2015 Inspiration in Educational Innovation Award Recipients

I am delighted to announce Etale’s 2015 Inspiration in Educational Innovation Award recipients. They are recognized on Etale.org and also issued an accompanying digital badge thanks to the service provided by our friends at Credly.com. Amid many good and important innovations in education over the past year, this is an opportunity to recognize some truly inspirational ones. The 2015 recipients represent people and organizations that are not only accomplishing important work in the field of education, but they are also inspiring others, having a potential multiplying effect in future years.  Close to two-hundred potential candidates were considered for this award, reviewing them in light of the three criteria listed below. The recipients for this year each stood out as inspirations for those of us who aspire to blend the spirit of the entrepreneur with a noble and compelling vision for education.

The Inspiration in Educational Innovation (IEI) award is granted to a maximum of 7 people or organizations who / that demonstrated inspiration in educational innovation over the past year. They did this by aligning a compelling education vision with one or more innovative approaches or models to making that vision a reality. Their work is an inspiration to others who aspire to make a substantive and tangible impact in the field of education.

The criteria for the award are:

1. Involves an educational program, organization, product, book, viral idea, service or community with a clear and compelling vision that nurtures:

  • curiosity,
  • a love of learning,
  • agency / self-directed learning / empowering learners,
  • character (or non-cognitive skills),
  • a sense of hope, calling and purpose,
  • and/or expanding access and opportunity.

2. Challenged existing conventions in education, leveraging innovation to support one or more core conviction(s) and make the vision a reality. It is not just educational innovation. It is mission-driven educational innovation.

3. The organization inspires other people to pursue similar or related high-impact, mission-minded educational innovations. The work is multiplying through the direct efforts of the recipient or indirectly, inspiring independent and new efforts.

The 2015 recipients are:

Acton Academy

  • Criteria Highlights – curiosity, love of learning, human agency, character, and calling
  • Compelling Why -Laura Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, explained the compelling why this way. “Jeff and I started Acton Academy with the most compelling “why” of all — our own children. They were curious and fun and resilient, and we wanted to let that grow naturally. So we built the community around agency, clear boundaries, and each young person’s individual hero’s journey. The joy of watching other parents, motivated by the same thing, launch their own learner-driven communities, has been icing on the cake.”As with other recipients for 2015, Acton Academy is not new, but it represents a compelling vision for and approach to K-12 education that continues to gain traction, with new academies starting throughout the United States and beyond. In a time when many schools are shaped by testing and ever-changing regulations, Acton Academy stands out as learner-centered community shaped by a compelling vision. In the words of Jeff Sandefer at the 2015 SXSWEdu, “What if? What if children are far more capable than we imagined? What if children could share learning with each other in a tightly bound community? What if they could find a deep, burning need in their hearts to meet a deep burning need in the world?”


  • Criteria Highlights – human agency, self-directed learning, access & opportunity
  • Compelling Why – Bodo Hoenen and a team of social innovators have a vision for autonomous learning around the world. Dev4X is about “Empowering all children, including the most underserved, to improve their lives and their future through learning.” This team wants to create a future where, “every child can learn anything they need, even if they don’t have access to formal schooling.” This calls for the design of hardware, a software platform, and access to learning resources (content) that lend themselves toward peer-to-peer learning, self-directed learning (or autonomous learning), and what Sugata Mitra coined as Self-organized Learning Environments. In the words of Hoenen, “There are more than 50 million children who don’t have access to education and more than 650 million who may have access but are not even getting a basic education. Without radically changing our approach UNESCO estimates we will only reach them by 2086. We can change that!”


  • Criteria Highlights – self-directed learning & agency, access & opportunity
  • Compelling Why – Degreed, founded by David Blake, “represents a vision to to find, track, and recognize ALL learning.” It serves as an important aspect of an even larger personal mission by Blake to, “help create an educational system that will drive the cost of learning to zero, promote universal access to education, create meaningful indicators of personal educational outcomes and success, help organize meaningful curricula and establish interoperable standards, restructure the physical learning environment, and enable a measured and meaningful system for lifelong learning.” Imagine a learning platform that extends across organizations, recognizes formal and informal learning, honors diverse learning pathways, and is more interested in expertise itself than unnecessarily prescribed steps taken to get there. In the words of their new tagline, “the future doesn’t care how you became an expert.”

