Making Student-Centered Learning A Reality? Nellie Mae’s Integrated Learning Systems Grant Program

June 7, 2015

ILS blog


How will the vision of student-centered learning become a reality? The Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) sought to address a piece of the puzzle through their recent Integrated Learning Systems request for proposals. The implementation of student-centered learning requires fundamental changes away from traditional practices. It involves complex, data-intensive tasks like differentiating instruction for every student, ensuring that each student is mastering competencies at their own pace, and facilitating students’ progress through a range of pathways. In order to ensure that every student benefits from student-centered learning, it must be implemented at scale across education systems – meaning implementation must not require heroic levels of effort from the educators charged with employing it. The right set of tools should help pave the way forward for that systemic implementation, speeding progress and ensuring that all students leave school ready for college and career.

Education technology may be one critical tool that can make such a transformation possible, by streamlining the execution of student-centered practices – such as data collection and analysis, differentiation, individualization, or formative assessment – and allowing teachers and administrators more time to focus on teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, common problems with the design of ed tech tools — which are often designed for traditional education models — can serve as barriers to maximizing the use of those tools in student-centered learning environments. The procurement process introduces additional difficulties. The procurement of education technology products is similarly problematic. Choices about technology tools, like a particular piece of online curriculum or a learning management system, may be made one at a time to meet single needs, and those choices may happen at the classroom, building, and district level in uncoordinated ways. Educators may lack the technology expertise needed to effectively translate between the language of education and that of software developers. These issues on both the supply and demand fronts may result in a mismatched suite of tools, used unevenly across the system, that is not always clearly connected to pedagogy and the school or LEA’s vision for instruction and learning. NMEF is seeking a different process for ed tech procurement that starts with needs assessments and design-thinking.

By supporting a different process for selecting ed tech tools and partnering with vendors, NMEF seeks to help districts create “Integrated Learning Systems,” where multiple tools function as a unified stack with data passing freely from one tool to another. Each component of the stack works together to support teachers and administrators and simplify the work of implementing student-centered learning (such as differentiating instruction or tracking student progress against competencies). These tools could include systems such as learning management systems, student information systems, assessment systems, learning resources discovery and management systems, data analytic systems, collaboration and other social learning tools, and more. For more about the particular technology functions that might be needed to support student-centered learning designs, check out this publication from iNACOL that delves deeply into the features and organization of education technology.

The three main goals for NMEF’s Integrated Learning System program include:

  • Refine a process: The grantees in this program will pursue an approach to education technology that involves self-assessment, partnership with vendors, and iterative piloting.
  • Design and test integrated learning systems: Grantees will consider available ed tech tools and attempt to integrate them into cohesive systems to support student-centered learning.
  • Plan for scale: The work will take place within a single state, and the grantees in participating districts, schools, and pilot classrooms will seek to generate a process and solutions that have the potential to benefit their peers across the state.

NMEF initiated the request for proposals in fall 2016. They asked state-level applicants to assemble a team of partners to work together with local education agencies (LEAs). The task was to design and implement suites of tools specifically aligned to the unique needs of each LEA. These tools would address the systems barriers to making student-centered learning a reality in their schools. NMEF awarded Highlander Institute with the 18-month grant to work with districts in Rhode Island starting in January 2017. Highlander Institute is acting as lead organization, bringing together Rhode Island district and high school staff to pursue a multi-part design and piloting process. Check out our next blog for details about Highlander Institute and their planned work for the Integrated Learning Systems program.

To learn more about the Fuse Architect project, updates, and partnerships, see all blogs in this series!

You Might Also Be Interested In

Skip to content