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 (17th July 2018): You can see all my reviews linked below including the one published today of Cialfo:

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!

 

Moving on, handing over: 2

This post continues from yesterday’s post.

Working with colleagues

For any guidance department to be successful it needs, like all good teachers and their departments, to not work in a silo.

Getting colleagues on side is hugely important. In a culturally diverse staff body, many colleagues bring very different sets of values which colour their view of guidance. It is essential that guidance counsellors work closely with teachers; by understanding the educational heritage and philosophy of colleagues we can best ensure that the team works together to support students supported by a common understanding and vision.

Specialist colleagues are involved either officially or unofficially with the administration of the guidance program and I make a point of sharing thanks for this support by highlighting the efforts of particular colleagues with the SLT.

The English teachers and teachers of other languages are well placed to offer support in writing techniques, although it is important that they understand the aim of the different types of writing that different university applications require.

Counsellors I have spoken with have sometimes said that they don’t like involving English teachers because they can give conflicting advice. I think that this is a mistake. The English teachers I know and have worked with in the past have much stronger skills than me when it comes to coaching students writing. With proper time for discussion, collaboration and planning any differences in opinion and outlook can be adjusted for and the team can work on the same page.

The development of writing skills is important but staff can be involved in helping to prep for interviews also. In actually delivering mock interviews I have relied on a variety of staff as I feel that the most beneficial effect is gained for students when they interview with someone that they don’t know. I have also used the drama teachers to coach students on body language.

The real challenge for the school here is getting these relationships formalised. This is a priority, as the teachers who give up their time to plan and deliver support to students need to recognised and compensated for this. It isn’t fair to simply expect them to take this on.

Another aspect of working with colleagues comes with getting them on-side to understand the procedures involved in making and supporting university applications.

All teachers support university applications by supplying written comments and predicted grades for the subjects they teach. The school needs a policy for making predicted grades which must be clearly articulated to and understood by teachers so that the team is predicting grades in the same way.  In the same way, teachers need to understand the timeline and process that their students are involved in. In an international school, students may be applying to many different university systems, each with their own nuances. It is helpful if teachers have some understanding of that. One of the most unhelpful things that a well-meaning teacher can do is to continually offer an extension to deadlines for students.

Teachers need to understand how their comments are used to help the counsellor construct a reference and to understand what makes these comments different to a report. Generally, they must be positive and evidence-based. It doesn’t escape my notice that teachers, often, could do with support from the English department in terms of structuring their writing (PEE/A; SEX; Claim, Warrant and Impact).

Finally, in some cases, teachers may be called upon to write full references. The processes for this and requirements for the writing need to be carefully explained and understood.

Finally working with colleagues, also includes organising the transcript production process and having some input into the production of the DP handbook and making sure that the information within it aligns with the guidance handbook.

Working with outside organisations

Ultimately the role of the guidance counsellor is about working with organisations outside of school: universities.

I once heard a Head tell a conference that that role of the guidance counsellor was 50% in school and 50% out of school.

Our work involves liaising with universities, of course, but this can take many forms.

Firstly university visits. These require planning within the school, to agree a suitable place and time that visits can be generally held. Currently, we try to avoid clashes with lessons and encourage universities to visit at lunch or after school.

If I had more time, I would love to allow these visits to include a tour, perhaps the observation of some teaching (this has gone down well in the past) as well as the delivery of the universities presentations. I feel that this goes a long way in building a relationship with that institution, and allows them to better understand our particular context.

I also make a point of reaching out to universities after I have met them at conferences after our students have applied to them, and after students receive an offer (or not). Again, this keeps the lines of communication open and helps to build more of a relationship with your partner on the other side of the desk at that institution.

In terms of non-university institutions, we are currently using BridgeU and UniFrog as platforms to help students do their research and plan their applications. I have been planning to write a comparison of the two all year, and I hope to get this published soon. It has been useful to get feedback from students regarding the two programs.

We also work with Inspiring Futures and use their Futurewise and Career Investigator programs to support our career guidance programs in grade 9 and 10.

