Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 1)

I was originally planning to write up my experiences in a single blog post but it got too long and so I have broken it up into four separate posts: this one which will focus on my efforts to organise the counseling space and resources. The second two posts focuses on a) building relationships with other institutions and b) the agencies you need to be registered with, while the final post deals with the internal dynamics of advising students and communicating with parents.

This last year has been incredible in so many ways but also very, very hard. This post is partly a record and reflection of my experiences but I also write with a few other counselors in mind whom I met this year who were in a similar position to me: working in small or new schools and carrying the responsibility of setting up the university and careers provision.

In August 2014 I moved schools. The aim of my new job was to begin developing a boarding program for my new school. Unfortunately for me, in early September of that year the company that owned the school took the decision to place the boarding program on permanent hold.

The resulting two years have been a period in which I have learned an awful lot, met and worked with some truly inspiring colleagues, and had the opportunity to really reflect on and experiment in my teaching practice.

Losing the boarding project opened the door to another really exciting opportunity: the chance to found, set up and run my own College Counseling Department or Higher Education and Careers Department or University and Careers Counseling Department (Yep those are the three titles we have run through this year and we are sticking with the last one!).

To say that this last academic year has been challenging and stressful would be an understatement but it has also been a real honour to build something from the ground up, make decisions and have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of an interesting mixed cohort of kids, from a variety of very diverse backgrounds. I have learned a lot about myself, my own perceptions, my own prejudice, my limitations and my strengths. I want to use this post to reflect on my experience in the first year of setting up a careers and university advisory service in a school.

I officially started the role in August 2015 but I began preparations for it back in April of the same year. This was a start up school environment that at the time had just, in March of that year, received authorisation to begin teaching the DP and were also prepping for our MYP authorization visit that would come in October of that year. Thus everyone was busy, not just with the normal rounds of lesson planning, delivery and reflection; not just on the unit planning, horizontal and vertical articulation that comes with the MYP but also with the additional paperwork that comes with trying to get a school authorized to deliver a curriculum.

So I was effectively on my own. Where would you start to plan a university guidance (at the time I thought it was just university guidance) program? You have an office space and thats it. You have no real background in the area save working in secondary teaching for six years, some of which you have been a sixth form tutor in the UK and a Boarding House parent for 16-18 year olds.

Organising the Counseling Space & Resources

I started by buying maps. Maps of the continental US, UK, and the World. Large ones around 1.2m x 1.0m to put on the walls. While waiting for these to go through our schools insanely long procurement process, I then downloaded the UK University League tables and registered online with every university as a students and ordered a copy of their prospectus. Those that wouldn’t post a copy to Europe, I downloaded a digital copy and saved. Later these were uploaded to the University Guidance Group that I created on ManageBac as a place to share resources with our G9-G12 students. Along the same vein, I wanted to make sure that our space set aside for guidance counseling was warm and welcoming, a place where parents and students felt that they could just drop into. Always at the fore-front of my mind was that we were a very new school, in a very competitive area (26 or thereabouts international schools in the area) and I believe that the university and careers provision that any secondary school offers has to aim to build confidence amongst the community of student, parents and teachers that it is competent. Parents will seek out the “best” schools for the their children and while you there are thousands of different views of what may make a school best, I feel that after a solid academics program (parents want to know there children are learning), a guidance program that helps students identify their strengths and interests and guides them to the next natural step after secondary school successfully is a major want for secondary parents. A school that doesn’t offer that, especially one that you are paying for, will surely send red flags. Hence, ordering maps and materials for the guidance office, to help build the environment for students and parents seemed like a natural place to start. At this time I also ordered books and guides and I continued to do this over the course of the next year. The books I now have in the office aside from the prospectuses are:

An additional resources that I came across last year that I make parents of students aware of is the gettingin podcast by panoply.

One of the essential tasks that went on alongside relationship building (see below) throughout the year was the creation of a variety of different resources to use both externally and internally of our school community. Early in the year I created the G11 counseling timeline and drafted the G12 counseling timeline which I will be finishing this summer. I scaffolded this process for myself by comparing the timelines produced by a variety of other schools that I had contact or a connection with.

