78: A Way to Ungrade, Floop w/ Christine Witcher

Today, we're talking about ungrading with the EdTech tool, "Floop", short for feedback loop found over at FloopEdu.com.


15 min read
78: A Way to Ungrade, Floop w/ Christine Witcher

Chris McNutt: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Episode 78 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by our Patriot supporters, three of whom are Andrea Berera, Marie Becker, and Michael Hyde, thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, HumanRestorationProject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.


Chris McNutt: [00:00:45] Today, we're talking about ungrading with the EdTech tool, "Floop", short for feedback loop found over at FloopEdu.com. Now, we don't normally talk about specific tools or strategies at HRP. We try to get into the theory and pedagogy of progressive systems. But the most common question we're asked is well, is it even possible to do any of these things that we're talking about? It seems like a ton of work. It's overwhelming. Everyone's against me. It just seems really hard to do. Well, one potential solution is Floop. In summary, Floop allows you to easily provide feedback to your students. You can create drop boxes on the platform, students then upload their assignments, and then you are given audio and text based tools to comment on what they've done.


Chris McNutt: [00:01:25] You can assign feedback visually, through comment banks, see growth over past revisions - and you can see if students have read what you said. I personally love that Floop is committed to upgrading and you don't have to enter in any grade whatsoever. It's a way to structure your class and do ungrading. The company actively promotes practices to distance ourselves from grades altogether. I myself started using Floop this year and I'm excited to share it. I think it's a great example of an ed tech company using their tools for actual education as opposed to maintaining the status quo. And it's affordable and ethical as you'll soon find out in the show notes. I've attached Floop's resources for feedback driven learning and you can learn more about Floop's pedagogy on our website. Finally, this episode is not sponsored in anyway. I'm just excited to talk about it. Christine offered our listeners twenty percent off for their first year, which puts the platform at roughly sixty seven dollars. Just use the code RESTORE20 before October 31st, 2020.


Christine Witcher: [00:02:19] It's been quite a journey of many educators and passionate developers kind of finding each other at the right times. I teamed up with a teacher at my school, Elizabeth Matlick, who was an L.A. teacher. I'm science and math and we were both dealing with problems related to getting students to actually read and use feedback. We were really lucky to be at an independent school with a fairly small class sizes. We were sort of in teacher dreamland when it comes to having time to give feedback. And then we were like, wait, we're giving the feedback like, why is this not causing transformative learning? And I met up at an Ed Tech meet up with Melanie Kong, who teaches high school engineering. She's now Floop's CEO, but she was working on a very similar problem related to, I think, what more classically happens in big U.S. schools, which is that she just didn't have time to get through her papers to actually do feedback was important and just couldn't make it happen. And so when we sort of put our heads together, we realized that these are one in the same problem. Like some teachers don't have time to give feedback when they do have time to give feedback, they're not seeing it making this big impact. We knew there had to be something going on. We knew there was probably a tech solution out there just for making feedback faster, making it more efficient so it could get to students on time.


Christine Witcher: [00:03:42] But we knew that just another tech tool wasn't going to solve the world's problems. And so we ended up doing a lot of research, consulting both our own practice and sort of the experts doing research out there. And we realized that there was a lot more to it, that there's this concept of feedback literacy. There's elements of students needing to have agency over their learning for feedback to be impactful. And so we were also able in our work, not just to create a tech tool, but also to be able to create sort of a philosophy of giving feedback that that goes really well, I think with the app and we're hoping to sort of spread that word, that curriculum, that professional development alongside the tool. And hopefully one day embedded in the tool is a sneak peek into our hopeful future. That was, I think, 2017 - we officially started the company and now with the hit of COVID, things have really been ramping up. We're hearing from teachers all over the world really that they need solutions for connecting with their students when they're not face to face anymore. And that makes feedback so much harder. So we're kind of scrambling to try to keep up with everybody right now.


Chris McNutt: [00:04:46] Yeah, I love how centered it is. As in a lot of tech tools, they have a tendency to do a little bit of everything, but not necessarily one thing very well, whereas Floop is very much… It's for feedback driven classrooms and it would probably be useful for those that aren't familiar at all to just explain a little bit about how FLOOP works, like what literally is?


