There’s Something About Benjamin, Part II

Last time, I laid out reasons to reject Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This time I want to look at whether the taxonomy is a useful tool for the design of instruction and assessment.

To be useful, the taxonomy has to adequately do three things:

  1. Assist in choosing forms of assessment
  2. Identify where the student needs to improve
  3. Guide how presentation of material is ordered

Does Bloom’s taxonomy help do these three things or does it obscure them?

Let’s do a little analysis first.  Looking closely reveals that while there is a declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge split–Remember/Understand and Apply/Analyze/Evaluate/Create–the more revealing split is between the higher and lower level abilities.

Formative Constructive
Presentation Remember Analyze
Assimilation Understand Evaluate
Production Apply Create

For each category of abilities–Formative (lower) and Constructive (higher)–there are three general types of activities: Presentation, Assimilation, and Production, which correspond to one level within each category.

  • Presentation is the introduction of material
  • Assimilation is the thinking through and internalizing of information
  • Production is the creation of new information

What differs between the two paths (Formative and Constructive) is the activity of the student.  We could have just as easily named the Formative path Passive or Instructor-centered and the Constructive path Active or Student-centered.  While these don’t completely capture the differences, they do convey the essence.  So what is the difference between the different forms of the three general types of activities?

Presentation

  • Remember: Retain new information given to you.
  • Analyze: Derive new information from a situation, text, or other material.

Assimilation

  • Understand: Rephrase and summarize new information
  • Evaluate: Judge what information is most important and valuable

Production

  • Apply: Use new information systematically to draw new conclusions.
  • Create: Design, develop, and present new information developed from analysis and evaluation of material.

Under the Formative path, the student is presented with information and asked to remember it, rephrase it, and apply it in an automatic way.  The student is not determining their engagement with the material.  Under the Constructive path, the student is presented with material and must analyze it to derive information, weigh and judge that information to determine what matters most, and then use that information to develop unique perspectives and new material.  The student is given control of their learning to a greater degree than the Formative path.

I think it is accurate to say that this represents the most common connection between these two paths:

An instructor might:

  • Analyze the information to be taught and relationships between that information,
  • Evaluate the importance of information in achieving learning objectives, and
  • Create activities, assessment, and presentation of materials. (Depending on the outcome any one of these acts may or may not belong to the Creation level).

After that, the student might:

  • Remember the information presented
  • Understand the information
  • Apply the information to particular scenarios

At a 100-level course, this is as far as a student will typically go.

As Constructivists have pointed out, this often results in the instructor getting the most out of the course because they are actively engaged with the material instead of passively absorbing the information and working through that info at a basic level.  On the other hand, analysis, evaluation, and creation are all high level procedural skills that require some form of training.  So while it is true that student participation in analysis, evaluation, and creation result in the greatest learning outcomes, it will still be necessary to have the students go through the three lower levels to some degree first.

By recognizing these two paths in Bloom’s taxonomy, an instructor is better able to assess where the student is starting from, where they need to be, and the best path to getting there.  It may be that some courses need to focus simply on the lower levels to the exclusion of the higher.  Every course does not need to work at every level of the hierarchy.  This is due to both the nature of the subject and the level of the course.  For instance, a 100-level philosophy course might be purely focused on topic areas and so go through only the three formative levels.  A 300-level course, however, will definitely involve the constructive levels.  Likewise, while a 100-level math course might be completely formative, a 300-level will certainly contain at least analysis (although unlikely to include creation).  The degree to which this is true is going to depend on department and institution curriculum and skills that can justifiably be treated as previously learned by the student.  Since the US education system currently focuses primarily on the formative path, instructors of 100-level courses would do well to start with the formative and build to the constructive.

Does this mean that 100-level students should not be introduced to the constructive path?  Of course not.  But since the constructive path is entirely procedural, the students need to first learn the procedure for each level in the constructive path in the formative path.  So a student learning to analyze readings–being taught to derive information for himself or herself–will first need to remember the steps, understand the steps, and apply the steps (in a systematic way).  Only once they have gone through the formative path will they be able to begin learning in the constructive path.

And that is one way Bloom’s can generally

  1. Assist in choosing forms of assessment
  2. Identify where the student needs to improve
  3. Guide how presentation of material is ordered

[Side Note:  On the other hand, I am loath to completely commit to this idea, as research does show that we are naturally talented in the constructive path.  For now, I tentatively hypothesize that because of the present form of education in the US, we, as instructors, at least have to consider our role in breaking students of working only in the formative path.]

