Category Archives: technology

Using REACH for Vacation Travel Planning

My colleagues and I in the deans’ office have been dissatisfied in recent years with the way in which we collect vacation travel plans from our students, and our inability to organize those plans usefully once we receive them. We are just about to throw in the towel and outsource the whole thing, but we thought we’d try an experiment for our last major vacation of the year (spring break) and use REACH as our travel planning hub. (You can read my previous post about REACH here.)

Our old system requires parents to login to the school’s parent portal and fill out a form that is linked to our database. The form then populates an Excel spreadsheet that is very detailed and sortable. However, the hurdles that this system asks parents to jump over, such as remembering their login info and completing a very extensive form, lead to low compliance. Many parents just email us instead, or call, and then we are stuck entering all of the information into the form, or more often we just house information in multiple places, which leads to mistakes. We need to pass this information along to the car service we use to shuttle students to the nearby train station and three major airports, and errors can be costly and lead to urgent crises.

REACH puts the onus on the students to fill out their vacation leave request. (Our school used to make the students fill out a paper form back in the day, so this isn’t without precedent for us.) They need to get all of the pertinent info from their parents, including flight data and so forth, and then submit it for electronic approval by their parents, host (if there is one), and finally the deans. Now that REACH has a well-designed mobile app, nearly all of our boarders have the ability to fill out their vacation travel info from their phone at any time. You can imagine how much more accessible this system is than asking parents to sit down at a laptop and navigate to a web site, login, and then follow several links to a form. REACH easily generates an Excel spreadsheet, too, so there is no loss of spreadsheet-ability, but our old form had a lot more columns for specific info. In particular, with REACH students put their flight info into the “Notes” field, so it is doesn’t get broken out in detail in Excel as it would using our old form.

That concern aside, we are much, much closer to 100% compliance using REACH, and that’s an enormous improvement over the system we’ve been using for the last few years.

Moreover, I see many opportunities to improve upon this first attempt. When we first started using REACH, Brian Murray (the company’s Director for North America) showed me how to format the leave type for this purpose, but I forgot some of the good advice he gave me. So I correctly created a specific “Spring Break 2018” leave type, and I created the correct work flow for the “actors” (people who need to give approval), but I didn’t pay attention to the transportation categories. I should have custom built just two options for students: “school provided ground transportation” and “family provided ground transportation.” Instead, the kids selected from the crazy quilt of options we normally give them (GS Van, Uber/Taxi, Car – parent driver, Car – other, Public Transportation, etc.). This meant that I had to send about 30 follow-up emails to students who chose transportation options that required me to be psychic in order to know whether they wanted us to book them a limo or if they were trying to say that another student’s parent was driving them. That really wasn’t such a headache, and I’ll get it right next time.

One aspect of REACH that our old system can’t duplicate is that it provides greater visibility to the students’ dorm parents (“hall teachers” in our school’s parlance). Those important adults can see the students’ leave requests, although many of them haven’t fully figured out REACH yet. (You could rephrase that to say, “The school hasn’t provided them the training they need,” and that blame falls on my shoulders.) But they are certainly able to see whether a student has left campus or not, which used to be rather chaotic and opaque before we started using REACH. We agreed earlier in the year to a solid workflow in which students have their dorm rooms checked for cleanliness by a dorm parent, who gives them a paper check-out ticket. The student brings that ticket to the deans’ office, and we SISO them out on REACH when they are actually leaving campus. (SISO stands for “sign-in/sign-out,” if you aren’t hip to the lingo.) Every adult on campus who logs into REACH can see who is still here and who has departed, and vice-versa at the end of each vacation.

There is even a little room for humor in this process, which makes it fun for the deans and dorm folks. I create custom locations for each vacation to which students are SISOed when they go on leave. Thanksgiving was “Turkey Time,” winter break was “Tinsel Town,” and our upcoming spring break will be “Cherry Blossom Wonderland.” You even get to assign each location in REACH a color of your choice, so I get to have seasonal fun with that, too.