Christine Witcher: [00:05:06] Yeah, absolutely. So Floop is a Web based, mobile friendly app. So you sign up as a teacher, you sign your students up with their either Google accounts or just email and password accounts. You create a class. The kids enroll in the class all through their browser, whether it's on their phone or laptop or an iPad or whatever, and you create an assignment. And it's not a full LMS. So you're not putting all of your curriculum there. It's really sort of a digital dropbox with feedback superpowers. So students can submit digital work, whether that's a photo that they take on their phone or they print something from OneNote to PDF or they have Google Slides and they pick it straight from Google Drive - it submits the work. And then the teacher has some options, the teacher can do spot annotated feedback, they can click anywhere on the work type of comment. They can now do an audio comment. We just added that in the last couple of weeks and sneak preview, we have a very exciting new way of giving feedback coming in the next couple of weeks. Every time a teacher leaves feedback, it opens up a conversation thread. So it really encourage students to engage with their feedback, to ask follow up questions or to answer teachers questions. The teacher asked one, and then students can resubmit their work to the same assignment. So you really can create as a teacher sort of a digital portfolio of revision and progress, either on one assignment or multiple assignments. And then you also have the option of running an anonymous and scaffolded peer review session. So we found and I found in my own classroom that just doing peer review sessions like paper trading really didn't work super well for kids. And so we built a peer review tool that focuses around a single criteria that the teacher sets and then scaffolds the questions that it asks the student to answer so that even really novice learners can produce really high quality feedback for their peers.


Chris McNutt: [00:06:56] Yeah, the feedback tool is really cool and it works really well. And I think some people listening might be wondering, I'm not sure if we've ever actually had an Ed Tech tool on this podcast because this isn't really our thing. We usually talk about systems and pedagogy. A lot of people say, you know, I want to incorporate gradeless learning, I want to do PBL… But as you were saying before, it's just too much work. It feels like it's overwhelming. And the reward for it isn't always what you expect it to be. And sadly, a lot of LMSs, they don't have the capability. It's something really simple, but Floop lets you write in the grade, like I don't have to put in a number. And that seems hyper simple, but I've had to design algorithms to convert a "letter grade" to make that happen. So it's great for like a portfolio building tool when it comes to this this feedback driven philosophy. I'm curious why you think this works? I'm sure most people listening probably understand the pedagogy, but what makes Floop particularly good at addressing that pedagogy?


Christine Witcher: [00:07:57] Yeah, so I think that we as an education system, we as teachers, have known for a really long time. And I, I mean a really long time, like hundreds of years. That feedback is important, but it's really hit or miss whether giving feedback works right. And the thing that I think makes a big difference between other tools out there that let you give feedback to students is that Floop also lets kids respond. Like it's turning feedback from a one directional transmission where the teacher is in the driver's seat telling the student what to do or telling them what's wrong or whatever, to a dialog, to a two directional conversation so that when I give information to a student, that student has the opportunity to engage with that feedback.


Christine Witcher: [00:08:45] And it's really the engagement with feedback that produces learning, it's not the receiving of feedback. So we are really intentional when we're deciding what features we want to add to Floop or how we even want to present information in the web interface to students that we think about. Like how does this promote engagement for the student? How does this coach the student in developing good skills around feedback literacy that will carry them forward maybe when they're not using Floop? So that's things like the way we scaffold peer review and the questions that we choose to ask students during that are both research based. But they're also like we know that if students ask those questions of each other just in conversation on the side, that it's going to produce good feedback in that scenario, too. So we've really been thinking about how can we foster that active engagement with feedback, that feedback literacy just through the using of the tool.


Chris McNutt: [00:09:37] Right. Right. It seems like you're you're being very, I guess, concise about which elements you add in, because, again, I don't mean this as an insult - it's very simple. That to me is the appealing part of it is that it's it doesn't try to do everything at once and therefore it's easy to understand what's going on. So as we are adapting all these different tech tools, there are a lot of concerns, especially in virtual learning when it comes to, well, what is the EdTech companies gambit? Where are the what are they trying to get? Is that huge moneymaker? Is the data privacy thing even something as simple as Flipgrid, which I use… I like Flipgrid, but it's also owned by Microsoft and sells student data. And it's I mean, explicitly in the terms of use says that we will sell student data and it's like, oh, great. And when students don't have


Christine Witcher: [00:10:25]  Oh, I didn't want to know that. I didn't know that. Now I do. Oh, man.


