The Design and Architecture class at Menlo School

Fred Delse
February 2, 2021

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.

Documenting process in design projects

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."

Making it easier to capture process

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, objectives, 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.

Staying up to date and offering coaching

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.”

Presenting the Learning Journey

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.

Process, through and through

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.”


Unrulr in 2020 - A brief recap, by the numbers

Will Reppun
January 12, 2021
Note: It's amusing to look back at the note I wrote at the end of October.  2020 crazy?  It was just getting warmed up.

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: 

  • Left the house only 7% as frequently
  • Spent 62 hours wearing a cloth mask
  • Ate 282% more chips

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.

2020 Community Numbers

Communities
41
New Communities
20
Groups
459
New Groups
244
Users who posted at least once
2595
Users who posted for the first time
2035

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:

Posts
28k
Comments
29k
Flowers
84k

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:

  1. Manage their class rosters
  2. Create or update the cogs for their groups

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.

Cogs designed
612
Cogs used to self-assess
62k
Teacher assessments
9k
Peer assessments
26k

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:

  • Hard skills (tangible, testable)
  • Soft skills (involving emotional intelligence)
  • Goals (outcome or category based).

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.

Product Features and Improvements

Jan 2020
Many
Jan 2021
Many more

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:

  • The new teacher dashboard and admin interface
  • Journeys
  • Published posts
  • Auditable post history
  • Google Classroom Sync

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:

  • Backend (language: Elixir)
    Handles all the storing/retrieval of data.
  • Mobile/Web App (language: Dart, framework: Flutter)
    What you see on Android, iOS, and (as of March 2020) the web(!).
  • Teacher/Admin Dashboard (language: Javascript, framework: Vue)
    Manages rosters, cogs and data at the group level.
  • Backend-Mobile API (language: Dart)
    Handles communication between the Mobile/Web App and the Backend.

And here's how the numbers total up for 2020:

Code Commits
853
Lines of code
140k

Which averages out to:

Commits/day
2.7
Lines of code/day
449

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:

  • The early Spring push to get the new teacher dashboard working with basic roster management.
  • And then the time we spent in the summer getting the cogs (skills/goals) creation and editing working in the dashboard
  • Focusing on one thing naturally leads to a drop in work on others.  This is probably true in most engineering organizations.  But the effect is magnified by the size of our development team (1!).

Unrulr Team

Jan 2020
3
Jan 2021
2

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.

Looking Forward

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 ;)


Summer/Fall Update 2020

Will Reppun
October 30, 2020
Note: What a wild year.  Balancing the world craziness with getting-a-new-company-off-the-ground craziness hasn't been simple, but what is simple these days?

But, anyway, hello!  This is our first Unrulr feature writeup!  It only took us 22 months to get something out that we were planning on doing monthly.  Quarterly is probably a more realistic goal, although, who knows?  Maybe this writeup will get the momentum going.  I decided that I would try to cover most of the features we've worked on since the end of last school year.  I considered going back to the start of the year, but that seemed a little ambitious (and that probably would've ended up with me putting this off even longer).  And I considered doing just October, but for some reason that felt unfair to September and August.  

Hopefully this will be more of a regular occurrence.  On to the writeup...

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.

TL;DR;

  • Suggested Goals
  • Recorded Post History (and adding/removing/re-ordering images/videos)
  • Improved image/video pickers
  • Links in captions and comments
  • Scanning (iOS only)

Suggested Goals

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.

Winning design: a simple '+' button.

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.

Recording a Post's History (and adding/removing/re-ordering videos/images)

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.

We added caption/comment editing in early 2019

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

  1. Let users update the images/videos 
  2. Kept the historical context of the post

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.  

Update images/videos (evidence) and view the post history through the post menu.
All caption/comment changes and all image/video changes

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:

  1. I tend to take a few tries to get my caption right.
  2. Now that I know I can add an image/video later, it's easier to post -- I'm much less worried about making sure I have everything lined up and ready to go _before_ I start a post.

If you’re interested in the visual development of the history screen, I made another short Unrulr post.

Minor Tweaks

Updated image and video pickers

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:

  1. The default allowed you to select only one picture or one video at a time.
  2. You could browse images, or you could browse videos, but you couldn't browse both at the same time.
  3. Discovery of media in other locations (downloads, scans, etc.) was difficult.

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.

Links in captions and comments

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.  

Scanning (iOS only)

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.

On iPhones and iPads only :(

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:

  • Open the Google Drive app on Android, and choose the scan option under their '+' menu.
  • Scan one (or several) documents, and hit 'Save' to save them to Google Drive.
  • Find the scans in Google Drive, hit the '...' menu on the scans, and choose 'Send copy'.
  • Choose Unrulr from the options!

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.

What's Next?

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 (will@our.website.name), 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.