Draft: A fantastic collaborative text editing tool

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An important tool in teaching writing is the ability to give and receive feedback from fellow students and the instructor. There are a number of tools, both offline and on the cloud, that allow someone to do that including Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Open Office, Google Drive, Zoho Writer, TitanPad, and so on. Many of these tools are far more complicated or difficult for this task. This is where Draft comes in. Draft is an online collaborative writing tool that is clean and easy to use and integrates with Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Evernote. It is also free and has a simple registration that can be overcome quite easily. Instead of typing out all of the features and steps on how to use it, I did a simple screencast to demonstrate:

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Please feel free to add your comments or send me a Tweet at @nathanghall. Thank you!

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RecordMP3: A nice, simple, online voice recorder

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If you have ever been to one of my technology sessions, you know how much I appreciate the use of an audio recorder in my classroom. I use it for feedback on written work, I record listening tasks for students, and students can use it to record themselves or their group, especially as part of their e-portfolio. I have used Vocaroo and CLEAR RIA Audio Dropbox in the past, but I recently stumbled upon RecordMP3. It works very much like Vocaroo, but it seems to be much cleaner and it is easier to download the file. Here is how it works:

Steps:

  1. Go to RecordMp3.org and click on the ‘okay, got it’ button.
  2. An Adobe Flash dialog box pops up the first time. Click on ‘Allow’, ‘Remember’, and ‘Close’. If you don’t check off the ‘Remember button, you will have to do this the next time you visit the site.
  3. Click on the ‘okay, I did it’ button and a new recorder will appear in its place.
  4. Once you are ready to record, click on the ‘RECORD’ button to start. It will immediately start recording and the time clock will start.
  5. When you are ready to stop recording, click on ‘STOP’. You can listen to your recording by clicking on the ‘Play’ button. You can click on the ‘Pause’ button to stop it.
  6. If you are not happy with the recording, click on the ‘Start Over’ button and do it again.
  7. If you are happy, click on ‘Save Recording’ and it will start to process and upload the file to their server.
  8. Once it is done uploading, a dialog box will appear. Click in the address box to automatically copy the URL to your clipboard. You can now share the address with anyone you would like to have listen to the recording.
  9. To download the file, click on ‘Save as…’ and choose the place on your computer you would like to save it to.

The file that is created is a 128 kbps mono MP3 file which is small enough for email and posting on a website, but is only good for spoken text. It works great for the classroom, but I wouldn’t use it to create something that you plan on using for music or playing to an audience.

How do you use voice recordings in your classroom? Do you archive your files for ongoing formative assessment? Please share your thoughts by posting a comment below, sending me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or emailing me through the contact page on this website. Thank you!

 

Open book tests in the English language classroom

Quiz

Photo courtesy of Tory Byrne

There is a good deal of debate over the use of tests in education and while I don’t agree with everything that is being discussed, I do believe there is a need for an overhaul in how to approach testing and assessment in the classroom. One of the major problems is how tests are used and what they are assessing. I am an English language teacher and what I am assessing is quite different from what someone in mathematics or geography are measuring. To make a blanket statement regarding all subject areas is as misguided and dangerous as the standardized testing that many are fighting against. I am lucky in that I have more autonomy in how I assess my students. I have chosen to continue using tests as a small part of my assessment of their proficiency, partly due to what the students want and also what is needed to properly evaluate their progress.

One of the ways in which I use tests in my classroom is to have students write open-book tests. This looks different in each subject area and has taken me a few tries to make it work the way that is good for both the student and myself. Here is how I approach it:

