Freddie Veres is a high school advisory teacher at Big Picture Ukiah in California. The Big Picture Learning (BPL) model is centered around an advisory group that consists of about 15-20 students and their advisor. The advisor builds trusting relationships with advisees, helps them identify their interests, and supports them as they engage in authentic learning opportunities, particularly outside of school.
Once they know you care, they will open up, and you can find out what they’re really interested in.
Freddie believes caring about students first as individuals is essential to helping them learn. He says, “If you're just sitting there in front of your classroom, espousing curriculum, and teaching to a test, students are going to push back. You have to put the vibe out there that you care about them, that you care more about them than you care about their scores. Once they know you care, they will open up, and you can find out what they’re really interested in.”
Freddie is always looking for ways to build relationships in his advisory. “So much of our students’ learning happens outside of school. It’s always hard to stay connected, let alone during COVID,” he says. For the past couple of terms, Freddie has used Unrulr with his advisory as a way for them to share their thoughts, interests, and learning.
His first step in preparing to use Unrulr was to decide upon the “cogs” they would use. In Unrulr, cogs are the shared concepts, outcomes, goals, and skills that the group is focused on. Each post needs to be tagged with one or more cogs.
“As with everything, I know that students’ buy-in will be greater if they participate in the creation of our cogs,” Freddie says. “This term, we’re trying something new. At the beginning of the term, we had a collaborative session in which we worked through a list of skills and goals and asked, ‘Why is this important for your life? Do you see you're going to have a much more difficult life ahead of you without it?’ We ended up with a great list including self-advocacy, financial literacy, community involvement, health, organization, etc.
“Once we had our list, we put the proposed cogs up on a Jamboard, and we went through each one to brainstorm some examples of ways they could show their developing abilities in each.
“Before students get back from spring break, I'll enter the cogs and example behaviors into the Unrulr Dashboard so we can start using them in the spring,” Freddie explains.
When Freddie first kicked his students off with Unrulr, he:
Then, he had students use Unrulr for the first time. He asked them to:
“I had all students make a sample post to make sure everyone has the technology, and they know the basic steps to use the app. Students took to it right away since it looks so much like social media,” Freddie says.
Unrulr is turning the world into their classroom, and that’s a game changer.
When the students were ready to use Unrulr on their own, Freddie asked them to post at least twice a week showing progress on their projects or something that was personally meaningful to them. “My goals for the first couple weeks were to start getting students into the habit of making posts, to have students learn more about each other, and to get students to start internalizing our cogs,” Freddie explains. Soon, he started asking for daily posts from students.
“Every evening I spend a few minutes relaxing, going through the posts on my phone and commenting on every one. And sometimes we have a mini-conversation in the comments. That’s another way I show I care. Students can see it -- here’s a teacher who cares enough about me to make a personal comment at 7:30pm,” Freddie says.
“But more importantly, I learn things about the students I would have otherwise never known. This is useful not only in forming relationships, but also in helping me guide the students toward projects that they have passion for.”
Freddie provided an example of a student who posted a video of a car he really liked. The student was sharing a personal interest, and Freddie saw an opportunity to make a connection. Here’s how he tells the story:
“The day after I saw the student’s post on Unrulr, I said to the student, ‘Well, you know, I see a project in your future. You can learn about this car and what the history of it is. And the student said, ‘Oh, I'd be totally into that!’ And so we started talking about what he can do to hit some of the cogs, and he was just fired up about it! I told him it's not going to happen for a month or so because he had to get some of the foundational work skills first, but that was motivation for him.
“And that’s totally Unrulr. That’s never going to come up in the classroom. Unrulr is turning the world into their classroom, and that’s a game changer.”
Because students have been capturing and sharing their work in Unrulr all along, it’s easy for them to use the tool to curate that evidence into their portfolio.
Learning outside of the classroom in real world settings is a big part of the Big Picture Learning. As part of the process, students do a public exhibition to demonstrate what they’ve learned from their experience in those settings. Freddie says, “The exhibition becomes a celebration of their projects and the things they really sunk their teeth into the most.” The exhibition also provides accountability that the student work is rigorous and meaningful for both the student and the community.
The audience for the exhibition includes teachers, mentors, school admin, family members, and friends. This group receives a tour of the student’s worksite and/or any physical artifacts of the work. The student also makes a presentation to the group reflecting on what they’ve learned and the process they used to learn it. This presentation usually takes the form of a digital portfolio review.