Chris McNutt: [00:10:30] I know, exactly! There's all these great tech tools, but there are data privacy concerns. There's concerns about if students can opt in and if they can't opt out, like, what does that mean? So could you talk a little bit about your company's ethics surrounding student data and its uses.


Christine Witcher: [00:10:45] Yeah, absolutely, so we, like I've said, are a company of teachers, and I don't just mean we used to be teachers, like I am in the digital classroom right now full time. And so we are creating both our company and our tool with teachers and students in mind. I will elaborate on that. But without further ado, we take student data privacy very seriously. We do not sell student data. We do not loan it or rent it or any of the other crafty ways that that companies are getting around saying that they sell data. We have a what we consider a pretty robust consent system, which requires that any students under 13 are getting consent not just from a teacher, but from the school or district before they use the service. We ask students over 18 to review our terms of use and consent to them themselves, which has not really been a very easy system for us to build in. But it was one that we knew was really important. And we try to stay up on all of the changing things happening with GDPR and with COPPA and all the other regulations that sort of tell us what best practices.


Christine Witcher: [00:11:49] We are also engaging right now in some research related to feedback, and that looks like analyzing data from the app to see what people's practices are. That is something that we think is really important. That's something that we can do as a company with the data that we have that will benefit education directly. And it's also something we have taken our time with because we wanted to make sure that we were doing it in an ethical way. So we've been working in partnership with a researcher who will pass his research plan through an ethics board to make sure that we're getting appropriate consent using the data in in a responsible and ethical way. But essentially, every step along the way, we have said, like, what are teachers and students going to expect of us as a company with the way that we inform them about the way their data is being used and also use their data, not just like, what does the law require of us?


Chris McNutt: [00:12:44] I'm trying to brainstorm now from the practical side of things. If I were a teacher and I didn't already use the common Q&A type questions, that would take it from me to adopting this. Now that I understand the pedagogy, I understand the practice. What, in your view, would be the major limitations for someone that was seeking an app for gradeless learning or for feedback driven learning they see Floop - would there be anything preventing them outside of like a cost?


Christine Witcher: [00:13:11] That's a great question. So I would say that the number one thing that we are hearing from users right now that is a block or a potential block for them is LMS integration and authentication systems. So we are hearing and I am also very much dealing with in my own classroom, an issue of just like in overload, our kids just have way too many passwords to keep track of, way too many different platforms to learn and to troubleshoot when they're not working well. And we know that asking teachers to pick up one more sort of my colleague a la carte system is really hard. And so we are actively right now working on LMS integration rostering. So through a variety of different platforms, we know that that's important. It's also really hard from a technical standpoint to do it and do it well. And you can tell that a lot of the companies out there are are still sort of figuring it out. In fact, like my school just switched to Canvas this year. So I am not only learning remote learning, but also learning canvas and finding that half of the LTI integrations aren't working correctly. So we want to make sure that if we're going to launch something, it's going to be ready when we do it.


Christine Witcher: [00:14:17] But we know that that's important. I think some of the other blocks are really around, like figuring out how to use it well or like integrate it into your system in a way that's effective. So if you're going to use Floop as just a digital dropbox and not a feedback platform, it might not meet all your needs. Like if your goal is just to have a place for students to turn in work, we can do that. You can turn in work on Floop. You can't turn videos in like you can't turn full Excel spreadsheets that are interactive in which you can turn photos in and you can turn PDs in and you can give feedback on those things. So I think really asking yourself like what is the need that I have and what's the potential of this tool before deciding that you want to on board. But we find that teachers who really dig in and use it both to collect work and also give feedback and do peer feedback on it, are finding pretty impactful outcomes from from switching over to Floop from maybe a system like just using their LMS.


