This is the third year that I've been on the hunt for high-quality data tools in the Exhibit Hall at the ASCD annual conference. The first year (2013) was downright depressing. Last year was better---I ran across a couple of promising tools, although neither are represented at the conference this year. Here are the trends I'm seeing this spring.
This is a brand new theme this year. I saw three different tools yesterday that are meant to support teachers in recording student conversations or other "in the moment" data points and then associate those with a gradebook or spreadsheet. I am intrigued by these. I think their benefit may be somewhat limited right now. Teachers would need to be outfitted with tablet devices and know how to seamlessly integrate those with their classroom work. I suspect that more and more teachers fit that description each year, but my school district is not quite there yet. One thing that I really like about these tools, however, is that they put the power of assessment back into the hands of teachers. In an age where we large-scale district and state assessments carry the weight and propel the discussions, these tools give teachers another way to show student learning. Yes, these demonstrations were always there, but now there are supports for teachers to share the very important daily learning with others. The best tool of the bunch? Just open Sesame.
With the advent of new online assessments in many states, such as Smarter Balanced and PARCC, there is a new emergence of tools that allow classroom teachers to build items and assessments that have many of the features of their large-scale brethren. SchoolCity was the first one I saw last year, but there are a couple of new players showing their wares at this year's conference. The best one of these is Edulastic. Most of these tools promise integration with your gradebook or data warehouse. I think we have to be cautious, however, that just because you can make all sorts of new-fangled items for kids to answer doesn't mean you should. If your goal is just to have kids practice responding to particular sorts of items (e.g., drag-and-drop) for "The Test," then I hope you'll think a bit harder before purchasing this kind of software. We also need to support teachers with the basic assessment literacy required to write good items to measure student learning. We haven't done that much with paper/pencil tests---and online forms mean we have even more background knowledge to build.
Design Is Better
Most of the tools I saw yesterday show some thoughtful design. As a whole, they're far better than they were two years ago, but there is still a long way to go. I didn't find a single vendor who uses a data designer for their displays---they all depend on developers to code whatever charts and visualizations they have. Some claim that their charts are "designed by teachers." This is also a bad answer. Teachers and other educators should definitely have input---they are the end users for the tool, but they are not data designers. Listen to the stories classroom experts need to have told, then create the interface to communicate in a powerful way.
One vendor has the biggest, ugliest, exploded 3D pie chart on their screen. I asked them why they had chosen it. The rep wasn't sure. I probed further: Why is it in 3D when you only have two dimensions of data? His reply: Because it looks cool. No, honey...it doesn't.
We have to demand better from our vendors.
If you're in Houston in the next day or so, swing by the conference and check out all the new data tools for the classroom. Or, if you've already wandered through the vendor area, feel free to leave your new favourite option in the comments.