November 22, 2013

GoogleDocs Spreadsheet for Student Data (and Desire2Learn #fail)

Yesterday, I wrote about spreadsheets as a tool I use for developing content. Today, I want to write about using spreadsheets for student data. I was prompted to do this because I received an email from Coursera that made me laugh: although that company claims to be gathering all kinds of "big data" about their students, I don't see them making very good use of it (see G+ post below with discussion comments).

Meanwhile, the course management system we use at my school, Desire2Learn, does not really give me a way to manage student data either. The Gradebook is sort of like a spreadsheet, yes, but it has none of the functionality of a real spreadsheet. I cannot perform any truly complex/useful filters and searches. Worst of all: I cannot add my own columns to keep track of student data that really is important and useful to me.

So, I create a GoogleDocs spreadsheet every semester where on one page I keep track of my enrolled students and the data I need to be able to access and use. On another page, I keep the waiting list of students seeking to get into the class. What kind of data do I need to keep track of for my students? Here are just what a few of the columns contain:

Real Name. A surprising number of students go by a nickname or use their middle name. There is NO WAY in Desire2Learn to keep track of the name that a student uses; instead, we can only see the "official" name on file. Until I started keeping track of this systematically, I had not realized what a large number of students use a nickname or do not even use that first name at all, choosing to use their middle name instead. I think it's dreadful that D2L does not let them choose a screen name that matches their real name. I cannot even keep track of their real name anywhere in D2L.

Email Address. I keep an email address list here so that I can easily send emails related to data I keep track of in the spreadsheet.

Blog URL. Each student has a blog address. I use and re-use this address for creating a variety of assignments (putting students in blog groups, randomly viewing student blogs, etc.)

Introduction Post URL. It's important for me and for other students to be able to access the introduction posts students include in their blog at the beginning of the semester. I use this for my own quick reference and also to create assignments where students are looking at each other's introductions and commenting on them.

Comment Wall URL. The Comment Wall is one of the most important features of the Ning that I use as my virtual classroom (there is nothing comparable in Desire2Learn, sadly - the profile pages are completely static, with no possibilities for interaction). I use the Comment Wall address for the different assignments where students are interacting with each other via the Comment Wall.

Writing Assessment. In the first week of the semester, students complete a writing assessment. It is very helpful for me to view the results of that writing assessment as I give feedback to students about their writing throughout the semester, especially at the beginning of the semester when I am just getting to know the students individually.

There are lots of other columns also, but they are kind of hard to explain outside of the context of my class and the specific information I do keep track of. And that, I think, is the single biggest problem with all the discussions I hear about "big data," including the self-congratulatory claims that Desire2Learn also makes about offering data-driven teaching tools. As a teacher, I really do rely on data that I collect about my students, but that data is closely tied to my teaching practices. It's not something someone can impose on me from the outside.

In terms of a data tool inside Desire2Learn, I would need something a lot more like the customizable spreadsheet that I currently create manually using GoogleDocs. It's not a huge amount of trouble to create it manually, of course - but some of the data I am manually entering into the spreadsheet is indeed available in Desire2Learn, and there is much more data in Desire2Learn that I would love to use if it were easy to extract... but it's not.

So, as often, I have to say THANK YOU to Google for making my job as an online teacher so much easier to manage. And nope, no thanks to Desire2Learn when it comes to student data. Maybe... maybe... they will someday figure out just how powerful a spreadsheet can be and will let us use the Gradebook like a real spreadsheet. Someday. Maybe.

Post about Coursera and student data below:

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