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Big data in a little classroom

In February 2015, the Department of Education released the analysis of their wide-ranging Workload Challenge survey. When teachers were asked what unnecessary or unproductive tasks take up too much of their time, the two clear winners were ‘recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data’ (56%) and the ‘excessive depth of marking – detail and frequency’ (53%).

In Phil Beadle's 'How to Teach', he notes that effective marking could well be the difference between a good teacher and an outstanding one. It can catalyse student progress and drive expectation beating results. Were time no obstacle, marking is an opportunity to teach beyond the classroom, provide direction, nurture development, and gain unrivalled insight. That is to say a genuine opportunity to concept check, spot under performance or unveil issues.

But the reality is teachers are often time-poor – and few have avoided carting home piles of workbooks. The report revealed that the top two most desired and successful solutions to tackle workload pressures were: ‘modify marking’ and ‘reduce data inputting and analysis’.

There are many effective strategies to fight the marking leviathan, such as employing peer-to-peer or reflective feedback, spreading the amount by setting bigger projects that take more time, or changing the deliverables like asking for verbal answers in class.

Despite these and other approaches, the spectre of unmarked workbooks, report templates or inputting grade-after-grade into an unwieldy information management system remains unbanished. Until now.

Technology has changed things. Our challenges of data management and marking workload are inextricably linked, and can be resolved in one fell swoop. Imagine one platform for setting a homework task, tracking submissions, marking, and distributing feedback, while simultaneously updating your class markbook or school system. This is what teachers want.

No more paper, no more chasing individual students, nor sorting through disparate notes or incomplete markbooks – everything is in one place, accessible through a computer or mobile device. Students send work through the platform, after which the teacher decides when to send it back with a grade, annotations or summarised feedback. Plus, learning platforms with a 360 degree approach allow parents to be kept in the loop through their own dashboard.

There’s plenty of clever and often free apps that teachers already use for their marking, which a good learning platform should support, allowing you to find your own way to mark that works best.

Firefly focuses on being useful, day in day out. A by-product of this activity is the wealth of data captured, which Firefly in turn presents in a helpful way. This includes the ability to track student and class progress, compare grades against predictions and spot any anomalies in performance. In turn, heads of department or deputy heads may require a top-level summary to identify how groups of students are doing. A good system should allow users to seamlessly play with the data captured, and be able to do useful things, like zooming in on an individual student or taking a school-wide perspective. Teachers should be able to share or present specific grades to a student or parent, and if needed extract data for further analysis in a programme like excel. Good data doesn’t lie, and in an instant can unveil trends or areas for focus that anecdotal evidence would take much longer, if ever, to discover.

Remove the unnecessary or unproductive aspects of marking and teachers can focus on always providing contextual and effective assessment, encouraging and developing students. Our thoughts are echoed by suggested best practice in that same government report, with one school saying, “children’s learning journeys were a major paperwork issue… [until] switching to an online learning journey.”

Perhaps now’s the time to banish the bane of marking once and for all?

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