Rather than give long and difficult to type URLS for my presentations, I thought I’d share them here. (Yes, I am aware that “academicaesthetic” is not universally easy to type, but it’s easier than, say, “o03Eil5s,” and people can get here from AaronBSmith.com … hm, maybe that’s the link I’ll share.)
Keep in mind that these Google Slides are primarily my visual aids, as opposed to the talks themselves, and I’ll probably be changing slides around up to and including 5 minutes before my session starts. If all goes well I’ll have recordings of the actual presentations that I can post on this website as a follow-up.
OK, now that I’ve scared off any random students who’ve managed to find my website, let’s have an honest talk about assessment.
Grades in one form or another have been a staple of education for a very long time indeed. With the push to quantify school quality through standardized testing and the overall inertia that we normally encounter in academia in general, they don’t look like they’ll be going away any time soon.
So naturally, they’re a perfect thing for progressive ed reformers to rally against. Kids hate them (unless they have an A), teachers hate assessing which grades to give (unless it’s self-grading), and parents hate having to come in for parent/teacher conferences to discuss them, so let’s trash them, right?
Not so fast.
Grades, like paper in an art room, still serve more than one essential need in the classroom. Unlike slide rules and filmstrip projectors, we still use grades because we haven’t come up with a better alternative for them. They work.
Grades on individual assignments let students know the skill with which they completed the assigned task. Those grades can (and should be) itemized in such a way that students also know how well they accomplished various subcategories of the skills being assessed. Their cumulative grade (which if done well should be accessible at any time, not just when Progress Reports or Report Cards are sent home) helps students know how well they’re doing in the course overall. Ideally they should have some idea about how much each assignment weighs against the other tasks they are given throughout the course.
Yes, I can give feedback just through constructive and positive criticism, but while those things are crucially important parts of my curriculum, the ability to boil something down to a number or letter can help the student better understand their growth than me just saying “Hey, that was reasonably better than last time!”
Next up: Grades do the same thing for me that they do for the students.
For the past eight years, my grade book has been a Google Sheet with more annotations, comments, and conditional formatting than is healthy for any web-based system. It is packed full of additional information that explains or clarifies various scores and why they are what they are.
This is incredibly useful information that I’ve gone back to on many occasions throughout the year, but it doesn’t beat being able to highlight the row a child’s scores are in and scroll across to see trends in the data. I can do that with numbered (or lettered) grades far faster than I’d ever be able to do that without them.
I’ve often complained that education is a dinosaur that needs to do some serious evolving if it’s to continue to be meaningful and helpful to our students, but when it comes to getting rid of grades? That’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.
There are a few kinds of assessment that I could do without (Die, standardized testing, DIE!), but let’s keep grades around for a while. They haven’t failed us yet.
As the name implies, scholar.social is not JUST for teachers, but anyone involved in academics. The tag line they use is “The Mastodon profile that you’re not embarrassed to put on the last slide of a presentation at a conference,” which is a little wordy I’ll admit, but I think it’s a great ideal to live by.
It’s a small instance at the time I’m writing this, but as someone who has debated making an instance just for myself I don’t see this as a bad thing. Something I enjoy on Mastodon is when I can look at the Local Timeline and not have it scroll past me faster than I can read. I was getting that on mastodon.cloud and mastodon.social, but not on elekk.xyz. I’ll admit, being able to see what others were saying on my instance kind of spoiled me, so I’m glad my new home lets me enjoy that again.
I’m not going to say this will replace Twitter. Twitter didn’t replace Tumblr for me, and Tumblr didn’t replace this blog. I will say that so far I’m enjoying Mastodon, scholar.social specifically, and think that if you like reading what I put on this site you might enjoy it yourself.
So if you’re a teacher, why not give it a try? When you do, say hello. All the cool kids are doing it.
Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr (the list goes on…) are (or have been) extremely popular, in part because they’re free, but also because they’ve reached a “critical mass” of users. I know many people who only use Facebook because their friends and family use Facebook, for example.
Separate from this is a trend known as POSSE, or Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.
Like it implies, following a POSSE strategy doesn’t forego having and using the free social media sites that are so hip with the kids these days, particularly the ones who don’t describe neato things with the word “hip” (or “neato,” for that matter…). Instead, you put your meaningful content on a site you host yourself, then link to it on those networks.