This increasingly long look at Bloom’s taxonomy continues in Part III.

There’s Something About Benjamin, Part I

Making Bloom’s Taxonomy Useful

I haven’t written much about my work as Distance Learning Coordinator at Binghamton University (in fact, I’m just now creating a category called “Instructional Design” for this blog, so that’s revealing).  But as I approach the culmination of my work, I feel the need to publicly work out a few theoretical issues I’m running into.

One of the last projects for the Philosophy Department is the creation of a distance learning resource website.  This includes sample syllabi and projects, links to campus resources and university policies, as well as technology guides.  Most importantly, it includes instructions and best practices for the creation of courses.  One the primary resources is focused on the design of learning objectives and corresponding activities and assessments.  This is where things are getting interesting.

Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most prominent guides to organizing learning objectives.  It was created by a committee under the direction of Benjamin Bloom in 1956 and has been widely used ever since.  Type “Bloom’s taxonomy” into a search engine and you will get hundreds of thousands of results (hey, it’s a lot for a specific technical schema!).  Many of these results will be simple statements of the taxonomy with perhaps a few example verbs for each and(if you’re lucky) sample activities or assignments.  The first result on Google is probably the best example of this, as it even includes the less well-known affective and psychomotor domains of the taxonomy (although I’m only going to focus on the cognitive).  Regardless, each site on Bloom’s will include verbs and activities to help guide the instructor.

Here’s the problem: there seems to be little consistency in what verbs to use for each domain (outside the lowest level of Knowledge/Remember) and very little practical advice on what assignments to use when.

I think this has led to Bloom’s taxonomy getting a bad rap.  In fact, a decade ago an article by Brenda Sugrue made the rounds of the blogosphere explicitly calling Bloom’s out on being inconsistent and ineffective.  And that article is right.

So why am I about to defend Bloom’s taxonomy?

Because Bloom’s taxonomy is meant to be used for a specific purpose and the problems attached to it are essentially the result of it being misapplied.  The taxonomy is primarily meant to be used to produce forms of assessment.  In a nutshell:  the purpose of the taxonomy can be completely boiled down to “Create Learning Objectives and related assignments.”  And Bloom’s, with careful planning and thought, does this very well.

Let’s take the potential problems with Bloom’s taxonomy one at a time:

1) Invalid: Research does not support the taxonomy.

If you are treating Bloom’s as an accurate representation of the cognitive organization of the learner’s mind, you are in for a nasty surprise.  As is pointed out here, our understanding of the human mind has advanced at an incredible rate since the taxonomy was originally formulated.  And what do we know?  That there are not six levels of learning.  There are two: declarative/conceptual knowledge (ability to state information) and procedural knowledge (ability to use knowledge).  Declarative/conceptual clearly corresponds to the first two levels of the taxonomy: Remember and Understand.  Procedural, then, corresponds to the remaining four levels: Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.  Critics point out that this means Bloom’s is really just a two level hierarchy.

2) Unreliable: What kinds of learning objectives belong in what levels varies across designers.

You just need to browse the search results for Bloom’s taxonomy to see that this is true.  When I first encountered Bloom’s a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that Application could simply be reduced to Understanding or Analysis.  However, I was wrong on this (and other similar kinds of statements) because I misunderstood the function of the taxonomy.  I suspect that this is the biggest problem for Bloom’s: most people who apply it don’t actually understand it.  It this a problem with the taxonomy itself?  No.  Might it be a reason to shelve it?  Yes.  Bloom’s is the most well-known classification of learning objectives.  If it is consistently misunderstood, then it is possibly doing more harm than good.

3) Impractical: The taxonomy is useless for diagnosing learning problems because these problems can usually be divided into the two levels of knowledge: declarative/conceptual and procedural.

For instance: Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create are all dependent on the accurate application of the relevant procedures.  If the student isn’t competent at those procedures, then they are not going to be able to demonstrate their ability in a specific knowledge area.   Yet . . . this is the reason why these are higher levels in the hierarchy.  Technically, Remember and Understand are also the application of procedures, but they are procedures that we are likely to be more practiced in (although we likely aren’t that great at them, even when we get to college) and so operate more at the level of ability and traits.  As we move up the hierarchy, the procedures become more complex and more independent and so needed to be foregrounded until they are also translated into abilities.   Even if the problems can be broken down into two levels, this doesn’t mean that the higher levels can’t provide more meaning.  If I can pinpoint the particular procedure the student is having a problem with, then Bloom’s is useful.

