Here in California, the daily news has settled into an odd mixture of hopefulness and anxiety. On the one hand, the COVID-19 vaccine supply continues to improve, infection and death rates continue to decline, and there is serious talk about getting our students back into physical classrooms sooner rather than later. On the other hand, new virus variants threaten our progress, debate rages about who should be prioritized for the limited vaccines currently in hand, and historical inequities among people and places continue to be manifested and exacerbated in the education sector nearly everywhere you look. In many conversations with friends and colleagues, the primary emotions appear to be frustration and exhaustion. People want easy—or at least clear—answers, and those are in short supply.
Here at NROC, we have been fortunate in that our work was only partially disrupted by the pandemic. In fact, for many of our engagements, the pandemic expanded or deepened our collaborative efforts and created new opportunities for us to reach the students we are trying to help. Over the course of this past year, we have seen substantial gains in the numbers of students we have been able to serve, and in the successes those students have achieved, all across the country. Major new efforts, such as Texas College Bridge, as well as the Career and College Ready Graduate initiative in North Carolina, are up and running.
Our relationships with many of our existing institutional members and partners—big and small—feel strong, and we believe that we are well poised to resume and accelerate our mission-focused work this year and beyond.
That said, a persistent challenge in our work that became even more challenging with the pandemic is the need for productive and collaborative engagement with other people in order to implement solutions and practices that are likely to be effective. NROC staff can only facilitate those efforts, not lead them. In the end, it is critical to our work that we be able to form strong relationships with the teachers, administrators, and others who are more closely connected to the students on the ground. While NROC staff have always worked remotely, most of our member colleagues have not, and that disruption was felt keenly on all sides. In addition, we lost critical opportunities to connect face-to-face, whether at our twice-cancelled annual meeting or at other convenings we would normally attend over the course of the year.
As we pondered what the future might bring, we agreed that it was critical for us to continue to invest in our solutions, like EdReady, with special attention to the requirements that come with scale. Prior to the pandemic, we were pleased that our solutions were becoming more deeply embedded in key institutional practices and expectations; interestingly, the pandemic accelerated those trends. We have continued to work hard to become part of the infrastructure for college-readiness programs (high schools and summer bridge experiences), admissions processes (placement alternatives), and college and career pathways (co-requisite and developmental policies).
But being part of the infrastructure brings additional obligations, many of which are enforced by state or institutional policies. To that end, we have doubled down on performance enhancements, accessibility compliance, stability, privacy controls, and security. Furthermore, many of these considerations go beyond the technologies, encompassing internal practices and procedures utilized by NROC staff, with an eye toward assuring our partners that we are taking good care of their information and protecting their interests. These types of obligations normally accrue to much larger companies, and they are expensive to boot.
Nonetheless, I am proud to say that we recently obtained third-party SOC 2 Type II security certification. This certification is one of the most rigorous industry standards pertaining to information security and is a good representation of the effort we have put toward complying with operating principles and practices that are in keeping with our growing position as the provider of mission-critical solutions.
We have a number of additional milestones and improvements in the pipeline, scheduled to roll out in the coming months. We are feeling optimistic with our timing given that so many educational institutions and systems are taking advantage of the pandemic’s disruption to reconsider problematic legacy practices but can ill afford to take unnecessary risks as they try to get everyone back on their physical campuses and classrooms.
As you start putting your plans in place for this Spring, Summer, or Fall, be sure to drop us a line. We’re eager to help usher in new and improved practices and outcomes oriented to student readiness and success, and we’re ready for you.
Institutional change is hard. People have to be willing to take risks and persist through the inevitable challenges to see real change at any meaningful scale. Over the past fifteen years, NROC staff have devoted most of their time and energy to inspiring people to action and then supporting them in their transformative educational work. Together, we have been working to change the way college and career readiness is approached and supported.
This seismic shift is inspiring many of our secondary, postsecondary, and adult education partners to expand their work with us, and we find ourselves supporting new engagements at a scale that was previously difficult to achieve. Collectively, we are rethinking pervasive policies and procedures that don’t seem to have an educational purpose and are instead responses to the friction that arises when conventions don’t reflect the reality on the ground.
