Over the past three years, a small team convened by the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation (CREI) at the High Tech High GSE has iteratively developed a software application called the CARPE College Pathways Course . We developed the College Pathways Course in collaboration with the 19 schools participating in the HTH GSE’s CARPE College Access network that supports school teams in increasing the number of low income and students of color attending colleges they are most likely to graduate from. In designing Pathways we sought to build custom software that addressed three key challenges facing students and school staff in the network:
Our design team included a data analyst, educators, college access professionals, and high school students, but no software engineers. Accordingly, we set out to build our Pathways Course without writing code ourselves. We approached this challenge with a method known as “low code” or “no code” software development. “Low code” or “no code” development uses visual tools to stack together existing applications as if they were Legos. We found that we could use the automation tool Zapier to stitch together familiar web-based apps like Gmail, Google Sheets, Typeform, and Airtable. The “low code” or “no code” approach gave us the ability to quickly develop customized workflows or automations by connecting web applications that we already use.
Based on our experience, we see tremendous potential in educators working collaboratively (or with their students) to build useful tools without the need to learn to code. For example, a student explained she was excited to continue the Pathways Course because: “I feel more courage knowing I don’t have to do this alone”. Specifically, we envision these tools being used to create meaningful learning experiences for students, automate recurring classroom or school processes, proactively identify students who need more support, and engage families in their child’s learning. With the goal of getting you started building your own software, we will provide a detailed case study of the CARPE College Pathways Course for inspiration, a shorter case study on tracking student growth at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista, and then conclude with some important learnings and considerations.
Case Study One: CARPE College Pathways Course
The CARPE College Pathways design team was formed in August 2020 to develop this software that would help address the three key challenges we were facing. Team members included Ben Sanoff (the author), who is the director of data analytics at the High Tech High GSE, Chris White, a member of the CARPE team and an experienced college counselor, Dr. Sofia Tannenhaus, also a member of the CARPE team, and Donald Kamentz, former executive director of the Character Lab and an experienced college counselor. We received ongoing feedback and guidance from Lindsay Page a Professor of Education Policy at Brown University, Itzel Martinez an High Tech High Chula Vista alumnus and now a graduate from University of California San Diego, and Isaac Rivera, a High Tech High Media Arts alumnus and a current student at University of California Davis.
The Pathways design team iteratively developed the CARPE College Pathways Course as a set of six 20 to 30 minute asynchronous learning experiences (called “episodes”) that guide students through the process of completing college milestones over their junior and senior year. Each episode provides students with relevant information about the completion of a specific college milestone, such as building a balanced list, completing FAFSA, applying to college, and ultimately making an informed college decision. Episode content consists of two to eight-minute video clips featuring Chris White, an expert college counselor and current college students discussing the challenges they faced and overcame. As part of each episode, students respond to questions about their progress in and confidence about completing that milestone. This data feeds into each school’s Pathways tracker (which we built in Airtable) where school staff can see their students’progress and build segmented lists of students who need help with a specific milestone.
One advantage to building the College Pathways Course using this no code approach is that it allowed us to flexibly weave together our favorite web applications. Each episode was built using the survey design tool Typeform, which we selected due to its beautiful aesthetic, simple interface for students, easy integration of video content, and ability to only share content or surface specific questions based on a student’s prior responses. We used Airtable as the database for schools to identify specific students in need of additional counseling support. We selected Airtable as an easy-to-use relational database with a user interface that resembles a Google sheet. One particularly powerful feature in Airtable allows the user to create views where they can save a specific set of filters, groups, and sorts. Zapier is the automation tool that allows us to stitch together Typeform and Airtable. Zapier provides a graphical user interface in which we could set a trigger and the corresponding following actions that we want to happen when that trigger is activated. For example, when a student completes an episode this serves as a trigger in Zapier to push the data that the student inputted into the episode to Airtable.
