Teaching World Languages Remotely, Part 1: Rapport Building

Since September, I have had the distinct pleasure of working part-time for a company based in California that offers remote middle and high school credit-bearing courses in world languages. LanguageBird is perfect fit for a retired public school teacher and I am very contented working for them (not a paid promotion).

The pandemic placed we public school teachers in the position of teaching remotely, some for the first time. A lot of that went poorly in some places, but in other places it went pretty well. My work teaching remotely now has given me the chance to re-explore online teaching practice and the kinds of 21st century learning spaces that meet the needs of that situation.

Besides my work for LanguageBird, I also am enjoying teaching a remote French class for the public school district from which I retired last June. This is very different from LanguageBird in many ways and teaching in both contexts has provided a wealth of interesting experiences that I feel are instructive. In this series of posts, I would like to share my experiences and conclusions as well as the apps I am developing to support remote teaching.

In the public school remote teaching context, we had set it up as a daily synchronous class. This was informed by our pandemic experience that asynchronous courses are a bad idea for most adolescents. It is a small class of five, two for French III and three for college French, credited from a local community college who approved my application to work as adjunct for them in a high school. Each school day during period 2, I fire up a Google Meet and students log in. They are supervised by a language teacher (Spanish).

We (administration and I) were concerned that remote teaching made it difficult to maintain the kind of teacher-student rapport that was so necessary for learning. I suggested that I work in-person for a half day at the end of each marking period (ten weeks) to teach a class and meet with students individually so they can present their projects and practice French conversation. (The district is a 45-mile commute for me one-way, so going in-person for one daily class was not practical.)

At LanguageBird, we only teach one-on-one lessons. I find this extremely useful, so from start I modified my public school lesson plans such that I would only teach whole-group for the first 15 minutes and then each student would have an individual “tutorial” with me for the balance of the time. This turned out to be a fantastic idea and I am guessing the students like it too.

During the pandemic in my district, we had two days to launch into teaching by video-conference (Here is a post on my experience teaching during the pandemic). My current students, many of whom were then in my sixth grade social studies class back in 2020, had a mostly negative experience learning online in general. I felt strongly motivated to demonstrate from the start of the school year that this remote learning experience would not be like that. The first upgrade I made to what I was doing in 2020 was to focus on individual lessons over group lessons.

I think of positive rapport as being a trusting sense of mutual goodwill between an instructor and a pupil. Building a positive rapport with students is extremely important. I had the sense that this was possible only to a very limited degree in remote learning. However, I now stand corrected. In remote instruction over video-conferencing, it is necessary to favor one-on-one teaching situations.

Fostering positive rapport extends not to just being present to interact one-on-one. It is also built on online software applications that foster efficient and readily accessible learning interactions for delivery, practice, evaluation, and debriefing.

Next post: teaching composition to world language students remotely.

Innovation … What’s in a Name?

InnovationAssessments.com brings to mind a testing service. And so it once was!


But the pandemic spurred its growth toward the full online teaching platform that it is today!

Not to disparage our educational testing apps. This platform started out twenty-odd years ago as a test generator for multiple-choice tests. The test generators, test question bank management apps, secure online testing, and algorithmic AI-assisted scoring of short answer tests and summaries makes it a powerful tool in your teacher’s toolbox.


While we kept the name (Do you realize how hard it is to rebrand a website?), we are more than our name! I invite the reader to explore the collection of apps that makes this a top-notch teaching platform.

For starters, Innovation evolved under the demands of real teachers and students in real classrooms. As my colleagues and students shared suggestions for apps and upgrades over a decade, I modified and adapted the software. My coding students were assigned to try to hack it; I built defenses. My teacher colleagues had lots of ideas for ensuring assessments integrity. We collaborated to built something reliable and intuitive to use.

It is difficult to compose a promo for Innovation because by the time we list all the features, we have lost the attention of the reader.

Lesson Planning

The first thing that I did not like about Google Classroom was how clumsy it was to communicate assignments to kids. I don’t like the comment stream approach. And what about students who are ahead and want to see what tomorrow holds? The planning app at Innovation is the first thing students see when they navigate to their course playlist. They see this week and all the assignments. They can jump to them from the planner or scroll down the playlist. There is a custom note option just for today’s lesson.

Curating Resources

It is important to me to be able to effectively curate my resources; my links to assignments on and off Innovation. I want to be able to hide things until the time is right, lock tests with a key code, schedule the visibility of tasks to the best moment, and so forth. Innovation possesses all of these features and more for efficient curating of class online resources. Link to Google docs and website of any kind, manage who has access and when, hide unit plans for next school year.

But it is also easy if you curate your resources elsewhere!

Many subscribers to Innovation curate their links at Google Classroom or other platforms. Well, most use Google Classroom… But that’s okay! Innovation is a verified app on the Google system. You can embed a link to your Innovation task on Google classroom and after a quick authentication app, students are engaged in the day’s lesson.


The proctor at Innovation is an algorithmic AI that monitors and reports on student activity. My colleagues and I wanted to know whether students were really watching our video assignments or whether they were pasting in text in some places; we wanted to know how long it took students to do a task and when they logged in and from where. Proctor AI gives detailed information about what students are doing online in your 21st century learning space.

Study Apps

The Tutor app and the flashcard system are perfect for drilling terms and facts.

