Should Ontario schools get rid of paper report cards?

By Andrew Campbell - Published on June 23, 2016
a report card showing marks
Unlike traditional report cards, digital portfolios allow learning to be shared as it happens, in real time. (jaker5000/iStock)

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The digital revolution has transformed every area of our lives by changing how we send, receive and use information. Information is plentiful, easily accessible and flows freely and at high speeds, allowing people to make better, more effective decisions. The use of information technology has transformed many of the ways we educate students, with one notable exception – the school report card.

Twice a year parents open envelopes containing folded sheets of paper and see five months of learning reduced to letter grades or percentages and a few comments. Educators decide how to effectively communicate a student's learning journey, and which of the thousands of learning moments are significant and deserve to be shared.

If this sounds a lot like the kind of mass communication your parents would feel comfortable with, it is. Many aren’t surprised we still use such an antiquated system, because schools are often criticized for being outdated and slow to modernize. Fortunately, there’s evidence that how educators communicate about learning is finally moving into the digital age.

Digital platforms that allow teachers to record, evaluate and share evidence of learning are transforming communication between Ontario homes and schools. Homegrown tools such as Edsby and Sesame are leading the way by providing an effective and efficient way to keep parents and students in the loop about how learning at school is progressing.

Teachers and students create digital portfolios on these platforms, uploading evidence of learning that is then easily shared with parents.

Unlike traditional report cards, a digital portfolio can contain many different types of evidence: everything from a traditional math test, marked and with comments; something creative, like a scan of artwork; an audio recording of a child reading; or a video of a student presenting to the class.

A digital learning platform also provides a useful channel for parents, students and educators to discuss a student’s learning and how to improve their progress. When students or teachers decide to share some learning with parents, they can also explain why they decided to share it, and reflect on any challenges the work posed. Parents can respond, ask questions, offer feedback or simply encourage the learner.

Digital portfolios allow learning to be shared as it happens, in real time. No longer must parents wait weeks or months to find out how their child is doing. Whatever is happening in the classroom today can be recorded on a digital device, uploaded and shared within minutes.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the move to digital portfolio platforms. Critics point out that digital learning management systems can sometimes create an unrealistic expectation that evidence of learning is constantly posted, which leads to increased pressure for all involved.

Everything a student does could be posted, shared and analyzed by teachers and parents, leading some students to feel like they are under constant supervision. This may make students less willing to experiment, make mistakes or take risks in the classroom, all of which are essential to learning.

Cloud-based learning management systems also set up an expectation that parents and teachers should be in constant communication. Teachers feel pressure to regularly share student work and parents feel pressure to regularly read and comment on their children’s work. This works for some teachers and parents, but not for everyone.

FreshGrade, a British Columbia-based software platform for digital reporting, is piloting a system that intends to will replace traditional paper report cards, while avoiding overwhelming parents with a flood of information.

Teachers in schools in Surrey, B.C., use FreshGrade to upload assignments, grade them, comment, link them to curriculum outcomes and share them with parents. Later, with the push of a button, the grades and comments are amalgamated to create a digital report card that summarizes the learning to date and is automatically emailed to parents. No need for students to spend countless hours guarding the mailbox or creating stories to explain why their report card got lost.

It seems that it’s just a matter of time before digital report cards make their way to Ontario. Some Ontario school boards are already using FreshGrade, and Ontario educators have visited British Columbia to assess the system.

It won’t be long until the days when report cards arrived home in envelopes will seem as outdated to us as the one-room schoolhouse, writing on slates and dunce caps do now. But digital learning platforms will only be a step forward if the feedback they provide is helpful and used skilfully by parents, educators and students to improve learning.
If they do, paper report cards will soon become something we tell our kids stories about, as they roll their eyes and pretend to stifle a yawn.

Andrew Campbell is a Grade 5 teacher in Brantford, Ontario. He writes a blog on education called Looking Up.

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