At the same time I began to synthesise and summarise the key steps and information that lay at the heart of applications to the countries that my job description asked me to be responsible for – UK, US, Canada and Switzerland. For each of these countries I produced and essential information document, only two sides in total for each one that gave an overview for parents and students of the application process for each country.

Once all of these documents were created I decided to group them together into the first iteration of the University Guidance handbook, the development of which has carried on throughout the year as I have written new documents which have also been added to the handbook. I am hoping to be able to complete version 4 of the handbook over this summer break.

Early on in the year, and with input from a variety of the my colleagues, in  preparation for the CIS forum I created a school profile document. This document summarised our school, giving key information to admissions representatives. It was so liked by our marketing department that they subsequently hijacked it for use with prospective parents!

Throughout the year I also created a variety of forms to help with managing my meetings with students. These included permissions for students to miss class to attend university presentations, or open days, interview forms, teacher recommendation request forms and a university research form to help students build their shortlist of universities. I am not sure how useful some of these will be now that I am using BridgeU which provides a natural scaffold for structuring the timings of meetings with students which I will develop further for next year.

Towards the end of the year I worked with the DP and MYP coordinators to begin drafting policies for use in our community. These were the language course selection and university guidance policy, the predicted grades, teacher comments and recommendations policy as well as the attending university open days and guidance office events policy.

Finally in terms of resources, I was successful in April of this year in convincing the management at school that our community would benefit from the use of a guidance platform to primarily help students in their course and university research. I have blogged about the rollout of BridgeU here and here, so I won’t write too much here. In the final section of this blog on guiding students I will expand a little more as to why this was really important for me and my students.

Working with BridgeU

Update July 31st 2016: since publishing this blog post earlier in July I received an email from Lucy Stonehill the founder of BridgeU which contained the following correction and update:

Dear Will,

First of all, thank you for the detailed and extremely helpful feedback via your blog post..

We’ve seen that there are certain features that you suggested which we actually already have, but you haven’t seen (obviously that’s our fault for not making them easy to find!) but i wanted to bring them to light in any event: 

  • A search function for specific courses or universities exists (in the shortlist page)
  • The ability to ‘un-discard’ courses or universities and to view them in a discard list

However, I also wanted to raise some of the great points you mentioned that are top priority for us to work on over the summer, such as:

  • Recommending courses on a SL/ HL basis (to remove the possibility of showing courses where the student doesn’t meet the minimum requirements).
  • Enabling you as the counselor to set internal deadlines for your school while ensuring external deadlines are tracked and kept.
  • More detailed annotations on previous successful essays.

Earlier this year I blogged about my discussions with BridgeU and my decision to purchase their platform for use in our school, initially as a trial with our grade 11s (who are currently our oldest grade and just starting their applications to university). It was my intention to keep a running blog of my experience with BridgeU throughout last term, but unfortunately I was not able to meet that commitment, so I am intending in this post to provide an update of my experience with using BridgeU from last term.

Many of the counseling colleagues that I have met with in the last couple of months have been quite interested to hear what our experience of using BridgeU as a school has been, particularly that of the students. I write these reflections with these conversations in mind.

Logistics this term

We launched BridgeU with our cohort on 19th May and a representative of BridgeU ran a session for our 12 students first thing in the morning. Time was unfortunately a little more compressed for this event than I would have liked however the majority of the information was able to conveyed to the students in approximately 40 minutes.

During this session students, signed on to their accounts on the platform that had been set up for them previously. They were shown an overview of the different sections of the platform: University Matching; Strategy Advisor; University Scrapbook and Writing Builder and then began to complete their section entitled Profile Builder.

After this I  set up tasks for the students on BridgeU, met with my students individually at least once for 30 minutes over the next few weeks to discuss their profiles and matches and then in the final week ran a university applications workshop which we started by having students finish the tasks that I had set them over the previous weeks on BridgeU before looking at UCAS and the CommonApp in more depth.

