Slate & Tablets announced a new facet of their company today dedicated to educational research on the impact of various aspects of technology and community engagement on student achievement. With a unique combination of actual classroom insight and technical expertise, the company is poised to discover new and unforeseen impacts on student achievement. “We do extensive research on every one of our products anyway,” CEO John Raffaeli said. “Not only is it valuable from a business perspective to do cutting edge educational research within the bounds of our company, but it is also beneficial for schools everywhere.” The company plans to provide their findings and reports at no cost to the public.
The first report by the research arm, entitled “Theory of Change” was also released today. This paper explores the impact of community engagement on student achievement, and the challenges faced by schools to provide sufficient opportunity for parent communication. It can be downloaded for free through this link.
When I started Slate & Tablets, there were a few milestones I had been dreaming about from day one. Getting our first app accepted to the app store, launching Planner in front of my colleagues at Greenwich High School, and exhibiting for the first time at a conference were some examples. There was just something so exciting about interfacing with potential users and as an educator, I knew I wanted to learn more about all of the different schools in the country and how I could help solve their problems. Since the National School Boards Association was an ideal audience for the debut of Spotlight, we decided to take the jump and sign up for the conference. We booked our place in Cutting Edge AveNEW (thanks Karen Miller and Susan Clubb!), our plane tickets, and our hotel rooms several weeks in advance, and excitedly prepared our booth experience in the approaching weeks.
There was one problem with our plan, and it was my previously known travel curse. I cannot go anywhere without something happening to my travel plans. Now this sounds like craziness, but the list of travel issues is eerily long and I don’t have a list of trips that didn’t have a travel issue. Every time I go anywhere I write a blog post about it, and of course, the curse shows up on every one of those trips. The issue this time? It decided to snow on the first day of spring hard enough to cancel flights between 6PM – 10PM, the exact four hour block we were scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia in. Normally, our rebooked flights the next morning would have been no problem, except we needed to arrive to the exhibit hall before it opened at 10AM to set up.
The curse strikes again.
So with no possible flights to hop on, the travel curse flaring up again, and a Slate & Tablets milestone hanging in the balance, the three of us scheduled to go to the conference had only one option…
It’s only 915 miles guys. No problem.
We drove to Tennessee in the most epic road trip of my life. I called John at 10am after realizing that there was no way we were flying to Nashville to break the news. We got Sarah’s car (which will now be referred to as The Chariot) a much needed oil change, picked up some sandwiches and an overly large bag of snacks, and hit the road at 1PM. The general consensus about road trips is that they’ll be like this:
In reality, this is how road trips generally go:
zzz – road trip – zzz
Let’s be honest here, 14 hours is a stupidly long drive, and my iPod is not really that stacked, Sarah listens to dance music which is counterproductive in a situation where moving your legs too much will result in an accident, and we kept forgetting to hook John’s phone up to the Bluetooth in the car when we stopped for gas all three times on the way down. After we made it through 30 minutes of 20MPH driving stuck behind a pair of snowplows blocking the whole highway for no reason, and after the sun went down blocking out much of the beautiful scenery and cow-counting games that could have possibly ensued, we didn’t have much to do. I did my best to not look at the odometer or the GPS since driving to Nashville doesn’t really require directions, but it was quite a journey. Frodo would be proud.
We finally arrived at 3AM, dropped John off at the wrong hotel, picked him back up and brought him to the right hotel, and then were able to finally go to sleep for around 4 hours before we needed to wake up and get to the Music City Center to setup the booth.
Setting up a booth is no easy task, but we are extremely good at planning when we are forced to fit our entire setup into one additional suitcase to avoid extraneous baggage fees (thanks Delta), so it didn’t take that long. I did get irrationally frustrated at our banner, however, which did not want to hang correctly. This was mostly due to the fact that we forgot a pair of scissors to cut the string I brought, so we were trying to hang it like a curtain along one piece of string. Disaster. I finally worked up the nerve to speak to other humans after being trapped in a car for fourteen hours, and the Pizza Kit booth was kind enough to lend us a pair. After Sarah worked her magic on the table, we were finally able to breathe and admire our work.
Choking back the happy tears that come with achieving any milestone in life, the exhibit opened and we finally got to speak with the people we drove 14 hours through rain, sleet, and snow to be with. We launched Spotlight at the conference to overwhelmingly positive response, and you can see the community of attendees that were kind enough to take their pictures with us if you download our demo and login with our PIN, “banjo”. The most excitement about Spotlight came with its exclusivity. Schools use Facebook and Twitter to interact with their communities but frequently that gets lost in the other noise inherent to these products. Almost every school board member was excited about the prospect of having an exclusive venue with which their schools could connect with their towns. We’re so happy that this feature shone through, because it’s the most important reason we made Spotlight to begin with!
We had a lot of great conversations with some memorable people; a new board president who is an army veteran, a district in Texas with almost 100 miles separating their four middle schools, and the nation’s second largest school district, to name a few. As a company, we’re committed to unparalleled attention to detail and our customers’ needs, and we’ll be following up on each and every one of those conversations in the next few weeks. We’ll also be announcing the winner of the free year of Spotlight we raffled away at the conference. I know a lot about Slate & Tablets will change over the next year, but our passion for meeting student needs never will.