  1. Give students plenty of notice: My class changes every four weeks, so on the first day, I clearly lay out how they are going to be assessed and the important dates to know regarding when they will be writing quizzes, handing in assignments, and so forth.
  2. Explain how open book tests work: On that first day, I tell them how the open book quizzes will work and even give them example questions. I explain that these tests are NOT looking for how well they know the structure of the grammar, but it will be testing their ability to choose the proper grammar in a given situation. These are open answer type of questions and are always based on real-life situations (ex. read a newspaper article and comment on it based on a set of criteria).
  3. Give them respect and trust: I let my students know they are able to use whatever materials they would like as long as they do it on their own (ie. no calling/texting friends, talking with other students) and they do it within the time frame given. I do give them more time if a majority of the class is still working on it as we approach the deadline. I tell them that I trust them to do what is best for them and I try to give them latitude in regards to leaving the room, etc. One of the main things I stress in the classroom is that they are adults and I will treat them with the respect they deserve and I ask them to give each other as well as me the respect we deserve by not cheating, going on Facebook during class, and so on.
  4. Make it a low-stakes test: The open book tests I use are only worth a fraction of their overall mark. I make sure this is clearly spelled out for them. I explain that this test will help me know where the class is at and where we can spend more time on review. I also let them know that the test helps me and them to find areas they need to target for more practice. Part of their formative assessment is to see how they progress from one quiz and project to the next. If they are making clear progress, no matter how low the quiz mark, the higher percentage of their overall mark will come from their ability to build on the areas that they are weakest. That means, a student who scores low on the first quiz and then makes strides to work on the areas they had problems with will improve their overall grade more than a students who does well on the first test, but doesn’t make any effort to improve on the areas they are weakest.
  5. Give oral feedback on the test: One of the best ways to encourage students and to help them notice areas that need improvement is to make an audio recording based on their quiz results. When I mark the tests, I only make a small mark, such as an underline, to designate areas that need work or are well done. I then make an audio recording for the student which I post on our closed class webpage that they can access on their own. I talk about the problems and how they can fix them. I also stress the areas they did well and also on the content of their writing. I have had students tell incredibly personal stories and I don’t want to just focus on the English. I also want to treat them as people by acknowledging what they have written.
  6. Follow up: I give a lot of followup to make sure students understand where they can make improvements and where their strengths are. I do this by giving specific work for each student and also class work based on areas the whole class needs work.

I understand that there are going to be people who disagree with using tests as part of assessing a students ability in a subject area, but I believe that this can be done with care and support that encourages the student and helps them focus their attention on areas they need work. It is great to allow students the flexibility to take control of their learning, but it is the instructors job to guide them towards the areas they could be missing.

How do you feel about tests? Have you used open book tests before? How well did it work for you and the student? Add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the form on the contact page of this website. Thank you.

CLEAR Conversations: Create video-based questions for students to answer online

Conversations

One of the advantages to using online tools in the language classroom is the ability to have students make audio and video recordings that can be used for practice and assessment. An absolutely fantastic tool from The Center of Language Education and Research (CLEAR) at Michigan State University is called Conversations. Conversations allows teachers to create an online video recording that students can respond to by using a simple webcam and microphone. These recordings are kept private in the teacher’s online folder for review and can also be downloaded. Here is how it works:

Recording the questions:

  1. Go to the main CLEAR website to register. The teacher is the only person who needs to register. The students can use their own names or any designation that you have agreed upon. They do not have to give any personal information such as an email address.
  2. Once you have completed the registration process, go to the Conversations website and login.
  3. In the ‘Start a new conversations’ box, put in a name that will help you know which ‘conversation’ you are referencing. This could be the class name, a subject name, or anything else. This can be changed at any time.
  4. Once you have created a conversation, click on the pencil symbol to the far left of the name. A box will appear and you will be asked to give access to the webcam and microphone. Click on ‘Allow’.
  5. A live video feed will appear in the box. To the left of the video, click on the little green ‘+’ symbol and a number will appear in the box just to the left of the video.
  6. Click on the number and, when you are ready, click on the red record button below the video box to start recording. Record a question, comment, or anything else you would like the student to respond to. Click on the stop button to stop recording. You can play back the video by clicking on the play button.
  7. Once you are done adding questions, select a time limit for the student’s video (0 is the default which means no time limit).
  8. If you would like to allow students to practice before making their final recording, click on the ‘Check to allow students to practice’ checkbox.
  9. Click on the ‘Save All’ button to save your changes.
  10. Click on the ‘Copy’ button to get the embed code that you can paste into a webpage. If you have a blog, this could be on a page or post. If you don’t have a website or blog, you can always use a registration-free page such as Axess.im to paste your embed code.
  11. Give the students the webpage site where they can go to record their answers.