Accepting the three points as justifiable and understandable reasons for rejecting Bloom’s taxonomy, why do I still insist that it is useful?

Used properly–with understanding of knowledge types, not just the levels of learning–Bloom’s taxonomy is a powerful tool for designing learning objectives and selecting means of assessment.  Keeping in mind the limitations of Bloom’s helps improve the way we use it.  And doing this has to be the goal of any good resource on Bloom’s taxonomy.

How would one go about presenting Bloom’s Taxonomy in a way that is explicitly and pointedly focused on concrete assessment, in a way that is clear and easy to follow?

For the answer (or at least a valiant attempt), stand by for Part II . . . .

Return!

Hello again all.  I’m looking forward to seeing what you all have to say this semester.  I’ve got a few things to share since we’ve last met, but I’ll save them for another post.   Today I just want to touch on using online resources, not screencaps or html (I know all that), but a revisit of the past: last week (Week 12 of the course for those who continued to exist while class was not in session)!

Just getting by this winter.

This is something that’s been on my mind as I’ve been preparing lectures for this semester.  There are resources I pull on when I am writing lectures, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that I actually can justify not just giving to students (well, there are some entries at the above link that I would never inflict on anyone, but there are also some quite nice ones ;)).  Combined with the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is generally more accessible to beginners) I have a ready-made textbook sitting right in front of me on the internet.  For the history of philosophy, I have Early Modern Texts (easy, accessible modern language versions) and the Perseus Digital Library.  With the addition of audio files from Philosophy Bites and the related sites, I have almost all my material covered for an Intro to Philosophy Course.  I could almost redraft my current syllabus with just the addition of links!

Enjoy those time sinks 😉

The Mysterious Ms. Mowbray

[Note: Since my field doesn’t particularly lend itself to image annotation, here’s an image from my erratic family history research.  I notice that the embed leaves much to be desired in the realm of formatting.]

Below is the death certificate of my 3x great-grandfather’s second wife.  It’s of interest because of a bizarre discrepancy in her recorded birth dates (or maybe not that bizarre.  Frankly, I’m not familiar enough with the history of these things to know how often this happens.  I like to think it has to do with murder ;).  My longer research notes are attached below the photo.

“BIRTHDATE MYSTERY NOTE: Marriage Certificate to Thomas Doyle lists Josephine’s birthdate as 13 Nov 1863. The month and year are supported by the 1900 Federal Census. However, on Josephine’s Marriage Certificate to Dallas Chambers her birthdate is listed as 19 Sept 1865. The logical conclusion would be that these are different people. Except that the 1900 census that supports the first birthdate supports the exact residence address as the second marriage certificate, Josephine’s first husband is listed as having died two and a half years earlier on the Chambers marriage certificate, which corresponds with a death certificate for a Thomas Doyle that lives at the exact same residence address as the 1900 census and the Chambers marriage certificate list. It follows that these two Josephines are likely the same person.

ADDITIONAL: Based on Josephine’s death certificate, it appears that at her death she was using the new year but the old date or, at least, not the date on the Chambers marriage certificate. If she was using the Sept date from that certificate, she would be listed as 38 years old; however, if she was using the Nov date from the first marriage certificate, she could (relatively) correctly be stated as 37 years old at the time of death.

I’ll have to do a full post on Josephine sometime.

Fun Film Facts!

Since I’m currently working on four preps for six course, I thought I’d take the time to finally make up a spreadsheet of my family’s film collection (this reasoning is perfect).  In the spirit of slacking, I thought I’d share some random facts about the collection:

Oldest: [Tied] His Majesty, the Scarcrow of Oz and The Magic Cloak of Oz, both released on 28 Sept 1914

Most Recent: Toy Story 3 (2010).  The wife and I were going to go see this in the theater the day our daughter was born.  We still haven’t watched it.

