Rocketship's Learning Lab.
Rocketship's Learning Lab.

Rocketship Education, a network of charter schools based in California, is changing the way students will use computers in its Learning Labs. Rather than spending chunks of time in computer labs with divided computer stations, students will be using computers in their classrooms, with the help of teachers and aids.

“The integration between the classroom and the Learning Lab was an area that could improve. That’s part of the reason that we made this shift,” said Charlie Bufalino, National Development Associate and former Online Learning Specialist at Rocketship. By moving computers back into the classroom, Rocketship is hoping to form a better connection to what students are doing on computers to what they’re learning in class.

In a PBS Newshour special last month, several teachers said that Learning Lab practice isn’t linked closely enough to what happens in class. Bufalino says that teachers have always been encouraged to use data from online learning to inform their teaching; that said, at its most basic level, the function of the Learning Lab was for skills practice, while teachers focused teaching on what they call higher order thinking skills in class. Now, Rocketship is hoping teachers will have more control over both.

“The idea is that in this more flexible model, there will be more time for teachers to diagnose and look at the data,” Bufalino said.

The data, however, can be overwhelming for teachers to analyze. Rocketship uses six different online programs, all with separate mechanisms and criteria for feedback. Rocketship’s national office has been working on building proprietary systems that unify all the data, so teachers look at one screen that compares apples to apples at a glance. Their integration system is aligned to the Common Core and teachers can see if students have mastered a skill, what method they used, whether they tried and failed, even how hard they’ve been working on it. Rocketship also invests money into academic deans who visit classrooms, help teachers analyze data and use it to shape their lessons, and generally coach teachers on how they can improve.

“The data drives how we want to group students,” Bufalino said. “It shouldn’t be acceptable that we have these different learning modalities and then still have them moving together in class.” And that’s what was happening to some extent when the Learning Lab was separate from classroom instruction. Teachers taught essentially the same lesson to all students. With the new approach, Rocketship is hoping they can effectively group kids according to their skill sets.

Bufalino was quick to point out that the move away from Learning Labs doesn’t mean the model wasn’t working – Rocketship has consistently posted good math and literacy test scores. They even boast that their students, 90% of whom are low-income and 70% of whom are English Language Learners, have math scores that rival the wealthiest school districts in California.

But Rocketship’s model has been criticized as using “drill and kill” computer games to keep students busy and to save money. But Bufalino says the computer software has helped learners who have fallen behind to catch up and high achievers to steam ahead. “The key is to see the program as a component to a larger academic plan,” he said. “It doesn’t work if it’s the only thing, but when a teacher scaffolds learning on top of that practice and uses it to influence content, it can be very effective.”

Rocketship doesn’t have all the logistics worked out yet, but they are imagining that the change will mean combining classrooms so that teachers are working in teams with the Learning Lab mentors, directing some kids to work on computers, some to do small group work and others to receive tutoring or direct instruction.

Rocketship also hopes that by having their mentors in the same classroom with teachers they can begin to build a teacher pipeline.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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