What if we made no assumptions about the extent to which students arrive at a new class or institution with some specific set of core skills intact and ready to be applied? In this case, you’d presumably employ tools and techniques to assess and improve key competencies on an as-needed basis. For most classrooms, it would make sense to check your premises at the start of the course or program, so that any serious knowledge or skill gaps can be identified and addressed as early in the term as possible; check prerequisite expectations continuously throughout a course or term so that students have a chance to put themselves in the best position to learn and apply the follow-on knowledge and skills; and check retention and understanding as a course or program draws to a close, informing students and teachers about areas of emphasis and attention in subsequent learning experiences.
We cannot afford to keep failing students, and learners cannot afford to believe that it's sufficient to just 'pass the course' when key knowledge and skills for later learning remain unmastered.
Many of the principles and processes that define our educational system are inefficient and mired in a pre-technological mindset. Modern technology solutions, like EdReady, reduce the logistical and philosophical hurdles that hampered prior reform efforts, and we need more people and institutions to examine how these resources can improve existing practice.
Prior to the pandemic, NROC members like Jacksonville State University, Montana Digital Academy, and the North Carolina Community College System were challenging the boundaries of student success. Now, these institutions are thinking even more radically about how our solutions can support the evolution of outmoded practices. One of the key benefits of the NROC membership model is that it neither limits the number of students served nor the diversity of use cases deployed. COVID-19 has converted what was forever considered a problem that only accrued to an at-risk subgroup into a problem that affects literally everybody. We've long advocated that we're better served by thinking of problems of transfer, progressions, and readiness as universal issues.
We get ourselves into trouble when we create arbitrary distinctions between learners who are 'ready' versus students who are 'not ready'. Instead, we should normalize and institutionalize the process of giving every learner the opportunity to ascertain readiness in key areas and continuously revisit and strengthen core skills.
As an example of how this approach solves some of the pandemic’s fallout, we can look to the current trends in higher-education admissions policies. Many colleges and universities have chosen to waive existing admissions requirements for next year’s freshman class, explicitly stating that they don’t expect learners to have mastered significant chunks of material that would normally be required as a condition of application and entry. However, if these skills are considered important for student success in college-level studies, then learners will need to recover them at some point. And if the skills aren’t important for all students, then personalized instruction should be employed to support individuals (or cohorts) as appropriate.Meeting all students where they are probably seems untenable. But, when we consider the capabilities of digital technologies like EdReady, the evolution of our practices becomes manageable. When everyone is ‘remedial’, no one is ‘remedial’. This lens helps us build policies and practices that support every learner individually at scale.
Greetings, NROC community.
It has been more than a month since we were asked to ‘shelter in place’ here in California. In some ways, it feels like we have been living this way for a much longer time than that, yet in other ways, I still have a hard time believing that this is our ‘new normal’. I hope that you are staying safe, staying sane, and finding time for your families, your colleagues, and yourselves.
Hello, NROC community members.
Many of you know me already – no surprise, since I’ve been on staff at The NROC Project (NROC) since 2010(!). For those of you whom I’ve not yet met, my name is Ahrash Bissell, and I am President of The NROC Project. I assumed this position last year and am still managing my transition. In fact, we are refining the roles and responsibilities of our entire staff, in the face of new strategic directions and the desire to continue improving our existing work. It’s an exciting time for NROC and our active community of secondary, postsecondary, and adult education leaders and diverse organizational partners. Week over week, we continue to accumulate evidence that we are making a positive impact on students, and that we are on track to deepen and broaden that impact in myriad ways. This President’s Note is intended to be the first of a series of long-form communications that will convey what we do – daily, monthly, annually, and over the long term – in service to our mission and in context with broader trends and topics in educational innovation, technology, and reform.
Last month, we hosted our annual NROC Member Meeting. It was, as usual, a whirlwind of catching up with many of our longtime members, meeting various people who are new to our collaborative community, and trying to soak up as many of the insights, ideas, and suggestions as we could manage in the few days we had. It was, in short, exhilarating—and exhausting.
