up the standings by overhauling its teacher selection, preparation, and induction programs. Poland committed to rigor and student accountability in order to emerge from the damage wreaked by political instability. South Korea is portrayed as two systems: formal schooling that students largely ignore, plus night tutoring centers that do the real job of teaching students. Ripley, the journalist, observes, summarizes, and then concludes, lending support to her recommendations.

Ripley sees several lessons that the U.S. should learn from these three educational systems. High expectations are critical for both teachers and students. Ripley’s students find themselves behind as a result of moving from the U.S. to these countries. National testing enforces high standards, leading to rigorous study habits and high quality instruction. Each of these countries has a high-stakes, national exam toward which students are constantly working. Unlike in the U.S., the national exam has direct career implications for students, so that they have high motivation to work hard and succeed. High standards for teachers make it possible to uphold high standards for students. Finland’s teacher education programs have high entry requirements. In South Korea, a second, the most effective night tutors profit directly from these business ventures. Poland provided teachers with curricular freedom while implementing more rigorous standards.

Common Core notwithstanding, the U.S. education system is primarily directed by individual states. Can these reforms, found in other countries, work in the U.S.? Ripley finds such a state in Minnesota. This completes her argument: if three U.S. students find more rigor abroad, and a U.S. state can similarly improve, then this must be the way to go. At the same time, Ripley pulls no punches in her criticisms of the dominant mindset in U.S. education. Ripley repeatedly cites examples of a failure to commit to high standards, hold students individually accountable for their performance, and select the best teaching candidates and prepare them thoroughly for teaching.

Ripley’s argument passes the “common sense” test. High standards, teacher preparation, and accountability certainly makes a good formula for improvement in education systems. The book also serves as a useful introduction to international comparisons. As a New York Times best seller, this message has broad reach. However, her book is less useful for the purpose of making actual education reform in the U.S., as Ripley’s argument skirts a number of important additional questions required to reform education systems.

Let’s start with PISA, the foundation for these international comparisons. Does PISA predict future economic success for individuals? The path to employment in the U.S. is very different from other countries. For some industries, high school math preparation may lead directly to professional success, particularly in those professions in which accurate completion of tasks is most important. However, new, information-based industries have fueled more recent growth in the U.S. economy. Procedural, and even conceptual, mastery of high school curricula may not build the thinking skills that individuals require to be economically successful adults. Ripley does not extend her thesis to adults and their professional success.

With all of the education scholars that Ripley cites, her omission of Yong Zhao is particularly notable. Zhao also compares education systems in other countries and finds that some, like China, are actually looking to reduce their emphasis on rigor, performance, and long hours of study and emulate the U.S.’s focus on education options and creativity. While the two approaches reflect different conclusions from international comparisons, Ripley could strengthen her position by addressing Zhao’s work.

While Ripley supports her main points well with evidence, some minor points read as pure opinion. Her argument that students in other countries have gained strong conceptual mastery and critical thinking skills is not well-supported. Any standardized test is limited in its capacity to measure higher-order thinking skills such as making connections among different ideas, inventing new ideas, and identifying themes within and among disciplines. While the PISA may do a better job of assessing higher-order thinking than other tests, the format has unavoidable limitations. Ripley also does not address the subject area strengths in the U.S., for example literary analysis and writing, which typically do not receive as much attention in other countries.

U.S. education systems emphasize choice and student direction. Diverse elective course offerings are a hallmark of U.S. schools, allowing students to personalize their own education based on their interests. The emphasis on choice continues into college. Is this part of the reason why the United States has succeeded in generating dominant, new industries over time? In most other countries, students commit to a specific professional track early and subsequently lack the flexibility to shift disciplines as they learn more about themselves and as national economic needs change. Finally, Ripley’s suggestion that teacher kindness towards students undermines teaching effectiveness is suspect. While the U.S. system places the burden of motivation on individual students, and does not serve all students equally, it also offers many avenues for achievement and excellence. Many examples exist of benefits to students who have strong relationships with their teachers.