The Platform

The insides of the platform are fairly straight forward and easy to understand. As an advisor I set up tasks for my students to complete. Each of these tasks corresponds to specific parts of the application cycle. The first being University Matching. Before completing this task students need to have completed the profile builder which is the area of the platform where students enter their details around country of interest, type of university, courses of interest and predicted grades.

Once the profile is completed, students can then see the university matches generated by the platforms algorithm and begin to “shortlist” or “discard” universities and courses. Under university matching, courses are presented to students in three categories: Reach, Match and Safety. In each group students will initially be presented with three choices in each of these categories. To see more choices for a particular category they have to opt to either “shortlist” or “discard” a course. Once they have clicked either of these options the course will disappear and a new option will be presented. In this way the students sift through all of the options available to them, discarding the ones they don’t like and shortlisting the ones that they remotely like in all of the three categories.

Once the matching phase is completed, students will be able to click through to their shortlist, the area on the platform where all the courses they shortlisted are stored. It is from here that students can begin to narrow down their shortlist to the courses that they intend to apply to be clicking the apply button that shows up on every course. This will add that particular course to the applications section of the platform.

Students can also complete the strategy advisor. This can be started at the same time as the profile builder section and essentially this task asks students to list their experiences against a set of prompts like “describe how your course may fit into your long term plans” or “describe any experiences where you have been in a position of responsibility” or “describe any special or unusual academic achievements you have had”. Students move through the prompts and write reflections against these. Then they categorise those experiences against “strategy factors” like “diligence”. “formative experience of the subject”, “critical thinking”, “Leadership”, “Resilience” etc. Finally they can peruse a “strategy report” which tells them how strong they are in each of the “strategy factors”. This task aims to help students begin thinking about their personal statements and college essays and the types of experiences that they have had that would support these the writing of these application elements.

The strategy report can be printed and it appears to be good jumping off point to get students thinking about how they use their time in and out of school to help themselves stand out from the crowd.

When students have completed the University Matching, selected the courses and universities that they wish to apply to as well as the Strategy Advisor, they will begin to see information populated into the applications area of the platform. Here they can see deadlines for applications for some of the courses they have selected, use the “writing builder” to begin the personal statements and essays, and manage their recommendations if necessary as well as find out information about any particular tests that they may need.

My students and I have not quite got on to using this area yet, but they should be using the writing builder this summer to make a start on writing the first draft of their personal statements etc. Having browsed through this area, I can see that there are a lot of exemplar annotated personal statements and college essays, although I am not sure of the source of these and so cannot comment on their reliability or the reliability of the annotations and feedback on them. Students can also get advice on selecting teachers to be recommendation writers, as well as information about testing – ACT vs SAT and UK based tests.

Pros

BridgeU is clearly very new. This gives the team a dynamism, responsiveness and flexibility that can be lacking in other, more established platforms. They have given me the impression that they want to work with counselors and develop from the feedback that they are given to produce a tool that will benefit all their stakeholders: schools, counselors and students alike.

Working with the BridgeU team this term I can say that they have been truly responsive and careful to respond to all my questions and emails and in a space of about 6 weeks I emailed them several times. There responses were always helpful and they didn’t shy away from difficult questions. For several weeks I was emailing asking about when the Netherlands would go live as some of my students want to apply to universities there. Each time I was fully updated on what was happening and why it wasn’t yet live on the system.

The platform is global. When I first signed, the UK, US and Canada were represented and now the Netherlands and Hong Kong are on there. I am sure that over the next 12 months we will see more countries added. This for me as a counselor in an international school where students each come with a vary different international background and who is also teaching 18 hours a week represents the biggest selling point for the platform. In one place I have a single area where my students can research and find out about university options in a variety of countries. It will make my task of advising them that much easier, especially when in one place I can sit down with a student and look through the options that are being presented across several countries. I am able to learn a lot and my students are also able to.

The platform is logical. From the students and counselors end the tasks are laid out and grouped in a manner that makes sense. The progression of tasks and the links from one area to the next are on the whole intuitive and smart.

The platform provides an inherent structure. As a new guidance counselor who is also setting up the counseling department in a new school, the timeline provided by BridgeU and structure of the platform give me a scaffold by which I can structure the counseling interventions for our grade 10, 11 and 12 students. This is also a real time saver for me and I already have a lot of ideas about restructuring my termly interventions schedule with my kids.