Having had time to reflect on the Member Meeting, I want to use this inaugural note to share some further thoughts, particularly pertaining to the different ways that NROC prioritizes its activities in pursuit of our mission. As a reminder, our stated mission is ‘To help meet society’s need for access to effective, high-quality educational opportunities in an era of rapid economic, social, and personal change.’
Over its fifteen-year history, NROC has dedicated itself to a number of strategies in pursuit of this mission.
And, even as we have committed to these different activities for the long term, refining and improving our capacity to support institutional partners who have embraced these strategic efforts, we have also found ways to extend our reach, broaden our interests, and stay on the edge of what’s possible.
Taking stock of our many activities, and where we feel we have been able to have the most impact, some things became clear. NROC is, at heart, an innovation shop. As I often say when explaining our work, ‘we are an advocacy and problem-solving organization with a well-stocked toolbox.’
We believe that we do our best work when we are able to engage with our institutional members as partners in imagining possible solutions to an issue and then supporting the execution of that shared plan toward the ultimate goal. Our courses and tools—comprising learning content, technology platforms, and digital-age protocols—have all been built to serve those mission-based goals.
NROC is also a community of people, practitioners, and supportive institutions. NROC staff are not the ones who engage directly with students. Instead, we rely on member institutions to be the agents who convert aspiration to action. On occasion, however, we receive direct feedback from teachers and students, and those personal communications provide substantial motivation for us to continue in this work.
Putting these organizational functions together, I feel that NROC serves a critical role to educators and educational institutions by being a trusted partner and guide in the never-ending pursuit of more effective and equitable student outcomes. Especially in the context of the massive technological and social changes we are enduring, some sort of stabilizing influence seems critical. Importantly, we see our role as enabling change, not resisting it. We cannot work effectively with institutions who do not want to change practice, and we can help institutions in the throes of change stay calm and pursue measured, effective strategies that improve student outcomes. This year’s Member Meeting theme—‘A Thriving Hive’—did a good job of capturing this balanced approach; to wit, ‘Comprised of secondary, postsecondary, and adult education innovators, the NROC member hive is unafraid of experimentation and iteration. Our collective output is improving access and equity.’
So what does this mean for our day-to-day work? In some of my Member Meeting remarks, I referenced a graphic that is intended to distill the many activities that consume NROC staff time. I think that graphic is a useful organizer for my comments here. Depending on your point of view, you might see the graphic as a setting sun, or perhaps a steering wheel, or some sort of hub-and-spoke structure. All of those interpretations are suitable to our purposes, so stick with whatever works for you.
For any given problem (or opportunity) NROC is asked to tackle, we have tended to pursue a similar line of logic. First, we consider whether the problem at hand is amenable to improvement with existing products or technologies. Our analysis in this regard is holistic; for example, there are many great products out there for many different purposes, but we are especially concerned with access, equity, and effectiveness, and typical business transactions in educational technology tend to limit access, exacerbate inequity, and resist community engagement in demonstrating effectiveness and supporting continuous improvement. This perspective is grounded by our roots in OER production and advocacy. On the flip side, there are many free products or OER that are not sufficiently polished or designed for effective implementation in the institutional contexts in which most of our students need help. It’s not enough to build stuff and give it away . . . the whole point is to improve student outcomes, so we have to commit to product distribution all the way through to student utilization and impact.
We have had cause to take a hard look at a number of issues over the years, as referenced earlier. The results of our efforts remain the primary solutions we support every day. They include the NROC Algebra 1 course, the NROC Developmental Math and English programs, HippoCampus, and EdReady. Building these products takes a lot of time, expertise, and money. As part of NROC’s commitment to access and equity, we took great pains to seek out grant dollars to pay for nearly all of these development costs, thereby alleviating the burden of recouping those investments via membership fees or costs passed to students. Supporting and improving these solutions requires ongoing investment and effort, so much of our staff time and resources goes to these maintenance tasks.
But high-quality content and platforms are only useful insomuch as they actually improve students’ lives. Because most students pursue educational credentials from respected and accredited institutions, it is essential that our solutions get adopted by interested educational establishments. As such, another substantive activity for NROC staff is raising awareness of our work, recruiting interested institutions, and sustaining our institutional member community. There are numerous challenges to this work, and we have found that there is no way to standardize the process. Fortunately, we have many champions among our members who help us to spread the word, so we’re not entirely on our own in this endeavor.
