Friday, June 1, 2018

Welcome to Spider Learning: Our Mission

Welcome to Spider Learning:  Our Mission

As the founders of Spider Learning and proud parents, we are blessed to be able to provide our own children with many opportunities to be successful. Our four kids go to excellent public schools with highly qualified and well paid teachers. Technology and digital resources are embedded into the school day and we can check on our student’s progress and performance at any time with a few clicks. Teachers return calls and have the resources they need to serve the individual and unique traits each of our children possess. After school, our kids are fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities from competitive dance to parkour; from cross country to coding; from drum lessons to baton.

But, as we remind our kids every day, they are the lucky ones.

Across our nation, there are millions of students without access to the opportunities that many children take for granted. As every educator is well aware, the quality of our national school system, from state to state and from community to community, varies dramatically. Our educational landscape provides nothing close to a level playing field.

Many, if not most, of the schools in our country are part of an education system built on decades of well-meaning educators held in place by the inertia of the norm. Without the tools and resources to personalize learning, educators teach to the center of the bell curve, leaving the students at the edges to fall through the proverbial cracks. Additionally, many schools today tend to focus on the subjects where the test scores derive and provide limited choices for students to find their interests and strengths. This is a disservice to our children. Something has to change.

At Spider Learning, our mission is to bring equity and opportunity to every student, every day, everywhere.

As educators who left the classroom to reach more students, and now as small business owners, we believe in our mission and are confident we can drive the change so desperately needed.

As we developed this mission statement, we did so with purpose:
  • Our goal is to level the playing field and reach every student, regardless of socioeconomic factors or access to resources.
  • We strive to change the everyday learning experience for students by delivering a comprehensive curriculum that provides teachers opportunities to differentiate.
  • And we work hard to provide equity everywhere regardless of where students live or learn.

More on each of those areas in future blogs, but for now we wanted to introduce ourselves. We are educators. We are innovators. We are creators of equity and opportunity, and we look forward to bringing our vision to educators that share our passion for putting kids first.

Bill Taylor, Chief Operations Officer

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Educators as Content Publishers

As a company, we have been learning about, working with, and promoting the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) for a while now. So when we heard that the Intermediate Unit and school districts in our hometown are starting to explore the potential of OER, we got very excited. Based on our internal learning experiences, we knew that educators would have questions about how and when to use them, why they should use them, and where to find them...and we are ready to answer those questions. 

But it’s always the question that you’re not quite prepared for that generates the best discussion. I recently attended a summit on Open Educational Resources hosted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU3) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of Remake Learning Days 2016. The focus was to introduce educators in our area to the OER movement and to spark innovation among the participants. The speakers included Eric Westendorf, CEO of LearnZillion, Hetav Sanghavi from CK-12, and Richard Culatta, Chief Innovation Officer of Rhode Island and former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education. Each of them encouraged collaboration and group discussions throughout their presentations.

One particularly interesting group discussion prompted participants to envision themselves as the publishers of the instructional content that their students used on a daily basis. As we thought about this angle -- educators as content publishers -- a teacher within our group spoke up. She said that she had never thought of herself as a publisher. For her, the term “publisher” was an intimidating concept. She didn’t have the skill set to publish content for a large textbook company or publishing house. How could she ever be considered a publisher of instructional content?

Her question made me pause for a moment. As I said, it’s the question that you’re not quite prepared for that sparks the best discussion. She didn’t consider herself to be a publisher, and I’m willing to bet that many other educators feel the same way. How could they ever be on the same level as textbook companies and publishing houses? These are organizations that make billions of dollars creating and publishing instructional materials for students all over the world. They must know this better than we do. What I said to her is exactly what I want to share with you:

You know your students better than anyone. You know their needs. You know their likes, their dislikes, their learning preferences, their study habits. You are more qualified than any textbook company or publishing house out there to create, share, and modify any instructional materials for your students.

It might seem like a scary concept at first. I doubt that many of us think of ourselves as authors and publishers, myself included. But we are the experts, not only in our content areas, but also in the development and engagement of our students. We know what they need, when they need it, and how to deliver it to them. We don’t need to rely on mass-produced materials to drive our instructional methods, especially when we can create better ones that can actually reach our students and grab their attention.