To improve

What would improve this guidance program and help it meet the aims of formatively developing our students?

Well, a couple of things.

I think to start some of the skills, like CV writing, earlier, in grade 8 for example, would help students begin to think about what how they can maximise their final four years in school to really develop themselves. Once students are introduced to the concept of a CV and, perhaps, realise that they haven’t got that much on there, yet, they can start thinking about what they can do to get stuff on there. The caveat here is that is isn’t about getting stuff on the CV its training kids to think about what they learn, about themselves and the world, from the activities they do do.

I think also that relationship with colleagues who support the department; teachers who help with writing, for example, need to be formalised, recognised and given the space to commit their working time to this, otherwise, apart from the risk of overburdening already busy teachers, you are effectively running a program on good-will and favours which can’t last forever.

Moving on, handing over: 1

Making the decision to move on is not easy. Particularly when you have spent the last four years building a program from scratch. It has been a fascinating ride, and I have learned so much in the process, not just about guidance counselling, but also more generally about working with colleagues and about wider school aims and objectives. I still have a lot to learn and I could certainly still do more in my current post but at least there is a skeleton of a program. I leave it to others to add meat to the bones.

In this post and the next, I thought I would prepare my handover notes to a colleague who will be taking over my role when I move on to China. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in the last few years and to think through how things might be improved.

I have created the concept map below which I think neatly covers the different aspects of this diverse role and reflects how I have broken up the role in my mind as I have developed the program at my current school.

Download (PDF, 1.64MB)

Aims of School Guidance

School guidance programs should support the wider aims of the school’s mission and vision, of course. To this end they should be developed to maximise the formative development of the young people they serve. In practice, and in conjunction with other departments within a school, this means helping students to think about and plan for their futures as well as develop writing and conversation/interview skills among others. When implemented well they can help catalyse students into gaining more from their school life by becoming active members of the school community.

Working with students

The most obvious point of interaction for a guidance counsellor is working with the students in the school. I recognise that different schools have different ways of organising their programs, depending on their specific context but there are particular tasks that I believe schools should channel through their guidance counsellors.

In my context, I have developed a program that focusses on “career” education in grades 9 and 10 (Y10 & 11). In practice, this means that we focus on interventions for students that will expand their horizons in terms of the jobs that are available to them. For example, many students (if not all) have heard about doctors, and have some idea of what they may do professionally – normally they have all been to one. But many students are unaware of the other professional routes in healthcare like physiotherapy, radiography, biomedical research, nursing, paramedic science. The aim of our program in these early grades is to expand students knowledge about these topics.

The Future-You festival (FYF) acts as a focal point for this with other activities interspersed throughout the year as shown in the following table.

Grade 9Grade 10Grade 11Grade 12
Career Investigator (Delivered as part of the FYF)Futurewise Career Profile Futurewise if not completed in grade 10University Application support
Future-You festivalFuturewise Career Discussion & CV writing workshop (as part of FYF) Persuasive writing workshopsPersuasive writing workshops
Future-You festivalFuture-You festivalInterview skills training including body language
IBDP subject choice guidanceUniversity & Career researchFinancial Aid application support and post offer decision support
Individual meetingsIndividual meetingsIndividual meetings

This “career” education aims to engage students with research and thinking about their future. We hope that by doing this, students may be better informed when making their subject choices in grades 9 and 10, particularly with an understanding of how the subject choices for the Diploma impact on the options they have for further study.

Once students move into the Diploma program we aim to help them successfully research, apply and enter a university that it is a good fit for them.

In grade 11 we provide online tools to help students identify these options and this is supported by two whole grade workshops in term 1. From January we move to individual meetings (usually one every three weeks) supported by three whole grade workshops in term 2 and three in term 3. These workshops (add link), supported by the English department, focus on helping students develop solid persuasive writing skills that they can use in their personal statements or motivational letters.

