Software Tells Teacher When Kids Space Out

ExitTicket, software born in a classroom, can tell a teacher if the kids in the back of the class haven't been paying attention.
10 Tech Tools To Engage Students
10 Tech Tools To Engage Students
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Maybe because he was a computer science major before he decided to become a teacher, Daniel Adiletta has a clear vision of real-time student assessment data as "the golden bullet to close the achievement gap in class."

"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.

"I was in there 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. pretty much every day for six weeks, and I coded the app on the fly. I could see when the software had great impact, and I could see when some of the pieces were just duds," Refsland said. He prototyped the application front end in the JQuery Mobile JavaScript framework, which allowed him to iterate quickly, and mocked up a simple database backend for 30 students and one teacher, he said.

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!'" "Our average student comes into 9th grade at 5th grade level, hates math, and doesn't think of themselves as academic," Waters said. Yet they get "super jazzed" when they see a series of green icons on the screen showing several correct answers in a row, and that builds confidence, she said. "If they get a certain number of tickets in a row, they get a super-streak and the icon changes."

ExitTicket fan Adiletta said one reason he was interested in the technology in the first place was a positive experience he had a few years ago using clickers while he was teaching social studies at an Oakland, Calif., middle school. "This was an urban war zone, with kids who had never had a positive school experience, and all of a sudden they had something on screen that told them they'd done something right at school," he said. The effect was dramatic and "turned a lot of those students into budding scholars," he said.

More recently, he went looking for a next generation equivalent of that kind of student response system when he was put in charge of implementing 1-to-1 iPad program, where every student got one of the devices, at a private school, Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, Conn. Even though that particular program was based on iPads, Adiletta said he was looking for a Web-based solution that could also be used on other devices in the future, which is what led him to ExitTicket. While clickers are still a good option, a tablet has clear advantages he said. For "the students, having that screen of their own is much more powerful," he said.

Adiletta is starting the new school year as a social studies teacher at the University of Cleveland Preparatory School, an urban charter school in Ohio, where he won't have access to the same technology (although he is working on a grant proposal to change that).

"The pieces I found most attractive were related to ease of use," said James Sanders, who spent a year and a half on a technology evaluation process that led to the selection of ExitTicket by the KIPP Bay Area Schools, a charter school system in California that will begin using the software in the coming year. "We definitely didn't want any technology solution that would put an added extra burden on the teacher. We wanted the net strain on the teacher reduced rather than increased."

Sanders led the selection process while serving as innovation manager for the Bay Area affiliate of KIPP, a national network of college preparatory charter schools. The goal was to find a "real-time or near-real-time system where students would be able to get feedback on their performance," he said, and most of the other potential solutions he looked at were either part of enterprise learning management systems "where we wouldn't be using 90% of the features," while others were too lightweight, he said.

Sanders has since moved on to serve as a presidential innovation fellow at the White House working on educational initiatives, but he said he was speaking strictly as a former KIPP employee where ExitTicket is concerned.

Back at Leadership Public Schools, superintendent Waters said she is proudest of supporting two long-time educational goals: differentiation (altering instruction depending on what students do and don't understand) and intervention (helping students who get off track). Without technology, she said, "those are nice words, but you can't do it because it's too mind boggling -- you don't have the information."

On the other hand, with ExitTicket as a sort of business intelligence dashboard on student learning, it becomes possible to visualize patterns of understanding and misunderstanding. If four students all got the same answer wrong, a teacher can pull them aside and tutor them on that material, Waters said. Teachers can also establish their own playlists of content, such as Khan Academy videos, to offer to students who struggle with a specific concept, she said.

"We're also trying to establish the idea of micro-successes, where it's okay to get something wrong because you'll have plenty of chances, and you learn from your mistakes," she said. "Understanding your misunderstanding is the best way to move forward."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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