After the exhibit hall closed and we had a few additional meetings, it was time to enjoy Music City. It certainly lived up to the name. Broadway in particular has country Bourbon Street feel: every place has multiple artists playing live music with great food. Saturday was crazily busy to the point where we couldn’t actually sit in one of these places, but Sunday was much nicer. We watched an acoustic country trio sing awesome renditions of all the classics, ate some barbeque ribs, which were awesome, and relaxed the night away. There was of course time for some shopping as well, and I picked up a Nashville branded leather guitar strap for back home, among other souvenirs.
Can you guess who was more excited about shopping?
We woke up early (7AM) to hit the road on Monday, and after driving everyone crazy with my cow counting (437, at the time of writing) we finally made it home after another 14 hours. It’s 10PM and I get to go to school tomorrow to tell the story again to all of my students. Most people I know have already asked me if this was worth it, and told me that they probably would not have made the trip if they were in our shoes.
West Virginia, take me home.
It was worth every one of the 2,000 miles we drove.
I’ve spent the whole weekend getting the final few pieces ready for Nashville, and boy are we excited! We have an unforgettable conference experience prepared for Nashville, and you can follow it all here. I’m also pleased to announce that you can be amongst the first to download and experience Spotlight. Download it here and login as a community member using “banjo” as the school PIN. Notice that this is the demo version of the app: the commercial version is available for every platform, but we’re not quite ready to show you that yet.
In the meantime, here’s a picture of me with our DIY chalkboard signs for the conference! Can’t wait to see you there!
As announced a few days ago, we’ll be making our exhibition debut by unveiling Spotlight at the National School Boards Association conference in Nashville in just two short weeks! This is a riveting time for Slate & Tablets, as it’s our first time presenting at a conference and we have put together what I think is quite the experience for attendees. Most demo products at education conferences are just that: demo products that emulate what it would be like to use in a school. Everyone attending the conference who downloads Spotlight is not only going to get the real product, but most importantly the real experience of what social media can do.
What is Social Media?
That’s an internet 101 question, isn’t it? Actually, no, it’s one of the most often misunderstood questions, misinterpreted answers, and terribly skewed concept on the Internet today. It only gets worse in schools as well. When we do our social media projects in computer programming, we have to tackle this important question and define just what social media should be able to do. I usually show this video from one of the guys who made Reddit, arguably the most important social media site on the internet today.
Ohanian makes an important point about the nature of social media, in that it must be genuine. It’s not a competition. Many people use their social media statistics as evidence of their influence online, and they make a lot of money doing so. Derek Thompson presents evidence that these statistics are essentially meaningless anyway, since they can’t actually be leveraged for any purpose by an individual. But notice the diction: by an individual. This is where I observe people going wrong on social media. It is impossible to make a splash online alone. Ohanian argues that when groups of genuine people get together online for the same purpose, that’s when they are able to accomplish internet sensations like every meme that’s come out of Reddit, crowdfunding campaigns, and language phenomena born on the Web. There are negative possibilities too, the worst of which is cyberbullying, but awareness about that issue has been quickly spreading and the Internet is even fighting back. Check out this story of a man who was dancing at a party in Europe but was humiliated online by a group of who-cares-who-they-ares. The web caught wind and decided that his attitude was gold, so they threw him a huge dance party in Vegas. While not everyone bullied on line gets such attention, the fact is that there is far more being done against negative outcomes of social media, ironically enough by people who are just being genuine and standing up for what they believe in.
If you had to put it in a sentence, it would probably look like this: social media is any tool that lets a group of individuals smile, laugh, and/or support shared interests. The big question is, why hasn’t it caught on at schools yet, which are perfect candidates for the community building power that these tools give?
Social media is a non-unique computer skill in that it requires both a piece of technology and someone with the skill to utilize it. Schools don’t have the money to put someone on social media duty full time, let alone someone with the requisite skills or relevant content to post. Look at the legendary twitter account of Taco Bell, which has been the subject of emulation for the past two or three years by Pizza Hut, Dominos, and others. It takes someone with an innate understanding of the internet to stand out from the noise with humor, cheekiness, and craft. But remember our lesson from the previous section: social media is a tool for groups of individuals. Taco Bell pays someone to speak online for their corporation. Schools don’t have this luxury. This is why platforms such a Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media product has not yet caught on. They were designed for individuals with the opportunity for smaller groups to spawn from them.
With Spotlight, we’ve designed the product completely around this notion: that schools need a social media product that represents the whole school, not individual posters inside it. Every approved editor (default: all teachers in a building) posts to the same central location, which is searchable, of course. We’ve taken Ohanian’s advice that it’s not a competition, as well as several other works about the impact of social media on relationships surrounding the negatives associated with online narcissism and removed the statistics from the platform entirely. There are no retweets, likes, upvotes, downvotes, and other imaginary internet points. The goal is not to make content go viral across the internet. The goal is to provide a novel platform for a school to represent itself, along with all of its triumphs and successes. There are no complicated privacy settings, which is another huge hurdle for schools online concerned with what they share. Every school has a PIN associated with their network. You can’t get in without the PIN. Finally, as with many of life moments, there are some you remember, and some you forget. Spotlight allows users to remember their favorite moments in an unprecedented way: we have a full service print shop for various kinds of photo gifts at our disposal. We’re aiming at a whole new way to post your students’ achievements on your refrigerator at home.
We’re so excited to share more about Spotlight with you, and look for the tech specs for the product next time. Remember, we’ll be debuting at the National School Boards Association conference in Nashville in just two weeks, and we can’ wait to see you there!