Three Ring: Bringing Qualitative Work into Focus

This is what happens when you put a couple of Oxford guys together in a startup: They create an educational app that disrupts the classroom.
Meet Michael Lindsay and Steve Silvius, the co-founders of Three Ring. Three Ring is an app (web-based and mobile) that enables both students and teachers to take photos of projects, record video presentations, record audio discussions, and upload digital files into a neatly organized portfolio.

Teacher View in Three Ring

Here’s a quick video tour:

Rescue forgotten student work from the bottom of backpacks or hidden in endless stacks of binders—everything is organized seamlessly and ready to be used for teaching and learning.  –Three Ring

Three Ring allows users to capture much more than the final product or artifact, though. It does something much more important than that, indeed. Three Ring encourages users to document the process . . . the processes that were involved in creating the project, or running the lab, or working the problem. Those processes . . . seeing them . . . understanding them . . . reflecting on them . . . and CORRECTING the mistakes are essential parts of the learning process. They are also something we spend very little time with in education. It’s hard to do. When do we do it? There’s not much time for it. 
Technology changes that. And this is where it gets disruptive. 
The first thing pro athletes do when their performance drops off is watch film. 
Pro, college, and high school sports spend a lot of time watching film. Most fans probably think that they spend all of their film time watching other teams play, but that’s only part of their film study. Athletes spend hours and hours watching film on how they play and how they practice, looking for mistakes and adjusting practice when their mechanics are off. Take a look:

This is NOT how baseball dialogue goes:

Albert Pujols: Coach, I went 0-4. What am I doing wrong?
Coach: You’re not getting hits, Albert, because you’re not hitting the ball. Try harder. CONcentrate. 

Unfortunately, that’s the type of feedback that a lot of students get. If concentration were a factor, then MIT would win the College World Series every year.
When something isn’t working, serious athletes can’t wait to get to the game film. Where is the process breaking down? Explaining the problem (accurately) to athletes is one thing, but letting athletes see their own performance takes that to another level. 
This type of process analysis can be applied to anything, including education. Three Ring lets educators and students do this type of qualitative analysis in a systematic way. Sometimes metacognition needs a prompt. Document the process, and let students observe themselves. 
In fact, if you want to know the outcome of a project-based learning assignment, you don’t even have to look at the the project. Just ask the students how they made it or how they did it. If they have a difficult time explaining it or if their explanation is a mess, the PBL yielded little results. Letting students see their PBL process on tape would likely be startling to them. 
I had the opportunity to chat with Michael Lindsay and Steve Silvius the other week. Here’s a portion of our conversation: 
Adam: Describe how you got started in the education space. 
Steve: We were neighbors at Oxford. I was in the classroom, Michael was working at McKinsey, and we were discussing different education ideas that we had. We rejected quite a few of our initial ideas. We didn’t think they were quite right with what we wanted. So instead of trying to come up with the right idea, we sat down and had a series of conversations over a period of about two days where we just tried to come up with the principles that we believed in if we were going to make an education business. We really valued the classroom, and what happens in the classroom, and the work that students and teachers do, and the importance of that experience. We also agreed that technology should be enhancing that experience. As an educator, I was really bothered by this trope that teachers were technophobes and they just really needed to “get with it.” 
Adam: That’s an easy way to dismiss the real problem, isn’t it? 
Steve: Yes, it is. The truth was that in my experience as a teacher if the technology was helpful, then I was very happy to use it. I was a young teacher who used plenty of tech products, but often what I picked up for the classroom just wasn’t that helpful. And I thought it was ridiculous for an ed-tech company to blame that on the teacher without first looking at the product. We try to be very education focused on our product. It must be helpful for the teacher and student. The two principles that we agreed upon were first, respect the teacher. Respect that they have to use the product. You have to build for your user and remember that they are doing hard and important work, and we want to make their life easier. The second principle was respect the work the students do, the actual experience that students are having. We wanted to build something that valued that experience. It soon became obvious that Three Ring was a good fit for that. 
Adam: I would think that if teachers can’t use this in their classroom, then they are probably driven solely by paper-and-pencil tests and are not creating authentic assessments. 
Steve: The reason I knew it was a good business ideas was that every teacher I know wants to do portfolios. We still wanted to show respect of the paper-and-pencil tests. I was a high school math teacher, and the most important information that the students wrote was in their scratch work. It was what they wrote in the white space of their papers, or they might write it on the board or they might speak it, but those were the things that matter. I believe every teacher has some information that they treasure and value. Three Ring lets them use it in a digital way to make it more useful for them and their students. 
Adam: Is there a public view in Three Ring? 
Michael: There’s not a public share option. We are really building around the on the classroom experience. Right now you can share with parents and students. 
Steve: We capture and organize living things. We really are built around the pedagogical uses of those things. At the heart of our mission is pedagogy, teaching, and learning.  There’s an organizational aspect of it for classrooms, but then there’s “what you do with the artifacts,” and that’s where we really try to differentiate ourselves as a company. 
Adam: How big is your company? 
Michael: There are currently three of us. We are hiring now, and we have some great outsourced help that we use occasionally. We’re a small company, but we are very dedicated to making an awesome product for teachers.

