Designing a product from a teacher’s perspective.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A leader in innovative educational technology for 15 years, CaseNEX offers case method professional development along with an array of tools to help schools break down complex student data to inform and support instruction, literacy screening, curriculum planning, and accountability. Their linked systems empower leadership, teachers, parents, and students by making it easy to view, analyze, and/or cross-reference data. They actively assess new needs, address performance gaps, increase transparency, and promote academic success. In 2009, DataCation merged with (and became a division of) CaseNEX. DataCation offers an array of tools to help schools break down complex district, school, teacher and student data to inform and support instruction, professional development, curriculum planning, accountability, and policy. Peter Bencivenga, a former technology coordinator for the New York City Department of Education for 16 years, leads CaseNEX as President and COO (and he founded DataCation). Here, Peter discusses the important feedback loop between product design and user experience, how being an educator helps in developing an educational platform, the future of educational data systems, and a special message from one of his former students — yet another example of the value that great feedback plays in keeping things real.
Victor: How did you get successful adoption in New York City by going from 24 schools to 450 school is less than 4 years?
Peter: Adoption in NYC has been an amazing testament to the fact that designing a product from a teacher’s perspective will result in teachers using the product. After developing our first product we continuously went back to the teachers and principals and asked for their feedback. Our successful adoption depended on listening to users. We did not get everything right the first time we rolled out new features. Listening to feedback helped us make our product better, and made adoption for other schools easier. Early on we set up a community application so users could post their ideas and opinions about how we could improve our features—and we still use the community application today. We’ve come to the approach of being more like a partner than a vendor for our schools and districts.
Victor: How does being a former educator help in the development of educational platforms?
Peter: I’ll never forget trying to use different technology products in the classroom and finding they didn’t make any sense. It seemed they were designed without an understanding of what a teacher really needed. When we started we always looked at educational platform development from the perspective of the teacher, asking ourselves: Will a teacher be able to use this in class? Will it help their students and will it make their lives easier? I still test every product feature that comes out and it has to pass my test. I only show the product to other teachers if it has a look and feel that will make sense to a teacher.
Victor: When developing data systems how important is it to keep parent and student involvement in mind?
Peter: Keeping parent and student involvement in mind is a necessity as schools depend on it for successful academic performance. When a parent knows their child’s homework assignment, or what grade they got on an exam, that parent becomes the teacher’s out-of-the-classroom advocate for the child. When a student is sick for three days and remains in constant contact with the teacher and accesses assignments from home, the product becomes a bridge connecting teacher and student. When I see Twitter posts from students saying they check PupilPath more than Facebook, or that they would be skipping school if it weren’t for PupilPath, that’s when I know we are providing the correct data, in the correct way, for our parents and students. For us development has become more than just keeping parent and student involvement in mind, however. We now adapt our products to their specific requests. For example, they wanted instant access to PupilPath through their mobile devices, so we created an app giving them attendance, assignment, grades and notes on-the-go, anytime, anywhere.
Victor: What do you see in the future of educational data systems?
Peter: The use of mobile devices will be a big part of how data is used in the classroom. We have already developed mobile devices for teachers to access data and insert gradebook and attendance data through mobile applications, in addition to giving instant access to grades and attendance to parents. We will see in the future content recommendations based on a student’s data accessible by the student to assist in their learning gaps (our system can analytically determine where students are meeting and not meeting certain Common Core state standards). We are currently building a system like this for New York State called DataCation Compass.
Victor: How do student assessments help teachers drive instruction?
Peter: Student assessments do not drive instruction, but the results (if in a usable format) can really assist the teacher in discovering where a student’s weak and strong points are in the Common Core State Standards. Currently we can tie questions to standards and really do thorough analysis of a student (or group of students) on any one question, group of questions, or standards. This information becomes valuable in helping teachers direct their instruction to the needs of the students.
Victor: How important is screening for early childhood literacy?
Peter: State testing usually begins at the third grade level. Students are learning to read well before that. By waiting until then, we are losing an important learning period for students, and could be missing the opportunity to catch them if they are falling behind. If we are not monitoring their progress, and making sure we are doing everything in our power as educators to help them, we are doing a disservice to the students. The success of our PALS PK-3 Literacy screening tool shows thousands of educators agree and understand the importance of screening for early childhood literacy. PALS evaluates students at this early level and also assists teachers in getting every child on the path to literacy.
Victor: Now, for a broad question: What are your thoughts on education in general these days? What makes you say that?
Peter: The amount of time we’ve invested in accountability should be equal to the amount spent teaching and learning. Data analysis is not solely a tool for evaluation. Sometimes educators shy away from data, worried they will be judged by it, but data-in-the-classroom’s primary purpose should be assisting and helping. We create systems that help teachers so they can help their students. As departments of education look to invest in new school resources it is important they choose systems and programs that will help teachers help students learn. One of our taglines is “Don’t Let Your Data Stress You Out.” Educators should think more positively about data, and less fearfully.
Victor: Got any stories, anecdotes to share that might be representative of your mission in education, or that may be of interest to EdTech Digest readers?
Peter: It is important that teachers know there is support behind what they do, and that they are making a difference. Developing technology for teachers, and keeping them in mind as we are developing new features, is our way of showing support for what they do. It’s important to think positively. This was posted on my Facebook page at the start of this school year from one of my former students:
This message is to all of the amazing teachers who have hustled the last few weeks to get their supplies together, prep their lesson plans, and basically get ready for the 12-plus hour work days, Monday-Friday, weekend hours, personal money spent for supplies, and basically going above and beyond to help build the next generation.
I know for a fact that if it weren’t for the amazing teachers I had while growing up I wouldn’t be at the point in life where I am right now (e.g., Peter Bencivenga for introducing me into the world of web programming, and probably being the stepping stone into the tech world. I’m now gratefully working at an amazingly innovative tech driven company, and living in a city with a similar mindset).
Teachers—keep pushing even through the difficult times. It’s an amazingly selfless path you’ve chosen, because in the end you can be inspiring someone onto the path that will lead them to greatness :)
Victor: Phew! What a message. You’ve provided a lot of clarity about important issues and I can tell you are coming from a place of great passion and heartfelt concern for improving education. Thank you, Peter.
Peter: Thank you, Victor!
Peter Bencivenga, President and COO of CaseNEX and Co-Founder of DataCation. Contact him through DataCation. Also, don’t miss this great news segment on the difference DataCation has made in keeping data relevant for New York City teachers.