Peering inside the Black Box of Learning

This is a guest posting by one of my team members.  It covers some of the most interesting work we are doing here at Appleby College using Microsoft OneNote to enhance the learning experience. This is in addition to a number of other applications and technologies in place.

Appleby College has been a 1:1 computer school for over 14 years.  First as a laptop, then a pen-based tablet to support education.

We are delighted to share this story.  The paper below has been shared on Microsoft's Partners In Learning Hot Topic site.

If you are interested in further discussion on how this might be applicable to your school, send me an email (kpashuk(at)gmail(dot)com) with your contact information and I'll get back to you.

Comments and questions are welcome.  Enjoy the post below.

Peering inside the Black Box of Learning
Calvin Armstrong, Educational Technology Advisor, Appleby College

It is often very difficult to see what students are doing when they work; you have to stand over them, crouch down, lean your shoulder in.  Your mere presence changes the students’ behaviours – they freeze under observation, their thought processes get interrupted and many can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable with your close presence and observation.

Yet we know that in order to differentiate instruction and to ensure that students are progressing with their learning, we need to be able to see their work and provide feedback as often and as thoroughly as possible. 

Oral feedback often fades away and is lost; the process of offering written feedback on developing work is challenging because it is either the transfer of a physical piece of paper (removing it from their possession) or the receipt of a digital snapshot of a Word document that doesn't place their material in context.  If formative assessment (or assessment for learning) is to occur more naturally, teachers need access to students’ materials continually and they need a way to provide feedback in situ without interrupting the students’ work flow.

Teachers need to get inside the black box of student learning without disrupting it.

Microsoft OneNote is already a great canvas for student work across all school subjects; it has an open format within a structure that teachers and students are traditionally familiar with – it has notebooks, sections reminiscent of Hilroy™ paper tabs and pages on which to write, draw, collect and compose.  And it has the convenience of an infinite amount of blank, lined and graph paper to work with – ideas can grow without bound. 

As a long-time 1:1 Tablet PC school, we wanted to find a way to leverage OneNote’s existing capabilities into a classroom environment that was an easy transition for teachers and students but promoted a climate of 
sharing, provided for continual assessment and promoted information organization.  Through the use of Microsoft SharePoint 2010 document libraries, the synchronization capabilities built in to Microsoft OneNote 2010 and a structured, programmatic approach to permissions, we created the OneNote Binder system.

The OneNote Binder is set up so that each class has a Notebook stored on the School network, synchronized to the Teacher and Students’ Tablet PCs.  Within the Notebook there is a Section Group (a Section Group is a collection of Sections) specifically for the Teacher.  Every student can see the entire contents of the Teacher Section Group; they can copy material from it but they cannot edit within the Teacher notes.    Each student also has their own Section Group which they can edit and organize in whatever fashion they’d like.  It is in this space that they do all of their work, take notes, and develop their assignments.  No other student can see their Section Group but the Teacher can see and edit all Notes within the OneNote Binder.

When the Student Section Groups are created (automatically when a student enrols in the class) the system creates two Sections for them: The Assignments Section and the Assessed Section.  The Assignments Section is a specific place that students know to place work that the teacher is deliberately going to collect; it’s the student’s personal dropbox for the course.  We didn't want to require teachers to search through a student’s Section Group to find work they had asked for, so this Section is the common repository across the School in each course.  Since OneNote time stamps any edits to a page, and maintains a version history of each section, teachers and students have a convenient way of tracking their work and submissions.

In the same way, the Assessed Section is the place where all work goes when it has been considered by the Teacher.  It is set up, though, so that the student can read and copy out of the Section, but can’t edit any content in it; that D cannot transmogrify into a B with a well-placed pen stroke!  Teachers move the student work from Assignments into Assessed and can provide feedback as required.  The Assessed Section, over time, provides a digital portfolio for the student of their work from throughout the course. Students can copy the assessed work back into their other Sections and continue to work on it with based on the teacher’s feedback and resubmit it to the Assignments section to continue the learning cycle.
This Assignmentà Assessed process has highlighted a need for a temporary holding spot, located within the Student Section Group where teachers can assess the work in stages; for longer pieces of work, teachers often need several days to assess and provide feedback and they would prefer not to have students see partial completed assessments.  As this is development for the coming summer, in the meantime teachers move the student’s assignment into an external holding notebook and move it to Assessed when finished.  Fortunately, Microsoft OneNote follows a convenient click and drop across and between Sections and Notebooks.

Since all of the students’ work is visible to the teacher as the student develops it, student work can be projected and shared with the class as a whole for discussion (provided, of course, the student is comfortable with that process).  The teacher’s tablet, while connected to the projector, can show any student’s page and the student can interact with and explain their material from their desk while other students see it on the whiteboard. 

Given a wireless environment, teachers traverse the room with their tablet pc, and by flipping to the appropriate student Section Group, determine the student’s progress on their page without having to be next to them physically.  Feedback can be written and synchronized as the teacher moves around the room, with the comments appearing alongside the student work automatically.  A conversation can take place without a word being spoken and questions can be asked and dealt with without a physical hand being raised.

