Tag Archives: technology

Making a Google Sites Portfolio Assessment More Accessible Via Screencast

Technology in education is certainly a two-edged sword. On the one hand, modern technology gives students fantastic opportunities to learn in ways that were previously difficult, expensive, or impossible for teachers to design. Teachers often appreciate new technology tools that allow them to perform many of the complex or tedious tasks of education, like correcting papers and analyzing testing data, more effectively and efficiently. Modern media tools also have the potential to convey instruction–and develop problem-solving skills–much more effectively than the overhead projectors and chalkboards I used when I started my teaching career (Net Industries, 2017, para. 11).

On the other hand, new hardware and software learning tools are being developed and modified at a rapid pace that can overwhelm even the most tech-savvy educators. Often when I show teachers a new tech tool to make their jobs easier, they will ask me how long I think it will take for this tool to be replaced by something even better. My worst fear is that education technology might turn into a sort of Red Queen’s Race, in which teachers, like Alice in Wonderland, must constantly run just to stay in the same place (Carroll, 1871).

I’m currently working on designing my Demo Course Unit, which is a mini-course for teachers who would like to integrate visual media tools into their instruction. I’d like my teachers to build an electronic portfolio as a summative assessment for this Demo Unit, so that they can collect and share several artifacts that represent what they have learned about using modern technology tools in their lesson designs. I have decided that the best way to provide structure to this rather open-ended assessment is to provide my teachers with a template they may use to construct their New Google Sites portfolios (Wise, 2017b). My template will be shared with my teachers in a way that incorporates some variation in representation, which is an important consideration of Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2015). I will provide my teachers with both a direct link to the template site and a narrated screencast video with subtitles (Wise, 2017a).


Carroll, L. (1871). Through the looking-glass [Project Gutenberg version]. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm

CAST. (2015). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WI4edhsrLD4

Net Industries. (2017). Media and learning – definitions and summary of research, do media influence the cost and access to instruction? Retrieved from State University Education Encyclopedia web site: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2211/Media-Learning.html

Wise, B. (2017a). How to build your media tools portfolio on New Google Sites [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/kGHN2_oklJg

Wise, B. (2017b). Template – media tools. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/mail.brandman.edu/wise-eduu628-demo-summ-port/

Using Google Sites to Create a Portfolio that Teachers Will Really Use

Since I left the classroom to work as an EdTech Specialist in my district, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to design a Demo Unit based on K-12 content standards such as the Common Core or NGSS. Rather, because my students are adult teachers with students of their own, I needed to find a set of standards that address professional learning and practice for teachers using technology in their classrooms. Fortunately, such a set of standards already exists; in fact, the ISTE Standards for Teachers have been adopted and used by many educators (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008).

For the purposes of my Demo Unit, I have selected ISTE Teacher Standard 2a, which states that teachers “[d]esign or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity” (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008, p. 1). I selected this standard because I try not to dazzle my teachers with all of the latest technological tools, but rather to show them how technology tools can be thoughtfully and strategically used to support and enhance student learning. I love this particular standard because it focuses on using technology tools to support not only student learning, but also creativity. I am convinced that technology should not be used only as a substitute for traditional textbook-based instruction. Teachers should also use technology to allow their students to create meaningful products with relevance to their everyday lives.



In keeping with the spirit of 21st Century learning, this standard’s key verb is to design, which occupies perhaps the highest position on Bloom’s taxonomy (Armstrong, 2017). In my school district, we spend a lot of time and resources on thoughtful lesson design. I work in the Education Services division of my District Office, where I frequently collaborate with our twelve Instructional Coaches on lesson studies and concept-building activities with grade-level and subject-area teams of teachers. We often help teachers build complete lessons using complex templates that incorporate instructional norms including lesson objectives, content and skill development, embedded checks for understanding, relevance, and (of course) technology.


My teachers work in virtually every type of classroom imaginable, from transitional kindergarten to adult school, including both general-education and special-education settings. Thus, it is important for my summative assessment to be open-ended enough that each teacher would be able to create a practical and relevant project that could be used with his or her own students. I decided the best way to accomplish this goal was to assign my teachers to construct an online portfolio of lessons, learning activities, and assessments using the New Google Sites.

