Personalizing Education at Stanford’s Online High School

Posted by Michael Simkins on June 17, 2007

It was a sunny June morning in 1996, one of my last days as a principal. Soon, I would be in a new job in a new world—directing a large scale education technology “innovation” project spanning several school districts in Silicon Valley. A reporter from the local newspaper had come to campus to interview me about my years at the school and plans for the future.

One of the questions he asked was, “What do you see as the value of technology in education?” Answering was easy. “Two things. First, I think it can add efficiency to the way we manage schools and accomplish daily tasks. More importantly, I think it can enable us to personalize education far more than we do today.” More than ten years later, I hold the same view.

We’ve made a lot of progress on the efficiency side of things. We’ve put technology to work storing and managing student data, scheduling busses, and making our schools safer. Frustratingly, it seems to be taking us a lot longer to realize the potential of technology to make education more personal and engaging for students.

That’s why I was excited to read in today’s Los Angeles Times about Stanford University’s Online High School. Part of the University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, it is in its infancy and has only 30 students, but so far seems a success.

As staff writer Mitchell Landsberg writes, “The Stanford program intertwines two uneven threads in modern education: online learning and differentiated instruction for the gifted. As it turns out, it’s a natural marriage, and one that underscores the potential for computers to help break down the one-size-fits-all paradigm of many U.S. schools.”

Amen. And, in my experience, what’s good for the gifted is quite often good for the rest of us as well. Whether we’re talking about learning styles, English language learners, multiple intelligences, special needs, or just plain old varying interests, differentiating instruction makes sense. The Online High School is an example of how technology can help us do it.


The Farmhouse and the Internet

Posted by Michael Simkins on May 21, 2007

One summer, I visited some friends who were spending a few weeks in a farmhouse in rural Germany. What a neat and peculiar house it was! It had begun many years before as no more than a small cottage. As children were born and elderly parents needed care, a room was added here and a room was added there. If there was any particular plan to these additions, it was indiscernible.

The result? A fascinating maze of a house. Though it was a single story, it spread out all over the place. I’d actually get lost. And one of the most intriguing aspects—and sometimes an embarrassing one—was the fact you generally had to walk through one or two adjoing bedrooms to get someplace. Or else you just reached a dead-end and had to retrace your steps.

I thought of that house as I read recently “Researchers Hope to Scrap the Internet, Start Over Again.” The Internet of today has grown in much the same way as that German farmhouse. What was first a fairly straightforward network for communication among a trusted group of scientists and researchers has grown by accretion into a sprawling, global maze of digital synapses firing and misfiring millions of time per second. As one of the professors is quoted as saying, the Internet “was designed for completely different assumptions…It’s sort of a miracle that it continues to work well today.”

I don’t know about you, but every time I try to send a simple e-mail and get a message such as “591: your host is blacklisted by” or “relaying prohibited; you should authenticate first,” I think the clean-slate folks may be onto something.


The Virtual Credential Officer is your friend.

Posted by Michael Simkins on September 14, 2006

You know we’re making some progress with technology when even a government bureaucracy can get it right. A couple weeks ago, one of the 67 reminders that popped up on my To Do List was “renew administrative credential.” I thought, “Oh crud.”

You don’t have to be that old to know this used to be quite a tedious process. First you had to get a special, oddly sized, multi-carbon form which was available only by mail or at your local county office of education. You had to fill it out on a typewriter. Then you had to go to the bank, to a real live human teller during banking hours, and get a certified check for the renewal fee. If you had a job as a school administrator, which presumably you did or you would not have to renew the darn credential in the first place, it could take weeks to get all those steps accomplished. Then, once you mailed your special form and special check to the Department of Education, it would take months before you would finally get your new credential in the mail, and you still weren’t done. You had to find the time to take the credential to your local county office of education to be duly “registered.” Fail to get all this done before the expiration date of your old credential and bad news: no paycheck this month.

Well, I had learned that teachers could renew their credentials on-line, so I decided to go look and see if maybe administrators could do the same. Sure enough. Divulge a bit of pertinent information and my record flashed on the screen. A few clicks to swear I was still a good person, a string of digits off my VISA card, and I was done. Amazing. And this is a government website.

I got an immediate confirmation e-mail. A few days later, I got the paper certificate in the mail. As I now work in a county office of education, I walked over to human resources to get the thing registered and was told, “Oh, we already got confirmation of your renewal.” As I said above, “Amazing!” Kudos to the Virtual Credential Officer.

And just in case you haven’t heard, as of January 1, on-line renewal will be the only way to renew.


IT, ET, We-T?

Posted by Michael Simkins on August 27, 2006

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a technology department is a technology department is a technology department. Or is it? In many school districts, especially larger ones, “information technology (IT)” happens in a different part of the organization than “educational technology (ET).” The former is the province of people who know how to set up and administer secure networks, get e-mail from one place to another, keep spam at bay, warehouse data, and install and remove programs, among many other complicated and arcane tasks. The latter is home to people who know how to use all the tools the IT people provide in the service of learning—among many other complicated and arcane tasks.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for these two groups of people to work in isolation, and even at odds with one another.

Richard Quinones wants to do something about that. Richard is director of the Educational Technologies Network at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. He’s started a working group of California educators to take a look at this problem. For openers, the group seeks concrete examples of school districts that have done an effective job of articulating and coordinating the efforts of their information and educational technologists. Got a good example? Write to Richard at



Posted by Michael Simkins on June 15, 2006

I just turned off the radio. I couldn’t concentrate. I’d been listening to NPR while reading my e-mail, and Open Source came on. Blogsday 2006 was the program, and it was timed to coincide with Bloomsday, which Wikipedia says (at least at this particular nanosecond in time) is “observed annually on June 16 to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and commemorate the events in his novel Ulysses.” (Geeze, I should have known that; I’ll never get on Jeopardy.)

The bottom line is: I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t multitask. The content of the program was too absorbing. It was a collection of excerpts from blogs all over the Internet, chosen with obvious care, and deftly read by two actors. It sucked me in. I couldn’t just let it happen in the background. Nor could I let my mind ping pong between it and my other attentions. Am I a digital immigrant? Perhaps.

I’m very interested in the concept of multitasking. I multitask all the time—I think. But I also know there are times when things demand 100% of my attention. In this case, I was so taken by the eloquent and moving things people wrote in their blogs, I couldn’t keep my concentration on anything else.

But then, I’m the idiot that sits in the movie theater after the film is over and watches all the credits. Go figure.