The algorithmic AI coach advises students on short answer, summaries, and outlines based on a corpus of models on which they were trained.

Modifications are easily made to drills to accommodate special needs.

Innovation has what your students need to study and what teachers need to scaffold their objectives to individual needs.

The Etude

The Etude is our favorite app. Teachers embed a lesson in video, PDF, and/or audio format and include guiding questions. There is note-taking space for students. The Etude is the perfect tool to curate deliverables online in 1:1 laptop classrooms or in remote teaching situations.

Merit Badges

Manage merit badges to chart progress. Invent your own or import ours. As students earn new skills, automated badge awards provide visual evidence of progress.


Students love playing this Jeopardy-like game. It is easy for teachers to generate games from their test question banks. Suitable for in-person or remote learning situations, the Ventura game is a hit with students.

Why not try it out!

Look, I know we’re a small startup company, unknown and not really able to compete with Google, Scoology, and the big names.


This platform has a lot going for it.

Innovation is free for teachers working for non-profits and not-for-profit organizations. I invite you to sign up for a free account to try it out!

Managing Student Accounts at Innovation

In response to teacher requests over the years, there are a number of different ways to add student sub-accounts to your virtual classroom at Innovation.


It’s best to just have students register themselves in your virtual classroom. There is a link provided on the Students tab in your teacher dashboard. The links are on the left.

One link is generic, allowing students to create sub-accounts using a password or using Google Sign-in.

One link is specific to Google Sign-in. Send this one if no one is using username-password. You can always switch later if you want.

Import Student Roster from Google Classroom

If you are integrating Innovation tasks into your Google Classroom, you can import the rosters.

Adding Students Manually

Teachers can just add students manually using the Add Student app. The app will create a unique username from the student’s first and last names. You can optionally assign students to a class. More about enrollment below…

Adding Students via Spreadsheet

Teachers can upload a spreadsheet of student data and let Innovation create the accounts from there. Teachers who do this must use the XLSX template provided.

Expiration Dates on Student Accounts: Commercial Licenses versus Free Licenses

Teachers who have a commercial license to Innovation can manage expiration dates on student accounts. This is useful, for example, if you are working for a tutoring service and you are charging students to access your virtual classroom for a certain period of time.

Teachers with Free Licenses do not have expiration dates on student accounts and need to manage them manually.

When a new student is added for commercial accounts, it is by default created for two days at first. Teachers need to add time. Manage student account expiration dates in Students :: Student Account Expiry.

How Students Access Innovation

There are three ways students can log in to Innovation:

  • Google Sign-in
  • PIN + Virtual Room Number
  • Virtual room number + username + password

Google Sign-in

If you are using Google classroom and plan to integrate Innovation tasks into that platform, this is your best choice. Students will already have Google accounts and they can sign in without remembering an extra password.


Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) are for students under 13 because students must be 13 or older to use the Google Signin or username-password methods. But you can use this for any of your students. Teachers need to activate the PIN system and can optionally allow access this way only from certain IP addresses. For example, I have set this up so that my students could only use the PIN from my school.

Username + Password

The traditional way to log in also still exists at Innovation. Students need to know your virtual classroom number, their username assigned on account creation, and a password. The teacher controls the passwords.

The Quick Login Link

If a student cannot log in because they have forgotten their password, you cans end them a quick login link. This link will automatically log students in without a password, Google authentication, or PIN. It only works once and the link is only good for two hours.

Manage Course Enrollment

Teachers can now restrict access for students to certain courses in their virtual classroom at Innovation. By default, enrollment is “open”, meaning students can freely access any course.

For teachers who need to restrict access by students to a certain course, there is an app to manage enrollment. Access the app from Students :: Student Accounts Management :: Manage Course Enrollment. From here, follow instructions to restrict enrollment and then assign students to a class.

Commercial licensees will find this useful if they are charging for access to a course and need to prevent free access to courses for which students have not paid.

Successful Students Share Their Secret for Online Learning

In mid-May 2020, we were finishing up 2 months of remote learning during the pandemic. I conducted a study to find out what I could learn from the students who were very successful learning online remotely.

Twenty-one respondents to a survey asking successful online learners to report on the “secrets” of their success collectively present a profile of the student who will likely do well in asynchronous distance learning conditions. These students are very self-directed, seldom needing much parent intervention or supervision. Most like working online because there are fewer distractions than in school and they can work on their own schedules and at their own pace. These students have a special place set aside for doing school work and mostly do their school work in one sitting rather than sporadically through the day. These students are not necessarily very academic-oriented in temperament and may not even prefer online learning because they miss their friends and teachers. When asked to advise their peers, common suggestions include ideas like planning out the working and break or recreation time, keeping checklists, and self-motivation strategies.