With The Smartest Kids In the World, Amanda Ripley makes an welcome contribution to popular education literature. Now the opportunity exists for U.S. education systems to give teaching higher status and support in order to achieve higher standards and student success that most would like to see.

Supporting Student Choice in Course of Study Planning

During course of study planning, students have a golden opportunity to shape their secondary school experience. Yet, fully supporting student course choice requires well-aligned processes of course design, course requests, and staffing. Otherwise, obstacles can rise and disrupt students’ ability to guide their academic programs.

Like many schools, the U Prep course of study is fairly prescriptive in the early years and very flexible in the later years. The schedule has seven periods. Middle School students take six required classes, and Upper School students must satisfy graduation requirements: 4 years of English. 3.5 years of history, 3 years of math, science and languages, 2 years of fine arts, and 2 years of P.E. Elective flexibility increases from ninth to twelfth grades, by which point many students can take up to six elective classes.

Some graduation requirements are fixed, whereas others provide options. In the Middle School, sixth grade students choose between instrumental music and a fine arts rotation, as well as selecting among three languages. Seventh and eighth grade students have those choices as well as quite a few additional courses in the fine arts and general studies. Ninth grade students choose a language and two elective courses, and many students satisfy all but their English requirement by the end of junior year.

Here’s where things get interesting. The student who applies correct foresight can craft a course of study with a particular emphasis. Most choose a balanced program that demonstrates a high level of achievement in many subject areas. Others deviate in interesting ways:

  • Taking a free period each semester to allow for depth or slower pace of study, or to accommodate a busy extracurricular pursuit such as dance or club athletics.
  • Playing in symphony or jazz band every year, or working for the yearbook or newspaper, in order to attain a particularly high level of accomplishment in that area.
  • Take as many electives as possible in one subject area in order to satisfy a known disciplinary preference and nicely set up the start of college.
  • Preferring applied courses such as architecture, computer science, journalism, and biotechnology.

Students need specific kinds of support from the school in order to design and craft an intentional course of study. Without these supports, students will end up having to take other courses than their preferred selections, which will diffuse the consistence and intentionality of their program.

1. Build flexibility into graduation requirements

As described above, the academic program should include choices within subject area graduation requirements, as well as free choice beyond subject area requirements.

2. Give students their first choice as often as possible.

This is harder to do than it may first appear. Course scheduling is driven by constraints, such as available staff, classrooms, courses that must meet at the same time, teachers who much teach during certain periods, timing of lunch periods, and so on. In general, the more constraints, the more difficult it is to give students their first choices. Reducing constraints requires reducing accommodations for staff and facilities.

This year, we paid particular attention to the number of sections available to oversubscribed courses. In some cases, we were able to shift teachers accordingly. In other cases, we were not. In the end, here’s how we did. How does this compare to your schools?

Grade First Choice Scheduled
6 100%
7 92%
8 91%
9 82%
10 84%
11 92%
12 94%

3. Allow student preference to inform program change

This is a tricky one. We give very nearly all students their first choice when they are required to choose among few options. 100% of sixth grade students receive their first choice because we honor all requests for instrumental music, fine arts rotation, and choice of language. Sometimes, student preference causes significant changes in program, such as the number of supported languages, a wide range of sizes in musical performance groups, and varied class sizes in fine arts and general studies electives. Changes in program can cause changes in staffing (i.e., our colleagues’ jobs), yet a truly student-centered institution must allow for such changes over time.

For student choice to inform program adjustment in the short term, instructional leadership must be able to see course request data before finalizing the staffing arrangement. A high quality course requests system allows the systematic, rapid collection and analysis of student selections.