Getting Smart

  • Criteria Highlights – They cover the full range of core concepts associated with this award.
  • Compelling Why – The Getting Smart blog is a go-to source for anyone interested in getting and staying informed about educational innovation and the possibilities for education in an increasingly connected world. As important, they create a community and important conversations around ideas and developments that matter in education. The team at Getting Smart provides a myriad of consulting and design services capable of amplifying the desired impact of individuals, education startups, professional organizations, and P-20 learning organizations. The team is an impressive blend of cutting edge thought-leadership and doers. In other words, they have the capacity to explore the ideas, but also to turn those ideas into educational results and high-impact experiences. As explained by Catherine Wedgwood at Getting Smart, “We are a mission driven organization centered on maintaining the same belief we had when we first launched: that excellence and equity in education are the most important issues for the American economy and society, and it’s our responsibility to make a positive impact. Through personal and professional experiences, our team is dedicated to improving the education landscape for future generations. Utilizing our blog and social media presence, we will continue working to share our own and other education leaders’ thoughts and ideas on innovations in learning and teaching.”

Most Likely to Succeed

  • Criteria Highlights – human agency, non-cognitive skills, curiosity & a love of learning, access & opportunity
  • Compelling Why – In 2015, Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner published Most Likely to Succeed, a compelling insight into what it looks like to prepare young people for “the innovation era.” With Dintersmith taking the lead, Most Likely to Succeed was also turned into a compelling educational documentary that is being screened around the United States, provoking incredible conversation and opening people’s eyes to the many promising possibilities for what school can look like in the 21st century, and how these new visions for schooling can prepare young people for the contemporary world. You can follow Dintersmith’s work in this area on his blog where he catalogs his fifty-state tour. The work around Most Likely to Succeed represents one of the most exciting and promising recent efforts to ignite a national conversation and widespread re-imagination of K-12 education.

Renton Prep Christian School

  • Criteria Highlights – curiosity, love of learning, human agency, character, calling
  • Compelling Why – Creativity, humility, interdependency, resolve, simplicity and transformation. These are the ideals that shape the vision for education at the newly started Renton Prep Christian School, a high school that grew out of an already compelling, distinct and successful elementary school. This is a school rich with project-based learning, blended learning, inquiry-based learning, and where learners work together to creative deep and engaging learning experiences. Recently declared a Microsoft Showcase School, Renton Prep is also at the forefront of imagining the possibilities of emerging educational technology and STEM education, including recent and emerging work around virtual reality.

Wayfinding Academy

  • Criteria Highlights – purpose & calling, human agency, access & opportunity
  • Compelling Why – “The Wayfinding Academy is forging a different kind of college. By stretching students with a curiosity- and community-driven education, we envision a world where each person lives life on purpose.” After a successful crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo, Michelle Jones and a founding team started their journey toward the launch of a new type of college that is focused upon helping people discover their passion and purpose. This is the youngest of innovations in the list of recipients, representing a compelling vision for a new college in Portland, Oregon, but also providing a vision and sense of the possibilities for new and similar higher education alternatives around the world. Along the way, Wayfinding Academy is also tackling the affordability issue in higher education.

Thank you to the leaders and contributors of these important and inspiring innovations in education!

The Top 10 Etale Articles in 2015

At the end of each year, I enjoy reviewing the interest garnered by different Etale articles and topics. In 2015, I published almost 200 new articles on topics ranging from educational policy to educational philosophy, blended learning to self-directed learning, reviews of education companies to education startups, analyzing the impact of new innovations to the impact of changing education policies and regulations.

While there are some of the articles that gain the most visitors come from years ago, the one written in 2015 led to a record number of visitors. This year exceeded 100,000 visitors and hundreds of new subscribers. These subscribers come from higher education, k-12 education, think tanks, policymakers, CEO of education startups and established companies, consultants, designers, and a growing number of entrepreneurial-minded parents. With such a diverse group of visitors, it is no surprise that the top 10 articles published in 2015 covered a wide range of topics.

#10 – Why the Higher Learning Commission Has the Wrong Measure for “Qualified Faculty” – Coming in at the 10th most popular Etale article published in 2015 is one about educational policy, something that garnered more of my attention in this last year than ever before. Prescribed pathways to being a qualified professor clashes with a tidal wave of innovation and developments around multiple pathways to expertise recognized by most today. Yet, the regulatory agencies still seem to be caught up in establishing measures and regulations tied to past decades. For the most promising developments in education to expand, I’ve come to recognize that I can no longer focus on design as the sole pathway to the best future of education. I also need to invest in policy reform and innovation.

#9 – Excessive Teaching Stifles the Love of Learning – Also gaining traction in 2015 was the topic of self-directed learning. We have the growth of online content and communities, the expanding awareness of open courses and open education resources, and the collective awakening of the nature of life in a connected world. These create a perfect storm for self-directed learning, a theme that will gain even more traction in the upcoming years.

#8 – Notes and Quotes from Jeff Sandefer’s The Learning Driven Revolution – On a related theme, there is also growing awareness about new and distinct types of schools, those that celebrate curiosity, a love of learning, agency, and student voice. Acton Academy is one such school. Expect to see these types of schools expanding throughout the United States and beyond.