Besides answering my questionnaire, 14 of 21 respondents accepted my invitation to make suggestions for their peers about their secrets for online success. Their comments are as follows:

  • I think that it easier to get all of your work done during the same time because then that way you can have the whole afternoon to do whatever you want.
  • As the Nike logo says “Just Do It”! I try not to put stuff off, however I wish it will be over soon so we can have summer and do other productive things with my family.
  • i have a system that i follow and i check all classes my email old emails at least 19 times a day
  • I try to give myself some time in the morning to wake up and have some time to myself, like an hour, then I start my day and work until lunch most times which I then take another hour or two to rest, finally I work until I am finished with little breaks and end most of the time right before dinner. I would say just try to get it done early then you could look forward tp having the rest of the day and if you get ahead then at the end of the week you could possibly have friday off, like I do. Also, just try and not get distracted and if you need to tell your siblings/parents/guardians you need quiet, my mom has learned that she can’t talk to me when I am doing school.
  • Something that motivates me is when I can take a 5-10 minute break between each subject. I use my RC car for this. While it is charging (it usually takes 45 minutes to charge) I do some work, and when it is done (it has a 10 minute run time) I go out and drive it.
  • I find that it helps to have a list of what I have to do and when they are due. This helps me to prioritize and not stress out as much about my work. I also tend to do my work in the morning. This way I have time to do my work and I can get it all done early. If I forget about an assignment, this also allows me to do it before it is due.
  • i just think that after i do all my work i can go out an do anything i want the rest of the day so i use that to motivate me
  • having parental involvement keeps me on task or i wouldn’t stay on task. My parents also checking power school regularly. I do struggle because i’m not getting as much assistance as i would during school.
  • Make sure to hunker down and just do your schoolwork. try to follow pretty much the same schedule every day and not get into a mindset of “I have all day to finish”, because chances are you’re just gonna keep on putting it off.
  • Well about the distractions. The main distraction I have at home and not school is food. Now that I am at home there are lots of food breaks.
  • I think a schedule is really important. Not only does it limit the amount of distractions in the day, but allows you to get through your work without missing anything or falling behind. I was home schooled before I came hear, and sometimes it’s nice to set apart time where you can watch a show or a play a game or something, that way you don’t feel as inclined to take a break in the middle of your work. That’s all the advice I got! 🙂
  • ‘m getting better grades doing the online learning, but I don’t really like it because I’m not getting the same interactions with teachers and friends that I can get when I’m physically in school.
  • For me, I do a few hours of school work in the morning and then a few hours of it in the afternoon. I always take about an hour or two for a break in between those times. That break is very nice, and relaxing. I either go for a walk, or try to do another activity that is not school related. I find if I do not take that break, I get too overwhelmed. Questions 2 and 3: My parents check up on me, to see how I am doing. But they do not watch over me. Also, my parents trust that I am getting all the school work in on time, so they do not enforce too many rules, because I stay on top of it myself.

Developing Semi-Automated Evaluation of Analysis in Secondary Student Writing


Fully functional and reliable automated “AI” grading of essays is a long way off yet and well beyond the computing capability available in typical secondary school classrooms. However, useful steps in that direction are well within reach, particularly for working within the domain of limited vocabulary and composition skills that constitute the typical proficiency level of students in grades six through twelve. High school social studies teachers in New York State assess student essays using a grading rubric provided by the State Education Department. One dimension of this rubric is to assess the relative degree of “analytic writing” versus descriptive. Students whose essays are more analytical than descriptive have a work of greater value. The artificially intelligent grading program at InnovationAssessments.com estimates the grade of a student writing sample by comparing it to a number of models in a corpus of full credit samples. With a view to developing an algorithm that better imitates human raters, this paper outlines the data and methods underlying an algorithm that yields an assessment of the “richness of analysis” of a student writing sample.

Measuring “Richness” of Analysis in Secondary Student Writing Samples

The New York State generic scoring rubrics for high school social studies Regents exams, both for thematic and document-based essay1, value student expository work where the piece “[i]s more analytical than descriptive (analyzes, evaluates, and/or creates* information)” (Abrams, 2004). A footnote in the Generic Grading Rubric states: “The term ​create​ as used by Anderson/Krathwohl, et al. in their 2001 revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives​ refers to the highest level of the cognitive domain. This usage of create is similar to Bloom’s use of the term synthesis. Creating implies an insightful reorganization of information into a new pattern or whole. While a level 5 paper will contain analysis and/or evaluation of information, a very strong paper may also include examples of creating information as defined by Anderson and Krathwohl.”

Anderson and Krathwohl (2002), in their revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy, define analysis thus:

4.0 Analyze – Breaking material into its constituent parts and detecting how the parts
relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.
4.1 Differentiating
4.2 Organizing
4.3 Attributing

One of the ways that students analyze is to express cause and effect relationships (Anderson and Krathwohl’s “4.3 Attributing”). It is possible using natural language processing techniques to identify and examine cause and effect relationships in writing samples using lexical and syntactic indicators. Taking a cue from the New York State rubric, one could judge that a student writing sample is more “richly analytical” if it “spends” more words on cause and effect proportionate to the entire body of words written.

Identifying and Extracting Cause and Effect Relationships using Natural Language Processing

With regard to identifying cause-effect relationships in natural language, Asghar (2016, p. 2) notes that “[t]he existing literature on causal relation extraction falls into two broad categories: 1) approaches that employ linguistic, syntactic and semantic pattern matching only, and 2) techniques based on statistical methods and machine learning.” The former method was selected for this task because the domain is limited to secondary level student writing samples and they use a limited variety of writing structures. Previous work studying this issue yielded better results in domain-specific contexts (Asghar, 2016) and tagging sentences containing cause-effect relationships in this context should be within reach to a high degree of accuracy.

