NCAN at SXSWedu: Day 1 Recap

March 8, 2016

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst 

Hello from Austin, Texas, where I’m in attendance at SXSWedu for the second year in a row. SXSWedu is a hybrid of a conference and a festival that brings together all kinds of education stakeholders to network, learn, share, and experience. Topics covered run the full gamut from pre-K to adult education and from communications strategies to data analytics. All week, I’ll be sharing dispatches about what I’ve seen, heard, and learned that might be useful and/or interesting to NCAN members.

"College Success: Is There an App for That?" 

Fittingly, my day started off with a panel featuring NCAN member Beyond12 discussing their new myCoach app. Before that, however, founder and CEO Alex Bernadotte shared Yesenia’s story. Yesenia, like so many students served by NCAN members, questioned whether college was actually for her and how she would pay for it. With the help of a Beyond12 coach, she graduated from San Francisco State University last spring. Yesenia is a success story similar to many of those among the 43,000 students currently tracked by Beyond12’s platform; these students’ outcomes are encouraging: 82% of students served by Beyond12 persist to their third year, compared to the 59% national average for similarly underserved students.

The question of how to scale Beyond12’s services even further resulted in the development of the myCoach app. Through interviews, workshops, and co-design with students, the app was developed to expand the experience for both students and coaches into “a new college success coach model,” according to Bernadotte.

The app, which has the tagline, “Navigate College Like a Pro,” is available for both Android and iOS and is free to students; clients for the app are the high schools, college access programs, or institutions of higher education that would like to use it. It helps students answer big questions like “Should I stick with this?” and detailed ones like, “When should I renew my FAFSA?” The app focuses on five areas:

  • Simplified essentials: A campus-specific checklist that helps students to translate complex tasks into manageable to-dos and provides nudges to complete assignments.
  • Purposeful reflection: Quizzes based on the Beyond12 coaching curriculum award badges and tangible next steps for a student’s college career.
  • Community inspiration: Bite-sized questions that change weekly and that are integrated into social media. Here students can share experience and leave tips and tools for other students.
  • Tracking progress: Personalized badges and a visual timeline of their progress in the curriculum show students how far they’ve come.
  • Experts and coaches – Access to a team of experts via phone, email, or chat; easy access to coaches’ bios and contact info to streamline communications; conversation history between coach and student.

The app provides three tiers of human support:

  • Digital-only: For students who only need the help of peers or the app
  • Light touch: Experts are available when needed, may not be the same expert each time
  • High touch: Provides a reliable coach students can consistently turn to

All of the data collected by the app are tied to back-end analytics on the Salesforce platform that allow schools and programs to compare statistics and outcomes.

Beyond12 is currently conducting a randomized controlled trial (RCT), considered the gold standard of experimentation, with students at the City University of New York. Simultaneously, a formative assessment is taking place with an external evaluator in San Francisco. Overall, these evaluations will gather data to hone in on the question of how to create a scalable coaching model that supports students and see which of the tiers of support are “effective enough” for different kinds of students.

Alex was joined on stage with representatives from IDEO, a design consulting firm; Tipping Point Community, a non-profit fighting poverty in the San Francisco Bay area; and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

The most interesting points in the ensuing conversation discussed research and pilots in the education space. Corporations last year spent $145 billion on research and development while non-profits spent basically zero, according to Tipping Point’s Renuka Kher.

Philanthropic interests, according to Todd Penner of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, can help to remedy this by funding pilots of unproven ideas to determine whether there are better routes for organizations to take. Through funding pilot projects, foundations can test what works, and then successful projects can attract more sustainable funding sources. “Everything doesn’t have to be successful,” says Penner. “A lot of funders want to know what doesn’t work. We can learn just as much from a failure as from a success, and I think that most funders would agree that that’s worth funding to find out.”

"The Subtle Psychology of Motivation and Learning

The next session, “The Subtle Psychology of Motivation and Learning,” featured four psychologists working to research what can change students’ mindsets and outcomes.

Dr. David Yeager, from the University of Texas-Austin, discussed work from the National Mindset Study, which he described as “a way to address mindsets for an entire nation.” What are mindsets? Consider this example: in a sample of American ninth grade students who were given the choice between an assignment that’s an easy A but doesn’t require learning anything new and an assignment with a possible lower grade where students would learn a lot, 63% chose the easy A. This raises the question, Yeager says, of “How we allow students to feel psychologically safe to meet learning challenges.”

