Tying It All Together

A pioneer in online community building carves out a niche for a private school LMS.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Twine K12 Gary Falcon.jpgThroughout his career, Gary Falcon has been fascinated by the power of technology as a transformative agent in education. As a business analyst for Emory University in the mid 1990s, he was asked to lead the adoption and integration of an early collaboration platform known on-campus as LearnLink. “What none of us realized at the time is that we had become pioneers in the use of social networking as a community-building tool,” he says. Academically, he worked with faculty to apply these collaboration tools for what would today be called blended learning. “In the course of just a few years, we had shifted the teaching model at Emory to incorporate online engagement as standard practice.” Gary has since continued his focus on the use of technology to improve operations and drive innovation in education now with Twine, a one-stop shop for learning management and student information designed specifically for independent private and charter K-12 schools.

Many considered edtech to be a luxury that could be added later. In 2017, I believe use of technology is foundational to support school management, student learning, and parent expectations.

By bringing together the features of one of the world’s most powerful learning management systems (LMS) with a fully integrated cloud student information system (SIS), they provide a single place for parents and students to stay engaged with what is happening at school, while teachers and administrators save time on daily tasks, build stronger relationships with parents and students, and get better insight into student performance. Here, Gary talks development, the power of the right LMS, and thoughts on the future of education.

What led you to develop Twine?

Twine K12.jpegGary: Back in 2013 we were deploying another LMS as a gradebook solution for the 9th-largest K-12 school district in the U.S. We immediately knew this was a great solution that went beyond grades – students and teachers had been looking for easier ways to collaborate and share information online, and the “social” feel of it helped with rapid adoption.

Having worked with both public and private schools over the past couple decades, it was clear to me that many private schools could benefit from what that LMS, Edsby, offers: centralized, secure discussion boards for classes, alongside traditional tools like gradebook, attendance, online testing, course planning, schedules, etc.

The challenge is that with their lower enrollment most private schools didn’t have the budget required to integrate such a platform with an on-premise SIS. In fact, many smaller or startup schools didn’t have an SIS at all. We realized that by offering Twine, our SIS/Edsby combination, we could solve both problems, dramatically reducing costs while offering all the school and learning management tools most schools need. 

What kind of impact can an LMS have on a small and/or private school?

Gary: There are three things that come to mind immediately:

One common trait we see at many smaller charter schools and private schools is that parents are drawn to these schools with an expectation of close engagement. These parents want to know what is happening day-to-day; their goal is to support their kids in learning, and to do that they need to know what is planned at school, and how their kids are doing.

The challenge is that highly engaged parents can be a drain on resources when they feel their needs aren’t being met. Few teachers have the extra time or desire to write and send out daily or weekly newsletters just for parents. With Twine, teachers do the work they want to do – oriented toward their students – and parents can access the content with no additional effort. The result is happier, more informed parents — which, let’s face it, makes everybody happier.

The second impact we see is development of a more cohesive community. Interacting in a Twine class feels a lot like sharing information in a private Facebook group. Rather than a traditional portal where a student might log in, download a resource, and log out, there’s an encouragement to interact, to ask questions, to engage in conversation.

Written exchanges often create space for reflection in a way that brings out insights and even vulnerabilities that students wouldn’t otherwise share. This is where unexpected connections and understanding can happen.

Last, we frequently see improvements in operations and efficiency for staff. As one example, we have a client that before Twine was generating report cards using Excel spreadsheets and mail merge functions, requiring about 8 to 12 hours of work to get report cards ready every quarter. With Twine the report card workflow is all online: quarter averages flow in from class gradebooks, teachers submit quarterly grades and comments for review online, and the front office reviews and publishes or prints everything with a few clicks. That same customer now gets report cards out in about an hour.

How is Twine unique from other similar products and services?

