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What I learned this summer

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We all bring experience from outside work to our jobs. Three members of Stanford Digital Education share insights about online education they gained this summer.

From a seven-day hike to teaching a class to attending a conference, the activities enjoyed by Stanford Digital Education team members spurred new understandings of how we can make digital education more meaningful and accommodate new learners.

Below, Annie Sadler, Cindy Berhtram, and Mike Acedo share their respective stories.

Outward Bound inspires ideas for online learning

By Annie Sadler, project manager

Annie Sadler backpacking near Lake Superior in Minnesota in summer 2022.

This summer I set out to explore how Outward Bound creates a sense of community among its students and what lessons that may offer to digital education initiatives. 

I am a project manager at Stanford Digital Education, where I have been working to design and implement the evaluation strategy for our partnership with the National Education Equity Lab. This partnership puts for-credit Stanford classes in Title 1 high schools across the country, but it’s about more than academics. The program aims to provide students with the confidence to succeed in college.  One of the more challenging elements of designing the evaluation strategy was thinking about how to understand and support community building within the classrooms we work in. 

I worked this summer as a guest lead instructor at Voyageur Outward Bound, Twin Cities Campus (VOBS). This involved  leading a seven-day backpacking trip for the New York City chapter of The Fellowship Initiative (TFI), a program that provides intensive academic and leadership training to help young men of color from economically distressed communities complete their high school educations and better prepare them to excel in college. My assistant instructor, Abby, and I led seven 17-year-olds, all male, who had never been hiking, let alone backpacking, along the shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. 

Our trip started at lunch with students unloading from the bus from the airport after they left NYC at 6 a.m. We jumped right into our “duffle shuffle,” in which we unpack each item the student brought to figure out if they need something from the VOBS warehouse. It is a chaotic two hours in which you are trying to help each student set themselves up with what they need to be successful for the trip, including tents, food, and backpacks. While helping each student get their own set of gear and clothing, Abby and I all the while were giving out information on how these seemingly strange items help you in some future alien context, the backcountry. In many ways, the onboarding reminded me of a digital learning experience when we help each student troubleshoot their technology while you have other students just waiting for the next step. The entire group needs to get set up with each student individually prepared for what's to come. This was our first interaction with students, and we intentionally talked about how we are not done until we are all done. We emphasized the crew being done instead of individuals. 

The information overload continued after a four-hour bus ride north during which most of the students fell asleep. At our first campsite, we coached them on how to choose a spot and set up a tent, how to avoid ticks, what to do when there’s lightning, how to use the pit composting toilets, and how to wear the gear they’d been kitted out with. All this information needed to keep safe comes as a barrage for each of the students. So we are sure to have moments of silliness and play and wonder on this first day. We start building group traditions and rituals. That first night we ended with appreciations/noticings — a moment for everyone to share what they appreciated either about themselves, someone else, or the space we are in. Hearing appreciations about the lake and the stars — which are the brightest most of the students have ever seen — allows the swirling chaos of the day to be grounded in the experience of being so fully outside as a newly forming community. 

From there, the trip got harder, and my work as an educator truly began. My co-instructor Abby and I had developed a two-pronged educational plan. There was the layer of teaching the students how to exist in this new environment — how to wear their gear, how to cook with camping stoves, how to filter our water and more. On top of that we had a layer of teaching around three goals: building conflict management skills, goal setting, and community/vulnerability. This dual education plan is part of the reason why Outward Bound stands apart. 

The first morning kicked off with climbing and then went into backpacking that had each student carrying a heavy load over rugged terrain. Folks were feeling it. About .3 miles from the campsite, one of the students started to struggle and said he couldn’t make it any further. This is where OB allows for instructor freedom in teaching. Instead of Abby and I taking on the student’s extra weight that they were struggling to carry, we left it up to the group to decide what to do. The students came up with options that ranged from some folks go ahead and then come back, to let’s carry this student, to we can take the weight from the student so they can just carry an empty backpack. We encouraged students to think about themselves as a crew — we all need to get to the campsite as a group, and we need the gear that everyone carries. It spoke so highly of the students who were tired, hungry, and bug bitten that they decided to take gear from this student so he had a lighter backpack. They then made sure to flank him to make sure he was supported and felt he could make it to the campsite. 