The software is written in Perl. The following process is applied to the student writing sample for

  1. The text is “scrubbed” of extra consecutive spaces, HTML tags, and characters outside the normal alphanumeric ASCII range.
  2. The Flesch-Kincaid text complexity measure is calculated.
  3. The text is “lemmatized”, meaning words that have many variations are reduced to a root form (i.e., “is, am, are, were, was” etc. are all turned to “be”; “cause, caused, causing” etc. are all turned to “cause.”)
  4. The text is “synonymized”, meaning words are changed to a single common synonym. The text is separated into an array of sentences and all words are tagged by their part of speech.
  5. A variety of lexical and syntactic indicators of cause-effect are used in pattern matching to identify and extract sentences which include a cause-effect relationship into an array.
  6. The resulting array of cause-effect relationship sentences are converted into a “bag of words2” without punctuation. Stop words are removed. All words are “stemmed”, meaning variations on spelling are removed.
  7. Finally, both the original text and the array of cause-effect relationships are reduced further to a bag of unique words.

At this point, the computer program compares the bags of words. The resulting percentage is the proportion of unique words spent on cause-effect out of the total number of unique words. Recall that these are “bags of words” which have been lemmatized, synonymized, stemmed, and from which stop words have been removed.

Limitations of this Method

There are ways to express cause-effect relationships in English without using lexical indicators such as “because”, “thus”, “as”, etc. For example, one could express cause and effect this way: It was raining very heavily. We put on the windshield wipers and we drove slowly.

“Putting on the wipers” and “driving slowly” are caused by the heavy rain. There are no semantic or lexical indicators that signal this. There are many challenges dealing with “explicit and implicit causal relations based on syntactic-structure-based causal patterns” (Paramita, 2016). This algorithm does not attempt to identify this kind of expression of cause-effect. Prior research in this area has shown limited promise to date (Mirza, 2016, p. 70).

Cause-effect is only one way to analyze. Differentiating (categorizing) and organizing (prioritizing, setting up a hierarchy) should also be addressed in future versions of this software. A student could compose a “richly” analytical piece without using cause-effect, although in this writer’s experience cause-effect is the most common expression in writing of people in this age group.

Analyzing a Corpus of Student Work

The New York State Education Department provides anchor papers for the Regents exams so that raters can have models of each possible essay score on a scale of one to five. Anchor papers are written by actual students during the field testing phase of the examination creation process. Sixty such anchor papers were selected for use in this study from collections of thematic and document-based essays available online at the New York State Education Department website archive (​https://www.nysedregents.org/GlobalHistoryGeography/​). Thirty came from papers identified as scoring level five and thirty scoring level two. Essays scoring five are exemplary and rare. Papers scoring two are “passing” and represent the most common score. Essays are provided online in PDF format. Each one was transformed to plain text using GoogleDrive’s OCR feature. Newline characters were removed as was any text not composed by a student (such as header information). This constitutes the corpus.

The computer program analyzed each sample and returned the following statistics: number of cause-effect sentences found in the sample, the count of unique words “spent” on cause-effect relationships in the whole text, the count of unique words in the entire text, the percentage of unique words spent on cause-effect, the seconds it took to process, text complexity as measured by the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula, and finally a figure that is termed the “analysis score” and is intended to be a measure of “richness” in analysis in the writing sample.

An interesting and somewhat surprising finding came in comparing the corpus of level two essays to those scoring a level five. There was no real difference in the percentage of unique words students writing at these levels spent “doing” analysis of cause-effect. The mean percent of words spent on cause-effect relative to the unique words in the entire text was 46% in level five essays and 45% in level twos. There were no outliers and the standard deviation for the level fives was 0.9; for the level twos it was 0.13. Initially, it seemed that essays of poor quality would have a much different figure, but this turned out not to be the case. What made these level two papers just passing was their length and limited factual content (recall that analysis is only one dimension on this rubric).

Text complexity is an important factor in evaluating student writing. The Flesch-Kincaid readability formula is one well-known method for calculating the grade level readability of a text. In an evaluation of the “richness” of a student’s use of analysis, text complexity is a significant and distinguishing feature. The “analysis score” is a figure intended to convey that combination of text complexity and words spent on cause-effect type analysis. This figure is calculated by multiplying the percentage of unique words spent on cause-effect by 100, and then multiplying by the grade level result of the Flesch-Kincaid formula. This measure yielded more differentiating results. In order to discover ranges of normal performance based on these models, the following statistics were calculated for each data set: lowest score (MIN), first quartile(Q1), median(MED), third quartile(Q3), and highest score(MAX).

If this corpus of sixty essays can be considered representative, then the ranges can be considered standards in assessing the richness of secondary level student analysis in a writing sample. These figures can be used to devise a rubric. On a scale of one to four where four is the highest valued sample, the following ranges are derived from the combined statistics of all sixty essays:

Incorporation of Cause-Effect Assessment into AI-Assisted Grading

The artificially-intelligent grading assistance provided subscribers at InnovationAssessments.com, to date, estimates grades for student composition work based on a comparison of eleven text features of the student sample from a comparison with the most similar model answer in a corpus of one or more model texts. In cases where expository compositions are valued higher for being “analytically rich”, incorporating this cause-effect function could refine and enhance AI-assisted scoring.