Student recordings:

  1. Students go to the webpage and click on ‘Allow’ to let allow the computer to access the webcam and microphone.
  2. Students type in their name and click on ‘Log in’.
  3. If you have allowed students to practice, they can click on the question numbers and then the little speaker button below the video to watch the questions. They can even practice recording themselves by click on the record, stop, and play buttons. These videos will not be submitted to the teacher.
  4. Once students are ready, or if you have turned off the practice option, students click on the ‘Real Time’ button to watch the questions you have recorded. At the end of each video, the webcam will immediately start recording their responses. If it is timed, it will stop recording at the end of the time limit. If they have unlimited time or they finish before the time is up, they click on ‘Stop Recording’ below the video to go to the next question. If they would like to do it again, they can always click on the ‘Real Time’ button again to start again.
  5. Once all the questions are answered, the ‘Submit’ will appear. Click on this button and they videos are automatically put in the teacher’s review box.

Teacher Review:

  1. Back at the Conversations website, click on the eye button to the left of the conversation name. A ‘Conversations Viewer’ box will appear with a list of names on the left.
  2. Click on a name and click on ‘Play Back’ to see both the question and the student’s answer, or click on ‘Play Responses Only’ to just see their answers.
  3. There is a ‘Request Download’ button that you can use to download the videos. You will get a download link within 24 hours.

This is an amazing tool for having asynchronous conversations with students. You could create listening and speaking practice activities or tests using this tool and then save the videos for the student’s e-portfolio. The fact it is only accessible by the teacher makes this a tool that can be used with all age groups and also for situations where privacy is imperative.

Here is a video tutorial on how to use CLEAR Conversations:

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How could you see this being used? Share your ideas in the comment field below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact page on this website. Thank you.

Testing, assessment, examinations, and the value of marks

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Photo courtesy of arroclint

Tests are not evil. Exams are not the enemy. Despite all that you have heard and read, it just isn’t true. Tests really are a part of our normal everyday life despite what others want to make you think. The problem with testing and other forms of assessment isn’t that tests themselves are bad, it is how they are used and society’s warped view of value based on numbers.

Before I was an English language teacher, I worked for many years in a retail business environment. I started off in sales and eventually worked my way up to upper management and some time in purchasing. Every single day, whether is was on the sales floor or in the office, I was tested on my ability to recall information and process data on the fly. Yes, there were times I had to stop and look things up, but if I did that on a regular basis, people would lose faith in my ability to work in a fast-paced environment which would inevitably hurt my business. Haven’t you ever questioned someone’s ability to help you find the answer you are looking for when they are off looking for answers? Maybe it is in a hotel while checking in. It could be when you are buying a car or depositing money at the bank. One of the most important things we look for in those who are helping us is trust. We are putting our faith in people to help us make the proper decision. We don’t mind if they don’t have all the answers, but when someone is constantly looking for answers on their own, we often lose trust in that person and often walk away.

Testing is very much like that. We are fine if you don’t know all the answers, but in that controlled environment, we are looking to see if you have a foundational understanding that enables us to trust that you can move on to the next task or level. The problem is that tests are often used as a means to an end, not a step on the journey. We often use marks or grades as a punishment or reward system, making it into a test on that person’s character. A person shouldn’t be seen as bad or good based on marks, but these markers should be a measuring tool to find out if they are able to move on to the next rung of the learning ladder.

Everyone needs goals or targets in order to tell if they are actually learning anything. Setting goals should be a negotiated process and not something arbitrarily decided on by someone who has no stake in that student’s progress. This leads us to standardized testing. How can we use a test to measure everyone the same when everyone is different? Each person has different needs, goals, and abilities. What may seem like a walk in the park for one student may seem like a torrid pace for another. Allowing students to set goals and then achieve them teaches them more than giving a grade that in a sense is worthless. Tests can certainly be a part of that, just not one designed by someone completely separated from the situation.