Gary: The best way I know to tell if a product works well is to look at how extensively it gets used. What we see is that Twine gets used more regularly than any other technology we’ve seen. One key is that Twine is not just easy to use and understand; it truly creates an online environment that quickly becomes an extension of our school communities and culture.

The other important distinction for Twine is that it brings together LMS functions like lesson sharing, homework assignments and discussion, in a single integrated package with traditional SIS functions such as grades, attendance, report cards, demographic data, scheduling, etc. Having a single service to cover these functions means less time spent, less frustration, and less cost, and better outcomes then when cobbling together multiple systems.

How can an LMS build community among education stakeholders?

Gary: I mentioned earlier how Twine provides a platform where students are able to reflect and engage with ideas and each other. This is an important piece, but of course there are other important stakeholders too.

Increasingly, we see the notion of a “team” that supports a given student. That team may include several different teachers across multiple classes, plus a volleyball coach, band director, guidance counselor, and an academic counselor. Keeping all these staff in the loop with what is happening in the life of any student can be a challenge. Twine meets that challenge by providing a centralized repository, known as a student Panorama, that collects everything we know about a student in one place. Even better, as any staff member updates the panorama for a student, all the other staff who are part of that student’s team are automatically notified of the new information. Team teaching, and keeping current with each student’s needs, is now much more effective.

Other community tools are more mundane, but still important: Twine provides Professional Learning Communities, where staff can share best practices and develop lesson plans together; School-wide announcements may be published in Twine, keeping parents, students & staff informed of upcoming events & news; and Groups can be used to support any combination of users, including parent association or fundraising taskforces, robotics clubs with student participants, parent volunteers, and a staff sponsor.

How does Twine address some of your concerns about education?

Gary: At its core, education is about helping our students learn to navigate the world. Systems like Twine shouldn’t just be about downloading homework; if done properly we can provide a safe, supervised environment where students are learning how to act and interact online. The words “digital citizenship” get thrown around frequently; I believe that for students to become good citizens they need an online analogue to the real social environments that they will be using later in life. 

What is your vision for the future of Twine?

Gary: We intend to stay focused on remaining a cost-effective one-stop shop for private schools and charters.

To accomplish this we are looking to both expand some core capabilities, and also to provide some a-la-carte services that may be relevant to only some of our customers. As two short-term examples, we’re actively working on the ability to let our schools run their public-facing website right from Twine, as well as introducing some advanced notification features allowing quick broadcast of emergency announcements to parents in a variety of formats across multiple device types.

As data analytics continue to evolve we’ll be able help identify patterns that will tease out the real indicators of risk, helping us to know who to help and how.

How do you see the role of the LMS evolving in the future?

Gary: I see the LMS evolving in two exciting ways as we move forward:

First, we’re going to see increasing emphasis and support for individualized learning pathways. This will include expanding the way individual observations and assessments can be recorded, and extending the way we think about student portfolios and progress toward mastery of standards or learning objectives.

Second, I believe we’re just scratching the surface today in terms of how we use the data stored in our LMS and other systems. The Zooms and ad-hoc reporting in Twine today are powerful, but as data analytics continue to evolve we’ll be able help identify patterns that will tease out the real indicators of risk, helping us to know who to help and how. By identifying those patterns earlier we have more opportunity to keep students on-track, and ultimately we will see more students succeed.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning edtech, tech’s role in education, or private/small schools?

Gary: Not long ago it was acceptable for schools, new schools in particular, to open their doors using low-tech approaches for school management, student information and communications. Many considered edtech to be a luxury that could be added later.

In 2017, I believe use of technology – and the selection of the right technology – is foundational to support school management, student learning, and parent expectations. Just as companies like Square made it possible for small businesses and artisans to accept credit and debit cards and offer services that were previously only practical for larger firms, the parent demand (and student need) for technology has reached a tipping point. Smaller schools need these offerings to remain competitive: keeping their parents happy, engaging students in the environments that are native to them, and ensuring that navigating technology is among the skills students are learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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