Communication and Assessment for Higher Education Professionals:
The Hunt for the Perfect System

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Download Gradebook | Portfolio Solution
Copyright 2002 Miguel Guhlin

Over the last few years, higher education professionals have become increasingly interested in the use of electronic tools to aid student communications (e.g. WebCT, Blackboard) and assessments (Lankes, 1995).
This article shares two free, focused applications of databases to the emerging practices of assessment and fostering increased communications between students and course facilitator. These two particular applications spring from my work as both an Educational Leadership doctoral student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and as an on-site coordinator for the Masters Online graduate program funded through the TIE-grant known as the Pathways to Advance Virtual Education (PAVE). Find out more about PAVE online at http://www.pavenet.org.
Electronic Portfolios: Getting Easier and Easier
Electronic portfolios allow students to demonstrate desired performance through real-life situations (Meyers, 1992). The electronic portfolio is seen as an emerging practice in student, faculty and institutional learning
(AAHE, http://aahe.ital.utexas.edu/electronicportfolios/.
You can read more about Electronic Portfolios online at http://www.mguhlin.net/workshops/portfolio. In addition to electronic portfolios, new database-assessment tools are changing how professors can assess and interact with their students.
Web-based Internship Portfolios
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Doctoral level internships provide graduate students with challenging opportunities to help them be better prepared to lead and serve people in educational organizations. Both ISTE's Technology Standards for School Administrators (TSSA) and NCATE standards emphasize administrator preparation in educational technology. Educational leaders of the 21st Century must not only be prepared to deal with change relative to organizations and their constituents, but also, how to employ technology to support those efforts. Internships provide students with the opportunity to log experiences encountered. Activities are designed around the results of the initial assessment reflecting the intern's knowledge and skills in the relevant National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) program standards.
At the Southwest Educational Research Association (SERA) conference, a fellow doctoral student--Karen Hutchison (kaymart@swbell.net)--and I had a chance to share how web-based electronic portfolios for doctoral internships can eliminate the drudgery and complexity of keeping an activity log. Web-based internship portfolios allow students to take the first step towards constructing 21st Century, technology-enabled solutions that address real world challenges in educational organizations.
Participants left the session with a CD-ROM of templates and databases enabling their graduate level students to easily create web-based internship portfolios. You can access the conference materials, including templates online at http://www.edsupport.cc/2cedl/sera .
What If…
The key questions that started me thinking about an electronic portfolio included: What if students could fill out their activity log/portfolio from anywhere and at anytime? What if the professor could access that log and portfolio from anywhere and at anytime? Based on these questions, the best answer was the use of an online database that both professors and students could search.

Avoid the Document Shuffle
Students can also add information via the web, eliminating multiple documents at home or work. This is especially useful since students have to complete an activity log over the period of one to three semesters. Being able to "write" in their log from any Internet-able computer allows them to record activities while they are still fresh rather than late at night, at the end of a long work day or, as in my case, days after the event.
Tracking Hours
One of the most mundane tasks is tracking the hours. Most students had to use a spreadsheet, however, the web-based internship log calculates the hours and displays them. Students and professors always know how many hours students have submitted for review. The focus shifts from tracking hours to reflecting on the value of the activity.
In future "versions" of the Web-based Internship Log, students will be able to attach documents to their logged activities. In the meantime, universities can setup an FTP server using web server software--either the free Sambar at www.sambar.com or the shareware BisonFTP. The Web-based Internship Portfolio can be accessed online at http://www.edsupport.cc/2cedl/sera. Questions regarding security or setup? You might want to contact the author at "mguhlin@yahoo.com."
Internet Ingenuity
This past term, I had the opportunity to serve as an on-site coordinator for the Masters Online program (http://www.mastersonline.net). The length of a term is eleven weeks, and 7 of those classes are face to face while four are virtual. It is important to remain in contact with students, to keep them up to date as to their assignments as they earn points for each assignment. As a veteran classroom teacher, I remembered the convenience of being able to send computer-generated progress reports home on a weekly basis with my K-12 students.
Now, as an on-site coordinator or adjunct professor, working with graduate level students, I began the 11-week term with the commitment that students would be kept up to date, just like my K-12 students were.
Masters Online and Houston Baptist University (http://www.hbu.edu) provide a spreadsheet for tracking grades and attendance. A veteran user of EasyGrade Pro, Excelsior, Jay Klein's Making the Grade, GradeQuick, I have worked with a variety of software tools that improve on the traditional gradebook spreadsheet.
With my experience in databases, I decided to create a gradebook that takes advantage of Filemaker Pro database software and Community Networking Solutions (CNS) SMTP It! Plug-in (http://www.smtpit.com). Using these two programs, I modified the demonstration copy of the Mass Mailer database that came with SMTP It. While I would not buy these two products just to implement the two solutions outlined in this article, both are superior products that can be used for a variety of purposes.
SMTP IT!
At the heart of the Mass Mailer database is the email script that it uses to automate email transfers. I built a gradebook based on those scripts, customizing the interface for use with students in the Masters Online program. However, this gradebook can be customized for use by anyone who wants to send grades out. Using calculation fields to compute grades and create a report that is customized for each student (record) in the database, I can email progress reports to students from my desktop.
To simplify the process, I created custom screens for entering assignments and the score for students. Then, a comment field for each Assignment. A similar screen-which appears more as a spreadsheet list of tables and rows--was created for attendance.

When put together in the Progress Report calculation that is emailed out to them, students see the complete progress report (an abbreviated report appears in the table below). Using the database, I can choose to email progress reports to an individual, to a collection of individuals who have met my database search criteria (e.g. no grade for Assignment #2), or to the entire class.
This simple database combined with the SMTP IT! Plug-in has greatly facilitated my contacts with students. Rather than being forced to email students individually, or update an external gradebook system that would in turn share the grades with students, I am able to send out progress reports in a timely manner-whenever my students or I decide that there is a need.
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Dear Miguel Guhlin,
Howdy!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Hi! Welcome to the EDUC 6307 class!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------This report is for Miguel Guhlin
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ATTENDANCE (Note that a 1 indicates your presence, while a 0 represents an absence),
Class 1: Class 2: ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------POINTS EARNED ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------March 5: Participation: of 10 possible points.
Comments : ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------March 19: Participation: of 10 possible points. Comments: ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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A Look Back Before Leaping Forward
In the rush to implement district wide student management systems, solutions that offer electronic portfolio and gradebook components will become more popular. It is easy to see that changes in K-12 are slowly making their way into higher education. This solution sharing has profound impacts for higher education, instructional technology coordinators. With tight budgets, many institutions of higher education, similar to small school districts, may have to find ways of adapting existing solutions. These solutions might include web-enabled portfolios and database-backed gradebooks that email progress reports.
The hunt for the perfect, enterprise-level solution may be like the hunt for the perpetual motion machine. Rather than wait for private companies to develop expensive, K-12 uniform solutions that fit your organization's unique needs, I encourage you to develop your own. The process of finding out what you want to do will better prepare you for the task that lies in the future of all university systems-customizing vendor created student and curriculum management systems.
About the Author
Miguel's favorite quote is,"He who would lead must build a bridge." As an administrator, a bilingual instructional technologist, consultant, doctoral student, and TCEA Area 20 Director, he relishes the opportunity to bridge the gaps between learning communities. His web site is http://www.mguhlin.net and email is "mguhlin@yahoo.com"