As I mentioned in my last post, I’d grown dissatisfied with my Google Sites portfolio system for documenting student learning and was looking to try out something new. That new thing is Seesaw and so far I’m pretty happy with the switch. This post will try to set out some of my current thinking around why I switched and what is working better (or worse) with the new system.
In past years, my high school science students would create personal blogs at free sites like WordPress and Google Blogger, publish the results of their learning activities in blog posts, then collect links to their work into a standards-based assessment portfolio in Google Sites. Everything students did was visible online and families could subscribe to their blog feed to follow what students were producing for class. On the teacher side of things, I would subscribe to every student blog using an RSS feed reader, read and evaluate blog posts, and respond to students with (hopefully constructive) comments using a grading spreadsheet that I developed.
At some point in time last school year, I decided that maintaining the portfolio Sites felt like an extra chore on top of the work that students were already doing by posting to their blogs. In fact, many students said exactly that, sometimes even to my face. Also, the self-reflection that I thought the portfolios would bring was not really happening, at least not for most students. My intention was for students to review their blog posts to see which work met certain standards, but far too often I found myself merely commanding students as to which blog posts needed to be on certain portfolio pages.
The grading spreadsheets I built and maintained for every student certainly felt like an extra chore for myself as well. I would give reasonably detailed feedback on most every piece of work, yet sometimes even in our 3rd or 4th quarter of school I would have students be surprised that they had a grading document. In other words, many students never saw (or paid attention to) the shared grading doc with comments for improvement.
These minor and not-so-minor annoyances led me to look for some other system that could:
- publish student work online for a wide audience, including the teacher (me) and parents/families
- facilitate standards-based assessment and reporting
- be compatible or native to mobile devices (have a suitable web version or app)
- allow for improvement/editing of published work
- minimize the number of different services and sites that each student has to manage
With these criteria in mind, I was essentially looking for a blog-like service with standards-based portfolio properties to it. I remembered reading about Seesaw portfolios a while back and thought that that service might match up pretty well.
Why hadn’t I tried Seesaw before now? Honestly, when I first encountered their service I was put off a bit by their strong focus on marketing to the elementary school level. My first impression was that the teacher was in charge of documenting stuff that students made and that wasn’t where I wanted to be with my very independent high school learners with their fancy personalized blogs.
I have tried it out this year, though. In fact, I went all-in with every class at once switching over to using Seesaw from the start of this school year. Common wisdom would be to try it with one class, but I figured if I liked it, I would be switching everyone over midyear, which would be annoying.
Here is the current workflow for students and I using Seesaw’s Journal:
- Students carry out experiments and other learning activities in class and online (the majority of lab guidelines and activities are shared with students via Schoology.com).
- Students create published versions of Google Docs, slideshows, online concept maps, etc. to document their labs and other learning.
- Links to the public version of their work are posted in their Seesaw Journal using either the web-based version or the mobile app.
- The Journal entry sits in Seesaw awaiting my “approval” (their words, not mine). I get notifications for these “in limbo” entries.
- When I find time to grade, I call up Seesaw’s list of unapproved Journal entries.
- I click on a student’s submitted work, which pops up in a separate tab.
- I review their work.
- I add comments on the work directly into our school’s online grade book (Infinite Campus) so they are visible to students and parents. I also assign Complete-Partial-Rework ratings as published by Paul Strode in https://mrdrscienceteacher.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/my-classes-are-pointless/
- I click back into the Seesaw tab in my browser and use their “tag skills” function to mark the major skill standards that I see in evidence in that particular Journal entry.
- I approve the work and it becomes a part of their Journal.
Here we hit one of the major differences between the student blogs and Seesaw: student work is not immediately shared to the entire Internet. Only that student’s teacher, families (via a special access code or teacher permission), and fellow students can see Journal posts. There is an option to add Journal posts to an open class-wide blog, but I haven’t set up the public blogs yet.
One other clear difference from using blogs is the degree of teacher control. As their advertising indicates, in Seesaw the teacher can do nearly all the work of adding items to the Journal and as such Journal posts live inside a space controlled primarily by the teacher. One of my philosophical reasons for choosing blogs initially was that the blog could travel with the student, especially a WordPress blog that they could keep with them even after graduation. I suspect that some students might miss that functionality, and indeed I have a few older students that are keeping a blog and posting their blog links into Seesaw.
There are a few minor annoyances that I’ve picked up on, but by no means are they deal-breakers. For example, Seesaw seems to expect me to nearly instantly approve student Journal entries and will send me a reminder email if I leave an entry unapproved for more than a day or two. The app sends out notifications and emails for a weekly review of each class that I find unnecessary, but there’s probably a toggle somewhere to turn that off.
My biggest complaint of Seesaw is that the Google Drive integration can sometimes get in the way. Usually we build Google stuff then make it public or “publish to the web” which gives us docs and slideshows that look pretty sexy online and as students edit them they automatically update. Seesaw has an annoying habit of noticing that our links come from Google and offers to convert our links into pdf files, which are not nearly as friendly. I have to train students to click “continue” rather than the tempting blue button on the left.
I totally understand why this pdf publication setup works for younger kids who don’t know how to mess with sharing or publication settings in Google Drive, but it does get in the way. If a student uploads a Doc as a pdf then makes changes, they have to upload a new version to the Journal and then there could be at least two versions of the same assignment posted to their Journal, which complicates things if the teacher is trying to use the Skills standards-based grading module.
The Skills module is an optional service that also happens to be a paid add-on. I’m using the trial version so far, but I’m betting that I’ll want to keep it around, even at the price of $120 per year. I set up my 7 major performance skills across all my classes and can tag each Journal entry when I see each skill on display. I can rate a Journal entry from 1 to 4 stars per standard and Seesaw will give me a color-coded display of each student’s most current performance and how many times I’ve observed a certain skill.
The downside to this lovely system of color-coded standards-based feedback is that students do not see it. I might be able to share an individual student’s chart of standards for face-to-face conferences about final grades, but otherwise this is just a tool for teachers and not a means of feedback to students. It would also be nice to be able to change how the color-coding is determined, i.e. set it based on the last measurement or as an average of scores for the standard.
Overall, I’ve been very impressed with Seesaw and it certainly has streamlined my courses to some extent. We use just three major online services for instruction and feedback, namely Schoology, Google Apps, and Seesaw, all of which have mobile apps for those students without computers and/or wifi at home. Seesaw also features a Seesaw Family app so that parents and others can observe and comment on student work. We are in the very early days of implementation, but I’ve had several parents sign on and several more indicated interest at our parent conferences last week. I’m interested to see what happens going forward once more parents get involved.