The ISTE Standard gives the option of designing or adapting lessons; therefore, it isn’t essential that the teacher personally design each item in the portfolio from scratch. In fact, teachers need to know how to efficiently and strategically adapt preexisting lesson resources to meet their students’ needs. The rubric for this portfolio won’t focus excessively on details of the artifacts themselves. Rather, I hope to focus my teachers’ attention mainly on the planning, feedback, and reflection associated with each artifact. In the end, I want my teachers to design a portfolio of technology-based lesson resources that they, their colleagues, and their students will really use.


Armstrong, P. (2017). Bloom’s taxonomy. Retrieved from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). ISTE standards for teachers. Retrieved from http://iste.org/standards

My Journey from Ed-Tech Novice to Expert

According to Herr (2007), one of the most important differences between an expert and a novice is that experts are able to recognize patterns fluently with little or no effort (para. 14). Whereas a novice might be able to mobilize good strategies in order to solve a problem, experts have the ability to take a step back and assess whether or not the problem at hand is truly the most important problem.

Early in my teaching career, I once asked my principal if she could increase my copy budget, because I didn’t have enough funds to duplicate all of the lab instruction booklets I wanted for my science students. Because the principal was an expert, her response to my request was not a simple yes or no answer. Instead, she asked me a series of reflective questions about how my lab program was structured, in order to better judge whether my lab instruction packets were the best use of limited funds. Her motivation may have been, in part, to help me find ways to stay within my copy budget (after all, principals know that money doesn’t grow on trees), but she also did something that only experts can do: She changed the conversation from a relatively minor funding request into a much more valuable reflection on what my students were expected to learn from their labs, and how I expected them to demonstrate that learning.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to the present year, and most of my colleagues regard me as an educational technology expert. One principal I recently worked for even refers to me as a technology guru. I don’t know if I can quite live up to that moniker, but as I reflect on my own learning journey through my current master’s degree program, I see that even experts can learn more. In one of my earliest posts on this blog, I wrote about technology’s potential to expand learning opportunities for students by motivating them to learn (Wise, 2016). While this is true, I didn’t mention another very important advantage of modern instructional technology: its capacity to make learning more accessible for students with different abilities and/or learning styles.

Over the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about assistive technologies and universal design. For many students with special needs, modern technology makes a tremendous difference–not only in their learning, but in their entire lives. One of my colleagues recently showed me several types of software and devices that allow moderately and severely handicapped students to communicate; such technologies, she explained, give students access to language (K. Blevins, personal communication, March 8, 2017). I hadn’t thought about this idea much, mainly because I didn’t need to. As a general-education teacher, I’d only thought about assistive technologies and universal-design philosophy when I needed to adapt my curriculum because a special-needs student was enrolled in my class. Now my perspective has changed: Universal design isn’t just for students with special needs; it can benefit all students.

Of course, one of the consequences of being labeled an expert is that people turn to me for advice and answers to their trickiest problems. I hope that, over the course of the next several months, I may gain a deep understanding of universal design, so that I may provide useful services to not only my special-education colleagues, but for general-ed teachers as well. If I can manage to pull that off, then perhaps I may be one step closer to becoming a legitimate expert.


Herr, N. (2007). How experts differ from novices. Retrieved from The Sourcebook for Teaching Science web site: http://www.csun.edu/science/ref/reasoning/how-students-learn/2.html

Wise, B. (2016). Three ways electronic learning will be important to the classroom of the future [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://bwisetech.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/three-ways-electronic-learning-will-be-important-to-the-classroom-of-the-future/

Immersive Learning: The Teacher Is Still the Teacher

The creators of the Scientopolis immersive science environment have created an interactive world where students can learn science by controlling virtual avatars in a medieval town (Immersive Education, 2012). As students make their way through the immersive learning activity, they use data from a variety of sources, including information provided by the simulation itself, which students can analyze using built-in data table and graph generators (Immersive Education, 2012). Of course, even though the students’ avatars are trapped in a virtual world of the past, the students themselves have access to an internet-connected computer, so they can also take full advantage of the research potential of the devices they have at hand.

