There has long been a disparity in the education system in the USA. Though measures are put in place by the government to make public schooling as equal as possible throughout, wealth gaps across the country make the divide worse. The most notable division between students, however, occurs during the summer. Summer camps and programs in the US tend to be notably expensive, meaning that only a certain type of students can afford to keep learning over the summer. This can be disastrous for much of the population of students, in fact, a US News article from 2018 states that students can lose the knowledge equivalent of one month of instruction per year due to summer. Due to the accumulation of knowledge over time, by ninth grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income and middle-income children can be attributed to summer activities, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Additionally, this disparity was prevalent even before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, more than ever, wealthier communities are able to afford the continued education for their students, and are able to provide resources. On the other hand, Title 1 Schools are struggling more than ever. Our founder, Karly Hou, saw this issue occurring, and devised Wave Learning Festival. Wave Learning Festival was created not only to engage students with fun summer learning, but to do so for free and completely online, eliminating some of the boundaries that families face currently. Wave Learning Festival grew over time, from a single college student’s idea to a countrywide operation of 20 students from schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, UPenn, and CalPoly SLO. WLF is now a non-profit educational platform which provides free classes to over 550 students worldwide, in subjects ranging from Budgeting 101 to the Discography of Kanye West to AI in Healthcare.
Purpose & Motivation
On March 10th, Karly Hou, a freshman at Harvard University, woke up to a barrage of messages: “Harvard said go home.” As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the University made the unprecedented decision to evacuate campus immediately. For many around the country, that week was one of tearful goodbyes and frenzied packing, and the weeks that followed were no easier: online education was uncharted territory with lectures at odd times, connectivity issues, and homework balanced with family concerns.
Karly quickly noticed, however, that the effect was hitting younger students and their families with even greater force: grade schoolers were suddenly left with no classes and little support. She saw community and summer programs quickly close with no replacement or refund. Every day brought new articles about working parents finding themselves suddenly struggling to balance their job and the new full-time responsibility of keeping their kids busy. Erika Ekiel, a Bay Area parent, described her burnout as “such a level of emotional and mental stress that it’s hard to see how much longer this can go on without creating really dangerous consequences all throughout society.”
With no time to waste, Karly reached out to some of her close friends from high school and college, and Wave Learning Festival was formed. Our team of 20 from colleges around the country got to work, developing materials and building an entire website from scratch to launch for teachers a mere 4 days later. This shared drive, commitment, and motivating passion to ensure educational equity is what makes us confident in our ability to succeed, despite these difficult circumstances.
Eventually, we solidified our mission: to provide an equitable summer opportunity in the form of online seminars for grade schoolers while helping to alleviate the burdens that have fallen on parents' shoulders due to COVID-19. We want to bring a positive impact in spite of the pandemic this summer, and potentially for more years to come! Step-by-step usage instructions
Our schedule can be broken down into 6-week-long “waves”; each wave consists of recruiting teachers to teach classes, advertising these classes to students, letting them sign up for classes, assigning and waitlisting students to classes, and finally connecting the teachers to students who have signed up for their classes.
Perspective teachers apply to teach through our website under Apply->Teach. In the beginning of our wave, we select the teachers who will teach courses this wave, and give them all face-to-face interviews to ensure they will teach effectively. About a week later, we review their outlines they have for their courses. Three weeks after that, we give all teachers an email list to communicate with their students and a Zoom link to teach their classes. They spend the next two weeks using Zoom to teach.
Perspective students sign up for courses about a week after the wave starts under Courses->Current. There, they see all of the courses offered this wave and, out of these classes, they give their top three choices for subjects about which they would like to learn. Two weeks later, registration closes, and we put people in classes based on their rankings and the student capacity of each course. A week later, we give the students a Zoom link where they regularly attend their classes for the next two weeks. The sorting of the students are all through automation and code.
We are able to get a good number of students to sign up for our courses because we use automation to be able to reach principals from all over the United States. Online, we have found many long lists with the emails of principals from each state. Using that list and a script we write, we are able to contact those principals and let them know about our program.
Team member roles and contributions
- Steve - Infrastructure Design
- Steve created the infrastructure for the rest of the site to be built upon. For our technological stack we settled on using React and Firebase, the former for its powerful frontend capabilities and the latter for its ease of use, quick setup, and large expandability. Steve created the initial website from scratch, neglecting to use a template for the potential to add new features and UI elements. Within a few days, he was able to get a clean, modern-looking site hosted on Heroku, complete with a Firebase backend in order to store students, courses, and other necessary information.
- Steve also played a role in signing up students for the newsletter. Doing so required connecting students to the database, as well as creating a Google Cloud Function that automatically sends an email to students that register. Overall, Steve works on overseeing any problems in the code, fixing bugs and issues, and looking for new technologies to expand and improve the website.
- Daniela - Back-End Design
- Daniela developed functionality of the Blog, in order to streamline the process for the public relations team to posting on the Website. Using content management service Flamelink and database Firebase, the reach to notify users has been significantly expanded with the introduction of the blog, as well as the newsletter.