“Because students have been capturing and sharing their work in Unrulr all along, it’s easy for them to use the tool to curate that evidence into their portfolio,” Freddie explains.
Freddie showed an example of a journey post a student made in Unrulr for his semester exhibition. The student spent the semester working two internships: one learning construction and another working at an auto-mechanic’s shop.
“During his online exhibition, he shared his screen on Unrulr and walked the audience through his learning journey. He narrated the visuals and described his successes, his challenges, and how he overcame them. He knows exactly what he did. He’s talking, we’re asking him questions, and it was really cool to see!”
Unrulr is a tool of the trade at this point. This is a foundational tool.
After a successful set of exhibitions last term, Freddie is continuing to deepen the use of Unrulr in his advisory. He is now asking his students to post more frequently and interact more on the app. Freddie says, “At first, their reaction was, ‘you’re asking too much,’ and now, all of a sudden, they're starting to get into each other's posts and comments, and our community is starting to thrive more than it has since COVID. It just takes some time to build momentum, but once it gets going, it's great!
“I’m also starting to have them do a mini-journey presentation in Unrulr every month. It’s an assignment, but they have a lot of flexibility to choose how they show their learning on the cogs. The fact that they have to get up in front of others keeps them accountable. If they’ve captured nothing during the month, they’ve got nothing. It’s embarrassing to stand up there with nothing. So they get better.”
Freddie is already thinking about how Unrulr will fit into the overall arc of his students’ careers at Big Picture Ukiah. He says, “Every year, I’m going to have that collaborative discussion with my students on the cogs. What are the life skills that you should have for graduating? These will be the cogs in Unrulr, and we’ll keep them there, year after year, adjusting as appropriate. In my opinion, Unrulr is a tool of the trade at this point. This is a foundational tool.”
Marc Allard is a high school teacher at Menlo School in California. In his Design and Architecture class, juniors and seniors work on several projects over the course of the semester. Examples of his projects include designing and crafting a stylish and functional lamp and architecting a community building.
The importance of focusing on process in learning is well-understood in project-based learning circles. Marc is a strong believer. He asks students to think carefully and intentionally about the stages of design, and document their process as they iterate over the stages.
"As a former engineer it has always been important for me to document the process," Marc says. "It’s been hard, though. I’ve tried countless ways to get my students to document their work… engineering notebooks, journals, Google Docs with photos inserted, and Google folders. None of them really stuck."
In order to improve the experience for both himself and students, Marc introduced Unrulr to his class last fall. Marc says, “The advantage of Unrulr is that the kids are already familiar with it because it’s so much like their social media apps. I’m finally getting traction with Unrulr, and kids are posting regularly.”
Marc asks students to create posts in Unrulr at least three times a week to show progress on their projects. In each post, students capture a piece of their process, whether it’s evidence of learning a new concept or an artifact such as a sketch. He asks them to reflect in each post about which stage of design they are working on. To reinforce this, he created a set of “cogs” (concepts, outcomes, goals, and skills) in Unrulr that represents the stages of design.
Students tag each post with the cogs representing the stages that are exhibited. In doing so, they build evidence of their understanding and skill for each step.
Here's a post showing a student’s drawing of a house in one point perspective. One point perspective is an important technique for architectural design and will be used throughout the project. The student tags the post with the “Discovery” cog to show she is discovering a concept that is important to her design process.
After learning drawing techniques, students ideate their designs on paper and in CAD. Then, the students create prototypes out of cardboard constructs in order to better visualize their designs.
In Marc’s class, capturing process serves a dual purpose. Students not only build evidence of their developing skill, but they also get an opportunity to share their progress and get feedback.
When students create posts in Unrulr, the posts are immediately available for Marc to review in a simple feed format. Marc explains, “Because these are lightweight check-ins and not formally graded assignments, I can review these while lounging at home-- social media style-- when it fits my schedule. I don’t have to face a whole pile of journals all at once. It makes it easier to stay up to date with each student’s project and offer feedback and coaching in a timely manner.”
Posts are not only useful for immediate visibility and feedback, but are also essential in producing a detailed retrospective. At the end of each project, Marc has students present both their final product and a visual learning journey that represents their process. Students create the Journey in Unrulr, curating posts from the set they have built up over the course of the project.
Because Unrulr records the date each post was created, it can automatically display a timeline on the Journey showing the pattern of posts over time. Each post is indicated by a yellow arrow under the timeline.
"The timeline helps hold students accountable for making progress over time and not saving all the work for the last minute. It’s hard to execute a significant iterative process when you do a three week project all in one night, "Marc explains. "Without Unrulr, it would be very hard to produce this view."