After spring break my fellow deans and I will reevaluate how things went and decide if we are going to use REACH for vacation travel planning next year. As of this writing, I am leaning towards dedicating a year to working with it and improving upon what we’ve accomplished. We should reap productivity gains as returning students develop experience with the system and come to understand what is expected of them. As more adults on campus gain proficiency with REACH, they should come to enjoy the window it grants them into the work we do in the deans’ office, and they’ll be better able to care for their advisees and dorm charges.

I’ll try to write a post-spring-break breakdown of how things went. Stay tuned.


Addendum to “Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts”

I ended my last post about our strategic planning process with a concern that we might overreact to the perceived threats to our students that come from addictive mobile devices and social media. My argument was that this problem is tactical, not strategic, and that the tech companies and government regulators will address it. Sure enough, the big business news today is that a well-known activist hedge fund (Jana Partners) and others are applying pressure on Apple to improve parental controls so that parents can limit screen time and protect their children online. And Apple didn’t wait long to issue a response; they say improved parental controls are already in the works and on the way. Therefore, I’m sticking to my argument: our strategic plan shouldn’t overreact to fears about technology at the expense of innovative curricular/pedagogical goals.

GMO Posters from my students

My IB Theory of Knowledge students have been studying the debate regarding the safety of GMO foods. The purpose of this unit isn’t actually for them to become experts on GMOs, or for me to convince them that GMOs are or are not safe. The GMO topic is just an entry point to discuss the ways in which the biological sciences (an “Area of Knowledge” or “AOK” in IB lingo) construct knowledge and establish facts.

Today I asked them to create digital posters that summarize their current opinion on GMOs and include a nod to the epistemological aspect of our coursework. (Some students fulfilled the second requirement a little better than others.) This is a fairly shallow assignment for a class such as TOK, but before you write it off completely, recall that summarizing and designing are verbs associated with the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (“create”). Moreover, the posters satirically respond to the politically charged nature of the GMO debate using a medium popular in social media discourse.

You’ll note that most of the digital posters were made with either Adobe Spark or PowerPoint; I recommended those two options at the start of the activity. The posters made with Adobe Spark are automatically imbued with that slick, designed-by-a-social-media-pro feel due to their built in templates, but the students who chose PowerPoint did so because they are very proficient with it, and their posters are sometimes even better (from a design standpoint) than the ones made with Spark.

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Responding to “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

Jean M. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic published yesterday, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” is a thought-provoking, and, I’m sorry to say, accurate look at what the author calls “iGen,” the post-Millennial generation. Defined as those born between 1995 and 2012, they have grown up with smartphones and social media, and they are markedly different from the generations before them as a result. I often read articles such as this one with the expectation that I will disagree with many of the author’s claims, and that my first-hand experience with adolescents will not support their theses, but in this case Twenge is consistently on target. Her research has unveiled some of the benefits of being a member of iGen (greater physical safety, less risk taking), but it is the drawbacks of all of that iPhone time that she focusses on. Depression and social-media-via-smartphone saturation seem to go hand in hand, as her research has clearly demonstrated. Whether or not the smartphone has “ruined” this generation is obviously not something we’ll be able to know for sixty years or so, but there are an awful lot of depressed adolescents walking around right now.

If you are not raising teens or working in secondary ed, you might be stunned to hear Twenge’s data about declining interest among teens in getting a driver’s license. But it’s true! Many suburban teens these days are showing no urgency to get a license. They socialize via their phones from home, or their parents drive them where they need to go. Twenge doesn’t mention Uber and other ride-sharing services. Among the ominous news in this article, the author may have missed an opportunity to talk about the environmental benefits that come from a generation that is ambivalent about driving. Ride-sharing and public transportation may decrease the number of cars on the road in the coming decades as iGen shifts fully into adulthood.

The iPhone and social media addiction that Twenge describes is also crowding out other risky behaviors, as other researchers have begun to suspect. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use are all less prevalent among iGen. Given the long-lasting damage that substance problems inflict, often following teens through college into adulthood, until they finally receive treatment, I have to wonder if the smartphone and social media addiction is going to turn out to be less of a problem. Perhaps what technology hath wrought, technology can undo, in the form of new apps that limit screen time and social media use. There’s clearly an opportunity for parenting to make a difference here, too. Already, a small number of parents are taking the tough steps and confiscating their kids’ devices at bed time. (Twenge seems shocked to learn that adolescents all take their phones to bed with them every night. This elicits an eye roll from boarding school folks like me.) Whereas experimentation with substances often occurs away from home where parents aren’t present, this generation of homebodies can be helped by adults telling them, “No more phone time for you today. Go outside and play!”

Twenge also reports less sexual activity occurring among iGen. However, it seems to me that a significant amount of the shaming, bullying, and harassing that is causing depression among those addicted to their devices is sexual in nature (or proto-sexual, as it relates to body shaming, or not dressing like the cool kids, etc.). This is one of the saddest elements of Twenge’s research. This generation is getting extra doses of the worst parts of relationships/romance/sexuality — that is, the moments of shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, regret — without the good parts. Admittedly, teen pregnancy rates are down among iGen, and that’s heartening news, but not if everyone is walking around depressed.

What should adults be doing to respond to this data? I usually prefer carrots to sticks, and catching flies with honey. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.) Yes, we can confiscate devices and shut off the wifi and so forth, but we need to put an emphasis on drawing youngsters into healthy physical activities, such as athletics, orienteering, biking, and the arts. And we need to create guidelines at dances and other IRL social gatherings that encourage kids to put the phones away and live in the moment, instead of recording it all for Instagram or Snapchat. One can’t help feeling that Twenge is recommending more square dances and roller-rink parties; i.e., a return to my Gen-X elementary school experience.

As is often the case when I read pieces such as this one, I feel privileged to work at a boarding school. Our 24/7 access to students creates an opening to shape their experiences in ways that might help increase mindful living-in-the-present and decrease nose-in-phone time. But even for us, it is a tough challenge. My colleagues and I will need to strategize as the school year begins in (alas) a few short weeks.


Twitter’s problem is it’s too literary

Twitter’s second quarter earnings release last Thursday sent its stock tumbling as the market reacted poorly to the news that net user growth was flat. The stock dropped more than 16% on the news, and the lack of user growth seemed to confirm the long-running skeptics’ narrative that Twitter is doomed to join Myspace in the social-media-platform graveyard.

The argument has always been that Twitter is too arcane with its @-mentions and hashtags, and the character limit means that it’s just for people with short attention spans who want to chase celebrities. But does that argument really hold up under greater scrutiny? Snapchat, beloved by adolescents everywhere, is actually more confusing to master, and the interface is disorienting to new users. Instagram, the other fast-growing social media platform, has borrowed the hashtag and @-mention vocabulary from Twitter, and is in fact more #-ridden than Twitter.

Twitter’s lack of growth may actually be explained by a narrative that is paradoxically the opposite of the one that dominates the conversation: The platform is too full of intellectual and literary depth, despite the much maligned character limit, too appeal to the lowbrow masses.

While my Facebook feed is mostly full of memes, links to YouTube videos that I won’t follow, and uninformed political opinions from acquaintances who were never really my friends in the first place, Twitter brings me the latest thoughts of Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates), Simon Schama (@simon_schama), Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) — you know, actual writers. The platform makes it easy to follow leading intellectuals in any field, plus serious journalists whose opinions on current events aren’t nonsensical bloviating. Anyone can join in the conversation on Twitter, but unlike the walled garden of your selected friends on other platforms, your shallow and ill-informed opinions, when broadcast on Twitter, are free game for mockery and derision from the quickest-witted wags in the world, and yes, they can demolish you while using only 140 characters. The Twittersphere is a hostile place for illiterate morons. (Not that that stops them from tweeting, but you can block or filter them out, or create lists, etc.)

The pessimist in me worries that society’s anti-intellectualism does spell bad times ahead for Twitter. Their new plans to monetize the platform sound horrid and could ruin the service, so hopefully the rumors will finally prove to be true and one of the tech behemoths (Google?) will swallow Twitter and hide its lack of earnings growth inside their massive, synergistic whatnots.


