Finding Balance

A while back, I wrote a piece here that was truly from the hip, and while I don’t regret writing it whatsoever, I do sometimes wonder how it reflects on me as an educator.

You see, at heart I am vehemently pro-kid, almost to a fault, and at times this finds me in precarious situations when it comes to teachers.  By first thinking of students, my initial reactions lead me to questions like “how can we get this information in the hands of students?” or “let’s make sure our kids are seeing this;” this is unsettling to some because it immediately places the honus of doing this onto the teachers.  My intentions are good, but it is not always communicated that way to the teachers that are directly in charge of our students.

To be pro-kid does not equate to being anti-teacher.

Jay Matthews had a great piece in the WaPo this week in which he railed against teachers who refuse to use the internet in their classrooms as a means of communicating to parents.  On two levels this sounded eerily familiar.  The first is the piece I wrote here a few months back that called out the teachers who openly claim they hate technology.  The second is that I am blown away by the pushback I have gotten from teachers lately regarding the posting of homework and grades via the internet, and you can clearly see this in the comments at the bottom of the article.

In our district, we ask that our teachers maintain a website, post weekly lesson plans using our online lesson planner which also pushes out daily homework assignments automatically, and in a very short time our gradebook, which is part of our SIS, will be going live to the parents of our Middle and High School students.   In short:

  • website (via OnCourse Systems)
  • lesson plans that automatically post daily homework (the lesson planner feature of OnCourse takes anything you place in homework and publishes it after a certain date and time)
  • gradebook online (a product called Genesis which is fairly specific to New Jersey)

Philosophical debates about whether or not grades or homework should be posted online aside, this is where I run into problems in relation to the “pro-kid” mentality I have.  The feedback we are getting is that there is too much redundancy in the system, and that processes that used to take just part of their Sundays are now taking all of their Sundays.  If we can provide one system that integrate at least two of these three processes and automate them as much as possible so that there is minimal double-entry, shouldn’t that work?  What I am hearing are comments much like this one from the Matthews’ article:

How about a reality check. This issue is simple:

(1) Time. I teach three preps, 6 sections. Each period is a separate page on the school’s gradebook (and communication web site). So I have to update 6 separate, click happy pages.

(2) Place. I don’t have my own classroom with a desk and a computer. I share an “office” with five people. We have one computer. (Now ask about the phone – 8 of us share a line. No voice mail.)

(3) Use. Even after doing all this, only
about 1/3 of the parents actually log on. Yes, parents, we can track this, too.

Posted by: altaego60 | December 21, 2009 9:28 AM

And while this situation (especially the computer situation mentioned in number 2) is not exactly indicative of where I work, it may be in many schools around the world.  We are pushing the idea of transparency by opening up some of the “guts” of education to open public view, but we are in the initial stages of the best ways to do it.  For some of the teachers I work with, the system is fine and they have figured out how to make it work, but for others, even some of our early adopters, they find it cumbersome to have to post their lesson plans in one place, homework in another place, and grades in another portal, in addition to maintaining a website.

We have rolled this out to the staff in the “rough-ready”stage, meaning that we knew there would be feedback and that the process would be an ongoing one to figure out what works best for all stakeholders.  My question as we do this is whether or not the systems we roll out take into account the teacher feedback on the workflow aspect of it.  What I mean is can we ask teachers what the best system for making all of these pieces available to parents and students is, and then design our pieces accordingly.  Too often, I think we in the ed tech field are guilty of imposing our workflows onto the teachers.  Sure, it is dead simple for me to operate the three parts of our requirements without losing any time that I would have taken before–but I had a huge part in designing them.  What I’d like to see are some other models that people use around the country and world to open up these parts to their communities.

If nothing else after reading the comments in the Matthews article, after being a teacher, and observing all of the mandates placed on teachers in this day and age, we should not impose anything on teachers that eats away at their primary responsibility: helping students learn and grow.  If our systems for creating transparency are detracting from that, we need to rethink how we are doing it.

Cross-posted at TechLearning.


8 thoughts on “Finding Balance

  1. I am a teacher, also, and dealing with exactly these issues.
    Actually, about five years ago, I worked in PR for a school district and superintendent that was proud to be “transparent,” and parent-friendly and started making teachers post grades online. This quickly blew up (after the teachers first lost their minds) into a PR nightmare…with all this new-found power to micromanage their kids’ lives, some parents (key word: some) went mad. They would literally check their child’s grades about every HOUR. Teachers would then get angry phone calls demanding, “Where is the grade from the quiz you gave this morning?”
    My own school now has just launched the same program. At least we have a week to get grades in and not many parents are even checking, it seems. I think that all schools are doing this, though, so we had to do it, too.
    In theory, it makes sense (like Communism makes sense on paper). In reality, though, teachers do need some protections…
    We also have other systems (Edline, plus Backpack) on which we are to post homework. You are right–this can be very time-consuming. With all my preps and classes and my pitiful half hour or so of actual “prep time,” I barely have time to do this. It’s a chore (and the kids don’t check it, either–so you start to wonder what the point is).
    I guess there’s no good answer. These transparency tools seem good, but they do indeed lead to many other problems.
    I tell my students what the homework is in class. There is a written syllabus. They can always e-mail me. Since they don’t check Edline, or rather, very few do, I wonder why I need that, too.
    Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the premise. It just, in practice, seems pretty tedious and somewhat pointless.

