Customer Stories

How Garnet Valley High School Students Designed Skills For Kids

Joanne Szeto
March 15, 2022

It’s the year 2021. Your 8:30 am alarm goes off on a crisp Monday morning and you roll out of bed to get to class, that is, at your desk only two steps away. You stumble and open your laptop screen to launch Zoom with your eyes half-open, keeping your microphone and camera off for obvious reasons.

Your wonderful homeroom teacher is sitting on the other end, camera on and in high spirits as usual. They’ve adapted to online learning and have come up with new ways to keep students engaged. It’s been a very difficult year for them, working under increased demands and with limited resources.

The reality is, as a result of COVID-19 and social distancing measures, instructors have had to provide students with online teaching and learning environments that are accessible and at the same quality of education that would be received in person. It has required students and teachers to become much more flexible, adapting to ad-hoc strategies and new learning experiences. Enter Garnet Valley School district, located in Glenn Mills, Pennsylvania. A community of parents, teachers, and students who have been able to transition successfully into the world of remote learning.

Adapting to the changing world

Garnet Valley High School recently implemented what they call “Asynchronous Blended Coursework” (ABC), an approach whereby asynchronous learning activities are designed and implemented to maintain quality learning and teaching and maximize time in the face-to-face classroom. Teachers at the school will post a certain amount of ABC assignments per week for students to complete at their own pace with the flexibility of where and when they complete the work. This initiative was a direct result of their own research and feedback from the school community to push the school day back 1 hour for their high school students.

A group of students in a library wearing masks collaborating on their Alexa Skills through Zoom together

Giving kids the skills they need

Nikolette Trofa and Anthony Slata are instructors in the Garnet Valley School District that joined forces to give high school students the opportunity to work collaboratively on a four-month ABC assignment. They tasked them to design Alexa Skills via Voiceflow for elementary school children. The two surveyed elementary teachers in the district asking them how they would like their kids to be interacting with their classroom Alexa device and took these results to the high schoolers who chose which skill they were most interested in designing. The results were incredible, and the high school students were able to create Alexa Skills that the elementary school students are using regularly to this day.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikolette Trofa last week on how she and Anthony Slata were able to plan and execute the Alexa Skills project.

More about Nikolette Trofa:

🌱 Nikolette (Nikki) Trofa is an instructional technology specialist in the Garnet Valley School District working hard to integrate technology into classrooms ranging from kindergarteners to AP computer science students. Dubbed as the “Alexa Guru” of her district, Nikolette has been helping educate students by learning about conversation design and working with teachers across the district to assign relevant projects relating to the new instructional technology. She has been working with AP Computer Science Teacher Anthony Slata for the past year to deliver this new project.

Q1: How did you hear about Voiceflow and why did you decide to choose our platform for this project?

Nikki: Our elementary schools started distributing Alexa devices about three years ago into the hands of teachers just to experiment with how they could incorporate it daily or weekly in their classrooms. What we noticed is there were certain programs teachers were using regularly, like what's the weather or what's the time, or, class picker to pick partners and different small things like that. But what we really wanted was, to get the programming more so in the hands of our students so they were using it more and being able to actually let our high school students be the designers of some of these skills.

My boss, Sam Mormando pitched to me, how can we get our students at the high school more involved with this? We have some really bright kids. And we thought there was potential here for conversation design. We had some background knowledge on conversation design, but I wanted to explore this further with my own research.

As soon as I found Voiceflow, I knew that it was user-friendly and very systematic in its approach to just simple conversation design. The platform was very easy to use in the way students could share the programs with each other, using the PRO account really helped us to maximize student collaboration.

Q2: How did you structure your project and support your students’ learning?

Nikki: Last year, a lot of our students were virtual, especially at the high school. We were trying to think of ways that they could collaborate in this virtual space, without needing that necessary face-to-face instruction.

And so last spring, we actually challenged Mr. Slata’s AP Computer Science class to design an Alexa Skill. It didn't have any relation to elementary school students. It was just anything that they were interested in. I presented the Voiceflow program to them on Zoom, going through an hour-long presentation and introduction to what conversation design looks like and sounds like.

From there, they were tasked with working in groups online, scheduling weekly check-ins where Mr. Slata would guide them, answer questions, and troubleshoot on an as-needed basis. They only had about three weeks to design their skills. After this experience, we recognized the ability and understanding our students had to build different Alexa skills and wanted to see with more time what they could be capable of designing.

This time around, we wanted to extend the project lasting longer. We wanted the project to have some sort of purpose and wanted to see how far the students could go.

Because of the school district’s new schedule for asynchronous blended learning, students are required to make up an hour of learning through asynchronous work. We thought this would be a great opportunity for students to work on building their Alexa skills during this asynchronous time given each week. I came in and introduced the project to them, explained the structure, and let them choose from a list of topics that elementary school teachers were interested in having designed for their classroom Alexa device.