There were very few moments when the pace was relaxed; instead there was this constant push for students to take on more responsibilities. As Abby and I stepped back from directing the pace of the course, students had to fill the gap, especially in pooling their shared knowledge. They had to work together to set up the bear hang correctly. They were collaborating on navigation decisions. After one student learned how to use the stoves, he’d take on teaching the next cook crew. They had to assume leadership.  

One of the memories I will carry with me from this trip is from one of the last nights. We had one of our longest days, and when we got to the camp the students fell apart. As they were in the later stages of the trip, Abby and I didn’t do anything to stop it. The students knew what needed to be done, but some decided to nap or stand around and chat while others tried to get the group to help with tasks. It was the backcountry equivalent of every failed group project. After a frustrating camp setup, Abby and I led a debrief to talk through what happened. The students used the conflict skills they had been taught to discuss their personal responsibility as well as other tools we taught them to share their frustrations with their fellow crew members and requests for change in behavior. Abby and I noted at the end that this is what being in community looks like: it can be frustrating and hard, and as a group you have to figure out how to deal with conflict and move forward. 

After the intense but clearing conversation we made dinner. We had a gorgeous fire under the Milky Way and did an activity called “Fears in the Fire.” We talked about college and this moment of transition that everyone was about to go through in their senior year. We asked everyone to write down a goal and a fear and then asked them to share whatever they felt comfortable sharing with the group. Each member of the crew shared their fear and their goal, and unprompted, everyone in the group responded with advice and empathy and reassurance. Then each student put their fears in the flames. It felt like a scene from a movie, and one of the moments I was really proud to create with my co-instructor. There is a formula: full bellies + stars + fire = folks more willing to share with each other. Still, that doesn’t mean it always happens. It was incredible to have students get to this point in six days! As one of the students shared, “We came in as boys from the big city, and we left as brothers.” 

When I had brought up the idea of working for Outward Bound to my manager, I expected to be rejected and told that this didn’t connect with our work. That had been my experience at past jobs in online education. Instead, this time around, I was told that, of course, this experience would contribute to the work that I do at Stanford. 

There are some straightforward benefits. Many of the students I worked with for VOBS were in the same schools where Stanford Digital Education is working. I came back so energized by being around the very students we are seeking to serve through our office. 

Still, Outward Bound and digital education have some obvious and significant differences. From a teaching and learning standpoint, I think about the role community played in setting the context of my OB students’ growth. The focus on the whole group needing to be somewhere, whether that meant hiking the same number of miles or everyone being on the same page emotionally, pushed every student to grow in every experience. In the digital learning space, one of the hardest parts of building community is that folks can check out and be distracted online in a way that it is physically impossible to on an OB trip. Furthermore, on an OB trip, it is clear what the goals are — it’s to get to the end of the trail — and then we layer in these other goals around vulnerability and team building. 

The digital equivalents were not immediately apparent to me before I did this outing, but I now think there is potential for digital learning to use a similar approach of community-grounded growth with clear shared goals and a transference of agency. Good college courses build intellectual community, and this is part of what makes college a different space than high school. Our office has been working to figure out how we bring that sense of intellectual community into our courses because how we build that into our courses for high school students is what helps prepare them to meet college-level expectations. Although we do not have the same physical and environmental pressures as an OB trip, if we push students to do more than they know what they are capable of intellectually, can we get them into the group mindset of we all need to end up in the same place? I am excited about the potential of framing the Stanford courses in high school as a community experience where you aren’t just there to do it alone, you have each other to help get there. By creating such a community, we can give more agency to the students to start directing their own intellectual experience; we can push them to believe, as Outward Bound likes to say, that  “we are crew, not passengers.”

Same course, new learnings post-pandemic

By Cindy Berhtram, associate director of project management 

Cindy Berhtram

About once a year, I immerse myself in teaching a highly personalized course on educational technology and media. This asynchronous online course is a part of the Master of Education program at Emmanuel College in Boston. Although the course is largely for current and aspiring K-12 teachers, I’ve also taught preschool teachers, higher education administrators, and faculty. I just wrapped up the fifth run of this course at the end of August, and was struck by the agility of educators as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and discover what impacts from it remain in our classrooms. 

