Think back to 1980 before the desktop computer became prevalent in classrooms. There were file cabinets filled with folders and binders filled with pages of content. Folders and binders were subdivided into more folders for units and lessons. The desks were arranged in single file rows. There was a chalkboard with erasers coated in dust and the overhead projector was the centerpiece of the classroom with its transparent sheets and special markers.

Regardless of the subject taught, teachers did a lot of math each day. They had to count the number of students in attendance and how many papers had been turned in. Teachers had to enter the grades from corrected papers, tests and quizzes by hand into their grade book. They had to bring out their calculator to translate the raw score to a percentage grade, and then add, divide and calculate to weight grades for progress reports. The teacher’s grade book was the most important physical document in the classroom. And then after all of the marking, tabulation, and recording, the teacher had to individually return each paper to the students to put it in their own folders or binders.

Let’s jump ahead to the present day. Many teachers still follow similar procedures as their predecessors in 1980. Although electronic grade books may have made calculations more accurate and faster, many teachers still write down every graded score on paper to later transfer into an official school information system. Teachers are still relying on paper and have binders full of their lesson plans and materials to distribute to students. Teachers still fall back on the file cabinet model when organizing the files on their laptops. Computers are filled with folders and more folders containing files for lesson plans, resources, answer keys, worksheets and everything else. And for any student to view that content, the teacher has to transfer these files from one place to another for each class every single year.  

If we were to design a classroom system from scratch today, we would not have file cabinets, paper and binders. Our organization system would be more fluid, adaptable and convenient. Suppose all lessons presented on a digital device could be viewable to students with a click? Suppose these lessons were organized for assignments, student resources and could even be made private to the teacher? Suppose that any place an item was presented, it would be actionable? If an assignment was shown as being due, a teacher could click or swipe to collect it or change the due date or transfer to their grade book. Teachers could reuse assignments and curriculum each year without having to recreate, copy or reinvent and students could see assignments automatically in their calendars. At the same time, teachers would still have the flexibility to hide or delay lessons until they wanted them. Students would have one place to submit assignments for all classes, and teachers could view and give feedback on work as it came in. Giving students feedback and grading assignments would obviously be done much faster than the red pen and counting up the scores on each paper.

There has long been a big push to have automatic grading for teachers – Scantron has been around for more than 40 years. And there are times where this is helpful, for example, with multiple choice or True/False questions. However, looking at a dashboard of results is nowhere close to the experience gained by teachers actually looking at a math test or an essay and giving direct feedback to students. It isn’t helpful for the teacher or the student. When I was a teacher, I experimented with auto-grading for math tests and what I gained in time, I lost in knowledge about how my students were actually thinking through their work. I had them turn in all the work that they did but it became too tedious to go look at the data on my screen and compare to the graded work for each student. I quickly learned that although it took longer to grade each test one by one by hand, I was a better teacher for it and my students benefitted. I knew a lot more about my students’ strengths and weaknesses in a certain area and could respond to them. The software that I needed then would allow flexibility in how I graded, like a red pen, but would give me all the advantages of a computer, like automatic calculations and grade recording.

The most precious resource a teacher has is their time. It’s important that the software choices teachers make in their classroom help maximize the time that they have. It can be auto-calculations, re-usable lessons, course sharing, or having the ability to not always have to search for where you put that file or bookmark. As the digital tools that students and teachers use get more sophisticated, teachers need software that goes beyond the folder and file system of 1980.

The days of software companies designing for an old paradigm are over. The method of using drop downs and lots of clicks to shared folders might be familiar but not efficient. A classroom is a complicated place and needs the right software technology for teachers and students. Software needs to be intuitive, organized and flexible. Technology can help teachers do more with less, which is why Canary Learning was founded.