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October 21, 2010

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THE TECH EFFECT: How Sweet It Is--One Teen’s Take on Classroom Management Software and the Future of School-to-Home Communication

THE TECH EFFECT: How Sweet It Is--One Teen’s Take on Classroom Management Software and the Future of School-to-Home Communication

It wasn’t too long ago that electronic grade books were a novel notion. Cutting-edge teachers demonstrated the record-keeping capacities of Microsoft Excel while lesser mortals gathered around admiringly (“ How do you move that little cursor?”). Today, it’s become de rigueur, with more and more teachers turning to classroom management software specifically designed to streamline and organize their work. Online grade books, such as GradeConnect (www.gradeconnect.com) or GradebookPortal.com (http://gradebookportal.com), often available as free applications, remain the most popular form of software management. Grade books are often part of a larger software system that allows teachers to plot grades and generate reports. They also interface with attendance, lesson plan templates, homework assignments, and seating charts.

Mary Kay Jiloty, Spanish language teacher at Creekside Middle School in Port Orange, Fla., is a veteran user of online management tools. She relies on them for designing lesson plans and for posting assignments. She’s gone further, creating and linking valuable extension tools to her lessons, including online versions of the textbook and audio components for language practice. A fan of Quia Web (www.quia.com/web), she also creates and links interactive games that reinforce the skills she presents during class time.

She knows that these tools, uploaded to a server, serve another crucial purpose—that of keeping parents informed and students connected. Accessible through log-in and passwords, online classroom management enables students and parents to access their grades in real time. It also allows teachers a constant line of communication and information. “I consider online management a backup for what students should have been writing down in class,” said Jiloty. “My least favorite question is ‘When did you say that?’ I walk into every parent and school meeting with a handout for parents that lets them know that the site exists and that the students should be accessing it. The success lies in having students who are motivated enough to log on and take advantage of it. It has to be used in order to work.”

While making a connection between online classroom management and the state of the nation may seem like a bit of a stretch, data points toward the reality that cutting out of school altogether is the final act of being incommunicado. The truth is that, too often, vital links of communication dwindle away at the secondary level. And that disconnect is cited as one of the contributors to our nation’s alarming dropout rate. The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network reports that teens generally don’t drop out of school suddenly—rather, it’s the final act of a long period of disengagement.

Teens who drop out cite school as boring and irrelevant. Far too many students who opt out before graduation say that no one on campus really cared about them, or even that they felt isolated by faculty and staff members who felt that they were too difficult. In short, they never felt connected or invested in school. With that information in mind, it seems reasonable to suggest that keeping students more connected to school life might actually contribute to a decrease in America’s dropout rate.

A Better Mousetrap

Sixteen-year-old Charlie Burgess has his own ideas about this. He’s one of the many students who’ve been caught up in the transition from notebook planners to online classroom management. Charlie thinks it’s a step in the right direction but believes that he has the insight—and the skills—to build a program that appeals to users on both ends of site. Self-described as that go-to guy—“the one that teachers tag to help build a webpage, or to learn a new piece of software”—he’s experienced both sides of classroom management software. He likes the convenience but believes that current software programs don’t do enough to draw students in.

Charlie expanded the concept with an engaging solution to keep the school-to-home connection alive and kicking. Combining the tools of classroom management software with the appeal and connectivity of social networking, this rising junior is creating a software program he’s dubbed EduSweet. “It’s classroom management in a more appealing and sophisticated form,” explained Charlie. “People want to communicate. That’s a given. They want to share their information. It’s the ‘how’ that changes. Kids don’t write things in planners and put them in their backpacks and take them home. They want to communicate with school the same way that they communicate in the rest of their lives—through multimedia. Because that’s what’s going on out there.”

The Digital Youth Project supports Charlie’s theory. This groundbreaking study clearly spells out how today’s students prefer to learn, connect, and communicate. From the study: “Social network sites, online games, video-sharing sites, and gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones are now fixtures of youth culture. They have so permeated young lives that it is hard to believe that less than a decade ago these technologies barely existed. Today’s youth may be coming of age and struggling for autonomy and identity as did their predecessors, but they are doing so amid new worlds for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression” (Digital Youth Project, 2009).

Tweet Me When You Read This

EduSweet takes advantage of the trend toward friendship-driven practices and marries the traditional components of online grades, assignments, calendars, and notes with one-step social networking. Says Charlie: “Kids always want to communicate. But kids don’t always want to think about school. If you’re trying to keep students interested, combining social networking with school just makes sense. It’s a persistent force. Teachers remind students about their presence, their link to school, through [Web] 2.0 [technologies]. Facebook updates and tweets remind them that their teacher isn’t that far away.”

His program ties everything together with one site for students and another for teachers. Students log on to find out about their assignments and their grades, as well as to get updates on class projects. Teachers keep records, respond to questions, update information, and create interactive games and quizzes for their students. “It’s an interactive classroom management system that involves everyone in the process,” explains Charlie. He looked to popular social networking sites for inspiration. “The classroom management programs that are out there now are static. The creative element is missing. EduSweet is highly personalized. Think about MySpace. Users personalize their site—changing backgrounds, fonts, adding photos, and engaging their friends through multimedia. EduSweet allows teachers and students to do the same thing.” He encourages teachers to change their pages often. “It’s the element of surprise—the creative touch—that keeps you checking your friend’s [social networking] pages. It’s one of those motivators to entice students to stay in touch.”