Ideally, a teacher should structure a learning activity using this software in a way that requires students to synthesize information from a variety of sources. In the Scientopolis weather scenario, for example, students must devise a practical solution for a multi-year drought based on simulation data and their own understanding of meteorology from their science lessons (Immersive Education, 2012). If I were using this tool in my own science classroom, I would try to present the problem as a complex one that has more than one plausible answer; that way, students would be forced to make difficult decisions based on careful cost-benefit analysis. This unit on drought would be particularly relevant to my students, who live in California’s Central Valley, where the entire population is quite familiar with the challenges a community faces when water is in short supply.

An immersive and complex learning experience should contain assessments that are also immersive and complex. Formative assessment is crucial in such a learning activity. It may be tempting for a teacher to assume a back-seat role while students are working independently in their virtual worlds, but that would be a mistake. Just because students are learning by doing in an online environment, it is still the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that students are on-track towards meeting the project’s predetermined learning goals. In the specific case of the Scientopolis module, a teacher might use a variety of periodic checks for understanding, including quick surveys at the end of each daily lesson, or perhaps a longer paragraph writing prompt that asks the student to summarize progress towards the objectives. Also, teachers should not forget to check in, face-to-face, with students on a regular basis.

These formative assessments should then be used to make any necessary adjustments as the project unfolds. A teacher may discover, for example, that the project timeline may need to be adjusted, or some struggling students may need to be provided with strategic hints in order to catch up. Also, teachers should have one or more enrichment activities ready to assign in case one or more advanced students complete their projects early.

When it comes to summative assessment, teachers should not rely solely on multiple-choice or similar objective tests when students complete an immersive learning experience. After all, much of what the students learn would be impossible to measure with multiple-choice test questions anyway. Ideally, students should be asked to demonstrate their learning by completing a practical project. In the drought example mentioned above, for instance, students might prepare a real-life narrated multimedia presentation about climate change and drought for a real-life town hall meeting. Such an assessment would require a carefully constructed rubric to ensure that students clearly understand the teacher’s expectations before they begin work. As Palloff and Pratt (2009) explained, rubrics can also help minimize the chance of conflict and disagreement about project grading (p. 70). Thus, by careful design, a teacher might use an immersive resource like Scientopolis to teach valuable critical-thinking skills while motivating students to achieve at higher levels.


Immersive Education. (2012, June 12). iED 2012 save science [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/pgvDKXkbCMo

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2009). Assessing the online learner: Resources and strategies for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rubrics: An Essential Tool for 21st Century Learning

I’m not sure why, but I don’t remember a lot of rubrics being used when I was in high school and college. My high-school history teacher, for example, required us to write a five-paragraph essay each week for the entire school year. He was a notoriously difficult grader, and always returned our essays to us with plenty of comments scribbled in red ink. Even though he was a very dedicated teacher and his feedback was very useful, it was always a bit of a guessing game for us to try to discern what he expected from our weekly essays. Rubrics would have helped us tremendously even then, back in the 20th Century, because they would have removed much of the guesswork from our writing.

In the 21st Century, of course, rubrics are even more important because students have so much more creative freedom associated with their learning. When I was writing my weekly history essays 25 years ago, I was probably relying on just one or two sources of information–probably a textbook chapter plus maybe a photocopied article. Students in a high school history class today, of course, would be expected to do much more than write the same five-paragraph essay each week. Modern web tools allow students to create more authentic projects. As the University of Colorado Denver (2006) stated in their online rubric tutorial, rubrics can provide clear descriptions of teachers’ expectations across a broad range of assignment types, from written reports to experiments, design tasks, and other real-world demonstrations of learning. In fact, I can imagine a 21st Century history teacher giving students a free-form assignment on a topic–say, the Civil War, for example. Even if students are allowed to select the format of their Civil War project from a long list of options (oral report, role-playing skit, video clip, web site, etc.), a savvy teacher might be able to use the exact same rubric that covers all of these options.

