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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.

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