student networks

How sharing work can build students’ networks


Feb 20, 2019

All too often in education, students’ relationships—with mentors, teachers, tutors, and peers—are seen as inputs to creating academic work and building students’ human capital. But what if the work that students created served as the launching pad for building and nurturing connections? How might tools and schools organize themselves with this virtuous cycle wherein learning and connecting are intricately linked?

To think through how schools might do this I sat down with education entrepreneur Torrance Robinson. Robinson has been building a tool called trovvit. Like other tools emerging in the “edtech that connects” market, trovvit is designed to help students forge—and just as importantly, to maintain—connections that help them get by and get ahead. The platform does this by letting students showcase their skills and store their networks in one place. Here’s Robinson’s take on why pairing student work with student networks matters.

Julia: What is trovvit?

Torrance: trovvit is an app that is designed to help students build their social, emotional and learning capital by capturing what they are learning and sharing their progress with their network. Think LinkedIn meets Instagram for students.  Like Instagram, trovvit makes it easy for students to create a visual record of their work and share it. Like LinkedIn, trovvit helps students build a network they can rely on for feedback and to discover new opportunities. However, trovvit is specifically designed for students: to help them memorialize the work they create over time and build a network of people invested in that work.

How does trovvit work?  Emma is a 7th grader who is building a sailing dinghy for a year-long, project-based course called “Hero’s Journey.”  On the first day of her project, she takes a picture of a pile of boards outside her garage, her blueprint, her tools.  On her phone, she uploads these pictures into a trovvit “record.”

Once a week, Emma posts a record of her progress: a progress-folio.  One week a video record shows Emma struggling to shape a board. Her grandmother suggests Emma ask a cousin who is a woodworker to join trovvit.  Soon Emma has a small group of people who are helping and encouraging her on this project. After a few months, she has accumulated a dozen records.

At the end of the year, Emma pulls together her presentation for her Hero’s Journey.  She can see the evidence of her work—her failures, her success—neatly laid out visually in her trove.  The comments from her network remind her how far she has come.  Although her grandparents cannot attend the presentation, she shares a final record of it with them.

Julia: You call yourself a ‘LinkedIn for Learners’. That said, there are a lot of software tools—LinkedIn included—that we can use to store connections. Why did you want to build something uniquely suited to students?

Torrance: Two reasons.  First, if you are a student, you need to do more than just store connections.  Like Emma, you need a tool that encourages you to build a record of your work, then a way to share or showcase that work in order to build meaningful connections.  On the other side of any trovvit “connection” is a person who has seen and given feedback on your actual work.  A LinkedIn connection, more often than not, is simply a person with whom you have swapped a business card or pinged online to share your resume.

Second, students deserve a unique tool because student work is fundamentally different from the work that professionals share on LinkedIn.  If you are a professional, LinkedIn is a great tool for organizing and sharing your resume in order to find work or expand your professional network.

But students haven’t yet had careers.  Their “work” does not fit into resume format. Lab experiments, peer mentoring, photography portfolios are not going to have meaning to LinkedIn connections because those connections cannot evaluate the work.  On trovvit, this work can be organized into portfolios and shared with connections who can value the work and engage with it over time, creating dynamic connections.

Because we do believe it is important for students to begin learning how to put together an online resume, we designed trovvit “profile” to teach students how to start listing their achievements in a format that is familiar to the larger world.  However, a student profile on trovvit “flips” the traditional resume: we ask students to first list their education, then their extracurriculars, then their work experience.  This academic resume, we believe is more valuable for students seeking higher education, internships, scholarship and mentoring opportunities than a LinkedIn resume.

Julia: In some ways, this tool uses connections as a trojan horse to capture informal learning. In other ways, it uses informal learning as a trojan horse to build connections. How do you think about the relationship between the two?

Torrance: I think trovvit is less like a Trojan horse (opportunistic) and more like an oxpecker and a rhino (symbiotic). What makes a connection meaningful is shared past experience. What makes a connection strong is ongoing shared experiences. Since we can’t all be together all the time, sharing a high school game with your middle school coach on trovvit, for instance, is a way to maintain and enrich that connection. A student may save work out of vanity or some vague sense she might want to access it in the future. She is certain to save work she is excited to share with people who are themselves invested in her work and whose feedback she values.

Mentoring is hard work.  People are busy and often far-flung.  Being able to review a mentee’s project in a dedicated feed on your phone and then offer quick feedback on a regular basis is attractive to a busy mentor.  trovvit is not intended to replace critical face to face meetings, but to augment them and give mentors and mentees concrete work to share and discuss.

Julia: Which schools are deploying this tool and why? What’s the value proposition to teachers, students, and parents?

Torrance: We are currently piloting with K-12 schools. In one middle school, trovvit is transforming the Genius Hour curriculum and the high school application process.

Nancy J. uses trovvit in her Genius Hour curriculum. It is a semester-long self-directed course for 7th and 8th grade, in which students are asked to chose something they would like to master and teach themselves independently.  In prior years, Nancy found it challenging to keep track of their progress and to meet with each of them individually.  She now uses trovvit to help the kids see progress over the semester in their chosen pursuit. She also uses it as a way to check in regularly on how the student feels about her project by reading their reflections and commenting on their records.  At the end of the course, the students use their trove to illustrate to the other kids in the class what they learned.

Last year, thirty of Nancy’s 8th graders were applying to competitive high schools.  They used trovvit to record their extracurricular achievements and interests and then shared their “trove” with the guidance counselor.  “We actually learned a lot about these students. I knew nothing about their outside interests before,” said Nancy. This process helped both to shape their essays and to help decide which high schools might provide the best fit.  Those students who had created a trovvit portfolio of work were able to provide a simple link to the portfolio in the application itself.

The College Office of a competitive NYC CTE high school—enrollment of 1,100— is staffed by three college counselors.  They use trovvit for internship matching and college counseling.  Students download trovvit’s app on their phone and use it to record their projects and share them with teachers, mentors and the College Office.  The three guidance counselors use it to communicate about opportunities in school (like clubs) and out of school (like coding competitions), match students with mentors, help them apply for internships, and qualify for scholarships.

Because incoming freshman can sign into trovvit and link to the CTE school, before the school doors even open, these counselors can use trovvit to get a better sense of each student’s interests and abilities and help guide them in their choices of courses, activities, and pathways.

In the U.S. the average ratio of school counselors to students is 1:500.  Using what we learn at this high school, we hope to help more high school counselors.  (It is worth noting that in high schools that get their students into selective colleges and universities, that ratio is 1:30).

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"