Another benefit of rubrics to the 21st Century learner is that they force assessment to be criterion-referenced, rather than norm-referenced (University of Colorado Denver, 2006). Without clearly stated learning objectives, it can be easy for teachers to slip into a bell-curve mentality. Virtually all of my college math and science courses in the 1990s were graded on a curve. Most of the professors in these classes based our grades on norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests. For those of us who wanted to earn an “A,” it wasn’t enough to complete all of our work on-time and at a high level of quality. We also had to look over our shoulders and make sure our exam scores were always were one or two standard deviations above the mean. In these classes, I remember students would often ask professors what would happen if every student in the class was a genius who did terrific work–could everyone in the course receive an “A” grade? Rubrics help break this sad concept of sorting students by keeping the focus where it should be: on whether or not students have mastered the essential learning objectives. In a perfect world, a student should receive the same grade for the same learning, regardless of who the teacher is or who else happens to be enrolled in the same class section. In this sense, well-crafted rubrics can be an important way to ensure equity of grading.

Rubrics have even more power as learning tools when they are designed and scored by collaborative teams of teachers. The University of California Denver (2006) suggested that the reliability of a rubric can be improved by having multiple graders score an assessment against the same rubric. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to participate in such a process. Last year, for example, the high school I taught at assigned two campus-wide writing benchmarks. We graded these essays using our common District writing rubric. During the scoring sessions for these benchmark essays, instructional coaches from the District Office were on hand to help us calibrate our scoring with sample papers, and we were able to ask one another’s help when we had to make difficult judgement calls. Again, this was a great opportunity for rubrics to enhance 21st Century learning, as our students’ papers and rubrics were shared electronically, which streamlined the process significantly. Student work was also electronically screened for plagiarism, thus further enhancing the reliability of the assessment. Activities like this are time-consuming, of course, but whenever teams of teachers use real-time common assessment data to help them improve their instruction, that is a golden opportunity to improve learning that shouldn’t be passed up.


University of Colorado Denver. (2006). Creating a rubric: An online tutorial for faculty. Retrieved from http://www.ucdenver.edu/faculty_staff/faculty/center-for-faculty-development/Documents/Tutorials/Rubrics/index.htm

Universal Design for Learning (UDL): It’s About the Students.

At our live meeting last week, my partner mainly affirmed the modifications I had made to my AP Chemistry lab design project. My partner didn’t have many suggestions for improving the paper itself, so I focused mainly on improving my report’s structure and clarity, rather than adding any new ideas. If I could revise my paper a second time, I would add a few words about accessibility, especially after what we have learned in our class over the past week. After all, accessibility isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law! According to Section 504, for example, students with disabilities must be given opportunities to achieve the same results and benefits as students without disabilities (Smith, 2017). Of the several modifications I proposed for my lesson, two were particularly relevant to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy.

First, I decided to allow, rather than prohibit, my students to use the internet to research possible experimental designs prior to writing their own procedure. The original lesson, which was given to me by a College Board AP Summer Institute trainer, contained this prohibition mainly as a guard against plagiarism. I wrote in my paper about how this modification would parallel the changing role of the teacher in the 21st century classroom, from the sage-on-the-stage to the guide-on-the-side. My original paper did not mention how this modification would increase variation of student engagement, which is one of the three primary elements of the UDL Guidelines (CAST, 2015). If I could revise my paper a second time, I would add a section describing how students with disabilities and/or sensory impairments might deepen their involvement in the project if given the opportunity to find relevant online video clips, visual aides, blog posts, especially if I took the time to locate, vet, and share a few of these resources with my students. The original assignment had absolutely no support for this. I must admit that any disabled student in my AP Chemistry course in the past would be likely to take a passive role while his or her lab partners would do most of the thinking, discussing, and decision-making about how to design the group’s experiment.

Second, I decided to change the post-lab assessment to incorporate peer editing and feedback via electronic comments. Again, this change in the assignment reflected an evolution in the teaching role, because I wanted to open up the revision process, so that the teacher was not the only person providing feedback to the learner. But I’m afraid I missed the mark in regards to UDL again here, because I was only imagining students providing typed commentary feedback to one another. The third UDL guideline, variation of action and expression, emphasizes the value of allowing students to express their knowledge in different ways (CAST, 2015). One refinement I might add to this feedback function would be to provide feedback in the form of audio clips. I recently learned about a web-based tool, Kaizena, which allows students and teachers to leave audio feedback, which opens the door for disabled and/or impaired students to communicate more effectively about their writing (Carey, 2015). In a fully online classroom, this sort of interactive peer reflection could also be facilitated via online hangout, similar to our live meeting earlier this week. I suspect that allowing audio comments, whether asynchronous or synchronous, would be helpful to all students, not just those with disabilities or impairments. This is perhaps the true genius of the UDL guidelines; inclusive design, after all, isn’t just a way to address compliance for specific disabilities, but rather a way to increase accessibility for all people (CAST, 2011). In the end, we educators should remember that good lesson design isn’t just about the teacher. It’s also about the student.