Firstly, the algorithm will examine the most similar model in the corpus to the student sample. If the analysis score of the model text is greater than or equal to 419, then it is assumed analysis is a feature of the response’s value. In this case, an evaluation of the “analytical richness” of the student’s work will be incorporated into the scoring estimate. Samples that are more analytical will have greater chances of scoring well.


An artificially intelligent grading program for secondary student expository writing that includes an evaluation of the richness of analysis in that text would be very valuable. Cause-effect statements are indicators of analysis. The algorithm described here identifies and extracts these sentences, processes them for meaningful analysis, and judges the quality of the student’s analysis with a number which incorporates a measure of the proportion of words spent on analysis and text complexity. An analysis of sixty samples of student writing yielded a range of scores at four levels of quality for use in artificial grading schemes. While this algorithm does not detect all varieties of cause-effect relationships nor even all types of analysis, its incorporation in already established artificial scoring programs may well enhance the accuracy and reliability of the program.


Abrams, D. (2004). Revised Generic Scoring Rubrics for the Regents Examinations in Global History and Geography and United States History and Government (field memo). Retrieved from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/ss/hs/rubrics/revisedrubrichssocst.pdf​ .

Asghar, N. (May 2016). Automatic Extraction of Causal Relations fromNatural Language Texts: A Comprehensive Survey. Retrieved from ​https://arxiv.org/pdf/1605.07895.pdf​.

Krathwohl, D. (2002). ​A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview.​ Retrieved from https://www.depauw.edu/files/resources/krathwohl.pdf ​.

Mirza, Paramita. (2016). Extracting Temporal and Causal Relations between Events. 10.13140/RG.2.1.3713.5765 .

Sorgente, A., Vettigli G., & Mele F. (January 2013) ​Automatic extraction of cause-effect relations inNatural Language Text.​ Retrieved from ​http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-1109/paper4.pdf​ .

21st Century Learning Spaces: Asynchronous Discussion Forum

My first experience with asynchronous discussion forums came in courses I was taking myself online through Empire State College a number of years ago. Many readers will recognize the assignment: given a prompt, students are to post their response and then reply to the responses of a number of other students in the class. Typically, there was a deadline by which these discussions had to take place. I liked the exercise and I found it useful to address the course material.

I would invite the reader to read my earlier post on synchronous chat, which presents some of the research on online discussion and chat.

Promoters of asynchronous discussion forums point out rightly that this task brings greater participation than face-to-face class discussions do. Whereas in the latter situation, participation may be dominated by an extroverted few or limited in other ways, the online forum brings everybody in. Asynchronous discussion leave time for research and reflection that is not practical in the face-to-face class. There are some practical considerations for students at the middle and high school level that are not usually issues at the college level.

My Experience

I used asynchronous form discussions in my middle and high school social studies classes for a decade. This occurred in each unit of student. In my context, students were assigned a persuasive prompt to which they were expected to take a position and post two supporting reasons. Next, they were assigned to present the opposing view to another student (even if it did not match their actual personal views), and finally they were to defend their original position in reply to the student who was assigned to present the opposing view to themselves.

Sample 7th Grader Exchange

Seventh and eight graders needed training right off the bat, naturally. Accustomed to social media, their early contributions were vapid and full of emojis and “txt” language. It was important to remind them that this was a formal enterprise and that standard English conventions held. It was often difficult to get them to elaborate their ideas toward the 200-word goal set for their opening post.

Not the kind of thing I as looking for!

I was working in a small, rural school where I would have the students from grades seven through ten, so I could see their work develop over the years.

By end of 9th grade, posts became more sophisticated

I found it to be a good practice to offer the highest marks to those who provided evidence and cited a source. I coded a citation generator right in the forum app to encourage this.

Grading the Posts

Scoring these can be labor intensive for no other reason than the layout of the forum itself. The page is designed for reading and responding, but this does not work well for scoring because there is too much scrolling and searching necessary to view posts and replies.

The scoring app makes it easy for the teacher to view the rubric, the student’s posts, and their replies to others in one place. Analysis tools lets the teacher see how many posts, when they were made, and even the readability level of the contributions.
My early discussion grading rubric.
The grading rubric I adopted later on.

Practical Issues

The main problem I encountered in this assignment was that students would forget to complete it at first. I resolved this by assigning it in class and giving time. For example, on the first day I would present the prompt and instruct students to post their positions that class period before continuing with the day’s other work. The following day, students would have time to post their replies and finally a third day they would post their defense.

Another issue that came up was getting everyone the needed number of replies. Some posts would attract more replies than others. Some students needed a reply so they could offer defense. The solution was to modify the assignment and declare that, once one has posted, one is obliged to offer the opposing view to the person above in the forum feed.

Interestingly, these assignments also led to face-to-face spontaneous class discussions, sometimes with me and sometimes with a group. Although this may have been somewhat distracting for students in the class working on other things, we found some compromise time to allow these spontaneous interactions to proceed without disrupting the other work much. These were golden opportunities, conversations of enormous educational benefit that are so hard to artificially initiate and encourage.

I came to regard the discussion each unit as a sort of group persuasive writing effort. I included training in grade eight in persuasive writing and logical fallacies. The discussion app here at Innovation has a feature which allows readers to flag posts as committing a logical fallacy.

