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Gap-closing online education: What we learned from launching our new product during a pandemic

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Oct 21, 2020 3:05:50 PM

In March, when COVID hit, we had a new product — the college essay bootcamp — we'd tested at a handful of individual schools and with the Student Leadership Network of 28 schools in New York City. I was looking for a large school district to help us expand our storytelling software to thousands of students applying to college this fall, while testing the new, high-impact, low-cost bootcamp approach to college essays at scale. 

The bootcamp is simple, but not easy, and it came about — like so many great innovations — as something our customers (schools and college access orgs) really needed to help students finish college essays. There was a gap in our product suite between the software that teaches students how to write their essays and the feedback we provide once the essays are completed. 

Only the most high-achieving students were confident enough about their completed essays to send them to strangers for feedback, so we wanted to reach a much larger audience and empower them to feel confident in their writing. We created the "bootcamp" as a way to support the full gamut of public high school students through the process of telling their stories out loud, turning a spoken story into a completed essay, and then submitting that essay for feedback. 

This combination of group learning plus personalized feedback — both in the bootcamp and after — consistently receives a net promoter score of 78 or higher. And, best of all, students who go through that cycle of learning just once are the most likely to complete the college admission process, whether or not they are applying to colleges that require essays. By shifting the college essay from product to process, we were able to help more students improve both their narrative writing and their likelihood of attending college. 

When COVID hit, upending college admissions for the Class of 2021, we saw that this product — and our mission —  was more important than ever. We just had to get it into the hands of students. 

I reached out to our long-standing customers, one by one, leaving messages for most of them. It was late Friday afternoon and rain was pouring down in New Jersey by the time I got through to Catalina Cifuentes, the head of College and Career for the Riverside County Office of Education. I met Catalina at a CollegeBoard Forum in Washington in 2015, and a year later she became one of the first customers of the earliest iteration of our StoryBuilder software.

"You mean that we can get these live, college essay webinars for all of our students for $10 per student?" she asked. 

"Yes, it's that simple," I explained. “Because essays are so much more important this year, we've made our software and on-demand courses free for the Class of 2021. And then we took the product that will help the most students, our live online group coaching, and made it as inexpensive as possible." 

"Let me talk to our superintendent," Catalina said. "I'll get back to you Monday. I'd love to get this to all of our students.” 

It took her about a week to get all the approvals; assuming she'd figure it out somehow, we planned to roll it out in just a few more weeks. And that’s exactly what we did — over 1150 students from Riverside County public high schools attended the six bootcamps we held over two weeks. 

What happened in the bootcamp?

We decided to have two instructors in conversation with one another to run the bootcamp, along with two more essay assistants answering student questions in the chat. Together, the instructors and assistants guided students through using our StoryBuilder software live during the course. 

We expected the 200+ that showed up to our Riverside bootcamps to present a real challenge, since we originally thought the ideal number was 50 students per bootcamp — an idea about teaching, based on the seminar model, dictates that the smaller the group, the better the learning. But the result of the large bootcamps was unlike anything we’d ever seen in our smaller bootcamps. 

The students loved the larger group. The energy was electric for all three hours; students’ excitement was tangible. They engaged with the instructors and each other nonstop in the chat. Connections were shared and friendships were formed in real time, right before our eyes. This collective energy boosted students' writing confidence and helped them lift up their classmates, too. 

Clearly, the students responded better to a larger group format — it was big enough to make them feel engaged and energized, while the option to get direct, private feedback from coaches helped them feel safe and comfortable telling their authentic stories. 

The data from these live, online bootcamps went against nearly everything we expected and thought we knew about learning, showing us that the ideal environment for online learning can be a large group that teaches on several different levels at once: the main teachers, the Q&A with experts in the chat, as well as the conversations, in real time, among the students themselves. 

Outcomes

At the end of the bootcamp, we asked students to complete surveys to give us feedback, and nearly 400 out of 1150 responded. 

So what can we learn from that data?  

On the whole, students were extremely happy with the bootcamp — they reported learning actionable insights for writing their essays and feeling more confident in their writing skills. 

  • 98% of Riverside students agreed with the statement, “I learned something I can put to use immediately.”
  • Students rated their writing confidence an average of 4 out of 5 by the end of the bootcamp. 
  • They rated their satisfaction with bootcamp coaches an average of 4.8 out of 5. 
  • They rated their overall satisfaction with the bootcamp an average of 4.6 out of 5.
  • 89% of students stayed for the entire 3-hour duration of the bootcamp and 10% returned to take the next bootcamp without any nudging from us or their teachers.

Finally, a crazy data point — the students in the larger bootcamps were more satisfied and engaged than students in the smaller, seminar version of the same material!

Learnings

#1: It can take time to work through a new deal like this, so it’s crucial to identify a point-person — someone who knows how to navigate their educational system and can get things done, and is really committed to helping students improve their writing through the gateway of college admissions. We have a fantastic point-person in Catalina Cifuentes. She is a true innovator and was one of the first educators to see how well the large group format could work. Once she came aboard, she pushed the deal through and got it done at lightning speed, all while collaborating with us to design both an effective bootcamp and marketing to get the word out to students, teachers, and families. These are the kinds of partnerships that work best. We need partners with whom we can collaborate closely to encourage students to show up and learn. Story2, and the world, needs more Catalinas!

