NECC – My adventures with Horse & Hound magazine: Florida Virtual School, Achieve3000

A few days before NECC I was invited by a publicist to interview Julie Young, the Executive Director of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and also speak with the folks from Achieve3000. I accepted because I’ve always wanted the chance to talk with Julie. I had no idea in advance that I would end up having a Notting Hill Horse & Hound magazine-type experience (and, yes, I was Hugh Grant).

Florida Virtual School

I knock on a door and am quickly ushered into a hotel suite. I meet and shake hands with Ben Noel, CEO of 360Ed, as he walks out the door. Then I am offered a beverage, plunked onto a couch, handed a packet of publicity materials, and given 30 minutes to talk with Julie and Andy Ross, VP of Global Services for FLVS. The topic: FLVS’ new online video game / American History course, Conspiracy Code. I’m a little bit disoriented but gamely dive in…

Conspiracy Code runs on a custom gaming engine designed specifically for FLVS by 360Ed. It cost $1.5 million to develop; costs were shared equally by FLVS and 360Ed and spread over three years ($250K per partner per year). Two hundred FLVS students are in the game now. Several other districts are piloting it. Conspiracy Code is designed to be an integrated, full-year course / gaming experience. Students take about 90 to 100 hours to complete the game. They dip in and out of the gaming engine throughout the year, assembling clues and completing missions. The game includes 51 assessments (both oral and written), 270 mini-games, numerous interrogations, 30 ‘agent eliminations,’ and 371 clues. Teachers monitor student progress; each of the 10 missions takes 2 to 3 weeks. Most students spend about an hour a day working for the class, some of which is in the game environment. Historical facts are interwoven throughout the gaming experience and student-teacher discussion. Sometimes the game requires students to do outside research to complete assignments and proceed forward.

The first evaluation report on the Conspiracy Code is due in a couple of weeks but anecdotal evidence looks extremely promising. The students who seem to like the game the most are the ones who ‘hate history.’ The game requires students to write, create data maps, make timelines, ask questions, make associations, solve problems, etc. Students must apply their knowledge and facts in a number of different ways to be successful. Some ‘barriers’ were put in place to ensure that students didn’t play more than work (e.g., students can’t move forward until they work on their data map, write in their journal, get feedback from their teacher, etc.).
 
The first two teachers were ‘gaming people.’ It still took them 2 to 3 months to get comfortable with teaching this way. All FLVS teachers receive extensive professional development before they’re allowed to teach. The first few teachers will train those that follow. There is a ‘Teaching Online 101’ course plus a separate gaming module for Conspiracy Code.
 
Now that the gaming engine has been built, FLVS will use it for other games/courses; I also suggested that FLVS release it to students to design their own games. The next Conspiracy Code game will target reading and comes out in August. All in all, it appears to be a solid attempt at integrating gaming into the education experience. It will be interesting to see the evaluation results when they come out. FLVS is a data-driven organization and is committed to reworking the game/course as need be to ensure students are both engaged AND learning whatever facts they need for success in the standardized-testing era.

Achieve3000

Throughout our conversation, people are coming in and out of a door to another room in the suite (reporters? other bloggers?). When my 30 minutes with Julie and Andy are up, I’m swooped into that room, replaced by someone else who gets my spot on the FLVS couch. I’m handed another publicity packet, do the quick meet-and-greet, and away we go…

Achieve3000 is a ‘differentiated instruction solution.’ In essence, students are given an article to read on the computer that’s aligned with their reading level. The company recommends a minimum of 1 or 2 articles a week but there are articles available every day if desired. Great care has been taken to avoid stigmatization of low-level readers. For example, even though the article text and corresponding assignments are geared to students’ individual reading level, the overall layout of the article, font size, graphics, etc. all are extremely similar to what other higher-level readers in the class are experiencing. There is little to no difference in reading experience; it’s actually fairly difficult to tell at a glance at what level another student is working. The student reading at first-grade level also is reading the same content as her peer at the ninth-grade level. This allows low-level readers to still contribute to class discussions. All of this is in contrast to schools’ typical practice of having separate books or textbooks – often on separate topics – or pullout programs for struggling readers.

Results so far seem to be impressive. Expected student growth in a year is 46 lexile points. Students who read one article a week average 102 lexile point gains; students who read two articles per week average 124. The program accommodates Spanish-speaking students (and, soon, those that speak Haitian Creole). The New York City and Miami-Dade school districts (as well as the State of Hawaii) are using Achieve3000. Average gains in one year for ESL/ELL students are 166 lexile points (compared to 27 points expected). Good results also are being seen with students with special needs (see, e.g., the Arrowhead (WI) Schools).

Achieve3000 is working with the Associated Press and now has an archive of over 16,000 nonfiction articles. Next steps for the company are to 1) create a number of specific science units, and 2) identify and/or write articles that target specific career clusters and can be aligned with the WorkKeys job skill assessment program.

Final impressions

My time is up. I’m whisked out of the back room toward the hotel suite door. Julie and Andy are talking with someone new on the couch and I’m soon in the hallway, left at last to collect my thoughts. As I walk toward the elevator to return to my own hotel room, I’m left with one thought: Man, was that strange. Quite informative, but strange nonetheless. Who knows what else goes on in the back hallways, hotel suites, and meeting rooms of NECC?!

Disclosure: I received no incentives from either organization (other than a thumb drive from FLVS that contained the above Conspiracy Code materials) and was not pressured to cover them in any particular way. In short, I believe I was treated much like any media representative, despite being ‘just a blogger.’

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