Through conducting the National Mindset Study, Yeager said that the following were effective lenses through which to get students’ cooperation:

  • Be indirect: tell students, “this isn’t for you, it’s for the benefit of next year’s students
  • Be respectful: Convince students that you need their help and wisdom to help us make things better.
  • Be self-personalizing: Allow students to author their own stories, draw on their own experiences, and craft their own examples
  • Make research socially affordable: Avoid stigmatizing and the implication that students are caving in to grown-ups’ beliefs
  • Be persuasive: use real scientific examples, but don’t over-do it
  • Not as important: fun, games, social media, visuals

“Ultimately, students are looking for content that respects them,” says Yeager.

The National Mindset Study’s sample is a random selection of 76 U.S. public high schools. 95% of 9th grade students within the schools participated in a double-blind randomized controlled trial where they took two self-administered 30-minute computerized sessions.

Students who received the growth mindset program, the idea that intelligence and knowledge are capable of being grown and that the brain is flexible, were more likely to seek challenges in math coursework. Students who received the growth mindset intervention were also less likely to get a D or F across all of their classes. The biggest effects were identified in students of color whose parents did not have a degree.

Dr. Rachel Beattie, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, spoke next about productive persistence in community college classrooms. As NCAN members know, there is a developmental math problem in the United States. Although 60-70% of students entering community colleges need at least one developmental math course, 80% of students never complete that course. Through the Statway intervention, students’ success rates tripled in half the time.

The strategies that best helped students included:

  • Believing they’re capable of learning
  • Feeling socially tied to peers, faculty, and the course
  • Believing the course has value (Relevance and purpose)
  • Having the skills, habits, and know-how to succeed in college setting
  • Faculty and college supporting students’ skills and mindsets

Two-thirds of students came to Statway believing that being a “math person” is something that is innate. Researchers wanted to shift that belief to one that viewed learning as a process everyone could engage in. Through the intervention, students read three pages on how knowledge can grow, and then they write a summary of the reading and relate it to an experience outside of math.

The percentage of students with grades of C- or better at the end of the semester increased when they received the growth mindset intervention, up to 92% if the students receive a 3 on the growth mindset scale.

Researchers employed a multi-pronged approach to promoting students’ sense of belonging: a contract activity where students signed a contract committing to complete, a routine where students support each other’s belonging in the classroom and email each other if a student misses class, and a faculty email routine where professors reach out to students if they miss class. Classes that used this approach had higher attendance rates.

The last dispatch of the day comes from a panel titled “Data Driven: Who’s Driving the Bus?” Panelists here discussed a topic near and dear to many NCAN members: using data to improve outcomes for students. Let’s rapid-fire through some of the most notable points and quotes from this session:

  • The concepts of working collectively toward a system of innovation “aren’t new, we’ve just done a poor job of morphing them into education.”
  • “You can’t improve when you don’t know what the starting point is.”
  • “We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.”
  • Where possible, focus on leading indicators rather than lagging ones. State assessments do little to inform a cycle of inquiry because they’re lagging indicators and students are already gone by the time results come back. Instead, focus on schools and programs using short cycles of improvement using a “Plan, Do, Study, Act” cycle.
  • Programs and schools should stop chasing isolated programs and initiatives and instead focus on the big picture while coming up with a cohesive plan.
  • To obtain personalized learning for every student, panelist Sharnell Jackson from the Chicago Public Schools, recommended using instructional technology and an inquiry process around data use. “We have an ocean of data now; we had a lake of data then,” she said. Where schools weren’t making significant headway, it was because staff didn’t know what data were for or which to use. Instead of always looking at accountability data; the data that really mattered was formative assessment.
  • Although I haven’t had a chance to read through it yet, this guide to using student achievement data for instructional decision making might hold some utility for a lot of NCAN members
  • To build human capacity around data in schools, principals needed to better understand how they could better support teachers. This included structured time for action planning, using an inquiry process, and creating action plan to apply interventions.
  • Remember the data use cycle: Bring all the data to the table. Examine the questions you’re asking and can ask. Determine which data are actionable. Develop a hypothesis about how to improve student learning. Modify student learning. Then collect and prepare a variety of data about student learning to determine student outcomes.

Check back tomorrow for even more from SXSWedu!

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