From there, they got started working right away. We would have weekly check-ins with them on an as-needed basis. Even though this wasn't the language that they were learning in their AP Computer Science class, it was still important for them to design with a purpose, not just, you know, coding to code.

The students had four months to work on their skills and they presented them to the elementary classes at the end of January/beginning of February. So there was that follow-through at the end for them to be able to share what they created and hold them accountable.

Their assessment was being able to see that their skill successfully worked for the class. It wasn't formally assessed for the grade book, just competency in being able to design the Alexa Skill effectively, which all of them did an excellent job with.

Q3: How were students evaluated based on their Voiceflow projects?

Nikki: I set up 15 to 20-minute meetings for the high school students to hop on a Zoom call with our elementary classes and actually teach them how to use their Alexa Skills. We left it open-ended; teach your Skill to the class and explain to them how it works.

I gave them five pieces of criteria that I wanted them to hit on in their presentation, but I didn't say how to structure them. So it was unique to see some students create infographics and slide decks about their projects while others shared their Voiceflow canvas and walked them through the process.

It helped the high school students to really own their work and feel comfortable presenting to an audience. This really brought a lot of them out of their comfort zone, because they were the ones front and center stage, with all of the younger students admiring and looking up to them.

Anthony and I went in with low expectations. We knew the students would be able to design the skills but we didn't know what the quality of the skills would be like. The teachers on the receiving end were very excited and pleased with the skills that were made. Anthony and I already are talking about possibly pairing up the same students with the same teachers to keep that relationship going and design another skill for them this spring semester.

A student's instructions for their Alexa skill

Q4: How did you go about teaching your students how to use Voiceflow?

Nikki: We watched the brief introduction to Voiceflow video that's available on YouTube with the class. And I watched a lot of these videos, to just teach myself how to use it.

After they were introduced to the program and got to build a very basic skill, there was just exploration time. During this time, we were really focused on letting them see some of the different functions and giving them time to just see what was out there.

Anyone who wanted to explore things like custom codes or specific functions scheduled a follow-up meeting either with me or with Mr. Slata. There was not a lot of handholding, I would say. They really are smart kids, and kudos to them because they designed skills that I was still trying to wrap my head around!

We learned along the way with them. It was kind of like a unique process where the teacher wasn't the expert. I think it was more powerful to learn alongside our students and not necessarily have all the answers for them. It really pushed them to have to figure it out and that idea of productive struggle was really evident throughout the project.

Q5: Were there any roadblocks in you/your student’s way during the project in regards to prototyping and launching the Alexa Skills via Voiceflow?

Nikki: Yes, we did a lot of research on our own end to figure out what worked and what didn't work. We wanted to be able to respond to our students quickly and get them the answer. So it was a lot more research based on our end, video watching, and looking at what other people have designed on Voiceflow.

There's a lot out on the internet of people who've used the program and who've used certain custom codes. It was interesting because there was one specifically that the students were trying to use and they had found it online but they didn't read the comments underneath. The code was outdated and someone had commented “this code no longer works”. It was something as simple as that we realized, you have to read the comments or you have to make sure your research sources are credible.

Q5: Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently in implementing this ABC assignment?

Nikki: Originally our goal was not to design for elementary students. It was to design for nursing homes. We have a local nursing home down the street from our high school, and we thought, how cool would this be to get Alexa Skills in the hands of our senior citizens who constantly need reminders and check-ins or someone to talk to, but don't necessarily have the tools or the resources to do so?

We quickly realized there was a lot more to that because not only is there classified information with the patients but we’d have to get a lot signed off in regards to what information they could and could not share. I think in the future, that's where we'd like to go. However, for the time being, we decided to go with this elementary approach since we knew the need was there and we knew that the teachers would want these skills designed for them.

In addition to that, what we would have done differently is made sure that the students had more of a relationship with the elementary school teacher through the process. Some skills were perfectly aligned with the students interacting with it, and some were not quite there yet. So I would want to have more of that teacher-to-student relationship and feedback loop to make sure the skills are able to fully meet their expectations.

Q6: Do you have any words of advice for other teachers who want to implement Voiceflow projects into their classrooms?

Nikki: My best piece of advice would be to put the learning in the student's hands. I think a lot of us are fearful of the unknown, right? When we don't know something, we feel like we can't help our students with it. This was the perfect example of being able to learn alongside the students the entire time. I would say to definitely give it a try. The limits are endless with what they can do with the program.

Start small, like we did in the spring to get their feet wet with it, and then take off by designing a meaningful project for them. You'll really be surprised with what your students are capable of because we were blown away by what our students were able to do.

Check Out Some Of The Student's Skills

🚨 Interested in collaborating with Voiceflow and introducing conversation design in your classroom? Contact our team for more information.