Carey, J. (2015). Leave voice comments in Google Docs with Kaizena [Web log comment]. EdTechTeacher. Retrieved from http://edtechteacher.org/kaizena-jen-carey/

CAST. (2011). UDL at a glance [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/resource_library/videos/udlcenter/udl 

CAST. (2015). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WI4edhsrLD4

Smith, T. E. C. (2017). Section 504, the ADA, and public schools. LD Online: The Educators’ Guide to Learning Disabilities and ADHD. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/6108/

How Should Data Be Used in 21st Century Classroom?

Image source: Pixabay

How should data be used in the 21st century classroom? This is the million-dollar question (or, to be more precise, the multi-billion-dollar question) that faces educators today. Bill Gates has demonstrated that data-driven philanthropy can help mobilize limited resources to solve persistent human problems. Modern data technologies, for example, have helped alleviate some of the human suffering caused by infectious diseases and famine in Africa (Goldstein, 2013, para. 3).

In the case of America’s education system, I see a lot of potential to for data to help, because schools are highly complex systems with complex sets of interacting variables. I was trained as a biologist, and the complexity of our education system is akin to that of the biological world. Because there are so many species in so many habitats on our planet, it took several decades just for scientists to make enough sense of the flood of available data to develop a coherent theory–natural selection–in order to explain it all. A critical breakthrough occurred when early biologists developed a standardized system of classifying species, so that they could at least agree on what to call each species, and how to place groups of species into categories by using measurable data that could give insights into their evolutionary relationships.

I see a parallel development in American education today. Our students come from a fantastic diversity of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds with widely different learning styles and abilities, and they are taught in a dizzying variety of school settings. Meaningful reform and improvement cannot occur until educators to come to consensus on which curriculum standards to adopt, and how student learning of those standards should be measured. The widespread adoption of the Common Core standards has been a huge step forward in this regard, but in a perfect world, student learning needs to be assessed consistently as well, so that apples-to-apples comparisons may be made. I hope that the Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC) will provide some much-needed clarity in how we measure student learning. The test questions on this assessment do a good job of testing levels of understanding that weren’t easily measured by traditional multiple-choice test items by employing technologically enhanced question types (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, n.d.). However, one of the tricky things about the Smarter Balanced tests is figuring out how individual test questions relate to the standards and the claims, which are the big-picture learning goals upon which the State bases its student and school reports.

Trying to solve the puzzle of standards mapping on the SBAC; what’s more, many of the standards can be mapped to more than one claim. As a teacher, I want to be able to harness the best data analysis programs to give me practical advice about how to modify my instruction to best meet the needs of each of my students. I don’t want to try to learn all of the intricacies of the data analysis, because that would take valuable time that I would much rather spend crafting good lessons and working with my students. If I were in charge of a school campus or District, I would want to try to use a carefully vetted consulting firm, such as Learning Forward, to analyze the wealth of available data. As Eric Brooks described in his video clip, the best insights for school leaders come from the skilled analysis of multiple sources of data, including non-testing data like attitude surveys (Learning Forward, 2012). Such data analysis might help teachers not only adjust their curricula and assignments, but also their methods and attitudes in ways that would enhance student learning.

Teachers, administrators, and parents might feel uneasy about trusting a hidden computer algorithm to inform their practice, as well they should (Modern School, 2013). The motives of for-profit data analysis companies must always be monitored, because schools have a sacred responsibility to protect the safety and privacy of their students. What’s more, we have to be assured that data analysis algorithms are culturally sensitive, so that we don’t make educational decisions based on data that were produced by culturally biased tests. But the potential benefits of using data to inform decision making in schools cannot be overstated. If computers can help us successfully land rovers on Mars or immunize thousands of children in Africa, perhaps they can help us better teach our students too.


