James Thomas: Unlike the early adopters, like Canvas and Blackboard who are just like, “Hey, let’s just get a system up that’s online.” We took the approach from the outset of, “Hey, we want a cohesive system that identifies these gaps. So how do we blend the offline learning with the online learning? And then how do we apply analytics to this?”

Ginette: I’m Ginette,

Curtis: and I’m Curtis,

Ginette: and you are listening to Data Crunch,

Curtis: a podcast about how applied data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are changing the world.

Ginette: Data Crunch is produced by the Data Crunch Corporation, an analytics, training, and consulting company.

Curtis: All right, so we have James Thomas here by popular demand. He’s, he’s our VP of technology here at Data Crunch. He is an absolute genius savant in technology and data strategy building software platforms and just making things run more efficient and effective. And that’s what we want to talk about today.

Essentially, at Data Crunch, we believe any industry can run better and be more efficient and more effective if you have the right technology and data strategy, and we find a lot of times that those things are hard to come by. And so that’s why we exist. That’s what we try to do. So James solves these problems all the time.

In particular, recently, we’ve been really focused on the education space for multiple reasons. So we wanted to have James on the show here to talk about why we think there is an opportunity to help out in the education space. His wife is also a teacher, so he’s really close to a lot of the pain points that arise as a result of the current technology landscape.

I’m turning it over to you, James, but we just want to hear from your perspective, from your technology and personal perspective, what about this current technology in the education space, essentially is failing teachers and students. And why is that so broken?

James: Yes, that’s a very good question. So, as you alluded in the intro, I’m kind of close to the education space, and I understand some of the pain points that the teachers go through. At the beginning of the pandemic especially a lot of teachers were forced into technologies they weren’t used to using. A lot of schools didn’t have the budgets to implement technology appropriately. And that’s where my focus is, right, is from the teacher’s perspective or the administrator’s perspective rather than from the student side. So a lot of, uh, the technology such as Canvas, things like that, it’s all focused towards students, and the administration is somewhat disparate. They use disparate systems. I mean, you, you, you look at, a, a platform like canvas, I believe you need to use three or four different applications as a teacher administrator to get, to get through the information that you need about the, a lot of students. So that’s where the current landscape is today. And a lot of it is because Blackboard and Canvas, these were all early adopters in the education space.

So a lot of it was built using the technology of the day, but instead of improving upon that base technology, they just added to it. And then you have the flip side of that where you have Google Classroom, where it’s a free tool that that schools can utilize, but that is also a very disparate system. You have to use Google Classroom, you have to use Google Meets. You have to use Google Sheets and all sorts of Google forums. You know, the list goes on and on just to kind of create a cohesive system, but that really weaves the students scrambling to find out where they’re supposed to be doing their work from or the teachers popping through all these different screens and trying to create cohesive experience out of something that really is not meant to be that.

Curtis: Could we hear a little bit about your, your wife’s experience? ‘Cause you, you saw the actual hoops she had to jump through the extra time she had to put in, and her peers, like you saw this firsthand, what did that look like and why did it happen?

James: When they went to virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, they had nothing in place, no infrastructure. So they utilize Google classroom, because that’s what they had available to them. And, as I said, those are disparate systems . . . so they’re completely segmented. I mean, you have one single log on for all of them, but you have to open up a new screen every time you want to do something.

So, you know, their biggest issue was if they wanted to create a test for a student, they use Google forms. But then to capture that data, they had to use Google sheets. And then, cause they weren’t, they didn’t really know how to use that system very well. Each teacher’s grades were all kind of in the same Google sheet. So they had the all split them out and looked through like hundreds of students to try to figure out who the student belongs to, to what teacher. And it was just kind of a mess.

And then just like scheduling virtual live sessions. They had used Google meets that has to go through their Google or their Gmail, you know? So then you’ve got, you’re talking about ten-year-olds trying to use Gmail. And Google meets for the first time and Google sheets and Google forms. It was a nightmare.

So a lot of the class time was spent teaching these kids how to do basic tasks within the Google ecosystem. That’s sort of was the driver.

Curtis: And I think you also mentioned like even just grading, they had to input, the grade somewhere in Google, or they had to find him somewhere and then they had to manually pull them out and put them into power school. And just the data working with data was, was crazy.

James: So every time they did a test or they, they assign an assignment through Google Classroom, those assignments in those tests would be linked to a Google Sheet, but all of the students for the entire grade population would be in that sheet. So they had to go through and manually find all of their students for each of the tests and then manually enter them into Power School, and then in Power School because everything came from Google classroom, they had to, like, manually enter what the class was, what the greatest for that sort of thing. So it was, it was a lot of manual effort.

