Monday, 24 December 2018

A few of our favorite things

It’s been a busy fall in our schools, so it’s a treat to have a moment to rest, reflect and take stock in between the feasts and festivity of the season. With that in mind, I’ll share a few of my favorite things from the first part of the school year as we look forward to 2019.

#1 Great gains on maze tests

Many of our schools completed the midyear maze testing in our program this month, and we just love watching those upward trends on our graphs. Of course the maze is just one of many metrics used to determine progress, but it’s very encouraging to see the positive indicators in word fluency and comprehension. Anecdotally, we also hear about improvements students are making in all subject areas as their reading skills and confidence grow. If you’re interested in learning more about the maze, we recently posted an excellent white paper from Research in Education that looks at the maze, what it measures, and how it can be used for both assessment and classroom instruction.

#2 Data with insights for learning and growing

We’ve noticed an interesting trend with BrightFish students. If you show them the data, they want to see more! From the beginning, we’ve incorporated points, gameplay, and a dashboard that lets students track their progress in any story or activity. As students get into the program, their interest shifts from time on task and points totals to looking for insights into how they are improving and what they can do to achieve more. When we first set out to design BrightFish, our thoughts on engagement centered around high-interest content, multimedia support and rewards systems. While those features are still an important part of the design, our developers are now heavily focused on finding ways to give students access to their own learning profiles and improvement metrics.

#3 Kids logging in – even on weekends!

We use monitoring software that lets us see when students are logged into BrightFish Reading, and for how long. This year we quickly set a new benchmark for hourly usage of 300 users – and then just as quickly surpassed it. Evenings and weekends used to be “safe zones" to update the system without affecting response times for our users. Now we have so many students logged in at all hours, and even on weekends, that we’ve had to start posting alerts for system updates and scheduling them between 12 midnight and 5 a.m. At least, for now, those times seem to be safe!

#4 Words that give meaning

The instructional approach to vocabulary in BrightFish Reading is a holistic one, in that instruction revolves around a selected text and understanding both word definition and application in the passage. While vocabulary knowledge tends to be the biggest area of weakness for our students, it’s also the activity they find the most value in doing. Periodically, we invite students to give us anonymous feedback on the program. After the games (no surprise), the “most liked” is vocabulary – and it’s also the skill they want to work on more. To take vocabulary development beyond BrightFish, we’ve developed a series of teacher resources for data chats, remediation, and extension activities that can be woven into review and instruction.

#5 Inspiring ideas tied up with strings

Collaboration with BrightFish teachers is by far the most rewarding part of our work in schools. We get a lot of great ideas from teachers using BrightFish in the classroom, which makes our product wish list a piece of cake. Turning those ideas into software is a little more difficult, but the inspiration and excitement that we get from our dedicated teachers and the way they are using BrightFish Reading to help their kids is a gift all its own. Some of the ideas we’re working on for the next half: improvement profiles based on story progress and scores; customized tutorials for constructed response questions; and teacher feedback in the students’ backpack.

We're looking forward to more "favorite things" in 2019!

Friday, 30 November 2018

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Reading is a challenge for many students, but English Learners in particular have to work twice as hard just to keep up. Improving your understanding of English while also reading to learn in all subject areas creates unique barriers for EL students.

In middle and high school, this disadvantage becomes increasingly significant. Packed schedules and demanding curriculum leave little time to work on improve reading skills and word knowledge. Technology-based learning tools that are designed for self-paced learning can give older EL students access to structured reading practice to improve their reading skills and achieve academic goals.

Chunking it down

Students who can’t read at grade level still need to engage with grade-level text to advance in their learning. One way that technology can be used to enable EL students to work at grade level is to deconstruct text into manageable parts or “chunks.” Using a structured process, students can work from words to phrases and short paragraphs before reading a full text. Starting with the simplest units of text and constructing a passage from the bottom up gives students a progression path that builds skills and confidence with the material. Giving students a way to track and monitor their work keeps them in control of the process.

Modeled reading

Technology tools can also provide support for EL students with “read aloud” options for text. Audio gives students modeled fluent readings of words and paragraphs. Paired with a “chunking” approach, audio supports can help students focus on portions of text and reduce the difficulty of reading new material. Images that reinforce the meaning of words and concepts also strengthen understanding of the text.