In addition its pricing as was explained to me is very competitive. We are only charged for the students that are in grade 11 but we can use it with students in grade 10, 11 and 12. The minimum number of students however is 20 and the price changes as student numbers increase above 20.

Cons

BridgeU is clearly new and is still under development and this brings some issues. Some of the resources that are available seem to lack robustness. For example the annotations provided on the exemplar personal statements seem to me to be a little superficial.

Some of my students and colleagues in other schools that I have spoken to have raised questions regarding the University matching algorithm. One of my students was able to find courses on UCAS that she wanted to apply for but were not coming up under BridgeU initially. I found this was because the “culture” match of the universities was low according to how this student had entered in the profile builder and yet this student had self identified these universities from UCAS and was adamant that she wanted to apply to the, even after I pointed out that these universities wouldn’t match the type of experience she had selected for in the profile builder. Improvement: Perhaps BridgeU would be able to add a search function so that students can search for specific courses and universities they already know that they wish to apply to.

Another student was also shown courses that she didn’t meet the minimum requirements to apply for. My students study the IBDP and this student was taking Maths Studies SL and was shown courses that needed Maths SL or HL and wouldn’t accepts Maths studies. If this is the case then this represents a fairly serious flaw in the programs algorithm.

Once students have discarded courses there is no way for them to go back to these universities and courses. In the event that a student may change their mind or if they decide to take a gap year and reapply then they have no way to get these courses back. Improvement: Perhaps BridgeU could provide a discard list in the same way that there is a shortlist.

In the applications section only some university application deadlines show up. I have a student who will be applying to Cambridge but the UCAS deadline of 15th October doesn’t show up on the calendar. In addition as a school counselor I need time to write the references for these students and so as a school we publish internal deadlines that are two weeks before the UCAS or other university deadlines. There is potential confusion for students if they are getting one deadline from me and another from the platform. Improvement: Perhaps BridgeU could provide a way for counselors to input internal school deadlines.

The testing management area seems a little limited to my eyes at this stage. Again the testing dates for UK based university tests do not seem to appear in the calendar.

Finally one of the first issues I discovered with BridgeU is their philosophy regarding predicted grades. Currently predicted grades are inputed by the students themselves and the platforms algorithm then uses these to churn out its recommendations. Counselors and teachers are not able to input predicted grades, although I can view students profiles individually and make any edits I deem necessary although this will become time consuming for counselors with large case loads. The problem for me is that while students do need to think about what their scores are likely to be, it is the school that publishes these grades, and it is the teachers professional judgement that these grades are based on. Schools need to develop a reputation with universities that the predicted grades that they produce are reliable as this develops trust from universities and therefore supports the applications of all future students. From this perspective BridgeU need to streamline the process by which teachers of students can input their predicted grades into the system.

Conclusions

BridgeU is clearly new and is still under development. I have come to think of it as in “Beta”. Many of the cons mentioned above are things that would be very easy to critise and cite as a reason for not using the product. However this is not a complete and finished product and this is something that counselors need to understand. For this reason It can’t be compared directly with established platforms like Naviance, that have a fixed product that is established in the arena of college counseling technology.

What BridgeU already have in place is logical, thought out and while still fairly simple, has the students and their school staff in mind. It is clear that the development team have thought about the different stages of the application cycle and have tried to build a product that supports students at different stages with the different tasks that they offer. What is exciting about BridgeU is that it is new and under development and this offers us, as counselors, the chance to work with them, to make suggestions and to help create a product that is truly global in perspective.

While writing this post I tweeted that I would be writing it and BridgeU immediately got in touch to send me this email:

Dear Will, 

I hope you are very well! As promised please find below the list of what we are currently working on:

Customised tasks – Allowing counsellors to assign students customised tasks, for activities and projects not covered in BridgeU.

Granular Tasks – Allowing customers to specify specific requirements within BridgeU projects – e.g. complete profile builder, submit first draft of personal statement, complete common app essay.

