How do you prepare students for the future when you are an expert in the past? Listen to others and question everything. That’s what Mary Moss Brown and Alisa Berger did when they created the iSchool in New York City. They engaged partners like Cisco to help them question their assumptions, and transform learning.
Schools around the world struggle with how to prepare students for a changing society and what role technology should play. School systems designed for success in the past create students who take a passive approach to learning. Students have adopted technology in their personal lives, but it has made little difference in their academic lives. Yet, success as adults depends on their ability to complete college, develop skills for 21st century jobs, and adapt constantly changing technology tools to their needs.
In 2008, Mary and Alisa became co-principals of a small school as part of a New York City public schools initiative to rethink teaching and learning. Students at the NYC iSchool still had to pass the New York State Regents exam and cover required content, but the principals had wide latitude to develop curriculum, schedule classes, hire teachers, and select students to achieve the goal. They began by asking “why?” and “what if?” about everything.
“There are the externally imposed challenges: deadlines, testing, and other requirements,” said Mary, “but what’s even more challenging are the rules that you’ve put in your own head. You forget that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.”
Alisa and Mary knew that technology had to play a role in any modern learning environment. In their view, the vision and goals of the school have to be clearly defined prior to making technology decisions. They committed to only adopt tools when there was a clear connection to that vision.
The co-principals partnered with the school district’s Division of Instructional and Information Technology (DIIT) and technology companies like Cisco to push instructional technology beyond its current implementation. DIIT welcomed the fresh approach. “We teamed with the iSchool and looked at what they wanted to do, listening carefully to their needs,” said Dr. Katherine Tsamasiros, senior IT governance officer.
“The goal was for students and teachers to have the ability to grab the right tools for tasks as needed, so we enabled online courseware created by the iSchool, implemented a VDI [virtual desktop interface] solution, and expanded the network and wireless coverage to allow for access anywhere, irrespective of device,” said Katherine. “When we designed the physical learning environment we considered more natural ways for students and teachers to collaborate. We thought about how they use different technology devices in classrooms, the park, college libraries, kids’ bedrooms, and Starbucks. We were pushing beyond the technological limits of what most learning environments looked like at the time.”
Members of Cisco’s executive and global education teams acted as sounding boards to help school leaders define their vision, providing perspective as business leaders, community members, and parents. “Cisco came to us saying we don’t have the answers,” recalls Mary. “They said, ‘we want to listen and help. What do you need? How can we partner? How can we help?’ They asked questions that pushed our thinking, like why do you have to have 45-minute periods?”
Cisco offered facilities for planning sessions, retreats, and parent meetings prior to the opening of the school. They introduced iSchool leaders to other innovative educators working on similar initiatives around the world.
At the iSchool, technology supports individualization and collaboration – among students, families, teachers, and outside experts. Traditional class scheduling, for example, is turned upside-down. The iSchool uses online tools, a student interest survey, and a quarterly review of each student’s progress to schedule courses based on student demand. A member of the administrative team, using an interactive flash-based tool, schedules students one at time, based on requirements and preference.
A virtual desktop creates a seamless experience for students, based on login, not device. They learn at their own pace, accessing online courses an assignments for their face-to-face courses. Laptop carts, netbooks, desktops, high-end computers, and kiosks for group work offer a range of access throughout the school. The result goes beyond a one-to-one computer-to-student ratio to ubiquitous access.
A learning management system (LMS) provides one place for students and instructors to find all coursework, assignments, and resources, including videos of classroom lessons. The content and curricula are owned by the school to be reused, revised, and maintained long after teachers begin new courses or leave the school.
Teachers developed unique, challenge-based modules to engage students in meaningful, relevant learning experiences that teach big ideas and valuable skills. The 9-week, intensive, interdisciplinary courses use Voice over IP and video conferencing technology to connect students and classrooms to experts who provide instruction and critique.
“We are constantly reimagining and redesigning modules based on what’s happening in the world,” explains Francesca Fay, an English teacher. “We build 21st century skills by thinking about what’s relevant, what’s happening. When I taught a module on constitutional law where students worked on a court case decision, we invited actual lawyers to critique their work.”
A dedicated technology faculty includes a technician who makes sure everything is available, and a technology coordinator who supports instruction by identifying new tools, training teachers, and attending class during initial use. A student technology squad provides additional support as interns.
In 2008, the iSchool opened with 100 ninth grade students, selected from 1500 applicants who completed an online admissions activity. The principals looked for independent learners who would thrive in a different kind of school.
Mary recalls one student who began ninth grade reading below grade level; he was slow to complete written exams and considered a special needs student. “In other high schools, you can’t move on to more interesting classes until you master core curriculum,” said Mary. “He was very talented in technology and engineering from a hands-on perspective. He’s a great talker and public speaker. All of the challenge-based courses where he worked with outsiders really mattered to him. It boosted his confidence when he struggled on exams.” During his college interview, he tapped into the confidence and experience he developed at the iSchool, and was accepted by the end of the meeting.
Mary and Alisa took a radical approach to teacher selection as well. They looked for “teachers of students, not subjects.” Student scheduling and interdisciplinary courses required flexible teachers who could easily move from one course to another, who felt comfortable creating curriculum and sharing it in the school LMS.
In 2013, the iSchool was awarded an "A" by the School Quality Review process, and the first class of students graduated with high honors and aspirations:
According to Katherine, the success of the iSchool technology model changed the way DIIT works with schools. “We developed a menu of options that worked and could be adopted where appropriate,” she said. “It did permeate and have a lasting influence in how we deliver IT and how we do our strategic planning. Technology is available as needed. It doesn’t define the environment.”
Though founding principals Mary and Alisa have both moved out of the area and become educational consultants, the iSchool continues to thrive, innovate, and improve on their vision. “The founders of the iSchool were given a challenge: to create a school for the 21st century,” said current Principal Isora Bailey. “We believe that school should be real world relevant. We believe that students should be given choice and responsibility. And we believe that school should be developmentally appropriate.”
Mary explains: “We created a lot of capacity with the teachers to guide and mentor each other. We saved planning materials in the LMS, and those plans are our public work. Several assistant principals who were teachers had the opportunity to step up.”
To encourage educators to rethink schools, Mary and Alisa have developed a guide for other school users, based on the iSchool model: How to Innovate: The Essential Guide for Fearless School Leaders.