Outside of my teaching role in this course, I’m the associate director of project management at Stanford Digital Education, where I manage the team’s diverse portfolio of digital education projects and just co-authored a report on emergency remote teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic at Stanford. During my more than 10 years working with technology in education, I’ve led complex, innovative projects ranging from building custom learning simulations in virtual worlds to overseeing the migration of course content to new platforms for content management and student engagement. I’ve managed educational technology and media toolkits for such institutions of higher education as the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

Through teaching this course, I am able to share all this experience designing and building meaningful educational experiences enriched by technology, and I gain a deeper connection with educational practitioners working in diverse settings. While exploring technology for teaching and learning, students in the course learn how to design inclusive and personalized instruction for diverse learner populations through Universal Design for Learning principles. Students create instructional infographics and educational videos for their students. They consider the ways the field of education might shape the future of technology. We also discuss the role of the educator in safeguarding students’ data, and in teaching students how to be thoughtful citizens of this digital world. 

This course is completely different every time it’s run, despite the fact that the same frameworks and learning activities are included each time. That’s because, in part, the educational technology landscape changes so rapidly. To help students cope with this ever-in-flux subject, I focus on teaching frameworks for evaluating educational technology for meaningful implementation in the classroom rather than on specific technologies. Students learn how to research technologies for pedagogical fit, and also for data security, accessibility, and supportability. The tools that students decide to research and practice using are different each time I teach, highlighting the importance of teaching how to research, evaluate, and implement technologies rather than on how to use specific technologies. This year, the student cohort was particularly interested in technologies to help with language learning, to provide equitable, personalized access to instructional content to diverse learners, and to manage communication with students’ families.

This past summer, as in years past, I shared a case study involving inappropriate use of student data by an ed tech company, and introduced data privacy and security frameworks. Students in the course are then tasked with researching a platform of their choice for data privacy and security. Although I always expect this to be one of the more dry tasks assigned in the course, the introduction of the importance of safeguarding learner data resonates with many. Students in the course take their detective roles very seriously for this assignment, and this year was no different in that respect. This year, though, students in the course had witnessed Zoom-bombing firsthand, and had experienced rapid and sometimes poorly-thought-out implementations of educational technologies during the pandemic. I was struck by the great weight this activity carried for this particular group of learners. 

 Another key reason the course changes so much from year to year is the students and the experience they bring to it. I have watched the evolution of my students’ relationship with educational technology in the course discussions. Prior to 2020, I always had a few folks completely new to Zoom and Google Docs. That’s no longer the case. The general level of comfort with technology, and in adaptability to new technology, has increased. Students’ mindsets about educational technology have shifted as well. These were once tools used to supplement classroom instruction, but during the pandemic became the sole means of instruction in most cases. The newly central role of educational technology in my students’ lives meant that the discussions took on a new heft. In the summer 2020 cohort of this course, for example, students shared far more than their coursework. They provided each other a safe place for support and the sharing of ideas. Together, they unraveled the complexity of the ways the role of educators and of educational technology changed, and of how to ensure equity in their students’ learning experiences. 

Many of the latest summer 2022 cohort, being generally earlier in their careers, had experienced life as students during emergency remote instruction. They are of a generation of teachers who will have had much of their teacher education completed during and after the sea change that was pandemic-caused emergency remote instruction. There is no question that educational technology, and digital education more broadly, will continue to evolve, sometimes seemingly overnight, in ways we can’t predict. These students are now ready to call on themselves to be teachers within this new paradigm — as protectors of student data, as content creators, as ed tech detectives, as empathetic instructors of diverse learners — but, most of all, as ongoing learners with the tools to continuously innovate in their teaching practice.

