11/29/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

The Athena Project

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A year ago, we interviewed Peter Nilsson, an English teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts who runs The Educator’s Notebook, a popular weekly education e-newsletter. Nilsson has also been involved in other projects as well, including founding and directing Athena, a new nonprofit platform designed to encourage teachers to share resources and collaborate with each other. Athena also includes a summer professional development program for independent school educators that has been well received in its first two years.

Having heard positive responses from participants in the summer fellowship program, we recently caught up with Nilsson to ask about the project’s progress and his views on improving our favorite profession.

CS&A Staff: Let’s start with a quick background on the Athena project. When did it start and what were your initial thoughts about the need for a website that connects educators in this way?

Peter Nilsson: The project began when I was in graduate school, 2006-07, with the realization that the field of education has no professional memory. Most other fields do. Doctors have vast records of practices and diagnostic procedures that they can draw on. Lawyers have hundreds of years of precedents that they can refer to. But teachers more or less reinvent the wheel every day.

Athena began with the realization that the cyclical disappearance of knowledge was the cause of so many other problems in the field of education. I began to think that if we could solve this problem, if we could begin to gather this information in a way that was also easy to retrieve and that encourages interaction, then we would have a powerful tool to improve the quality of teaching — not just for new teachers but for all teachers.

Of course, that was over a decade ago, during the early days of social media when sites like Facebook were only a few years old. At the time, I thought that there must be some online platform for teachers to share practices. And sure enough, there were some that were just getting going. But it turns out that all of them were struggling at scaling up because of one of three problems every teacher encountered when looking online for solutions and ideas. One, it’s hard to find what you are looking for. Two, when you do find material, the quality is unreliable. Three, access to the information costs too much money. Any one of those problems is going to inhibit growth of the site and prevent teachers from coming back. It’s going to prevent a real universal memory from accruing.

When I looked at these platforms, I began to think there must be a better way. So I drew some sketches of what such a platform might look like, showed it to colleagues — and all of them said, “Yes, that’s what I’m looking for.”

The story takes some twists and turns. Basically, I put the idea on hold for a while and started it back up a few years ago. Our team was able to build a prototype, which led to a grant from the Robertson Foundation to deepen the prototype, then to an Edward E. Ford Foundation grant that enabled us to set up a nonprofit and launch The Athena Project in 2015.

CS&A Staff: How many educators are involved with the platform today?

Nilsson: Up until now, we tried to keep the platform intentionally small because it wasn’t quite ready to scale. But based on our first few years of experience, we’re ready to bring in more educators.

CS&A Staff: What have you been working out with the platform?

Nilsson: There are many factors intrinsic to the field of education that make it difficult to accrue the kind of information we want to offer on the site. While in, say, medicine, diagnostic procedures and treatment methods can be fairly standardized, teaching must be adapted, personalized to individual schools and classrooms — to the people who are teaching it, to the students who are taking it, to the time in which they are taking it. So, as researcher Justin Reich has put it, curriculum doesn’t compile in the way, say, a Wikipedia page does. It can’t be reduced into one page. Curriculum diverges into many forms. How you teach something looks different in every classroom.

Athena began with several core hypotheses about how, fundamentally, information should be organized and shared in education. What we’ve done in the first couple years is test these core hypotheses. And the feedback we’ve gotten suggests that these hypotheses are right. People respond positively to the way in which we organize and present information, which is different from any other site.

In short, we enable teachers not only to find lessons, activities, assignments and resources directly related to their courses, but also to engage with the information. Educators can revise it, contribute to it, collaborate around it as actively and easily as possible. Now that we know we have this fundamental architecture developed, and know that teachers find it valuable, effective, and professionally stimulating, we are starting to move to the next stage.

CS&A Staff: I understand what you’re describing here. But it sounds a bit abstract. Can you give me a concrete example of how a teacher is using or could use the platform?

Nilsson: Think of it this way: Virtually every teacher has had the experience of going online looking for materials. As an English teacher, for example, I might be looking for additional approaches to teaching “The Great Gatsby.” What I would find online, in most cases, is a webpage with a search bar that offers me a list of search results. Often, if needed, I can add some filters. That’s the system on almost every site out there. What that’s doing is emulating Google, the dominant model of information organization. But what we’ve found is that this system produces too few useful results or too many disorganized results. There are many other ways to organize information online. But virtually every education site uses single list search results approach. We’re doing something different — focusing more on arranging information by topic and directory trees.

