In this episode of Tech In EdTech, Dipesh Jain, Magic EdTech talks to Brita Nordin, BellXcel about how organizations are working towards "right-sizing" technology to improve youth programs and community-based learning.
Dipesh: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the latest episode of Tech in EdTech. In this podcast we discuss technology that powers education and improves learning for all. I'm your host, Dipesh Jain. And today we have with us a very special guest, Brita Nordin. Brita is the Chief Product Officer at Bell Excel, and a great..a great professional connection that I have. So yeah, Brita, welcome to the show.
Brita: Thanks, Dipesh. Nice to be here.
Dipesh: Thanks, Brita. So, before I get into the topic, and before I get into the details, I just wanted the audience to know that Brita and I go back a long way. I think we met three, four years back Brita, in your previous company and we’ve been connected since then. Absolutely. And what I really find amazing about Brita is her ability to focus on the learner outcomes, and leveraging the right product strategy to get there. So, we'll get into all of that. But before I begin, Brita, why don't you give the audience a little bit of an introduction about yourself?
Brita: Sure, yeah. And thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here. So yeah, I've been in Product for quite some time now. I've been with Bell Excel for just over two years. And before that, I was in the educational publishing space for gosh, over 20 years. And you know, during that time, had a great opportunity to serve in many different roles. So, I was a Sales Rep, a Marketing Manager, an Acquisitions Editor, Content Developer. I think if you name a role in the Higher Ed publishing space, I probably served in that role or worked closely with folks that did. And you know, I've just been really grateful for that experience because I think it really prepared me well to do what I'm doing today, which is leading our product team here at Bell Excel. We are a national nonprofit organization, and we work in the out-of-school time-space. So, um really working on solutions for providers who deliver youth development programming across a wide array of different services.
Dipesh: Great, that's fantastic. Brita, thank you for giving us your journey. I find it very fascinating for people who move from sales roles to, so you've kind of covered the entire gambit, right? You've done sales, you've done marketing in some shape or form, you've done product management. What have you learned in this journey of moving to different roles? How has that helped you all these different kinds of roles?
Brita: Oh, that's a great question. I think starting off as a sales rep was probably the best thing I could have done for my career, because it routed me right off the bat, in the space of the customer. And so throughout everything I've done, always having the voice of the customer in my head, I think has helped. I also think having the ability, especially early on in my career, to try different things, helped me understand what I'm good at what I'm not so good at, as well as helped me to sort of build an understanding of how the business works. And I think in order to be a good product manager, especially, it's really important to understand, you know, what are the goals of marketing? What are the goals and constraints in production? And I think having all of those different perspectives ultimately helps you as a product manager to come up with strategies and solutions that are going to work for the business as well as for the customer.
Dipesh: Great, I mean, I couldn't agree more. I've done sales myself, moving into marketing kind a of role right now working with marketing and sales. I kind of completely agree with you. I think being in sales brings you that customer-focused insights. Right. So yeah, that's great. I would, you know, just want to lay out the agenda. You're basically, you spoke about Bell Excel, and you spoke about your focus on after-school, summer school programs. You know, would love to get a little bit more about what you do at Bell Excel. What does Bell Excel do? And, you know, this is one area that I'm really keen to understand the summer school, and I'm sure audiences seem to understand, the summer school and after school market. So yeah, we want to talk a little bit about what your company does, what kind of areas do you operate in?
