Through the threshold library

Through the threshold library

My second daughter was born at the end of January 2017. I found the experience of adding a fourth person to our family, and the subsequent adjustment much, much more challenging than when my eldest was born, especially when we threw a house move into the mix when she was four weeks old!

A really tiny part of this whole process was my realisation in April that I had basically stopped reading since she was born. This thought really worried me. So, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on what I managed to read last year. That thought then evolved into the idea of publishing a library on my blog. So here it is

The library will be broken into bookshelves, each one published in the next few days:

Education bookshelf

These are all the books that have impacted my thinking about education for better or worse since I started teaching. I include the year I read it and titles in bold mean that I would currently recommend it. If I have written a review of it this will be linked.

I include all the books about teaching that I have read, firstly as a record of my own CPD and secondly because of even those books that contain arguments and ideas that I now disagree with, I recognise that my thinking about education is still fluid, open to change and these books will still have provided me with some basis for my own reflection and development.

The biologist’s bookshelf

One of the first things that I did when I started this blog was to publish the bio reading list, basically a list of books that I considered useful for biology teachers and their students to read. That post is a little tired now, so I update it to the biologist’s bookshelf and include all the books that I have read since it was published.

The guidance bookshelf

Useful books that I use for university guidance.

Fiction bookshelf

Simply a list of all the other books I have read recently that has nothing to do with education or biology. Quite often, especially during term time, I just find I need an escape from thinking about learning and teaching. Horror and Sci-Fi/Fantasy is where I tend to go. Now that I am moving to China, I have parted company with many of my books and so want to keep a record of them here.

My reads by year

A list of the all the books I have read each year.

BridgeU: review

This is the third and final post of three. You can see the first here and the second here.

BridgeU intro

BridgeU was set up with the international student in mind. Their founder noticed that there was a gap for supporting students from outside the US to apply to the US, and from the outset of working with them, it has been obvious to me that the platform has been set up with the student user experience in mind. In fact, BridgeU began selling its products directly to students before it moved on to targeting schools and this was probably due to the fact that their founder ran an educational consultancy focusing on supporting students in their university applications before founding BridgeU.

As well as supporting the application process, BridgeU’s philosophical approach has been to try to help match students to potential universities by using an algorithm that takes data that the student inputs and producing matched results based on that student entered data. This is the defining part of BridgeU. Note this is more than just a database, BridgeU’s algorithm will make recommendations to a user about the fit of a university for that user. With the international student in mind, BridgeU currently matches applications to US, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and we are promised that matching will be available to Australia soon. Recently BridgeU announced global shortlisting and users can now add any university from any country in the world, although they can’t match to all these universities. This free-form shortlisting is a new feature and adds a huge amount of flexibility to the platform.

The student side

Once set up and logged in, students input data into the profile builder; this ranges from personal preferences to the countries and locations that they want to study in, as well as the type of university experience that they would like to have and the courses that they wish to study.

When this is completed they can view university matches on the appropriate tab. These matches are presented nine at a time grouped into three categories, reach, match and safety. Each choice is presented as a card on which students can click to gain more information about the university as well as the matching scores.

In each category, to be able to see more choices, students have to either “shortlist” or “discard” each choice before more are shown. This feature has caused some issues with student users I have worked with, either thinking these nine options are all they have or not liking the feeling of commitment in “discarding” or “shortlisting”. To get around these issues, each of the categories now states how many options there are underneath the category label and students are able to find any courses that have been discarded again via a link on the top right of this page.

Once students have completed the matching they can view all of the options they have shortlisted under the shortlist tab. On the shortlist tab students can also directly add in any courses that they know about that they are considering, bypassing the matching tab. It is this feature that allows students to add any university on the planet – quite a powerful feature. After populating the shortlist tab, students then decide where they will apply by clicking on the “apply here” feature next to each shortlist.

When a student selects a university to apply to BridgeU will give them information about deadlines as well as the documentation that they need to submit as part of their application. The system will also alert the advisor to any required documentation that the school will need to submit. Another really nice feature, just released but still needing some development is application tracking. If you have used UCAS adviser track then you will get a sense of why this is such a good feature for a counsellor. Essentially this simple feature provides a space for students to mark when they have finished preparing and sending their application, as well as mark when they have received an offer and any decisions that they make. This means that the advisor is easily able to keep track of all the application statuses of all their students.

In addition to these research, matching and application tools, BridgeU also offers a “writing builder” to support students in writing a personal statement, or college essays for the US. These tools are still a little basic and I am not convinced that the functionality is any better than google docs, in fact, google docs may be a better place to write if students want to receive comments and input from teachers – I will be testing this out more in a couple of months. To support students in this process there are also annotated exemplars available for the students to view but these don’t provide the level of scaffolding that as a teacher I would like to see and the annotations are a little weak.