I like this plan. Here’s why.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
A sizable portion of the things I have made were uploaded to services that no longer exist. Remember Geocities? Mac.com web hosting? Tumblr is still around, but I apparently went so long without using it that an older account of mine was deactivated and resurrected by someone spamming ads for real estate.
We assume when we create an account on a free service that it will stay online forever, or at least until we’ve lost interest. Those of us with more gray hairs know that this is simply not the case. A lot of people today are mourning the loss of Vine, but it’s far from the first to go and certainly won’t be the last.
(Side note: My wife did all her blogging on a Tumblr account. I’m going to have to find a way to preserve that somehow.)
You’re the product.
I’ve heard “If you’re getting a service for free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product” so often that it almost loses meaning now. Unfortunately, it is frequently true.
Google doesn’t make money hand over fist because they’re selling physical items or search results, they’re making money because so many people see the stuff they do that buying ads from them is cost effective. (I say this knowing full well that some pages on this website include ads from Google. I didn’t say all advertising is bad.) The same is true for Facebook. Twitter is … working on it, but they have a problem still with bots and harassers so their store of products seems a bit tainted to prospective buyers.
I pay a company for server space. Because that’s their product and keeping me happy is the best way to keep me sending them money, they work hard to do so. On a free service that is mostly depending on ad revenue and/or data collection, the people they want to make happy are the ones sending them money.
I like YouTube. It’s where I post all of my tutorials as well as my more recent conference presentations and vlogs, but I wouldn’t depend on it for my income even if my channel subscriptions went through the roof because I’d be relying wholly on a company NOT designed or motivated to keep me happy meeting my needs. (I’d also be squeamish about forcing my students to watch tutorials that make me money. The channel I use to host my tutorials is currently not set up for monetization. If you see ads, the revenue isn’t going to me.)
Self-hosted content is (more) mobile.
I said before that I like my web host. I do, but if I somehow change my mind it would take only a little bit of work to back up this entire site with YEARS of content and move it to another host. There are a few other companies that do that, but it isn’t universal and it isn’t always easy.
Google is one of the few, which is part of the reason I was able to move from Blogger to WordPress without copy/pasting blog posts by hand.
Flickr theoretically has an option for downloading all your photos, but the last several times I tried it didn’t work. If I had been uploading all my photos to a self-hosted site instead of Flickr, I wouldn’t be so concerned about this.
Twitter allows you to request an archive of all of your tweets.
I haven’t seen anything on Facebook or their subsidiaries (Instagram, etc.) allowing you to download all of your content from them.
Vine offered this, but they’re gone now.
You don’t need to leave, but a permanent home would be good.
To Mr. Belshaw, the Twitter of yesteryear was a place where he had conversations. Now, it will be a place where he uses a bullhorn to tell followers about the cool stuff he’s doing elsewhere. It’s a viable use for the medium, and many people use Twitter for mostly that anyway.
“But blogs are for long form content, not rapid-fire ephemeral but public communication,” you might counter. “Surely he’ll continue to use Twitter for that.”
Take 100 unique shots of the same item and/or in the same location. (The first 50 or so will likely not be so good. After that, students will be forced to think.)
Photograph something being made (Lego sculpture, a meal, a painting, etc.) with the camera in a different location in regards to the subject in each photo.
Document an outside (not in a car) journey from the point of view of your feet. Capture as many landmarks/areas of interest as possible.
Create a series of images where the subject is only seen in reflections (mirrors, windows, still water, etc.), bonus points if it is interacting or lining up with the non-reflected parts of the composition.
YouTube Video tutorials abound, though the language in some is not safe for school. I will likely make my own tutorials once I feel I have enough skill to do so.
Pressing F9 to save 8 seconds of an animated GIF to your desktop is a really neat feature that I will probably be using more than I should. (The images aren’t large by default. The GIF in the corner here is shown full size.
This is definitely something my students are not going to understand fully on the first day.
This is something several of my students are going to love.
I got caught up in the sprite editor at first. I shouldn’t have. You can do all kinds of cool things without sprites at all. Start there. The sprites are nothing without the code. The code can do plenty without the sprites.
I have 10% of an idea of what I’m doing, and I love it. This is my kind of learning – I am outside my comfort zone, but not by such a large margin that I’m afraid to see what changing a parameter does.
