Friday, 16 March 2018

On the expansion of space and time

As technology evolves, it creates new ways to think about old problems. When I first started working in education technology 15 years ago, edtech was still fairly new – and much of it was clunky and confined to the computer lab.

Wi-Fi is now available pretty much everywhere, creating new pathways for program delivery and instructional support. Although limited (or overstretched) bandwidth is still an issue for many schools, the model of anytime/anywhere access is very attractive for administrators who’ve embraced the concept of self-paced learning. Yes, there are some who want to lock down the time and place for learning (I’m sure they have their reasons), but the idea that more is better seems to be catching hold. Parents are also trying to find different ways to help their kids outside the traditional school day.

The old problem hasn’t changed. How can schools squeeze more learning into the schedule, especially for students who are falling behind their peers? As software developers, we look at that question from two angles: student access and teacher monitoring. On the access side, all you need is a device, an Internet connection and a login ID – and an extra 20 minutes. Activities designed in short chunks, with built-in rewards for effort and quality, encourage students to work more and track their own improvements.

On the teacher side, it’s about paring down the data to the essentials – such as daily usage, notifications and progress metrics. Teachers still want to see the details, and they can get them by drilling down into activity and performance reports. 

Sample Teacher Dashboard

Parents just want to know their kids are using the program and making progress. The key is to design monitoring systems that can be customized for a user’s preferences to make it less of a one-size experience. And to make those systems easy to learn and use, without time-consuming training and heavy implementation requirements.

Simplified Parent Report
The concept of the delivery platform is also evolving and expanding. Success can be measured in monthly subscriptions and daily users, not static “seats.” Getting more of those also means integrating with common platforms, such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google Classroom, and many new tools that reach both parents and schools. The “signup and sign-in” experience has to be seamless, fast and secure.

It’s clear that to solve old problems, we need to keep adjusting our thinking and experiment with new ways to design, deliver and use instructional technology. Did I mention this is a great time to be part of edtech?

Friday, 9 February 2018

Teacher Engagement - Making it Part of Your Software's DNA

One of the biggest design challenges for developers of education technology is engaging teachers with our online learning tools. While these programs are created for students, finding ways to connect teachers to the new learning environment is critically important to the success of any classroom tool.

In some cases, a program is chosen at the district level and “introduced” to teachers as a new (and usually mandatory) thing to be used in a busy school day. Scheduling can be a major hurdle, but even when students are given frequent access to the program, it can still feel separate from the actual classroom instruction.

Teacher engagement needs to be part of the underlying design philosophy of a learning platform. (We’re all guilty of creating a few colorful reports and calling it a day.) Good teacher training is part of it, but there are a number of ways to build the teacher viewpoint into your software’s DNA.

While this effort is ongoing, here are a few foundational guidelines for creating a truly effective learning platform with teachers in mind:

  1. Make usage and progress data available in real time and use notifications to prioritize students who need immediate help.
  2. Provide detailed progress data that clearly shows gaps in learning objectives for individuals and classes. Color coding, scoring ranges and listings of missed standards draw attention to problem areas.
  3. Automatically score answers but give teachers the ability to override the system score. Rubrics and answer keys help to reduce the time to review activities and provide feedback to students on what they did well and what was missed.
  4. Cultivate “super users” who can lead by example – and get constant feedback from those users about how to improve the effectiveness of the teacher tools.
  5. Share sample lesson plans with strategies for integrating online work with everyday instruction. Did a group of students miss vocabulary words in a unit? How can that data be turned into a mini-lesson? (Your super users can be very helpful in customizing these plans for the particular requirements of each school.
  6. Provide timely support to answer teachers’ questions and develop their confidence in using the program as part of their classroom instruction. Incorporating different ways to get in touch – email, live chat, phone – lets teachers communicate in a way that fits their individual preferences.
  7. Listen, don’t tell. Once teachers understand how to use a feature, they will often have ideas for making it better – and they really don’t need more explanations as to why the software doesn’t work that way. Feature creep is real, but truly listening to what teachers are trying to achieve will go a long way towards turning a software tool into a teaching and learning platform.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Not Your Father’s Library: How Public Libraries are Transforming into Learning Hubs

As schools close for the holidays, Im thinking about how much work struggling readers have done this term and how much more there is yet to do. When theres so much ground to make up, its essential that learning continues outside the classroom.

