The app vying for a black belt in class management

24th June 2016 at 00:00
ClassDojo is already used by teachers in half of UK and US schools, and its founders say they’re not finished yet

Mention the name ClassDojo to teachers and it either provokes a beaming smile or an ugly grimace.

The behaviour management software is now used in at least one classroom in half of all UK and US schools. Like so many ed tech innovations, it is the equivalent of teacher Marmite. But the brains behind the concept believe that its detractors may be influenced by a more general anti-tech sentiment in education.

“There is a lot of scar tissue in teaching that has built up because of crappy technology,” says Sam Chaudhary, one half of the duo that founded ClassDojo. “But those same teachers who we think are hesitant to use tech will go and use Uber, Facebook or WhatsApp.”

And now, increasingly, they are using his app, too. Chaudhary believes that the reason some teachers are put off by tech is because of decisions made on both sides of the Atlantic five or 10 years ago to impose forms of technology on schools that simply didn’t work.

“What [teachers] have been given at schools is crappy tech that doesn’t serve them and just adds to the stress in their lives,” he says. “We believe that you shouldn’t make products that shouldn’t exist in the world.”

Teacher-driven tech

The difference with the current wave of tech, Chaudhary argues, is that the person using it is the person choosing it. “It’s not forced on you. You choose.”

Located in a nondescript backstreet of San Francisco, ClassDojo’s office is anonymous from the outside but for a small, solitary sticker of a green monster slapped on the front door. Inside it is stereotypically “tech”; bare brick walls, exposed floorboards – even a dog. The walls are lined with pictures of its monster logo, Mojo, drawn by schoolchildren across the world.

While ClassDojo’s headquarters might be tucked away in the Bay Area, teachers are having very little trouble finding its product.

ClassDojo’s founders, Chaudhary and Liam Don (see box, page 18), both Brits, moved to the tech capital of the world to create ed tech that teachers would actually use to help them in their working lives. “We asked teachers what was the worst problem they faced every day,” Chaudhary says. “We heard over and over again that it was the culture of their classroom.”

The pair developed software that essentially built on the tried-and-tested sticker chart used by teachers the world over. Every pupil is assigned a monster avatar by their teacher, and they are rewarded with stars if they demonstrate good behaviour.

An interactive whiteboard shows a cartoon version of the classroom, and the little avatars make happy sounds or sad ones depending on whether a child is rewarded or penalised.

The aim was to create a “community inside the classroom” that would replace the “old model of discipline and punish”.

“A teacher in front of 30 kids is a legacy model from a bygone age,” says Chaudhary in polished ed tech patter, which sounds like it was honed in venture capitalist boardrooms. “We thought, rather than a command and control [culture], we asked: ‘How do we create a community?’”

The early iteration of the software enabled points to be awarded or taken away for whatever values the teacher deemed to be important, such as teamwork, creativity, hard work and curiosity. It was basic, Chaudhary says, but it was an instant hit. Within a few weeks, it was being used by 12,000 teachers. Pupils loved the software’s monster avatars, while their teachers saw noticeable changes in classroom behaviour.

Opposing voices

But while the product is used by millions of teachers worldwide, it has also attracted more than its fair share of criticism from both the profession and parents.

Many oppose a public “naming and shaming” approach to discipline, while others are wary of reducing the complexities of behaviour to rudimentary symbols such as stars.

There are also concerns that class information could be stored on a database, saddling some pupils with a label throughout their school career

Parents can request that their child be opted out of the system, but ClassDojo claims that in nearly five years, not one parent has asked.

And Don points to the millions of teachers, parents and students worldwide now using the product as evidence that it is successful.

“It has spread because people like using it and they will see the change it brings to their classroom,” he says. “They then tell their colleagues and friends about it. It has been totally organic in the way it has been adopted.”

The company has since evolved and now offers more than just behaviour management tools. The “classroom community” idea has been expanded to bring in parents, who hold the key to the product’s future expansion.

“What used to happen was a parent would ask what their child did that day and get a ‘Nothing’, or ‘I don’t know’ – it was like pulling teeth,” Chaudhary says. “The only time they met the teacher was at parents’ evening, when an entire term was condensed into less than 10 minutes.

“Other than that, they may get a binder, a permission slip and maybe the mention of a test coming up. You don’t build relationships that way. That’s just nagging. And making it electronic is just e-nagging.”

Instead his app allows parents to log on to their child’s ClassDojo “Class Story”, where they can see snippets of video or photos of what the pupil has been doing in class that day in a Twitter-like timeline.

Making connections

The idea is to bring parents into classroom life, helping them to build closer relationships with teachers. Other companies have attempted versions of similar software, but few have benefited from ClassDojo’s existing reach.

The company is also exploring ways to use the app for school transactions, such as payments for field trips, school lunches or other classroom supplies.

ClassDojo hopes that building the relationship between parents, teachers and pupils will open new doors in terms of revenue. “I think that we might be able to give parents content, subscription packages of things to study at home and we think they will be sufficiently interested,” Don says.

The next step is to enable whole-school take-up of the system, rather than adoption classroom by classroom.

But Chaudhary says that this will only be possible once teachers have overcome their fear of technology.

“You can’t manufacture love for a product,” the ClassDojo co-founder explains. “But when you get it – when you have that need for technology – it grows like a weed.”


How ClassDojo works

The company describes the app as a “communication platform”, but the majority of teachers know it as a behaviour management tool. The teacher assigns every student a cartoon avatar and can give them positive or negative points – or “dojos” – during the lesson.

The dojos can be handed out for anything from participation, hard work and being on-task to creativity. A positive award is accompanied by a happy-sounding chime.

Pupils hear a more melancholic bong when dojos are deducted for misdemeanours, such as being disrespectful, not doing homework, bullying or talking out of turn.

All this can be viewed by the whole class on an interactive whiteboard showing the ClassDojo virtual classroom, with parents also receiving notifications at home.

The company claims that the app helps classrooms to become much more positive places, ending the need for punitive forms of behaviour management.

ClassDojo: how it all began

Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don met at an ed tech event in Cambridge, England.

Don was nearing the end of a PhD in educational technology at Durham University, having become a games developer after his degree. “It was one of the most fun jobs I had, but it wasn’t hugely fulfilling,” he says.

However, after starting his PhD, he again became disillusioned, worrying that the work would have no practical application.

It was then that he met his future business partner, who was brought up in the UK before moving to the Middle East. Mr Chaudhary had studied economics at the University of Cambridge. Both men were eager to see how technology could alter teaching and how education was delivered but found a lack of options in the UK.

The pair were invited to join an ed tech “incubator” in Silicon Valley, where young entrepreneurs were given time, money and space to develop their ideas.

This meant that Don was forced to drop his PhD less than a year away from its completion. “My mum wasn’t delighted by that decision,” he says.

But at the time, the only way for Brits to get up and running in the tech world was to move to the US. “It has changed in the UK since then,” Mr Chaudhary says. “Tech City [located in and around Shoreditch, East London] and things like that weren’t around. There is definitely an appetite for ed tech in the UK now.”

ClassDojo was founded in the summer of 2011, and has since attracted $31 million (£21.7 million) of investment.

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