  • "Our Riverside County students love these Story2 bootcamps! We were able to reach so many students who would otherwise not apply to college, and show them what is possible, what they can aim for." - Catalina Cifuentes, Executive Director, Riverside County Department of Education 

#2: If we want to cut through the clutter of COVID and make something new happen, we need to give schools something that's simple, turnkey, and works right out of the box. This year, more than ever, school admins have a lot on their plates. We need to bring them solutions that just work — and if they want to tweak anything, we need to be ready to adapt and customize our offerings swiftly.  

#3: This type of large-group teaching needs to be real, authentic, and honest. When our coaches bring their real selves and real stories to the table, so do students, and they’re more easily able to relate to the coaches as people rather than teachers. At Story2, our goal is to create a space where everyone can show up as who they are, exactly as they are today. Nothing's broken; nothing needs to be fixed. Everyone is whole and complete, exactly as they are. Roxy Azari, our Director of Coaching, has trained our team to tell more of their own stories as part of their teaching, and the difference is palpable.  Student feedback frequently mentioned our coaches’ authenticity:

  • “The vulnerability Ruben showed in his example helped me envision how I can translate experiences like those in my essay.”
  • “[The instructors’] happiness and helpfulness helped the experience feel more authentic and comfortable.”
  • “My favorite part was when we shared different life experiences that we have been through with each other. It made me feel...like we are not alone.”

#4: Building this safe community space is an essential component of creating a successful online learning environment. In the post-bootcamp surveys, students spoke about getting to engage with our coaches and each other:  

  •  “My favorite part of this course was that students got to engage with the coaches and get feedback on their writing.”
  • “I loved hearing other people’s ideas in the chat and I loved getting to know the coaches more.”
  • “I loved the chat...Seeing other people's experiences helped ballpark my own descriptions and made me learn more about the others.”

#5: GenZ students prefer multi-channel learning. We had two instructors to run the bootcamp, with two assistants in the chat for questions. This gave students the chance to learn and ask questions independently.

  • “The coaches were so attentive with the chat.”
  • “I liked being shown how to use the software and getting feedback in the chat.” 
  • “The interaction in the chats [was] very motivating and really made me feel part of a group rather than just watching people explain how to write essays.”

#6: When we connect with students early on and show them a clear path to a goal that matters to them, they will put in the effort to persist in learning something new. 

  • “I really liked it, because it's usually really hard for me to focus in a 1 hour class, but this was super helpful and interactive.”
  • “I loved it. I came in not knowing what...to expect and [thinking] that I was going to have trouble [understanding]. It was a fun experience and [I] will be leaving with information that will help me a lot.”
  • “In the beginning, I was going into the bootcamp feeling sad and bored that I would have to sit through 3 hours of lecture that I wouldn't understand, but when it started I was immediately met with one-of-a-kind instructors that made the entire 3 hours fly by!” 

What we'll try next

We now know what it takes to create an electric, yet safe space for students to engage in learning and tell their stories authentically. Going forward, we’ll implement the following in our bootcamps: 

  • Encourage community-building via active, personal engagement in the chat between students and coaches and amongst students 
  • Ask students who arrive early to help getting their peers involved in the chat  
  • Include breakout rooms to help students connect with and support one another as they pursue the common goal of getting into college 
  • Get the word out to as many students as possible in order to ensure larger workshops (250-300 is the ideal size) 
  • Utilize coaches who bring real-life experience and clear, powerful stories to tell, emphasizing the coach role more so than teacher role in our recruitment and training
  • Look for more partners like Catalina Cifuentes, who can innovate and collaborate with us in real time, while navigating the realities and complexities of the local educational system 

And in that spirit we're giving Catalina the last word: "Story2 gave our students a platform and an opportunity that provided hope to not give up on their college dreams they have been striving for. That not even a pandemic should stop them from applying and speaking their truth, telling their story. Students shared in the chat that they were not going to apply to colleges that required an essay because they felt no one would have time to help them, but after just a three-hour bootcamp they were recharged. They saw hundreds of other students not giving up and they built each other up even though they were miles and school districts apart. I know we opened a few more doors each night to possibilities. In a world full of despair, you gave them something they can control: their future in education. With online tools and community, you gave them that hope!" 

We are actively looking for educational partners in school districts large and small who want to help students improve their communication skills via college admissions! There's still time to implement Story2 for your seniors this fall, and we are already working on programs for the juniors in 2021. 

Want more information about bringing Story2 to your school or organization? Want to try our free, introductory bootcamps? Email getstarted@story2.com to connect with our success team!

A graduate of Yale, UVA, Princeton, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, Techstars, and Founder Gym, Carol Barash founded Story2 in 2014 to teach high school and college students around the world how to unlock the power of storytelling to live their biggest, boldest lives. 

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