This is our fifth Guest Post related to the impact of school and university closings that are catapulting schools into distance teaching on the fly!
It’s our second post from Martin. (Thanks, Martin!)
With all the great information we’ve had so far in these posts, I am wondering whether we’re still in the “dog” phase, or if some of you might at least be approaching the “cat” phase. Perhaps that’s too hopeful – what with this being the first week of Distance Teaching for some – but we’ll get there.
For now, we’ll consider the cat as aspirational.
Take it away, Martin!
Online Teaching in the Trenches – Assessment
Pushing your presence out to students is one thing. You probably have Canvas or Blackboard to help you with this. You can publish lectures on YouTube or your campus’ video hosting platform of choice, you can do live lectures or discussions on Zoom. But maybe you’re accustomed to collecting student work on paper and returning it that way, and you’re almost certainly accustomed to doing exams on paper.
This is a bit easier to handle becuase you can often forgo any serious grade consequences here. If you have a standard textbook, see if the publisher has an LMS service like WileyPLUS. I’m generally not a fan of these for a variety of reasons – I don’t like the publisher lock-in, their software is almost universally terrible, and students usually hate it. That said, it does usually work, and you get the benefit of large problem libraries and automated grading. But if you need to get something going quickly, it succeeds nicely at that. We’re after ‘good enough’ solutions here.
If you have Canvas, use its built-in quiz tool. It can do automated grading, or you can grade manually. It’s pretty good. Students like it because its right there in the course space. The downside is that it’s not a great fit for most STEM courses. If you need to do multiple choice, or even short typed answers, anything from Google Forms to Canvas can work very nicely.
For traditional STEM courses where problem solving is the goal, you’ll need to do a bit more work. One of the simplest solution is to have students take a photo with their phone, convert it to a PDF and then upload it through your LMS (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) Recommend one of the free apps that make this easy. I really like Scannable for iOS – it adjusts contrast, perspective and cropping automatically, and automatically stitches multiple pages into a single document. There are similar apps for Android. In fact, I’ve stopped using my big office copier/scanner because my phone and the app was faster and gave me similar quality.
Jupyter notebooks are also quite good for this as well, particularly if you’re replacing a lab assignment. Students take photos of their work and add them to the notebook, provide their formal report, and can do data analysis and the like in the notebook if they has experience with python, etc. Or just have them assemble them in their tool of choice (Office, Google Docs, etc.) and send you a PDF.
One of the bigger challenges with large classes is simply organizing the work that comes in for ease of grading and returning it to students. That’s really what your LMS helps most with, but if you don’t have one, and need to rely on emailed assignments, etc. make sure you give them some hard rules on file naming and such. One of the big challenges at my institution is each student has two IDs – their numerical student ID and the first part of their campus email. Different systems sort on different IDs. Do yourself a favor and have them name the file [ID]-[Assignment Number] so that you can easily organize the assignments into different folders and sort them on your computer to match your gradebook. If you have TAs, that can help divide up the work if you normally work with paper assignments. Consider a file sharing tool like DropBox that allows you to do file requests so their emailed files will all drop into a folder for you: https://help.dropbox.com/files-folders/share/create-file-request#filerequest Students don’t need a DropBox account. You can put a deadline on the request and submit to multiple people so you can dump your whole roster in there.
Writing assignments are always challenging. Consider a service that can help with peer grading for formative work. Some LMSs have this built-in, Turnitin offers it as a service and there are 3rd party services such as www.peergrade.io. Find the ones that work best for you. Peer grading can help reduce the amount of review that you need to provide. There are a number of studies that show that peer grading does a servicable job at giving students feedback. In fact, you can shift your approach a little bit and use the quality of peer feedback the student gives as part of the grade, just to ensure they take it seriously.
My instructors really like Canvas Speedgrader once they get it all set up. It’s a bit of work to get set up, and required them to change their approach a little bit, but the payoff was worth it. Students upload their assignments as PDFs, my instructors use an iPad Pro with Pencil to load the assignment, mark it up just like a paper assignment, submit the grade, and return the work to the student. It removes a lot of the administrative overhead of grading, and works very well for both writing and for traditional STEM problem solving assignments. It also works well for take-home exams. You really do want a tablet with decent pen input though – iPad Pro, Surface Pro, some Samsung tablets, some convertible laptops all work well. Not a cheap setup, but we’ve been able to reduce the number of graders and readers doing this becuase a surprising amount of their workload is actually just taking a stack of paper assignments and sorting them, etc. and here the computer does all of that adminsitrative stuff for you and allows everyone to focus on assessment and grading.
Here’s where things get hard. Test taking services like ProctorU are appealing and do work pretty well in most situations, but have a few drawbacks you should consider. These services work by having students install a piece of software on their Mac or PC that takes control of the computer, preventing students from switching into other apps. It also take over their microphone and camera so that a person at a workstation can monitor the student, just as you do when proctoring an exam. The student needs to show the proctor they have no study aids around, that there is nobody else in the room with them and the proctor enforces a time limit on the exam. The exam is in a web browser and students submit their answers online, which you get in electronic form. The caveats:
1) I do not think they can scale to the current situation. Unlike Zoom which is a matter of spinning up new servers, ProctorU and similar services need to have a person monitoring students – they usually monitor roughly a dozen students at time. I’m skeptical they can staff up and add workstations for the current situation given that almost everyone holds exams in the same few weeks. I would do extra effort to ensure they can handle your course.
2) It works well for multiple choice, short answer, essay – things that can either be easily typed or run through a scantron. It does not work well for problem solving, equations, sketching a diagram, etc. We have worked around that by having the student type in the final answer to each problem, and then taking a picture of their work product with their phone as I describe above and upload that with the exam. They have to do this within 15 minutes of completing the exam. It works, but we’ve never tried it a scale more than a few dozen students, and you don’t get the benefit of easy organization of work materials that your LMS offers.
3) It costs $15-$30 per exam. This is a serious issue at my institution where we have a tremendous number of low income students and being a public, we don’t spring unexpected costs on them. Putting out up to $120 for a set of four finals is something we don’t ask students to do.
We’re advising switching to a paper/project final if you’re about to start a new quarter. If you can make the quiz tool in Canvas work for your final, that’s another good option. Otherwise we’re advising designing an open-book final that students upload through the LMS as a PDF. You may still want a timed final during your scheduled final exam window, and for our instructors they can still do that, but we ask them to give students some leeway on time due to problem with uploading, etc. For project courses we’re adapting an existing strategy that we use. Our project teams normally make a weekly 2 minute presentation on the status of their project, what they did in the last week, and what they are working on in the next week, and noting any new problems that developed. It’s designed to be short so they’ll have to actually put effort into it since they can’t just ramble, and the instructor has a few minutes to ask questions. It’s our way of keeping projects on track. We’re expanding that concept to the final project – students will either put together a video showing their project, addressing specific requirements as part of the course, or doing an interactive Zoom presentation where the instructor can ask questions. The former for larger courses, the latter for smaller ones. Basically, an oral exam. My son is currently doing an animation in Blender illustrating how his project works. You’ll be shocked at the skills your students have if you give them room to be creative.
There’s a lot of other cool ideas and services out there, but they require a lot more prepration and rethinking of how a course is taught. Continuous assessment is the future in a lot of areas, and I’m a big fan, but that’s for another day.