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MERIT program: Providing tech tools for collaborative learning



Teachers are all smiles as they learn new skills they can take back to the classroom, courtesy of the MERIT program at the Krause Center for Innovation. Courtesy of Liane Freeman

Two teachers at Branciforte Middle School in Santa Cruz went from being technophobes to technology innovators, not only bolstering instruction in the classroom, but also transforming their entire school. They ended up writing a business plan for a school technology center.

It all started with enrollment in the Krause Center for Innovation’s MERIT (Making Education Relevant and Interactive through Technology) program at Foothill College. The professional development program for K-12 teachers gives them the tech tools needed to up their instructional game, inspiring them to innovate and try the untried. As a result, teachers and students work more collaboratively and student learning increases dramatically.

“Before I started with MERIT, I didn’t even know Google had apps,” said Lisa Highfill, a Pleasanton fifth-grade teacher who entered the program in 2010. “When I learned how to authentically integrate web tools, my lessons took on a whole new level of engagement and effectiveness. … I now design webpages for teachers and students and create digital lessons that integrate all subjects and project-based learning activities.”

Highfill is now an instructional technology coach with the Pleasanton Unified School District.

Despite the program’s success, MERIT staff wanted a thorough evaluation of the program beyond teacher testimonials. As a result, the program is in the middle of a two-year third-party study to examine effectiveness.

“Preliminary results are excellent,” said Liane Freeman, KCI’s strategy and marketing director.

The 10-month MERIT program culminates in two weeks of intensive training over the summer, with instructors applying their tech tools to actual classroom projects and presenting the projects to one another for feedback.

“We stress free web-based tools,” Freeman said. “You have access wherever you are in your environment.”

Teachers work on projects that emphasize collaboration with students. Last year one instructor set up a business with special-education students to sell items on eBay. Another created a website and ran a campaign with students to keep the Pigeon Point Light Station open.

The MERIT program accepts approximately 50 teachers a year, most from around the Bay Area but some from out of state and overseas. Since its inception in 2001, approximately 800 teachers have participated in the program.

Although most of the operations take place at the KCI campus, MERIT personnel have begun to conduct outreach at schools via “mini-MERIT” programs, Freeman said, including one at Egan Junior High School in Los Altos.

Freeman said the MERIT program is especially vital now in helping instructors adjust to new Common Core State Standards that emphasize not only getting the right answer, but also showing how students arrived at that answer.

“Twenty-first-century learning is all about collaboration, critical-thinking problem solving, communication,” Freeman said. “We’re building a pro-learning community.”

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