The “Undo” shortcut of Ctrl-Z works, and it is a lifesaver. Also: Copy & Paste work as intended.
Programming is an algebra teacher’s answer to the age-old question of “When are we going to need to know this?” Only in this case, you’re telling PICO-8 to plot X and Y and oh, wait, now change those numbers to this and keep changing them and use those numbers as the modifiers for changing themselves and no, you’re not plotting a line graph, I want a new image each time.
I started by taking all of the homework videos submitted over the previous week and throwing them in a folder in Google Drive. My district uses G Suite (formerly GAFE, or Google Apps For Education), so I’m one of those lucky ducks with unlimited storage space.
In the past I’d tried tossing them all into a playlist and showing them in class on my LCD projector, but with a 1:1 ratio in my lab there was nothing stopping me from letting students watch and critique these videos at their own pace.
For convenience I also renamed all the videos following a specific naming convention. If John Doe submitted a 2 minute 11 second video for the 3rd video in his series, I named it 3_JD_2-11.mp4. This was a marked improvement over the previous names, which ranged from “My Edited Video” to “12345.mov” … I wasn’t grading students on how they named their files, so long as they uploaded the right ones.
With all the videos in a folder that I could share through Google Classroom, I was almost ready to go.
Will This Be Graded?
It doesn’t matter how enjoyable an activity you design, there will invariably be someone who asks if it’s going to show up in your grade book. I personally have an aversion to assigning “busy work” because I end up making myself busier as I grade something that was meant to be filler, but there’s still that student, as dependable as death and taxes, that will ask if THIS time I’m giving them work that doesn’t matter.
Nope, it’s not enough to do things out of the goodness of your heart, you need numbers to go with it. Numbers I am happy to provide, in fact, so long as you give me a few in exchange.
I took all of the renamed videos and put them in a Google Form. I made it a “Dropdown” question, since otherwise my students would be scrolling for days.
(Pro Tip: If you don’t want to type everything in, you can’t select text in Google Drive’s web interface but you CAN tell your browser to print the page. When the preview shows up, DON’T press the print button – the text in the preview page can be selected, copied, and pasted into a Google Form. You’ll get some extra lines you’ll need to delete, but that’s easier than typing everything by hand.)
Then I added four “Linear Scale” questions that my students would use to rate the videos they watched. We’d already talked in class about these categories, so they were familiar with them and didn’t need much in the way of explanation.
I capped it off with “Short Answer” questions that allowed students to offer some criticism.
After the critique is over I find the average for each category and then add the four categories up to get a score out of a possible twenty points. Critics get a score as well, earning one point for every three minutes of video graded.
Of course this has not always gone smoothly. There have been students that thought single word critiques, or pasting in the same sentence for each critique, were acceptable. One day when I was absent half the class invented time travel and managed to critique all the videos in a tenth of the time it took to watch them.
I caught those students, because timestamps are a thing and I refused to treat this like something meant to save ME time and energy.
I’ll say that again: Letting students grade and critique student videos IS NOT faster than grading them myself. I still have to watch the student videos (why wouldn’t I?) and if anything I spend more time grading critiques than I did grading videos. I’m sure as I keep doing this I’ll find ways to streamline the process, but that doesn’t mean I’ll have more time for video games afterwards.
Keeping What Works
The goal was to get more students to start submitting their homework videos, and it’s working. My kids, with some exceptions, like writing comments when they know their classmates will read them. They like making movies when they know their classmates will write comments.
But what about the grades, you might ask? Won’t the students just give each other 5/5 on everything? There are a few that give incredibly high scores regardless, but with anonymous grading (on the student end – I see everything) and a class my size, it mostly averages out. Even if they did collude to give each other high marks, my homework grades are mandated by my district to count significantly less than my assessment or classwork grades.
Overall the scores are SLIGHTLY higher than what I’d give using the same rubric, but well made videos still score higher than lower quality ones.
And they’re getting better.
As a member of their audience, my students can take me or leave me. I’m far too old and out of touch with today’s youth for my opinion to mean much. But their peers? Those are opinions that mean something, and I’ve given my students enough training for them to point out what areas of technique need improvement.
So there you go. Your mileage may vary, but this setup seems to be working for me. All it costs is one class per week for critique and a significant portion of my planning time to organize and grade the commentary, but the end result is students getting better at something they actually like to do.