Product Review: StudySync - Tech Learning

Product Review: StudySync

 To compete successfully for jobs in a global economy, students must develop critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.
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StudySync by BookheadEd Learning, LLC (http://www.studysync.com/)

by Carol S. Holzberg

To compete successfully for jobs in a global economy, students must develop critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills. Yet the state-mandated standardized tests they learn how to take in school typically emphasize factual recall rather than depth of understanding. BookheadEd Learning’s Web-based StudySync seeks to bridge this gap.

StudySync’s electronic course room is modeled on college-level academic discourse. Its standards-based online learning curriculum targets classic and modern literary texts in multimodal ways using a variety of digital media including broadcast quality video, animation, audio readings, and images. Writing and thinking activities framed by social networking tools and collaborative discussions with peers are designed to motivate middle and high school students to higher levels of achievement. Each lesson includes pre-writing exercises, writing prompts, plus opportunities for students to post their work and review the work of others. Students can access content and assignments from any computer with a connection to the Internet.

Retail Price: $175 per teacher for 12-month access (for up to three classrooms of 30 students each); $25 for each additional class of 30 students. Thus 4 classes/120 students, $200; and 5 classes/150 students, $225. Building-wide pricing: $2,500, annual subscription for under 1000 students, $3000 for 1000-2000 students; $3500 for more than 2000 students. Volume discounts are available for multiple buildings within a district.

Quality and Effectiveness

StudySync’s research-based, teacher-tested lessons correlate to the Common Core standards and align with NCTE's (National Council of Teachers of English) Position Statement on 21st Century Literacies.The classic and contemporary content it offers includes works by Shakespeare, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Bernard Shaw, Jules Verne, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Elie Wiesel, Jean Paul Sartre, and many others. About 325 titles in the StudySync Library give middle and high school teachers a variety of novels, stories, poems, plays, and literary works for students to study. Many of these texts appear in Appendix B of the Common Core standards. Flexible program features enable teachers to deliver assignments as whole lessons or as resources that supplement existing curriculum. Built-in management options allow them to make ongoing assessments and provide timely feedback to guide student work.

Lessons can help build background knowledge, stretch thinking, introduce different viewpoints and develop understanding. Many begin with an entertaining movie-like trailer to motivate interest. This attention-grabbing introduction is followed by dramatized audio readings of the poem or a selection from the text to maintain engagement. Two writing prompts and a contextual description follow to focus thinking and direct attention to a particular aspect of the work. Finally, guided writing prompts help students think about the work in a particular way, encouraging youngsters to jot down ideas in note form or bulleted lists for review when they first draft their 250-wordwritten essay. As students work, they can always return to an earlier section and replay any portion of the lesson as often as necessary.

Ease of Use

StudySync is both a content management system for teachers and an electronic course room for students. Both venues have a user-friendly graphical interface. When students login with an assigned username and password, they land on the Home screen where flexible options invite them to check their messages, explore assignments, review work already done, and read peer comments on their essays. Additionally, they can voice opinions in 140-character responses on news events of the day, or browse lessons of interest in the StudySync Library, where content is organized by subject or concept such as Discovery and Exploration, Society and the Individual, Women's Studies, War and Peace, Love and Death, etc.

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Students can move from the Home Page to another area by either clicking an image or using the navigation bar positioned at the top of the page. For example, students who click on the Assignments tab can view all assignments they have yet to complete, browsing them by clicking the assignment image in the online carousel or by using the navigation bar positioned beneath the images (see right).

When working on an assignment, the Web-based lessons are easy to follow. Lesson sections are numbered, but students can revisit any section for review at any time (see below).

When teachers login, they can add students or groups of students to their classes, manage class settings for individuals or groups, create assignments, and view assignments delivered to students. Additionally, they can see all assignments given to an individual student, start and end dates for each assignment, whether assignments have been completed,and the student’s average score.

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Assignments that teachers create can contain a Sync-TV episode for the literary work, if there is an episode available. They can also include writing and review prompts that guide student response, questions for students to address, and StudySync Blasts with thought-provoking questions of historical, political, or cultural significance. StudySync helps with lesson design, providing teachers with the actual assignment prompts to include. Assessment tools allow teachers to monitor student response and track performance.

