Fitbit for education: Turning school into a data-tracking game

Adriana Villegas, 17, discovers something new in Strides as Robert Vaca, 17, and Angelica Duque, 17, look on. All three students are seniors at Roosevelt High School in Fresno.

Adriana Villegas, 17, discovers something new in Strides as Robert Vaca, 17, and Angelica Duque, 17, look on. All three students are seniors at Roosevelt High School in Fresno.

FRESNO, Calif. — A group of seventh- and eighth-grade girls sat around a lunch table discussing a new game-like app they use in school. Danna Rodriguez somewhat sullenly said she didn’t want to care about Strides, which tracks points students can earn for attendance, grade-point average and engagement with the app itself, among other things. But she can’t help herself. She does care.

The pull of the points and the opportunity to “level up” has hooked her, as it has many of her peers at Edison Computech 7-8 and throughout the Fresno Unified School District.

When Danna is close to reaching a new level, she asks around to find out what else she can do to earn points. She checks the app every day, preoccupied with the idea that her unbroken streak of log-ins could get interrupted.

“I check it so the green line doesn’t get the red dot,” Danna said, laughing. “It’s scary!”

If she clicks into the app every day, reaching it through her district’s student portal, the line of green dots gets longer and longer on her screen. If she misses a day, a red dot breaks the streak.

Strides is an experiment in Fresno, based on the data-tracking fever inspired by Fitbit and other apps. At a time when schools are using more and more data to drive decision-making, from the central office to the classroom, giving students a look at their own data is the next frontier. By letting students see trends in their grades and attendance and making that data fun to track, administrators hope students can be nudged toward behaviors that are actually good for them academically.

Students never lose points; Strides is all about positive reinforcement. The points available are evenly balanced across five “pillars,” with daily and weekly maximums in each category. Besides attendance and grades, students can get points for logging in to the student portal that houses Strides, for participating in after-school activities and for having their good behavior noticed in class. A student who doesn’t get good grades but participates in several after-school activities and has good attendance can keep up, points-wise, with a student who does get good grades but doesn’t participate in any extracurriculars, for example.

We’ve created a system where you don’t know what’s around the corner.
Neill Gregory, Fresno Unified School District software engineer

“We’re trying to avoid kids opting out because they see these super-smart kids are just going to win and [they] can’t compete,” said Paul Scott, coordinator of Fresno Unified’s software development team. “That’s not fun at all.”

Some students truly do not care about the points they can get for showing up to school or maintaining a high GPA. Others care, but only because it’s another opportunity to be rewarded for things they’re already doing. So far, early user data suggests that students who log in to Strides at least twice a week have higher average attendance and higher GPAs, and that’s true across race and ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.

“It certainly appears that Strides is a healthy habit of high(er) achievers,” said David Jansen, Fresno Unified’s executive director of data science and software systems, via email.

There are students, though, who said the game has changed their behavior. Danna, for example, checks her educational stats more often than she would otherwise. And Melissa Miranda, a seventh-grader, said she knows going to school earns Strides points and she’s more likely to attend every day because of it.

Melissa Miranda, a seventh-grader at Edison Computech 7-8 in Fresno, said she is more likely to come to school every day because she knows that gets her points in Strides.

Melissa Miranda, a seventh-grader at Edison Computech 7-8 in Fresno, said she is more likely to come to school every day because she knows that gets her points in Strides.

Andrew Scherrer, Computech’s principal, said his team has been emphasizing use of the student portal for years. Computech is the district’s only “bring your own device” school, and all students have access to a laptop or similar device every day with which they can log in to the portal at any time. Scherrer’s own analyses of data from the years preceding Strides showed that students who monitored their statistics on the student portal did better in school — a finding that made him excited about Strides’ potential to give them even more motivation to do just that.

And Shannon Miles, an academic counselor, said students’ questions last year about why attendance should earn points at all had given her the chance to talk to them about how detrimental missing just a day or two of school per month can be for academic performance.

“Clicking Strides and wanting to understand it that first year just led to a ton of different conversations,” Miles said.

As students collect more points for certain accomplishments, they earn badges or “cred.” These badges can be secured for classroom participation, academic improvement, attendance, getting the highest grade in a given class and more. Developers also added in “Easter egg” badges that are just fun surprises. For example, students can earn one for typing in the Konami Code, a sequence that unlocks special features in many video games. Within a day of the secret release of that badge last year, a student randomly typed in the code and earned the badge. Through word-of-mouth, other students caught on, and many now have the badge and its accompanying points.

These special features are meant to keep the “game” interesting for students of all grade levels. Strides is now open to all of Fresno’s 58,000 students from second through 12th grade, said Jansen, a very broad age range to target with a single design. Gold stars that seem exciting for elementary schoolers can fall flat with high schoolers. But sometimes the gold stars show up as memes instead — like one of a puppy winking and pointing a paw with the words, “Who’s awesome? You’re awesome.” Even high schoolers have been known to squeal with delight upon logging in to Strides and seeing this surprise.

When Fresno Unified students log in to their student portal, they see Strides, which tracks their grades, attendance, and other activity in a game-like format.

When Fresno Unified students log in to their student portal, they see Strides, which tracks their grades, attendance, and other activity in a game-like format.

Also important is the leaderboard. Students see where they fall in relation to their entire school on Strides points. This element is anonymous by default, but a social component of the app lets them connect with peers and track their own progress in relation to their friends’. If two students accept each other as connections, they can see each other’s overall Strides score.

Several students said the leaderboard was what they paid most attention to in Strides. Generally these were the students who were “winning” against their peers. This raises concern that students lower down on the leaderboard might lose motivation to try — despite efforts by developers to give students multiple ways to earn points. Perhaps students can’t participate in extracurricular activities because of family commitments, or situations out of their control prevent daily attendance. Students can log in to the student portal and rack up points for doing that every day, but they are necessarily hamstrung in the other areas.

Despite the potential pitfalls, Jansen highlights the fact that Strides offers opportunities for feedback about academic performance that can help students make good decisions about their education. He finds this particularly powerful for students in the middle of the achievement spectrum.

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