Being agile in the approach to education

Dr. Wendy Oliver thrives when implementing innovative learning models and creating amazing learning experiences for students. Throughout her career, Wendy has had the opportunity to develop and pioneer a statewide online learning program in Tennessee. She also served as the Chief Learning Architect for Arizona State University’s digital 9-12 charter school. Wendy created Oliver’s Frameworks for Blended and Online Instruction, and subsequently a software that allows teachers to self-assess their knowledge of instruction in each respective environment. 

After releasing her book series, “Not Your Mama’s Classroom,” Dr. Oliver began focusing her energy working on best practices in digital education and consulting with educators in order to build successful digital learning models. As someone who loves to learn no matter which hat she’s wearing, her goal is simple—to empower all learners.

Can you tell us how your journey has shaped your approach to education?

My first teaching position was as a high school English teacher in an urban school, where each child had varying social and emotional backgrounds. And each child’s academic background was different. 

I needed a way to “get into their heads” and determine their literacy levels. I had children reading anywhere from grades 2-9 in the same classroom. So, I could not teach all students from the same textbook. Therefore, I began on my path of differentiated instruction by personalizing learning for each of my students. Despite the fact that virtual schools were in their infancy in 1997, I had a high level of energy and commitment for my mission.

Just as I coached girls’ basketball and volleyball players to set individual goals, I taught my students to set and strive to meet personal objectives every day. This growth mindset helped me be at the forefront of engaging learners and to differentiate instruction. 

The stars of assessment continued to align, and after a successful adventure developing and launching a district-level virtual school, I was honored to lead Tennessee’s award-winning online learning program, which fell under the Division of Assessment at TN Department of Education. The experience opened my eyes to the truly personalized and innovative models learners can experience when assessment is the backbone of digital resources and products.

Fast forward to my continued work in the field of educational technology, and assessment drives many products I’ve had the opportunity to lead.

Can you tell us how game-based assessments, virtual and augmented reality, and blockchain initiatives are transforming education?

In the industrial era, classrooms mimicked the workplace. However, in a technically-rich globalized era, the classroom must be reflective of society as a whole. For this reason, we cannot continue to instruct and assess learners in the same ways we always have—with worksheets and standardized tests. 

With the advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), we don’t necessarily know if it is the best use of time to teach our children basic skills. Does memorizing a math formula matter when AI can solve the equation? 

Perhaps the best use of AI is to solve a formula and for the human to apply that solution in a real-world scenario. After all, true learning takes place at higher levels of Webb’s Degrees of Knowledge, and grammar of content areas, such as math in the previous example, could be addressed through AI. In this example, one could see the transition from a multiple-choice diagnostic to a game-based assessment. Imagine that in an environmental science class, rather than answering choices A, B, or C to a multiple-choice question, the learner is asked to experience life as a scientist in a remote jungle as he or she participates in a simulated excursion to collect water samples. During this survivor-type experience, he or she needs to determine which vegetation is edible. 

In an economics class, learners make authentic decisions for their business, depending on real-time supply and demand scenarios. Technology allows us to capture these experiential analytics while the core assessment remains the same, measuring learning targets. Advancements in technology such as xAPI do allow us to capture assessment features like how students interact with a simulation or activity.  This data might include how many times a learner changes his or her mind on an option or whether a learner reads the content or questions being provided. 

In a literature class, rather than reading a difficult passage, a learner could take on the role of an actor in a Shakespearean play.  Imagine being Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and seeing the humor and consequences of your actions unfold as you interact with the actual events.

By taking advantage of what is sometimes referred to as edutainment, we can engage learners so that they actually want to participate in simulations through MR (AR/VR) rather than dread a standardized test riddled with test anxiety. By using the psychology of gaming, we can motivate children, who may not love to learn, but who may be motivated by extrinsic rewards systems. Learning and technology are ubiquitous now. To separate them communicates that learning doesn’t intersect with the world of work, yet lifelong learning is what is necessary in order to be successful in a rapidly evolving, globalized world.

As AI begins to shift the current jobs in the workforce, it is becoming more apparent that certifications are in demand for the future of our education system. This is one of the reasons using blockchain technology for a skill ledger is so critical. Blockchain technology as a solution for this seachange offers two solutions: 

1. A provider can create an immutable credential of a student’s work once requirements have been met using the existing blockchain ledger.