As a language teacher, I am interested in linguistics and the historical basis of the language. There are a number of words related testing that I would like to examine a bit more closely (pun is completely intentional). All of these definitions are based on the information found in the Online Etymology Dictionary (a super resource for higher-level English language learners):

  • Test: The origin of the word comes from the melting pot that was used to determine the quality of metals. In this way, tests put us in a high-pressure situations to determine our knowledge of a subject. We can say we know something, but when push comes to shove, can we actually use this information.
  • Examination: It is a word based on the verb to examine which has it’s origin from exact. We are weighing out the facts to see if they are accurate or not.
  • Assessment: Comes from the verb to assess which comes from the ability to figure out the value of something. It actually was first used for tax purposes (ie. setting property value to calculate tax amounts), but has since been used as a judgement on anything of value.
  • Formative: This is based on the noun form which means the shape of something. Formative refers to the instructions or productions in the creation of something.
  • Summative: It has the origin in the word summation which means to total or add up. It started as a reference to finances, but switched to the total of anything later on.

After looking at each of these words, we can see that many of these words first started in the area of finance or business and were eventually adopted for educational purposes. It shows the value we put on education and on the measuring of our progress. We need to be careful not to take this metaphor too far, but it certainly is helpful in visualizing how testing and assessment should be used. How can we test what metal it is if we first don’t find out the properties of that metal? How can we weigh out the facts if we don’t know what we are weighing? How can be using what we have learned if we don’t find value in it? How can we know what to form if we don’t draw things out first? And how can we know know if something adds up if we don’t know what we are counting first?

The debate on whether we should use tests or not is actually the wrong fight to be picking. The real battle should be on how they are being used. Setting clearly defined tasks and goals should be a collaborative effort between the teacher and the student. This shouldn’t be a blanket decision for all students, nor should the direction be top-down, but should be more lateral. Even the concept of top-down and bottom-up brings in a level of superiority and submission. This should be a learning journey, not a judgement. Testing should reflect that. I often use open-book tests with a set time to complete the test. The questions are more open-ended and the answers are more negotiable. I feel this is a fairer way of measuring the students ability to use the knowledge they have been acquiring. Of course, this is completely negotiable. Just ask my students.

“I hear what you’re saying”: Giving audio feedback on writing assignments

Image courtesy of Sebastian Surendar

Image courtesy of Sebastian Surendar

I have to admit, I don’t normally enjoy marking / giving written feedback on writing assignments in class. My biggest gripe has always been the lack of ability to give detailed feedback on why something isn’t correct in that situation or correcting a sentence that is completely wrong. I usually end up making a summary paragraph at the bottom of the page and putting cryptic short notes in the middle of the paper. That is, I USED TO do it that way. Enter the age of easy audio recording. Now, instead of marking up their paper until it is unreadable, I make simple marks on the page and then record myself using an audio recorder and give my students a file they can listen to regarding their paper.

 

Rationale:

  • More information: Talking about the problem instead of writing it out allows me to give more detailed reasons for having them make changes.
  • Reviewing: Students are able to go over the comments at any time they want, including downloading the file to their portable music player. They can also go back over the material weeks or months later to see if they are making progress.
  • Pronunciation: This gives students an chance to hear pronunciation and intonation of their writing. I don’t read over everything they have written, but I do read out some of the more difficult passages.
  • Listening skills: This is one more way students can get some listening practice   from someone they are familiar with.
  • Students make the changes: One of the problems with writing things out is that  it is sometimes simpler to write out the solution for them instead of taking a long way around to describe it without fixing it for them. By doing it orally, the students are the ones who make the changes.
  • It isn’t as intimidating: Students can get quite discouraged if their paper is covered in corrections and markings which they sometimes misinterpreted as bad writing. By doing it orally, you can say things in a more encouraging and supportive manner.
The Tools:

