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The Best Assessment Tools for the Online Classroom
Instructor feedback and e-documents

By Martin Sivula / December 2012

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E-documents or electronic documents are any electronic media content (other than computer programs or system files) that are intended to be used in either an electronic form or as printed output. More and more students at all levels of education are submitting their projects and papers via e-documents. The problem becomes how to give useful feedback to students in a timely and high-quality fashion. Of course one option is for the instructor to stand at their printer, print out the student's work, and then assess using a red pen or marker. However, this does not make the overall process more effective or efficient. With the proliferation of hardware and software and Web 2.0 tools, grading and assessing e-documents might have become easier. Such tools, provide trainers and educators at all levels options for giving feedback—grading, evaluation, direction, commentary, etc.

This article will discuss some practical methods, which have been empirically tested and experimented both in the classroom and in "distance" delivery. New methods, which are either low cost or no cost for the instructor or end-user, will also be discussed. Some of these are already known as Web 2.0 tools, but had never been incorporated in the assessment of student e-documents. The first product I will discuss is Dragon Naturally Speaking 11.5 (now 12.0) , which takes voice and moves it into text. Followed by a discussion on the process of "inking" or using an electronic pen to mark, edit, and correct student e-documents, as well as ways to use PowerPoint. There are other tools worth mentioning, Google Docs and Google Drive are free and allow for simple cloud storage and editing. Finally, I will discuss how you can screen capture certain items on your computer screen whether it be feedback on a student paper or directions that you want to give students by easily create a streaming video from your desktop.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking

There are software programs that take voice and translate it into text. Dragon NaturallySpeaking came of the software market several years ago. When first introduced, it had reasonable functionality and worked with fair accuracy, but was somewhat cumbersome to use. However, the newer editions (e.g., Dragon Naturally Speaking 12.0) work much better with 95 percent accuracy or more. With Dragon NaturallySpeaking, you train the software to understand and comprehend your voice. There are several excerpts from published documents that you read to the computer software, the software then learns your voice and matches it to the text. Dragon NaturallySpeaking can also learn from your e-mails and other printed documents. I purchased this product on I am inherently a poor typist and Dragon Naturally Speaking allows me to use voice and put it into text with many less errors than I would have if I were to type the same text. I also have noticed I spend less time on the computer because now I am speaking rather than typing. You to say what you want to write in text.

As an instructor, you constantly give feedback to students in various forms including e-mail. With Dragon NaturallySpeaking you merely state what you want to say in response to e-mails and then click the send button saving you a great deal of time. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is compatible with Microsoft Word; I have found it compatible with just about every software product that I currently use. If you use a courseware management system, you probably have a database that can host discussion forums or discussion databases. Many times you want to respond to many students on these forums, but typing responses to every student it is very tedious and time-consuming. Dragon NaturallySpeaking allows you to respond to students as you read what they write. In essence you are "really discussing" the issue or topic. I have also found using two windows side by side helps facilitate the �correcting� process. I have cut down my time responding to student databases by half. The other good thing about Dragon NaturallySpeaking from an educational point of view is critical thinking. You must critically think about what you want to say before you put it into text. I have found that my thinking and writing style has changed for the better.

I'll briefly mention some hardware and software issues with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. First off you must have a good microphone. I have experimented with wireless headsets such as Logitech and Plantronics. The headsets work reasonably well and will cost $50-$60. However, I feel headsets get somewhat uncomfortable after wearing them for maybe a half an hour. Recently I have explored and I have tested and experimented with a few desktop microphones around the $15-$20 mark. Both of these devices worked just as well as the headsets and are less cumbersome. One of the microphones can pick up sounds anywhere in the room. This type of device can be used for various purposes (e.g., audio conferencing) and is certainly worth the money. One last point, with Dragon NaturallySpeaking the more RAM memory you have on a computer the better. I would say you need around 2 GB at minimum for high-quality performance.

"Inking" or "Digital Inking"

A relatively new concept, inking or digital inking, is used with a tablet and an electronic pen, or a tablet PC (or possibly a fingertip) to produce designs, drawings, and or cursive writing on e-documents. Microsoft Word (2007 and 2010) allow for digital inking. What this simply means is you can write cursively on word-processed e-documents. This is a very important feature. You can give written comments as you would on a printed document with a pen, but now you're doing the same thing in electronic form. So if students send you a paper electronically, you can open a document and correct it or add comments to it using your digital pen and inking. This type of software and hardware combination of tablet digital pen that I have experimented with is in the $50-$60 range. (Once again, this was found on I also strongly suggest that you read the customer reviews on the software or hardware product that you might consider for purchase.

A quick note here concerning different software platforms and compatibility. In the mid-1980s Microsoft introduced a software product called rich text format or RTF as we now call it. It was developed for cross-platform document interchange. Subsequent releases of Microsoft Word for the Macintosh and all versions for Windows can read and write files in RTF format. With rich text format you might lose some of the advanced features on the word-processed document, however you can work across platforms with the digital pen. Two products that I have currently tested are produced by Genius and Bamboo. These digital tablets come with digital pen software, which are easy to install, and the learning curve is relatively small. It takes little time is to write on a digital tablet and see what you're writing on your computer screen and to coordinate your eye and hand movement. With a little practice you will get better and better at it. I hand write comments and also print comments on e-documents. Students can easily read, comprehend, and understand the comments. Another nice feature is you can diagram and connect ideas free hand with boxes circles and different colored inks. You can do much of the same thing with PDF files, however it is a little more difficult. Depending upon what type of PDF access you have, you can also write comments…if you have the permission to do so. This greatly depends also on the type of software and pen that you are using. Many times the software produces its own "new page" with the digital mockup with your comments, which in some cases you can save page by page. And of course if you or your students wishes to print the hard copy of the e-document that is available as well. Word 2010 allows for "ink" comments in the review tab.