#7 – 10 Reasons Why Concordia Publishing House is a Model for Innovation in the Publishing Industry – One reason this article gained attention is because  CPH has a loyal group of followers, but I also think that people are curious about the future of the publishing industry in the digital age.

#6 – Curious Schools: The Secret to Improving Education – As debates about testing grew in 2015, even with the President speaking out against excessive testing, more people are resonating with a different focus in our schools, drawing our attention to the essence of great learning communities, curiosity and the love of learning.

#5 – Professor Leaves Academia to Start a New and Game Changing Kind of College – New models and innovations in education are not limited to K-12 startups. We also see a small but important group of new higher education startups, with Wayfinding Academy leading the way, casting a vision for a purpose and passion-driven approach to college. Look for more such higher education startups in the upcoming years.

#4 – Adding Depth to Our Comparison of Face-to-Face and Online Education – With MOOCs putting online education in more media headlines over the last couple of years along with traditional online degrees growing in adoption by state and liberal arts colleges, this article about an age-old conversation captured reader interest. What are the benefits and limitations of face-to-face versus online learning? How do we move to a deeper and more sophisticated converstaion about this topic?

#3 – 10 Higher Education Trends to Watch in 2015 – People are always intrigued by new trends and developments in education, and that was no different in 2015. My article highlighting ten of the top trends received countless social shares and provoked some good conversation. Of course, looking at this article at the end of 2015 affirms my earlier predictions. These ten remain hot topics and will extend far into the future.

#2 – Do Schools Make Students Socially Awkward – One of the fastest growing segments in K-12 education is homeschooling, possibly because of disappointment with other options, but inspired as much or more by people realizing the power of emerging resources and technologies for incredibly powerful and personalized learning experiences.

#1 – What are the 10 Most Critical Issues in Education? – I’m so happy to see that, out of all the articles I wrote in 2015, the one that reached the most readers was not just about new trends and innovations, but it was about the compelling why behind those trends and innovations. I remain convinced that people today are hungry for a deeper, more substantive, more thoughtful consideration about education reform and the future of education.

Competition Versus Differentiation in Education

There is competition in education. Schools compete with one another,especially independent K-12 and higher education institutions. Yet, I’m increasingly convinced that the strongest and healthiest schools are not focused on competition as much as they are differentiation and cooperation. They are concerned about embracing and living out their distinct identity, and that is what draws people to them. It is the undifferentiated school that must resort to heavy competition for students. Yet, if I were leading an independent school or University, I would seek to establish a school that was so distinct that even the “competition” recommended people to our school. That approach produces a stronger individual school identity along with greater system for families and learners.

I was speaking with a leader of a school system recently that participated in a school choice program, and he explained how other schools saw this as a threat. They went so far as to go door to door, talking to parents. They said very little about what was distinct or desirable in their schools as much as trying to bad talk the schools that they considered a threat. It is something that I’ve run into more than a few times in higher education online programs as well. That is a good sign of a school with an identity and differentiation problem. If the only compelling case that you have for your school is that you are not as bad as another school, there is a good chance that your school has an identity crisis.

Competition, by nature, is a contest between two or more opposing organizations. In sport, it is often about winning with the most (or the fewest) points. In education, it looks like competing over who can get the most or  a certain group of students. It can also be about grant money, rankings and other similar pursuits; but my focus in this article is on the competition for students.

What would happen, however, if organizations put most of their attention on how they can differentiate themselves, how they can provide something noble, distinct and desirable? Among academics, this already happens. There is already a sense of loyalty to the discipline or grappling with important questions in a given field of study. Scholars across organizations sometimes compete for grant money, but they also network, collaborate and share knowledge with one another. There is competition, but there is also rich cooperation and scholars tend to differentiate their research, conducting work in an area that offers something new or rare in the field.

As I’ve written before, in a world with diverse philosophies, values and convictions about education; I see two dominant choices. There can be a push for a centralized and standardized system. Or, there can be a push for choice and a variety of options. Of course, there are also countless options for blending these two as well, but I will focus on the two “extremes” for the sake of highlighting my point about cooperation and differentiation.

One is that we can support and invest in a single uniform, centralized education system or approach to education. We invest tax money in those that align with these uniform standards and we drive the majority of learners to that system. Then, those with the greatest power or influence can push for their philosophies, values and convictions to reign supreme in that one, primary option. In that world, competition is not much of a concern, at least not on the surface.

It would seem like that model would strive toward an equitable education system, but when we investigate it further, we don’t find evidence that a uniform system run by a core philosophy of a centralized entity actually produces an equitable system. There are plenty of winners and losers in such a system. It also attacks the freedom of families to live and grow according to their own core beliefs and convictions. The minority viewpoint is quickly diminished and devalued in a standardized system with few or no choices.