A recent article on talks about the role public libraries can play as an extension of school, family and community support. While the article focuses on public libraries as places for older students to engage with new technology and build digital literacy skills, the access to high-quality WiFi, computer workstations and quiet spaces for homework are also rich environments for online learning and extended reading practice.

Libraries and personalized learning
What role can libraries play in personalized learning and reading development? Beyond offering digital reading collections, public libraries are increasingly getting involved in delivering individualized services for reading instruction and practice. The wide availability of browser-based software makes it possible to offer reading programs that can supplement, enhance or work with existing school-based interventions. Leaving aside the discussion about collaboration between schools and public libraries, there are a number of must haves on the technology side for instructional software to be used effectively in this way. 

Here's my take on the "top five" considerations for instructional technology in public libraries:

1. Easy access: A simple sign-on process enables students to type in a username, password and access the program from any computer in the library. Systems that can run without downloading or storing any data on the local machine make for easier maintenance and security.

2. Self-paced: Students have to be able to come in at any time and resume their work. There are two elements to self-pacing: 1) exercises can be completed in short, self-contained chunks; and 2) mastery-based activities, self-monitoring and corrective feedback enable students to monitor their own work and improve as they progress through the program.

3. Structured: Reading is hard work for struggling learners. While staff can be trained to understand the basics of reading programs being used in their libraries, the reality is that students will need to work independently with minimal assistance. Structured programs that move students forward through a sequence of "chunked" and self-contained activities are best suited to drop-in environments.

4. Engaging: Rewarding completed work and allowing students to track their own progress will help to motivate students to keep going. Points systems, game-based rewards, as well as high-interest text and video content are all ways to get students engaged in self-paced learning and increase their confidence.

5. Data monitoring: Program coordinators need simplified dashboard views of the progress that students are making while working on library computers. Tracking time on task, activities and results in a centralized dashboard provide an efficient way of monitoring and evaluating program success. Data can also be shared with schools through common secure dashboards and data exports.

Just a few years ago, prognosticators were making dire predictions about the demise of libraries as being outdated and irrelevant. Instead, public libraries have seized the opportunity to reinvent and innovate while continuing to act as vibrant learning hubs for their communities. Providing another avenue for struggling readers to build essential foundation skills and confidence is another extension of that critical role, and it's one that offers exciting potential for developing life-long learners. 

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Lessons Learned: Making Software Work in the Classroom

As creators of reading intervention software for K-12, we spend a lot of time thinking about students as our “end users.” We research the instructional design and fine-tune the interface to make sure it’s intuitive, accessible and engaging. Of course we also deliver training programs that focus on helping teachers understand the design, what to expect in the classroom, and how to use the monitoring and classroom management tools. Yet transitioning from that initial training session to using our tools in the classroom isn’t always a smooth process.

So I read with interest a recent EdSurge article: “ My School’s Approach to Tech Training Was Unsupportive—Here’s How I Fixed It.” While the author’s example was a complex learning-management system, her basic principals hold true for any software implementation training:

1. Chunk learning down to make it accessible.

2. Make time for meaningful, hands-on practice.

3. Appoint an internal expert for ongoing support.

Seems obvious, right? While I would wager that most software implementations are planned with these guidelines in mind, too often there’s an expectation that the end of the training session is the end. Of course, it’s only the beginning.