Finally, BridgeU has recently developed a careers tool that students can view but unfortunately, teachers can’t at present. The careers tool is ambitious and adopts BridgeU’s global approach by aggregating data on careers from many different countries. The data is supplied by burning glass. The careers tool works a little like the matching program and allows students to view data from job groups and select jobs they are interested in, before viewing a career report that gives some data about earning power, monthly demands for the job and its sector.

The teacher side

BridgeU’s teacher side is still under development, it is obvious that the platform was originally designed with the student user in mind, and BridgeU has had to work hard to make the platform fit into the school ecosystem. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all, we are all here to support the student applicant. I just believe that one of the best ways to do that is to support the work of teachers and schools.

BridgeU is aware of the issues from the teacher side and is working to address them. They have recently partnered with iSAMs and ManageBac which, to my mind at least, gives them the potential to hugely improve some of the issues that they have. Because of this integration, it is now very easy to add students and advisors to the platform if you use either of these systems. If you don’t, adding advisors and students is a little bit cumbersome, but no more or less than any of their competitors.

The reference writing tool is currently undergoing user testing in BridgeU’s beacon schools and allows advisors to easily assign report writers to an individual student. A little like the students writing builder; there are no exemplars of completed comments or references for teachers to view and the writing functionality itself is minimal in its current state.

BridgeU has worked hard recently to allow document sending as a function, giving schools the ability to send transcripts and other documents directly to US and Canadian universities. The document sending function is powered by Parchment and is built directly into the system. This is a much-needed function for many schools, particularly those with many applicants to North America. When a student selects to apply to the relevant country, the documents that need to be sent are added to the advisor’s task list. From here the advisor can upload the necessary documents and send with just a few clicks.

Finally, BridgeU has recently provided a reporting function for advisors under the analytics tab. From here advisors can easily see which universities are shortlisted and applied to most frequently by their student body. The analytics function will also provide reporting on student offers, rejections, predicted scores, final scores, document sending and an analysis of historical data.

Conclusion

The platform has come some way since I last wrote about them but not as far as I would have imagined in that time, indeed some of the functionality that they were keen to point out they were working on in their response to that article, is still not visible within the system. Added to that they have developed a slight reputation for aggressive marketing, particularly amongst the schools that I communicate with, which is a shame because they are a lovely team (I know, I’ve met them).

That said they have a powerful product that will be ideal for schools that manage a very diverse student body, whose students apply to many different HE systems each year. It’s matching algorithm, global or free-form shortlisting, document sending and its application tracking and reporting are it’s greatest assets currently, and ones that set it apart from competitors.

Areas for development on the platform include the careers tool which is still in their infancy. It is promising that this is being developed but I would like to see more from this section, perhaps even a CV builder or some form of personality assessment.

Personally, I still have some reservations about the platform, as I do about all platforms of its ilk. When working with a product that is being developed, you have to be prepared to work with it and understand that certain aspects may not be delivered in the timescales that are promised all the time. Having said this, this platform does the heavy lifting when it comes to helping students make sense of all university the data that is out there.

Unifrog: review

This is the second of three posts. See the first here and the third here.

Unifrog intro

Unifrog was set up in the UK by two individuals with experience of the education context, one of whom was a teacher; this is tacit throughout the system and is one of the systems real strengths in my opinion.

A quick scan of the website belies how UK focussed it has been in its history. All of the testimonials from schools are from UK schools, although the website does point to partner schools all over the world. Many of the tools presented within the system still suggest this UK-centric background – there is a sixth form/college search tool (the use of the word college here could be confusing for American colleagues); there is a UK apprenticeship search tool (international students need not apply); there is a separate Oxbridge tool and an equivalent for other leading unis (Ivy league for example) is conspicuous by its absence.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Unifrog is adding in more globally orientated features – they are currently developing a global applications shortlist, for example.  Some international schools, with very diverse student bodies, may currently be put off the platform as the current UK focus could well not be seen to fit with their family and student body.

The student side

When students log in they are presented with tools grouped into the following categories:

  • Exploring pathways
  • Recording what you have done
  • Searching for opportunities
  • Making applications

“Exploring pathways” contains tools to allow students to research careers (career library), university subjects (subject library), how to apply to different systems (know-how library) and MOOCs. The former three tools, while not yet complete, are very well developed and give students some very detailed information about these areas. The layout is well designed and engaging, allowing students to also favourite topics that they have seen to bring these to the home page for each tool for ease of reference. The MOOC tool allows students to search for MOOCs that they can take – a really cool feature.