Steve and Michael on the Ed-Tech Circuit
Steve and Michael on the Ed-Tech Circuit

Adam: Your tagline on your website is “Your classroom is all about student work. So is Three Ring.” Can you elaborate on that? 
Michael:  The message we want to send, when we think about our tagline, we want Three Ring to bring qualitative data back into focus. We think a lot about the future of assessment.  When teachers use our app, they say that they can capture learning in the moment. That’s really our tagline. There are things going on in the classroom that are ephemeral and need to be captured over time and assessed by peers, by students, teachers, mentors. Too often meaningful moments are lost, and Three Ring allows the teacher or student to capture those moments in a way that says “now assessment can be how you wanted it to be. It can be about qualitative work. It can be about the actual authentic work.” 
Steve: Instruction and assessment need to happen at the virtually the same time. The cycle used to happen once a module or once a unit, but ideally they happen almost instantaneously. Just like iterations in a startup, you need to constantly making sure that assessment and instruction happen at the same time. Three Ring makes that easy to do. A music teacher told us that he was never able to get a particular student to change his posture by telling him, but by using Three Ring, the student saw what he meant and changed right away. 
Adam: What’s Three Ring’s DNA? What do you always come back to? 
Steve: Evidence. Artifacts. Qualitative results. We have nothing against numbers, but we want to use technology to get back to qualitative results and look at work deeply. 
Adam: Does Three Ring have rubric scoring inside the app? 
Steve: You can upload rubrics and use them side-by-side with the artifacts.  We are really open to rubric scoring. We’ve been watching how teachers use Three Ring, and they will often tag the rubric with the same content standard tags that they use for the evidence. You can upload any digital file you want, which makes it easy. 
Adam: Best features? 
Michael: Instantaneous. The simplicty. The mobility. You can now store artifacts on the app until you get around wifi if it’s not in the classroom or if you’re on a field trip. It’s temporary storage that gets pushed out when you get back to your wifi. 
Adam: What grade level do you see using your app? 
Steve: PreK-12 and teacher education. It’s really good for teacher training in the field. Student-teachers can show their professors what’s going on in the classroom. We think that’s really an important thing to do.
Three Rings works for all of the PreK-12 environment.

Adam: I could see administrators using this for teacher evaluations, too. You go into a teacher’s classroom and hope to seeing the teacher meet eight different state standards, and that just doesn’t happen in one lesson. So letting teachers submit things for their own evaluation would be way better. It would be a more accurate look at what the teacher is doing in the classroom. 
Steve: Yes, observations have turned in to these high-stakes evaluations where if I don’t do everything, it’s like that never happens in the classroom, and that’s just not the case.  So to empower teachers to advocate for themselves would make that whole process much better. 
Adam: I was going to ask about subject area, but really any subject could use this. 
Steve: Yes, even in the lower grades. How do you show the growth of social skills? Hopefully that’s observable during play. Those are important things for those grade levels. Three Ring allows teachers to share these observations with parents. 
Adam: What’s your support mechanism? 
Michael: We do a ton of email email support. Phone support, too. We are building some knowledge base resources and video resources. 
Steve: There’s not a need for a lot of technical support. The support is largely how to make it come alive in the classroom. We help teachers share good Three Ring ideas with each other.  We have a lot of teachers writing about us in teacher blogs, and those have smaller audiences, but it’s been a great way to share best practices. 
Adam: What is your pricing structure? I don’t think I’ve seen anything but free. 
Michael: The app is free for teachers and students to use in their classrooms. We are now looking at the value of using Three Ring across the school system. This will allow a principal to see into everyone’s classroom and every student’s work. Teachers can see into other classrooms for co-teaching or professional learning. All the sudden the network effects become very powerful. There’s really the potential of sharing a wealth of information that’s never been able to be shared. We are looking at our first 100 pilots for fall for an administration platform that links schools within a system. We will market that over the summer. 
Adam: What would be your advice to teachers? 
Steve: There are a few questions to think through. What is the evidence from your classroom that you think would show how your students are learning? What are the activities you do already in class that would be nice to have video or picture evidence about? Then you have to think about how you would tag those artifacts. The tag really unlocks the simplicity of the structure. Are you going to use the Common Core Standards or some other standards that are particular to your subject? If you’re doing project based learning, are you going to tag based on the project or tag beginning, middle, and end so that you can see the progression of the project? You don’t have to figure that all out at once, but it’s a good thing to think about for a few minutes. When thinking about tagging, think, “I would really like to be able to type in this word and bring up all the examples of this student’s work based on that word.” 
Adam: And what would your advice to students be? 
Steve: Take your work seriously. Three Ring is a great tool for digital citizenship.  There’s no sharing your teacher won’t see. This is a great way to show what you’re learning, and to take pride in your work. Be excited to have a record of your successes and failures, but most importantly the journey of what you’ve learned. 
Adam: What school systems are heavy users of Three Ring? 
Michael: Anne Arundel County in Maryland. Frederick County in Maryland.  We have a lot of users throughout Maryland, but those two counties are heavy user.
That sounds great! Contact Three Ring if your district is interested in being part of their pilot program coming this fall.
Tl;dr: Students do. Students and/or teachers capture the “doing” or the final product. Upload to cloud. Match to student. Tag by standard. Qualitative results. Win win. Do it!

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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It appears 3Ring is a diminished Evernote, and given Evernote, why would I consider 3Ring?
What does 3Ring give me that Evernote doesn't? I must be missing something, but I sure can't find it.

Adam Renfro

Evernote does not have a teacher dashboard or a student dashboard. Nor does it let you privately share content, notes, and comments with students and parents. Three Ring allows you to create a class roster that you match uploaded content to. This lets you view a class's artifacts or a student's artifacts or view artifacts by topic or standard.
Evernote and Three Ring are very different apps. The only thing they share is the capture feature.

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