“The way a district rolls out new technology has a huge impact on its effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers need to feel supported, rather than inundated with new information that doesn’t directly apply to their classroom.” -- Brittany Aponte, 4th grade teacher

In the past two years of implementing BrightFish Reading, we’ve learned (or rather relearned) these lessons and have added a few of our own:

Lesson #4: Success will come in the first six weeks – or not at all. Everyone leaves the training session excited to get started with students, armed with knowledge and enthusiasm about the new tool. Accounts are set up, devices are ready and the IT check is complete. Then a week goes by and another. Crickets. No students have logged in or a handful have spent just a few minutes working in the program. The reason is often simple timing (holidays, exams, parent-teacher meetings), but the longer the delay between training and starting with students, the lower the likelihood that the program is going to get off the ground. The only remedy is relentless follow-up: emails, calls and school visits to ensure the program starts. If the software is browser-based, monitoring tools are invaluable in providing hourly usage metrics for each class and school. Which brings me to lesson #5.

Lesson #5: District implementations need strong campus leaders. Software is quite often purchased at the district office for a specific student population, either in select schools or district-wide. Even with a strong district coordinator for the implementation, there’s no substitute for campus leadership. Each school needs to appoint a coach for the program who can support their teachers and work with the district on establishing local best practices. Knowing that the software is new for teachers – who may be hesitant to bring in yet another tool – this kind of local support is critically important.

Lesson #6: Chunking down also means “just in time” information. Taking the lesson about chunking information one step further, it’s critical to give teachers information when it’s relevant to them. A case in point is progress data. During training, we demonstrate the different reports and data views, all to enthusiastic nods. However, until teachers have their own students’ data to review, the reports mean very little. In addition to school visits, we’ve started running webinars after approximately 4-6 weeks to go through the data and discuss any trends or remediation topics related to those students.

Lesson #7: IT people are your friends – get to know them. With any technology, it’s important to conduct an IT readiness review before launching a new program in a district. But even when all of the tests pass and things look great, there are always old devices, dropped connections and weird gremlins lurking in the firewall to confound the most straightforward implementation. Rooting out the issues can take a bit of time, making those IT relationships invaluable to the success of your program.

Lesson #8: Asking for help is hard. It’s true for our students and teachers, and really for any of us. No one wants to admit that they missed something, made a mistake or don’t quite understand. This is where followup and coaching are so vital to the success of a software program. In a previous blog, I wrote about live chat and how it has really improved teacher engagement. Asking a question to an online agent somehow seems less threatening than either email or person to person. Issues can be resolved in minutes rather than being left to fester until you hear that horrible statement, “I stopped using it because the program just didn’t work.”

Brittany Aponte’s original article linked from this blog is part of an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country. These stories are made publicly available with support from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Time to talk: Can live chat change classroom support?

Unlike a printed book, software is complex, open-ended and constantly evolving. School technology environments are equally complex, each one its own unique ecosystem. 

Software just has to work – even in places that don’t have a reliable cell signal or consistent Wi-Fi. Faced with a classful of students and a block of 40 minutes or less, teachers have no time for connection failures or searching through Teacher’s Guides to find out how something is supposed to function. Yes, there’s startup training and a trove of articles and videos in the resource center. But when a student is stuck, who has time to look up troubleshooting tips? Things that seemed crystal clear in training can suddenly become a little murky when students are online.

Who you gonna call?

When teachers are new to BrightFish Reading, it’s the ones we don’t hear from who worry me the most. No news is definitely not good news in the instructional software environment. Toll-free phone lines are a good support option, but when there’s no landline in the classroom or cell reception, who you gonna call?

Last winter, we integrated live chat into our online Teacher Dashboard. Teachers have embraced the tool as a way to get instant responses to their questions. It enables our support team to close most issues in minutes and get ahead of anything that might affect the student or teacher experience. When there’s a problem, we know about it right away.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” – Jim Barksdale

As software developers, we live for metrics. Since integrating live chat, we’ve cut our average response time from 15 minutes down to five. Ninety-five percent of support requests are now closed within one business day. Based on our live chat data, we are able to plan for heavy traffic times, create new tools based on frequent questions, and make changes to our training program to better equip teachers. Increased chat volume from specific schools can help to identify additional training needs at those campuses. 

