To track how well Johnny could read last week — and the week before that — Gina Tortorice can now drag her finger across the front of an iPod Touch and watch her student's progress.
The first-grade teacher is one of 11 educators at the adjacent Black Hawk Middle and Gompers Elementary schools using KidGrid, an experimental iPod application designed by UW-Madison researchers to make documenting student progress frequent, instantaneous and high-tech.
"It's been very powerful for teachers, because they can keep track of data over time to see trends, and they can see specific growth in student learning," said Anne Schoenemann, an instructional resource teacher at Gompers. "What we really need to be doing is moving into the technology age and supporting teachers with the tools they need to collect data in an efficient manner - and paper and pencil doesn't always do it."
First piloted in Mount Horeb schools last year, KidGrid was revamped this spring and brought to Black Hawk-Gompers, where participating teachers meet regularly to learn the software and give feedback on bugs that still need to be worked out. Funds from a National Science Foundation grant and $30,000 in federal stimulus dollars received by the Madison School District is funding the study.
"This is a research project as much as it is a tool for teachers to use," said Richard Halverson, associate director of the education research and development group for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, who is developing KidGrid with Suzanne Rhodes, a UW-Madison graduate student in educational psychology.
"Building a tool like this allows us to work with teachers as they articulate how they keep track of student learning in the classroom."
Tortorice, for example, customized her KidGrid app to focus on her first-graders' reading progress. On her handheld iPod Touch, she spins an image resembling a wheel to note what approach students are using in their reading groups to build their skills. She can also log comments.
As the software develops, Tortorice can envision running reports to see trends in the data she's collected, and sharing day-to-day progress with parents over e-mail.
"In my dream world, we could use this to make report cards," she said.
Eventually, Halverson and Rhodes hope to offer KidGrid as freeware for teachers on the Apple iTunes Store web site. The app has a larger mission, too, said Halverson: getting more technology into schools.
In Madison, for example, not many schools are equipped for wireless Internet, so it's tough for teachers who want to sync their wireless devices to share data, he said. Tight budgets mean technology "is not folded into the every day life of school."
"Kids live in digital worlds," Halverson said. "These worlds are information-rich. Our strategy with the KidGrid project is that if we can build tools that teachers use every day to organize their practices, that will put a press from within the school for modernization. At least that's our hope."
Still, a few teachers are still trying to figure out how to use the iPod as "a new management tool," Schoenemann said. "How to use it when you're hands-on with kids is always a good question."
"It's a work in progress, but I think the teachers who are using it enjoy having the tool," she said. "And the kids are impressed and are excited to know that their work is being monitored and kept, and they can see that visually."