Bringing Life to Education; Accessible Help for Any Teacher
President and CEO of The Source for Learning, Lynn Rejniak talked with me about her company which provides instructional content to teachers everywhere, free of charge or at a low cost. We briefly talked about homeschooling, success in teaching diverse students, and the importance of active learning. With twenty-plus years in educational technology, she identifies this commitment; “What is so important about ed-tech from our perspective is the ability to ensure every child has enhanced learning opportunities. To achieve this, teachers need to be able to teach to individualized learning needs. In that regard, I would say that the technological advancements - and science - around more personalized learning experiences is important.”
She and her staff provide these services based on the nonprofit company’s mission to create and deliver high-quality, technology-based content and services that enhance learning for all children. She said; “We ensure that no matter the trend, policy, technology, or innovation, we stay aligned with the mission. SFL desires to be the go-to resource for professional learning because we believe that effective teacher learning can help to level the field for student success.”
The founder John Curtis attended a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York in the early 1900s where he called himself a "goof-off." His teacher realized he wasn't challenged enough and knew he had potential. She encouraged him to work hard, apply himself, and achieve great things.
This teacher spent weekends on a two-hour train ride to NYC to access the public library. She returned with books and other resources, so John and her other students had materials for their individual learning needs. "John was able to get into a preparatory school, which got him into Yale University and from there he went on to become a successful communications engineer," explained Rejniak.
Because of his success, Curtis vowed to honor his former teacher by providing free instructional content to teachers everywhere, so he became an advocate for educational technology. "John started this company wanting to ensure teachers never had to struggle to access instructional resources," added Rejniak.
For almost 40 years, SFL built a loyal following of teachers providing free resources on how to teach what they teach. Rejniak explained how they fill the gap where the government and corporate sector cannot give to teachers what they need. “We are helping teachers make not just sense, but good use of all that is out there in the world of education technology and ensure that help is accessible for any teacher,” expressed Rejniak.
Rejinak works with her staff to help educators enrich their teaching despite funding shortages, diverse learning needs, time constraints, and larger classrooms. “To enhance learning for all children, we bolster effective teacher learning through access to high-quality educational resources,” explained Rejniak. “Professional learning is always teacher-directed and student-centered.”
Several programs are available through SFL website, TeachersFirst is their K-12 program. Rejniak explained TeachersFirst provides, on average, 15,000 teacher-reviewed web resources wrapped with examples of how teachers can put these to work in the classroom. “We organize this content in a variety of ways so that teachers can navigate and consume these resources in a way that best meet their needs at any given time.
“K-12 also offers online tech coaching, OK2Ask in the form of virtual workshops and PD Twitter chats taking educators on a deeper dive to technology integration. As a part of these forums, we don’t just introduce a cool tool, we take it one step further and show how it can be used wisely and well as an instructional resource.”
Rejniak added that some of the K-12 content is third party and some of the applications SFL develop themselves. “For example, for middle-level science, we have developed a safe and secure platform for teaching science through an instructional model that uses social learning to improve and personalize the student experience in science. Students assume the identity of a science concept (an avatar per se) and then interact as that identity with other students on the platform. Teachers post online prompts to guide and stimulate student exchanges. To support adoption and ongoing use of the platform, teachers have access to a library of resources, learning checklists, assessment rubrics, and user training/learning networks.”
Rejniak shared this anecdote about a teacher in a small, rural community in Missouri using SNF middle-level science social learning platform; MySciLife. “One of her students always wanted to become a farmer. After learning about science using this teaching/learning model, he now is interested in becoming a conservation specialist,” explained Rejniak. “By learning through collaboration, research, and reflection, this student has developed a deeper understanding about his own interests and desires and how he might wish to apply those– looking beyond a specific position of ‘What I want to be’ and contemplating more about ‘What I want to do’, ‘What problems do I want to solve?’. To me, that is powerful.”
Another service SFL offers is access to mobile broadband in specific locations across the U.S. “In these particular areas we identify an under or unserved school and offer internet access using mobile hotspots. We are finding that programs that are allowing students to use these devices at home are not only seeing all the documented gains of improved student learning, but we are also hearing about the benefits of increased family engagement. Parents are now able to access school portals and student learning systems and are connecting in new and more ways with their child’s learning and in turn are becoming more active in the process.”
One of SNF challenges is the stigma of being a nonprofit. SNF resources and services are offered for low or no cost and some potential end users are skeptical. “Sometimes we find folks are hesitant to ‘buy’ free. There are either perceptions that free services are based on a freemium model or that perhaps there are quality compromises.”
Rejniak is quick to correct that perception. “SFL strives to continue to provide high-quality and value-added resources to our users. Our reviewers, content developers and many of our staff are educators, and they connect with our users on a practical and sometimes emotional level. They understand the challenges of teaching and that professional learning is no longer an occasional practice but a way of teaching each day.”