Our chat tool also has a monitoring feature, so we can see exactly which devices and browsers students are using to access our program – great information for troubleshooting performance issues.

Using live chat involves a bit more setup time when we’re bringing on a new school, as it requires the local server firewall to allow access. But for the most part, it’s been a seamless addition to our support portfolio. We still offer toll-free phone and email, but things are getting very quiet on those old-school channels!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Frontloading: How pre-reading builds a bridge to comprehension

Recently I was fortunate to attend a fluency seminar in New York as part of a sponsorship of a literacy series from the New York City Department of Education. The lead speaker, Dr. Esther Friedman, Executive Director of Literacy and Academic Intervention Services for the DoE, had me furiously capturing notes and doing a lot of underlining. 

One of Dr. Friedman's key points was the importance of "frontloading" fluency and vocabulary development in struggling readers. I am often asked why BrightFish spends so much time on word recognition fluency when it's a reading practice program.  Now I can answer with a single word: frontloading.

Reducing cognitive load
Frontloading is a pretty simple concept: if readers can process words almost automatically, then cognitive resources can be applied to comprehending what we're reading. If you think of the brain as a limited processor, that makes sense. New information is processed in short-term memory, which can hold about 5-7 items at a time and churns through a lot of brain power. The more we can overlearn and move information to long-term memory where capacity is virtually limitless, the more we can apply cognitive resources to higher-order thinking.

In BrightFish, we take word recognition fluency to the phrases level. Once students can demonstrate that they are processing words from a passage automatically, then we present phrases and ask students to match visual and sound targets accurately and at an appropriate rate. Frontloading the ability to process chunks of text facilitates comprehension by freeing up more capacity for the brain to work on meaning.

Frontloading word meaning
The ability to process words and phrases at an accurate and appropriate rate is second nature for proficient readers. The other critical piece is word knowledge and "Matthew Effects," where the more you read, the more words you know. For struggling readers, taking time to frontload word meaning reduces the cognitive load of trying to understand a lot of new words while reading a piece of text. In BrightFish, we tackle this barrier by working on skills in sequence - words to phrases to word meaning - and by chunking information so that it can be more easily accessed.

So the next time I'm asked if students can skip the word recognition fluency activities in BrightFish Reading and go straight to comprehension, I will have a ready response. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

More than Words

Working with struggling readers, we see evidence every day that the mechanics of word recognition fluency and vocabulary knowledge are closely linked to the comprehension of text. A reader needs to process words and phrases quickly enough so that it's almost automatic, freeing up cognitive resources for comprehension. At the same time, understanding the meaning of words in context enables the reader to extract information and make inferences about the material.

It's somewhat intuitive that struggling readers would also be very likely to have a deficit in vocabulary knowledge. The less reading you do, the fewer words you encounter. Research supports that correlation: Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that the average child enters first grade knowing some 6,000 words, rising to about 45,000 by high school graduation – acquiring an average of 3,000 words per year. White, Graves, and Slater (1990) found that below-level readers learn just 1,000 words a year.

Getting over the 4th grade slump

The vocabulary deficit grows over time, but it also becomes more critical as material gets increasingly complex. It's not surprising that the "4th grade slump" is where we often start to see the gap growing as students grapple with less common, more academic and technical words.

Developing a richer vocabulary can have a positive impact on both fluency and comprehension. Knowing more words leads to more accurate, fluent reading while understanding their meaning is necessary to comprehending text.

The goal is to challenge students with grade-level appropriate rigor so that they can develop and improve their vocabulary while building their reading skills. Direct instruction and practice using words in different ways can help to build both vocabulary and confidence. That doesn't mean making it easy, but rather challenging and rewarding students for their efforts, providing constructive feedback and support along the way.

Learn more about the BrightFish approach to word recognition and vocabulary.