The Innovation Discussion Forum App is a 21st Century Learning Space

  • Guardrails: The app lets the teacher monitor all conversations and to delete problematic ones.
  • Training Wheels: The teacher can attach a grading rubric and sample posts. I used to post first under a pseudonym to whom the first student could reply. Additionally, weaker students can peruse the posts of stronger students in an effort to get a clear picture of the kinds of opinions that can be had on the issue.
  • Debriefing: Debriefing is easily achieved by projecting the discussion screen on the from board. Students posts in this task are not anonymous.
  • Assessment and Feedback: The scoring app is very efficient and highly developed from years of use. The teacher can view all pf the student’s posts and replies without having to scroll across the entire platform. Analysis tools reveal the readability of the text, how much they wrote, how analytical it is.
  • Swiss Army Knife: The discussion app lends itself well to more in-depth persuasive writing assignments such as an essay.
  • Locus of Data Control: The student chat submissions are stored on a server licensed to the teacher’s control. Commercial apps such as FaceBook and Twitter may be less dedicated to the kinds of privacy and control exigencies of education.

Ideas in Closing

Asynchronous discussions are great – my students and I enjoyed these tasks. It is my view that higher level thinking demanded by persuasion and debate (Bloom’s evaluation level of the cognitive domain) really enhance long-term memory of the content. I cannot emphasize enough the value of these kinds of higher-order task. Working in a 21st century learning space promotes the participation of everybody.

Automated Scoring of Secondary Student Summaries and Short Answer Tests


Research and development of software to harness artificial intelligence for scoring student essays has many significant obstacles. Using machine learning techniques requires massive amounts of data and computing power far beyond what is available to the typical secondary public school. The cost and effort to devise such technology does not seem to be juice worth the squeeze, since it is still more time efficient and cost effective to just have a human do the job. However, the potential exists to devise AI-assisted grading software whose purpose is to increase the speed and accuracy of human raters. AI grading that is “assisted” applies natural language processing strategies to student writing samples in a narrowly defined context and operates in a mostly “supervised” fashion. That is, a human rater activates the software and may make scoring judgments with the advice provided by the AI. A promising area for this, more narrowly contextualized application of artificially intelligent natural language processing, is in scoring summaries and short answer tests. This also poses interesting possibilities for automated coaching for students while they write. This study examines a set of algorithms that derives a suggested score for a secondary level student summary and short answer test response by comparing a corpus of model answers selected by a human rater with the student work. The human rater stays on duty for the scoring process, adding full credit student work to the corpus such that the AIs is trained and selecting student scores.

Features of Text for Comparison

The AI examines the following text characteristics to evaluate a student work by comparison to one or more models:

  • “readability” as determined by the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula
  • the percent difference in number of unique words after pre-processing. “Preprocessing” refers to text that has been scrubbed of irrelevant characters like HTML tags and extra spaces, has been lemmatized, synonymized, and finally stemmed.
  • intersecting noun phrases
  • Jaccard similarity
  • cosine similarity of unigrams
  • cosine similarity of bigrams
  • cosine similarity of trigrams
  • intersecting proper nouns
  • cosine similarity of T-score
  • intersecting bigrams as percent of corpus size
  • intersecting trigrams as percent of corpus size
  • analysis score2

The program first compares the student text to each model using cosine similarity of n-grams. The most similar model in the corpus is then compared to the student work. Four hundred and twenty-six short answer questions that had been scored by a human rater were compared using the algorithm. From these results was developed scoring ranges within each text feature typifying scores of 100, 85, 65, 55, and 0. Outliers were removed from the dataset. Next, sets of student summaries were scored using the ranges for each text feature and the program’s scoring accuracy was monitored. With each successive scoring trial, the profiles were adjusted, sometimes more intuitively that methodically, until over the course of months the accuracy rate was satisfactory.

When analyzing a student writing sample for scoring, the score on each text feature is compared to the profiles and the program keeps a tally of matches for each scoring category (100, 85, 65, 55, and 0). The “best fit” is the first stage of suggested score. Noun phrases, intersecting proper nouns, and bigram cosine were found to correlate most highly with score matching the human rater, so an additional calculation is applied to the profile scores to weight these factors. Next, a set of functions calculates partial credit possibilities for scores in the category of 94, 76 and 44 using statistics from the data analysis of the original dataset of 426 samples. Finally, samples where analysis are important in the response have their score adjusted one final time.

Analysis score” is a metric devised to evaluate the “analytical richness” of a student writing sample​.

The development of the scoring ranges for text features proceeded somewhat methodically and at times more intuitively or organically. Over the course of months, when error patterns in AI scoring became apparent, adjustments were made to improve performance. Natural language processing, even at this basic level, is very demanding on computer memory and processing resources. At this writing, the server running this software has 6GB of RAM and work is often being done on the code to reduce processing time. One strategy is to store both “raw” and processed versions of the student work products as they are written so that processing time can be shortened at the end. the corpus of model responses is also saved in this way.

Training the AI

Upon creation of an assignment, the teacher can save model responses to the corpus. Once students have completed the assignment, the teacher can begin by reviewing and scoring the work product of students who usually score full credit. Upon confirming that these are indeed full credit models, the teacher can click a button to add the student sample to the corpus of model answers. The software limits the teacher to five models in short answer testing and seven models in composition assessment.

