A warehouse in the Rust Belt might not seem like a setting fit for designing the future of education.

But this isn’t just any old space.

Ohio educators share insights at an Innovation Lab training workshop. Photo courtesy of EdVisionPlus

A foundation in Columbus, Ohio, renovated the empty industrial building last year and named it the PAST Innovation Lab. And last week dozens of educators from around the state gathered there to hatch their plans for schools that harness the power of technology and tried-and-true teaching methods. Teams included administrators, teachers, curriculum specialists and school technology professionals.

“What was really amazing was the cross section of schools: urban, suburban, rural, traditional, charter, STEM and career tech,” said Michele D. Timmons, CEO and president of EnvisionEdPlus, the organization that led last week’s event. “This one opportunity brought these individuals from any type of public school together to learn from experts and each other.”

Last year, the lab was included in the White House’s announcement of a $375 million effort to create “next generation high schools.” The training program held there for Ohio educators was the pilot.  Eventually, Timmons said, they hope to expand this type of training to additional states, and feedback from the work in Ohio will help shape that effort.

It comes at a good time. Experts cite educator and school leader training as a critical component for innovations such as blended learning, which mixes in-person and computer-based elements into the classroom experience.

The lab provided a flexible area that allowed educators to work in a place that might look like a redesigned classroom, with different stations for different learning sessions. Text messages told them when to switch sessions. Very few papers were handed out; instead, blogs provided information. Furniture on wheels allowed them to quickly reconfigure the room.

The first part of the training – called the “Personalized Learning Design Lab” – worked sort of like speed dating. A team of educators from each school or district met in a series of six 20-minute sessions with national experts, other school district leaders and vendors, to talk about their needs and plans for the future.

Educators also worked together on their plans, and were given information that they could choose to pursue at their own pace, much the way students would work in a new style of classroom. The event culminated with presentations about what they learned, as well as time to ask experts follow-up questions.

“There seems to be an emerging and very rich pool of innovators who are dedicated to the work with personalization,” said Tricia Moore, director of partnerships and shared services for the Reynoldsburg City Schools in central Ohio, a district that took part as both an expert and a participant.

And to make the most of these diverse perspectives, teams paused for “brain breaks.” They provided a way to forge relationships across district boundaries – and have some fun.

“It’s a riot, Timmons said. “When teams needed a break we would see ping pong balls flying or people walking around with marshmallows on their heads.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.