The other thing that happened towards the middle of the pandemic is some students came back into the classroom and some stayed virtual. So they had to then teach both ways. And there wasn’t really a, a good way to teach virtually as well as to the in-person students. So they, they weren’t able to record the classrooms because they weren’t able to mute the students that were virtual or vice versa. They couldn’t really record their in-person class and then give that to the, the, the virtual students. So they had to kind of teach to both ends. And so it was basically creating twice the amount of work, so. The recording abilities, weren’t there and Google Classroom to be able to manage the students. It was quite, quite difficult to impliment that.

Curtis: Right. The impact here. Like when you distill this down to the people that have to deal with it, the teachers who are already overworked are like working super long hours, into the night, on the weekends, just trying to do mundane stuff, like move grades around. That shouldn’t happen in our day and age ’cause there’s technology, there’s good data practices to handle that. But, but that was not, that’s not the case.

James: Yes. And then getting that information to the administration too, as well, quite difficult. The other thing that I think happened, and maybe this remains to be seen, is that a lot of these students that if they were in person or there was a better way to handle virtual schooling, a lot of the students that were maybe on the edge, didn’t get really get the attention that they needed. Right? So these students were falling behind more and more than they typically would in an in-person setting.

So, I mean, I guess the impact of that remains to be seen, but I think that that’s going to be an underlying outcome from what the lack of technology, if you will, in, in the virtual space so.

Curtis: Right, because they haven’t had enough time to like, notice who is falling behind and let alone time to help them. Right, I mean is . . .

James: Right. Or, or any way to identify them, either. So there’s really no way if you look at a Google classroom ecosystem to identify students who are at risk or, or even the over-performing students. You kind of have to pay attention to everybody the same. And when that happens, the people who need the—especially when the teacher’s overworked, like you said—the people who would need the attention will not get it.

Curtis: That, I mean, that’s it, right? There’s a real problem here affecting students and teachers and, and, you know, the people that work for us. I mean, we kept hearing these kinds of things. So, and you brought this to us, James, you said, “Hey, we could do something here.” And, uh, and we decided to, to pursue it, but from a perspective of data strategy and technology strategy, this is sort of a template.

The listeners could think of this as these are how we applied good data, strategy principles to solve really any problem, but we want to show you how we did it in education, because this is something we’re working on actively. So, so maybe James take us through the thought process there on how these problems can be solved and what we did in building Teach Beacon to try and make something cohesive, that solves a lot of these issues.

James: Unlike the early adopters, like Canvas and Blackboard, who are just like, “Hey, let’s just get a system up that’s online, and that students can do lessons on.” We took the approach from the outset of, “Hey, we want a cohesive system that identifies these gaps.”

So, how do we blend the offline learning with the online learning, and then how do we apply analytics to this? So how do we capture the information that students, administrators, and teachers all need in one single place that can provide feedback in real time on how the students, the teachers, and the administrators are performing.

So I think that because we took that approach upfront, that’s what sets our system apart from anyone else’s and by our system, I mean, Teach Beacon.

Curtis: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Teach Beacon. Right. So like Blackboard, Canvas. Some of these were built, I don’t know, 10, 15 years ago. How has the technology shifted so that this can be done? Because we did this in a fairly short time period. And on a stack that that’s fairly lean.

James: We utilize the latest open source technologies as well as the latest proprietary technologies. So everything that we built is, is built to be modular, scalable, and cohesive. So if you look at our virtual classroom and you look at our offline content, they all blend together. So a student has access to all of their offline content while they’re in their virtual classroom and vice versa. So I guess a specific cases is when a teacher is teaching a blended classroom where some students are online and some students are in person, the recording feature on our virtual platform feeds into our offline platform, our LMS platform, so that way, any students who may be in classroom or, or maybe at home, they’re going to get the same learning experience.

So I think that because we took a modular approach and we utilized open source technology, we were able to do this, I guess, less-time consuming, um, than building everything from the ground up, being proprietary.

Curtis: Right. Got it. And that, and that also, like you mentioned, the virtual classroom, the LMS goes there together. Right? So. So it’s a very cohesive experience. And back to the grade situation, it’s like the grade gets entered once or is taken automatically. And then it’s just there. Like you don’t have to go and find it and move it the technology takes care of that for you.