The “Recording what you have done” area includes tools for students to record the activities that they have undertaken and the competencies that they have developed. There is also a section for recording interactions between students and teachers which is gold, particularly if you want your other teachers on your team to be able to see all the discussions that a student has had or if you are worried information being lost.

Both of these sections combined with the CV writer are ideal for getting younger years to think through what they need to do over the final few years of schools to formatively develop themselves in reality and on paper. One of the jobs of the counsellor and the team has got to be about catalysing thinking in the younger students so they don’t end up in their last two years with no experience to reflect on.

The final two sections host tools most useful for the final two years of school. “Searching for opportunities” includes tools to research and shortlist UK universities, UK apprenticeships, College and sixth form, Oxbridge, US universities and European universities. The “making applications” tools include UK personal statement, references, post-18 intentions, UK top 5, CV/Resume writer and common application.

The CV writer and personal statement builders all include good guidance and annotated worked examples to support students in their writing. These are easy to view and real thought has been put into the user experience of these tools.

Note here that research and applications are limited to the UK, US and Europe, but Canada will be being added shortly, and a global applications shortlist feature is in the pipeline.

The teacher side

On using the teacher side it was obvious to me when I first started using the platform that this site had been designed by a teacher, certainly someone who had worked in a school and understood how they worked. In fact, I think that the teacher side is one of the strongest points that the platform has going in its favour and that’s saying something because their careers tools are excellent if UK leaning.

As well as being able to view the student side, teachers have access to two view levels, basic and advanced. The basic view enables teachers to write references, enter predicted grades and view personal statements. The advanced view allows teachers to manage and track students across the whole range of tools that they use. Using this function teachers can comment on what students have done and add interactions to log meeting minutes with them.

The strength of this layout is that I can, say, have a representative from the English department work with the kids on their personal statements and that person is just as easily able to view the students work as me. Of course, if I don’t want anyone else involved I can just train my teachers to only use the basic mode. There is flexibility built in.

One drawback is that teachers have to be added to the system manually, this means someone in the school filling out a spreadsheet and sending it back to Unifrog to add the teachers in. There is no link up with other school MISs.

Once set up though, each teacher can easily provide comments for references for each of their students with one single sign in. There are also exemplars for the teachers showing them how to write references. Everything has been thought of.

Conclusion

Unifrog has a lot of strengths – great layout, intuitive design, ease of use. They have developed excellent career tools, and you can add as many kids, years and grades to the platform as you want at no additional cost, allowing you to get other teachers involved – form/homeroom teachers, for example. The teacher side is also fantastic – simple to onboard teachers and a well thought out system that distinguishes between “basic” and “advanced” utilities, bringing flexibility for those counsellors who want a program that pulls in colleagues or not. Their reference writing areas and cv writing areas are truly excellent, structuring the process for teachers and students as well as providing a clean interface for collecting teacher input and predicted grades for students.

Personally, I have some reservations about the platform. They are currently relatively limited in scope covering Europe and US. Although they will be adding Canada shortly, and a global applications shortlist is the pipeline, there is currently no flexibility here to add other universities.

I also feel that presenting all the data to students in one list may well be a little overwhelming to many students and actually hinder their progress in finding future options – no counsellor or student has time to go through all the university options available, although being able to set your own filters is a nice feature.

All in all, l think that for the right school this is an excellent platform, particularly currently for UK based or out looking schools. You will get great customer service and a very friendly team to work with along with some very developed career advisory tools and systems to reduce the counsellors time on admin and increase their time with students.

Well that’s was over 500 words!

Global university admission guidance: review of #edtech platforms

Update (28th June 2018): You can see my review of MaiaLearning here. I will be chatting with Cialfo next week and hope to have a review coming out sometime towards the end of July.

Update (21st June 2018): Since publishing the reviews of BridgeU and Unifrog I have also had the chance to get acquainted with MaiaLearning and will be publishing my review next week.

Background

In recent months a hole has opened up in the marketplace for global university admissions platforms due to the announcement that the biggest kid on the block, Naviance, was retiring from supporting the work of global university admission guidance counsellors.

I don’t know about my colleagues, but personally, these platforms provide an invaluable resource for my work. If you were to focus purely on the intricacies and nuances of applying to a variety of different university systems and the requirements of those systems alone, you may begin to appreciate the task of trying to help families and students make sense of all the options. When you add in the sheer number of universities on the planet and the impossible task of knowing all of them, let alone knowing about them, then you begin to see the value that an online database and guidance tool brings to the work, if only to limit counselor bias, particularly the anchoring and halo effects.

In this first of three posts, I want to introduce the next two posts examining alternatives to Naviance: UniFrog & BridgeU. Both platforms are same-same but different, approaching guidance with different philosophies and outlooks.

