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.

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