Brita: Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to and so we're in a space that we refer to as out-of-school time. And we really work with providers who do everything but the school day. And those programs range from academic programs to enrichment programs, even to things like camps. And Bell Excel has been in this space for over 30 years, and actually started off as practitioners and provided out-of-school-time programs for youth for many, many years. And during that time, had an opportunity to work with a number of external researchers to validate and refine our models. And I think, you know, through that process, we were able to achieve quite a lot of impact, and really sort of figure out how to make things work from an operational perspective, from a perspective of culture and climate, as well as from a perspective of impact and outcomes for kids. The one thing that I think really began to rise to the surface in recent years for our team was that there aren't very many tools for out-of-school time providers that are right-sized for the space. And so, what we found was that we were utilizing lots of different apps, lots of different tools, lots of paper. And just those sort of management of all of those tools and kind of figuring out where things were on a day-to-day basis, took a lot of overhead. And so, we made the decision as an organization to build a solution ourselves. So, I think, you know, sort of starting as a practitioner being very rooted in evidence, and then making this leap to developing a product has been very much a focus for us over the last few years. And certainly, my focus here at the organization. In the spring of this year, we launched our first fully digital platform that is designed to help program administrators, teachers, counselors, in designing, managing, and implementing their day-to-day. And so, in that product, we have a student information system, we provide analytics to our partners, we provide professional development, it's really an all-in-one solution that allows youth providers, to come in, get organized, get everything they need, keep their staff on the same page, and really improve their outcomes and improve their experiences for the kids and their programs.
Dipesh: Great. That's fantastic. I think, looking back at that, what you just said, right, there are three things that I wanted to delve a little deeper into. One is the out-of-school time. Now, whenever we talk about education at Tech these days, a lot has to do with classrooms, tools, and what do people you know, even to some extent, what do people do at home? You know, what do you say, out of school time comprises a lot of those things, in terms of what do students do when they're out of the classroom? What they, how do they learn there? So, you know, that's an area that needs a lot of discussion, in my opinion, I think we need to involve a lot of conversations that are out of school. What are your thoughts on that? What do you see out of school, basically, out of school training as or learning as?
Brita: Yeah, absolutely. It's a wide ecosystem, and ultimately, it's really based in community. And so, it's a space where we see schools and school districts collaborating with community-based organizations. Oftentimes, it's the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, or other local organizations who really understand the needs of the community and the needs of the children. And of course, that varies. But one constant across the space is that all children really deserve the opportunity to succeed. They deserve to have fundamentals of social-emotional learning and health, along with opportunities for academic achievement for enrichment, and opportunities to pursue the things that they're interested in. Ultimately, that helps kids during the school day as well. And so, it's a space where we see a lot of variability, but the constants are really rooted in community and that's really important to us, you know, as an organization, our role is never to come in and supplant what's happening in the community, but it's to support the community, to give them tools and resources and ultimately help them serve the kids in their local space.
Dipesh: That's fantastic. I think that community aspect is so crucial, you know, just giving you an example. We have a toddler who's now about to go to 3k, in New York City. And I mean, I was having a discussion with my wife the other day, she's like; Okay, I need to send him to the local YMCA, I need to, he needs to be involved in… He is three year old and I'm like, okay, isn't that a lot of a lot of pressure for the kids? Like no, he needs holistic development? I think that's the key word, right? How do you develop a child holistically? You know, it's one element is academics. And there are extracurriculars or community bonding, those kinds of things. I think you hit the nail on the head over there. I believe that I'm talking from personal experience. I think that's definitely something that's very crucial. Thank you for that. And so, the other thing that you mentioned that caught my attention was using technology there and you mentioned that you know, you're basically kind of taking away the manual part of work and empowering the stakeholders with technology. Do you want to elaborate a little bit of that, in terms of how are things managed currently? What are the things that you're trying to do?
