User Stories | April 25, 2018

Great Hearts Academies transforms PD with Swivl

We are GreatHearts Academies - a collection of non-profit public charter schools with an emphasis on classical liberal arts education. We have over 20 schools across Arizona and five in Texas with plans for further expansion. We hold tightly to the belief that the best education for the best is the best education for all and, therefore, seek to provide the highest quality in liberal arts instruction to each of our 15,000 K-12 students.

The reality of great teaching – that is, great teachers in action – is what we want to capture, study, and replicate when forming other great teachers. Teaching is an act of prudence, an art rather than a science, and the act of teaching is fundamentally human.  While we can write down some good practices, we all know that teaching teachers is best done through coaching and by example.  The very best examples happen in small pockets in a school or across the network. And while it is best to have experienced teachers mentor and coach younger teachers in person, the reality of time and space can be filled with roadblocks to the ideal.  We have all felt those times of wishing we could bottle up the magic of some of the best (those who have the instincts and/or experience) such that the essence can be passed along to another classroom at another place in time.

Video is one way to do that.

We have always thought this, and we tried recording lessons in the past for the purpose of sharing and commenting.  The problem was that the platform we were using then was too much of a barrier. And in the life of a teacher, that’s a deal breaker. We needed a tool that allowed teachers to upload and share videos with minimal effort. Additionally, it needed to be something they could easily set up on their own (too many cords and buttons are also deal breakers). 

After some intensive searching on Google, Swivl presented itself as a viable option. The online platform that allows for automatic uploading of video, the relative simplicity of set-up and operation, and, yes, the fact that the robot tracks the speaker, made us take a gamble.

 As we’ve grown, it’s become apparent that coaching is more of a need and more of a challenge. Using Swivl is a great way for us to connect teachers with coaches. Additionally, we dream of creating a best practices library to capture the magic of teachers to share with other aspiring faculty. One of our schools has taken the Swivl and really run with it. They use it for coaching cycles and have even met the needs of homebound students through recording classroom instruction.


GreatHearts uses Swivl cloud with a Team account to utilize custom video tagging and comment categories.

Currently, we are piloting a remote coaching program which connects teachers across the network in peer coaching relationships. We manage the coordination on our end and, with input from our headmasters, match aspiring teachers to veteran ones for coaching. We’ve paired the videos and commenting with live streaming so the coaching can be truly remote since travel across the Phoenix valley can be a deterrent to veteran teachers in helping their younger comrades.

Additionally, we have a stellar phonics coach who is stationed in Arizona. In order to give her better and more access to schools (especially those in Texas), we started recording phonics lesson and sending them to her for comments and feedback. This does not replace in-person connection, but rather supplements it.

Last year, we started using Swivl to record our summer training sessions. This came in handy for sending along material to teachers who missed sessions. This fits into our PD because we are really looking to create cultures of coaching at school sites. Using the Swivl allows admins to implement a variety of coaching techniques at their own schools. It also allows for self-reflection. Once upon a time, we tried other means of technology for recording lessons but found the platform difficult to navigate. The biggest problem was how long we had to wait for videos to upload. They didn’t automatically upload from a device; rather, we would record them on an SD card, then use that to upload. That extra step was a lot of extra work, so that endeavor eventually petered out. With Swivl, everything is automatic - the video uploads straight from the device to Swivl cloud. Time saved is time earned. 

Adopting Swivl has come with its own learnings, too. What has worked for us could be burdensome for others, so for anyone thinking about starting a video observation program here are some things to consider—teachers don’t like to be recorded or feel like they are being watched by a sort of "Big Brother." Be sure to be transparent about your intentions. Also, begin small. Ask teachers to record some sort of best practice video first, rather than jumping into coaching. In terms of using videos for coaching, we’ve found the most success when we’ve used classroom video as a jumping off point for discussion. The coaching should continue in person (or over video conference using Swivl Live with Zoom). Comments are helpful but cannot replace conversation!

It is of utmost importance to begin with a mission in mind. Our purpose is to find ways to help teachers become their best selves. Don’t just implement the tech for the tech’s sake! It needs to be folded into a larger PD or curricular plan.

Teachers need to have buy-in to this as well. You cannot impose it on them. One of our schools exemplifies this sort of grass-roots buy-in. They have done this by using the recording capabilities of Swivl within an existing coaching culture. That’s key. Culture has to exist first. The videos will be more of a distraction otherwise.

Logistically, someone must serve as a point person, both at the school level and the district/network level (depending on the breadth of implementation). Those people will be needed to help troubleshoot and manage the robot and must also have fairly regular contact with schools to offer support. Otherwise, the robots go unmaintained and then just become expensive paperweights. Don't let that happen.

We have gained traction in our roll-out by starting in the places where needs were identified by school leaders. We did Spalding coaching in Texas. Additionally, we used flattery to get the cameras in classrooms. We identified strong teachers (with the help of their headmasters) whom we could record for future training. These pioneer teachers loved the idea of contributing to something bigger than themselves and welcomed us with Swivl! In fact, we periodically will hear from some of them asking about how our best practices library is going. We’re still working on that one…

Additionally, we have always offered the use of a Swivl to any school who wants to try it out. That has been helpful. Our Headmaster College point person has also been plugging the use of the Swivl to headmasters and future headmasters. We keep one unit at the ready for borrowing. More schools are hearing about the robot and are asking to try it out. We’ve had one repeat user and four schools who have decided to purchase their own units (one site even purchased two).

Finally, we were able to take this leap because we introduced Swivl in a way we felt was non-threatening, kept true to the heart of our mission as the basis for using Swivl, and took the time to support our teachers every step of the way. We hope you'll take the leap too. 

Watch our full webinar with Swivl here.

Jerilyn Olsen is GreatHearts America Vice President of Faculty Development and Cammie Passey is the Director of Curricular Projects at GreatHearts.