Major Themes from iNACOL 2016

Educators from across the country gathered in San Antonio October 24-28 for iNACOL’s annual Blended and Online Learning Symposium. Here are some of the major themes from this year’s event.

Redefine Success

Susan Patrick, President and CEO of iNACOL, opened the conference with a call to action. The recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has given our country the opportunity to redefine what success looks like for our students. States now control local educational policies and are encouraged to broaden the indicators of student success beyond standardized test scores. Now is the time for purposeful discussions about educational policy at all levels. Our students need fearless leaders to challenge the status quo and support changes that have a lasting impact.

Why does “success” need a new definition?

The End of Average

The End of Average book cover

Todd Rose, from Harvard University and author of the (highly recommended) book The End of Average, presented a challenging question in his keynote: if each student is unique, why are many students taught in a standardized way? Educational systems from the industrial era were built with efficiency in mind; students were ranked, grouped, and steered through a set pathway of education. Today, teaching practices aimed at the ‘average student’ ultimately satisfy the needs of few students. Rather than summarize a multidimensional student with a single score compared to an average, we must strive to value the uniqueness, the ‘jaggedness,’ of the individual. Education that focuses on the individual will ultimately result in greater equity.

Why is equity important?

Innovation for Equity

Equity is not the same as equality. Equity means tailoring learning experiences to individual students so all students get an education that meets their needs. Innovation is a key ingredient to achieve this. Jim Shelton, from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, acknowledged in his keynote that innovation is often met with many barriers, but those willing to take risks and learn from mistakes are already having an impact on students. Transformational innovation must be scalable (more than just a passing fad or trend) and impactful (inventions that challenge the norm and create opportunity). In addition, students need more than just innovative instruction; innovation can impact social, emotional, physical, and other needs that contribute to a student’s individuality and success.

How do we teach to the individual?

Personalized Learning

Student personalization course slider

As expected, “personalized learning” permeated the iNacol symposium. In fact, the phrase appeared in the title of more than 50 of the 200+ breakout sessions. Educators, school leaders, and students themselves shared stories of success, challenge, and discovery. One mantra from personalized learning pioneers could serve as a refrain for those joining the movement: “standards does not equal standardization.” Many school systems still rely on a framework of standards, but this doesn’t mean the learning connected to these standards needs to look the same for each student. Progress will rely on changes to both the actions and mindsets of educators and those supporting them.

Can we learn to embrace standards without standardization?

Even if you were unable to attend the symposium you are still a part of the conversation. Take advantage of resources from iNacol and other organizations. Learn from others. Share your experiences. And most importantly, step outside your comfort zone and try something new.  Students everywhere are counting on you.

About the Author


Aaron Griffith-VanderYacht

A native of Bellingham, Washington, Aaron Griffith-VanderYacht began his career as a special education teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, and Brooklyn, New York, and is a Teach For America alumnus. Always seeking to integrate technology into the classroom, it was a natural progression to move into the world of e-learning where he has gained experience as an instructional designer, professional development consultant, and product specialist. He believes that online and blended learning can be key tools in providing an excellent education for all students.