Brita: Sure, yeah, absolutely. So, in this space, there are definitely tools and technologies that are available for providers. I think one of the challenges that we have generally in the space is that there are a lot of solutions that do one or two things. And within youth programming, especially, it's a diverse set of needs. And program administrators have a great challenge in that they are coordinating so many different elements throughout the day. And what we aim to do is give them all of the resources that they need, right-sized for out-of-school time, all in one place. And so, we are really focused on doing that in a way that fosters quality. And that fosters impact, as well as we are an organization that is routed through and through in evidence. Evidence and outcomes really drive all of our product development. So that comes through in many of the different sort of features and capabilities of our product. As I mentioned before, we do things like Student Information Management, attendance, data tracking, as well as things like professional development. And we provide this very unique, and I think, very cool tool within our product that is really designed to help program administrators in designing and managing their program in a way that will impact the quality of what's happening in their program. And so, what we've done is take all of the evidence that we've compiled over the last 30 years, from an operations standpoint, as well as from a program management standpoint, and we put that in a very sort of bite-sized planner, digital planner, so that providers can come in and they see these sort of bite-sized tasks that need to happen in a particular order - it's all extremely customizable. But as they go through this planner, they are really delivered, in real-time, the tools, the resources, the professional development that they and their staff needs to accomplish all of these goals. And as they're going, they're building their own evidence base. So, by the time they've got kids in the door, they've got all of their documentation in place, they've got all of their ducks in a row for parents, all the staff is on the same page. And by the end of the program, they've got all of their impact evidence delivered and ready to go so that they can tell a clear story to the families who have engaged with them, so that they can even use these materials in their marketing for their next program that they're going to run. And so, you know, what we want to do is make all of these tools that are imbued with quality available in a way that's not overwhelming, and that's very much okay, you know, this is what we've got to do today is that super practical. Super tactical, and with consistency at the end of the day really delivers results for them.
Dipesh: Right. And I think you’re really focussed on evidence, right. And that can be seen on your website or on your communication as well. Evidence-based approach. And I think that's the holy grail of product management, in my opinion, that you take decisions based on evidences, and behaviors, right? So how do you how are you leveraging those evidence and insight, like, you know, if you'd like to, because there are a lot of people who've been product management listening to this podcast, in terms of using the right insights, big quantitative, qualitative, and then taking them back into product development? How does that work at your end?
Brita: Yeah, I really love how our approach to evidence-based decision-making has evolved here. And I think it is an evolution. And you use what you have. So, we're very, very lucky that we have externally validated research studies on our work, as well as on the work that our partners are doing. And that drives so much of our approach. In addition to that, we do a lot of survey work, ongoing survey work with our partners, we help them develop and deliver surveys to their families, to their students, to their staff members. And so, this is something that we not only use in our own product development but that we want to empower our partners, our customers, to have at their fingertips as well. At the same time, there's always that practical component of, you know, capacity and budget and schedule that we have in product. And so, I think, you know, one of the great challenges and opportunities for us in Product is to strike that right balance of, okay, that evidence is telling us that, you know, these things are working, these areas need improvement. And then really kind of bringing in the art of figuring out how to prioritize those against your schedule, and your budget is one of the fun things about product development, in my opinion. In addition to that, though, I think the other super, super important thing, no matter what you're developing, is having touchpoints with your customers on a very regular basis. So, we do a lot of interviews, we work on building long-term relationships so that we can test new things in the field. And that is where some of the greatest learning happens. Because it all might look good on paper, but until you've actually got somebody using it and testing it out, you don't really know how effective it's going to be or where the gotchas are.
Dipesh: Love it. I think you covered very relevant points there in terms of not only your product development improvement but also your customers and your communities helping using evidence to help them as well. I think that's fantastic. The one thing that, you know, I would be very interested to know, is that evolution is so important. Or the adapting to that evolution is so important. You've beautifully laid down some of those points there. In terms of, you know, one of the things that we've seen emerge is learning loss, or as you'd like to say it - unfinished learning. And you've seen a lot of initiatives from the government to kind of help with, help districts kind of help students cope-up with these unfinished learning and, you know, intervention strategies. They see funding for, you know, as a part of the American rescue plan act. Now, how do you, how does your program leverage that? Right? I mean, how can districts leverage some of their funding to help students in their communities? What would you like to share some thoughts on that?
Brita: Yeah, absolutely. It's a great opportunity that we have right now, with so much investment in out of school time. And it's also I think, adding increased responsibility for providing high-quality programming for youth. And I think one of the great opportunities we have with Bell Excel is really providing those youth development organizations with tools that are going to help them show at the end of the day that this is money well spent. The providers in the space do so much hard work. And I think having the ability to build your evidence base as you go and do it in a way that feels accessible for everyone will allow them to tell a success story at the end of the day, that this investment had an impact. And that in fact, this investment is something that we should see all the time, not just post-pandemic, but that investing in youth in out-of-school time yields incredible results for those kids. And so that's been a big area of focus for us is really just wanting to make sure that we are showing up for our partners in a way that that gives them you know, not only what they need to take advantage of the funding that's available to you know, scale up their programs to serve more youth. But in addition to that, give them all the tools and resources to help them tell their story and help them show their impact.
