Using an VLE for a Paper and Pencil OSSLTest?

Last year (2013-14), our school’s Literacy PLT set out to offer our After School Literacy preparation course as a blended learning one. Each of the eight face-to-face lessons were supported with online content for those students either needing a refresher or for those unable to attend the after-school extra help classes. We hoped that parents might also be encouraged to review class content and thereby partner with us in the preparation of their students for this large scale assessment.

What did we find? Teachers liked it. Students liked it. Parents liked it. There was one problem, however. We were adopting a 21st century learning model to prepare students for an antiquated test blueprint. We were giving our students a fabulous new virtual learning environment that they enjoyed and then, on the day of the high stakes test, EQAO was asking them to sharpen their pencils.

We had not made a mistake. We did the right thing. We had flipped our lessons: provided instructional videos, animations, immediate response feedback on grammar-focused multiple-choice questions and threaded discussions and then, on the day of the test, if our equity and accountability office (EQAO) was going to expect our learners to unplug and to power down, then they had failed; not us.

We knew this would be the case but we did it any way because, for most every teacher I know, the OSSLT is not a valid or authentic assessment of any modern literacy construct. At its best, it’s a pretext for using school and board resources to allow teachers to learn. I know I learned a lot. We put into place our varied departmental theories of action by creating three-part lessons using our school’s tried and true reading and writing strategies. We set learning goals, co-constructed success criteria; used exit tickets to check for learning. We expanded our repertoire of instructional strategies.

This year EQAO is piloting a fully online OSSLT experience. I’m very curious to see if the medium will effect the message. Will question formats in particular and the test blueprint in general change or will they simply serve up a 15 year old test on a shinny new plate?

Desire2Learn or Microsoft Office365?

D2L Image O365 image

At the outset, let me say that this is a nice problem to have. Listening to teachers talk about which blended learning platform works best for their disciplines and their students is certainly the prettiest picture I’ve seen in education in a long while. It means that a lot of things have gone right: in training, access, policies and mind shifts. Obviously, there is no real answer to this question other than that both are needed; both are necessary. Some comparison of D2L and Office365, however, may be helpful to teachers wondering where to start.

Teachers using D2L seem to enjoy the “Management” in this VLE. The system integration with Trillium; the imbedded Turnitin “authenticity check” (and the electronic form of descriptive feedback that such a built-in provides) and the auto correct assessment feature, are the top three reasons why teachers like using our Board’s version of D2L. As far as management and/or tracking of or assessment of student work is concerned, D2L is a far superior teacher tool than is O365. Personally, I enjoy the blogging feature of D2L because it connects learners in our entire Board across panels and families of schools. As teachers begin to discover this feature, I’m certain that it will connect our Board’s learners in the same way that public micro-blogging sites like Twitter have connected other communities. It’s also nice knowing that our student blogging is protected within our learning “cove,” allowing both teachers and students the freedom to make mistakes, or just to think out loud, within a safe and somewhat private offline/online space. Office365 also allows for student blogging and class wikies but D2L is connected Board-wide and there’s value in that.

Microsoft Office365 users enjoy the inherently collaborative learning model supported by Microsoft application features. Allowing students to work collaboratively, remotely and in real time on the entire suite of Microsoft applications (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) certainly makes authentic student collaboration possible in a way that we never could before. This platform provides each of our students with their own Board email and a ton of cloud-based storage as well. Both very necessary in supporting student learning and growth. Not to mention that this platform has the most value when considering the development of student employability skills. Our learners are much more likely to use Mircrosoft Office applications in their future workplace settings than they are D2L after all.

It’s not possible to talk about Office365 without making some mention of its calendar feature. I’m hoping that it could one day, make our student agenda books obsolete. Certainly an online agenda/calendar could more effectively encourage the meta-cognition and self-management skills we are trying to foster in our learners than could our current coil-bound agenda books.

This platform also beats out our Board’s version of D2L on styling, if nothing else. Office365 presents as polished, modern and clean while D2L reads as a Texas Instruments calculator of old. While this may sound like a minor criticism, it’s really not. Interface matters to students and therefore it’s got to matter to teachers as well.

Which ever platform the new blended learning teacher starts with, they shouldn’t stay there for long. The quicker the teacher adopts multiple virtual learning management systems/environments, the sooner they realize that they’re not married to the technology or the platform. They are instead able to see that they can take advantage of the best of what each online environment has to offer their students and them. More importantly, they realize a few key things: first and foremost, they understand that they can’t become stagnant within a platform. Eventually, that platform will collapse and they will need to know that they can adopt a new and better one. Second, and perhaps most important, they realize that the technology is not replacing their teaching. After all, good teaching in the classroom isn’t much different than good teaching online.