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Lindsay Rattray sees an opportunity in bringing together the pedagogy of ELT and the power of inter-connected mobile technology.  His startup, 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. Like to know how it got this far (and where’s next)?  Read on.

Following part 1, here’s part 2 of how ClassWired got to where it is now.

Stage 3: An integrated web app

A fundamental of a startup is that it is scalable.  This means two things:

  1. the need for the product is widespread
  2. the cost of making a product for just one customer can be cheaply spread across many

I explain how these facts changed my thinking below.

1. Widespread need, bigger problem

The biggest problem I have in carrying out dynamic, communicative (even Dogme lessons) is knowing what my class is doing.  The problem is not just how to get content to the students (see part 1), the problem is getting their content to me.  Indeed, depending on the size of the class and their learning culture, getting an accurate measure on all their proficiency in a short time is bordering on impossible.

Try a peer-correction activity.  Students:

  • Write 3 sentences and pass them around the room
  • Tick others’ sentences if they’re correct, cross if not
  • Continue passing and correcting the sentences

Each time the sentences are passed on and corrected, it becomes more difficult to keep track of the information on the paper.  After just a few turns, the data gathered becomes unmanageable.  It’s too difficult to meaningfully feed it back to both the authoring and the correcting students, and the teacher can only check in an ad-hoc way. The activity loses so much of its potential benefit.

But how about:

  • sentences written on devices, easily shared with and corrected by all the other students, with a centralised teacher’s view
  • feedback to the teacher about what the students think is correct, who is writing the most, who is correcting the most

And most importantly: imagine knowing where the students have different opinions – from each others’ or from yours.  That’s a teaching opportunity.  That’s a ClassWired activity.

2. The cost of a native app (aka why I chose a web app)

Reason 1: Native (eg iOS, Android) apps are a big investment.  A school, or its students, has to get the devices, then train teachers and students how to use them.  A school has to discover, decide to buy, then buy a particular app.  Then they need to deploy it across their fleet (though this has since been made easier by iOS 7).  That’s a lot of steps.  I don’t think that’s realistic in a lot of language schools, with transient staff and student populations, and relatively small budgets.

Reason 2: Apps are cheap.  For ClassWired to make money, each activity would need to be a different app (ie loop reason 1).  (Even in-app purchases raise the problems of reason 1).  More importantly, the benefits of a realtime class activity system are not within one isolated activity.  The benefits are when, say, the words from a brainstorm activity can be set as ‘write a sentence with…’ homework and then those sentences can be peer-corrected in class the next day.

Reason 3: The web is instant and everywhere.  Web apps can be continually deployed and your (potential) customers only see the latest version.  No waiting for App Store approval or for users to update.  Users can use all their devices, not just their iOS or Android.  A teacher can project feedback to the class using their laptop and a browser.

(The problems with a web app, like browser compatibility and inability to use the microphone or camera are left for another post.)

Today’s challenges

Funding.  Self-, crowd-, investor-, grant-funding.  Which one suits and how to get it.

How do we make money?  Who should pay for it?  Schools, students, or teachers?  What’s the right price point?  What kind of schools can afford technology like this?

How do we include all the functionality needed – logins, classes, groups, activities teacher/student views – and still keep it simple and intuitive?

How do we engage other teachers?  What would other teachers like to see?  More activities, more feedback, engaging students outside of class?

Though one challenge we have met is How do we make a realtime web app for little development time? Meet MeteorJS.

Phew, that’s a lot for one post.  Let me know what interests below or hit me up on @ClassWired and I’ll expand in the next one.

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