James: Yes. Participation is that’s one of the things that we can capture in our virtual environment where that’s something that in traditionally speaking a teacher would have to do manually, right. They would have to maybe take notes during their live session or like a virtual session or an in-person setting they would have to kind of notate who’s participating and who’s not; whereas, our platform we’ll capture that immediately just by the students interacting with the platform. So if a teacher asks a question, um, you know, and they use utilize, or they speak, if the student speaks or the student utilizes the hand raising buttons or uses the chat or answers a question, like a real-time poll questions, something like that. So all of that is captured as well as attendance. I mean, it is captured automatically, whereas in the past you would have to do that manually. And then you’d have to enter that into your grade book where this just kind of flows automatically to the grade book,

Curtis: Right. Yeah. Yeah. It’s all those little things that can be overlooked, but in the end, like that ends up saving hours and hours of time for people and headache and frustration.

James: Yes, exactly. And even when it comes time to do parent-teacher conferences, the teachers would, would likely have to spend less time preparing for those conferences because everything that they would typically utilize or prepare by hand, we have in the virtual platform already.

Curtis: So the principles here are sort of modular approach, cohesive approach made sure data is moving systematically, where it needs to move. So there’s no manual intervention needed. That makes for like a better experience for the users and also less busy work, essentially, if you’re thoughtful about how you build the system.

But then on the flip side, like you mentioned, the other part about this is all of the data, because it’s in one place—virtual classroom, the ah, the LMS, everything that’s going on, everything is trackable and right there—then you can start running analytics on it, predictive models on it, and find students that may be at risk or find other trends in ways to optimize how you’re teaching or optimize the administration, or put your counselor resources to good use to the students that really need those and, like, know where and how to do that.

James: Yes.

So, so that all happens internally, right. But based on how we design the system. So we’re taking full advantage of data in every possible way that we can, but given the landscape, there’s a lot of people that, that have historical systems, legacy systems with data in them and this and that they’re hard to integrate with and so it’s hard sometimes to get that data out so we could use. So, can you talk a little bit about the approach there to building Teach Beacon in such a way that the data is very accessible and we can also hook into other systems to basically build a, a network and get data in and out in an easy way?

James: Yes. So I had mentioned that the system was both modular and cohesive, meaning that the system it’s kind of built out of different building blocks, but then when it comes together, it’s one cohesive system, and we did it that way for that exact point you just made: so we can integrate with other systems, because we know that there are legacy systems out there that maybe a school has a contract with and they can’t get out of that contract for several years or, or, you know, or whatever the reason is. So we built everything to be driven by an API. Everything is coding agnostic. So whether you’re using an older system, a legacy system, or another newer type of system, say for your ERP or your CRM, we can connect to those via our API.

We can either push our data to another system, or we can pull your data from, from your system. So, yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the cornerstone of everything is that everything can be either used singularly or as an entire Teach Beacon platform.

Curtis: And that’s just so different from what we see, um, big players in this space tend to not make their data accessible or they charge you a lot of money to try and get it out of their system. It’s probably cause it’s really hard, and um . . .

James: Yeah. Yeah. And too, we utilize open source technology as much as possible. So part of being open source is accessibility. So that’s kind of our goal too, as well. And our, our platform is not open source because we developed it from the ground up, but, uh, some of the pieces of our technology is open source. So I think that, I think it’s only right to be able to, to share that across other platforms, too, as well.

Curtis: And that’s a point made for people that are as familiar that, I mean, open source, some people hear that and think, “oh, insecure, not good,” but open sources in many instances way then proprietary technology nowadays. I mean, it just comes so far.

James: Yep. You can think of a company like Red Hat, which is, was just purchased by IBM. Red Hat is founded on the principles of open source and almost all of their technology that they put out there in the world is open source, but it’s some of the best out there and it’s some of the most secure.

Curtis: Got it. What are you, um, as a technologist or whatever, what are you most excited about in terms of Teach Becon and what it can do?

James: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think the best part about teach beacon is again the modularity of it. So being able to bring all of these various systems into one single place, saving teachers a lot of time, saving administrators a lot of time and also providing real-time feedback to, to all of the stakeholders, being able to identify those children who may be at risk or identifying a teacher who may need assistance because their class size is too large or something like that. I mean, all of this because everything is data driven, everything is pulled together. Those sorts of things are much easier to identify in a system such as this, rather than in a traditional or legacy type system.

Curtis: Awesome. All right. Well, thanks, James. I appreciate the time here. And, uh, hopefully this has been useful, right, for people not only for people in the education space that are looking for something better and more efficient, but just in general, when you’re looking at building technology or making things more efficient, there are some principles, I think you’ve highlighted here that, uh, that can be really applied to lots of industries and that we’ve seen over and over kind of works.

Ginette: Head to datacrunchcorp.com for our transcript and attributions.



“Loopster” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License