TrendFinder: Educational Trends from the Past Decade (guest post)
How tech and furniture have changed the American classroom
This blog post is part of a series of guest posts from the CKM Advisors Pro Bono Team recapping a recent 4-month collaboration, where CKM Advisors designed and developed a product for DonorsChoose.org called TrendFinder.
TrendFinder is a self-sufficient, interactive business intelligence dashboard built to detect and analyze trends on the DonorsChoose.org platform in real-time. In this article, we cover major educational trends we found using TrendFinder.
What is TrendFinder?
TrendFinder is a tool that can alert DonorChoose.org about trending words in their underlying data; it also includes several demographic and geographic analyses to break trends down and ask deeper questions. Here are some questions (and answers) TrendFinder can explore:
What words are trending across DonorsChoose.org data over the past two weeks?
TrendFinder displays 50+ trending keywords in a table, sorted by how trendy the word is.
If the word “insect” is trending, for example, we can dig deeper into this trend:
- What subjects or grade levels are primarily driving the “insect” trend?
- Is the “insect” trend correlated with a recent spike in Google searches for the word “insect”?
- Where is “insect” trending? In what cities or geographical regions? How has the “insect” spread geographically over time?
We can also look at how “insect” has behaved historically:
- Has the number of “insect” projects been growing over time?
- Is the “insect” trend seasonal?
- Have multiple subjects been driving the “insect” trend over time, or just one (e.g. science)?
In the process of building TrendFinder, we found lots of trends across many different types of classrooms. We asked questions like the ones above to see how large these trends were, as well as when and where they took place. Certain prominent trends kept coming up in our analyses and we wanted to share the most interesting and impactful insights we found.
The “Big 3” Trends in Education
The three biggest, unmistakable trends we discovered using TrendFinder on the DonorsChoose.org data (2008–2018) were the rise of iPads, Chromebooks and … wobble chairs. What is a wobble chair, you ask? Read on to find out, as we unpack these trends with TrendFinder.
iPad: The Granddaddy of them All
Without question, iPads were the most prominent trend we found over the last ten years of DonorsChoose.org data. As of 2018, iPad projects represent over 10% of all DonorsChoose.org projects since 2008. While this in itself may not come as a surprise (who hasn’t seen kids begging for their parents’ Apple devices?), we can use TrendFinder’s features to examine how the iPad’s presence grew in classrooms over time.
The following graph is an output of TrendFinder. It illustrates what fraction of projects in the DonorsChoose.org dataset, over time, contained the word “ipad” in various text fields:
Based on the graph, the initial release of the iPad in April 2010 didn’t make a massive splash on the DonorsChoose.org platform. The iPad really took off in classrooms with the debut of the iPad mini in late 2012. The iPad mini was the most affordable iPad option to date, which means that teachers were able to get more devices for students with a smaller donation amount. It’s interesting to note that requests for iPads have fallen in recent years, possibly due to cheaper options on the market.
Looking at demographic shifts over time in “ipad” projects reveals interesting insights. The following TrendFinder output visualizes how under or over represented a particular demographic is among “ipad” projects. The y-axis of the graph is labeled “ratio difference”; without getting too technical, the higher the ratio difference, the more overrepresented a demographic is in “ipad” projects.
There is a widening gulf between the grades PreK-2 (blue line) and grades 3–5 (pink line) demographics. Over time, iPads are becoming much more heavily represented in classrooms with the youngest kids (note: iPads are still big in Grades 3–5 relative to older kids). Is this because iPads are an easier technology to use than laptops? We may have a hunch that younger and younger kids are using technology, but it is entirely different to see it laid out in the DonorsChoose data.
Chromebooks: An Affordable Classroom Computer
Chromebooks are no-frills laptops that run Google’s ChromeOS. Chromebooks are sold at a lower price point than Macs or PCs , which means that teachers can get more Chromebooks for their classrooms than premium laptops with the same funding. The first wave of Chromebooks, released starting June 2011, didn’t gain very significant traction on the platform. However, around November of 2012, we see a massive spike in the proportion of Chromebooks being requested:
As it turns out, DonorsChoose ran a promotional campaign with Google called “Chromebooks for Classrooms” in December 2012. The promotion let teachers request Chromebooks on the platform for $99 each. This campaign had a massive impact; in the month of the promotion, over 25% of projects on the platform were Chromebook projects compared to less than 2% in the months before. Why was this growth difficult to sustain? This case is typical of the canonical “hype cycle”:
Teachers, as a whole, may have needed some time to incorporate Chromebooks into their lesson plans and classrooms. After the initial success of the Chromebook promotion, we see sustained growth in Chromebook projects over the past 6 years.
