Families of highly gifted children often spend considerable time searching for an education that meets their needs. As the only public school in the United States created for the sole purpose of serving this group, Davidson Academy is structured around the goal of helping students think critically and independently in order to reach their full potential.
It’s this culture of independence that allows students to thrive. But a couple of years ago, administrators for Davidson’s online campus noticed confusion around homework assignments. With teachers using different methods to assign homework and students haphazardly keeping track of things in a variety of planners, there were problems staying organized with assignments and deadlines. According to Dr. Stacy Hawthorne, director of online programs for Davidson:
“If students don’t understand the content, that’s one thing, but they should never receive an ‘F’ because they didn’t know they were supposed to do something. We wanted to find a way to help students manage their time.”
To help students save their mental energy for doing their homework rather than keeping track of it, the online campus decided to streamline the assignment process by providing every student with a task manager app. They looked into several options, including Wunderlist and its successor Microsoft To Do, before landing on Todoist.
Since rolling it out, students have found it easier to plan homework and group projects, and teachers report fewer assignments falling through the cracks. Here’s the full story on how Todoist helps this unique school provide an exceptional education for their students, and why teachers and other support staff have started using the app to collaborate on their own tasks too.
Using Todoist for independent learning
Students who test extremely high on measures of intelligence often struggle to have their needs met by traditional public schools, which must focus on serving the majority of their students. This is what motivated founder Bob Davidson:
Every student should have the opportunity to learn in school. That may seem like a reasonable standard for public education, but when it comes to our nation’s brightest students, that standard is often ignored.
Davidson opened in 2006 at the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Tuition is free for anyone who attends from in the state, and students have access to university courses. Families moved from across the U.S. to Reno just to attend the school after Davidson opened. The school responded to continued requests from families around the country and in Canada by launching an online campus in 2017, which today serves 145 students, 80 full-time and 65 partly enrolled students through the Davidson Institutes Explore courses.
To attend Davidson, students have to score in the 99.9th percentile on accepted intelligence or achievement tests and are also evaluated on their current academic performance and demonstrated social and emotional maturity.
Students work with staff to create a personalized learning plan that gives them the opportunity to excel in their areas of interest while still meeting their graduation requirements. They are placed in courses not by age and traditional grade level but by ability. The curriculum emphasizes higher level, critical thinking.
Courses include familiar offerings in math, science, English, history, and world languages as well as titles like Asian Studies, Advanced Rhetoric, and Machine Learning/AI. Capped at 15 students, classes consist of lively discussion and active problem-solving, and assignments include not only traditional fare such as essays and hands-on activities, but also student-centered and student-designed projects.
“It’s a challenging but also caring environment that is ultimately about allowing profoundly gifted young people to be themselves,” says Stacy.
Davidson’s online campus has invested heavily in technology, with classes on Zoom and an Office 365 subscription for each student. In 2018 the school even began providing telepresence robots for remote students to drive to classes at the Reno campus they can’t attend in-person.
Given the challenging workload, Stacy didn’t want students to get bogged down managing assignments:
“What we found as we started to grow with students taking five or more classes with us, is teachers were doing assignments in different ways. They’re posting calendars, they’re assigning on different days of the week, they’re doing different things. And students were getting lost in the navigation of online learning, which is a big pet peeve of mine.”
To address the problem, Stacy and her colleagues decided to standardize and simplify the assignment process. Every Friday at the same time, teachers would release assignments for the upcoming week on the school’s learning management system, Blackboard. Students were then given time to add the assignments to their planner. Says Stacy:
“We want to push students and help them achieve to the best of their ability, but we also want them to be kids. Anything that we can do to cut down on screen time is really important to us. Releasing all these assignments on Friday gives a kid an opportunity to plan their week.”
Stacy felt it would help if students had the same homework planner, one that made it easy for them and their parents to manage assignments. She also wanted students to have a collaborative platform for group projects and for teachers to have the ability to push assignments to students who needed the extra help with time and task management.
After researching a bunch of options, including Microsoft To Do which came with the Office 365 subscriptions, the school decided Todoist’s design best met their needs:
“It was a really big decision to say ‘let’s not use what’s free, let’s choose what’s right for students.’ We didn’t find anything that was going to be as user friendly and as easy to adopt as Todoist.”
