Startup provides solution for educators to monitor student progress

Pulse software also improves communication between teachers, students and parents.
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John Sorensen Courtesy Nate Abramowski

John Sorensen could not have predicted the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, but he did recognize the difficult task educators have of monitoring the progress of all of their students during a virtual class.

As a result, Sorensen co-founded Student Achievement Systems LLC in 2017.

The company was recently awarded a $15,000 Business Accelerator Fund grant through Michigan State University’s Gateway Grand Rapids and the Small Business Development Center of Michigan after it created a solution called Pulse, which is a licensed, cloud-based software product that replicates an in-person classroom where a teacher is standing in the front looking out to see which students are completing a task and which aren’t.

Pulse is designed to help educators closely monitor student engagement and communicate with them personally in virtual classrooms and remote student-learning environments in real time.

“We take snapshots on a moment-by-moment basis, day-by-day basis,” Sorensen said. “We can tell a teacher about a student who has been doing great for the past couple of weeks (and then) they just dropped off the edge of a cliff — just stopped doing work altogether. Most of the learning systems that are out there do not have the ability to tell you that something has gone wrong, they can only tell you their progress in a course. We can tell you if students have stopped doing work. We can tell you if a student is rushing to do something or rushing to make something up. If a student’s parent calls the teacher and asks, ‘How is little Jane doing today?’ A teacher can look at the screen in front of them and have a conversation with that parent without actually having that child in that classroom sitting in front of them. So, it really gives teachers an enormous amount of data on a moment-by-moment basis.”

Some hybrid and cyber classes offered in Grand Rapids, Belding, Muskegon, Kenowa Hills, Berrien Springs and Benton Harbor are among those using Pulse. It monitors more than 6,000 students and teachers, and the company predicts it will expand to 11,000 users by later this year.

“Virtual education has been growing 20% to 30% per year over the past five or six years and it is continuously growing,” Sorensen said. “Anything that can be automated will be automated by a computer. We see it everywhere, and whether it is fortunate or unfortunate, education is one of those things. Students in all areas of education will be taking more and more virtual classes, so our system is built around virtual classes. Where we got started was enabling virtual schools to be able to monitor and watch over their virtual classrooms, so before the pandemic hit, we were already set for classrooms with no students in it.”

Jared Herron is the principal of Kenowa Hills Pathway High School and the director of online learning for all of Kenowa Hills Public Schools. He said the district began using Pulse last February, just before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic.

“We decided before the pandemic started to use Pulse in order to keep track of all the students’ communication and progress,” he said. “We use Pulse for our sixth-through-eighth grade students as part of our KHOLA (Kenowa Hills Online Learning Academy), and we have over 200 students enrolled in our virtual program, in which we track our two-way communication. We use (Pulse) with our 9-12 graders’ online learning. We have over 350 students and we are able to track our two-way communications and student progress as well.”

In Michigan, schools must provide state auditors with evidence of two-way communication between teachers and K-12 students who are participating in online or virtual academic learning.

Before using Pulse, Herron said his teachers would monitor students’ progress manually by setting goals of course completion in a given week — tracking where students were at the beginning of the week and where they are at the end of the week and matching the week’s goal with the student’s goal percentage and document it.

“That is what is being done in the Pulse software now,” he said. “Previously, we had to do that manually, and now it is doing it for us so we can share with students. It is color-coded to show how close they are to their goal or if they are behind their goal. The software program also allows us to sort some of those. So, if we really want to look at students who are really behind pace and are not meeting their goals for the week, we can sort the program to get those students to the top to know who we need to connect with right away.”

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