2. The student owns that credential once it is verified, and he or she can choose with whom to share it.  

A common theme in everything I’m describing is that the learner is at the center.  This is a seachange from the industrial era of education, where the teacher was the sage on the stage and the school or central agency was at the center. By embracing blockchain technology, the learner owns his or her own learning records. 

What were your key findings comparing traditional and online student performance and how have they influenced your approach to education?

There is a lot of assuming in education. We assume teachers know how to teach online, and if a teacher knows how to teach online, then we assume that he or she knows how to teach in a blended format. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of these types of pedagogy, while having some overlapping skills, is unique. 

Not only are assumptions about instructional strategies wrong, but there are also assumptions about students that are incorrect. Not all students who are successful in the traditional environment are successful in the online environment.  Additionally, when determining growth in learning of online students, the factors or statistical modeling for success are quite different than the traditional classroom.

For example, depending on the state, in order to measure effective instruction in a face-to-face class, a specific number of days present must be required (business rules), but online, how would one define this, or is it even valid? While the Pythagorean Theorem may be the Pythagorean Theorem regardless of medium, the consumption and application of it is quite different depending on the medium in which it is delivered.

Good instruction is good instruction, but how do we measure and deliver instruction using different mediums? From what I’ve seen, kids are kids no matter what the medium is. They need to know they are loved and engaged in what they are learning, but we have just begun to scratch the surface with how learning truly works in a variety of mediums. As new mediums begin to develop for instruction, it is vital that we continue scientific investigation into learning.

Can you tell us more about Lean Methodology and how it can help educators personalize learning for their students? 

When I think of Lean Methodology, I put on my product development hat, but I’ve never had anyone ask me to wear my product development hat as the lens for educating our children. I love that you asked this question through this lens! Iterate, iterate, and iterate some more. 

When we create a product, we start with nothing and continually cycle to create a better product and process. In education, the opposite of this has been the case.  For years, we handed a giant textbook to a teacher and 35+ students in a class were supposed to learn everything in it. How frustrating! If we want to be Lean and continually reset goals for growth as learners master new content, then we need to constantly reassess and re-teach. Just like with product development. We re-evaluate, modify, and adapt.

This means we need access to new materials that can be applied in an agile manner. A repository with digital content that is tagged and aligned to either Webb’s Degrees of Knowledge (DOK) or Bloome’s Taxonomy levels and state standards allows teachers to use materials in a flexible and personalized format for each learner. In an ideal world, AI would even organize and put this content together for personalized learning pathways for individual learners.

Now we have digital repositories full of content and assessment items. We have AI and machine learning to drive custom pathways for learners as they master new content or if re-teaching needs to occur. Static content defeats the purpose of a Lean Methodology and totally removes the opportunity to be agile with our learners. As each learner’s knowledge grows daily, new learning pathways should be created and developed.

“Static content defeats the purpose of a Lean Methodology and totally removes the opportunity to be agile with our learners. As each learner’s knowledge grows daily, new learning pathways should be created and developed.”

– Dr. Wendy Oliver, Chief Academic Officer, FocalPoint, K12

Finally, what are some of the biggest challenges facing education today, and how do you think we can overcome them?

Rapid advancements in technology are outpacing our ability to adapt to change with grace. Moore’s Law, no doubt, suggested this would happen, but in combination with a pandemic and a country polarized by politics, we find that our children will be entering into a radically different world than we did.

At the last two national conferences where I presented, ChatGPT sessions were all the rage. How do we embrace new technologies while preparing our students to use them in jobs that haven’t been created yet? All the while, we don’t know what jobs ChatGPT will eliminate. We have to be agile in our thinking and approach over the coming years in education. A big system with industrial-era modeling will prevent us from competing with other countries, so it is critical that we remain focused on agile learning, credentialing, and individual growth within a global workforce.  

In order to do this, we have to update our models to incorporate technology and AI, all the while remembering to disguise the backbone of assessment to our learners. This approach will allow us to go deeper rather than wider as we teach our coming generations to think critically and use the expanding and rapidly available technology.