Shortest Film: The Magic Cloak of Oz  (38 mins–I believe this is much shorter than the original length)

Longest Film: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (201 mins, theatrical version)

First Alphabetically: 8 1/2

Last Alphabetically: Zoolander

Most Represented Years:

  1. 2001 (10)
  2. 2004 (9)
  3. 1964/1999 (7 each)

Most Represented Decades:

  1. 2000s (51)
  2. 1960s (37)
  3. 1950s (31)
  4. 1940s (27)
  5. 1930s (25)

Most Represented Directors:

  1. Alfred Hitchcock (17)
  2. Billy Wilder (6)
  3. Robert Altman; Howard Hawks; Sergio Leone; David Lynch; Frank McDonald; W. S. Van Dyke; Terence Young (4 each)

Most Represented Actors:

  1. Cary Grant (20)
  2. Audrey Hepburn; Myrna Loy (9 each)
  3. Glenda Farrell;  James Stewart (8 each)

I was going to put “Most Represented Series,” but I’ll leave that to you readers based on the info above.  Any guesses? (Hint: look for the non-big names).

It’s Was a Very Nice Party

Has it been 3 months already?  (Well, two months (I’m pretty sure November doesn’t count ;)).  Let’s take inventory . . . .

Bright Beginnings:

There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!  So involved, so not overwhelmed by the rest of my responsibilities! 😀  Overall, I would characterize the first 5 weeks as successful and involved.  I was reading everyone else’s posts, commenting and doing extra work.

Week 1 and an Extra Post on 1st Teaching Experiences:  Straightforward–I think I introduced myself fairly well.  In fact, my initial post was better than my usual because I used images.  One thing I have yet to really fold into my post writing process is the integration of links and images.

Week 2 and Google Bundles Tutorial: I had a lot of fun with this post.  I don’t know that I’m right, but I’ve always had a tendency to go to the extreme and work back towards the middle, finding my actual comfort zone.  This winter I’m putting my money where my mouth is and doing a truly distributed course.  Wish me luck.  Overall, I thought this was a post that really engaged with the main topics of the course, was directed, and had a clear focus.

Week 3: Here I attempted to look at the work I’ve done in the past, where I want to be, and what I need to do to get there.  I think this and the Week 2 post were two of my best.

Week 4: I decided to do my post using the technology introduced for the week: Prezi.  I really like Prezi.  Immediately after this, I used it to present to a group of Chairs and the Dean of my college and I thought it produced a very clean presentation.  However, I also think I failed to use it in this post in a way to help me organize my thoughts.  Using it to produce a presentation, while figuring out the way Prezi works meant my presentation was underdeveloped and under thought.  Still, the experience was a good one.  For the presentation above, I sketched out my Prezi ahead of time and refined it as I built it on screen.  That process, moving from paper to digital did, I think, help me clarify my ideas.

Week 5: An exploration of my own feelings about syllabus design.  I especially appreciated the idea of an interactive syllabus.  I had never thought about it in this particular way–embedding the course so fully in the syllabus itself and making the syllabus the main access point.

In the Wilderness:

Then– suddenly!–I had lots of other work to do.  So, I started being more selective.

Week 6:  I’m saving this for next semester as I plan on experimenting with this over the winter.  Check back later for more details!

Week 7 and Thoughts on Commenting: And again I turned my thoughts to distributed whatsnames.  This was an attempt to talk about the pluses and minuses of different combinations of centralized control and distributed activities in response to the reading and Pilar’s presentation.  Unfortunately, the overall image of the hub was a bit muddied.  I’m not entirely convinced that it doesn’t work, but it needs some definite refinement.

Perhaps the biggest loss I had in not being around for Weeks 7 and 8, however, was not taking part in the commenting across blogs.  This is precisely the kind of thing I think is important!  My goal next semester is to stay continually involved with discusses on other student’s blogs.

Week 8: I admit I got excited reading about a loose grade book.  And I find myself at my best when I’m solving a practical problem (or talking about really abstract, non-concrete issues–it’s the Jekyll and Hyde in me) and this gave me a perfect chance to think about how to make this work.  I admit that I really enjoyed putting together this post and I think it was good practice for applying the lessons of the course to this point: put technology to work for you!

Week 9:  Poor, poor Second Life.  Will I ever give you a fair chance?  Well . . . yes.  I’m actually very fond of the idea of using Second Life to teach.  My only real concern is actually backed up by personal experience: technical specifications.  I can barely run Second Life on my computer.  It wasn’t always this way.  Back in the heady days of college during Second Life’s birth I could run it just fine, but the specifications are far too high now.  Which means large numbers of my students wouldn’t be able to use it!  However, I’m going to see if I can find a workaround over the next few months and then take a look around!

