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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Formative

Here we are on the eve of KySTE 2015, and what better way to celebrate than to share a new tool?

It's strange how the world works.  Infuse Learning is an assessment tool I've plugged in several of my PDs in the past.  Unfortunately, they recently sent out a mass email and wrote a blog entry informing its users that the site will close down permanently on April 3.   Although there were some beta and buggy issues that sometimes compromised the tool, it had a lot going for it, and it was hard to complain about its cost (free!).

But as one door closes, another one opens.  Usually when a company follows me on Twitter, I give its website a glance for 30 seconds and move on.  However, a few weeks back, the folks at Formative got my attention.  I looked at their site....and looked at it some more.  That led to a slew of emails and a Skype chat with Kevin McFarland (one of its creators), and here I have to give praise. McFarland has gone above and beyond answering my questions and demoing this new website with me.  He's a former educator with a passion for his product, and it shows.  Now, McFarland admits that Formative is just out of beta with some powerful upgrades still around the corner, but I have to be honest: even from playing with it as is, I can tell this will quickly become one of my favorite formative assessment tools.  Plus, it is completely free.

How does it work?  Formative is a Web 2.0 tool that is device-agnostic -- if you can get to the Internet you can use it.  Basically, a teacher can create formative assessments (Formative calls them "assignments," as a reminder that the site can be more than just a quizmaker) and students can take them one of two ways: either in a "open" way that requires no account or registration, or they can log in to begin a data trail tied to their name.  In a novel touch, when teachers create assessments, they are given either a "Quick Code" or a direct URL they can share with students that would technically work in either registered or unregistered mode.  This dual nature of Formative is powerful.  The open mode makes it easy for teachers to try it out with their class, and allows students to take assessments in seconds (much like the open systems of Nearpod's "sessions" or joining a Socrative "room number").  On the other hand, registered accounts will eventually allow student data to be collected and analyzed over time, something that is beyond the current capabilities of Nearpod and Socrative.  While on the subject of those two popular tools, Formative has obviously studied them and others in an attempt to bring the best options together in one product.

There are two types of assignments that a teacher can create: "build your own from scratch," or "upload & transform a document."

Build your own from scratch:  After deciding on your assignment title, you can either "Add a Question" or "Add Content."  For questions, you can choose a typed response, multiple choice, true or false, or "show your work," which is basically a whiteboard tool for students.  (This drawing function reminds me of one of my favorite aspects of Nearpod.)  For content, you can easily embed a YouTube video, or draw and share something you created on a whiteboard.  There is also a Rich Text Format editor as a content option, but I had issues successfully embedding code or making hyperlinks active; at the very least, this could function as an informational text box inside your assignment.  The RTF editor aside, the tools were easy to manipulate and edit.  In an upcoming upgrade, McFarland says you will even be able to tag questions with specific Core Content standards.  The eventual implications of this is enormous; for example, perhaps you could see how one student is handling a specific standard, or run a report of all the standards with how your class is doing with them.

Upload & transform a document:  This to me is one of the more awesome aspects of Formative.  We often talk of making a paperless classroom, but for many teachers like myself, we have reams of great assessments that either exist as paper versions only (you could scan it and make a PDF, but then what?) or are carefully crafted in an electronic document that doesn't easily lend itself to be reconfigured as a quiz.  How do you make the bridge? Formative has the easiest solution I've seen so far.

If you choose upload, you are confronted with a myriad of choices, as the picture below shows.

In Formative's upload tool, you can transform a website, access your Google Drive for docs, access Facebook (!) or even take a picture (!!), among several other options.
Once uploaded and transformed, Formative allows you to edit the assignment in various ways.  The most obvious is you can add "answer boxes" wherever you like in whatever size you like.  Answer types not only include text and multiple choice, but drawing and taking a picture!  (You also have a whiteout tool to "cover" part of your upload if necessary.)   You can delete pages you don't need and resize, delete or move any boxes after the fact.


After an uploaded assignment is saved, you can choose it from your Dashboard, go to Live Results, and edit the answer key for automatic grading of right and wrong answers.  I like how you can list multiple answers as correct ("30," "Thirty" and "thirty," for example).  The Dashboard will give the assessment's Quick Code or direct URL, and allow a teacher to see students' answers in real time.   The default grade value of each question is 10 points, which you can change.  As students answer, you can manually change the right/wrong answer grades as well as assess the qualitative responses, like drawing or text.   Here again, Formative has a unique tool with a red to green "slider" which can make the points go from zero to the maximum amount.  (According to McFarland, giving additional written feedback in this same slider area is a near-future upgrade.)  From the Dashboard, you can click "Export" and download an Excel spreadsheet that gives a simplified, but useful, report on all the students who have taken your assignment.

Clearly this student has not watched Star Wars.
Like any brand new tool, there are some quirks that you either need to be aware of to avoid or will hopefully be improved in future versions.  I already mentioned the RTF editor issues when creating an assignment from scratch.  When working with an uploaded document, I hit a few walls.  For example, if you add answer boxes to multiple pages and then decide to delete some of those pages, you will notice under Live Results that the "deleted" answer boxes are still there.  (Perhaps delete the answer boxes BEFORE deleting the pages.)  Multiple choice answer boxes create how many letters and number of choices you want (A, B, C...) but you can't actually add answers to each letter (A: blue, B: red....), so if the multiple choice selections aren't already on the uploaded document, you are probably better off with a text response.  Another annoyance is that if you add an answer box after the fact in the middle of two existing answer boxes, the number assigned is not in sequence but what would actually be the next number as if it is at the end.  For example, if after making an assignment with 36 answer boxes, you decide to go back and put an answer box between #7 and #8, it will number it #37.  Issues like these actually led to me deleting my uploaded assignment and starting over, so for now, plan your uploaded assignment creations carefully.  But these are quibbles.  I cannot stress enough how awesome it is that Formative can magically transform your existing documents into digital assignments; it's a game changer and by itself makes the site worthy of a try-out.


How could you use it?  As mentioned previously, Formative's strength is that it could do the best of both worlds.  If you want students to interact with digital assessments without registering, you can easily do so via its Quick Codes or public links (much like Nearpod or Socrative requires no student account to interact with its tools).  If you plan on using it often and want longitudinal data, students can create accounts and you can eventually analyze their answers over time.  And don't forget your ability to digitally convert existing documents, or even transforming a webpage or a picture into an interactive assessment.  Last but not least, a flipped/blended or differentiated classroom experience can be as easy as handing out Quick Codes. Simply put, Formative is one of the most user-friendly and powerful formative tools I've found.

Downsides?   You may have to wait a few more months for some more useful upgrades like tagging questions with Common Core standards and giving written feedback, but patience will be rewarded with this tool.  Mr. McFarland really cares about input from teachers that can improve the product, so this is a site that can only get better.  He also promised that the core product will always be free for teachers, and that's music to my ears.

Go now and get Formative!  If you are already a user or after you try it out, leave a Comment below and share your successes and challenges with the tool.

1 comment:

  1. Great post- thanks! A friend recently stumbled across Formative (now GoFormative, I believe) and we played around with it a bit and LOVED it. Your post answered a lot of our questions about GoFormative and confirmed what we were seeing- a great service for teachers! I look forward to exploring this more and sharing it with our teachers when school starts in a few weeks. Thanks again.

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