Startup Stories: The EdTech Journey of ClassWired Pt.1/2

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ClassWired is a way to do student-centred ELT activities in class. It’s web-based, so it works on any device.  It gives you information about your class, like how fast your students are working, and what they are finding difficult. It puts your students’ work in your hands and lets them share their work with each other. It is in early stages of development and has been trialled in some classes.  Like to know how it got this far (and where’s next)?  Read on.

Following my micro-interview, here is part 1 of how ClassWired came to be.

Stage 1: Super Duper Flashcards

I first started playing with EdTech in the Old City of Damascus, Syria.  I had moved there to study Arabic and suddenly discovered how difficult it is.  The biggest problem was trying to stuff all the words into my memory – Arabic verbs and plurals are mostly irregular: for one word in English you have to learn two or three in Arabic.

So, being a computer science graduate, I built myself a basic flash card system.  I experimented with things like:

  • how many times I need to get a word right to stop showing it to me
  • what to do with those words I just couldn’t seem to remember
  • when to show which word (aka spaced repetition)

At that stage it was just a personal tool borne of need. My teachers and classmates liked it, but I felt the problem of memorising words in language acquisition was so significant that someone must have solved it. I went looking.

I found some great tools. Byki was far more sleek than my clunky design. Anki seems to be the accepted flashcard program to use (and I’ve seen it demoed at programming meetups in Melbourne). Rosetta Stone was more high-tech and immersive than flashcards. Yet I kept using my own flash cards, and never adopted another piece of education in my Arabic studies.

The problem of disconnection

The problem was that no technology connected what I did in class to the rest of my life.  I simply didn’t care about someone else’s word list on Byki, or whatever Rosetta Stone wanted to teach me that day.  I felt these products weren’t really based on classroom language teaching pedagogy.  Sure, they included aspects of memorisation and knowledge-construction, but they weren’t connected to how our classes operated.

I saw an opportunity in this connection so I became an ESL teacher to understand it.

Understanding the classroom

Becoming a teacher obviously opened my mind to teaching, but it made me understand learning better too.  Indeed, after becoming a teacher, I continued my Arabic studies.  This time things were different.  I could see the patterns in the communicative activities we were doing.  I felt the pain of the teacher attempting to make her classes student-centred while still getting enough information about how all her 15 students were going with that particular language point.  I could see how hard it was for our teacher to know what to teach (or re-teach) next.

The problem of content and information

I knew that memorisation was only one problem in the language education experience.

Working as a teacher, I spent a lot of time preparing my lessons (at first just trying to make sure it seemed like I knew what I was teaching).  However I simply didn’t have time to make my classes as dynamic as I wanted.  Finding good materials, photocopying, and guillotining them was a special treat I gave myself as a teacher. My classes loved those days. I wondered how ClassWired could improve them.  Each time I found a new way to share language between my students (and hopefully litmus-tested their proficiency), I formed a new link in my mind for what ClassWired could be.

Stage 2: A suite of iPhone apps

Next, I envisaged a suite of apps. What if I had an easy way to split a reading into paragraphs so my students could order them on screen?  What if I could know exactly which paragraph students had trouble placing correctly?  What if I had a way to do classroom chats to practice SMS language and making arrangements? What if I could begin this activity with students entering their free-time into a calendar and then get feedback about whether they could reach a mutually agreeable time between them?  If only, I thought, I could find out how all my students answered a question – not just the louder ones, or those whose answers I was able to check directly.  I’ll make it so There’s an app for that, I thought.  Well, I used to think … .

In the next post, I’ll explain where ClassWired is at now, and what’s next. What are your thoughts so far?  What do you find hard about making your classes better?  Can EdTech help?

3 thoughts on “Startup Stories: The EdTech Journey of ClassWired Pt.1/2”

  1. My thought: think how much better education would be if every teacher started with the idea and determination to improve every aspect of their class to the maximum extent possible. It seems to me that this is what you did/tried to do.

    My question: Would education be better if we mostly only considered the perspective and needs of the student or is that what ed. tech is kinda already trying to do?

  2. Thanks Michael, yes that is what I try to do – though it is something of a constant rage! A teacher posed this question to us at the Love Learning conference: ‘how much wait time is there in your classes’? (presentation here: Our answers were pretty worrisome and I think EdTech can help reduce this.

    I think in some cases EdTech is trying to do that. Startups like Vocabla and Speaking Pal are great examples. Though I think, like with ClassWired, some ‘needs’ are not uncovered until someone sees an opportunity and takes a risk – that’s the nature of invention isn’t it?

    (And scaling these things across a school or district while keeping the students as the focus is a big challenge).

    Perhaps another point on this is that considering the needs of the teachers (eg teacher books) and schools (eg course books for levels with consistent course-lengths) can also benefit the students too. Taking it to an extreme, I think even efficient admin systems allow me to spend more time thinking about my students and the lessons than about things like attendance, payroll, etc.


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