Tagging and filtering of students – Tag and filter students by labels such as Oxbridge, Russell Group, Medicine  and set specific tasks for groups of students

Refine subject tree – allow for simpler subject searching, ensuring students can find specific courses they are interested in

More data – further course specific data, within UK subject preferences

Parchment – Document sending to U.S and Canadian Universities

And as you already know, the new destinations for later this year:

Australia & Singapore 

Likely but not guaranteed:  Germany / Korea / other european destination   

BridgeU has already got me thinking about what I will change in my counseling program for next year, which will be my second as a guidance counselor and the second of the department I am building. I will certainly be running a morning workshop for the new grade 11s in September where I will introduce the concepts of university research and help them to begin thinking about how they can best utilise their CAS program to enhance their University applications, with a focus on the strategy advisor.

I will follow this up with a second workshop in term 2 as a checkpoint before the introduction to UCAS and the CommonApp workshop at the end of term 3. In this second workshop I will aim for the students to finish their university matching and strategy advisor before beginning a first draft of their UCAS personal statement and college essays in time for early May.

In the the final workshop I will take the students through the UCAS application and get students to focus on any test prep that they may need.

15-16 Term 3 Week 2

Monday

An early start 0630 into school, after washing the minibus in order to bring the IA kit back into school. Much time spent hanging up tents and re organising the kit store, making a list of items that need to be re purchase. My G10 lesson was swapped with English (I will have it back in two weeks) which freed up much of the morning for planning the next stages of the IA as there is another expedition leaving at the end of term and this time we are taking students to an area that we have not used before. Therefore maps need to be purchased, campsites booked, checkpoints identified, photographed and recced. I also used this morning to put an impassioned plea to SLT about need for support for IA to be protected next year. I am still awaiting a response…I also managed to discover and book a new campsite in the Valleé du Joux for the G11 Focus week happening this September. This place seems quite exciting as it is a tipi village and looks like a great place to take the kids to have fires, marshmellows and BBQs in the late summer for one night. I have also made some progress in planning that event which happened quicker than I thought.

Just before lunch my line manager and I had training with BridgeU, the new university guidance platform that we will utilising as a school going forward and the upshot from this is that we have arranged a session in May to roll this out to our student group in grade 11.

In the afternoon I took my G11 Biologists. We ran the following practical before the kids began preparing presentations on antibiotic resistance in bacteria and the changes in shape of Finch beaks on Daphne Major.

Download (DOCX, 37KB)

I took these videos of the practical in action

Tuesday

Tuesday morning was spent primarily on planning G11 and G10 Biology. I produced this workbook for DP Biology:

Download (PDF, 6.85MB)

I then went to a TOK planning meeting with my co-teaching colleague to plan the structure of TOK up until the bank holiday.

After lunch I taught TOK and G10 Biology. In TOK we continued with our investigation of religious knowledge systems; the students giving their presentations, before breaking out into a discussion that compared various features of the religions in the presentations.

In G10 Biology we recapped meiosis and homologous chromosomes before beginning to look at monohybrid crosses and simple patterns of inheritance.

Wednesday

In the morning I had a short cover of G7 French class before my colleague arrived. After that I had a two hour Biology class. Here we finished looking at Natural Selection. I opened the class by looking at the next 20 mins of Carl Sagan’s cosmos episode 2 (I had shown the first 10 mins in a lesson described here.)

Students then delivered their presentations that they had prepared in our previous lesson before break. After break we reviewed the exams that students had taken last Friday. Students used the rubric to review the questions they got wrong and to develop a strategy for revision before I went round and addressed individual concerns.

Download (XLSX, 13KB)

After this I had another cover lesson but after 15mins of waiting for the class I discovered they were actually having map testing and so there was no need for the cover…

In the afternoon I carried on planning DP Biology and created a workbook for topic 5.3 and started on one for 5.4.

Download (PDF, 47.24MB)

Thursday

On Thursday morning I finally finished packing up the dried tents from the international award expedition from the weekend before.