Once trained, the teacher can run the scoring algorithm on each student submission. At this writing, processing takes about nine seconds on average per sample, depending on the text size. This program works best for assignments where there is a narrow range of full credit responses. Its primary purpose is to score writing samples by comparing to a limited number of full credit responses. Its strength is in recognizing similar meaning across texts in varying ways to say the same thing. This program does not assess spelling or technical / mechanical writing conventions, although it does rely on student accuracy for scoring to the extent that adherence to certain conventions are necessary for the program to operate. Examples: proper noun count requires that students capitalize them; sentence count requires that students apply standard rules of punctuation.

The Innovation Commercial License

As I developed Innovation Assessments over the years, firstly I guess it was a hobby thing: I do enjoy coding and I liked having the ability to create apps for my teaching practice that did exactly as I wanted. I think my students liked having me create features that they requested and I know they got a chuckle at the bugs in early versions of software I wrote. Although selling subscriptions to the platform was always a goal for me to make a modest side income, I don’t think that motivated me as much as the former conditions.

If you’ve read my previous post about recently making Innovation a free platform, you probably sensed a tinge of regret in between the lines. I admit that there was. I don’t think I can compete against the big names out there in LMS and by now most teachers have invested a lot in their preferred LMS (usually Google Classroom). I will that seeing the new sign ups since this platform became free has given consolation that at least it’s being used.

Readers will notice that I am still making an effort in an entrepreneurial spirit. There is a commercial subscription tier. It’s this I want to present in this post.

Who needs a commercial license?

Innovation is free to individual teachers who are employed by a non-profit or not-for-profit organization. This would include public and private schools.

Subscribers who meet any of the following criteria need a paid commercial license for Innovation:

  • You work for a for-profit company teaching or tutoring online or remotely.
  • You are a “teacher-author” and you want to make your content at Innovation available for sale through third-party online marketplaces like TeachersPayTeachers.com or TeachSimple.com.

Ways to Earn from your Creativity here at Innovation

Like many teacher-authors, I sell my products at online marketplaces. I am grateful for the existence of these opportunities, so I am committed to respecting their terms and conditions of sale. I have been writing a set of apps purely for my own use over the past two years. These apps allow me to create digital products for selling at online marketplaces and which conform to their terms and conditions.

Subscribers to the commercial tier of Innovation will have access to these apps as well so that they can quickly generate products for posting at online marketplaces for sale.

Multiple-Choice Product Generator

Sharing multiple-choice test question banks can be challenging because there are many different formats out there for test generators. This is true here as well – Innovation as its own unique format.

Subscribers to the commercial license to Innovation can generate a multiple-choice product almost instantly. The product will consist of a zip file that will automatically contain:

  • an HTML version of the questions for your customer to copy-paste into their own tests — this includes optionally associated images and sound files
  • a plain text file version of the questions
  • a passcode so that buyers can give their students access to the online version of the task
  • a .CSV format file of the questions for easy import into a spreadsheet like Google Sheets or Excel.
  • all of the associated sound and image files

One feature of the passcodes that is not currently available to commercial subscribers is import. If a buyer has one of my passcodes, they can use it to import the test bank they purchased right into their Innovation account. I figure commercial subscribers will not all want this, so it is disabled for them.

Here’s a free sample product for you to download and inspect. It was my final exam for my US History and Government class in 2022. I generated the product in under 3 seconds (not counting, of course, the time entering the questions…).


The passcode arose out of respect for the terms and conditions of teacher author marketplaces. They require, rightly, that no product sold at their site should require a registration to a third party site. The passcode lets you sell access to your Innovation content on InnovationAssessments.com in such a way that the buyer’s students can carry out the task without logging in or registering.

Here’s one you can try: USHIS 11 Final Exam, A11812Z-13YU-1QIH-17-JON [preview]

Passcodes work for:

  • multiple-choice
  • matching
  • short answer, including pre-training for the AI grading assistant
  • Etudes (these are video or PDF embeds with associated questions)
  • Ventura games (Jeopary-like games)

Commercial tier subscribers have access to the app that generates passcodes. It is a very flexible system that lets you offer a preview that automatically limits access to the potential buyer.

Additional Terms of Service

Commercial license holders agree to a few additional terms:

  • You attest that content of any type to which you are granting access is an original work and it does not infringe upon the Intellectual Property rights of others.
  • You attest that content that is copyrighted and/or trademarked materials in your offering does not infringe upon the Intellectual Property rights of others. You have either received express permission to use such materials, or you hereby certify that the use of such materials is otherwise non-infringing, for example as a fair use.
  • You agree not to post any advertising or solicit membership or subscription or attendance at any venue or event virtual or real that is not connected in a reasonable, direct, and supportive way with the course you are teaching.
  • Innovation Assessments LLC does not provide payment processing services.

Innovation is Free Now

Yesterday after a lot of reflection, I decided to change the pricing model at Innovation and just make access to the platform free.

I know, that’s pretty bad business thinking, right? My friends tell me I was under-pricing it at $36, considering what you get: lesson planner, AI-assisted scoring, test generators, etc. But that’s the kind of thing friends say and I appreciate it. The fact is, despite quite a healthy number of people signing up for free trials over the past five years, for reasons I can only speculate about, very few went on to become paying subscribers.