Scrambling Back:

Finally, it was time to deal with my absence, bring myself up to date and catch up.  That was . . . yesterday and this morning.

Week 10: This needs to be developed further, but it’s definitely an interesting topic.  What difference does the means and format of discussion have on the discussion that takes place?  Definitely a theme to develop next semester.

Week 11/Week 12: And . . . copyright.  Since I just wrote this last night, I don’t have much more to say.  These weeks were useful in beginning to understand just how murky the waters of copyright are in some places, but also in figuring out what is pretty cut and dried in terms of individual copyright.  Very useful.

Evaluation:

What was my engagement with the material like?

I prefer to find some central idea and focus in on that, so I certainly didn’t react to every piece of information assigned (or found).  However, I think overall most of my posts remained on target and demonstrated some engagement with the material.  Where I fell down (aside from the assignments that I need to complete later) was when I went into a post without my central idea full formulated.  For instance, Week 7, where I tried to develop some image of the classroom as a hub, was just not thought out enough.

More importantly, however, how does looking over my work from this semester impact my goals for next semester?

Goals for Next Semester:

  1. Participate more strongly in the community (comment more; learn to use Facebook effectively)
  2. Write more consistently focused posts
  3. Set aside specific time for the course

And I’m done . . . I look forward to catching up on 200 posts! 😉

Week 10: Course Blogs

Ah, blogs.  Something I’ve put a lot of thought into, even if I’m not . . . rigidly scheduled in my use of a blog.  And I loved Crisimpassioned defense of blog ownership.  Lisa posted the table she’s been working on (and I’ve minimally helped with) comparing different discussion board and blog uses, pros and cons.  Reading over her comments and the post that gave birth to the chart, I couldn’t help going back to my own inclinations.

I love blogs.  I think they are great for individual expression.  Regardless of my own personal ability to use them effectively (I think this is my fourth, fifth?, attempt at a blog), I can see the possibilities.  But that doesn’t mean they’re great for everything.  As Lisa’s chart shows, some forums (excuse the term) of discussion are better than others for some things.  One of the biggest problems a blog has for course use is that it is typically “newest-post first.”  In other words, it is in reverse chronological order.  And the first post tends to be emphasized by it being at the top.  This means that older content disappears quickly.  On a site aiming at regular readers, this is not a problem.  But when you have students attempting to follow different discussions on different posts, this “backsliding” nature gets in the natural flow of the student’s interaction with the course.

This means for a blog to be useful in a course that will have multiple discussions going on over any significant length of time, the basic structure of a blog will need to be fundamentally changed.

One might, at this point, ask why anyone should bother, just use a form better suited to the format of the class!  However, I think this is missing the point.  What I want to say is that the blog format, at least in the flexible form that is WordPress, is better than other formats, but to maximize the potential of the blog form we need to alter some basic features of the form to better fit the way the course will be run.

For instance, most of us need to an Announcements section in the course.  In Bb, this is build in.  But in Bb there are bigger pedagogical issues.  So, take the more open solution (for me: WordPress) and figure out if there is an easy way to alter the basic structure of the blog.

[At this point I was going to talk about plugins, but I wasn’t happy with the results, so I started messing around with php.  Sorry all.  It’s much quicker this way.  Regardless, it completely derailed this part of the post.  That’s why this is so choppy.]

Go here and take a look at the post by mores.  Using a page template, I was able to create a page called Announcements and call up all the posts under the category announcements to display on the page.  Setting that page as the front page, I created an automatic announcements page.  Ta da!

The point being that you can alter the way a blog organizes information.  The best way is by breaking up information into pages.  If you can break the posts up by pages, all the better!

Still, I think that Lisa’s method is the best (now represented by the beginning of her sabbatical project here!): start with how you already teach and what your pedagogical goals are and choose your tools from there.  Wordpress works for me, but in some cases it takes a lot more work than might be worth it for others.

On that note, I think Google sites is . . . problematic.  For me.  It’s just too constrained, so I wouldn’t want it greeting my students.  On the other hand, I can see the benefits of using it for students run projects: it’s easy to use, so the learning curve of creating a site doesn’t get in the way.

Week 11: Accessibility

Accessibility has been a concern for me ever since my third online teaching experience when I had a blind student in my class.  I admit that it had never even crossed my mind to think about accessibility issues.  I very quickly learned that Blackboard (this was when I still used Bb for teaching) was . . . less than adequate for the job.  I’ve heard since than that it’s improved, but I wouldn’t know.

