7 Takeaways from EdTech and Blended Learning Summit

newnaissliderThree hours after the one-and-a-half-day Education Technology and Blended Learning Summit, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in our nation’s capital, I’m equal parts tired and ecstatic.

I was honored to speak with some twenty of the nation’s top innovators, leaders, and change-agents. Attendees included independent, public, and charter school educators and administrators, as well as passionate and visionary school consultants. From Brad Rathgeber, Executive Director of the Online School for Girls; Michael Nachbar, Director of Global Online Academy; Mark Kushner, Executive Director of Flex Public Schools; Laura Finefrock, Assistant Director of Summit Public Schools; to Albert Throckmorton, Head of St. Mary’s Episcopal School (Tennessee)—they left me with excitement and hope for the future of NAIS-member schools. At the same time, they also left me with a better understanding of the roadblocks and struggles ahead.

In my third time meeting with NAIS President John Chubb, I was once again very impressed with him. After just one year on the job, he has visited over 70 independent schools. He did a terrific job of leading the Summit, which was one of the most fruitful and invigorating events I’ve ever attended. For over 12 hours, I sat directly next to Chubb, who never wavered in listening intently to others. His efforts to bring so many different people together, from all parts of the education world, speak volumes about his strong and practical leadership.

Here are my takeaway thoughts, which are not necessarily representative of the views of NAIS or other Summit attendees:

  1. For meaningful and lasting reform (of any kind) to happen, it must concurrently occur bottom-up and top-down. Teachers who want to explore technological and pedagogical innovation but face resistance, or a lack of support, are likely to move on. For their part, forward-thinking administrators can enact change only if they can elicit sufficient buy-in from teachers.
  2. More and better professional development must happen, on all levels. Too often, administrators don’t do enough to educate themselves or their teachers about emerging trends, such as online and blended learning. Simply maintaining the status-quo is insufficient and irresponsible, and, broadly speaking, administrators need to do a much better job of encouraging innovation in the classroom. Educators who are unwilling to learn, innovate, and experiment with new teaching and learning models should be encouraged to pursue another profession.
  3. For continued financial stability and effectiveness, independent schools must do a much better job of working together, not against each other. From sharing best practices to engaging in blended and online consortia, independent schools must rethink how they market, recruit, and distinguish themselves from competitors. This includes other independent, public, and charter schools.
  4. With ever-rising tuition costs, independent schools need to seriously question and address why a $5-, $15-, $20-, $30- or $40-thousand tuition is worth it when there are free public and charter school options. Independent schools should experiment with blended and online learning models not only to distinguish themselves, but also to reduce costs. This includes rethinking the value of daily face-to-face instruction (at least in certain courses), reducing the number of full-time employees, and making independent school tuition more affordable.
  5. Widespread understanding of and support for a major shift in how we teach and assess must come first, well before adopting any technology, including online and blended learning. Placing a tablet or computer in front of students before undertaking significant design thinking and professional development (which too many schools are guilty of) is a big waste of resources. Don’t let technology become the “gift that keeps on taking.”
  6. More schools should consider embracing competency-based learning, where students progress at their own pace. More than ever, technology allows students to decide how and what they learn, and, in both respects, schools must do a better job of giving students choice. Teachers must also rethink their traditional sage-on-the-stage role. They should instead embrace the role of “coach” or “mentor,” directing students to quality information and online learning programs.
  7. AP courses and high-stakes standardized testing hamper innovation and progress, especially as tuition-paying parents are increasingly concerned not necessarily with what their kids learn, or what they can do with what they learn, but with grades and SAT scores. Independent schools need support, perhaps from NAIS and regional accrediting bodies, to help educate parents about what skills, qualities, and characteristics students really need to succeed, not just in college, but also in the workforce.

What are your thoughts? How can independent schools thrive into the future? I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. You can also Tweet your ideas to #NaisDeepDive, where a lively discussion will be held next week.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply May 19, 2014


    These schools can work together and integrate innovative ways that will encourage the students to excel without compulsion. Also the parents can help the schools by motivating their wards.

  • Reply May 19, 2014

    Scott McLeod

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David. My mind has been spinning since the summit too. I’ll try and put together a blog post over the next few days…

    It was great to meet you in person. Glad you had a good experience in DC!

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