Learning is Change

Ben Wilkoff’s Biography

The Short Version:

Ben Wilkoff is the Program Manager for Digital Education and Academic Technologies for the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Colorado.  This means that he manages a 1:1 iPad program, an Immersive Learning Suite (for VR/AR), and the overall innovation of learning environments at the school. He has also led the Blended and Personalized Learning efforts for Denver and Aurora public schools. He has taught middle schoolers English. He has managed online communities for Edmodo and led online course development for Douglas County Schools. He was named the Totally Wired Teacher of the year in 2007 by Edutopia and has blogged at Learning is Change since 2004. He is married to his favorite person, and loves his three children quite a little bit (aged 5, 10 and 12). He is passionate about authentic learning, technology with purpose, and creating at least one new thing every day. In short, he teaches, and learns. A lot.

The Long Version:

Not everyone has tech-savvy grandparents, but I was lucky that way, I guess. My grandparents took me to the Greater Cleveland PC users group meetings starting when I was in the 7th grade. I started leading a special interest group (SIG) for my fellow nerdy teens not long after that. I think even from that early age, I was planning lessons for how to make meaning out of a seemingly segregated worlds of learning and technology.

As you might imagine, I was the founding president of the Computer Club in my high school. Although it doesn’t have much bearing on my current relationship to educational technology, this was my first exposure to curating resources (mostly games and free tools for creating things on the web) for others to benefit from. I also encountered an amazing teacher, Carolyn Petite, who fostered in me a balance between the academic pursuit of logic and programming and the human pursuit of teaching.

Unfortunately, my teacher education program in college did nothing to encourage this balance. The version of “technology integration” that I learned within my student teaching days was composed mostly of how to incorporate Microsoft Office products and prefabricated webquests into our schools. This experience was great for helping me to deeply learn the pedagogy of great instruction, but did nothing for supporting the authentic learning experiences that I would later try to build in my classroom.

I started teaching 7th grade Language Arts in 2004, and it was at this time that I started to connect the dots between learning and technology. The first dot for me was blogging. Immediately I started a “first year teacher blog”. Seeing the benefit of audience and just-in-time feedback, I dedicated an essay writing unit to exploring blogging with my students. But blogging wasn’t just a “cool tool.” It was a way to learn who my students were and how they learned. It was a way to create an environment of writers and thinkers, a purpose for learning. So, after my initial experience with essay blogging, I tried my hand at blogging with memoirs, poems, and classroom lessons. I was hooked.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2006, however, that my ideas started to coalesce into any kind of coherent narrative. Up until that point, I was mostly just consuming things when I had the time, and integrating technology when I had the access. That spring, I decided to download every educational podcast I could, read every edublog I could find, and try to understand just what made the community thrive. I started to save every link via social bookmarking.

By the time the 2006-2007 school year rolled around, I was ready to implement a fully formed blogging curriculum. At various points in the year, I also tried my hand at digital storytelling, collaborative podcasting, wiki projects, and embedded media. The kids ate it up. Consistently, my evaluations spoke of a type of learning that wasn’t happening everywhere. It required a new word: authenticity.

After the early successes and the constant reflection that followed, I felt that it was time to build a pedagogy that would support the type of learning I was seeing in my classroom. That is how the the school within a school model called The Academy of Discovery came about. During a bout of student standardized testing, I conducted tech integration research and started to craft the language that would eventually be the 6 strings of Authentic Learning. Although implementing such a program had its challenges, the process of creating change within a rigid system that is resistant to it is incredibly rewarding.

I always said that I would never leave the classroom unless it was to create change on a larger scale. I am a teacher, and I will always be a teacher. However, I was given the opportunity to do more. I was recruited to help build the online school in Douglas County. I followed my passion for finding solutions and I was able to support the creation of dozens of online courses, a series of ongoing online PD structures, a district-wide Google Apps implementation, and 3 different LMS adoptions.

This success led to another transition for creating change. I went to work for a startup during their exponential growth period. I joined Edmodo as their 13th employee as they grew from 500,000 users to 5,000,000 in the course of six months. This experience gave me the ability to see into thousands of classrooms and schools around the nation.  I conducted weekly webinars and face-to-face professional development, cultivated online communities, and crafted a worldwide Help Center.  As a community, we constantly searched for best practice for teachers, schools and districts around the world. But, the headquarters for all of this growth was California, and my family and my heart was still very much in Colorado.

So, I tried to see just how far an authentic learning environment could work within a structure of professional learning. Not just within a school environment, but also within the world of work. I took my startup experience from Edmodo and joined a fledgling leadership development firm. I was responsible for creating online communities of practice for adult learners to help them solve problems. I started creating learning systems to support the community and integrate social media to create a platform of “Curated Insight”.

As it turns out, authentic learning has a place everywhere. But, it was time to bring that fact back home to a school district. In a dual role since joining Denver Public, I have been responsible for the rollout of large Blended Learning pilot programs within grant-funded sites. I have worked with the 5,500 teachers of DPS in online communities of practice around educator effectiveness and standards implementation. I currently lead efforts for the development of personalized professional learning plans as a growth-based model for increasing educator effectiveness. I also engage in setting up innovative Professional Learning structures and programs such as a district-wide pilot of collaborative video capture and feedback systems.

In Aurora Public Schools, I have been translating the original vision of Authentic Learning into a full-fledged framework for Personalized Professional Learning. Thus far, this is what it looks like:

Today I am compelled to share my story, my progression from creating an artificial separation between technology and pedagogy to defining the connections. I love talking about where I have been, where I am going, and what it takes to frame change for success. I consider it a privilege to help others who are interested in walking down a similar path. My pride and passion for this work is shown in every presentation I do, every project I work on/create, and every class that I teach.

So, yeah. I teach. And learn. A lot.


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