Efficient Assessment, Part 2: The Tools

Last month, I posted a short explanation of the thinking that I put into constructing classroom assessments.  This month, I take those ideas into practice.

I am definitely an “early adopter” when it comes to new technological tools, especially those that my students can make use of.  When you fuse my tech eagerness with my obsession over grading and assessment, you get a single-minded drive to explore all sorts of digital assessment tools.  If there is an online gradebook application, student response device, or new-fangled student data product that was developed over the past decade, I have tried it.

In my last post, I mentioned Validity, Reliability, Authenticity, and Efficiency.  In evaluating tools that either students or I can use for the purpose of classroom assessment, I look for Value.  I want to know what a tool offers me, in terms of saving me time/effort, or what it offers my students, in terms of access, ease of use, and accuracy.  What does this tool cost my school (or, more often, me) per year?  In short, how is this better than a pencil and paper quiz in class?

I’ve warmed up to several digital tools that I use on a regular basis.  As you will see, some of them have been in my toolbox for years and others are brand-new.  All of the them have passed the test of providing value and each offers a different advantage.

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Taking the Student out of the Educational Process

I was intrigued to read a recent post by Jay Mathews on his Washington Post education blog about some DC-area teachers who are not making use of a web-based system designed to let them easily post homework online.  Based on the comments that follow the post, the purpose of the system seems to be in question.  Is it for parents of students (especially those who qualify for special education services) to help them keep track of assignments, or is it to be used with students who are absent and need to get caught up?
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Wave Can Do For Wikis What RSS Needs

SuperWaveLike many in my PLN, I lusted over Google Wave invites for weeks and finally received one of my own.  Unlike some, however, I have begun to see the great potential that this tool has to bring positive change into my classroom.  I have seen its drawbacks and missing features and I am ignoring them (for now).  Instead I am focused on the ways in which this tool (a “multimodal wiki” in the words of a colleague) could push wikis over the hump into widespread usage.
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Is Web 2.0 Inherently Wrong for Education?

One Plus OneI have been following some of the dialogue that began with dy/dan’s Dan Meyer’s comment on Wes Fryer’s blog entry at Speed of Creativity. Most of the discussion has revolved around appropriateness of Web 2.0 tools, specifically the photo-animating web application Animoto. Dan showed his concern (disdain?) for the use of commercial web-based digital tools for educational purposes, as he wrote:

“I am only now fully struck by the fact that the goals of profit-driven Web 2.0 applications and the goals of educators only align accidentally.”

The issue has made me think seriously about my own use of these tools in my classroom. I considered whether my aims might be at odds with the creators of applications such as wikis and VoiceThread. It concerned me that many educators, like myself, may be pushing the use of applications that take away the challenge that spurs learning. My reasoning was crystallized by the recent entry on the Official Google Docs blog in which an educator shared his mixed success using Google Docs as a collaboration and communication tool. The distinction becomes clear: if the learning objective is the demonstration of content area mastery through creation of a product (and the communication and collaboration enhances that goal), then these tools properly facilitate that process. If the collaboration process itself is the goal, then one must be careful not to implement an application that completes a signification portion of the process for the student.

In my own classroom, more often than not, I am seeking to measure mastery of the Science concepts and these tools can provide simple options for student assessment (and self-assessment by the students). Just as the use of calculators in a mathematics class is appropriate if the teacher is assessing something other than the student’s ability to perform arithmetic operations, so must these tools be deemed appropriate only when they do not remove the impetus to learn.

In the end, the presence of this controversy suggests that critical review is an important part of the incorporation of digital tools into education. Are Web 2.0 tools on the horizon that will be catered to the needs of educators by encouraging collaboration and communication without doing too much for students?


Evernote: My Outboard Brain

I play with a lot of digital tools, including some that are not for use in my classroom but instead enhance my ability to stay organized and do my job better.  Ever since I synched my first PDA, a Handspring Visor, in 1999, I have slowly begun to outsource my memory.  Little by little, one appointment/contact/to-do item at a time, I have been utilizing the marvels of technology to take the place of actually remembering anything.

Some may argue that this move, which seems to be growing more common, will be the downfall of Homo sapiens.  I disagree.  I honestly feel happier and less tense knowing that I don’t have to remember to pick up bread after work or recall my mother’s telephone number.  My peace of mind stems largely from the emergence of “cloud” storage that has allowed me to keep my information in numerous, highly accessible places that are secure.

Evernote's interface for creating notes
Evernote's interface for new notes

My latest and most successful venture into Web 2.0 information management is the Evernote application and web service.  It is a remarkable set of tools that essentially capture all the important things that I come across in an average day and render them accessible and searchable.  Through the use of a web client, desktop application (Mac & PC), Windows Mobile program, and (best of all) iPhone app, I am able to store audio, photos, webpages, PDFs, text files, passwords, serial numbers, and countless other little bits.  They are encrypted and kept synchronized between applications.  There are dozens of ways that other people have been using it, but here are my five favorites:

  1. Capturing/storing notes from parents.  When a parent sends in a note asking for a conference or a phone call, it is often put in the child’s agenda book and I can not easily make a copy.  Now, I simply take a quick photo using my iPhone and store it in Evernote.  Within minutes, the servers have grabbed a copy, recognized the handwritten text in the note (mindblowing!), and synched that info back to my iPhone.  I can then search for the parent’s name or any other word in the note (or any tags that I gave it) to find it when I need it.
  2. Finding recipes and shopping for them.  I come across a lot of interesting recipes on line, and I can store them in Evernote as PDF files or by simply dragging the URL onto the Evernote icon in my Dock on my MacBook.  Then, in the grocery store, I can look up the ingredients that I need (and the quantities).
  3. Lesson ideas from everywhere.  I set up notebooks in Evernote for each major unit that I teach, and then I dump every lesson idea that I find in there.  This might be PDFs from other teachers or URLs from websites.  If I can’t get a digital copy, I just snap a photo and then try to create it myself.
  4. Sharing with students.  It is easy to create shared notebooks in Evernote that can be embedded on webpages.  I share funny stuff with my students via a shared notebook.  It includes photos from class, funny websites I come across, and even audio/photos of lessons that the can access from any internet-connected computer.
  5. Blog ideas.  Let’s face it: ideas for blog posts often come when you are least prepared to write them.  I store them in Evernote and then dip in there to find things to write about.  It might be a photo of something interesting that I have seen or a webpage that made me think.

The best part is that a limited version of Evernote is available for free.  There is a monthly upload limit that is probably sufficient for most casual users.  That is, those of you who still use your biological brain for remembering things.

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