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StoryBots

I’m neither in Boston nor Arizona this week, but I am using Twitter and blogs to cover two important meetings in the world of K-12 blended learning. Together they give a sense both of the shape of the field and some of the gaps.

The Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University, co-presented by education “merchant bank” GSV Advisors with sponsors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pearson and Microsoft, is the place f0r wheeling and dealing among startups, investors, government and the big nonprofits. Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Kipp charter school chain, is the keynote. (Editors note: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Top news coming out of the week so far is the announcement that Karen Cator will become CEO of Digital Promise. Cator came from Apple to be the first director of educational technology at the federal Department of Education, where she oversaw the development of the first National Education Technology Plan. Digital Promise is a unique sort of government-sponsored nonprofit, created, initially funded and authorized by President Obama to study and spread best practices in the use of technology in education. Currently it has 32 district superintendents, representing 2.5 million students, in a “League of Innovative Schools.” Current ongoing projects within the league, according to EdSurge, include improvements to the procurement process and better evaluations of teachers’ effective use of tech.

Product launches at #eisummit include Scholastic’s rollout of a slate of classroom software programs, and some by cool-sounding startups including SmartSparrow, an adaptive elearning environment from Australia that teachers can personalize and customize, and Smarterer, which is basically a tool to crowdsource assessments on just about any topic you could name.

The Twitter stream of #eisummit is all about data points, ROI, and “more access, less cost, better outcomes.”

Over in Cambridge at MIT, the Sandbox Summit is focused on a very different side of the educational innovation world: “creating a forum for conversation around play and technology.” Here the luminary is Howard Gardner of multiple intelligence fame. The presenters are from Frog Design, the Museum of Modern Art, Make magazine. The featured school leader is Andy Clayman, the “Creative Director,” of Avenues, the World School, a much-publicized private startup school in New York City.

The hot startup here is StoryBots, a little site that lets kids create and star in their own books or music videos, created by the brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis of JibJab viral video fame. The Twitter chatter at #sandbox13 is about the community-building value of play and the contested relationship between video games and creativity. The breaking news is nothing much, unless you count this picture of a beautiful playground in Germany.

What these gatherings have in common is an urgent sense that the standard educational offerings need to change, and that the way that people create and share knowledge over the Internet and using digital technology is offering an important path forward. They share a frame of reference, or at least a set of buzzwords, about learner-centeredness and innovation.

What’s getting lost in the first conversation, and highlighted, I gather, in the second, is that what our children need from their learning process is fluid, not fixed; that some of the most important outcomes might not be measured or even very measurable; that creativity and the arts have a continuing vital role to play alongside STEM disciplines.

What’s not so easy to discern in the second conversation is a strong awareness of equity issues–how to bring these ideas to scale so that they’re available to children whose parents can’t buy them iPads at age 2 and can’t send them to exclusive private schools.

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Anya Kamenetz is a journalist, the author of The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children's Lives, And Where We Go Now, and a senior advisor to the Aspen Institute's This Is Planet Ed initiative.

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