"The act of creating the Journey itself is valuable for learning. Students ask themself, 'How did my skills improve?', 'What could have I done better?', and even, 'Why did I fail?' The point is, they will do better on the next project and will have grown from the experience," Marc says.
Just as the students in Marc's class iterate their designs, Marc is constantly iterating his curriculum and teaching. We at Unrulr are lucky to witness him in action and to help how we can, but Marc does the heavy lifting. He is intentional about focusing on process at the beginning, middle, and end of projects. Marc says, “I don’t know about other teachers, but I care about process; it’s super important. And Unrulr is one of the only ways, if I think about it, to get evidence of process.”
2020 is one of those years which makes me wish I kept a journal. So. Many. Things. I've already forgotten most of them.
If I had numbers backing up that real life experience in 2020 they might look something like:
Well, I’m glad those don’t exist. Mostly because I think that chip intake estimate is probably seriously low.
Fortunately, for the sake of this retrospective, we have some cheerier numbers to look at for Unrulr. Numbers which help tell some of our story.
Fred and I are still infants in the education world. Working with the learners and educators in the Unrulr community is exciting -- we learn so much every day. And we were fortunate enough to connect with even more new friends this past year.
Breaking down the community activity, in 2020 we saw:
In the spring and summer, we spent a good chunk of time building out our teacher/admin web dashboard. We hoped to make it easy for teachers to:
And we saw educators create a whole bunch of cogs (h/t @Marc Allard at Menlo for coming up with this term) this past fall.
While we've heard from many users how useful it is for learners to self-assess (by picking out the cogs appropriate for their post), we still haven't quite figured out the mechanism/process for teacher and peer assessments. It's there, but it largely goes unused relative to the number of self-assessments. But we're thinking on it. If you have ideas please reach out!
Of all those cogs chosen by learners, about 92% were in private sets, designed by the users that tagged them. But about 4400 were tagged with cogs from our public library, which includes sets like Design Thinking, Hā, Shelter in Place, Wellness, and Habits of Mind. We placed each of those sets into one of three buckets:
Broken down by specific cog set it looks like:
So what can we learn from these? Well, it's difficult to draw too many high-level conclusions. More soft skills than hard skills have been tagged, but that could be either because we don't have a lot of hard skills in our library, or the ones we do aren't super popular. And maybe most of our communities would just prefer to roll their own cogs rather than use our library goals (there are currently 168 unique sets of goals in the Unrulr ecosystem).
But it sure seems like our Unrulr community is very interested in soft skills. Wellness, HĀ, and Habits of Mind are our three most popular sets, with the ubiquitous Design Thinking and the timely Shelter-in-place sets rounding out the top 5.
Overall, we're super happy that the community continued to grow in 2020, despite the challenges posed by COVID. We learned a lot about how our friends are using Unrulr, and a lot of ways in which we can continue to improve.
2020 was busy. We added a whole bunch of new features, and also tried to make some old ones better. Some of the highlights include:
From a numbers standpoint, there are lots of ways to try to measure how much has changed in a product. One simplistic way is by looking at how much the code behind the product changed. At Unrulr, we split our code into four main repositories:
And here's how the numbers total up for 2020:
Which averages out to:
Is that a lot? A little? I dunno. It's what got done! But I thought it might be fun to look at the numbers on a monthly basis. You can see where our focus was at different times of the year.
What happened in March? Well, COVID for one. And for two, I snuck in a quick 10-day vacay at the beginning of the month. In hindsight, that was pretty excellent timing -- one of the last, safe times to travel.
Other things you can see:
Mark was our original CTO and played a key role in setting up our tech stack, along with helping out with the myriad of responsibilities that go along with getting a startup off the ground. With much sadness, we bid him farewell and wished him luck on his next adventure in early February. We've missed him very much over the past year, and still keep in touch with the occasional zoom + beer.
2020 was a wee bit wild. But we're optimistic for 2021. We hope that educators and schools will be able to spend less energy dealing with external challenges and more energy on the fun parts of learning. We hope that Unrulr will continue to learn and grow alongside our community. Most of all, we hope that, as people, we continue to find common ground and work towards a better future.
Mahalo, 2020, for all the lessons ;)
Things have been busy since last school year wrapped in June. We spent the first half of the summer working on our admin interface (that's a whole post of its own). Once we got that to a stable place, we switched back to working on the Unrulr app in mid-August. And we've made a few improvements since then.
