Are new software platforms revving the engine of competency-based blended learning? This week, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) released a comprehensive summary of Spark, a new platform built by the team at Matchbook Learning to help one of the schools it operates, Merit Prep, realize its goal of supporting blended and competency-based learning. The report looks at how Spark came about and where it may be headed in the coming years. The new tool is certainly exciting in and of itself, but it also reflects broader activity in the still relatively slim overlap of blended and competency-based approaches on the ground.
As I wrote about nearly a year ago, technology tools still lag some of the aspirations of competency-based and blended school systems. Yet Spark now joins a small but growing set of software programs designed to help competency-based schools that are using a variety of online learning programs to deliver blended instruction. Products like Project Foundry, Empower (by Educate), JumpRope, Engrade, and Buzz (powered by Agilix) orchestrate tasks like content delivery, assessment, and data dashboards in schools pursuing blended learning and competency-based education in various capacities. Other school systems are even turning to Salesforce for Education, which doesn’t offer the same real-time assessment data or online learning content delivery as those mentioned above, but does allow for individual scheduling and tracking of student information in a more competency-based manner.
All of these platforms are trying to tackle new challenges that educators face as they wade into the blended and competency-based spaces. Not only do blended learning educators want students to enjoy a seamless online learning experience, but they also want up-to-date information on how students are performing in online work to inform what they teach offline. And to make these blended learning experiences fit into a competency-based progression, educators also want to be able to track student mastery on an individual basis, and advance students to new or more challenging material when they prove ready. This means that a platform may need to deliver online assessment on an on-demand basis and to track individual student progress across standards and competencies.
When I first started writing about the overlap of competency-based and blended learning approaches, I thought that the missing piece of the puzzle was a platform like Spark (or those others listed here) that could do all of the above. With the right architecture, a sophisticated platform could be the keystone that clicks competency-based assessment and blended instructional approaches into place. But as the NGLC report alludes to, the challenge facing schools like Merit Prep is not just building a best in class software platform with lots of features and functionalities. In fact, one of the greatest challenges is how this platform stands to interact with third-party online content providers.
We sometimes call this “data integration”—that is, the capacity of a platform (or more often, a human data manager or analyst) to bring together data from disparate online learning programs to create a clear, real-time picture of where a student is excelling and struggling. Integration between a platform and online learning programs will depend on various programs opening up their API’s to allow platform providers to build seamless connections or “exports” between the content provider and the platform. It will also depend on data coming out of online learning programs to be reported out in a coherent, standardized language—if data from different programs is tagged in an inconsistent manner, educators won’t be able to compare student performance across different programs.
But we might better call this sticking point “data cooperation”—that is, the willingness of third-party content providers not only to share their data automatically with platform providers, but also to sign onto common standards (or even microstandards) that would make the data coming out of their programs comparable to data coming out of other programs. Of course, in the short term, for content providers, this may feel like ceding competitive advantage. But as Alex Hernandez and I discussed in a paper earlier this year, demand for content providers to cooperate only stands to grow to the point that those unwilling to cooperate may lose a competitive edge down the line.
As the NGLC report described, “the [Matchbook] team worked for many months to convince providers that even though Merit Prep was a small school, creating a data export for Spark would ultimately blaze the path for other schools to make similar requests.” If data cooperation is the elephant in the room, then the more platforms like Spark that begin to emerge, the more we’ll be forced to talk about how to achieve more seamless integration and cooperation. Only with the right contracts and interfaces to import clear, high-quality, standardized, and real-time data will new platforms powering blended learning competency-based schools truly realize their potential.