Even though I’m not entirely on top of the accessibility issue (it is, unfortunately, one of those aims that ends up coming last in the course planning), there are two resources I look to when attempting to improve accessibility:

Accessible Futures: This is very limited right now, but it may expand.  It is primarily useful for the WordPress plugin it provides called Access Keys, which allows a web admin to easily manage keyboard shortcuts to various parts of the site.

Week 11/12: Copyright

I’ve been looking forward to these weeks for one reason: Creative Commons.  I’ve never found time to sit down and learn about Creative Commons, so this was my chance to do just that (of course, that requires that I actually make time to do this class, which the past month has shown I’m not going to do!).

As a person just entering academia, I’m already concerned about ownership of my work.  Not because I expect to make any money off my work, but because many journals (the vast majority in my field) require sole publishing rights to my work (which they will graciously, sometimes, allow others to publish).  Now, even if this was a fairly open system, it still has major problems–namely that the companies that run these journals (university owned or not) make their money off of the publications.  Meaning that they have a vested interest in seeing access to the content of these journals restricted.  In contrast, I as an academic have a strong interest in seeing the least restrictions on access to my work: the greater the access, the greater the possibility it will have impact on others in the field or even further afield.

And I admit I’m conflicted.  Depending on which direction I choose to go (and I have several options right now), my advancement could be heavily tied to publications, which might require publishing in journals whose rights management I don’t agree with.  Certainly there are more open options (Hypatia, a feminist philosophy journal, has a policy that I think makes sense.  They allow the author to have full distribution rights on the initial draft submitted to the journal–meaning the draft without reviewer comments), but in the end there aren’t enough journals with open options to make participation in academic publishing . . . unproblematic.  I’m tempted to be principled, and I’ll certainly favor journals with more open policies, but I admit it is tempting to forego principles in this case. 😉

Regardless, I am able to deal with my teaching materials and the material on my website.  After listening to Lessig and reading over the Copyright Crash Course (paying special attention to the open source section), I headed over to Creative Commons.

I think of my material here (on the blog) and my course material, as mostly open.  I want credit and I don’t want my work used for profit, but that’s about it.  Which means, of course, I ran into a problem with the ShareAlike clause.  Do I want people to be required to use the same or compatible licenses if the build on my work?  No, not really.  But then I read more closely and realized that I could waive any of this if I chose.  That’s the beauty of the Creative Commons license: the whole point is to give you greater control over the copyright you have.  As the Copyright Crash Course says here, automatic copyright can be highly restrictive and actually prevent use of your work.

So, after much ado:

Creative Commons License
Parenethical by Brandon Davis-Shannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

My teaching work will eventually be released under a similar license (although I’m thinking through the consequences of removing the attribution requirement).

Hacking Evernote as a “Loose” Grade Book

As much as I might have to say about Elluminate, Google+, Vyew, and Voicethread (all of which I’ve used in the past), what really captured my attention this week (speaking from the past, of course.  This is week 9, right? ;)) was the article Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: specifically, the loose grade book developed (and apparently now finished and up and running) at Brigham Young University.  If we’re going to use distributed tools that are (by definition) not tied to a school’s centralized system there are a few problems–some that should be of concern to instructors and others that should be of concern to administrators.  And this kind of integrated grade book that pulls in work from outside the system seems, if not a necessity, a pretty good idea.

What the “loose” grade book does:

  1. Allows students to submit urls of assignments directly to a central location.  The plus of this is that instructors don’t have to worry about collecting all of this work themselves from the various locations around the web.
  2. Makes permanent copies of this work available so that even if the locations where the work is hosted disappear (as can happen with third-party tools), the work remains available.
  3. Completely integrates students’ work with the tools of assessment.

Upfront: I’m not going to be able to pull off 3.  Someone might be able to do it using the Evernote API, but at that point you’re better off contacting an actual educational software developer to get something professional done and truly centralized.

But 1 and 2?  That I can do.

What you’ll need: an Evernote account; the Evernote Web Clipper for your preferred browser; basic html knowledge (real basic!)

Note: This can work for any cloud note service that allows email updates, as well as most browsers.  My instructions assume Evernote and Chrome, but the basic principles should carry over.

How to do it: View in Fullscreen to see the details! 