Students also collectively help inform the long-term direction of the overall school curriculum. Over years, consistent trends in student choice make plain the changes we should make to course offerings. Recent trends include: increasing interest in Mandarin Chinese; a trend toward applied disciplines, such as architecture, journalism, graphic design, and computer science; increasing requests for English elective courses. This helps the school curriculum stay contemporary and authentic, which in turn improves student motivation and quality of work.

4. Reduce obstacles to new course approval

Does your course proposal process encourage creative course design, or does it put up obstacles? Our Instructional Leadership Team approves new courses, yet we emphasize the constructive process when fulfilling this responsibility. The members of ILT are themselves department heads and are thus on both sides of the process. We check for the thoughtfulness and strategic consideration of course proposals, but overall we work to support the generative work of all subject areas in the school as they refine their course offerings. After ILT approves a course, then the larger, more broadly representative Academic Council considers it. Generally, AC supports the recommendation of ILT.

Course proposals are extremely well vetted within departments before appearing at ILT for consideration. Our courses belong to departments, not individuals, so that they fit within a subject area scope and sequence, are designed collaboratively by multiple teachers, and can be taught by more than one teacher, creating staffing flexibility. Thorough department consideration of new course design increases the chances of approval by ILT.

5. Provide high quality academic advising

Students need help to understand the design principles underlying the course planning process. Fulfilling graduation requirements early and thinking ahead about goals for one’s course of study are two simple recommendations. Tracking courses that are only offered some years, effective use of independent study, strategic selection of alternates, and making course requests in an appropriate order require further insight. Advisors need a lot of training to do this job well, and ideally the registrar and/or the scheduling team should review all student course selections in order to guide students away from course choices that they are unlikely to get for one reason or another.

6. Use a powerful scheduling system

The process of determining when, where, and by whom classes are taught is a multivariate process, requiring a team of people to track its many components. Quality training is required for how to gather student course requests and teacher preferences in structured formats that can easily be used later, and then schedule courses in a manner that creates the maximum flexibility for circumstances that are difficult to schedule. The use of scheduling software is practically a requirement, as it is unlikely that a manual process can adequately analyze the massive amount of data, select optimal options, and make visible issues that need to be resolved. However, avoid scheduling software that tries to do all of the scheduling for you, as the complexity of the full problem exceeds the capabilities of most software packages. (I do know one school that distributes a job to a 16-computer cluster, and runs the program for three days to produce its schedule.)

 

Library Commons In Higher Ed

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Jim Mullins, Dean of Libraries at Purdue University. Jim described the process by which Purdue Libraries developed their new Active Learning Center, a concept and $70m building described as, “a learning commons for the 21st Century.” The following ideas from the talk stuck with me.

The library commons concept, a “noisy” library in which students study, work in groups, access resources, and relax has reached the university level. Purdue, with the support of the State Legislature, is transforming their main libraries to keep pace with how students now use information and technology.

Purdue feels that their concept is unique in that it more fully blends classrooms with libraries than they have seen at any other institution. At Purdue, pilot classes have their regularly scheduled meetings within these flexible library spaces. The library isn’t just a place to occasionally hold class. It’s the main space where class takes place.

The Active Learning Center project includes intensive support and mentoring of professors to make their instructional techniques more generative and collaborative for students. Each professor was provided with an instructional expert, technology expert, and librarian to support curriculum transformation. A number of teams work successively with a series of instructors, expanding the number of instructors and courses that feature active learning. The main examples shared in the presentation showed students working in small groups at tables, while instructors roamed the room listening in and providing suggestions.

Minimal user technology is provided by the school. Students predominantly use their own devices to access information repositories and audiovisual displays using their own devices. Basic needs are emphasized: food, coffee, comfortable seating, and power are thoughtfully incorporated into the physical design of the spaces.

An anthropologist provided key findings that played a large role in the design of the Active Learning Center. Hiring an anthropologist, or at least adopting an anthropologist’s mindset, is becoming more popular as a core method to inform design.