He also makes the system simple for teachers to use. “I wanted to create something that’s interesting and exciting for kids but that teachers don’t have to put a lot of effort into to learn. Teachers won’t learn a lot of different apps, but if you teach them how to do one thing thoroughly, they feel comfortable enough to use it. That’s why everything in EduSweet funnels into one app—Twitter, email, Facebook. Teachers type their message into a single box, and it goes everywhere.” The program also has a collapsible history to help teachers navigate their way through the program. “That way,” explains Charlie, “teachers can always see where they are and how they got there. It creates a map for teachers that bolsters their user confidence. You have to make it easy and usable, but still create space in the programs to enable teachers to grow. It’s a touchy business,” he admits.

Charlie also includes plenty of eye candy. “When I build software, I lay out the new interface in a way that makes it welcoming. I want my programs to be obvious. ‘Cute’ is another concept I factor in. ‘Cute’ isn’t intimidating. I develop icons that are friendly and fun—not just slick, shiny things that appeal to the [technically] proficient user.”

And the Survey Says …

Charlie recruited a cadre of middle and high school educators to beta test his program, including Jiloty. “I like the fact that EduSweet has a calendar feature that overrides the laborious task [of] clicking through each day in order to identify assignments and deadlines,” she noted. “I also like the fact that the assignments and calendars are printable. I can print it, I can post it, and so can my students. He’s made that aspect of classroom management much simpler and much more usable. One of my suggestions to Charlie was to include a standards menu in the lesson planning component. We are required to include those in our plans. No teacher wants to have to use dual components.”

The teachers who have volunteered to beta test EduSweet are as impressed with the designer as they are with the design. “Just to see a kid take advantage of the things he’s learned is so gratifying,” commented Jiloty. “He uses his resources and context to push what he learns as far as he can go—and that’s so far beyond what most of us can understand. He’s developing software from the ground up. I see it as a launching pad into his future. If I can help him with that, then I’m glad to do it.”

Charlie worked closely with his teachers to develop this program but says that it was really “designed for students, with teachers in mind.” Most educational software, Charlie points out, is designed by software companies who have consulted with teachers. Students are left out of that loop. He suggests that online grades, assignments, reports, and updates are only as effective as the students’ desire to log on and find the information. “It has to be something students want to take home with them.”

He has a good point. Free market businesses are formed around client need. They continue to thrive by responding to the demands of their clients. Not so much with the business of education, in which students are too often perceived as the passive recipients of whatever we choose to give them and in whatever form. It’s a reality that Charlie is quick to point out: “The biggest void I’ve ever seen in communication happens in school. Teachers want to do what they’ve always done. Kids want to try new things, learn new things. They want to be engaged. They want to be surprised. If that’s not happening, then they’re not interested. Allowing that personal touch back into education makes students partners in the educational process, and not victims of it.”

So how do Charlie’s classmates feel about EduSweet? Cathyann Romanowski, a junior at New Smyrna Beach High School, in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., gives it a big thumbs up. Charlie and Cathyann are both members of the school’s cross country team. During the summer months while the coach is away, it is incumbent upon the team captains to create and manage schedules and running logs, keep attendance, and post notices. Charlie set up a system for the team using EduSweet and manages all of their information through the site. “It’s great!” said Cathyann. “You can totally tell the difference between something that a teacher makes and something designed by one of your peers. EduSweet is just, you know— fun . Kids know what they need.” She especially likes the connection to social networking. “What an awesome idea,” she said. “Because, of course, we teenagers check out our Facebook page before we take time to log on and check our grades and schedules. It’s great when that information is already right there.”

“Already right there” seems to be the deciding factor in the impact and usability of home-to-school communication. In order to be effective, schools must look at management needs through the “information on demand” eyes of today’s learners and incorporate the tools that students respond to in order to keep the lines of communication and connection open. Charlie sums it up well: “Education has to be an ‘all the time’ thing in order to work. Giving kids accessibility makes them feel connected. They want to know that they can put information out there when they feel it’s important to be out there and that they can access information when they want it. School is basically a big job. It’s all about completing tasks, getting things done, managing time, schedules, and information. That doesn’t have to be boring. When school is interactive and engaging, then it begins to become something that you want to take home with you.”

Want to take a sneak peak at Charlie’s brainchild? Check it out at www.edusweet.com.

Johanna Riddle writes and teaches on the topic of integrated learning and multiple literacies, drawing on 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher, an art teacher, an arts administrator, and a media specialist. Johanna is the author of Engaging the Eye Generation (Stenhouse, 2009). Her work in the classroom has been featured in T.H.E. Journal and has been the subject of an Adobe educational video. She is a nationally certified media educator, a Fulbright Scholar, and an Adobe Education Leader. Email her at johannariddle@gmail.com.

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