I spent most of the morning on administrative tasks: a little bit of time was spent on finding out about using BBC Horizon programs in my teaching. I have a lot of this digitally and I currently store them on a hard drive that I bring into school, however I would like to get them onto the internet so that I can share them with my students and I wanted to know how I could do that because all BBC Worldwide videos are blocked on YouTube. A short telephone call and I had an email address. I think that this may be possible if I have a password protected website.

I am also in the process of organising the schedule for a Dance production that will be shown in school the week after next. Well, I was under the impression that my role was simply to organise the schedule for classes to come and see the dancers performing a piece about the action potential in neurones and the affects of motor neurone disease on those neurones. However I seem to be the go to person for any questions about this event. I think it will be a great production but to be honest with everything on my plate at the moment in terms of international award, careers guidance and university guidance, I just don’t have the energy to bring to this task. I started the ball rolling this year, as I was involved in it last year, but other colleagues I would have expected to be more involved with it than me have been absolutely no assistance mainly because they are organising their own festival that is happening the day before, so I don’t blame them – but there is only so much I can bring to this production myself. Anyway some of the scheduling needed to be changed because some performances were clashing with the whole school photo because, despite approval for this event being given by the Head, no one placed this event in the school calendar. Basically its a mess, and I have to salvage what I can and move on.

In addition to this and a much higher priority in terms of my role at the school, I am organising a careers week for G10 and a careers afternoon for G8-11. I have had some parents offer their support and this week I started to pull on the university contacts I have and so on Thursday morning I began the process of contacting these universities.

I also spent a lot of that time this morning also finishing the IBDP Biology 5.4 workbook on cladistics as well as a powerpoint, shown below, which I will be teaching the week after next.

Download (PDF, 18.57MB)

the powerpoint:

Download (PPT, 12.56MB)

I have subsequently found a clip from BBC Inside Science about the Kakapo which I will use to introduce the topic of biodiversity and cladistics

In the afternoon I drove over to College Du Leman to attend an admissions talk from Oxford University. Here were my notes:

Oxford

No 1 in Europe or no2 in the world after caltech

Do they have a course that is right for you – got to be something you love and are passionate about

8 weeks. 40% more work – academic challenge are you ready for the academic challenge

High predicted grades

Academic and theoretical courses

Broad and compulsory courses at the start then students have more choice becoming more specialised

Joint courses are also available although not pick and mix

Normally these add on languages

Course vs career

60% of jobs do not specify the types of degree  you need

Careers service website

Tutorials the heart of the Oxford learning experience

Supervision at Cambridge

Weekly meeting – tutor talk about what you have read and essays that have been written. Got to love your subject. You have to talk and have to do your reading.

Choose course first, choose college or open application. Start UCAS application early deadline 15th October test registration written work and tests. 2 weeks notice for interview. Usually first 2 weeks of December results announced in January. Choose firm and insurance choices

Looking at possible academic ability and potential. Genuine subject interest need to be demonstrated outside of school and a suitability for chosen course

Don’t look at particular students or schools or don’t look at irrelevant extra curricular activities don’t look for well rounded individuals just in relation to the course unless it’s super curricular those that demonstrate subject interest

38-40 depending on course 6or7 in higher level subjects these are minimum requirements

Personal statements

Plan it over the summer first

Sell yourself

Check spelling

Check grammar

Be honest

80% academic – what have you done in school and out of school to demonstrate your subject interest

Work experience, future plans, extra curricular should focus on transferable skills

Tests stretch and challenge you used for interview shortlisting.

May want to see some written work to

Practise the past papers tests are timed

Interview lasts 2 or 3 days can be 2nd 3rd or 4th.

Test self motivation and ability to think independently. Tutorial rehearsal. Want to see how they problem solve. Practice thinking out loud. Speak about why they think certain things. Practice expressing thoughts verbally.

Everything is looked at as a whole. Engage and explore your subject. Listening to podcasts, reading and watching.

After the admissions talk I drove back to school for a meeting with my line manager and programme coordinators to discuss the school policy for allowing students time off lessons to attend visiting university presentations and days off to attend open days.

