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Changing Learning: The Making of the Learning Genome Project

|Posted originally on Dreams of Education on October 29, 2012|

I come from a family of entrepreneurs. If it doesn’t exist or it can be done better, that is what you do. This mind-set can be a bit of a curse…once I get an idea in my head, it is like a broken record that plays over and over until I do something about it. My dad is prime example of this, he started Koostik with a styrofoam cup and an iPhone. Once the idea was there, it stayed until he saw it realized…in this case that means a growing company and product in Restoration Hardware and Red Envelope. He is awesome.

For me this process started as I dug through curriculum and worked to supplement it with technology tools. The idea was to “fill” the gaps with technology tools that would make the curriculum work better for students. As I went through publisher after publisher, I started realizing that the problem wasn’t a lack of technology (if you have read this blog for any amount of time, you know that is a BIG realization for me). The real problem was that we were trying to address the needs of an incredibly diverse population of kids with a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The troubling thing for me was that I sat on the committees that made the curriculum decisions. I was sold (just like everyone else) on the premise that these curricula had “differentiated” instruction. I have come to hate that term. You know what it means? It means that curriculum companies can sell more curriculum because they add in a highlighted section that says “differentiation!” and gives a one-size bigger or one-size smaller approach to the exact same problem. As I went through all of this curriculum, I couldn’t shake the feeling that adding in a bit of technology wasn’t going to solve the problem.

As a computer teacher, I taught 435 students every week. I taught the same 435 kids for 6 years. I saw them grow up, learned what made them tick, watched the frustration grow when they didn’t understand a learning objective. These kids were amazing. They were brilliant. They all had strengths and weaknesses that made them special. They all have a different understanding and approach to the world. We were stripping all of that uniqueness away and making them learn everything the same. We were expecting that they would learn the same things, the same way, and at the same time. Ludicrous! Nothing in life or growth and development happens this way, and yet that is what our education system is built on? This was really troubling for me. I couldn’t shake that it shouldn’t be that way.

In 2010 I took a year away from teaching for health reasons. During that year, I acted as an educational consultant for many area schools. This period of time re-emphasized those stirrings that I was having about education. This curriculum wasn’t working because it assumed too much sameness. I saw brilliant, gifted kids losing their passions because it wouldn’t get them into the swanky private high school (that looked just like every other school). How sad that we ask kids to give up their areas of gifting to get to the next level of learning. Something is wrong! One day I was working my way through curriculum, supplementing the holes with technology tools. I was listening to Pandora Internet radio. A song came on that I had never heard before, by an artist that was also new to me. I frantically searched for something to write on so that I could remember this new find. I remember thinking, “how amazing that we have come to a place in history where we can use technology to predict something as personal as music.” I was truly amazed that I could put in one piece of information and through a series of algorithms, Pandora could predict other music I would like. If it can work with music, surely it could work with curriculum.

This was the birth of that niggling thought that wouldn’t go away. This was the beginning of the Learning Genome Project. I had recently been introduced to a programmer (@ianchia) through@Doremigirl on Twitter. Ian and I had shared many conversations about what education apps could look like. This time it was my turn to ask a question. I wanted to know if it was possible to program what was in my head. ”Well of course.” Ian introduced me to some wireframing tools and I was off and running. Over the next months, I dreamed up how the Learning Genome would work. I thought about the students that I wanted something better for. I thought about the frustrations I had as a teacher. I dreamed about a tool that would make the whole process easier.

Teachers share something in common: we all want the very best for our students. There are a few problems with this. First, we don’t always get to choose what we will teach. Many times our school or district hands us the curriculum and says, “go.” This is not conducive to doing the best we know how for every child. Second, we don’t always know that there is a tool/lesson/resource out there that could make all the difference for each student. Third, we have a limited time to search for that perfect tool/lesson/resource. A lot of system problems to overcome. If Pandora can do this for music, I can do it for education.

I started researching how Pandora works, what happens in the background that makes my experience possible? Pandora is called the Music Genome Project because it used the Human Genome Project as its inspiration. In the Human Genome Project, genes are mapped out. In the Music Genome Project, the “genes” of music are mapped out. I called my version the Learning Genome Project. Together, we will map the genes of education, those attributes that help us find commonalities that match the right content to each student at the right time.

First, we need to collect information about the learner. If we don’t know the learner, we can’t know what content best fits their needs. This is, in short, the best student information system ever.

Next, we have to know enough about the school and the classroom to make recommendations. It does us no good to recommend an iDevice app if the school has no access to that device.

We also have to know something about the lead learner (the teacher).

After we have the profile information, it is critical to know where students are in their learning. What needs to be learned? This is the individualized learning plan…each student has one.

From within the ILP, teachers, students and parents can create and have input on the learning goals. These learning goals inform what happens in the hub of the genome.

When the learning goal has been identified, the genome “hub” comes into play. This is where resources (lessons, videos, apps, experiments, activities, etc.) are matched and recommended for the student. Much like Pandora, a learning channel is created.

Teachers (and students) can expand the results to view more information about the recommendation. From here it can be added to teacher and student planners, and materials for the curriculum can be selected.

Teachers can see all student assignments within their planner. Here they can create groups for overlaps of student learning. They can also create whole-class events.

After a student completes an activity, they record it within their ePortfolio. This is all completely integrated. Within the portfolio they can keep notes, documents, pictures, video and badges. Badges help students have a bread trail of where they have been in their learning. Portfolio’s are forever associated with a student, from year to year it travels and grows with them. Students can also have the option of downloading their portfolio for offline viewing.

In addition to portfolios and planners, the Learning Genome Project includes wiki, blog and photo tools.

Community tools keep students, teachers and parents in collaboration.

My brother and I had many of the same teachers growing up. We are very different people with 5 years separating us. My favorite teachers were not his. We had very similar experiences, the same outstanding teachers. But some teachers connected better with me than him. How do we help every child have influence of a “favorite” teacher? I created Twitacad. Even if that teacher isn’t in the child’s school, there is a blended learning component that makes that connection possible.

Twitacad offers teachers and students a platform for sharing, communicating, and learning. It is all tied in to the Learning Genome. Everything works together. Virtual teachers are listed as teachers for parents, students and other teachers to interact with.

The Learning Genome Project has assessment tools built-in. Assessment is based on mastery of a skill or concept. This is directly related to what is happening in the student portfolio so that students, teachers and parents can view evidences of the learning.

How does content, resources, tools, lessons, apps, videos, etc. get into the genome? It gets tagged with its learning attributes by incredible teachers around the world like you. We all contribute to this project and we all benefit from it.

The hub (resource aggregation) portion of the Genome is free to everyone. Every child deserves an education tailored to them. Additional portions of the Learning Genome Project (planners, ePortfolios, blogs, wikis, Twitacad) will be a subscription based service.

The Learning Genome Project is not curriculum. It is a sorting tool that pulls the best options for every child. Teachers will be able to sort results based on price, Bloom’s Taxonomy level, standard, subject, and type of resource. This will tell you what curricular resources will best meet every child’s needs. Every time a resource is used, it gets rated by both student and teacher. Resources that are highest rated will be recommended first.

This is truly a quick overview of the Learning Genome project. There are so many intricacies and features that will make it revolutionary to education. The one hang up? I need help funding it! Sure, I could go and get some venture capitalists to fund it. The problem: I want the force that drives what happens to the Learning Genome Project to be what is best for kids…not what best impacts the bottom line. I believe that if we all put a little into this project, that we can create something revolutionary. We can all have a part in transforming education for the world.

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