Wireless Generation: Technology improving education

Denver is the home of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which is dedicated to improving public education and driving school reform (and a Keeping Pace sponsor). Each month, I look forward to their “Hot Lunch” series, which brings in a terrific speaker doing great work in education. There are so many people, schools, and organizations doing innovative work around the country, and the discussions that happen among educators, policy makers and interested community members each month reminds me why I do what I do. We had the pleasure of hearing from Larry Berger, the CEO of Wireless Generation, this past week. The title of his talk was, "Google Fast. Apple Simple. 4 big ideas that will be shaping the future of education technology.” Wireless Generation is one of the companies mentioned in Keeping Pace 2010 in the K-12 Online Learning Marketplace graphic, so I was excited to learn more about them.

Blended learning done right integrates technology into the classroom in ways that strengthen the educational process. It is not an add-on like the computer classes I took in elementary school, but rather a different—and ideally improved—way of teaching and learning. These four ideas accomplish just that.

1.  Mapping:  Technology gives us better ways to understand how standards are linked and how skills are linked, thereby giving us more insight into how students learn. Wireless Generation has mapped the Common Core standards, as well as some state standards.

2.  Unbundling: Just like iTunes unbundled songs so you don’t have to buy a whole album just to get to that one great song, technology allows us to unbundle lessons from giant textbooks. Wireless Generation powers School of One in New York City. Each day, students receive their own “customized playlist” of lessons individualized for what that student needs to learn next. Does she need to spend more time on a lesson from yesterday that her classmate mastered? Or is she ready to move ahead to the next concept?

3.  Algorithms:  Technology now gives us the ability to use data, as opposed to anecdotes, to figure out what works. Wireless Generation has a database of how 4 million students have learned to read using their software. A grade (C+) doesn't indicate an achievement level, because your C+ could be very different from my C+, so it is important to know what each of us does and does not understand. Mr. Berger noted an interesting example: students confuse the letters d and b. Is it better to teach them at the same time, comparing and contrasting the letters? Or to teach them separately, allowing the student to master each one individually? Wireless Generation can now deploy lessons for each concept to separate groups of teachers and monitor the returns to see what works best.

4.  Social Networking: Just as social networks have transformed personal relationships, they have the potential to transform professional relationships and advance professional skills. A social network allows teachers to ask for great lessons, post great lessons, and rate each other’s lessons. Once a teacher finds a great lesson or a teacher with a classroom similar to her own, she can “follow” that teacher. Teachers skilled in lesson planning and professional development will earn “likes” and “followers” that could potentially influence performance pay or career path.

It is technologies such as these that give blended learning the potential to truly transform teaching and learning, not distract from it. We are still in the very early stages of implementing blended learning, and already there are quite a few companies in addition to Wireless Generation that are applying similar ideas. We look forward to seeing and reporting on published results tracking student outcomes.