- Daniela additionally streamlined the process for adding and displaying courses automatically using Firebase. Overall, Daniela works on making site edits in order to make it as clear as possible to students and users.
- Jonny - Back-End Design
- Jonny designed an interactive way for students to view their current and previous classes.
- Mark - Front-End Design
- Mark worked on making all the pages on the site more easy on the eyes.
- Joshua - Marketing and Expansion
- Joshua created and executed strategies in an effort to expand Wave as a national (and eventually global) resource.
- Amy - Logistics Automation
- Amy designed an algorithm that sorted students into classes and waitlists based off of priority rankings, class max sizes, and class times.
Difficulties & Challenges
In order to do our best to address the education gap our society is facing due to COVID, we had difficulties reaching out to a diverse group of students, socioeconomically and geographically. We initially had many students from the Boston region and Palo Alto region, but little elsewhere. Since the educational gap is widespread, we are actively working on reaching more students across the country. In order to address this issue, Joshua developed an algorithm to automatically reach out to thousands of school principals across the nation, including all principles in New York State and California State. This is an ongoing technical project as we work to reach out to all students in all 50 states.
Technically, we ran into several issues in making sure the website is reliable and clear for student registration and teacher applications. All our student information was originally stored in Google Sheets, which caused significant growth issues. We decided to transfer student data to Firebase, which streamlined the process. Scaling in our organization also resulted in several growing pains. Initially, we hardcoded all the course information (with the initial ~20 courses), which was unreliable and a slow turnaround for making changes. Although this was manageable in the short-term, Wave grew exponentially in the number of interested students, the number of qualified teachers, and thus the number of courses. We are currently at approximately 50 courses, already in the third wave. Thus, automation of course data was critical in order to provide the most updated and instant information for potential users. Another scaling issue we found was in assigning students to courses as they sign up. We had hundreds of registrations and thousands of potential sign ups within one wave. Thus, we developed an algorithm for automatically assigning students into their interested courses and develops a waitlist for remaining students. This way we avoided any slow-down in a manual assignment, which could potentially cause back-log and waiting students. Communicating with students is another challenge we are actively working on streamlining. We want to make sure that students have the most updated information regarding their course placement and access to the teacher, materials, and class times. Initially we would communicate with each student through email, which ended up unsustainable with over 750+ sign ups in the first wave. We are actively working on developing a student dashboard where students have access to all the information at hand, including the courses they are taking, schedule, point-of-contact information. This is currently using Firebase authentication and our sorting algorithms to provide the most updated information. Further, with updates constantly happening, we have developed a Newsletter where previous students, teachers, and website sign-ups receive updates once a week on when the next sign ups are happening, when new blog posts have been added, or when new courses have been added. This solved many of our issues with constant emails.
Ultimately, in addressing these challenges, we constantly referred back to our original mission: work to fill the education gap caused by COVID in a fun, interesting, and convenient way. We are constantly working to improve our systems and address any inefficiencies, while making it as easy and clear as possible to students who want to learn. Market Evaluation
While Wave Learning Festival has been able to achieve great things, our organization is working on improving in a few areas. One area of focus is finding a way to reach more students from more places and of varied backgrounds. We are planning to continue the use of our email automation system to reach more students because of its efficiency. Thus, we are focusing on finding new contact information to use with the system. While we have reached students internationally, most of our students are living in the US. One source of new emails is from new countries that we have not reached before or have not registered many students from. Furthermore, within the US, we can increase our reach to states that have not registered many students by sending more emails there. These are states that exclude California and some states in the East coast. We also would like to send more emails to schools to reach underserved and low-income students. To do this, we are planning to target Title One schools. These are schools which provide students with additional instructional support beyond the classroom to help low-achieving children meet state standards in what are core academic subjects; in order for a school to be considered as Title One, 40% or more of the students must be low-income. By emailing more schools that are Title One, we are aiming to bring our classes to students who need them the most.
Another area of focus in improving our organization is improving our website’s promotional materials. Recently, we have just finished creating a blog which will be found on the website. The blog will give prospective and current students a taste of what goes on behind the scenes of our organization so that they can feel more connected with our student teachers, board, and other students. Recognizing that connecting with the organization is an important part of getting students to sign up, we are looking to begin creating YouTube videos and perhaps other new informational materials to provide our students. Conclusion
With what we have, we have been able to host over 54 classes and serve over 850 students in multiple countries. Due to our success, we have also been able to officially register as a nonprofit, and expand our operations from our starting team to include new volunteers, which will allow us to reach more students. While we have been able to make a difference, we still recognize that we have more to do. Wave Learning Festival was conceived only two months ago, and has been in operation for a little over a month. Our goal has always been to help students remotely, and there are many ways that we can do so with the momentum and platform we have created for ourselves. Whichever direction Wave Learning Festival goes in after the pandemic, however, it will be strongly driven by our mission to educate students for free in the best way we can.