Even with today's increasingly technological classroom, kids often have to fail before they're offered an opportunity to learn with the tools best suited to them at a pace they're comfortable with. Edgenuity CEO Sari Factor says this shouldn't be the case.
Founded in 1998, Edgenuity has grown to offer full curricula in core subjects like math, science, social studies, and English, as well as electives, career and technical education, and advanced placement for grades 6 through 12. The company also has some post-secondary offerings, though Factor notes athletic directors are currently the primary focus on that front.
A seasoned veteran of the education field, Factor began her career teaching middle school math. "My first time out was in a summer school program," she says during her conversation with Education Dive at the 2014 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference. "I had no materials, and I had—this is unbelievable—no test scores. It was just, 'Here are these seventh-grade students who failed math. Get them ready for eighth grade.'"
She also has 30 years of experience in education publishing, beginning with Scott Foresman before moving on to a number of executive roles at McDougal Littell, Everyday Learning Corporation, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and Kaplan's K-12 division. It's easy to see why she was chosen to guide Edgenuity as it continues to provide students with both remedial and accelerated work while also implementing an increasing amount of blended learning options.
"When school districts sometimes are looking for a full online curriculum, they don’t wanna buy textbooks," Factor says. "So as a replacement for textbooks, they’re using our curriculum, which is kind of interesting. New applications."
Over the course of her conversation with Education Dive, Factor touched on a number of topics, ranging from the company's latest offering, MyPath, which focuses on intervention for struggling students, to the progress the education industry has made in implementing new tech.
EDUCATION DIVE: With 30 years in the industry, what are some of the biggest ways you've seen technology in education change since you started out with the publishers?
SARI FACTOR: I started out in the very early days of ed tech. The first Apples were coming into classrooms. We were developing math and reading software both for curriculum purposes and also for administrative purposes.
I thought technology was gonna change the world, and indeed it has. But the world of education has come a lot slower than the rest of the world. I think educators are beginning to see that technology can be a productivity tool. It can make them more efficient in the classroom. It really enables them to personalize learning for kids, creating the precise prescription for what individual students need, moving at their own pace. It’s a new concept, but when you think about a middle school teacher or a high school teacher who has a class-load of 150 to maybe 180 students, how well can they actually know those students and prescribe for them what they need? That’s kind of challenging.
By having an online curriculum, you can do that. Kids can move through at their own pace, and the teacher gets a lot of rich data about where every student is and can then take small groups to do acceleration, further explorations, or, if they need to, remediation with small groups or individuals, based upon common need.
It’s interesting that you mentioned technology moving in education a lot slower. In his presentation, LeVar Burton talked about how when Reading Rainbow started, people were wary of using TV for education because it was supposedly rotting kids’ minds. In the '90s, the same thing was said about things like the Internet and video games, but those both play largely into current education trends.
FACTOR: I think it’s about engaging students and making education relevant for them. Kids tune out when they don’t see the relevance in what they’re learning, and today, there’s so much to distract them. Keeping their attention is half the game.
This is why with our software, we really focus on creating engaging elements. Our new algebra product is a great example of this. It’s got over 500 interactives that kids can play with and manipulate and test their understanding of various algebra concepts as they’re working through the course. It’s not just dry reading about the algebra topic—there are real-life applications and then you’ve got these interactives that simulate those real-life applications. It’s pretty exciting. That’s part of our goal: How do we make that courseware really engaging for students? Because the more time they spend on it, the better they’re going to do.
You taught middle school math, which is right at that algebra transition where math starts getting a little bit more complicated.
FACTOR: Yeah, absolutely. I think transitions are hard anyhow, right? You think about the transition that kids make from elementary school and that kind of format of being with the teacher all day long, the same teacher who’s teaching all the subjects and really knows the child. And then the kids go from there to sixth grade, and they’re suddenly in a middle school or junior high, and they’re going to a different teacher for every class, and the teachers aren’t talking to each other about how much homework we’re giving them or anything like that. The kids have to learn to kind of harness their own learning in some way—although middle school teachers do protect that and coddle them a little bit. But by the time they get to high school, it’s much more on the student to take control and be accountable for their learning. By the time you get to college, there's yet another transition where no one is telling you when you have to do the homework. This is why I think so many kids drop out, either from high school or when they get to college. They just don’t know how to study.
One of the things we’re found that's very interesting is online learning is really teaching kids a lot more about goal setting. We have a dashboard that shows a student how far they are through the course and what they need to get done, and every step of the way for that session, they know what they have to get accomplished today to stay on track, because the schools, the teachers, have to put in the start date and the end date of a course and kids keep ahead. It’s color-coded, so if it’s green, you’re on track. If it’s red, you’re not on track.
When we talk to kids, what they tell us is, for the first time, they’re feeling much more in control of their learning. In fact, we have one school where I was talking to the principal and some of the teachers, who told us that some of the kids who had taken a course with our courseware and then went back for the subsequent math course in just a regular brick-and-mortar, traditional [setting], those kids were better prepared and better at managing their time. It just blew me away.