Finally, in grade 12, we support students with their applications – it is surprising how long it takes a young person to fill one of these in! We continue with individual meetings and block out deadlines to help students manage the process. As part of the FYF we coach students on interview technique and body language, as well as give each student mock interviews to help them prepare for the requests that they get. Grade 12 reaches fever pitch around December as we push students to have everything prepared early, but students still need ongoing support and help with replying to offers and dealing with any potential fall out on results day.

Working with parents

Alongside working with students we strive to provide support to parents as well. This often comes in the shape of face to face meetings to discuss concerns or specific questions that families have. Questions can vary widely and depend, in the international context, on what the families own paradigm and passports are.

We also run presentations and information sessions for parents which we also normally open up to the wider public. These vary in content but we currently run one a term. This year in term 1 we held an introduction to Dutch HE following on from my tour of Dutch Universities. In term 2 I provided an information session on applying to a range of different university systems.

Team culture: teachers and counsellors

“I am applying to Bangor” the student said. “Oh, great! I applied there too!” says I, “It is an excellent school for Biological Sciences”.

As the school’s university counsellor I probably should have had a bit more of an idea that this student had decided to apply to this particular university, particularly considering this was rather late in the year – around April or May of Y13.

Follow up conversations made me aware that this student’s homeroom teacher had initially made the suggestion that this student applied to Bangor.

Let me get out in front of this. I am not trying to suggest in this post that teachers should not speak to their students about their university applications. I am not suggesting that teachers should not even offer advice to students and help them make sense of what can be a very confusing time of life, but teachers do need to think before they speak.

I have heard of schools where the guidance counsellor takes an aggressive, defensive approach in working with teachers. If you so much as whisper the word “university” to a student without their knowledge they may have words with you.

I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by the school counsellor for sharing a book list of subject specific reading with the Y12 and 13s and writing to them in an email that reading would be an excellent way to improve their university applications.

This wasn’t covert. The teacher wasn’t trying to go behind the counsellors back. They cc’ed the counsellor in, thinking they would be pleased that the teacher was trying to engage students to do things beyond what was merely required.

In my world then this is perfectly acceptable, as reading widely is an educationally excellent thing to encourage young people to do.

The teacher was called to the counselling office and made to apologise for that action.

This same colleague still gives me a cool reception when our paths do cross.

As a teacher, before I became a counsellor I wanted to encourage interested students to read my subject at university. I think this is natural. As someone who taught DP and A level and interacted with 17-18-year-olds pastorally, I was naturally curious as to where the students I met were applying, and what for.

It is frustrating when this information is never shared. When Teachers are never told when students have applied, or have interviews or get offers of admission. “Why do they need to know?” Is usually the question posed when this is raised.

Teachers do need to get with the school’s program and get behind the counselling team. Speak to the counselling department if they have ideas about individual students or groups of students and feel that you have the expertise to share. Global university admissions is an ever-changing landscape and teachers are not always up to speed. Also, teachers may not take into account other cultural factors like international diversity, when recommending institutions, which may hugely impact a students future happiness.

I would also submit, from experience, that teachers are not natural counsellors. I have written about this tension between teaching and counselling elsewhere and won’t bring it in here again. But teachers don’t necessarily know how to pose questions to draw out students thinking on such subjective matters about a students future, and they also may not have the full picture, painted by the families worldview.

Just like the teacher that ignores a school’s behaviour policy and does their own thing in their classroom, undermining their colleague who sticks to the behaviour policy, to the detriment of the whole team and school culture, the teacher that doesn’t engage with the counseling team to communicate ideas and discussion points about students, just serves to undermine the counseling department. This can lead to damaged reputations and undermining of the school’s reputation.

But it works both ways. Counsellors need to make teachers feel included. They need to seek students consent first to share the information (internally) about where students are applying and where they have been successful. This information serves to catalyse the team on the celebration and helps to build ongoing fruitful relationships between students and the staff that work with them. Why do teachers need to know? Because teachers care, becuase teachers invest their time, more than anyone, to work on behalf of students, because teachers know just when to put in the right word of encouragement, just when a student might need it.

It allows a whole team celebration of the students achievement and contributes to building a strong team culture amongst the staff. So counsellors and teachers: work together!