Our work doesn’t stop at adoption. Indeed, we have found that it is absolutely critical for us to provide substantial start-up support and some amount of professional development to our member community, in order to have some assurance that our content and tools—notably EdReady—will actually get used. As we point out all the time, EdReady can only be effective if students actually use it. Over the past few years, we have expanded the number of staff focused on implementation and ongoing support, including attention to student outcomes and documentation of efficacy. In considering our plans for the future, one of our aspirations is to dedicate even more time and effort to these types of activities, especially for members who are seeking to build on early successes and really embrace the opportunity for experimentation and continuous improvement.
Finally, we have long recognized that the full impact of our work cannot be realized on our own, even considering the size and diversity of our active membership. If we want to have a truly systemic impact on improving student learning and educational success, we need partners in that effort. Our partners run the gamut of our activities, from content and platform production to accessibility and research to distribution and awareness building. I will write more about our various partnerships, separately and as a group, in a future note.
So what do we make of all this? Are we doing the right things? Are we using the best approaches? Is there some sort of emergent coherence that we can describe?
I believe the answer in each case is yes. That’s not to say that we have completely figured this out, but I think we see many indications that we are on the right track, and that we have largely been on the right track for some time. The news is filled with stories of students being bewildered or misled as they matriculate to postsecondary studies. Consequently, they drop out, often saddled with debt. We have also been tracking admissions scandals, culture wars, and questions on all sides about the connection between degree attainment and job prospects. In many ways, our institutions of higher education have lost control of the narrative, even as demand for further education continues to rise. Hard-working college professors, high school teachers, after-school program coordinators, and many others are having to manage multiple responsibilities and conflicting expectations, all with diminishing support.
We believe that we can play a meaningful supporting role in transforming this narrative. People everywhere are passionate about education because just about everyone agrees that education is the single best solution for taking control of one’s own destiny. Since perceived destinies vary depending on cultural and family history, everyone has some idea of how education might be helping or hindering our students. Educational institutions have to navigate these conflicting opinions and shifting expectations, and in many cases, the institutional response has been to hold steady and to resist change. But our student populations are changing, the connections between education and employment are changing, and the options available for learning are changing. Stubborn refusal to examine and update legacy practices will not weather this storm.
In our work, we strive to find reasonable pathways to and through transformation, and we collaborate with willing educators and administrators to put plans into action.
In this, our fifteenth year, we feel a renewed sense of commitment to our membership, our mission, and our capacity to drive positive change. We will be updating some of our ongoing development processes to involve our members even more closely. We are finding new ways to expand our distribution capacity and reach more people. And we are always exploring how to strengthen and expand our existing solutions, even as we look for opportunities to build new tools and impact new areas of concern.
Most importantly, we are excited about current and future collaborative efforts which are bringing recognition for the accomplishments of our members.
Our colleagues in Montana were recently awarded the WCET WOW Award for their incredible work scaling EdReady Montana across that vast state. Congratulations to Dr. Ryan Schrenk, Dr. Bob Curry, and everyone at EdReady Montana and the Montana Digital Academy. Download the student success ebook to learn more.
Dr. Jan Case, who has been so instrumental to the groundbreaking EdReady implementation at Jacksonville State University, shared this note with us recently:
“I just got the official word this week that my promotion to Distinguished Professor was awarded. I got the portfolio back today, and several of the reviewers emphasized my work with JSU and EdReady as being a factor in their recommendation that I receive the promotion. Thanks for your support and for this and for the many other ways that you are helping others help students.”
We have had the pleasure of bestowing recognition for outstanding leadership and contributions from among our membership at our annual meeting, and it’s gratifying to see other people and organizations recognizing the same things.
I hope that readers feel that same sense of purpose, that same sense of possibility. As always, we welcome input and engagement at any time – we want to hear your voices. Look for specific calls to action over the course of the coming year, and please let us know if you will be at a conference with the potential to meet one or more of us in person. 😉
Do you want to raise your voice or hand? Contact me.