I think my first issue is that I do not have a big start-up budget and a group of investors backing my project. This has been a solo act for two decades. The world of venture capital is alien to me and putting my own assets at risk was averse to both me and my wife! Innovation Assessments LLC has always paid for itself.

My timing is probably not great for this kind of startup. My first venture into offering an online subscription service was in 2002 when I had good fortune with FrenchRegents.com (I eventually developed Germanregents.com and SpanishRegents.com). But I got out of it in 2007, discouraged when review materials that I offered as paid service were now available for free. In 2018, I began using, adapting, and updating my old software to accommodate teaching in a classroom where all my students now had ChromeBooks. I like coding anyway and it was fun to collaborate with my students to debug and develop code. I think they enjoyed being beta testers and got a kick out of some of the bugs.

When the pandemic hit, I thought I really was in good position to launch this business. Demand for what I offer would be high and, while I did enjoy a large number of free trial subscribers, I did not have an advertising budget to really get the word out. I say this, though, I really pushed my coding and devised interesting new takes on software for education.

Innovation Assessments LLC has two branches of its business: the online subscription learning management system (LMS) and digital materials for teaching social studies and French (the two subjects I taught for each half of my career). The digital materials we sell in online marketplaces for teacher resources and this branch of the business carries the other branch, which has low subscriber rates.

I am reminded that education is a really hot market right now for web-based services. It is really hard for a small startup like ours to get any attention in that market right now. We considered attending conferences as vendors / presenters to make the case for our online platform, but have reconsidered that as an expense with limited chance of success.

Now, I don’t really want to just quit either. The Innovation teaching platform and the 21st century learning space concept are very strong. I still have some use for the platform, doing part-time contract teaching gigs now that I am retired. And it’s really hard to imagine just shuttering this platform because, well, I think it is really quite excellent.

I developed the TestDrive app a few years ago to be able to sell access to my course content on third party sites that are marketplaces for teacher resources. The user agreement at those services usually stipulates that teacher authors cannot require registration at their own sites to use products sold on their marketplace site. TestDrive lets me sell access passcodes to teachers, who can give them to students and enjoy many of the AI-assisted and auto-correct features of being subscribers. Naturally, I ask people to consider signing up, but it’s not required to use a passcode at TestDrive.

The pricing model I have adopted today sets individual access to the platform to a price of FREE. One of my reasons for this is simply that, after decades of coding and work and with an appreciation of this creation, I can’t quite let it go yet. A second reason is the hope that people will use and enjoy the platform in larger numbers. I have a number of ideas for apps that I would like to add on later and for which maybe subscribers already adoring the platform may gladly pay a nominal fee.

I created a second “premium” pricing tier as well, a commercial subscription. For this fee, teachers can use TestDrive like I do and can sell access to the same third party marketplaces (like TeachSimple and TeachersPayTeachers) that I do.

Reader, I thank you for visiting Innovation today. I hope you’ll consider subscribing and seeing what we have to offer here. And now you may rest assured that it will cost you $0.00. 🙂

21st Century Learning Spaces: Debriefing Kit

The debriefing is a powerful tool for teaching to which students readily respond. I have had students tell me they really felt they benefited from these activities.

In general, the debriefing is a lesson that consists of analyzing student errors and offering corrections. Naturally, this is done anonymously so as to avoid embarrassment. It is particularly useful in teaching writing, computer programming, and similar complex tasks that can be broken down into smaller skill sets for training.

For example, when I teach French composition, I select errors from student compositions and present them anonymously to the class. I explain the error, I correct the error, and students then proceed to practice recognizing and correcting the error themselves. Innovation has a number of these lessons for sale at one of our online stores.

By way of another example, when teaching social studies, I help students develop skills for analyzing historic documents using constructed response tasks. This assignment calls upon students to provide historical or geographical context for a document and then to analyze its reliability and relationships with other documents such as cause-effect, turning point, or to compare and contrast. Especially for the reliability element, it is useful to display student work, both strong and weak, for commentary and analysis.

If you’ll indulge a final example, when I teach persuasive writing I like to display student samples in class and we can practice together identifying claims, warrants, rebuttals, and so forth. We can weigh the strength of arguments and of writing style.

21st century learning spaces are designed to facilitate debriefing for all sorts of tasks. Since this is a key feature of my own teaching practice, it is really baked in to the Innovation platform:

  • Multiple-choice: Teachers can start up a “live session” after a test to review. In the live session, the host displays the question and students join the session from their own devices and interact. (Kahoot! is a well-known example).
  • Short Answer: Teachers can initiate a “live session” for short answer that works the same way.
  • Jeopardy-Style Review: It is easy to select questions from a set of recent tasks such as quizzes or short answer prompts and then generate a Ventura game.
  • Analytics: Innovation has a complete set of analytics tools for all online tasks. This includes multiple-choice and short answer item analysis, standardized (“curved”) grading functions, and statistical analysis tools to evaluate and compare assessments. Analytics tells teachers what to debrief; what has priority for review and remediation.
  • Item Analysis: The test “master” for each assessment presents an item analysis of student work and a ready-to-display version of the test.

Debriefing lesson planning can be very arduous. It can be time-consuming to create a slide show or document with copy-pasted elements of student work submissions for analysis. The Innovation platform facilitates this in multiple ways with a few clicks, in true form to a strong 21st century learning space.