"You should be able to know, quantitatively, whether the boys in the back are getting distracted," he said in an interview. That's why he was elated when he found ExitTicket's classroom software, which is designed to present assessments to students on mobile devices, while giving a teacher with an iPad an overview of each student's performance on a color-coded seat map. Students get immediate feedback, while the teacher gets the insight to make quick course corrections. It was just the kind of tool Adiletta had been dreaming of to personalize instruction by making it easy to see which students needed more direction or help. "It was great to see someone else was looking for the same nerdy tools I was," he said.
Part of ExitTicket's appeal to classroom teachers may be a result of it being born in a classroom. The software was originally developed by Leadership Public Schools, a nonprofit that operates four charter high schools in the San Francisco Bay area. Louise Bay Waters, the charter school program's superintendent and CEO, said the idea grew out of an earlier experiment with some clickers that had been donated to the school. As a means of giving quick feedback, the clickers showed potential, but were also very limited in the sort of interactivity they supported.
[ Want to know more about clickers in the classroom? Read Do Clickers Beat PCs For Testing Students? ]
She and Scot Refsland, a friend who ran a Web consulting firm, started kicking around ideas for how they could take advantage of the love today's students have for their smartphones and similar gadgets. After bringing him on staff as her chief innovation officer, the question she put to him was: If they could develop an app to make teachers more productive, what would it be?
"In the fall of 2011, Scott embedded himself in one teacher's classroom -- the teacher who had been experimenting with the clickers -- and started prototyping an app, a student response system," Waters said. "He would sit in the back of the class and fix bugs, and then he would send the code off to India and a team that programmed all night. After about six weeks of that, he had something that was working well, getting good results in that classroom." They then began trying it in other classrooms, putting out a second-generation version of the software in 2012 and beginning to make it available to other school systems to test. Now, although LPS still owns the software, Refsland has worked out a license to sell it as a cloud service. The product name ExitTicket comes from a classroom practice of awarding paper tickets to students who have proven their mastery of a skill and are ready to move on to learning something else.
Refsland said those first few weeks spent prototyping in the classroom were important, addressing one of the persistent complaints about today's educational technology startups: "that tech people don't understand education, don't intrinsically understand how education works," including the things that go beyond instruction itself to "classroom management" issues like misbehaving students.
ExitTicket can display which students need help with a question.
The charter high school was a challenging setting, Refsland said, representing a "last chance" at schooling for many of the students who had failed at other public schools. Many came to class with a pre-established attitude that they could never do well in school, and the challenge was to change their minds. "Louise and I wanted to really create some tool we could hook them with right away, so we thought, what does every single one of the students have in their pocket? A smartphone," he said. "So let's go with something that runs on cellphones."
The prototype they wound up developing targeted the iPod Touch. The Web-based software has also been used on PCs in computer labs and Google Chromebooks, which the school is moving toward as a standard because the keyboard makes them more suitable for writing exercises, according to Waters. The current edition of the software can be used to project an onscreen scoreboard, allowing the class as a whole to see how it performed on a given question. In that display, the students' names are not associated with the right and wrong answers as they are on the teacher's version.
"We created almost a game-like way of presenting questions and answers, where, as a student, you immediately know whether you get it right or wrong," Refsland said. "We also gave the teacher immediate understanding of where the comprehension of the students was."
The first time he saw this work really well was with one of the boys in the back of the class, a boy who "had one foot out the door and clearly didn't want to be there. On this one quiz, he answered wrong, wrong, wrong to the point where we could say, look at that, this guy's guessing."
Once the teacher offered individual instruction and intervention, it became clear the student was struggling with word problems, not because of the math, but because he was a Latino who needed help with his English, Refsland said. "Toward end the end of my six weeks in that class, I saw that same student stand up and yell, 'Yeah, I got it!'"