Friday

Earth Day. A humiliating start to the day when at 0805 a senior colleague frantically runs over to the coffee machine as myself and another colleague are helping ourselves to the days first beverage and says “We need to turn this off; we are sending a terrible message to the kids”. I assume that they were talking about the electricity the machine was using and not the fact that we were guzzling coffee before we could even greet each other in the morning…

Today I introduced my grade 11 DP students to microbiology and aseptic techniques. I used the following protocols taken from the nuffield foundation website to run the practical:

1st An introduction to Aseptic techniques

Download (PDF, 331KB)

2nd An introduction to making streak plates

Download (PDF, 229KB)

We didn’t actually use any live bacteria in the practical but my technician had prepared a pretend inoculation mixture of sterile water.

Students were able to follow the instructions for the first part very well but when it came to streak plating they showed a reluctance to read the protocol (an ongoing phenomena I have observed this year – I don’t think I have ever taught a class so resistant to reading and following instructions).

The protocols could do with modifying to make them more student friendly.

After this the rest of my day was spent on international award planning. This time, I was checking and recce’ing the routes and checkpoints for our bronze qualifying journey as it will be in a new location this year. Last year we took the students to Verbier, but the terrain was far too difficult for this level and the team ended up very demotivated. So this year we are taking them to the Valleé du Joux in Vaud. I spent most of the day in the area, hiking up to checkpoints I identified and photographing them.

Back at school around 3pm I was able to upload the pictures and prepare the checkpoint handouts that we will give to students along with the maps and route cards so that they can plan their own routes through the checkpoints.

With the campsite for the expedition now booked all that remains is to give the materials to the students and create the actual checkpoint cards, with the photographs, so that we can give these out to our students.

Unibudy & BridgeU

I have only been a “guidance counselor” for eight months now am learning a lot about this side of the education industry/vocation/profession. One of the things that seems to be the perception of guidance counselors outside of schools is that they are the gatekeeper to the organisation that they work with. Recently, every week brings an overwhelming, inundation of emails from companies toting the latest innovation that they inevitably believe is the greatest opportunity that my students shouldn’t miss out on. Everything from summer camps and tutoring companies and new #edtech online platforms keep regular contact with me, pulling at my paranoia that I must pass their information on, otherwise my students will suffer.

For one, working in start up school I am just to busy to prioritise these emails, dealing with companies outside the school is the last thing that needs to happen when you are trying to teach, plan, assess, write the curriculum, take a school through authorization and accreditation. Add to that you are having to learn the ropes of a new job (university guidance) to present parents and students with their possible future options, with little to no real experience in “counseling” and from starting with nothing in place; no program, no relationships with universities or other schools, little internal support (everyone else is far too busy setting up their programs to help), all the while trying to convince your colleagues that the role is vital to the success of school when they query why you aren’t teaching as many periods as them. You can see why I don’t have too much time to spend on junk mail: pas de publicité, merci.

While my school is very small with a cohort of only 13 in grade 11 and no grade 12 until this September, the students are diverse. Not a single one of them is the same in terms of their background, passports held, and aspirations. While the majority of students want to apply to the UK some are considering Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands,  Australia and the US. I even have one student trying his luck with the NCAA for a basketball scholarship. While my experienced colleagues in schools with larger cohorts will say “so? our student apply to those places too”. While this is true and you will certainly have more applications to process next year; just walk in my shoes for a while. Imagine that you didn’t know anything about counseling students, about helping them identify choices, imagine that the terms NCAA, CEEB code, personal statement, common app, were all new to you. You were a Biology teacher, who suddenly had to learn all about the different systems for applying to universities in different countries, about applying for visas, about funding, about the NCAA, forge relationships with universities across the world and suck in as much information as you could about where to apply and best-fit as you could all the while trying to engage and guide young people. Do all this and teach a subject you know very well but learn a new curriculum and start teaching a new subject, assist with CIS accreditation..the list goes on. Oh and did I mention that I have a child under one. You see my predicament.

During all of this, two of these emails that passed my inbox in the last six months did catch my eye for long enough for me to dig a little deeper and pursue them and I am so glad that I did! In this post I will briefly outline who these operations are.