The beauty of the OER movement is in its simplicity. You know your students and their needs best. Therefore, you should be the one driving the instruction in your learning environment with materials that are worthy of your expectations. Represent your students, show what you know, and begin thinking of yourself as a publisher of instructional content. Trust in your own abilities to reach your students and provide them with exactly what they need. Don’t hide behind the scary what-ifs, I-can’ts, or any other doubts. Instead, step into the spotlight as a content creator and publisher.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up and push yourself out of your comfort zone, to have a voice louder than the boxed curriculum and textbook companies that seem so intimidating, but you can do it. Yes, you! After all, I’ve never considered myself an author before, and here I am.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Preparing Teachers for 21st-Century Learning

By Laurel Tokarczyk

Whether in elementary, secondary, or college classrooms, many teachers have begun using open educational resources (OER) as an integral part of day-to-day learning. However, just as no two students are the same, neither are any two teachers. The problem with OER is that although the concept of freely accessible, openly licensed resources has been around since 2002, different states, districts, schools, and teachers have transitioned to using them at different rates, or potentially not at all. The margin is wide. Many schools, such as the Open High School of Utah, for example, operate by utilizing a curriculum that consists 90% of OER. The school’s founder, David Wiley, explained that content is delivered completely online and made available to students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Utilizing personalized learning to the fullest, schools like the Open High School of Utah are pioneers in the technological shift in education. While this and similar institutions are well established and functioning effectively, not all schools are advancing at the same pace.

According to a data report in The Journal, paper notebooks are very much a thing of the past, and school-provided technology is available at more and more institutions. The report findings show that in 2014, 33 percent of all high-school students used school-issued mobile devices. Additionally, 66 percent of middle- and high-school students had access to a laptop, and an average of 56% of both groups had access to tablets. Largely, this technology is providing the majority of students in these age brackets with the ability to access information through online portals, however much lower percentages of students are using this technology to read online textbooks or watch teacher-created videos.

Since it is likely that these percentages have increased since the publication of the data report, the following question naturally arises: How are teachers being developed to use educational technology in a way that best supports a student’s ability to learn?

Many factors contribute to the answer to this question, the first of which being whether or not teachers are comfortable with technology in general and the technology that different schools have adopted in particular. It is suggested in an article from Education World, “Encouraging Teacher Technology,” that teachers may be hesitant to use technology because of “a lack of time, a lack of resources, or a lack of confidence in their ability to use the available technology.” Many traditional teachers may adopt the mindset of “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” However, this philosophy only serves to create a wider and wider gap between a district’s goal to implement technology and actually bringing the goal to fruition.

Assuming that teachers have begun utilizing technology, determining exactly how to do so can quickly produce a new barrier. The struggle to find ideal OER to use in the classroom was once an issue because of the limited number of resources available, and while this issue should phase itself out as more and more resources become available, the struggle then morphs into a new issue: OER can be overwhelming. College of the Redwoods Director Geoff Cain acknowledged that a volume issue exists when faculty members search for resources. Oftentimes, it is overwhelming to sort through the large number of resources available on a single topic, while it’s even more frustrating to find so few that relate to other skills.

In a perfect world, when a teacher identifies a gap that a new resource could fill, the creation of a new resource could solve the problem. This is part of the core mission of #GoOpen, but why are there still gaps? In a recent post by the Center for Digital Education, it is recognized that many faculty members still don’t know about Open Education or OER. It’s as though these resources are spreading around the globe like an elongated version of the telephone game. So how do we, as an educational community, translate the message to the masses? The answer is simple -- do what we do best: teach.

Professional Development (PD) sessions are a solution to help educators all over the globe by meeting them where their current skills and expertise reside, and helping to carry them toward the next generation: 21st-century learning. Not only can well-structured PD help instructors with distinguishing OER from non-OER, but it can also develop their ability to create their own OER and the confidence to do so. We all know that OER allow educators to “remix, revise, reuse, redistribute, and retain” content, but knowing how and when to do that unlocks the true potential for OER, in and outside of the classroom.

Professional Development sessions can be delivered through many different forms of instruction, ranging from a very general training session, to fully online webinars, to hands-on collaborative efforts. But what is most effective? In an extensive handbook by Learning Forward, research suggests that online sessions are less effective than face-to-face sessions, because educators are limited to working and learning alone instead of being a crucial part of a collaborative effort that promotes each individual to learn from the experiences and ideas of others. But the ability to scale the delivery of PD and allow for asynchronous access to the information secures a place for online content in OER PD programs. And as much as how, frequency also plays a substantial role in the success of a Professional Development effort. Multiple on-site workshop sessions, supported by online access to resources and follow-up activities, are the key to successfully developing the professionals responsible for implementing next-generation learning. Teachers are ready and eager to learn -- are you ready to deliver?