Having just finished our second year with a library commons, we at U Prep can heartily endorse this approach. The Purdue initiative to create new spaces, support teachers with instructional coaches, and fully consider student experience has the shape of a well-coordinated school initiative. At least one of our teachers has started to schedule classes in the library during ordinary weeks, not just research projects, in a manner similar to the Purdue Active Learning project.

 

EdCamp Sessions Impress Again

Last week, over 70 educators from 50+ public and private education institutions, from Kindergarten to School of Education, gathered on a Saturday to explore topics of interest. Participants proposed and led all of the discussions, and all attendees actively participated. U Prep hosted the fourth edition of EdCamp Puget Sound.

I was uniquely impressed with the range and thoughtfulness of sessions. Titles included:

  • Teach (blank) Through (blank); Integrating Interests and Project-Based Learning
  • Twitter 101
  • Lecture-less, Screencast-based Learning in the New Technology classroom
  • Painless Failure, Practice, Revision & Creativity
  • Learning from and teaching 2E (twice-exceptional) kiddos
  • Construct meaning through experience; Service learning & moreSupporting
  • Stem & First Robotics: How is Special Ed Suppose to support?
  • Not “Mad Men”: Use advertising techniques to communicate like a leader
  • Content-area disruption: New school subjects?
  • Online Discussions & Journaling
  • Mentoring: What does it mean?
  • Let’s All Learn About #MysterySkype
  • Effective Group Work and Accountable Talk
  • Conversation Around Blended Learning
  • Teacher Leaders; Teachers of the Year; Tech & Learning
  • U Prep Ac. Tech Q&A:Device Program, Comp Sci, Maker Lab (etc.)
  • Engaging social justice w/all students (not just the ones who opt in!)

I also benefited from the vast range of perspectives and life experiences present at the conference. EdCamps truly bring together a vibrancy of shared ideas unmatched by other education professional development events.


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Insurance’s Outsize Influence on Global Travel

It seems that each year, insurance requirements increasingly affect our school global programs in a way that threatens their emphasis on social responsibility and global citizenship. This year, our school cancelled its annual student trip to Colombia because our insurance company would not cover travel to a country that is on the U.S. State Department’s warning list. From the State Department:

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota and Cartagena, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.

For the insurance company, this is a blanket rule. If the country is on the warning list, for whatever reason and region, the company will not insure the school for travel to that country. From our point of view, no insurance results in no trip. This was difficult to swallow when we had been traveling to Colombia for years, in partnership with a local school, and in a manner that maximized student safety. It is not easy to sever the close, personal relationships among staff members of these schools for these reasons.

Presumably, the Hotchkiss suit of 2013 played a role in changing insurance company attitudes toward global student travel. One $41 million case likely had an outsize effect on their practices, and consequently, school travel abroad. On the optimistic side, a business opportunity now exists for an insurance company to design travel insurance that considers the nuances within the State Department travel warning list.

I am also seeing these effects as I organize the fifth U.S. tour of the Maru-a-Pula Marimba Band. This year, schools have inquired whether Maru-a-Pula School holds international travel insurance. I also had a college theater that we are renting require liability insurance, to protect the school in case an audience member were injured at our show. It appeared that we might have to cancel the show, until we discovered that the college also provides a one-time, $50 liability insurance purchase option. I have a hard time understanding how our $50 purchase protects the college from a million dollar lawsuit, but clearly the insurance industry is operating on its own particular economic models. Each trip, it becomes more onerous for a volunteer such as myself to bring a marvelous student marimba group from Botswana to the U.S.

Twenty years ago, independent school global travel was dominated by language study and cultural immersion to Spanish and French-speaking countries. Since then, most independent schools have completely transformed their global travel programs, updating their missions for social responsibility and global citizenship. This has resulted in travel to Asian, African, South American, and other destinations. Most destinations are selected because a school community member has a personal connection with the target country. Will insurance companies adapt to the travel patterns of independent school global programs, or will schools have to adjust their destinations to stay in line with State Department warnings?