Chris McNutt: [00:15:12] Right, right. I mean, in my experience, using the LMS for grading is I mean, obviously you have the number there which automatically is going to disassociate and they come with us there. But also the way that comments work and almost every LMS is very much an afterthought. And that's very difficult to navigate to. I like the fact that Floop has… You could not only is it easy to see what's going on, but you can tell if they've seen it like it pops up. It tells you that's highly beneficial, especially in virtual learning where I'm not sitting down with them and explain to them what's going on at.


Christine Witcher: [00:15:44] Absolutely, and I've sort of been crafting this sort of philosophy of EdTech over the last couple of weeks as I've been on boarding to Canvas and not to pick on Canvas - I mean, it really has a lot of great potential for us as a school, but it very clearly started as a great book, right? It started as a place for assignments to be posted and stuff to get collected and grades to be put up. And I think the same is true for most LMSs. And Floop started as a feedback tool. And yes, we are considering adding on some sort of whole class, our whole student metrics that you might be able to call a grade book, although we have some fun plans for making it what we're going to call a growth book instead of a grade book. So it's not going to be numbers focused. It's going to be engagement focused.


Christine Witcher: [00:16:28] But I think really at the core, the fact that we're feedback focused means that anything we develop is going to foster that feedback forward. That sort of like feedback should be the first thing that you engage with. So there's a very interesting study that just came out this summer from researchers in the UK, Winstone et a., that looked at sort of the classic finding that I think researchers had since the mid eighties of that grades don't really produce meaningful outcomes, but feedback does and that grades override feedback when you give them together.


Christine Witcher: [00:17:00] But they're finding that LMS systems actually make that worse. And the reason is that an LMS system generally creates a physical spatial separation between comments and scores. So traditionally, you might pass back a test and it would have the grade at the top and then all the markings on the test and the kid would kind of flip through to understand, well, where did I lose all these points? Right. Which is not ideal, but at least they're looking at both things and they're finding that now with LMS systems, the kid gets the grade first and has to click multiple times to see any comments or feedback. And so, like a huge percentage of students are never even seeing the feedback that comes with the grade. So I think that that's something that we need to just be really mindful as we're moving into a more tech heavy remote learning or hybrid learning world is like what information is being presented to kids first? What's the candy like? What's the easiest thing for them to get to? And even if you can't use a system like Floop, how can you hack the system? You have to make it feedback forward.


Chris McNutt: [00:17:58] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm totally with you. That study sounds really interesting. I'm going to get a hold of that. I would like to put in the show notes because I'm completely with you that the way that we run LMSs is, especially in virtual classrooms, gets very much like that rank and file like we have a hundred and twenty kids. Let's get them through and get everybody a one or a zero. B, it's not only dehumanizing to the student, but it's dehumanizing to the teacher. It no longer feels like school. It just feels like I mean, the assembly line thing is overused… But this is a true example of just kind of get through the Q and then and the whereas grading should be if it has to be given something that's at least conversational in the feedback driven, as you're saying, where do you see the end game? So I know you're bringing up like a few things that are along the way. What is your end product? What do you really want to see at the end of lifecycle or as it continues to grow?


Christine Witcher: [00:18:51] Yeah, that's such a great question. And don't hold me to this because, you know, things change as as companies evolve. But I think our dream right now is that we are serving teachers and students in their feedback journey. So we are very much hoping to do embedded just in time professional development for teachers. That's something that we're going to be working on long term. It's not coming right away. But thinking about either incorporating machine learning, A.I. type technology that can say like, hey, I see you're giving this type of feedback. It seems to have these sorts of outcomes for your kids. Why don't you try this type of feedback instead? And similarly with students like I see that you're giving these sorts of responses, why don't you try this instead?


Christine Witcher: [00:19:29] Also being involved in the research that supports doing that in an effective way. So not just sort of shotgun approach, like maybe we try this thing and see what happens, but really building research into that. We are also hoping that maybe we can become the type of platform that handles feedback. And I don't want to say grading or Elm's because that's not what we want to be. But I think becoming a slightly bigger platform that encompasses portfolios, actual tracking of growth, not just tracking of scores and like revealing of patterns across courses across the years in a way that helps teachers, I think, target in their time and energy to the students that need it in those moments and helps students recognize earlier when they need intervention, those sorts of things.

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