Goldstein, D. (2013, January 31). Can big data save American schools? Bill Gates is betting yes. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/can-big-data-save-american-schools-bill-gates-is-betting-on-yes/272719/

Modern School. (2013, March 12). Is Bill Gates data mining your children? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://modeducation.blogspot.com/2013/03/is-bill-gates-data-mining-your-children.html

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (n.d.) Smarter assessments. Retrieved from http://www.smarterbalanced.org/assessments/#interim

Learning Forward. (2012, April 6). Data standard [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rvfp-5hCeMk

Formative Assessment Matters More Now

Waters (2012) suggested that every minute a teacher spends on formative assessment is a minute lost from instruction (p. 8). But I doubt that formative assessment and instruction are really a zero-sum game. As my master teacher told me over 20 years ago, a good assessment should be a learning experience too. The trick, I think, is for the teacher to break out of the comfortable routine of measuring all learning with quick and easy multiple-choice tests, to be more precise, the sort of test questions that have single, predetermined correct answers. Designing a good formative assessment takes time, to be sure, so why not use that time to students’ advantage by incorporating a thought-provoking article or short video clip into an assessment?

Image Source: Pixabay

A good formative assessment should require students to formulate ideas that extend beyond the context(s) in which the information was taught. A few years ago, I taught a high-school anatomy course with partner who is a formative assessment guru. She requires her students to write quick paragraph assessments based on one or two brief excerpts from articles. She carefully designs her writing prompts so that students not only summarize the key concepts from the article and their prior learning, but also apply that knowledge to solve a critical-thinking problem that they have not encountered before. Some of the prompts even ask questions that have more than one possible answer, so there is an opportunity for the assessment to provoke further discussion and debate in the classroom. She grades these short-paragraph assessments efficiently and holistically based on rather simple criteria:

  • Did the student demonstrate sufficient mastery of what has been taught recently?
  • Was the student able to make a logical conclusion about the critical-thinking problem that was supported with evidence?

Based on the results of each assessment, she is able to make immediate adjustments to her instruction—and student groupings—the very next day.

As I was completing my own self-assessment for this assignment, I realized that an effective formative assessment should also contain a question or two that asks the student to express his or her own assessment of progress. I don’t think it’s necessary to ask students to complete the exact same questions before and after their learning, as we have been asked to do this week. But I do think that students should be asked to reflect on how their thinking has changed over the course of a unit or an entire course term. Such assessments need not be lengthy; in fact, every lesson can easily be concluded by asking students to rate their own understanding of the lesson on a scale from 1 to 5. Over longer time scales, I think students should be asked to write reflections on learning goals every couple of weeks. Such writing can be a powerful learning experience for both the student and the teacher, who might gain valuable feedback that can be used to adjust upcoming lessons and/or improve the course for the next year.

Strategies such as these can be employed in a traditional classroom; in fact, I doubt any of these ideas is really new. But in an online or blended learning environment, these formative assessment techniques become essential, because teachers and students might not be in the same classroom at the same time, or they might not even be in the same part of the world. Teachers of online courses must take formative assessment very seriously because the students are not physically present, so their body language, attitudes, and emotional states might be complete mysteries.

Technology, of course, opens up whole new categories of possible formative assessment techniques. As Horn and Staker (2012) described, formative assessment can be constantly interwoven throughout learning by using adaptive instruction tools like Lexia (para. 6). In my school district, the printed math textbook has been completely replaced with GoMath and ThinkCentral, both of which are adaptive, interactive learning learning modules published by HMH. Students in such programs are constantly asked to solve problems independently, and the computer software makes instant decisions about the next step, whether a student needs remediation or intervention, or is ready to progress to the next step. These tech tools are sometimes aggravating when they do not work, and I doubt they can replace the intuition and interpersonal relationship of a dedicated teacher. However, even the most skeptical tradition-minded teacher must admit that technology is opening the door to many new assessment methods, and that traditional paper tests with multiple-choice questions are going the way of the dinosaur.


Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2012, November 14). Formative assessment is foundational to blended learning. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2012/11/14/formative-assessment-is-foundational-to-blended-learning.aspx

Waters, J. K. (2012). Resolving the formative assessment catch-22. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from http://online.qmags.com/TJL0912?pg=20&mode=1#pg20&mode1

Constructivism and Blended Learning: A Match Made In Heaven?


While building an online Prezi project with my class partner earlier this week, I had social learning theories on my mind. This
is no accident, of course, because my professor had asked the students to reflect on this very assignment through the lens of social learning theories! My partner and I were separated by several hundred miles, so it might seem somewhat silly to reflect on our social interactions. After all, my partner and I have never met face-to-face, nor do we have any reasonable expectation that we will ever meet. But of course, technology can bring together people in ways that would have seemed magical 20 or 30 years ago.



Constructivist theory, according to Greene (2013), emphasizes that the most significant tool we use when we learn is language. In a traditional classroom, of course, this theory helps us understand why students don’t tend to learn very well when they must sit silently and listen to an hour-long, uninterrupted lecture from a professor. Most people don’t learn very much in such a format, unless they are auditory learners with excellent memorization skills. But most students don’t fit that profile, and even those who do can benefit from opportunities to discuss new ideas with learning partners. The best classroom teachers know how to structure lessons that provide opportunities for partner and small-group discussions, while at the same time un-structuring assignments, so students play a more constructive role in creating their own meanings while they learn. In a blended learning environment, however, this can be a significant challenge. How can I have an enriching conversation with a remote learning partner when I don’t even know what she looks like?

In the specific case of this Prezi assignment, I did have a few clues to work with. At the beginning of the course, each student was required to post a brief introductory essay about their career and personal backgrounds. When I found out who my partner was going to be, I carefully re-read her introductory post, and tried to place an image of her in my mind, similar to the mental picture I would make about a character in a novel. Although the two of us only communicated via emails and comments we typed on a shared Wiki page, I think we were able to share enough ideas and experiences to bring constructivism into the picture, but just barely so.

In order to make this sort of assignment an authentic constructivist learning experience, our interactions should have been face-to-face via Google Hangout or Skype, or at least via synchronous chatting. The potential learning benefits of face-to-face discussion cannot be overemphasized. Sociologists tell us that a majority of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. If my partner and I had been able to view even jittery, pixelated images of one another, we would have seen those all-important facial expressions, eye movements, etc. Even a simple phone call allows two people to hear each other’s voices, including their tone of voice and emotional clues that are absent from written sentences on a page. A pastor recently told me that she observes many adults, especially professionals, trying to have an email conversation that would be better conducted via a telephone call; she encourages people to set aside texting and emails when a true conversation is needed (D. Baxter, personal communication, October 9, 2016).

Constructivism In the K-12 Blended Learning Environment

Several of Vander Ark’s examples have incorporated components of constructivism. The School of One math program in New York, for example, incorporated in-person math tutoring and online video conferencing (Vander Ark, 2012, p. 84). Sweden’s Kunskapsskolan program included personal tutoring and advising for each student, so that students could have regular, rich conversations about their own personal learning goals (Vander Ark, p. 90). The creators of programs like these are tinkering with the traditional classroom structure in ways that maximize the number of rich, face-to-face conversations between teachers and students. Advance Path schools have successfully used such methods to help at-risk students succeed (Vander Ark, p. 92).

I know skeptics worry that students in blended learning programs spend most of their time receiving first-time instruction from online lessons, instead of credentialed teachers. But this criticism is based on a flawed assumption that a teacher can effectively instruct 30 or more individual students in a way that socially engages all of them, and maintains the learning within all of their individual zones of proximal development, simultaneously. Classrooms no longer have to be structured in this way! By thoughtfully implementing constructivist principles via blended learning, teachers may be able to restructure their day so they spend most of their time interacting with individual students and/or small groups. This is an exciting possibility, especially for students who have difficulty succeeding in the traditional, lecture-based classroom. Educators who work in traditional K-12 districts should study blended learning programs that have demonstrated recent success, and implement some of their constructivist techniques in their own classrooms.