So again, as an English teacher, I might be looking for information on “The Great Gatsby.” What would help me most is to first find a topic page with all the resources related to “The Great Gatsby.” Once I find the topic page, I may want to find assignments of effective questions or multimedia objects or projects I can use in the classroom. I may be looking for objects related to just chapter 1 or 6 or to the whole text. This is what we’re doing on the Athena platform — not just filtering, but also structuring knowledge in topics with the ability to go as deeply as one wants or need.

For a history class on the Civil Rights movement, for example, a teacher might want to start with, say, 19th century abolitionists then work forward to the 1960s Civil Rights era.

In education, we want pages that are organized by the topics we are teaching. And then within that topic, we want information organized by the kinds of materials we are looking for. Notably, teachers don’t always teach by content. They may teach by focusing on learning skills. So if I’m a teacher who wants to teach, say, compare and contrast essays, I’ll want to go to a page focused on compare and contrast essays where I can find models, assignment examples, exercises, online resources and so forth.

CS&A Staff: You said earlier that educators can use the site not only to find materials but also to engage in discussion with others about the materials. Is that happening now?

Nilsson: Yes. One of the pleasant surprises was the effectiveness with which the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education program for independent schools has been using Athena for a form of lesson-study with their students. Essentially, the students (who are also teaching fellows at independent schools) join together in subject groups. As a group, they meet their subject mentor and do a series of professional development exercises over the course of the year. A few of those exercises involve taking a lesson or test that they have designed, posting it on Athena, and in their groups offering feedback and reflections. A facilitator/mentor is also able to offer the students feedback not only on their classroom activities but also on their professional engagement with each other. We hope to use the site to expand these kinds of professional development experiences.

CS&A Staff: This reminds me that I want to ask you about the Athena summer fellowship program. You’ve completed two years of the program — and it sounds as if the teachers are finding it valuable.

Nilsson: There is a truism in platform design that says, “If you build it, they won’t come.” The internet is full of sites — even very good sites — that very few people visit. We didn’t just want to create a repository, a platform to gather information. We want a platform that both gathers information and enables dynamic interaction. So we developed professional development structures around the platform that would encourage such engagement.

We piloted our fellowship program in the summer of 2017. It involved a small stipend for about fifteen teachers from around the country in which they shared some of their materials with other teachers on the platform, offered feedback on the material of the other teachers, and then revised and improved their work based on the feedback. The fellowship program was modeled after what the University of Pennsylvania graduate students were already doing.

The feedback we got from that first summer was overwhelmingly positive. One hundred percent of the educators said this was a valuable experience and that this program would be meaningful for their colleagues. They also said if, given the chance, they would do it again.

This led us to apply for, and receive, a matching Leadership grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation. We raised enough funds to offer a second fellowship program this past summer. This time, we wanted to try it at a larger scale, so we offered fellowships to around 50 teachers from 44 schools nationwide — and again received positive feedback. There were some lessons learned as we scaled it up, but one hundred percent said at the end of the summer that the experience was valuable and felt Athena would be valuable to their colleagues. So we know we’ve created something meaningful.

We hope to continue to offer this sort of professional development program in the coming summers, but we won’t be offering the stipends directly from Athena, though they may come from schools. Fiscally, it’s too difficult to sustain the stipends at our end. But we did want to prime the pump, so to speak, by creating these trial engagements with the site — to make sure what we are doing is of value to the community.

We’re very happy with the results and hope in the future to partner with schools to help fund their teachers’ involvement in a similar summer professional development program in the future.

CS&A Staff: In the first two summer programs, were these mostly new teachers or did you mix in new and experienced educator?

Nilsson: This past summer, we had teachers with a wide array of experience — from those with two years of experience to some more than 20 years. We had one educator with 48 years of experience. It was a fabulous mix and all of them found value or promise in the program.

CS&A Staff: Are they continuing to engage with Athena after the fellowship?