Course of Study Communications

In place of the customary evening parent meetings, I have produced two videos to orient U Prep families to the process of course of study planning. I hope to ultimately reach more families by producing a talk that parents can view at any time. I’ll also leave these videos on our online Course of Study pages for prospective families to view in the future.

Data Visualization For Learning

While written and oral language dominate instruction, the explosion of visual information has created new opportunities to represent complexity, reveal themes, explore data, and communicate information in powerful ways. Here is an overview of some of my favorite examples of visual data representation for education.

Molecular Models

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 2.20.36 PM

 

Image from http://pymol.org/

Students cannot see individual molecules and are normally confined to shaded textbook illustrations and small plastic model building kits. Molecular modeling software represents data from crystallographic analysis of substances as 3D graphics. This allows students to more fully develop their mental concept of molecules through zoom, rotation, color, and different representations (line, spheres, mesh, etc.). Students can quickly load and manipulate dozens of different molecules (e.g., amino acids), or large molecules with interesting symmetries and structural regions (e.g., DNA, proteins).

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An alternate representation of water (http://pymol.org/)

Graphs and Charts

Most of us cannot discern patterns and trends in numerical data and instead rely on graphs to reveal them. Commonly available graphing tools have continued to improve in sophistication and integration with specific types of data sets.

GapMinder opened many eyes to the explanatory power of visually representing a huge variety of demographic data. Trends in HIV infection rates, distribution of wealth, and dozens of other data sets become visible through bubble charts. Animation makes visible trends as the data changes over time.

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HIV Epidemic 1980-2009, GapMinder

Logger Pro draws line graphs of experimental data collected from Vernier data probes. This creates nearly instant visual representations of physical phenomena as they happen.

screenshot.lp._videoanalysis.001.443.332

WorldMapper displays international demographic data differently, by distorting the sizes of countries based on different demographic measures. Map mashups have taken social networks by storm in the past year, whether in the more complex form that shades states (or even counties) based on different measures or the simpler form that simply labels states with words or visuals to reflect a trend.

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http://worldmapper.org

The D3 JavaScript library likely represents the future of mainstream data visualization. Anyone with a command of programming fundamentals can use the library to create stunning, animated representations of custom data sets. Such animations now occur commonly in mainstream publications such as the New York Times. The D3 website contains over 200 examples with source code, which one can download and modify for personal use. The range of visualization formats is stunning, driving home the idea that a practically infinite series of graph types exists beyond the usual bar, line, and pie charts. Interactive animation allows the user to see relationships and themes within the data in a manner that goes far beyond static charts.

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Source: http://d3js.org

Word Clouds

Word clouds represent text information in a simple way, by having the word size reflect its frequency in a body of text. Its effect is very direct, albeit limited, as single words lose a lot of their meaning out of the context of phrases and paragraphs. The word clouds of all of the State of the Union addresses is an effective example of making themes in history visible through word clouds.

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2013 State Of the Union Address, ABC News

Concept Maps

Concept mapping has been around for a long time but hit its peak with the use of Inspiration software. Learning specialists have advocated concept and mind mapping for years to allow students to visually organize concepts for pre-writing as well as conceptual understanding. When paired with high quality questions and feedback, concept and mind mapping can encourage critical thinking and direct study of the relationships among concepts in a topic.

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Example concept map from Inspiration.com

Earth and Space

I recently saw one of the old “Puget Sound From Space” posters hanging in a classroom.The qualification from space seems quaint now that our students can smoothly pinch and zoom satellite databases using their own phones and tablets. Thanks to Google Earth, perhaps we no longer consciously realize that most geographic and stellar imagery is a visual representation of satellite and telescope data. Radar and spectral data is combined with colorization to represent distant or very large objects as if we are viewing them with our eyes. We would also do well to remember that the objects we “see” are also only the mental representations of the patterns and qualities of light passing through our eyes and interpreted by our brains.

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http://frontierfields.org/