Greene, K. (2013, September 8). More social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL_3qrSZBJ4&feature=youtu.be

Vander Ark, T. (2012). Getting smart: How digital learning is changing the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The Dance: Navigating the A, B, C’s of Student Motivation With Technology

Several years ago, I was speaking with a colleague while the two of us were chaperoning a dance in the gym at our high school. My friend, like me, was a middle-aged, Generation X teacher with 10-15 years of classroom experience. He shook his head incredulously and remarked that, at any given moment, over half of the students weren’t even dancing, but rather sitting on the bleachers and playing with their cellphones. Even some of the dancers were looking at their phones, which made for some clumsy accidents.

While I try not to join the sort of grumpy teacher conversations in which veterans take turns bemoaning the behaviors of kids nowadays, I think my friend was on to something: Technology has changed the way young people interact socially. What my friend and I observed at that dance has been described by Hartman, Moskal, and Dzuiban (2005) as social swarming or smart mobs (p. 69). This is a phenomenon that all teachers should be aware of. If we choose to ignore it, we do so at our own peril.

The authors went on to describe a research project they conducted at a major university, in which they characterized differences in attitudes about classroom technology between Baby Boomers, Generation X students (which, by the way, would include me), and the Net Generation of students who are currently in school. Although there were predictable differences between each generation’s perceptions about technology, the authors concluded that all three generations agreed on the attributes of a good teacher (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Not surprisingly, several of the most important factors concerned social interaction.

A: The Affective Domain

For example, the authors found that students from all generations believed “…that excellent instructors … [s]how respect and concern for their students” (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Of course, the first of Greene’s A, B, & C’s of student motivation is the affective domain–in other words, a key component of student motivation stems from the emotions elicited by their teacher in the classroom environment (Greene, 2013). It isn’t enough, by the way, for the teacher to respect his or her students; this respect must be demonstrated to the students. They have to be convinced that the teacher cares about their well-being and their learning.

B: The Behavioral Domain

What does genuine respect for students look like in a 21st century classroom? Well, for one thing, teachers should face the reality that students are now attached to their tech tools, including phones and wireless internet devices, almost constantly. A quick Google search, for example, now allows a student to quickly find the right answer to almost every detail- or fact-oriented question a teacher could ever ask. Some teachers might dream of tackling this reality head-on by taking away their students’ internet devices. I have to admit that I had this attitude as recently as five years ago.

However, I started to realize that strict enforcement of student technology use inside my classroom was becoming a behavioral battle that wasn’t worth fighting. The en masse confiscation of student tech devices is now inconsistent with the structure of a modern learning environment. Rather, we teachers should strive to ask our students the sorts of real-world, critical-thinking questions that cannot be answered with a quick Google search. We shouldn’t do this in order to make the learning more difficult. We should do it to make the learning more real.

C: The Cognitive Domain

Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban (2005) also concluded that students appreciate teachers who “facilitate student learning” (p. 76). I hear so many teachers complain that many of their students aren’t performing well on assessments, or that their grades are too low, or that they can’t keep up with the pacing calendar. When problems like this crop up, or when students seem unmotivated or disengaged from their learning, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to modify the curriculum. Think like the deejay at the dance: When the dance floor is empty, change the music.

The trick is that many teachers, particularly novice ones, don’t always feel that they have permission to modify their lessons, assignments, or pacing. I know when I was first starting out in the classroom, I was scared to deviate too much from the curriculum that the veteran teachers in my department had given me. What I failed to consider was that effective teachers don’t access their students’ cognitive domains simply by pulling the next worksheet out of a file cabinet. Rather, we keep our students engaged by crafting learning tasks that lie within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development–that magical place where students stretch their thinking just a little beyond what they are currently capable of accomplishing (Greene, 2013).

Of course, consistently hitting every student’s zone of proximal development during every lesson is practically impossible. Everyone learns at a different pace, and in different ways, so getting all of the students to learn at the same time can be even more challenging than getting them all to dance together! The key is to structure a learning environment in which technology allows students enough choices so that they can find engagement and motivation to tackle learning that is truly challenging to them.


Greene, K. (2013, September 9). Overview of social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i28IW_Odp_g&feature=youtu.be

Hartman, J., Moskal, P., & Dzuiban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation (pp. 66-80). Louisville, CO: Educause.