...The Dream Inside.
|Technology that Levels the Playing Field|
|Written by Jingshen Zhao|
|Monday, 09 July 2012 01:00|
We must focus on investing in technology improvements.
Learn To Be exists to level the playing field. We believe that there are enough volunteers out there willing to give the gift of knowledge and inspiration to all those students who desire individualized academic support but can't afford it.
With an increasing number of public tools like Khan Academy and Wolfram Alpha, the standard of resources available on the "playing field" is being set higher and higher. Paid tutoring companies and course companion online subscription sites are dishing out even more premium content on top of the free technology out there.
For underprivileged students to continue to compete with those who can afford paid educational assistance, we at Learn To Be must continue to enhance our services so we can act as a more efficient bridge between tutors and students. If we do not continually focus on making our technology more useful and user-friendly, we will become obsolete, we will have failed the students who depend on us to reach their potential, and we will have failed to level the playing field.
Some of our current undertakings:
1. Mentorship matching and appointment scheduling
Lots of tutors report that they stop tutoring not because they've lost interest, but simply due to a lack of self-discipline to make more meaningful use of their free time. Currently, LTB students request sessions on-demand and tutors don't show up because they think that there are always others on-call. We want to help our volunteers stay accountable to whatever they set as their LTB time commitment, and reduce the waiting time for our students.
We want to increase tutor/student retention by pairing up tutors with students who anticipate a need for repeated assistance, and by subsequently facilitating helpful relationships through regular appointments. We learned a lot through our mentorship trial (semi-manually facilitated through Google Spreadsheets), and we are ready to build an automated mentorship facilitator module.
2. Student profile records and parent/teacher involvement
Our on-demand system is conceptually similar to the live chat support embedded into modern websites. Even though we have many returning students and veteran LTB tutors, the tutoring sessions are still mostly first-time experiences between specific student and tutor pairs. A commenting system, or in essence a "file" on each student, would allow a tutor to access the collective experience of tutors who have previously tutored that specific child. Parents and teachers can get involved in similar ways, adding learning style comments, and making notes on academic strengths/weaknesses so that the tutors can see.
We currently have a limited statistical dashboard for each of our most active school partnerships. We'd like to make available to all our partners a panel of student files, progress reports, and links to recordings.
3. Permission-based session facilitation system
When working with kids, privacy and safety are of utmost priority. Depending on district policies and agreements with parents, a lot of our partners do their own background checks on a specific subset of tutors, who end up having access to specific partnership students. Currently, access permission configurations for all restrictive partnerships are manually hard-coded. We'd like to have a scalable system of session permission tags where our partners are free to designate access tags for students and tutors, meaning each session that the student requests is tagged based on the student's profile, and only tutors who match one of the session's tags can get access to pick up that session.
4. New customized interactive whiteboard
Our current whiteboard is hosted through a third party API called WiZiQ. Our functionalities are limited to WiZiQ features and our subscription level. For example, we are currently limited in the number of session recordings we can generate, but we want to be able to record all sessions and make recordings downloadable. Overall, we'd like to have more control on what to push out to the students during the sessions, and to collect as much useful data as we can from the interactive sessions. Right now, we are building a LTB-specific e-classroom interface based on the BigBlueButton open source project.
5. Single Sign On
We serve kids of all levels of technical competency, and thus we want to make the process of getting to a free tutoring session as fluid as possible. In the next iteration of our website which is currently being built, there will be a prominent option to register and sign-in via Facebook or Google. Potential Facebook social graph integration and associated wall postings would be an invaluable marketing avenue for us, but we will definitely need some expert help on making this a reality.
6. Desktop notifications for Windows and Mac
For on-call tutors to promptly receive tutoring requests, we currently have a basic, non-configurable bouncing dock icon for Mac. We are finalizing the Windows equivalent. With the mentorship session pre-scheduling and permission-based session access (instead of blanket notifications), many customizable menu options are needed and we need to build capacity for different streams of activity between our server and user desktops.
7. Short-code text messaging API
In addition to desktop notifications, tutors who submit a cell phone number during the application process can sign up to receive text message notifications during time slots of their choosing. It would be ideal if we can enable two-way messaging between mentors and mentees. Both parties should be able to check and send messages via learntobe.org and via their cell phone (if they have one). Actual cell phone numbers remain private as messages are to be routed through LTB numbers.
8. Fully in-house tutor application, vetting, and certification process
Our tutor induction process is currently conducted on a third-party community management website that we have tuned for the purposes of step-by-step evaluation. As the software is not specifically made for our purpose, there is a great number of manual workarounds and manually customized email notifications that our recruiters have to work through for each candidate. We are looking for a more integrated experience to reduce confusion for candidates, increase consistency, and minimize man-hours spent by recruiters on processes that can be automated.
Taking this a step further, we often look up to Wikipedia for its sustainable model of community management for its editors. We want for our tutors to be able to rise through the ranks by earning badges of experience, and eventually nominate themselves and each other to become admissions committee members, and eventually online tutoring instructional coaches. Such a cycle of excellence building, peer teaching and community recognition should be very attractive to good citizens who feel a moral responsibility to help younger kids. This process of personal advancement to self-actualization has to be based on a solid technical framework.
9. Priority hours service center
During the long semesters, we have squads of tutors available every day in the after-school hours. There is enough manpower to provide live support / a lobby environment for students who are waiting in line, we just need the technical setup. In the past, we coordinate daily with our partners via phone or email in order to provide the optimum number of tutors at certain priority hour slots, and we certainly want to move this load scheduling process into an online calendaring system. Live monitoring and intervention is currently only available to LTB administrators, and it would make sense for authenticated teachers and parents to have that ability, too.
Currently, sessions are all student-initiated on-demand, but we want for our tutors to be able to host open classrooms / office hours for students as well. Moreover, LTB volunteers and special guests would love to host after-school webinars such as for college advising, virtual career days, and presenting useful online resources.
Financial contributions are essential.
Computer programming is expensive and time-consuming. Good product development also involves frequent trips to consult our tutoring deployment partners, and participating in conferences and conventions. Our operation almost entirely consists of volunteers, with the very occasional exception when outsourcing the most difficult programming modules.
We would like to compensate our volunteers for their LTB-related expenses and give out the occasional reward and recognition. Our overhead so far has been less than 50 cents per tutoring session. Will you give the kids a chance by making a contribution of $20 toward improving their free tutoring resource?