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Sep 1, 2021

Using Tech to Give Students Choice When Learning

Jarrod Rice
Content Lead

Kyle Niemis knows from experience that educational technology should make teachers' lives easier and learning more fun for students.

With two EdTech companies under his belt and now a return to the classroom, he will put all of that experience into practice on multiple fronts. Kyle takes some time to talk to EdTech Heroes host Nefertiti Dukes about his products - ClassroomQ and My EdTech Bundle, organized classroom chaos, and his advice for returning to the classroom this fall.

Problems and solutions

Kyle, a middle school teacher, saw a problem in his classroom and used technology to fix it. He was using the choice to get his students engaged in their learning, but it meant every student was doing something different at any given time, and he was exhausted from trying to answer so many questions. 

So with the help of a friend, he developed ClassroomQ, technology that allowed students to click a button to raise their hand, see where they were in the queue, and continue working on something else until he could arrive to help.

As an EdTech developer trying to sell ClassroomQ, he realized another problem: EdTech companies were operating as every man for themselves, inundating teachers with options. So again, he worked with a friend to develop a place where teachers could bundle EdTech demos and demo the programs cheaper and more extended time.

Key insights

Development of EdTech is an ongoing process that's never finished. "Even right now, we're three and a half years later. We still need to try to make [ClassroomQ] better for it to work. So we're still trying to make it as good as it can be for teachers.

When evaluating EdTech, it's important to consider two key elements first. "As a teacher, those tools are either going to make your life easier, or they make your class incredibly worthwhile and fun. It also depends on your financial situation. It depends on what really fits your needs."

Teach kids first, standards second. "My classroom is a lot of trying to make sure kids feel good. [...] I care about kids first and then standards second."


👋 Name: Kyle Niemis

🖥 What they do: A middle school science teacher, Kyle noticed problems in his classroom and worked with tech experts to find solutions to make his life easier.

🏫 Company: ClassroomQ and My EdTech Bundle

✍️ Noteworthy: "To anyone else out there who's got an idea, you don't necessarily have to learn how to code; you just need to find the right people who can help you out."

🌎 Where to find Kyle: Twitter

Episode Highlights

🙋 Solve problems, find new ones

"We started learning that there were some unintended side effects [of using ClassroomQ]. For example, there were certain quiet students who never participated before who now all of a sudden were quote-unquote raising their hand. And I was like, 'Holy cow! I didn't even think of this, that some people are just too shy to raise their hand, but now they have no problem clicking a button and typing in a question to you.'

I would project the list [of questions], so as a student, I could see what other student's questions were. So it was really cool because if I see this kid has a question, I'm able to lean over and say, 'Hey, listen. Actually, I can help you out with that.' So it actually created a lot of peer-to-peer kind of help, too, which is a cool side effect."

🤜 🤛 Comfort in helping each other

"My strategy is to start off with very low-risk things. I would never project [questions] in the beginning of the year. I would try to make sure I get to know the kids a little better first and build my relationships and then read the class.

So if teachers are listening and looking for an example of a low-risk thing, This or That is my favorite. 'Chocolate or vanilla?' 'Summer or winter?' Very simple things.

I also love Scale of One to Five. It's an easy way for teachers to build a rapport in their classroom. 'How much do you love playing soccer on a scale of one to five?' Again, it's easier for kids to answer. And inevitably, you get the goofball in class who says 300 or 2.24 you know and who keeps it light and fun."

🎥 Add video to add options

"The whole [choice] journey started for me with video lessons and giving kids a choice there. [...] When I recorded myself and just said, 'Hey, listen. You can watch this video of me versus me teaching,' and they watched the video in class, which seemed very weird at first.

That is the smallest, easiest way to do choice because you just tell the kid, 'Hey, listen. You're getting the same lesson, but you can watch it at two times speed. You can watch it at half speed. You can fast forward. You could pause.' They have choices in how to get the content. So if you're looking for a not-overwhelming way to introduce choice in the classroom, that's where I began my journey."

🤔 Offer students choices

"I fell into the trap, and I've seen a lot of teachers fall into the trap of, 'Hey, listen, guys, there are seven videos I found on YouTube about the human heart. Pick whatever one you want. It doesn't matter. You have a choice. It's going to be awesome. Aren't I amazing for giving you so much choice?' Then they're like, 'I have no idea which one to watch. Just tell me the video to watch.'

I eventually evolved to 'Here's the best middle school video I found about the heart. That's one choice. Here is a phenomenal article. If you prefer to read about it versus watching a video that I've filtered out and found for you as well.' 

When you make your choices to have them be very different and very deliberate for why you're giving those choices instead of, 'I'm giving you so many choices, it's going to be amazing,' because it won't be, it was terrible."

🔬 You have to let kids experiment

"Most people really seem to enjoy it, and they appreciate it, but it takes time. I always tell the parents this on back-to-school night. Learning in my class is very exponential with the curve. 

September and October is a disaster in the sense of how much [students] are learning because I purposely tell them, 'Okay, try watching the video fast. Hey, try working with a friend. Try sitting on the ground.' I want them to really experiment with all different ways of learning, and they fail quite a lot in the beginning, and that's really what I try to make happen.

In the beginning, there are some kids who are like, 'Why can't you just tell me the information I need to learn? Why are you making me figure out how to learn?'

It's hard at first, but then they figure it out, and the most amazing moment comes in April or May when you can walk into my classroom and ask, 'How do you like to learn?'

'Well, listen, I prefer 1.5 speed. I usually sit over there. It's the best spot for me. I do better when I hold onto tactile learning.' Afterward, to have a kid be able to say, 'This is my learning journey,' is so cool. It drives me, and I love it, but it takes a while to get to that spot."

Highly quotable

  • [24:15] "There are a lot of similarities between company-running Kyle and classroom-running Kyle, a lot of risk-taking and crossing my fingers and hoping this thing will be cool or fun and worthwhile, and a lot of failures."
  • [26:46] "It took me years to get to a place where I've put so many little structures to make sure it works. I almost think to have a class that almost looks disorganized. You almost have to be more organized than ever before with a lot of different things."
  • [33:25] "I ended up making a video for the parents at the very beginning of the school year that was a lifesaver. I sent it out to the parents the first week of school and just said, 'This is how I teach. This is why I teach it. This is what is going to happen this year.' Because before I did that, kids were struggling going home and basically [saying] 'Mr. Niemis doesn't even teach us. He just makes us watch videos.' And then I got emails from parents."
  • [36:04] "My plan is to listen as much as I can to other teachers and being really open to hearing their ideas and what worked and what didn't work, but also listening to the kids. I am more than ever going to do everything I can to get a pulse on the students because some of them haven't been in the classroom for a year and a half."
Jarrod Rice
Content Lead

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