Words in context

Many students who struggle with reading have deficits in vocabulary and word knowledge, which increases the difficulty of comprehending text. EL students are learning English words and their meaning as they read content-area material. Technology programs can focus on targeted activities to build and strengthen vocabulary and understanding of how words are applied in a passage. Online dictionaries, usage activities and contextual definitions help to reduce barriers to learning that can arise from underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge. 

Self-paced learning

EL students who are high-performers in their home language are often motivated to practice reading English to improve their capacity to learn, making quick strides towards proficiency. Self-paced learning environments are ideal for students to advance at their own pace – accelerating when possible and remediating when necessary. Access from home or outside the traditional classroom setting expands learning time and lets students practice anywhere they have an Internet connection.

1:1 feedback

As students progress in their reading practice, technology platforms can monitor progress with every keystroke. Teachers can view missed learning objectives and error data to spot trends that can assist in 1:1 and small-group feedback sessions. Remediation tools to target areas of weakness can also help to reinforce concepts and provide additional instruction.

Learn how BrightFish Reading can be used with EL students here.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Building reading skills and engagement in older students

Engaging struggling readers in middle and high school is a difficult prospect for teachers. Below-level readers in the upper grades have not experienced success in reading for a very long time – if ever. Gaps in fundamental skills become roadblocks as students work with increasingly complex content in all subject areas. The process of reading is slow and frustrating, and it often compounds any behavioral or attention issues that struggling learners may also be grappling with, forcing them to work harder than their peers for diminishing returns.

While there are real skills deficits at the root of the problem, the lack of engagement and desire to spend time reading becomes its own issue. We tend to avoid something that is too challenging, especially if it makes us look bad in front of our peers. Unfortunately, time is not on the side of struggling readers or their teachers – packed schedules and rigorous curriculum requirements create a practical issue for educators trying to address the problem in a structured manner.

Technology can be an effective tool to reach struggling readers in new ways that can stimulate a different response. Self-paced reading practice takes away the pressure of class environments and instead offers greater control over the learning process.

Here are a few observations about “what works” in using technology to engage older readers:

1. Offer choice and interesting topics: Reading is already a bad experience for struggling readers, so providing a wide range of text in different genres and subject areas is critical to grabbing and sustaining interest. Enabling students to choose their reading material from a menu (think Netflix) also puts the control into the student’s hands.

2. Provide a path to grade-level reading: “Why am I doing this and how will it help me?” are two common (and very good) questions from older students. Reading practice becomes meaningful when text is accessible but not too junior, and when students can actively track their progress and skills mastery. Also letting students know how the work they are doing will help them in other classes and on high-stakes tests tends increase their commitment and interest.

3. Incorporate video: Content comes in many forms, and students need to be able to digest and process information from different media. Technology programs can weave video and audio content into the learning stream to help students better understand a topic and evaluate information from a variety of sources.

4. Reward often and in different ways: Building up the intrinsic motivation to read can require a little external support. Technology programs can incorporate points, badges, certificates, and other rewards to celebrate milestones as students master concepts and improve their skills. Using games rooms and class “leader boards” provide alternative ways to reach students motivated by different types of rewards.

5. Give teachers data: Technology-based programs are uniquely capable of gathering data as students complete their work. Giving teachers access to real-time data on how their students are progressing provides a powerful mechanism to inform 1:1 feedback sessions and small group remediation.

Technology is part of the teacher toolbox that can be used to engage older students to read, learn and increase their confidence.

Read more about how BrightFish Learning in middle and high schools here.

Content for older students needs to be high-interest and accessible.

Friday, 7 September 2018

1:100 - How schools are getting creative about technology access

Schools are back in full swing now, and the 2018-19 school year is officially on. For those of us in the instructional software game, that means one thing – teacher training. Small groups, large groups, webinars – whatever the format, there’s a short period of time to bring teachers up to speed on using our program. There’s a definite theme emerging from this year’s sessions, or more accurately, a cry for help. Instead of the usual discussion about the instructional design and intervention strategies, the conversation has almost exclusively centered on technology access and scheduling.

The struggle is real
Reading all of those encouraging studies about the rise of devices in schools, it’s natural to be lulled into thinking that all is rosy in edtech. The harsh reality is that computers are scarce in many districts and badly outdated in others. While teacher acceptance of “another new thing” is still a barrier to the adoption of new tech for reading intervention– along with the fear that students will miss out on content-area instruction – the scheduling issue really has become about physical access to computers.

Remember when 1:1 computing was a thing? Some schools actually got there, only to find that the devices they invested in five years ago are now completely obsolete. Other districts have tried but never really came close. Based on my completely unscientific survey of teachers using BrightFish, it’s common to find schools that have just 1 computer lab of 15-20 devices for 1000 kids.

Bring your own device (BYOD) programs were a hot topic a few years ago, but these have largely failed for very real issues around security and data privacy. It’s also a thorny equity issue because not all homes have laptops and tablets, and while phones are pretty ubiquitous, they are not a great format for serious instruction. Even when kids get online, providing a good experience can be a challenge. Programs like BrightFish are delivered over Wi-Fi and incorporate a lot of video and audio support. In a large district pilot that we ran last year, some schools struggled to provide working headsets and bandwidth levels in their classrooms were barely better than dial-up. Browsers crashed and kids kept getting kicked off the district network – not exactly a great experience.

The good news
Fortunately it’s not all bad news. Companies like Google and Amazon have packed a lot of functionality into their devices at a reasonable price point. The latest Chromebooks for schools are retailing at around $150 and new Amazon Fire tablets can be purchased for less than $100. Of course there will always be replacement costs for damaged or missing devices and accessories, but these are more reasonable expenses that can be worked into annual budgets.

Cable and telecom companies have partnered with districts to improve their infrastructure and bandwidth, and dedicated funding at the federal and state levels are starting to make a dent. While rural areas are lagging behind, there has been a concerted effort to increase access that should start to pay off in the next few years.

On the classroom side, teachers have gotten very creative in finding more time in the day for students to work online. For reading intervention, it’s critical to have regularly scheduled time blocks of at least 30 minutes for sustained practice, but there are periods of downtime before and after school when students can also do productive work. In BrightFish, activities are available in short, contained units, so students can log in and make progress in as little as 10 minutes, and teachers can monitor their work in real time. The key is flexibility and structure. Gone are the days of prescriptive rotations in 90-minute blocks. Programs have to fit into existing schedules and curriculum.

Read about some of the creative implementation models teachers are exploring with BrightFish here.

Are you finding ways to improve student access to technology in your school? We would love to hear from you!

Thursday, 28 June 2018

BrightFish Bootcamp - 2018 Edition

June is usually when our implementation team takes advantage of the relative quiet to document the great teacher feedback and observations from the past year and turn them into new features. This year we’ve had so many summer schools that taking stock will have to wait a little longer.

Summer school is a bit like bootcamp – short, intensive and kind of exhausting. While some of the students are returning users, most of the kids and teachers are new to BrightFish and each other. Teachers have just a few hours to get comfortable with the software tools and instructional approach and almost no time to get to know their students. Needless to say this can be a stressful and chaotic time but it’s also a great stress test for our software activation and customer support model.

Here are five things that we’ve learned so far from BrightFish Bootcamp, 2018 Edition:

  1. Full service is the baseline. As software developers we strive to build tools that are intuitive and designed for self-management. Dashboards, graphics, summary views and notifications are all part of helping teachers get what they need, fast. However, when you only have time for a 1-hour training webinar and you have a class full of new students waiting to start, the only “easy button” is having a live person on the other end of the phone, chat or email to be your virtual teaching assistant. Login IDs, class roster changes, new enrollments, computers with no audio – whatever the issue, there’s no time for self-help. Resource centers are great if you have time to read the articles and watch the videos. For everyone else, help has to be instant. Forget the morning coffee break – peak time is between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Then the west coast gets started. But the teachers are really grateful, so it’s all worth it.
  2. Students are surprisingly motivated: Looking at the usage data over the past three weeks, the immediate observation is that students are getting a lot more done. Part of it is that they have dedicated time to work on BrightFish, usually every day. But that’s just one factor. Our analysis shows that students are completing their stories in about 20 percent less time than comparable groups over the school year. For example, 3rd graders are taking 1.2 hours on average during summer school compared to 1.5 hours for their peers during the school year. They are not simply rushing through to get it done – if anything the scores and improvements, particularly in vocabulary, are higher. Kids will even work on the weekend if it means they get extra credit for completing more work. Doing something different always increases engagement initially but we are seeing a sustained level of effort that has been a pleasant surprise.
  3. Points are more valuable than games: Another interesting observation is that summer school students are much less likely to redeem their points for games. Excluding classes that have had their access to the games store turned off, we’re seeing a much lower rate of students redeeming their points to play BrightFish games. Teachers report that students are more motivated by simply tracking their points and progress bar – and seeing if they can earn the top points score each week. Since BrightFish rewards both quantity and quality, the points reflect the amount of effort students are putting into their work and their attention to detail.
  4. Not all data is equal: Summer School is short and teachers are most concerned with two things: how much time students are working and what’s getting done. There’s not a lot of time to dig into the data, so having daily and weekly records of time on task is essential. Classes are often large, especially for upper middle and high schools, so being able to see which students are taking longer than their peers to complete work is very useful. Red color coding to point out areas where there are issues and notifications for any students who are struggling are two features of our reports that get the highest usage during Summer School. 
  5. Managed data is even better: Viewing data for any trouble areas and having time to interpret it are two very different things. During summer school, there just isn’t time to review student work at a detailed level. This year, we’ve sent out 1-page reports as a recap at the end of each week, showing usage by class, stories completed and points scores. In the notes, we include information on which students struggled on various activities and the recommended interventions if needed. Even though this is data that teachers can view in their dashboards, having our implementation team review the data and provide recommendations gives teachers added confidence in using the program. 
Teacher dashboard provides quick data points for usage and alerts for students.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Milestones, rewards and a few surprises

The celebrations are over and many schools said farewell this week to students graduating or moving on to the next level. We have a week or so before summer school begins, so it’s a perfect time to take stock of another year’s lessons.

This was definitely a year of firsts for us at BrightFish. We transitioned from half-year pilots and trials to our first full year of implementation with thousands of students using BrightFish Reading across the country. In November, we set our first milestone of 100 students working in BrightFish hourly for an entire school day. A week later we broke that high mark and continued to reset it throughout the year. The year ended on a high note – we had our first student crack 600,000 points to take the top prize in our national BrightFish All-Star Award.

Lessons learned - and a few new tricks

We learned a lot this year. I’ve compiled a few of those lessons or what I like to call “stuff I didn’t know for sure.”

1. Teachers really like live chat. When our head of development suggested we add a live chat app to BrightFish, I politely nodded and tried to look enthusiastic. (All the while thinking that teachers really wouldn’t use it but what harm could it do.) I was so wrong – teachers loved it! Typical questions were about login issues, adding new students, reading reports, and changing or adding content levels. Most issues were resolved in under three minutes and teachers could chat right from their BrightFish dashboards. 

Excerpt from a live chat session with a BrightFish teacher.

2. Sometimes no news really is good news. In the first few weeks after the initial training, we typically hear from teachers a fair bit as they learn to use the tools and gain more experience with the program. When my team doesn’t hear from a school, we usually conclude that they haven’t started or aren’t using the tools. Our development team created a nice little monitoring tool for us to see how many times teachers have accessed their BrightFish pages and when. Guess what? Many of the “silent” teachers were managing on their own, using the tools and getting along just fine without us.

3. Scheduling is a big issue in middle schools. Invariably, one the biggest barriers to using a new technology program – or any curriculum resource – is time. What’s interesting is that this seems to be a mostly middle school challenge, especially when the district introduces a new program and teachers are asked to integrate it into their curriculum. We’re still analyzing data from this year, but the trend is definitely leaning towards the lowest weekly usage in grades 6-8.

4. Fluency rates improve from story to story. Across our user populations, we have measured an increase in both accuracy and speed in reading words and phrases as students complete multiple stories. The slowest trials are recorded in the first story, with improvements after 2 or more stories. We expected this result, but we’re now able to establish baselines for each grade level and story, which helps us to predict how students will do on the activities. As students begin to process words and phrases more efficiently, they can focus their cognitive resources on comprehending text and deriving meaning from it.

5. Vocabulary scores get better too. For English learners, vocabulary scores improve after three or more stories. In isolating data from English Learners in high school and adult programs, we’re seeing scores improving in vocabulary after students have completed two or more stories. What surprised us was the rate of improvement, indicating that students are able to transfer word skills from one story to another, regardless of subject matter.

6. Subject matter really does matter. Generally speaking, nonfiction text is more difficult, especially for ELL students. It takes longer on average to complete nonfiction stories and comprehension scores are typically lower than in fiction stories. We’re not really surprised by this – and we definitely need to collect more data before making any pronouncements – but it does support the idea that students need a wide exposure to different types of text to strengthen their reading skills and develop content knowledge.

7. Games are still hot. We periodically ask a few questions of our students to find out what they like and want to add to BrightFish. The #1 favorite feature of the program for a second year running is “The Games Store.” Story selection and reading different kinds of stories took the #2 spot, followed closely by learning new words.
Tracking points and redeeming them for games - still #1 for BrightFish students

8. Don’t mess with my points! We knew that students pay very close attention to how they are doing on each story. Students loved the new feature that allowed them to track their points versus everyone in the class. We really found out the value of points when we had to do a software reset one weekend to make an adjustment to the Games Store. It resulted in some students having their values changed because points hadn’t been deducted from their store balance. I think we heard from every single one of them the following Monday.

9. Infrastructure is getting better – or we are. When we first started two years ago with a few trial schools, we spent a lot of time helping schools test their devices and setup. Browser-based software is only as good as its network connection, and reports of “getting kicked out” and some devices not working at all consumed about 50 percent of our support time. From those early experiences, we learned a lot about improving our own infrastructure and the way we communicate with teachers on technical issues. By building intuitive “self-test” tools for bandwidth and browser updates, implementing server checks to bridge temporary disconnections, and improving display messages that let teachers know if there’s an issue, we’ve improved the experience. And those support calls? We’re down 10 percent of our support requests being about technical issues. Next year, we’re striving for less than 5 percent.

10. It’s good to test. This year we had really fantastic partnerships with districts on testing the use of BrightFish with different schools, teachers and student populations. No one was shy about making changes when there were issues with a class getting started or with students at a particular school getting enough access. It’s a great lesson that experimentation is healthy and sometimes you just need to try new things and see what sticks. It just takes one great teacher to adopt a program for success to take hold – and from there you can create a local model that flourishes.

Well, enough looking back. Now it’s time to get ready for summer school!

Friday, 27 April 2018

Online Testing Can Be Cruel

April can be cruel – and not just because winter has taken a really long time to let go of the northeast. State testing, that other rite of spring, consumes much of the waning months of the school year for administrators, teachers and students alike. Districts moving from paper to online assessments are finding the transition to be as much a test of network infrastructure and student familiarity with digital formats as it is of grade-level knowledge and skills.

While this problem isn’t exactly new – studies from early rollouts of online Common Core testing showed negative effects on scores in the double digits in some cases – it’s risen to the surface as more districts try to come fully online by 2020. Earlier this month, Louisiana State Superintendent John White also voiced concerns about the release of the annual “Nation’s Report Card” from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), wanting assurances that it would be an evaluation of academic rather than technology skills. NAEP’s interim strategy is to have a cohort of students continue to complete paper-and-pencil tests and online versions to measure test effects, which of course takes even more time out of teaching schedules. Maybe it’s time to include digital literacy as an equally important indicator and better-prepare students for online testing formats. The world is digital and we need to equip students for that reality.

Teach to the (online) test?
Wherever you stand on the idea of teaching to the test, it makes sense to give students the ability to gain experience with online activities that mirror state and national assessment formats. Not only does it help to remove test effects but it also builds the keyboarding and attention skills required to use online tools. Consider reading assessments. Things that may seem like minor usability concerns – such as knowing that passage content appears on the left and questions on the right, and having familiarity with formatting tools to respond to constructed response questions – can rattle and delay students who are not familiar with the design.

Enabling students to practice with activities similar to online testing formats can increase familiarity and confidence. 

Putting district networks to the test
Schools also need to test their readiness to adopt digital programs. While many districts think they are prepared for technology adoptions, there’s nothing like having hundreds or thousands of students log into the network simultaneously to find out where your weaknesses lie. There’s nowhere to hide the impact of outdated computers, insufficient bandwidth or unsupported browsers with that kind of stress testing. All of these things can be fixed but they can’t be ignored if districts truly want to give students the technology access they need to prepare for success in the digital economy.

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.