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!