(Step-by-step instructions below the video)

1. Create a new notebook in your Evernote account.  Keep it simple: I’m naming mine Phil149win12.

2. Create all the tags you will need.  This includes a tag for each student and assignment.  So, my tag (as a student) would be “davis-shannon” and the assignment would be, for example, “week08.”  If you do not set up the tags ahead of time, the notes will not be automatically sorted by those tags and you will have a little extra work on your hands organizing the notebook.

3. Find your Evernote email address.  This will allow you (and, more importantly, your students) to email notes to your account without needing a password or username.  You can find it under Settings > Account Summary, at the bottom under “Emailing to Evernote.”

4. Learn the syntax of “Emailing to Evernote.”  These instructions are taken directly from Evernote:

1. Select a destination notebook for your email by adding @[notebook name] to the end of the subject line.
2. Add tags to your note by typing  #[tag name] at the end of the subject line. This feature works with existing tags in your account.
3. To designate a destination notebook and add tags, be sure to list the notebook name before the tags.

5. So, my hypothetical email would have the subject line: Test Assignment @Phil149win12 #davis-shannon #week08

6. Here’s the html: Create an email link for the students to use.  You need to create a “mailto” link, fill in the subject line automatically with a template for the students to use and, for security, hide that link from spambots.   If you’ve never used html, this sounds like a lot, but it’s actually fairly straightforward.

Make a “mailto” link:

<a href=”mailto:youremailname@domain.com”>Submit!</a>

Replace the mailto and @ with special html characters.  “mailto” becomes &#109;&#097;&#105;&#108;&#116;&#111; @ becomes &#064;.  This makes the original link look like this:

<a href=”&#109;&#097;&#105;&#108;&#116;&#111;:youremailname&#064;domain.com”>Submit!</a>

[Instructions taken from here.  They accidentally drop the colon after “mailto”.  If you do that the link won’t work!  Be careful.]

Insert a preset Subject Line for the email.  This involves altering the link further.  Add “?subject=” immediately after (no spaces) the end of the email address (usually a .com, .edu, .net, etc.).  After the “?subject=” add what you want the subject line to be.  So, I want the subject line to read “Your Title @Phil149win12 #yourlastname #assignment”.  Therefore, I should write “?submit=Your Title @Phil149win12 #yourlastname #assignment”.  This will help guide the students in filling out the subject.  (see step ? below).

So, the link from above should now look like this:

<a href=”&#109;&#097;&#105;&#108;&#116;&#111;:youremailname&#064;domain.com?subject=Your Title @Phil149win12 #yourlastname #assignment”>Submit!</a>

It’s getting pretty long!

[Instructions taken from here.]

7. Finally, insert the code onto your site.  I made mine a lovely button in a sidebar, but you can figure out how to make it look like whatever you prefer.  My final code:

<center><button><h3><a href=”&#109;&#097;&#105;&#108;&#116;&#111;:youremailname&#064;domain.com?subject=Your Title @Phil/Envi149win12 #yourlastname #assignmentname”>Submit</a></h3></button></center>

For ease, you can simply copy this code and replace the placeholders with your info.

8. Your students can now click the link.  This will (hopefully) cause their preferred email client to open with a blank email with the subject line all filled in with the template.

Update [2011.10.31]: As an alternative to steps 6, 7, and 8, you might instead create a contact/feedback/comment form.  This would more effectively hide the email address, but would also require more html (thus, why I didn’t include it).  WordPress users can use plugins to replace the html work.

The Student’s Side:

The email pops up with your subject line template.  In this case, Your Title @Phil149win12 #yourlastname #assignment.  They should have clear instructions, regularly repeated, on how to replace the right parts.  So, I might fill this out “Distributing the Classroom! @Phil149win12 #davis-shannon #week08.”  I copy and paste the email address of my blog post (for example) into the body of the email and click submit.

The Instructor’s Side:

All of your students’ assignments show up in Evernote tagged (and so searchable and filterable) by student name and assignment.  Click the link to start grading, use the Evernote Web Clipper plugin to clip the entire page (don’t forget to tag the assignment and student last name, and choose the correct notebook–you can make it default if you are only using it for one course), and voila! you have a permanent record of the students’ work for the future.  For extra security use the desktop client to export all of the work to your computer.

This takes care of the need of the instructor to go through each student’s blog as the work is done.  And it takes care of the more administration-centered concern that there will be no permanent record of the course.

Hope this helps!

If you have any comments, questions, corrections, or additional help, please leave it in the comments section!