Along with the school’s unique culture, curriculum, and a suite of other technology, Todoist is now is an integral part of the Davidson experience, says Stacy:
“We don’t have a brick and mortar building. What our brick and mortar is is our communication. If we’re not communicating effectively, clearly, and often we’re going to fall apart. Todoist helps with that clear communication, because everybody knows what needs to be done.”
How students use Todoist
The workflow for Davidson Academy students starts with the Friday assignment release and finishes with the satisfying feeling of checking off a completed homework task in Todoist:
Releasing and tracking homework
Davidson Academy has a straight-forward and uniform system of assigning homework supported by Todoist:
- Teachers share assignments with students: Every Friday by 2 p.m. Pacific Time, all teachers release the upcoming week’s assignments on Blackboard.
- Students add assignments to Todoist: Once assignments are released, students add them to their Todoist.
- Students can get help planning their week: At 3 p.m. students can join a session called “Keep Your Head in the Game,” where counselors help them populate their Todoist and plan for the week ahead. This includes advising on time management strategies such as how to break down a larger task, like a paper due the following Friday, into sub-tasks, such as paragraphs with deadlines earlier in the week.
- Students track their assignments at home: Students and their parents can check Todoist during the week to stay on-task and keep track of coming deadlines.
- Students complete assignments: When students complete an assignment, they submit it to Blackboard. When they receive email confirmation it has been received, they check it off in Todoist.
Managing group projects
Group projects are one of the most challenging parts of school, requiring students to bridge different learning styles and work to achieve project milestones and meet deadlines together.
Todoist lets Davidson students share projects. This gives them the ability to assign and communicate about tasks within the group and keep track of the same deadlines. Having a central source of truth about who’s doing what and when is especially important because students are never in the same physical location.
Some Davidson students even use Todoist to manage clubs, which at the school include a social activism club, an online newspaper, a chess club, a slam poetry club, yearbook, and student council.
Helping teachers track missing assignments
While it is preferable for students to learn how to organize their work on Todoist themselves, some students need more guidance. For these students, counselors and teachers get more involved. Within shared projects, they’re able to push assignments to students’ Todoists themselves and get notifications when a student checks off the assignment.
Since Davidson started using Todoist, they’ve seen far fewer miscommunications about what’s due when.
“The counselors tell me that the students are finding it easier to manage their tasks and to know when they’re done,” says Stacy.
How teachers and staff use Todoist
Though they first adopted Todoist to help students stay organized, Davidson teachers and support staff say they now rely on Todoist themselves to collaborate on the wide range of projects involved in running an online school.
When Stacy was charged with overseeing the project of publishing all of Davidson’s course descriptions on its website, Stacy used Todoist to assign a description to each course’s respective teacher. It was much easier having teachers submit and check off their task, rather than following up with people for their descriptions in emails and keeping a master checklist, she says.
Davidson leadership also uses Todoist for all of their back-to-school planning. While students are on their summer break, school staff are busy building master and individual student schedules, preparing hardware and software technology projects and upgrades, training new staff, and planning back-to-school events. Each project involves multiple people, often cross-functional teams.
“Using Todoist for large summer projects helps to keep them on task, ensures that each team member knows when they are responsible for a task or action, and fosters communication and trust,” Stacy says.
And Todoist makes it easy for the school to keep track of birthdays, which, as in most schools, are a big deal. Staff keep a shared project listing birthdays for everyone in the online school. The birthdays are added as a recurring task, with an annual deadline of the person’s birth date. When it comes, someone from the school always remembers to send out a birthday announcement.
Most of the school’s technology accounts are handled by the school’s technology manager. “But Todoist is so simple that I’ve just never given it to him, because it takes so little of my time to manage the account,” Stacy says.
Davidson Academy’s willingness to adapt technology when it can solve a problem and serve a need is characteristic of the school’s drive to continuously improve. “We want things to be professional for students,” says Stacy, “We felt like using Todoist is the next evolution of making this a better place for students, helping them manage it.”