A New Era of Classroom Transparency
Think back to when you were in middle school, high school, or maybe even college. For most of us, there was a certain amount of mystery surrounding teachers’ grading processes. It was hard to keep track of all the assignments, report cards were often full of surprises, and sometimes it seemed like final grades were based simply on how much the teacher did or didn’t like you.
As teachers, we know that a final grade is largely a matter of mathematics—a summation of the grades a student has earned throughout the course. But the numbers that seem so clear in our gradebooks are often a mystery to students. This opacity isn’t limited to the teacher-student relationship, either. Up until recently, if a teacher wanted to share what was happening in the classroom with a parent, a collaborator, or an administrator, the options were pretty sparse: a course syllabus, a periodic newsletter, a quick conference, or occasional classroom updates at staff meetings.
But technology is changing that dynamic. The Internet, in particular, has become a powerful tool for sharing what was once seen as restricted. This has altered the teaching profession in numerous ways, creating a wealth of new online resources and networking and professional development opportunities. It is also enabling teachers to open up their classrooms and bring more transparency to their practices.
Our school recently adopted an online learning-management system that we feel goes a long way towards bridging information gaps between teachers, students, and parents. With this system, teachers can make course materials available to students online and can grade work and return it with comments, without leaving a physical paper trail. Students can revise their work, immediately resubmit it, and track their assignments. IN short, this online learning space allows teachers in our school to extend course content beyond the walls of the classroom, in effect transforming the mysterious, "closed" classroom into an open one.
A Conceptual Shift
This kind of change can be challenging for teachers, and it’s easy to be skeptical about efforts creating greater transparency around our work. After all, when you open your classroom, even a little, you expose yourself to increased scrutiny. For teachers accustomed to working in closed and isolated classrooms, collaborating only occasionally, and sharing only the strongest examples of their curriculum and of their students’ output, the move towards transparency requires a serious conceptual shift.
But any reservations the two of us had about opening up our classroom were resolved when we saw the benefits to our students. The online learning-management system, we found, allowed us to assess student understanding more quickly and effectively than we could previously. Students turn in assignments online from home as soon as the work is finished, and we can check the server in the morning before class and decide whether or not the students understand yesterday’s learning goal, before we begin a new lesson.
Additionally, the platform gives students a clear channel through which to resubmit work until they demonstrate mastery of a skill, writing idea, or concept. With access to an online gradebook, students can hold themselves accountable for missing or late work. Instead of needing to wait for their teacher to find time to send them a list of missing assignments, they can log into the learning-management system and check the record. In fact, a student just told us last week that she truly appreciated always knowing what her grade was in the class—that the new system allowed her to pace herself when completing coursework and better structure her time. In other words, she felt empowered by the access and autonomy the system gave her.
'A Shared Vocabulary'
By leveraging online tools, teachers can also give parents access to information that helps them better understand the day-to-day operations of the classroom. Via learning-management systems, class websites, and online gradebooks, parents can become better informed about course content and routines, as well as their child’s progress. This leads in turn to a shared vocabulary between the teacher and parents regarding students' performance. When discussing grades or learning objectives with teachers, parents no longer has to play catch up or interpret the conversation from the perspective of outsiders. Rather, they can participate informed discourse made possible by distribution of classroom materials and student-progress data.
Of course, this means that parents are liable to form stronger opinions about teachers’ methods and lesson materials. Though that can make teachers feel vulnerable, it can also help them become more reflective about their practices. By creating an open dialogue with parents and administrators, teachers can accept parent suggestions and change aspects of their program as needed, or they can defend their work from a pedagogical or content standpoint. Regardless, this process can lead to stronger instruction.
For teachers themselves, the opportunities for collaboration that a transparent classroom offers are immeasurable. While educators have grown accustomed to working primarily with their principals and grade-level partners, learning-management systems and other online tools can allow for increased cross-grade-level communication. This communication helps teachers better align standards and expectations, and it allows them to share resources more effectively. For example, teachers in different sections of the same class can share a page—with materials, assessments, and more—that can be accessed by all teachers at once. And when teachers publish their lesson plans to online servers, blogs, and professional-networking platforms like Twitter, they are taking significant steps toward opening their practice up to the suggestions, revisions, and input of their colleagues. That can only help to increase and create better learning experiences for students.
Advances in information technology are altering the face of education—that much is certain. Many of us (and our students) carry smartphones in our pockets that grant us instant access to a wealth of information. Why not allow our students and their parents access to critical knowledge about our instruction and expectations in the same manner? And why not share this information with our colleagues, too? Reflective practice requires critique; you can’t get that from staying within the four walls of your classroom. So, in our view, classroom transparency isn't something teachers should strive for just because it's possible now. It is something teachers must aspire to in order remain current and viable in the fast-evolving field of education.