Distribution of notes and materials is automatic and seamless.  Previously, with independent Notebooks stored on their own tablets, students would have to retrieve material from either an online repository (SharePoint in our case) or via email.  This was cumbersome and really didn’t indicate to the student any form of organization or place within their previous work.  Teachers now create all of their materials within their Notebook in a way that structures their curriculum, and students copy the material directly into their Section Groups.  There are no more lost handouts, absent students are aware of exactly what transpired in class and the full content of the year is available for perusal at any time, both as the teacher has presented it and the student has interpreted it.  Teachers can provide feedback anywhere within a student’s Section Group – OneNote bolds the Section and Page names to let students know where there is new material and can ensure they have all the materials necessary.  Teachers and students can also use the Tag and Highlighting functions built into OneNote to mark and find important materials. 

Those materials can be anything on a computer: OneNote accommodates any kind of digital material either by embedding it directly into the page, providing the link to the material if it is too large or by “printing” it to a OneNote page so you write on top of a digital facsimile of the document.  OneNote’s synchronization automatically distributes it to all students as soon as the teacher places it in their Section.  While occasionally we have had to provide external sharing sites for teachers who are pushing the envelope when it comes to embedding large objects in the page, allowing a mix of digital artefacts within a OneNote page provides the teacher and students new and more meaningful ways to craft their understanding.

For example, built in to OneNote are the Audio and Video Recordings.  Teachers have used both to provide different, deeper and more useful feedback to student work.  Students have inserted both types of recordings as either the initial homework or discussion and commentary of the teacher’s feedback.  Music students have inserted their practices into their OneNote pages from the practice rooms (or home) and the teacher has them automatically synchronized to their tablet PCs (again, either at school or at home) to comment upon at their leisure.  Since the tablet PCs have built in webcams, teachers and students create short videos embedded into the OneNote page that personalize the feedback in ways that simple text or ink cannot convey.

Since the permissions for all of these Notebooks (and their Section Groups) are set by the school’s server, we've been able to extend the reach of classroom work into the larger community.  Teachers of other sections of a particular class can read (and copy) the Teacher Section Group of courses they’ve been invited to, Department Heads can see all of their teachers’ work and coverage teachers are automatically given temporary access to the class and its work.  Parents, too, since they have login capability on the school network, can read the Teachers’ notes and see all of their students’ material (but of course, no other student’s).  This has improved communication between home and school and has allowed a better articulation of a student’s progress and standing in the class.

The Notebooks are created and stored on the school’s server – the teachers and students are working on continually synchronized copies of their materials.  Unlike in previous years, when the Notebooks were stored locally on their tablets, the loss or failure of hard drives is no longer a cause for concern.  Backups are done by the network and the community can easily switch between devices to access their notebooks.  The synchronization occurs in the background and should there ever be a difficulty with synchronization, OneNote alerts the user and maintains backup copies until the error is fixed. 

We've been experimenting with creating shared student work space, so that small groups of students can create together.  The Teams Section Group can contain any number of Section Groups for each student collaboration and the teacher can provide feedback across the board.  Because it is all stored on the server and Microsoft OneNote synchronizes continually, there is never the issue of “who has the notes” should a student be absent, and students can continue working on their projects when away from the classroom, or away from school.  The synchronization occurs over simple web connections and the process is almost invisible to the students.

The use of the OneNote Binder has also provided teachers and students with an opportunity to share information in other areas.  Departments have set up similar notebooks so teachers could collaborate both within sections of the same course but also connecting learning across various courses.  Student peer tutors have created OneNote Binders for their peer tutor groups to share resources and to provide their tutees with feedback even when not in face-to-face conversations.  Sports teams have used them to synchronize across teams and coaches, especially given that many coaches are external to the school and aren't involved synchronously with our schedule.  Students involved in math contest preparation no longer had to wait outside the mathematics department door for answers to their questions; discussion of challenging questions occurred on the Math Contest OneNote Binder whenever the teacher or student had time to sketch out their thoughts.

Dylan Wiliam, the author of many insightful articles on assessment including Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment and Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for learning in the classroom is a leading voice on how best to ensure the professional growth of teachers.  He once stated that “Improving practice involves changing habits, not adding knowledge[1] -- we've found that our teachers didn't need to be told new ways to assess or present information.  They’re knowledge and teaching experts already.  Instead, they need to have access to easier processes that will develop habits in the classroom that will improve the student and teacher experience and remove impediments from collaboration and feedback.  These processes have to grow from their present understanding of tools and classroom practice, not from something completely new, so using a OneNote Binder has been a great entrée to organizing digital content in a meaningful way, distributing and collaborating with teachers and students and providing feedback.  

Unlike other collaborative work spaces, Microsoft OneNote isn't limited to text, it doesn't require monitoring software that goes beyond inquiry into their academic work, and it doesn't segment student activity between several programs.  The program is integrated and expansive so that the student can create and the teacher can provide meaningful feedback easily and at their convenience without invading physical space or removing the work from the student.  Microsoft OneNote on a tablet computer transitions easily from a paper paradigm and the synchronization and security provided by Microsoft SharePoint allows for a more fluid formative assessment and digital portfolio system. 

[1] Designing teacher learning that benefits students. ASCL Conference, Birmingham, UK: March 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, great post. We have been using Shared OneNote notebooks in a very similar way for our teachers courses and have experienced many of the benefits you have so aptly described. Love the setup of an "assignment and assessed" sections and the fact that it is web accessible through sharepoint.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

    Terence Carty