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Design Thinking With the California Department of Education

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How can California bring high-impact learning technologies into classrooms?  Karen Holst has been working on this issue.  She is an education technology fellow with the California Department of Education (CDE), brought from the private sector through the Fuse Corps program and the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation.

Prior to joining the state, Holst co-founded MyEdu, an academic and careers platform that helps students complete college and find internships and jobs using a suite of free tools and rich academic data.  MyEdu, endorsed by a number of major higher education institutions, is used by millions of students at more than 800 campuses nationwide and has since been acquired by Blackboard.  /ctk

By Karen Holst

I have spent the last few months talking to California educators about digital resources and heard the same story over and over again.  

It goes like this:  Mrs. Jones is teaching 4th grade math and wants to incorporate new digital resources into her classroom.  With a quick Internet search, she finds thousands of websites providing piles of resources and is overwhelmed with all the choices, leaving her with more questions than answers.  Should she go with an interactive game or engaging video?  What would be most effective for her students?  Where do other California math teachers go for Common Core State Standards aligned resources?  She is inspired by all the new ways to teach in the classroom but she doesn't have time to vet the various options. 

Karen Holst photo.jpgThis scenario is repeated across California and across the country.  When it comes to digital resources, the issue is not about making more resources available or curating all of them through a new website.  It is about a bigger challenge: addressing educator needs by putting them first in designing the solution. 

Introduction to Design Thinking

For a little background, design thinking is an approach to problem solving, focused on the overlap of identifying people's needs, technological feasibility, and an organization's strategy.  In the education technology sector, I have seen design thinking solve complex problems.

The company I came from used design thinking to understand and solve student needs.  We built online tools, empowering millions of college students to become engineers of their education, creating course schedules and degree plans that led to on-time graduation and successful career placement.  I have seen design thinking work in the private sector, but how can we incorporate this method in the public sector? 

We need to.  We want to.  But can we?

The California Department of Education has a fantastic opportunity to apply education technology to transform student learning.  State Superintendent Tom Torlakson issued Empowering Learning: California Education Technology Blueprint, 2014 - 2017, and the department is working to implement the plan.

To achieve the report's lofty goal's, we must use innovative thinking to create the right solutions, moving beyond the typical public sector barriers of organizational culture and procurement process.  Public education is not naturally set up to encourage innovation, let alone its rapid adoption, in a way that can transform outcomes at scale.  Additionally, the state lacks a robust research and development infrastructure in education technology, making it an environment hungry for human-centered design solutions. 

Armed with this awareness, I was ready to start my first assigned project as a fellow with the California Department of Education: improve an existing web tool, called "Brokers of Expertise," and provide California educators with digital resources and online professional development.  But what value can we add in a crowded marketplace with very thoughtful people and organizations already looking to solve the same challenges? 

Step 1:  Build collective knowledge across public and private sectors

For all intents and purposes, this project was a startup for the Department - starting at the bottom of the unknown, looking upward to solve a very important need.  This required a new approach; we must place the educators as the designers and focus on efforts to increase their individual and collective capacity, to accelerate student success.

The design thinking started informally by defining the problem and considering options. We did this through conversations with classroom teachers and school administrators as well as private companies and nonprofit organizations already working in the education technology space.

We also found a great deal of value in talking to other state agencies about their approach in providing tools to their state educators.  Additionally, we valued conversations with the Learning Registry, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Defense, in creating a set of technical protocols as a platform for innovation by content authors and aggregators.  Across the board we saw a great deal of passion and drive around creating solutions.  We learned a great deal from these conversations but knew to learn more, we needed to test against something real and move out of the theoretical. 

Step 2:  Accelerate development process and allow for rigorous evaluation 

In just three months, we launched the beta Digital Chalkboard (launched October 7, 2014), an online tool for California educators to collaborate and access over 300,000 digital resources and professional development opportunities.  This short-term project focused on improving site performance, increasing the number of digital resources, and creating a platform to collect knowledge of what educators really need.

We believed in accelerating the development to get the solution to educators, and allow for feedback and iterations.  We resisted investing in new functionality or succumbing to trendy, unproven features - we put something out there to test against.  We wanted to avoid the trap of creating a tool that educators do not want or need and assuming if we build it, they will come.

Next Steps:  Redesign the system with educator-focused solutions

Having launched Digital Chalkboard, we will now accelerate learning through the website and concentrate on the second phase: focusing on user feedback - listening and learning.  We will work across the private and public sectors to embark on a user-centered design journey and approach the challenge with educators at the helm, addressing the issues they are facing.  The solution will continue to evolve with the end goal to create a tool that leads to widespread adoption of high-impact learning technologies throughout California.

The scope of this endeavor is massive, and the potential impact pervasive.  The time to embark on this journey is now.  We have the opportunity to effectively work through, not despite, public sector nuances.  Through cross-sector conversations and educator-centered design thinking, we can and will work together to re-envision solutions for digital learning.

A closing note: Holst and her collaborators are eager for teacher feedback about Digital Chalkboard.  Please visit the site and send responses using the comments feature at the end of this post.

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