Cialfo: Review

In May I published reviews of the guidance platforms Unifrog and BridgeU. I have had experience working with both these platforms as a guidance counsellor for a period of time. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to get a look under the hood of MaiaLearning and published a review of this platform in June.

Since then I have been looking Cialfo and speaking to their team and I share my review of their platform below.

Cialfo intro

Cialfo is a university guidance platform that is headquartered in Singapore and one that I first came across earlier this year in conversation with counsellors based in China. The platform is positioned to cover global university applications and is unique amongst the other platforms I have reviewed as it was founded by professionals formerly working in university guidance and with students directly. The platform grew from a team of counsellors who were initially building it for their own use. The platform was launched in 2016.

Cialfo is a contraction for “Citius, Altius, Fortius” the Olympic motto that means “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The founders wanted a name that reflected their philosophy that university guidance has to be about more than just university applications but aspiring students to push further with their futures.

The founders also wanted to solve the problem that, according to UNESCO, 100 million students will apply to university every year by 2025, but there are relatively few counsellors, and so they wanted to enable counsellors to have a deeper impact on more students.

The student side

Both students and counsellors are presented with a fully customisable dashboard when they log in. This feature allows users to fully tweak and change their user experience and is a very nice touch – I am a big fan of flexibility and usability – allowing users to have what they consider essential features highlighted immediately on their landing page.

The platform is very clean and uncluttered, with menus laid out both along the top and down the left-hand side of the page. The left-hand menu is the main menu and from it, students can access their profile, a list of running tasks, meetings, their inbox and can complete their university/college research and complete three profiler type assessments.

The dashboard is accessible under the profile menu along with an overview of the student’s applications, contact people, grades and test scores and lists of extracurricular activities.

Students can select plans that their adviser has created in the counsellor section. This allows students to be grouped by plans (if the counsellor is working with very large cohorts) but also allows the relevant information a student needs to be organised for that student appropriately.

The platform handles a range of applications to 25 different countries and allows students to manage the various parts of these different application processes. For the US applications, the platform uses a machine learning algorithm to help students and counsellors to identify, reach, target and likely schools, although the counsellor has the option to amend and change this recommendation – another nice touch.

Students can enter their grades from high school and this data will also be synced from the school’s student information system if this has been set up.

Finally, students can also undertake three different profiling assessments from Human eSources through Cialfo and these aim to help students understand their own learning styles and personalities better.

The counsellor side

The system has a left-hand main menu with each of these menu items having sub-menus that are displayed along the top when you click on the left-hand menu.

When logging in you are taken directly to students left-hand tab and a default view of all your students on the system. From here you can fully customise your view by setting several different filters: “Application Region”, “Application Type” “Current grade”. You can add more than one filter so that the student data can be presented in any way you wish. For example, you can filter by “gender” and “application region” plus others at the same time.

From this view, you are able to click directly into student accounts and can click through to the student’s pages. Here you can see all the information that the student sees and are able to edit student data directly, including setting tasks and adding in student grades and test scores. The counsellor can set meetings, add tasks, add universities along with a range of other options.

On the left hand, main menu counsellors also have the ability to send out communications to students, parents and other counsellors via the broadcast tab. This feature allows counsellors to communicate with students via text without having to give out their own personal number – a nice touch.

From the main menu, counsellors can also edit the account information and the plans that students can select as described above.

Finally, the “schools” tab on the main menu allows you to view information on all the schools in the database. Again, the filtering allows you to select the specific schools you want. Many of these schools have admissions information, presented in scattergram charts that allow you to see the range and types of applications that have been selected. This data can be shared across the entire Cialfo network, anonymously, allowing smaller schools to see what the bigger playing field may look like.

Cialfo can integrate data directly from a variety of student information systems. Once in, the student data can be synced directly between both systems.

Counsellors can use the platform to help manage student university applications; they can add and then submit documents these processes are provided by Parchment and Common Application (CommonApp) – both of these platforms are or will be integrated with Cialfo. The CommonApp clarified to the community at IACAC this year that there will be a simple integration in 2018 but the document submissions through all companies (Cialfo, Maia, BridgeU, Unifrog) will only happen for the 2019 cycle. Parchment though is seamlessly integrated into Cialfo for the 2018 cycle.

At the time of writing Cialfo have released the course information and richer college profiles for Germany, Netherlands and Canada, alongside the many other countries that they already support applications to. 

Finally, Cialfo is currently the only platform that I know of that has a regional HQ in Delhi, New Jersey and in Shanghai, and therefore has access to Chinese servers. This means that users in China do not need a VPN to access the platform and users can switch the language of the platform into Chinese. The platform also works on WeChat! Of course.

Conclusion

I really like Cialfo. Although I have not used it myself professionally, it would be a strong contender if I were choosing which platform to go with. It is clean, intuitive and really does put the counsellor in control (from what I can see).

The fact that the team who have built the platform have extensive experience working as guidance counsellors is implicit in the way the platform looks, feels and operates. This platform is really focussed with the counsellor in mind and enabling the counsellor to impact their students positively.

The platform has a peer-2-peer aspect to is aswell; data from different schools in the Cialfo network is anonymised and visible (if the school allows it to be) which means counsellors are no longer isolated in small silos but can get a handle on what the “market” is doing. The team also have a public roadmap, allowing their users to add ideas for development, comment and discuss what features need to be prioritised. In this way they are really modelling what counsellors do – collaborate. I have been surprised in my work at how collegial and helpful colleagues from different schools are and it is lovely to see this spirit of collaboration being used in this way.

Cialfo have also developed a Chrome extension for essay prompts, used by hundreds of students, parents, and counselor is a completely free Google Chrome extension that allows anyone to look up—and search—supplements from over 300 schools in the U.S and courses for colleges in US, UK, Germany, Canada, Netherlands.

Cialfo really appears to be made by guidance counsellors for guidance counsellors!

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.