Embracing eSISO

This spring a project I’ve been imagining for four years is finally coming to fruition: our school has moved to an electronic sign-in/sign-out (SISO) system for our boarding students. After generations of tracking students’ departures from campus using carbon paper cards and a clipboard, we are, bit by bit, moving onto an online platform built for this purpose by a company called Reach Boarding.

Reach is one of the two players in this very-nichy industry (SISO software for boarding schools). We demoed the system of their main competitor, Boardingware, last year, and made the decision to go with Reach. Though we are only a few months into this new world of eSISO, so far I’ve been very pleased.

There are a lot of problems that software of this nature can solve for us. We won’t have to spend hours manually checking students’ standing permissions and collating paper cards. Reach sends requests for permission directly to parents via auto-generated emails. Then it holds those permissions and organizes leave requests for you, presenting data on several different, visually intuitive dashboards. Unlike our paper system, which is archived in filing cabinets and mostly useless from a data-analysis standpoint, Reach will allow our deans’ office to easily analyze SISO data and learn from trends in student behavior.

There are many more potential gains that eSISO will offer us. Right now, students sign in and out for study hall in their dorms, the library, and the deans’ office, depending on where they are planning to study. There are clipboards for that purpose in all three locations. Of course the paper on those clipboards isn’t telepathic, and the clipboards don’t talk to one another, so locating a given student during study hall can require multiple phone calls. With Reach, a student can check-in to a given location using the app, and then any adult with credentials to login to the system can see where they are during study hall. We expect to eventually get our Student Health and Wellness Center on Reach, and we expect to run permissions for college visits through Reach, too. Though it may take a year to get all of the workflows sorted and build consensus at our Quaker school that this is how we want to handle all of these tasks, once that is done we will be saving ourselves a lot of time and hassle.

Our school is a particularly challenging one in terms of moving from paper to eSISO. Many boarding schools are composed of almost entirely boarding students with just a tiny population of day students. And many of those schools are located in the middle of nowhere. Our school is 55% boarding/45% day, and we are in the middle of a dense suburb that is 40 minutes from Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York. As a result, we have an enormous variety of campus-leaves that our students request to make. We have boarders spending the night at day student houses, day students spending the night in the dorm, students making day trips on foot to the shopping center across the street, students being driven to destinations by their parents, students being driven by other students, and on and on. Reach can handle all of those different leave types, but building those workflows takes time, and replacing the paper system with an electronic one causes lots of small changes that some people find unwelcome or confusing.

Imagine what it was like to drop your child off at boarding school in the year 1900. There was no ubiquitous electronic communication, so you kept in touch with your child via snail mail. If the school wanted to take your child on a field trip, they were in loco parentis, and they just did it. You found out about it when your son or daughter came home for the Christmas holiday. Not surprisingly, boarding schools have mostly worked on a system of standing permissions. Parents fill out of a form telling the school what their child can and can’t do, and if they need a special permission, you get the parent on the phone. ESISO moves the industry away from standing permissions and into a world in which parents must click that they approve of their child’s plans each and every time they want to leave campus. (Well, only for riskier leave types. We don’t ask for parental permission when students walk off campus to local destinations.) Reach makes it easy for parents to keep track of what their children are doing while away at school, and it gives them the ability to approve or not approve their child’s plans each and every time. Early feedback from parents since we started rolling out Reach has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of them were tired of our antiquated carbon paper system, so anything that replaced it would have made them happy. But a number of parents have shared with me that they specifically like the way in which Reach allows them to know more about what their kids are up to, and they find the email interface easy to use.

Reach isn’t perfect, so not everything has been a bed of roses. The mobile apps need work to become more intuitive, and some students are having login problems. Reach doesn’t really know what to do with day students, so they are treated like boarders with their dorm being “day student.” Despite these and other cavils, I’m overwhelmingly enthused about what Reach is providing to our deans’ office, and I know that the company is working to improve the platform all the time. I can’t wait to see where we are a year from now when we’ve truly deployed Reach fully across the school.


Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.