What can you tell us about Edgenuity's new intervention product, MyPath?
FACTOR: Students take an assessment up front, and the assessment gives direction to the teacher about the individualized learning path that the student should be in. It's math and English language arts, and it's really intended to help those students who have missed something in their previous learning that prevented them from moving on. So it can be intervention, but it could also be acceleration, because if, based on that assessment, we say a student may be ahead of where they are in grade level, we can also give them an individualized learning path. Alternatively, if a school is using the NWEA Map Test as one of their formative assessments, we can take those scores and import them.
How has your background in publishing and the classroom influenced your approach at Edgenuity?
FACTOR: I feel like today I’m able to reach many more students than I ever could as a classroom teacher. When I started with these nine little boys in summer school, that was only nine students that I could affect. Now, I can impact a lot more students through the work that we’re doing. We had over a million students on our platform in the last academic year (2013-14), which is pretty amazing when you think about being able to reach so many more students and teachers.
The other thing is, I’ve watched what’s happened over that last 30-year period, and we’ve had so many false starts with technology. You hear about all this money being spent on technology with no results. I think for the first time, I’m really seeing school district administrators focus on results. They’re saying, “How am I going to get that return on investment? I’m spending a lot on the hardware. I need to spend on the software.” The smart ones are saying, “I also need to spend on the professional development. This is really a change management process that I’m taking my school through, or my district through, and I need all of these elements to set us up for success.” For the teachers who taught completely out of a textbook, lecturing to the students and then giving a test at the end of the unit or a quiz at the end of the week, it’s a huge change for them. You can’t just give them the software and say, “Go to it.” There has to be preparation work done. They have to understand the curriculum that they’re getting. They have to understand how their role changes or needs to change to really get the results with using online curriculum.
You really have to distinguish between a technology-rich classroom and a blended or online learning environment. They’re two different things, and this is the problem. I saw that from 1980 on, as people were throwing a lot of devices into classrooms without really a thought about what it takes. PD is such a big part of it.
We can have two districts put in the exact same curriculum, and one will do very well with it and one won’t. And the big difference is the fidelity of the implementation. Do they have our professional development consultants in there helping them? Are they willing to put part of their budget into coaching services? That’s an important piece, because you don’t learn it overnight, either. Everything we know about research about professional development, you can’t do it once and done. If you try to learn something new, you have to come back to it. You have to practice. You have to reflect on your practice. You have to get together with other people who are doing that and saying, “I tried this. It didn’t work completely the way I thought it would. Let’s talk about the lesson plan.”
You’ve described online learning as turning the teacher “from the sage on the stage to the guide by your side.” What does that mean to you specifically?
FACTOR: There’s a method where you come in, you review the homework from last night, you get a lecture about today, you answer a few questions, and you get started on tomorrow’s homework, which was the old way.
When you think about really engaging the kids and knowing them, part of it is, yes, how have they done in the online curriculum and having all of that data. That gives you an insight to the kids. But that face-to-face teacher-student relationship that takes place in person can’t be replicated by a computer. One of the obstacles to implementing technology in the classroom for many, many years was the fear that a teacher thought technology was going to take over their job. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need that teacher. You need somebody who can look the student in the eye and say, “I noticed that you didn’t do as well yesterday. Is everything OK at home?” or “Is there a concept you don’t understand?” The teacher’s gotta get underneath that and really have those conversations and continue to question and really peel back the layers of the onion to know what it is that’s keeping the student from progressing. There are a lot of folks who tout that their software can do that. I’m not sure I buy into that premise.
I think the blend of the very experienced teacher with software can be very, very powerful, and that’s ultimately what you need. Students aren’t often all that motivated to go to school. Why do they come to school in the first place? Mostly to see their friends, and because someone told them they had to go to school every day, and there’s an expectation of getting your diploma and graduating and accomplishing something for many or most kids. But that notion of keeping them engaged, and understanding why they’re disengaged, is critical.
One of the first Edgenuity classrooms that I visited after I joined the company happened to be a credit recovery situation—where a student fails a course and has to either repeat the course, or it looks like they’re going to fail a course, so they start the course over again with Edgenuity. And talking to the students, one of the kids said to me, “I don’t understand why I had to fail to learn this way.” It was so motivating to him that the computer was keeping pace with him, whatever his pace was. If he needed to go back and listen to a lesson over again, he could do that. He could rewind the video and listen to it until he comprehended it.
All of those kinds of things were very motivational to him, because when he was in the regular classroom, he would sit in the classroom and the teacher would be moving on at her pace and he’d be afraid to raise his hand and ask a question. He didn’t want to expose himself as somebody who didn’t get it. This kid’s thought was, “Why did I have to fail to learn this way?” And I’ve heard that story over and over again from kids who now suddenly feel like they’re accountable, but they’re learning because they’re accountable.
This story is part of our newly expanding K12 coverage. If you would like to subscribe to the Education Dive: K12 newsletter, click here. You may also want to read Education Dive's ISTE coverage of how 3 state education departments are embracing the future.