Aliya Bhatia (New Orleans – Delta ’10) didn’t plan on building edtech tools after teaching. But as she was grading papers in a coffee shop one day, she got frustrated with the fact she couldn’t recall which parents of her 130 students she had spoken with on the phone. She needed a tool to manage all the phone-based communications she used to support her scholars, and she needed that tool to be based on her phone. That was the birth of Dash4Teachers, an iPhone app that lets teachers manage parent contacts, log calls, and track analytics on the positive and negative calls they’re making. Bhatia’s team recently released the iOS 6 version of Dash, and I spoke with her about what it was like to build the tool. She’s recently moved from New Orleans to Atlanta, where she will be transitioning into a role as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, while staying heavily involved in the future of Dash.
What does Dash do for teachers, for students, and for parents?
Dash came out of a number of frustrations that we knew teachers were having in classrooms, and those frustrations were trickling down to students. One of those frustrations was that we have lots and lots of students with lots and lots of stakeholders, and keeping track of the right stakeholder was becoming an overwhelming task for the teacher.
That meant that contact with stakeholders was infrequent. That was happening, in part, because of all the different places teachers make calls from. You’re not always sitting in front of your Excel tracker or your Kickboard, or your ClassDojo when you’re making parent phone calls. Ideally, the way that you keep track of all that information and sort through all that information should be directly on your phone.
With that in mind, we wanted to build an application that handled that. As a result, when you now make a phone call to a parent or a guardian [with Dash], you know exactly the relationship with the scholar. Before you call, you have a list of everything that you said to that parent before, so you get an idea of what the tone of this conversation should be. And you get a very clear picture of whether you’ve been making positive or negatives calls beforehand, so you can make sure that your call is going to be taken the right way, and so that you can make more of those positive calls.
Because of the difficulty of tracking down the right number—and because of the difficulty of having to deal with so many students’ families you need to keep in touch with—teachers are making a lot of negative calls instead of a lot of positive calls. We’ve created a system that gives you a lots of incentives and a lot of nudges towards making those positive calls.
What are some positive outcomes that you’ve seen as a result of using this app?
We’re seeing a couple of different types of teachers being particularly receptive. The first thing that we’re seeing is that for a special education teacher, a product like Dash is really incredible because they can log and track the data from every call they make, which is extremely important to them—both for the documentation purposes and for serving their special education students properly. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from that particular subset of teachers that this has been a really transformative tool for them.
Another group is teachers who are all working at the same school and can upload the same contact information and then be able to collaborate on the information about the phone calls that they’re making. We have a couple schools where we have pockets of people who have purchased the tool so they can use it together. One of my friends was showing me that they’ve now uploaded phone numbers and can all edit them from the same exact account, and that’s been really helpful for the teachers to keep track of all the information.
One thing that I don’t think we’ve exploited well enough is that we have now created a Google Docs system where you can import all of your Dash information and constantly update it. I wish that more of our users recognized that they could use that as collaborative tool to see when was the last time one of them made a call, or what was the best number to call. So we need to do a better job of getting the word out about that.
You worked through TFA summer institute to pilot the application—what did you learn?
We ended up beta-testing over the summer with the [New Orleans] institute group, and a number of teachers at institute used the app.
I remember one of our beta testers being extremely frustrated because she moved to her region and her school gave her an Android phone. She emailed me and asked, “Do you have an Android version of Dash? Because I can’t teach without it.” It was the most flattering thing in the world to hear, yet at the same time very frustrating. [Dash is currently only available on iPhone.] Fortunately, it ended up being alright for her to make a new account and use her personal phone.
Before we expand to the Android platform, we need to have a really clear vision of how we integrate with other systems. Right now the good thing about being on iPhone is that our target audience is still individual teachers—in part because schools don’t institutionally use iPhones, and many teachers do. In fact, somewhere around 50 percent of the TFA population is on iPhones for their personal phone.
Once we have a clearer vision of how Dash could integrate into other data management tools, it would be much more meaningful for us to deploy on another platform. Then, no matter which platform a school is using—or if they’re not using any system—then all their teachers would be able to access the app and funnel data into the other systems that the school use.
What is it like leaving the classroom to do an edtech startup?
It was not at all something I was expecting, yet at the same time I think that it was really great that it turned out this way. Because I do really struggle with the amount of things and tools that my school used to buy that weren’t actually created by teachers that I din’t find very applicable or useful for me personally. I would just think about the dollars that went into buying that particular tool, and say to myself, “I don’t actually use this, ever.”
It was really cool to flip the situation. I took all my complaints about the system and was able to be part of the system, but create something and get teacher feedback.
At the same time, as an entrepreneur, you start to realize where some of the constraints came from for some of the tools you used in the past. You start to realize that you have to pick which features are going to be available. You have to pick which stakeholder is more important—the school or the teacher. For the moment, we’ve made the clear decision that the teacher is the more important stakeholder out of the two of those.
There are all sorts of decision points where you realize how difficult it is to make these tools. There are people in all different regions of the country with all different restrictions on what they can do. So I definitely have a new appreciation for all of the things that I used to be very frustrated about.
How did you get started?
In the fall [of 2011], were were part of the Teach For America pilot program in entrepreneurship. At first, I didn’t really want to create something. And then I was just grading papers in a coffee shop and I was so frustrated at not being able to remember some of the parents that I’d been in touch with and remember the information about those calls. I was also thinking about the sheer number of different stakeholders that I had, as I had 130 students. I thought, “You know what? Maybe it’s time to make something.”
So I brought two other teachers on to my team and we went to a Startup Weekend and built a prototype. We wanted really strong talent to build the app. Our designer was from our Startup Weekend team—he’s an Emmy-award-winning film editor; he’s extremely talented on the design side. Then we contracted for the programming side because we really wanted strong developers to be working on our product, and I think that we made the right choice in that sense.
The prototype was built at a Startup Weekend, but none of the code from the prototype is being used at this point in time. We completely redeveloped it from scratch using best-in-class developers.
What support do you find for a product like this in the New Orleans area?
It’s so interesting. There’s support for sure in the sense that everyone really wants entrepreneurship to be a part of the fabric of New Orleans, but it’s such a young community that I was struggling to find others who have done similar things.
I would say that a lot of our most rewarding conversations have come from sitting with Jen Medberry, the CEO of Kickboard. Discussions with her were some of the highest value-add conversations that I’ve had because she’s been there and done that.
I think that it was difficult to find others within the New Orleans community who didn’t just want to help us, but who also had the background knowledge and the resources to help us. I thought that was interesting, because I thought that part of the intent of being part of an incubation system or a pilot program is that there’s a lot of support. But what does “support” mean? If you’re building something in the tech world, then a lot of the support you need is knowing how to deal with tech. That’s something that I don’t think is as prevalent as we originally thought it would be.
You’re part of the 4.0 Schools incubator, correct?
Yes. I think that they’ve really got some great ideas about how to how to break out of traditional structures. And I think they’ve got some really great thoughts about how to make it so that teachers and school leaders and people all up and down the ranks of education in New Orleans can have a dramatic structural impact on the work that they do.