  • Recording: There are a number of good software options that can be installed on your computer, or you can avail yourself to some online options as well. Don’t forget that you can also use a dedicated voice recorder or even a cell phone. For the sake of this article, I will demonstrate how to use RecordMP3, a free online voice recorder.
  • Editing: Again, there is a variety of options including many of the same software options listed above as well as tools online. I normally don’t have to make any edits, but if I do, I use MP3Cut.net to trim a recording.
  • Sharing: The most common way of sharing is online. This can be through a blog such as Blogger or Posterous, through a cloud based storage site such as Google Drive or Dropbox, or through a dedicated audio host such as Vocaroo.com or PicoSong.com. Sharing the links can be done through a URL shortener such as Bit.ly or BridgeURL.com. The easiest route is to post a direct link on an online document such as Kl1p.com or TitanPad.com. In this demonstration, I will use PicoSong.com to host the audio file and Kl1p.com to post the links for the students.
The Steps:
  1. Read over the student’s paper making notes where there are problems. I underline problem areas such as grammar, word choice, or spelling and put an insert marker where something is missing. I don’t cross out words or use arrows, I simply underline the whole area.
  2. I make a few quick notes on a separate piece of paper about things I don’t want to forget when recording and I also write down general observations as well. I try to draw their attention to things that they can work on overall.
  3. I go to RecordMP3 and record my feedback for each students individually. Simply click on the ‘Click to Record’ button, click on ‘Accept’ when a dialog box comes up to ask you if the program can use your microphone, and start speaking. Once you have finished recording, click on ‘Click to Stop’. You can listen to the recording by clicking on ‘Listen’ and you can redo the recording if you click on the ‘Retry’ button. If you are happy with the recording, click on the ‘Click here to save’ link below the buttons and you will be given a web address you can copy. You can also download the MP3 file by right or ctrl clicking on the MP3 link at the bottom. Click on the Vocaroo logo at the top of the page to make another recording.
  4. After each recording, I copy the web link (URL) and paste it into a notepad document for myself. This is for me to find the original file if something goes wrong in the process. I also download a copy of the file to my computer. I usually put them in a shared folder such as in my Dropbox account.
  5. Once I have finished all of the recordings, I go to PicoSong.com and upload each file individually. I put the student’s name in the title of the document and I make a note of the two URLs that are created: one for my to edit the document and the other to share with the student. The reason I do this instead of giving them the Vocaroo link is that PicoSong allows students to make comments. Also, Vocaroo will delete the files after a couple of months and students may want to access them later on as a way of review (ie. portfolio).
  6. After uploading each file, I copy all of the public URLs from PicoSong and paste them into a Kl1p.com document. To create a public document, go to Kl1p.com, create a new Kl1p address and then create a new ‘Rich Kl1p’ by clicking on ‘Create’ at the top of the screen. I paste the URLs onto the page and then lock it by clicking on ‘Kl1p’ at the top of the page and then choosing ‘Lock’ which I set with a password. I make note of the URL at the top and I write that on the whiteboard in the classroom.
Notes:
  • Give encouragement: Don’t just go over all of the problem areas, give students some encouragement as well. Let them know what they did well. Highlight an area that was particularly well written or used a complicated structure in the proper manner.
  • Give reasons why: Don’t just tell them they chose the wrong tense or used the wrong word, tell them why. Give them a good reason to make the changes and to continue to use it in those situations.
  • Give examples: Tell them how to use the structure or word properly and then give one or two different examples for them to tie things together. I might say that this word is not used in this situation, but is useful in these other places.
  • Don’t always give them the answer: This is particularly important for higher level students. Make them look up the spelling of the word. Tell them that this is the wrong word tense for a situation that is completed in the past and see if they can piece it together on their own. Most students will get it on their own since they are already aware of that particular structure.
  • Portable: Yes, paper is portable as well, but storing these comments
    over time can be cumbersome if they are scattered over a number of documents. This way, students can take them once they leave the school as well.
Have you ever done this in your classroom? How has it worked for you? Add your thoughts in the comment section below, tweet me at @nathanhall, or email me through the contact page on this website.

The Big Picture: Eportfolios as assessment and showcase

At the beginning of May, I had the opportunity to speak at the BC TEAL annual conference in North Vancouver, BC. I had a wonderful time meeting and connecting with a number of great people and I received a lot of great feedback from some of them. Shortly after that, I was asked to write an article for the spring newsletter for the technology section. The subject was The Big Picture and so I decided to write about eportfolios and their use as ongoing assessment and as a showcase of the students’ final work. Yesterday, the online version of the newsletter was posted and so I have posted a copy of my article here and would appreciate any feedback you might have. You can post comments below or can tweet me at @nathanghall: