In the three years since he co-founded the adaptive, online learning platform KnowRe, David Joo has visited a number of schools. But he still found a recent visit to the Brooklyn Institute of Liberal Arts (BILA) eye-opening. While observing the school’s ninth-grade English class, Joo was struck by students’ difficulty logging in to online blogging software. Some of the 19 students couldn’t recall their usernames. Others didn’t know their passwords. Students who did manage to access the program on their school-supplied MacBooks seemed unsure how to navigate the software though their teacher said they had used it four or five times before. Some students were so frustrated, they opted to write their blog posts by hand, on paper.
The confusion ate up a chunk of the 90-minute class and galvanized Joo. Later in the day, he asked the teacher why a seemingly straightforward process caused such trouble. She explained that between English software, math software and online grading databases, students had to juggle 10 different usernames and passwords. Remembering all the logins was a challenge, as was recalling how each program worked.
An outsider might have assumed the Brooklyn-dwelling, teenaged BILA students were “digital natives” tethered to their smartphones and laptops. But many BILA students are recent immigrants from the West Indies and elsewhere. BILA principal Ann-Marie Henry-Stephens says 20 to 25 percent of her students don’t have Internet access at home. Some have parents who are skeptical of technology’s benefits. Some are using a Mac for the first time. Henry-Stephens estimates 10 percent of BILA students are proficient with basic technology, 40 to 50 percent are “getting there” and the rest are struggling.
These are the realities of selling software to New York City schools. The New York City Department of Education recently began running “developer field trips” so Joo and other edtech entrepreneurs can get this information firsthand. The day trips--there have been two so far--take a small group of developers by bus to local schools where they can talk to principals and teachers and sit in on classes. “These are companies with great problem-solving methodologies, but they’ve never been in our schools so they don’t know what to solve,” explains Steven Hodas, the executive director of InnovateNYC, the NYCDOE division that organizes the field trips. “We’re trying to define the problems with the people who actually have the problems.”
Another way to view the field trips is user-centered design. Software developers and teachers innately understand the importance of designing products around the people who will use them. Yet edtech tools often suffer from a lack of communication between the two groups. The NYCDOE is trying to remedy that through several educator-entrepreneur initiatives.
To foster frank discussion, all these activities, including the developer field trips, are in-person, informal and unscripted. The most recent trip brought together four NYCDOE employees, two reporters and nine edtech entrepreneurs (from Algebra Touch, Chalkable, Fluid Math, Fraction Planet, Hapara, KnowRe, LiveSchool, Mathalicious and Woot Math), all of whom were finalists in the NYCDOE’s recently concluded Gap App Challenge.
The entrepreneurs want to sell their software to New York City schools. But the DOE field trips are focused on relationship-building and sales pitches are taboo. Instead, developers asked teachers and administrators how they chose educational apps and what drove them crazy.
BILA’s teachers (representing English, math, history, literacy and special education) said software needed to be easy-to-implement, engaging and relevant to their subjects. The group requested software that “creates autonomy” by putting students in charge of their own learning and software that is “kind of sneaky”--fun and game-like but still educational. They also said they’d like software to issue feedback, so students can see how they’re doing, but not grades. In fact, one teacher said she was suspicious of software that grades hard-to-assess work like essays.
Principal Henry-Stephens had her own suggestions, mostly related to simplicity and flexibility. Software should include tutorials and have simple language and a simple user interface, she said. Developers should also customize their software for different learning levels, she added, noting that BILA teachers sometimes have to read online curricula to special education students because the vocabulary is too advanced.
Teachers at Brooklyn’s Lenox Academy, the second school on the developer field trip, were more interested in apps for classroom management, collaboration and student engagement rather than instruction. These middle-school math teachers emphasized efficiency, organization, record-keeping and sharing data. “I don’t want any more paper,” said one eighth-grade algebra teacher. “I don’t want my students’ work stuck in their notebooks.” She requested software that would enable students to annotate PDF worksheets and email the files back to her.
Both schools highlighted their interest in technology during the visits. “We’re trying to integrate technology as much as possible. We think technology will make our graduates more competitive,” said one Lenox Academy teacher. Henry-Stephens, the BILA principal, told the developers she wants her school to have a strong tech focus and called technology “part of 21st century learning.”
Both schools also noted their limited budgets. The Lenox Academy had several SMART Boards and iPads in its math classrooms, but also relied on seven-year-old Dell laptops with dead batteries and missing keys. BILA had SMART Boards it inherited from a previous school and 90 MacBooks it received last year through the NYCDOE’s iZone program, but said it had just $17,000 to spend on hardware, software and books for 200 students in the upcoming school year. (BILA is an iZone and an iLearn school; Lenox Academy is not, but has applied to be part of the iZone.)
That amount won’t cover even a quarter of what Henry-Stephens would like to do, tech-wise, at her one-year-old school. Her wish list includes buying another 100 MacBooks, purchasing new math, special-ed and translation software (for English language learners), creating electives for computer science and app development, and funding student field trips to technology firms. Given her budget, she will have to weigh the needs of her math students versus her special-ed and ELL students and prioritize either hardware or software. “We need help,” Henry-Stephens told the developers. “Let me know what I can do to increase capacity for our students and parents.”
The developers had no quick solutions for Henry-Stephens, but they gave her their business cards and offered to stay in touch. They had their own questions, too, such as: how they could get added to FAMIS, the NYCDOE’s purchasing system/database; whether schools could make purchases outside FAMIS, which can take weeks to process new vendors; and whether it was better to charge a one-time fee for their software or an ongoing subscription. (Henry-Stephens said she had previously bought software outside FAMIS and she favored upfront fees.)
It was a little after 3 pm when the field trip bus pulled back in front of Tweed, the NYCDOE’s hulking Manhattan headquarters. Developers offered a few critiques of the day. Some said they would have liked to receive specific teacher and student comments on their products instead of general advice. One developer suggested attendees be more actively engaged and “play less of an observer role” on future trips.
What the developers did get was a clear, if quick, look at what works and what doesn’t in New York City classrooms. During the trip, they observed five classes and met with one principal, one assistant principal and more than 10 teachers. They’ll need that information and those relationships if they want to actually sell their software to New York City schools.