The optional weekly micro-blog Blast activity is designed to provide writing practice while developing social communication skills. This exercise consists of topical questions created by members of the public StudySync Blast Community. Students who participate must submit Twitter-style responses of no more than 140 characters. After responding, they can participate in a public poll on that topic, reviewing and rating Blasts submitted by others.

Creative Use of Technology

StudySync’s strength lies in making standards-based content accessible in multiple ways, giving students a choice in the way they engage with the material. In addition to reading the electronic text on their own, there are often options to listen to the text aloud. Students who struggle with reading, or aural and visual learners who benefit from multimedia sound and graphic supports, will appreciate the Sync-TV component supplementing the text with images, animations, and video content. Dramatic readings by professional actors (when available)also support and reinforce content delivery.

 Another important aspect of the product is that its presentations of college-level students discussing a particular selection model appropriate academic behavior, critical thinking, and group collaboration. As these students exchange ideas, they provide insight into what an author or poet has written. Focusing on specific words, sounds, passages and images, they are able to come to a general understanding of even the most difficult texts. Everyone in the group is expected to contribute to the discussion, talking out loud in turn as they work through assignment questions.

Sync-Review activities provide opportunities for students to work together and critique each other’s work. Teachers can tailor membership options in the closed peer review network, limiting participation to an entire class or small instructional groupings.

A Sync-Binder stores the student’s work portfolio, consisting of all prewriting assignments, written essays, and reviews. Students can access their portfolio at any time to see what and when they have submitted an assignment, teacher comments, and what they still need to complete.

Suitability for Use in a School Environment

StudySync integrates a variety of tools and features that build writing skills and model critical thinking, collaboration and peer review (communication). The fact that it is standards-based, resource rich, and focused on many of the same texts recommended by the Common Core initiative, means that teachers have many resources from which to draw in lesson design. The Web-based nature of the content provides opportunities to extend learning outside the classroom. Weekly Blasts can be sent directly to a student’s cell phone.

Overall Rating

In part, StudySync is still a work in progress. Only 12 of its more than 300 library titles have Sync-TV presentations. Additionally, if you click the Tips link at the bottom of any StudySync screen, a message pops up stating that tips to help you navigate and utilize StudySync are “Coming Soon!”

On the other hand, Sync-TV does include helpful summaries of important classical and contemporary literary works. Many are presented in a style sure to motivate further exploration. Additionally, StudySync provides multiple pathways to important content through its combination of assignment types (from pre-writing through writing, and weekly Blast polls) accessed via text, dramatized readings, movies, and other multimedia content.

Educators may be disappointed if they think that StudySync has everything students need to develop improved critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills. Just as pianos do not produce beautiful music, Web-based lessons do not produce 21st century skills. Sync-TV movies, content, guided questions, and weekly Blasts do offer opportunities for critical thinking with college-age mentors who participate in the video discussions modeling critical thinking, and collaboration. But in the final analysis, it’s up to teachers to provide occasions where students work together in small groups to engage in similar discussions and activities. For students to become critical thinkers, teachers must present standards-based curriculum integrating compelling ideas and assignments not just digital media.

Top three reasons why this product’s overall features, functionality, and educational value make it a good value for schools

  • The Sync-TV movies are very entertaining, resembling the trailers. Its audio read-alouds help students engage with the literary content.
  • Flexible features and activities provide teachers with a collection of resources they can use for instruction, thus simplifying lesson design. Teachers can build this content into existing lessons to increase time students devote to reading and writing.
  • StudySync can help students stay organized and manage assignments, because they know at a glance which assignments they have completed and which ones they have yet to do. Built-in assessment tools enable teachers to provide timely formative feedback

Carol S. Holzberg, PhD, cholzberg@gmail.com, (Shutesbury, Massachusetts) is an educational technology specialist and anthropologist who writes for several publications. She works as District Technology Coordinator for Greenfield Public Schools and the Greenfield Center School (Greenfield, Massachusetts) and teaches in both the Licensure program at Hampshire Educational Collaborative (Northampton, MA) and online in the School of Education at Capella University. Send comments or queries via email to cholzberg@gmail.com.

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