Another advantage to using these no code tools is that they are cheaper than acquiring licenses to commercial education software. Airtable, Zapier, and Typeform all offer a free tier and you can build some powerful automations for free. However, most teams will likely want to use the paid version. Keep in mind that all of these tools offer discounts to educational institutions and you can reduce Airtable costs significantly by limiting the number of editors. The total annual cost for a school to use the Pathways application (Zapier + Airtable + Typeform costs) is approximately $500 dollars as compared to approximately $10 per student for the use of commercial college access software like Naviance. Most importantly, once you make the initial investment in Zapier and Airtable you can build as many custom applications as you want without significantly increasing your costs. You can see how these tools fit together in figure one, below:
Figure One: Pathways No Code Building Blocks
After each episode, we used Zapier to trigger a series of follow-up actions across the different web applications we are using. For example, after students completed episode two (which focuses on making a list of colleges to apply to), we created a series of follow-up actions meant to scaffold the process of building a balanced college list for students and their support network. We automated a follow-up email that includes a table of key statistics about the “colleges of interest” the student identified including graduation rates, retention rates, net cost, and admission rates. Next, we created a customized Google Sheet for each student and instructed them to copy and paste the “colleges of interest” table from the email. We applied conditional formatting within the Google Sheet to highlight colleges with higher graduation rates because network data has validated this measure as accurately predicting student college outcomes. This Google Sheet becomes a living document where students can update their college list as it evolves heading into the fall of senior year. The unique URL for this Google sheet is passed into each school’s Pathways tracker so counselors can see an updated college list for each student. You can find links to Episode 2A and 2B (“Building my Balanced List”) below so you can experience an episode and the follow up actions:
The goal of the Airtable Pathways tracker is to provide real-time data on each student’s progress in completing college milestones allowing school teams to shift toward a more data-informed counseling model. Towards this goal, we provided several standard views in each school’s Pathways tracker to make it easy for teams to view their students’ participation in episode completion, episode responses, FAFSA completion, and ultimately identify and support students who need more help completing a milestone. These views make it easy for school teams to generate and provide support to specific segments of students needing additional support with a particular college milestone.
For example, one school modified a view of juniors in their Airtable tracker who indicated that they were not confident that they had created a balanced college list. This segment of students was then sorted by GPA making it easy to identify students with higher GPAs who may need more help selecting the right mix of four-year colleges. See figure 2 where the Pathways tracker is filtered to show students who were only somewhat confident in their college lists. One thing to note is the inclusion of student qualitative responses (why_confidence field) where students explained why they selected “somewhat confident” on the Typeform survey.
Figure Two: Airtable filtered to show students who are only somewhat confident in their college lists
Iterative Design Process
Another advantage to building using this no code approach is that it supports an iterative development process informed by data on how people are using the application. For example, we quickly realized that the original version of episode two had the lowest completion rate and longest average completion time. That pushed us to take immediate action and revise the episode. Using the no code software stack, the design team quickly and fairly easily redesigned episode two to better meet the needs of students: we decided to divide this episode into two parts to make each part more digestible and to better guide students through the process of using the customized spreadsheet described earlier. In the revised version of the episode 2A (embedded above), students are first guided through a self driven college research process where they match colleges with their values and preferences. In the second phase—episode 2B—the guidance becomes more directive by recommending specific colleges that students should add to their list. This redesigned episode 2A increased the completion rate from 37% to 60% and students reported it was more helpful than the original.
Impact of the Pathways Course and Tracker
Over the course of the year, 4000 students across 19 high schools completed more than 11,000 Pathways episodes. In addition, both the Pathways course and tracker received positive feedback from school staff using the application.
Students reported that the episodes demystified the process of completing college milestones and lowered their stress levels. One student wrote: “Getting help to guide on something new and scary in life is always comforting. This navigation provides such a thing by guiding students who will feel lost in the process of applying to colleges. In my case, I really don’t have anyone to guide me, this program is a helpful tool to help me further understand the steps it takes to apply to college.” Another student explained how the episodes put her at ease: “It made it super easy and relaxing. It made everything so clear on what I might want to do in life! :)”. Echoing the same themes of making the complex college process more transparent and putting students at ease, a third student wrote: “I’m excited to get a lot of information because I’m about to be a senior and I was nervous because I’ve been sort of lost and confused in the whole college process.” A teacher who had students complete the episodes explained how the episodes answer the sorts of questions that students may not ask: “It was very insightful and I really felt that it asked questions and provided answers to some questions that many students don’t ask counselors or teachers. I also like the way it was organized and the progression made it very easy to follow if you were a student going through the process.”
One particular opportunity that we have sought to scaffold within the College Pathways Course episodes is putting students and their self-identified support network in dialogue about their evolving college plans. After each episode we automated a follow-up email to the student and their self-identified support network with an explicit prompt to provoke productive dialogue. To gauge whether this dialogue was happening in episode 2B (embedded above) we asked students whether they had a conversation with their support network about the initial college list they created in episode 2A and if so, what did they talk about? Several students wrote about the productive conversation they had with their support network: “I discussed my 2 favorite options, both of which are fairly close to home. I also explained why I was interested in those schools. The discussion was very helpful. They felt that they liked my top 2 choices and some of my backups as well. I’m feeling much more confident in the process now.” Another student wrote about how it created space for their support network to share their own college experience: “We discussed the colleges I chose and which one would be a good choice based on my interests. It was helpful because I was also able to hear their personal experiences from the colleges they chose and how it helped them with what they wanted to do.”