BridgeU

For a while I have been trying to build a case to convince my senior management that having a platform to help students identify matching universities globally, to help them develop what is known as a “list” based on their criteria. This platform should also make it easier for me to manage their applications, to track where they have got to so that I can assist them better. I am a firm believer that often what is in the best interest of the student is to have a teacher/counselor whose bests interests in doing their job are met.

Initally Naviance was the obvious choice. This is the system I first heard about and everyone I met seemed to know, use and love, which is unusual for a piece a software. Normally there are a handful of people that don’t like it, or at least find it cluncky. This seemed to be really positive thing – I wanted it. At least until I learned a little bit about BridgeU.

Naviance uses lists and drop down menus to filter data in a database to help students identify potential matching universities. It is also heavily US focussed. While it does have information about UK and other universities it appeared to me to be certainly focussed on the US market. Students can also apply through the common app through Naviance and so it offers definite advantages to managing student applications. It also had a huge price tag which just wasn’t economical with such a small number of students.

I will start working with BridgeU this month but what I know about them already has obviously sold me and I am excited to work with them. They seem to approach the problem of university choice a little more intelligently by matching students with universities based on an algorithm that maps their interests, skills etc. Now I anticipate that this won’t be perfect initially – they are a small and new company and I am sure that there will be bumps in the road on this front but the vision is there; the vision to do things more intelligently and more student-centered.

BridgeU’s outlook is truely global with a focus currently on US, UK and Canada they will also be adding soon, universities in Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore which for me means that they will be able to help me advise a very diverse (although tiny) student body, and hopefully I will learn more along the steps of the process.

So far the service appears to have the personal touch, BridgeU is also a small start-up and they have promised flexible and responsive support as they cater to a small number of schools. This remains to be seen and I wonder how they will keep that promise if the platform grows.

Finally, aside from being an offering that is able assist my students select opportunities across the globe the platform also promises to be able help me support them through collating the schools’ grades and references by bringing my colleagues comments etc into one place where I can access them.

These are the things that have sold the platform to me – oh and the price which was competitive to say the least when compared with a giant like Naviance.

Unibudy

Yesterday, on a bustling busy street I made my way into the Starbucks of Plainpalais in Geneva, where I had the pleasure of meeting with Unibudy another company that had even persuaded me to take time out of my Easter holiday to meet them. I was a little skeptical initially over their intentions and the product they were offering but it really did not take me long to see just how exciting their product could be for some of the young people I work with.

Unibudy are essentially building a platform that will allow young people between the ages of 16-19, or in final stage of pre university education to find a mentor at a university that they like and ask that person questions. The mentor would be a current undergraduate at the university of choice and questions could be about anything, but would ideally focus on the structure of the course and the real time experience that the mentor is having. It struck me as a simple way to help to make what could be quite a daunting (and exciting!) prospect for a school student, leaving home, leaving school, going to a new country and a new learning environment a little easier to manage. I can’t think why students would not want this. The only issue is that they would have to pay for their talk time. Although the prices seem to be quite reasonable. Mentors are rated a bit like rooms on airbnb and students have the ability to filter mentors based on university and degree course. Currently it is only being developed for UK universities.

The platform is still in its infancy, or yet to be released but Unibudy also have other plans for content that would be free. This would include webinars about courses and universities from academics at those universities where students could sign up to ask questions. They also have plans for forums where students could ask general questions and dicuss their answers for free.

For students coming from a small school like mine who may not have that much to offer in terms of an alumni network this is almost like an alumni network in a can. For a little bit of cash you can get access to students studying the course that you want to apply for at the university you want to apply to. You can get the inside track and perhaps begin to break down what can seem to be a paralysingly huge change in your life into something that is a bit more manageable.

Conclusion

Both Unibudy and BridgeU are new, fresh and offering something that is a little bit different. Certainly as a counselor who is new to the game, they offer solutions that are complimentary that I can see would certainly benefit the students I work with. I am looking forward to working with both and I shall keep blogging about my experience with them over the next 12 months.

PosScript: I did want to ask Unibudy why they weren’t spelt unibuddy, why drop a d but I didn’t dare.