Many of you that instruct courses or training sessions using PowerPoint, can greatly benefit from the use of inking and/or a digital pen. Most digital inking and/or software packages will allow you to write comments on your PowerPoint slides as you present them. For students taking notes this can be a great benefit, and you can also, in some cases, save these notes for future reference. Once again, you have the option of connecting your ideas with boxes, rectangles, and diagrams, some of which you can produce freehand. The software will give you a pop-up boxes with a particular graphic function. Many times I will do a one-on-one tutorial with a student using Skype while I share my desktop. I will have instructional material on my computer screen, using the digital pen I will tutor student step-by-step using audio through Skype. This is a very effective instructional technique that can be done from your home, school, or office. You can also do this with a large group depending upon the collaborative software that you're using and its capabilities. And of course you could present a PowerPoint using the digital pen for comments or notes in the same fashion.

Google Docs and Google Drive

For some of you who use Google products, Google Docs is a free software product through Google that well allow you to store 2 GB of documents online. Google Docs has made some significant changes in the sharing capability, recently introducing Google Drive. You can now share documents with other persons and collaborate on its contents. Yes you could always do this with Google Docs, but now the functions have become easier. For example if you want to share a document with others you merely copy the link and send it to the individuals you want to access the document. You can allow them to make comments and/or edit the document. So this enables everyone (even those who don't have a Google account) to share and collaborate on a document. And you can also share individual files or even share folders. The owner of the document can restrict and change access and sharing and editing even after the document was originally opened. You can also view the revision history of every change that was made on the given document. You have the option to accept previous revisions as a saved document or save the most current version. This takes a little while to get used to but it can be a valuable tool for instructors. Remember Google Docs does not restrict you to just documents. Google Drive (along with Google Docs) allows you also to share folders in which you can place student work and assignments, then provide your students with the link to the folder. You can work on presentations, forms, spreadsheets, drawings, and new entry tables. I have found the revision history is a little hard to follow at times if you are sharing with anonymous persons; if you can disclose who they are e-mail addresses work much better. Another nice feature of Google Docs is you can download in either PDF files or RTF files. In the future I plan to experiment with Google Docs digital pen and inking.

Screen Capturing

Screen capturing can be a valuable tool to give feedback on e-documents. TechSmith produces a product called Jing. There are two versions, one is free and the other is the Pro version. The Pro version for $14.95 has additional features that are well worth the small investment. Both versions allow you up to five minutes of screen capture. For example you can use this to give directions, possibly step-by-step to a complicated task or procedure. One of the problems I face with new students is how to access and use courseware platforms. Many students seem to have problems with certain functions. I create short tutorials with the Jing screen capture within the actual software package showing them what to do with the assistance of my digital pen and ink. At the same time you are recording your voice (audio) while you are giving step-by-step instructions so they can hear you ("show and tell"). Jing also allows you to take a snapshot of your screen as a JPG file, which can be valuable for certain instructional applications. If you teach the sciences or mathematics, for example, you might do routine step-by-step procedures. By making short video clips on your computer you can increase your instructional performance. If you teach algebra, you might show a step-by-step procedure to solve a linear equation. Or if you teach chemistry you might show a step-by-step procedure on how to balance a chemical equation. If you taught English grammar you might dictate and demonstrate the construction of a properly constructed paragraph with topical sentence, connecting sentences, and a transitional sentence, and so forth. And of course you can mockup these with your digital pen and ink them as you dictate and save them for future use.


You have to take a small steps and actively experiment with the assessment tools discussed herein. Take small steps with limited samples of no more than five to start: five papers, projects, procedures, etc. Apply one technological tool at one time to all. Try to follow the action research cycle: reflect, plan, act, observe, reflect, plan act, and observe. Implement what you have done, receive feedback, and evaluate your work. Make adjustments as needed and refine the process. Try to keep specific applications with specific assignments in their own folders if possible, and always have a backup system for emergencies. Remember to be happy with small successes.

About the Author

Dr. Martin Sivula is the director of research at Johnson & Wales University, Providence Campus; a professor at the Feinstein Graduate School; and Fulbright campus representative. He is a former Director of Academic Computing and is a Certified Data Educator (CDE). In the early 1990s he served as a quantitative researcher and data analyst for the Public Education Fund study of the Providence (Rhode Island) Public Schools, which produced the Providence Report on Blueprint for Education (PROBE) Study (1991-1995). From 1994 through 2000 he served as a researcher and grant administrator for the Health Education Leadership for Providence (HELP), an organization to implement technology applications into the Providence Public Schools. Since 1999 he has served as a PT3 grant evaluator for Wheelock College's (Boston, MA) technology implementation and capacity building efforts. Recent research includes: Sivula, M. W. Hybrid graduate education: Assessing student comfort with technology interventions, Ubiquitous Learning An International Journal 3, 1 (2011), 35-42.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/12 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2407138.2407139


  • Tue, 24 Nov 2015
    Post by GRETA LIRA

    Lovely article - one of the best things I've recently read, and by far the most useful. I think it could also be useful for everyone to know how and where to merge documents online. I've found some decent tutorials on how to merge files out online here