Design Thinking And Solving School Problems With No Code Apps

blue pen beside black smartphone on white paper

The Design Problem

$12,000. That’s a hefty number for most public schools.

We had a need though. We had a growing Experiential Learning program at our local high school. Over 1000 of our high school students students participated in some sort of job shadow, internship, or site visit in the past year. The quote from one company to help us deal with this: $12,000 for a well-known internship management app that many local colleges use.

That was simply not going to work for us. The fact is, schools have many data needs and are not always well-equipped in terms of money and expertise in dealing with them. Our Experiential Learning Program was just our latest example of a data need with new easy solution.

This program creates an enormous about of data and a real user experience issue. Students and adults alike were faced with a number of issues in supporting the program due to the data needs. the adults that were supporting them.

How Might We Connect?

In short, our problem was one of connection. How do we connect students to amazing opportunities? How do we continue to connect with studetns as they apply and begin working with business partners. How do we track all of this connection in a streamlined way that gives us the data we need for making decisions. All without paying $12,000 per year for a tool designed for colleges.

The Prototype

We had a system that was working, but was far from ideal. We would post these experiential learning opportunities to our Learning Management System (LMS) and hoped for the best. Students would express their interest via email and we would try to remember to put their names into a spreadsheet. This system kept our kids involved with experiences. That’s undeniable. Though less than ideal, we had kids placed with businesses throughout the area.

However, we knew we could solve the connection problem better. The LMS isn’t ideally suited for long lists of information or signing up for things, most of our posts felt longwinded, hard to navigate, and frankly unattractive. See for yourself. Here’s an example of one such post. It’s long. It’s hard to read. It’s darn near impossible to find as new posts come in and bury this one.

A Screenshot of a wordy text descipription.

Furthermore, using the LMS-based solution made our dataflow simply frustrating. We would attempt to track kids in that spreadsheet as they flowed through four key steps:

  1. INTEREST: Expressing Interest
  2. APPLY: Actually applying for an opportunity once they got key information
  3. ACCEPT: Finding out if they were actually accepted by the partner business offering an experience
  4. REFLECT: Getting feedback and reflections from the student and the business once the experience was over.

I don’t know how many teenagers you have in your life, but they’re not known to love email. Or long text posts. As you can gather, our entire system hinged on getting them to read a lengthy post on their LMS (that was otherwise focused on school assignments) and then communicate with adults via email. And continue to do connect AFTER they got what they ostensibly wanted: an internship position with a local business.

How I Come In

I work at this district as a sort of out-of-classroom utility player. Though I was a art and design teacher, I’m no longer in the classroom. I’m also not an administrator. My role is a coaching, consulting, curriculum, and design role. I coach teachers to think creatively about learning experiences and I also tackle projects that hard to figure out.

I also do similar work in a freelance settings during the evenings, weekends, and summers. Because I’m both trying to provide value to the school district I love and meet market pressures in my side gig, I’m constantly learning, puzzling, and figuring out new solutions to problems.

And That’s Where The “No Code Revolution” Comes In

So what happens when a design thinker and problem solver with space to tackle weird problems deals? While exploring ways to build websites (without WordPress, ugh) for students, I stumbled upon the idea of no-code site and app creation. I’ve personally always wanted to learn to code. I even have a notebook with ideas of potential apps that might help teachers. However, as a family man with two kids and a busy career, it’s very possible my learning-to-write-serious-code days are behind me.

I can, however, run a great deal of professional design software. I’m vaguely familiar with databases and a somewhat advanced user of spreadhseets. After much research, I realized that No-Code Apps could turn our vast Google Sheet of Experiential Learning data into a usable app. We wrestled through a few no-code platforms and eventually discovered Glide. Glide gave us the platform we needed to quickly turn our data into a functioning and streamlined app.

The tools and panels I experienced in Glide reminded me of the tools I’m used to from professional design software like Adobe InDesign. Glide apps also plug into Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel (and even AirTable, another new app I’m leanring!). Thus it wasn’t a huge stretch for me to leverage my design skills into no-code app development skills.

Where We Are Now

After further research, we applied for a non-profit/education license from Glide. This allowed us to fully develop our app. Today, we have about 400 students and about 65 Experiential Learning Opportunities in our app. We feel like the student data is safe as it is contained in a Google Sheet held in our instance of Google Workspace. That means data connections can be added and revoked as needed.

We continue to learn how this can better help our team. Iteration, afterall, is part of the design process. We have added the ability for student managers to use toggle switches to track a fellow student as the flow through the four steps mentioned before. When new students apply for more information, student managers are notified that a new application is available. New students are even prompted to create a profile now where they are asked to reflect on their career goals before selecting experiences.

Below you’ll see some screenshots of the app right now. I’m still learning, but I’m excited to think about the other data projects around the school and district we might tackle next. Not only do I have the ideas, but I have the tools to bring my ideas to life.

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