A lot of today’s conversation on virtual education relates to the struggles of making video technology work; the nearly impossible task of juggling homeschooling and regular day jobs; and the frustrations of educators who are now one part IT person, one part online teacher.
With those global virtual education growing pains have come a number of opportunities to approach educational events, protocols, and processes differently because, well, we had to.
One company doing just that is SchoolCloud, an edtech company that's helped schools reimagine and recreate their administrative and operational efficiencies outside the classroom since 2006.
To understand the true ethos of SchoolCloud, we need to go back to the year 2006, where Marcus Fields and Robbie Beattie, just 15 at the time, first began their partnership over a school technology project.
The goal of the project was to fix a school-wide issue of room double booking. The boys developed their first software product, Room Booking System, which they went on to sell to their school, and the ones around it, and began the foundation of what SchoolCloud is today.
While many ideas originate from a frustration or a need for a solution that doesn’t exist, it’s rare to hear about two kids coming up with a concept that genuinely works—and then turning that idea into their now adult careers.
What Marcus Fields and Robbie Beattie have is unique. But what they’ve delivered to the world through SchoolCloud during COVID-19 is truly special. Here’s why.
While we usually think of edtech as virtual learning, SchoolCloud focuses on improving operational efficiencies beyond the classroom. Their speciality has lied historically in online scheduling for both parents and teachers for conferencing, extracurricular clubs, field trips, and more.
Their market-leading scheduling tool, SchoolCloud Parents Evening (or Meet the Teacher, in the U.S.) began as an online booking software for parents’ evening/parent-teacher conference appointments.
Typically, these meetings are done in-person, and put together with the arduous and often inaccurate scheduling of teachers working with students to fill in time slots and parents, more often than not, having to wait around as meetings overran.
“Our online booking system resolved that issue by taking human error out of the equation. But when COVID happened, we noticed schools beginning to close and we basically threw out our current roadmap to start developing a virtual parents’ evening solution instead of just helping with the scheduling portion,” Fields said.
SchoolCloud began to develop a solution that supported virtual parents’ evening video conferencing.
“Obviously, people can use out of the box solutions, but parents’ evenings are very different given the tight timing. While the meetings often overrun, there’s usually a visual clue of the next parent waiting to see the teacher. You don’t get that functionality with an out of the box video provider. So we thought, ‘Let’s develop our own virtual automated solution to that problem’,” Fields said.
Which brings us back to the present day, and the re-education of processes and procedures due to COVID-19—where an idea isn’t a ‘maybe someday’ but instead, a ‘how do we do this right now?’
“We’ve had this idea before, but we never thought the market would be ready for it. Would schools really move from doing something that’s always in-person to online? Probably not,” Fields said. “It took the pandemic for everyone to shift mentally. And we were ready.”
SchoolCloud wanted to get their video solution up quickly given the rate of school closures brought on by COVID-19. After looking at capabilities within out-of-the-box video providers, they landed on Twilio to help them develop the idea.
“We needed a way to automate and control the video call so we could ensure a parent and teacher speak for their allotted appointment time before going immediately to the next meeting,” Fields said. “And we were looking for a partner that could help us get this done very quickly.”
Just one week later—exactly one week after U.K. schools closed—SchoolCloud launched the virtual parents’ evening solution in partnership with Twilio.
SchoolCloud utilized Twilio’s Quick Deploy ReactJS Video App as a launching pad to get the ball rolling immediately.
“It’s actually one of the main reasons we went with Twilio. We were able to make it look and feel like it’s part of our product and launch it quickly by building on top of Twilio,” Fields said.
The solution took off, quickly hitting one million participant minutes. And then? Five million participant minutes. By the end of August, the platform was seeing 15 million participant minutes. And this was all before another school year had even begun.
“It’s really incredible to be able to power and help schools have these vital conversations between parents and teachers,” Fields said. “When everyone’s working from home, the parent and teacher interaction is probably more important than ever to make sure that students are being supported correctly.”
When the school year began in the fall, SchoolCloud’s Parents’ Evening solution kept growing. Today, the platform has more than 6,000 schools signed up, supporting more than 200 million participant minutes—and the SchoolCloud team doesn’t see those numbers slowing down anytime soon.
“We expect to continue to accelerate to around 400 million participant minutes by April or May. By the end of next academic year, we’ll hopefully be around a billion,” Fields said.
We wanted an experience where both teachers and parents just went on the same website they were familiar with, and then they were taken straight into the video call. So that's obviously another massive plus to the Twilio solution, which has been a big selling point.
Fields attributes the platform’s success in part to the significant efficiencies from the video conferencing itself.
“In-person, you can just keep talking, and that’s also true for things like a standard video conferencing call. But by putting a countdown on the top of the screen, and controlling when the video starts and ends, the meetings can’t overrun,” Fields said.
Fields also thinks this had a psychological effect on the quality of the conversations within the platform: “By having appointments run for fixed times, it focuses the discussion and what people are seeing is they are having more efficient consultations. It forces the conversations to become more intentional because they’ve only got five minutes for a typical school.”
Parents simply schedule their appointments, and then log in on the day it happens using the same information or with an easy one-click email link, right to the video call in their browser. Teachers have a similar experience which allows them to see scheduled appointment details as well as a button to start a video session.
“We wanted an experience where both teachers and parents just went on the same website they were familiar with, and then they were taken straight into the video call. So that’s obviously another massive plus to the Twilio solution, which has been a big selling point,” Fields said.
SchoolCloud has also added new features, such as having multiple teachers in a conference with a parent, and giving a parent the ability to invite others into their appointments—for example, divorced and/or parents living in different locations.
Fields is proud of the innovative efforts that the SchoolCloud team has accomplished and the global changes they’ve helped usher into place for the educational industry.
“We think virtual parents’ evenings are the new norm,” he said. “Schools have seen more attendance than ever before and parents can now easily attend from anywhere. Our solution helps focus the discussions more without meetings overrunning, and people are actually finishing on time. Our customers are telling us, ‘Surely, this is one of the best things to come out of COVID-19.’”