Yet, on the K-12 level, when choices of schools are championed, some argue that this is creating unhealthy competition among the schools. It seems to me that people are confusing competition and options. People see it as competition, it seems, because they don’t value the distinctions among the schools. It is as if school is just one thing and having multiple options is like choosing between two equally ripe apples. Yet, schools are not the same. They have different philosophies, core values, convictions, personnel, cultures, and more.

I do agree, however, that just creating a litany of the exact same types of schools in a community makes less sense. What is ultimately more beneficial is to have options among differentiated schools, schools that each have specialties, distinct offerings and will align with different goals and values of families and learners in a community. I’ve yet to see a school that meets the needs of all learners. In fact, I don’t believe that such a school exists. What can exist is an ecosystem of offerings that meet diverse needs, abilities, passions, and interests.

The same thing is true when it comes to higher education. In 2013, when Clayton Christiansen predicted that half of all Universities might be bankrupt in fifteen years, it caused no small stir. With the mass closing of for-profit centers and extension campuses around the United States (300+ in 2015) in lieu of growing online programs, there is some possible truth to his prediction. We can envision a possible future when a small number of Universities serve massive numbers of students through online programs. Yet, I’m not ready to underestimate the differentiated University, the school that does something distinct and that is valued by a target audience. This is partly why I’ve predicted that we might actually have more colleges and Universities in the future…although my definition of college is distinct from what many think of today.

If there are a dozen quality options for the same specific product or service out there, and those dozen have excess capacity to serve, why add another? On the other hand, if there are gaps in education and schools, unmet needs and people wanting those needs to be met, then there is room for more schools and different types of learning communities. I’m not arguing for any centralized or top-down coordination. Let the people decide. If there is enough differentiation and demand, people will be interested in attending, and we will have a system that is far more likely to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Real Learning is No Replacement for Virtual Learning

Real learning is no replacement for virtual learning, not as we begin to consider the affordances of virtual reality. That opening statement is a direct contrast to a 2008 video explaining that “virtual learning is no replacement for real learning” from the National Institute on Media and Family (which closed in 2009). Please consider watching the first 35-40 seconds before proceeding.

Did you notice anything interesting about the opening illustration? The speaker held up an orange and asked the viewers what it can tell us about virtual versus what he called “real” learning. He continued by holding up a photograph of an orange, explaining how you can’t peel, smell or taste the picture; but you can with the other orange. The irony is that you, as the viewer of the video, can’t smell, taste, feel or peel either orange. They are both mediated. Yes, this is a lesson about the importance of the “real world” that is being taught to us in the “virtual world.”

The video explicitly teaches that it is important to consider the benefits and limitations of virtual environments, not to assume that a virtual learning experience is always an equal to a physical experience. Of course, I’ve not run into many (or honestly any) people who do not recognize this fact. Perhaps they/we do not always choose wisely between virtual and physical options, but most of us generally get the idea that there are benefits and limitations to both.

There is something natural that drives many of us to keep our fascination with virtual learning in check by arguing for the value of the physical, or what the video called, the “real world.” Yet, we are nearing a time in education when virtual learning experiences are going to give learners far more realistic experiences than they had in traditional physical classes of the past. I am referring specifically to the emerging developments around virtual reality and its implications for teaching and learning. This is an area that has immense promise. It can turn lessons that were previously taught as abstractions into rich and immersive multi-sensory experiences for learners.

Consider the possibilities. Imagine traveling through a human’s blood stream as if you were in some microscopic submarine. How about virtual journeys through distant galaxies? Virtual reality will give each learner an immersive experience of archeological sites, distance lands (from past or present), oceans, or complex machinery (from almost any perspective). Many of these were learned as abstractions in the past, but virtual reality has the potential to ground those abstractions in a multi-sensory and largely immersive experience.

These point us to examples of how what the video referred to as “real learning” will not be an adequate substitute for the virtual. It will not be as real. It will not be as vivid. It will not engage the senses or be as easy to comprehend, solve problems or make connections. We are finding ourselves in an age where the real is sometimes not a viable substitute for the virtual.

These are exciting times in education, times that allow us to deepen our understanding of blended learning. We continually return to reflections about how to leverage both the physical and virtual for learning. We can’t content ourselves with answers from a decade ago about what is best in a virtual versus a physical environment because the affordances of the virtual are in flux.

Marshall McLuhan’s classic on Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, continues to have relevance. Technological developments are not just distinct tools. They are sometimes extensions, expanding our natural senses, our ability to understand concepts, and our capacity to solve complex problems. Just as the microscope and telescope allowed us to experience what was previously invisible to the human eye, virtual reality can sometimes extend our vision of the world in new ways. It is not just a rich learning environment. It provides completely new experiences that will change our comprehension of the natural world. As such, we are entering a time when real learning will not be a replacement for the virtual world.