Research Roundup:
Online reporting is not making the grade

December 7, 2010
J-C Couture, Government Staff

During the past decade, many school jurisdictions in Canada began using online tools to report students’ educational progress to parents. Such online reporting programs as Students Achieve, eLuminate and Teacher Logic are part of a growing wave of technologies and marketing strategies hitting Canadian schools.

Digital reporting tools are marketed as an easy way for schools, jurisdictions and provincial governments to report student achievement data. Pearson Publishing recently signed a contract with the Nova Scotia government to become the sole provider of that province’s reporting software and services. Ontario has had a student assessment and reporting regime in place for 10 years; known as Managing Information for Student Achievement, it currently costs $35 million per year, and its appetite for teachers’ time and school resources continues to grow.

Digital reporting promises “anywhere, anytime, anyplace, and at any pace” learning and assessment—a refrain that illustrates the growing enthusiasm for 21st century personalization of learning that too often ignores such issues as intensification of teachers’ work, the undermining of sound assessment practice and the growing influence of private corporations in education.

In light of these concerns, in 2009 the Alberta Teachers’ Association embarked on a two-year study to assess the educational value of enabling parents to track their children’s progress through a secure website. Undertaken in partnership with researchers from the University of Alberta and with the assistance of the Alberta Assessment Consortium (AAC), this study is one of the most comprehensive examinations of digital report cards undertaken to date in North America. The study has the following two phases:

Phase 1, which is now complete, involved an online survey that gathered teachers’ opinions about the province’s student assessment and reporting requirements and online digital reporting platforms. The online survey was developed and field tested in April 2010, then posted live for one month, beginning in June 2010. In total, 1,170 teachers (representing 44 of the province’s 63 school jurisdictions) responded.

Phase two of the project will consist of focus groups and/or individual jurisdiction surveys; the information from these surveys will be used to develop strategies to address the use of inline reporting tools in schools.

What are the survey’s major findings?

Following are the major findings of the online survey:

  • Teachers across Alberta used up to 15 different software programs and reporting tools as the primary means of reporting student progress.
  • Online reporting tools do not improve teaching or learning and do not enhance communication between teachers, students and parents. Indeed, a majority of respondents indicated that reporting tools had either “no” or “very little” influence on the effectiveness of their instruction or on the quality of their communication with students and parents.
  • Teachers are receiving neither adequate professional development for using online reporting tools nor adequate technical support once the tools are implemented. More than half of respondents described these two kinds of support as either “poor” or “very poor.”
  • Teachers are not involved in selecting online reporting tools. More than 75 per cent of respondents said that they had had no input into the selection and implementation of reporting tools.
  • Online reporting tools increase teacher workload. More than 60 per cent of respondents indicated that online reporting tools had “increased” or “significantly increased” their workload; only about 15 per cent reported that online tools had “decreased” their workload.
  • A large portion of respondents believe that online reporting tools increase parents’ expectations with respect to reporting. While most respondents indicated that online reporting had not changed parental expectations with respect to the frequency with which reports are issued, approximately 40 per cent indicated that it had “increased” or “significantly increased” the depth of the reports expected.

Implications for the future

Most jurisdictions have adopted online reporting in the belief that such tools improve teachers’ assessment practices. According to the teachers who responded to this study, however, such tools have only a marginal effect on assessment practices.

The findings of this study echo many of the conclusions of the Association’s broader study of Alberta’s learning technologies policies: Using Technology to Support Real Learning First (available online at www.teachers.ab.ca, under Publications>Other Publications). As that review found, too often the promises of technology overshadow such fundamentals as debate about curriculum, and often, the teaching profession is marginalized on the sidelines.

The release of the full study in December should shape decisions about digital reporting tools. This is even more important in light of the promises ahead for K–12 education outlined in Inspiring Action.

The study concludes that, as with all technologies, digital reporting tools amplify both the negative and positive possibilities for teaching and learning. For example, online reporting tools are most beneficial under the following conditions:

  • The education partners must agree that the goal of using digital reporting tools is to enhance assessment practices.
  • Teachers must be involved in selecting and implementing reporting tools based on curricular needs and the goal of improving student learning through sound assessment practices.
  • Teachers must receive professional development from assessment specialists and technical experts both before the reporting tool is implemented and after they have had a chance to work with it.
  • Jurisdiction leaders must be aware that online tools can significantly increase the workload of teachers without improving the relationship between students, parents and the school. Jurisdictions must also be aware of the considerable costs incurred in both the adoption and maintenance of digital reporting tools.

Furthermore, an ongoing process of piloting and professional collaboration over two to three years is needed if reporting tools are to improve communication with parents.

The Association’s research staff, in collaboration with the AAC and the University of Alberta research teams, will continue to disseminate the study’s findings, which will be published as a Research Update and which will also be the basis of future work with school jurisdictions. For more information, contact J-C Couture, ATA executive staff officer (e-mail:  jc.couture@ata.ab.ca).