Wobble Chairs: Flexible Seating for Kids
TrendFinder picked up a variety of high-proportion trends that we didn’t expect: words such as “wiggle”, “wobble”, and “flex”:
As non-educators, we had to do some research into these words in the educational context to realize that they all referred to flexible seating options, chairs that move and wobble so that children aren’t stuck fidgeting in rigid chairs. You can read more about flexible seating in education here.
Interestingly, flexible seating seems to have taken off in some of the Southwestern cities before it grew as a trend nationwide. We can use TrendFinder’s geographical analyses features to see where the “wobble” trend, for example, really picked up steam. The following graph shows, at any given point, the fraction of “wobble” projects took place in the city of Dallas up to that point in time (cumulative proportion):
There was a flurry of activity early in the life-cycle of the “wobble” trend in Dallas, which was even covered in local press. Cities seen as trendsetters, such as New York and Los Angeles, lagged quite a bit behind Dallas and only caught on in 2017. TrendFinder’s geographical features present an interesting opportunity to spotlight and promote trends in unexpected areas.
Seasonal Trends: Falling down and Springing back up
iPads, Chromebooks, and flexible seating all exhibited some degree of seasonality, or repeating pattern, on a yearly basis. We can see a really clear example of seasonality when we look at basic resources, such as sheets and markers:
Teachers need to stock up on these basic supplies at the beginning of the school year, which explains why we see many more sheet and marker projects in the late summer. Similarly, school sports programs need equipment before their seasons start, which is reflected in when certain sports start trending on the DonorsChoose platform.
The professional and youth football seasons begin in the fall, and football projects on DonorsChoose (green line) predictably rise along with the start of the season. TrendFinder lets us compare the behavior of “football” in the DonorsChoose data with its behavior in the Google Trends index (red line), which exhibits clear periodicity. Google Trends gives us a rough measure of how popular a keyword is at any given point on the broader internet.
Pop-culture and education
Often, pop cultural phenomena become hot topics of discussion on the internet and also start trending on the DonorsChoose platform. TrendFinder, with its Google Trend analysis feature, is a useful tool for identifying and making sense of keywords pertaining to popular books and movies.
The film Bully, for example, was a documentary following the lives of American students. It premiered globally in July 2011 and was released in the US in March 2012. TrendFinder identified “bully” trending for several months prior to the US release of the film. Even more interestingly, “bully” briefly trended again on DonorsChoose in late 2012; this timing corresponded to the DVD release of the movie.
Disney’s Frozen is perhaps the biggest children’s movie of the past five years. The word “frozen” has trended a few times, around the theatrical and DVD releases in the series. This isn’t necessarily surprising, but we found something really interesting looking at TrendFinder’s demographic breakdown for “frozen”:
Since 2015, teachers of the youngest classrooms (Grades PreK-2, blue line) were heavily overrepresented in “frozen” projects, but recently, things have changed. Grades 3–5 (orange line) have been requesting far more “frozen” projects, accompanied by a decline in Grades K — 2. This begs the question: Are the kids who fell in love with Frozen growing up? Are these kids more receptive to Frozen-related content as 3rd through 5th graders? Sometimes, TrendFinder poses more questions than it presents answers.
Finding these thought-provoking observations was one of the most rewarding parts of building TrendFinder for the CKM Pro Bono Team. As non-educators, we definitely learned a lot about how trendsetting teachers are adopting innovative products for the classroom.
TrendFinder lives on as a deployed dashboard populated by a frequently running data analysis pipeline. Every week or two, TrendFinder will deliver an email full of the latest trending keywords to the awesome folks at DonorsChoose.org. And, every week or two, we hope DonorsChoose.org can use it to find something or someone interesting to prepare for, talk about, or connect with. After all, those chairs aren’t going to wobble themselves.
TrendFinder was a collaboration between DonorsChoose.org and the CKM Advisors Pro Bono team. If you like this work, please support DonorsChoose.org and their mission of building a future by supporting classrooms.