I am not aiming to compare these platforms (except on two points – see below) but will instead aim to describe their functions openly and honestly, before outlining my opinion of what works and doesn’t on these platforms.

Reader beware that this is coloured by own use of the systems in my own context: a small, but very diverse international student body, delivering the three IB programmes from primary to the diploma. This was also my first guidance post and one where I set up the program. I am fully aware that my experience of this work will not be the same as other colleagues.

Any counsellors considering two these platforms should certainly have a go at trialling them both themselves. I have worked with BridgeU since 2016 and have blogged about my experience here and here. I have since worked with UniFrog since 2017.

There are only two comparison points that I will make: Firstly, the platforms are both great! They both solve the counsellor’s dilemma: how do I get more knowledge of the options available to best serve my students. They both democratise that knowledge and enable students to be much larger change agents for their future-selves.

The second comparison is about outlook: BridgeU attempt ultimately to use an algorithm to match student and institution. Thus be aware that there is a layer of filtering that goes on within the system, I make no comment about the pros and cons of this.

UniFrog does not believe in filtering the data for the student. Instead, they aim to provide all the information at once and present a range of filters for the student to play with. Again I make no comment about the pros and cons of this approach.

The different philosophies of each company in the management of the data they present lead to differences in their style of working.

Finally, I am learning that blog posts are best kept short and sweet and so each post will be limited to around 500 words. Each post will appear over the next two Thursdays. With the UniFrog 500 word review next Thursday and the BridgeU 500 word review the week after.

Keep a lookout for them!

 

Review: What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

This Easter holidays I read David Didau’s 350+ page compendium.

Basically, this book is an essential must read for any teacher. It is detailed and covers quite the range of ideas relating to classroom practice. On top of that, it is very well written, with clear and accessible language.

It is broken into four parts.

Part 1 “Why we are wrong” introduces the reader to a few general psychological concepts. Throughout the book, David references Daniel Kahneman’s work “Thinking, Fast and Slow” a lot and I think much of what is written here is sourced from that book, although, perhaps, simplified and certainly written in a much less head scratchy way. If you have read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” many of the ideas about psychological traps and biases will be familiar to you. Still, David is able to show how to apply these concepts succinctly to the classroom setting. He also provides an excellent explanation of effect sizes and the statistical techniques used to compare the effectiveness of classroom interventions before giving some real food for thought as to why this evidence might not be as robust as we think. His critique of Hattie’s work was quite surprising for me and I welcomed the explanation of a concept I had heard lots of people talk about, but nobody has ever explained.

Part 2 lays out what David refers to as the threshold concepts for learning to teach effectively. David unpicks many commonly held myths about classroom teaching and learning and makes an argument as to why many of these cherished ideas are wrong. The key idea here is that learning does not equal the same thing as performance in class. Learning is essentially an invisible process happening in peoples heads and by looking at performance in class we assume that this equates to learning in the mind of the student. Classroom observers look for evidence of “rapid and sustained” learning during class time, however learning, David makes the case for, is messy, non-linear and if it is going to be sustained cannot be rapid. Aside from the difference between learning and performance he covers concepts such the difference between novice and expert learners, the structure of our memory in terms of storage and retrieval strength and cognitive load.

After explaining our cognitive biases and how they apply in education before unpicking many myths about classroom practice held in educational circles, in part 3 David goes on to apply the cognitive concepts from part 2 directly to teaching practice. He gives a clear exposition of interleaving, the spacing effect, the testing effects and the effects of feedback. His writing will prompt you to think about these topics and how they may apply in your own planning and instruction – I know that they certainly have for me.

In the final part, he examines other pet theories in education that we could be wrong about. The first chapter deals with formative assessment and presents a surprising critique of Dylan Wiliams work, with a reply for Dylan Wiliam. There are also chapters on the problems of lesson observations, differentiation, praise among others.

One of the things that I was most surprised about and enjoyed reading was the critiques of the work by very established researchers. The work of both Hattie and Wiliam were picked apart at different points in the book. I am not sure I am fully convinced by the arguments but it was a pleasure to read something that was a little bit different in the sense that I have never come across critical reflections of these, much discussed, in schools at least, concepts before.

I also like the way the book is laid out. Now that I have read it through, I am able to easily go back and find relevant chapters for different concepts again.

This book has given me quite a bit to think about in terms of my curriculum planning and my classroom practice. Despite having just finalised my DP curriculum, I am already prompted by thoughts in this book to review it – particularly in line with David’s thesis that we should plan curriculums around threshold concepts. Doing that first involves identifying them which will probably be the springboard for my next CPD drive. However, I am fully aware that even the threshold concept of threshold concepts may turn out to be an unevidenced and unprovable claim made by education researchers and that my time here will be wasted. Only time will tell!