In our follow-up email to episode 2A we shared data on the initial colleges of interest that students had selected. For each college that students identified we shared data on graduation rate, persistence rate, net cost, and admission rate. One student explained how this prompted a productive conversation with their support network: “What we discussed is looking for schools with higher grad rates” Below (figure three) is a screenshot of the customized Google sheet that this student ended up sorting by graduation rate:
Figure Three: Collegees Sorted by Graduation Rate
Case Study Two: Tracking Longitudinal Student Growth and Student Supports at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista
Starting in the 2019-20 school year, members of the CREI team collaborated with elementary school directors, Student Study Team (SST) Coordinators, and elementary school deans in the High Tech High network of schools to design a more systematic way to understand student growth. Elementary directors pointed out that teachers were inputting student assessment data from the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) reading assessments into Google Sheets each year without having access to a view where they could see each student’s reading growth over previous years. This meant that it was very difficult to view the longitudinal reading growth of a particular student over their time in elementary school.
These conversations led to the development of the High Tech Elementary Chula Vista (HTeCV) Airtable Growth Tracker. Teachers access a view of their current students to easily input assessment data including student-uploaded samples. In addition, they have access to longitudinal data about each of their current students where they can access information about reading growth on F&P over previous years, teachers from prior years, full student demographics, participation in an SST process, and family contact information.
After conversations with the HTeCV director and dean we built an easy-to-complete form for teachers and staff where they could log behavioral incidents within their Airtable tracker. A key feature we built allowed the dean and director to document their response to each incident so teachers and staff knew what actions administrators had taken to address the incident. We heard from the dean and director that it was important that they be contacted immediately in particularly severe situations so we used Zapier to send a text message when an incident was logged that met the criteria they identified.
In addition, we built a simple form in the Airtable tracker where teachers could identify students for the SST process to ensure they were receiving additional academic or emotional supports. The SST process entails a series of monthly meetings between the teacher, student, and family to collaboratively implement the right intervention so that the student can experience more academic success. We heard from SST coordinators about struggles to schedule follow-up meetings every three weeks, so we used Zapier to automate a follow-up email to the coordinator and teacher two weeks after a SST meeting as a reminder to schedule the next meeting.
Judy Asiong, an educational specialist and SST coordinator at HTeCV shared her experience working with this toolset to continuously improve her SST process. “I feel that every year, I’ve been able to build a more streamlined SST system due to having all of our information in one place. The system allowed the following: teams can keep track of interventions and steps moving forward so when we did meet for a second meeting (6-8 weeks), we would know what was successful, what needed to change, and who else needed to get involved. It allowed our team to re-evaluate the existing SST process and what training needed to happen.”
Lessons Learned and Considerations Before you Build Your Own Software
As the case studies exemplify, teams of educators have the opportunity to collaboratively build custom software that meet their specific needs. One advantage of building your own software is that you are embedded in the context, know the potential users, and can thus design your tool to be responsive to the needs of your users. Despite this advantage, in our experience the biggest challenge is actually getting people in schools to use your software. Over the course of these projects we have learned that the best way to get staff members to use the software is to give them a role in creating it. Specifically, when you launch your tool, talk to users to find out what is not working for them and then make changes to address these pain points immediately. By empowering your users to engage in the process of improving the application you build trust and buy-in amongst early adopters.
In addition, remember to frame the purpose of your application as improving people’s jobs, not replacing them. In our case we emphasized to counselors that the Pathways application allowed them to focus on high-value conversations with students in need of support and not administrative tasks. Connecting to practitioners why and emphasizing how your application frees them up to spend more time on that work can be a powerful tool to spur adoption.
To conclude we leave the reader with three particularly interesting application development opportunities that could be built using these low code tools:
Scaffold a culture of critique and the participation of an authentic audience
Within your classroom you could automate the process of student work receiving peer, teacher, and community feedback.
Close the Loop on Student Goal Setting
Within your school you could track longitudinal student growth and then have students engage in a reflective progress to identify opportunities for growth. Over time you could close the loop and have students reflect on whether they are actually making progress on the opportunities for growth they identified.
Support a Successful Student Transition
Across your organization you could build opportunities for students transitioning to middle or high school to learn about what to expect from current students and teachers (similar to the Pathways episodes). Students could reflect on their fears about making the transition and be connected with current students to discuss these fears and how to make a successful transition.