Creating pathways from school to work

By Mike Acedo, project manager

Mike Acedo

Today’s students face an ever-growing cost of a college education, an increased time commitment, and unclear career paths once earning a degree. Institutions of learning are now faced with a new challenge: to accept that for many students, a four-year degree is an expensive and sometimes out-of-reach commitment that many choose to opt out of. As such, it is becoming increasingly apparent that institutions must reach students earlier in their educational journeys, and provide them with opportunities to get ahead in their higher education and career development before they reach college. 

As a project manager with Stanford Digital Education, I have been focusing on exploring ways that Stanford can help create new digital pathways for underrepresented students to gain experiences in school that guide them toward a career as well as a meaningful education. We have had some success in working with the National Education Equity Lab to create dual enrollment pathway programs, which are targeted to students oriented to high academic achievement. However, we are well aware that many other students need alternatives.

This summer, I set out to learn more about how universities, community colleges, and K-12 institutions are partnering and innovating along with workforce development organizations to support students who are not inclined to go to college. How are these institutions collaborating to help propel such students into life-changing careers?

In June 2022, I attended the Achieving the Dream: K-12 Partnerships Institute conference in Portland, Oregon. This event examined ways to increase access and equity in dual enrollment and early college programs to learners across the country. Over the three-day conference, I met educators, administrators, and members of various organizations from across the country and education spectrum. Whether from a community college in Ohio, a high school in Los Angeles, or a workforce development agency in Oakland, they all lamented the increasing number of students who, instead of pursuing a higher education, are choosing to enter the workforce directly out of high school without a clear pathway toward a rewarding career. These students believe that pursuing a college degree will put them into debt and that it won’t necessarily lead to a prosperous job. This is especially true for learners from underserved communities, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who feel the pressure to work and provide for their families. 

Organizations like Linked Learning are pioneering new ways of approaching this dilemma. They are emphasizing the importance of “and” when thinking about education solutions for learners. This means focusing simultaneously on educational and career preparation to equip students with the skills and knowledge to pursue a wide range of opportunities, whether that be trade school, college, or other credentials. Traditionally, the majority of U.S. students have been faced with an “or'' situation — choosing between education or immediate economic opportunity. What’s more, these students are expected to decide their path before even graduating high school. Linked Learning is partnering with employers, community colleges, and school districts to integrate curriculum that leads to hands-on learning experiences with employers through job shadowing, apprenticeships, and internships. This is all done while also providing students with career and college counseling that prepares them for programs that lead to development of in-demand skills in emerging job markets such as energy, agricultural science, engineering, information technology, health care, and more. Regardless of the pathway or sector, programs facilitated through Linked Learning are providing students with transparency and connection between their education and how it can apply in the real world. 

Another organization that is trying to reduce the lack of clear direction for underserved students is West Ed, a San Francisco–based research, development, and service organization. It’s reimagining how students connect skills to community college programs and employment opportunities. West Ed recognizes that while some college majors have direct pathways to employment, many programs, such as humanities, may not have a clear path to work. West Ed’s mission is to provide students, parents, and counselors with open source tools that connect K-12 students to community college pathways that align with skills needed for the labor market. 

West Ed takes regional employer market data in California, identifies the major skills required of those jobs, and connects them with competencies that are gained from major academic groups such arts & humanities, social sciences, and STEM. Through its innovative Opportunity Maps, West Ed is able to highlight and customize the relationships between community college programming and the skills needed to enter regional job markets. Its goal is for all K-12 and higher ed institutions to design programming with skills and career opportunities in mind. The program highlights how students who have clear career goals are more likely to persist in their programs than those who don’t. It also stresses that employers tend to value skills as much as degrees in many sectors. 

By the end of the conference, I was more convinced that Stanford has a role to play in promoting career readiness as well as college prep. Partnerships with universities, community colleges, workforce development groups, and employers are crucial in identifying and developing cohesive and accessible tracks for students to follow toward academic success and career opportunities. A combination of workforce partnerships, internships, skill-mapping technology, and collaboration between higher ed institutions and K-12 districts is crucial in strengthening the connection between an impactful education and a successful career. Without evolving to meet these needs, we are dooming many students  to have to choose between an education or immediate economic opportunity. There is a world where students can have both.

Published Oct. 12, 2022

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