    1. Philly,

      This is what I am hearing mostly from my staff; they are not against it in theory, but the practice is all wrong at the moment. One of the elements I like about our system is that the homework generates automatically from the lesson planner, so essentially those two birds are killed with one stone. However, the gradebook is going to be another animal. Currently it’s separate, and I don’t know if the two products will interact.

      We asked our teachers to come up with the guidelines as to the time they have to post the assignments, and also asked them to come up with the minimum number of assignments expected per class type. We want to try to build that in so that there is some protection for them when a parent like the “some” you mention calls and is questioning their methods. We also placed a time frame on when parents could log in; they will not be able to access the gradebook until after 4pm every day.

      What will come of it? From our research with other districts that have done it, positive aspects will outweigh the negatives. For me, I am hoping that we will really begin to question our idea of assessment entirely.

  2. I too am “vehemently pro-kid” and often tell teachers “it’s not about you – it’s about the kids”. Designing systems like these to provide transparency for kids and families is great, but the best intentions go unfulfilled when the tools themselves present barriers. We had a similar issue with our LMS – each section required seperate announcements and calendar entries. We worked with the LMS provider to create a custom soultion which allows teachers to publish announcements and calendar entries from one section to another. Your low uptick from parents may also be due to unforseen barriers. Do they have to log in to see assignments? Have they had training on how to use it? Are there alert features via email and text when updates occur on their Kid’s pages? I suggest addressing you’re concerns with the vendors and push them
    for a solution – or they won’t be your vendor once the contract ends. 😉

    1. Rob,

      I like the aspect of treating the LMS provider as the client and asking them to react to your needs. Our situation is unique in that our LMS is a mashup of two systems that don’t really interact well, or at all. I’d like to see if we can develop an interface that makes it possible for that to happen. Now, to find the developers…

      Also, we are opening our schools and our staff to parents to show them how to use the tools we have provided for them in an effort to increase awareness and involvement. Our tech coordinators will design tutorials and explain the features during our annual Curriculum Fair.

      Might I ask which LMS you are using? I like the alert features.

  3. In response to the 3 points listed in the reality check I would recommend what our school did (though this may not be possible everywhere).

    1. We use Moodle for our Course Management System (CMS) and have the same situation where teachers have multiple sections of the same course. We allow them to combine all of their course into a single section and manage them with groups. Again, you need to be comfortable with allowing teachers to do this within your school’s CMS, but it has helped.

    2. Access to technology. We made the decision as a school to issue all of our faculty laptops. This told them that we are going to support them in what we are asking them to do with technology and that as a school this was something that valued.

    3. It’s not about the parents. With our CMS (Moodle) we only allow access for the teachers and the students. This is a tool for them and making them take ownership of their learning. If you want to have independent, autonomous learners you can’t expect to place the burden on the parents of making sure that they are doing their homework. You have to give the kids the tools, show them how to use the them and provide the content.

    It is about the kids! This is a point that I think is so often lost in schools and something that you need to constantly remind yourself of (I am guilty of it too). My point always is that we are all lifelong learners and expected to grow. I think about my job and how if I decided to stand still I would last… not that long!

    1. Bill,

      Those three points were taken from the Washington Post article, but they are somewhat relevant to what we are going through. Interesting point you make in response to number three; that is something I don’t think we really considered as much due to the fact that main push for this came from the community. I wonder where our students fall in relation to these tools. For some reason I don’t think they are too aware of the change.

  4. PJ,

    Speaking to the issue of redundancy and time wasted, the district has exacerbated those issues by putting together a piecemeal system from multiple vendors – OnCourse for planning, websites, and homework, and Genesis for Gradebook and SIS.

    If your district would consider taking the plunge and moving all of their constituent parts into one integrated system, they could move dramatically towards a one-login reality and, saying nothing of the benefits of integrating, at least save time in moving between different programs.

    OnCourse has a Gradebook, Grade Portal, and a SIS, and the students would receive one login to pick up homeworks, view progress/reports, see calendars, check attendance, etc.

    I won’t play coy, I’m typing this from inside OnCourse HQ right now, but I’m out researching the innovations and frustrations of teachers with their tech tools to try to create better programs, and many of the issues in this entry could be alleviated, if not eliminated by moving into one, full-featured system. Just sayin. 🙂

    1. Tre,

      Thanks for the comment. While I agree with you on many points, the reason we have really stuck it out with Genesis for our SIS is that they are ridiculously aligned to the New Jersey Department of Education’s reporting system. Their ability to create custom report generators that aggregate all of our student information into the exact format that the state calls for saves us unbelievable amounts of time and money in preparing those reports.

      Right now, we are reaching out to teachers for feedback on exactly how we can redesign our own system, with it’s elements intact, into something much more usable.

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