Dipesh: Right. And I think you correctly pointed out that, you know, it's Yes, it's the funding post-pandemic is important. But I think that's, it's, this is an investment that needs to happen in developing the youth. And I think I really hope that this is a trigger point. And it kind of really shows people the way to go about it, like, you know, how do you invest to get those kinds of returns by developing the youth and community. I think that's, that's very pertinent. Now, where do you see this going? Right, where do you see, what do you see as a future for this area? What are the plans that you have as Bell Excel, in terms of catering to the space?
Brita: Yeah, absolutely. I love that question. We're doing a lot of work right now, planning for the future. You know, big area focus for us right now is around family communication and family engagement. We know and all of the evidence shows that when families are connected and engaged in what their children are doing out of school, and with the providers of those programs, the results and the impact for the kids is, is much, much greater. And everybody feels better about it, too. I think, during the Pandemic, parents had an opportunity to see so much more of what was happening for their kids during the school day because everybody was home. And with that new kind of level, I mean, this was certainly true for me, and with a new level of awareness, I think also comes a new level of curiosity for the future. And so, we are really thinking about how can we provide tools and resources for providers to make those connections very strong and very healthy. You know, we want to do it in a way that's accessible for everybody that, you know, allows them to overcome language barriers or to overcome technology barriers. And so that's a big area of focus for us right now. We're also really thinking a lot about operational goals for providers, and how we can provide tools that help them become more efficient, that help them become more competitive, and ultimately, give them more time and space to focus on, on their community and on their participants. So that operational focus is one that doesn't often get a lot of attention in the space. So, we really want to make sure that what we're doing here is again, right-sized for youth development and youth programs. So those are just two areas that we're focused on right now. I think we're very excited about the future. There’re so many opportunities out there. And this is a space that is incredibly gratifying because you're able to see the results and the impact almost immediately, and in how kids are doing and how communities respond to this work. So, yeah, future looks bright.
Dipesh: Yes, it does. And you know, I mean, I look at it as I look at it as a continuum, right? Like what has happened is thanks to the pandemic I think we've seen lives merge like work-life merged with personal life in a way right? The concept of integration, work-life integration what Jeff Bezos talks about was seen most prominently right now. So that's at work, but even if you look at our students live their academic life and out of school or non-Academic and place time all of that kind of merged in a way that forms that greater form of good harmony, or could be completely you know, not enough not in a very good way, not synchronized, I think the key is how do you bring that harmony in a kid's life in a student's life, right. It's very neatly integrated with the curriculum, Academic, out-of-school, parental time, all of those areas. I think that's where I see that integration of school and out of school time is I feel that it's a big area at this point in time.
Brita: Absolutely. Agree.
Dipesh: Yep. So yeah, as we end this podcast, it was great Brita talking to you. Any kind of advice you would have for your peers, customers, anything that you'd like to share?
Brita: You know, I think We've all got gone through a lot in the past year and a half I don't know that I have any advice for folks you know other than that, you know we continue to keep on keeping on and you know at the heart of Bell Excel is you know really we're a service organization and so I think having that opportunity to serve our partners and to serve their communities is something that helps keep us all going particularly when times get tough and so it's something that I'm very grateful for and I'm very excited about our future. I think you know, as we get better and better about right-sizing technology for the different sectors of education and learning overall, the better off our kids are going to be for it. So, those are just a couple of my parting thoughts.
Dipesh: No, I think I like the word I think ‘right-sizing because we often use technology as a, it's a, it's not a, it's not a, it's, it's how you use technology and how you use it to simplify people's life is what is important. So right-sizing technology, I think that's a great, great takeaway. So, thank you so much, Brita. It was great talking to you. I hope you had a good time. Thank you.
Brita: Thanks, Dipesh. I appreciate it.