Bringing That CanDo Spirit
An educator's determined effort to update his school's archaic data systems results in a grassroots programming project whose success is all in its name.
- By Charlene O’Hanlon
SOMETIMES THE BEST WAY to get something
done is to do it yourself. Other times, it's the only way.
That's the conclusion David Welsh, an instructor in the
Television and Multimedia Production program at Arlington
Career Center (ACC) in Arlington, VA, came to in 2004
when he wanted to find a better way to track the
progress of his high school students against
state requirements. His search ultimately led to
the creation of a successful open source application
developed entirely in-house.
ACC, an Arlington Public Schools program
that offers students the opportunity to learn
specialized skills in areas such as aviation
technology and culinary arts in addition to core
subjects, had been tracking students' competencies
via an outmoded pencil-and-paper method
that Welsh believed was neither effective nor
"We knew what the standards were,
but there was no way to report
against those standards," he says.
"There needed to be a certain
level of transparency so that not
only would we as instructors
know where the students were
as far as meeting the competency
level, but the students
and their parents would
know as well."
Welsh went looking for
something that would keep a
database of state requirements
for each program at ACC, match the
students' progress against those
requirements, and create the
yearly report that is sent off
to the Virginia Department
of Education. What he
found, however, left
much to be desired. "There was really no software
that did what we needed it to do, and the only thing
remotely similar was pretty expensive," Welsh recalls. "So
we said, 'This may be something we want to consider
Welsh recruited a colleague, Jeff Elkner, then a computer
science teacher at Arlington's Yorktown High School, to
create a program to meet ACC's needs. They had met
a few years earlier at a professional development
course in computer networking and had collaborated
on an earlier project. "We had a great deal in
common in the ways we were teaching and using
technology," Welsh says.
Elkner zeroed in on what was lacking. "The system
the state was using was basically a Word document
that instructors would download and fill
out," he says. "But even if you did all that, there
was no way to do analysis of the information.
I told [Welsh] that I thought it cried
out for a web application."
Elkner turned to one of his
best students to write the
application. The student,
Paul Carduner, wrote a rudimentary
first version, which
only Welsh used, but it
demonstrated that creating
an open source app
in-house was the
way to go.
"We really wanted
to leverage our
science teachers and
students, and approach
this project from a
grassroots level," Welsh says. "When
we started thinking about a solution
that could run statewide, the solution
we adopted had to be free or lowcost....
The state was already open to
[using] open source software."
"Not only did they solve a real-world problem, but they did it in a
way that was the best learning experience they could have
ever had. These students left high school as professional developers."
Over the next two years, the application-- dubbed CanDo by
Elkner because "it records what students can do"-- grew as a
project assigned to Elkner's advanced computer science students,
who wrote and finessed the code. In 2005, a chance
meeting between Elkner and Tom Hoffman, director of the
open source SchoolTool student information
software, gave the project some much-needed support.
The two men met at PyCon, the annual
conference for developers who use Python,
the programming language Elkner was using to create
CanDo. "[Elkner] was working on planning what CanDo was
going to be," Hoffman recalls. "I had just started managing
SchoolTool and I said [CanDo] would be a perfect case for
SchoolTool," which was just getting off the ground.
The SchoolTool software suite features a turnkey student
information system including demographics, a gradebook,
attendance tracking, calendaring, and reporting for primary
and secondary schools, as well as a framework for building
customized applications and configurations for individual
schools and states. Hoffman and the developers of SchoolTool
offered Elkner and his students their expertise on how to
integrate CanDo into their platform. "[Elkner] jumped right
in, and both programs grew side by side," Hoffman says.
By 2006, about 25 of the district's computer science students
were working on the CanDo project. Recognizing value
as CanDo was fleshed out into a full-fledged operational
program, Arlington Public Schools and the state of Virginia
each awarded Elkner and his students $100,000 toward its
development, enabling students to be paid for their work.
In 2007, ACC hosted a paid summer internship program for
12 students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science
and Technology in Fairfax County and 12 from ACC. The students
began the internship during the previous December,
taking programming language classes, and then met once
weekly through the end of the school year and daily during the
summer months to work on the application. "Out of that, we
got four students who have since done ongoing development
on CanDo and two who are total pros," Elkner says.
The students succeeded in developing CanDo into a
web-based application that can be tailored to fit teachers' curricular
needs. Teachers can use the app to create a list of 100
state-mandated standards of learning (SOLs) relating to career
and technical education, with which they can track student
progress throughout the school year. Meanwhile, students are
able to monitor their progress online, working at their own pace.
The application also allows teachers to upload documents and
PowerPoint presentations that relate to a particular SOL, and
includes a journaling feature for both teachers and students.
By 2008, CanDo was ready to be pilot-tested throughout
Virginia, in 250 classes in 10 schools. And this past spring a
second pilot was begun in another eight schools in the
state-- one in every superintendent's region. "The feedback
was good," Welsh says. "Ninety percent of the users said they
would like to see it used statewide."
While pilot projects continue across the state, all Arlington
teachers are now required to use CanDo. So far, according to
Welsh, the software seems to be achieving the goals he set
out to address. "[It] has brought a level of consciousness to
teachers of those skills students need to achieve competency
in the state's eyes," he says. "From a reporting aspect it
has made teaching more rigorous. We teach hands-on projects
that are exciting, but until you can define which competencies
are associated with which projects, it's hard to see which
students are performing at the standards. This software
forces you to see which students can do the work."
Another important outcome of the CanDo project is the
growth of the students involved in the application's development. "We basically had to train our own [student] workforce
for CanDo, and it was an incredible experience for them,"
says Elkner, who last year joined Welsh on the staff at ACC.
"Not only did they solve a real-world problem, but they did it
in a way that was the best learning experience they could
have ever had. These students left high school as professional
But, despite CanDo's educational value and the app's availability
as open source, tight school budgets across the state
are preventing widespread adoption, at least for now. "Free
software doesn't necessarily mean it's free," Elkner says. "Any
program that involves personnel training and time requires a
budget. And right now the money isn't there."
Still, hopes are high for the future of CanDo, especially given
its fairly low cost compared to proprietary programs. "I have
watched other states put out proposals for similar software,
and the proposals come in at $1.2 million," Welsh says. "We
came in at $200,000. It was built at a fraction of the cost, we
paid the students to build it, and we're not at the mercy of the
vendor because we created it and it's open source."
Welsh speaks of the use of students in the development
of the software with a swell of pride. "When we apply for various
grants, one of the questions on the application is, 'How
are you sharing what you know?' This pretty much answers
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.
Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.