The broad spectrum of learning happening daily is truly humbling, running the gamut from quarantine gardens to guitar practice. And learners have been generally pretty good at recognizing which goals/skills apply to their work. Planting ‘uala (sweet potato)? That's clearly Shelter-in-place: Nature. Practicing the A-minor pentatonic scale? Technique: Left-Hand.
But sometimes teachers see connections that learners miss. That quarantine garden? The learner talked to two local farmers to learn about planting in raised rows vs. regular spacing. That could also be Communication: Collaboration.
Previously, the teacher could leave a comment on the post, suggesting that the learner add the additional skill. And the learner could read the teacher comment, click on the post header menu, tap on 'Edit Goals' and update the post. But this use case happens so frequently that we thought it would be helpful to streamline it. So we added a button next to the post goals/skills.
Now teachers can quickly add appropriate goals/skills to a learner's posts. And those suggested goals/skills (gills? skoals? golls?) [update: we've decided to go with cogs ;) -Will 01-2021] will start with the teacher check mark. The design is simple, and doesn't add a lot of complexity to the post, which is nice, but it took us a little while to get there. I tried a whole bunch of layouts and variations before settling on a simple plus button. If you want to see some of my failed attempts, you can check out this Unrulr post.
Since early, early, early in our existence, we've been having both internal and external conversations about the permanence of posts. Are they snapshots of what's happening at a given moment? Are they living documents which describe the evolution of learning or work? The answer, which is the same answer we find ourselves coming up with more and more often: It Depends.
In many ways it would be nice if posts (the images/videos/pdfs + the caption) were unchanging. We could look back at a post and know exactly what that learner was demonstrating and when they were demonstrating it. That's especially useful when trying to figure out how much they've grown!
But in real life, that's not particularly practical. Typos happen. All. The. Time. And so captions need to be edited. And sometimes you remember, right after you hit post, "Oh, what about that other picture I had -- I should add that too!" So it would be nice if images/videos were editable too.
The typos part was immediately annoying -- nobody likes to post something with easily correctable mistakes in it. So we added caption-editing right after we launched.
However, we were a little hesitant about allowing the editing of images/videos/pdfs. Part of our concern was that if too much editing happened, it could really confuse the context of the post. If a teacher asks a learner, "Hey, I don't quite understand why you picked `Habits of Mind: Persisting`?", and the learner goes back and adds, in addition to their finished product, pictures of the two failed versions, that's great! But any future reader of the post might be confused by the teacher's comment: "Of course they chose persisting. Look how they kept going even though they failed. Twice!"
So, we spent a while hunting for a middle ground which both
And we think we finally have something that works. Users can now update the images/videos/pdfs on a post, as well as the caption. In order to avoid confusion, we now record all the changes that happen (which we think is pretty cool). By browsing through the history of a post, you get a step-by-step look at its evolution.
Many learners are super expert at this already and get their caption and their images spot-on when they post, but I, at least, find this useful because:
If you’re interested in the visual development of the history screen, I made another short Unrulr post.
For the first 18 months of our existence, we survived with the stock iOS and android media pickers. They worked, and were battle tested, but they also had a few limitations:
Two months ago we switched to a media picker modeled after the we-chat app. It handles the above three cases much better than the stock apps. It shows all videos and images in a grid, and you can pick up to nine at a time.
If you put a link in a comment and caption (any web address ending with one of the domains found here), we will now automatically make it clickable. Depending on what type of device you're using (Android, iOS or a browser), it'll either open in the default browser or a new tab.
The iOS dev kit (iPhones and iPads) offers a nice library for scanning (since the fall of 2019: iOS 13.0). We hooked that up. So if you click on the 'More' button when you're creating the post, the scan option will add the scanned images right in.
What about Android? Well, unfortunately, Android doesn't offer a scanner integration, at least right now. But there's a not-terrible way to do it on Android, because of some other features. You can:
In fact, on Android, you can send images, videos, or pdfs to Unrulr from any app which has a share/send-a-copy option. We don't have that yet on iOS. Android wins some; iOS wins some.
That's a great question. We're currently building out our roadmap for the next six months. Fred is writing up a few of the possible paths we could take, and then we're going to reach out for feedback. If you're interested in that roadmap, shoot me an email (email@example.com), and I'll make sure you're looped in.
And many thanks, as always, to the Unrulr community for all the feedback already given. We're a small team of two, and we couldn't do it without the reciprocal support of the learners and educators we work with.