Nilsson: Yes. We are still a very lean organization, so we are trying to keep the engagement with the platform fairly small, with a goal of growing over time. First we need to build up the Athena staff to make sure we’re able to run the website and program as they should be run. So we have not actively sent out news or promoted the site. That said, it’s been a pleasant surprise to learn that we still have daily traffic from participants in the two summer fellowship programs and from UPenn. Teachers are coming back to explore topics they found interesting over the summer and they are sending colleagues to the site.

CS&A Staff: Are these mostly independent school folks?

Nilsson: Yes. At the moment, most are from independent schools, and we’re focusing primarily on secondary school humanities. Though we hope to broaden the platform over time to serve the K-12 spectrum and the full range of subjects.

CS&A Staff: You mention administrators on your website. What’s the plan for them?

Nilsson: At the moment, the site is designed for teachers. We may find ways in the future to connect administrators, but we’re not doing so at the moment. Mostly, we’re raising awareness with administrators and encouraging them to support their teachers’ involvement with Athena.

CS&A Staff: You also mention that you are hoping for schools to join as members of the site in the near future. What does membership mean?

Nilsson: For schools, we imagine developing a community membership that guarantees and sponsors a number of summer fellowship slots for teachers at their school as well as access to additional collaborative tools that enable greater engagement within a school and with educators in other schools.

We really want teachers — whether they are interested in teaching “The Great Gatsby” or social justice or the digital humanities — to feel that they are part of a community of like-minded educators. These communities will be enabled by the collaborative tools available on the site — tools, for instance, that encourage discussions or enables connections and more organic knowledge sharing.

The membership process is part of our experimentation with sustainable organizational models for the site. The primary goal of Athena is to build communities of teachers online, but we also need to ensure that it is a sustainable organization.

CS&A Staff: Where do you hope Athena will be in five years?

Nilsson: In five years, we’d like Athena to provide resources for teachers in all disciplines, at least at the secondary level. We’d like the site to enable and encourage these educators to collaborate across distance much more easily and learn and grow with each other. We’d like to provide a venue for a community of teachers to form organically so that all of us might be able to grow and develop a shared knowledge-base.

We think the platform will be extraordinarily useful in a number of ways. For example, in addition to information on subject matter, we want Athena to be a valuable venue for teachers looking to respond to current events. In fact, this is already happening on the site. When white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a counter-protester was killed, for instance, two teachers shared discussion questions and classroom activities that they found promising. This information was picked up by other teachers wondering how to respond in their own classes. And this happened with just a few people using the site. When thousands of educators are creating, accessing, and sharing such information after a crisis or important cultural event, all educators will be empowered to engage with their students in ways we know work.

We also hope that there will be robust communities of interest across a range of disciplines. I teach digital humanities at Deerfield. There’s just a small number of us teaching this at my school. But there might be thousands of other teachers around the country who are or are interested in teaching a similar course. It would be excellent if all of us were able to congregate in a place that enables us to share resources and ideas and comment on what works best for us. The same thing is true for any course. We’d like to see Athena as an easy, supportive, enjoyable destination for teachers looking to connect with other teachers on any shared topic of interest.

CS&A Staff: Is the site designed to engage educators on issues other than classroom content? I’m thinking, for instance, about all the current conversations on trying to personalize education as much as possible.

Nilsson: Yes. Personalization, as you know, is one of those terms that is vaguely and inconsistently defined, therefore it is also inconsistently implemented. The inconsistency is not necessarily bad. It just means that personalization can mean different things to different educators.

What we do know is that effective teaching involves using the right tool, the right intervention, the right activity in the right moment. If the heart of personalized learning is understanding individual students and then tailoring responses to the needs of those students, then we can understand why there are so many implementations of personalized learning. Is a mastery-based curricula personalized learning? Is adaptive technology? Are student-curated playlists? The answer to all of these is yes. What matters is that in every instance, we are recognizing where students are and then we are providing an appropriate path forward. Good teachers know that at the heart of teaching is understanding the student and then having the repertoire to respond.

What’s so exciting about Athena is that it can provide a mass, shared repertoire that teachers can refer to and draw on as needed. This is what is meant by a professional memory for the field of education. As the platform grows, so will the shared repertoire on any subject.

For more information on Athena, visit, http://www.teachathena.org/.

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