Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Some complaints over Hillsborough schools' new online grading system

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District's move to the second semester this week presented teachers with another adjustment to the district's new online grading system, and another chance to grouse that it's too complicated.

The transition from Edline, a system that had been in place for four years, to the new Edsby has posed challenges for teachers, parents and students.

A recent message to teachers detailing steps to navigate the Edsby home screen and set up class information for the second semester illustrated that Edsby remains a work in progress.

If you teach semester-long classes, you will now see your second semester classes on your Edsby Home Screen. For some users, this may appear to look like there are duplications in your class lists. Edsby developers are currently working on a way to make it easier for you to tell the difference between current classes and classes for the next term.

The instructions left some teachers complaining the directions are difficult to understand, and they don't receive formal training to keep up with the changes.

School district officials insist it's the growing pains of converting to a new system.

But some teachers and parents argue the introduction of Edsby came too soon and too fast, and they are longing for Edline.

Behind the Edline to Edsby switch

The idea behind products such as Edline and Edsby is that parents need a way to keep track of what their children are doing, especially in the middle and high school years, when students don't always keep them in the loop.

Increasingly, students also use online systems to keep track of assignments and class averages, along with general announcements from their teachers.

The district's more than 14,000 teachers are required to post grades using Edsby, which students can access. Since September, more than 50,000 parents in Hillsborough County have registered for an Edsby account to keep up on their kids' grades.

The project was put up for bid in early 2013. Out of 14 proposals, the district chose Edsby.

Edsby will cost $180,000 per year for five years, with free daily technical support as part of the contract, said Web services manager Greg Hart. To keep Edline would have cost $367,000.

Some teachers privately frustrated

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia sent an email to teachers last February to seek feedback on the district's top two choices to replace Edline, communications manager Jason Pepe said. She sent teachers another email in April to inform them the district had chosen Edsby.

Teachers contacted by the Tampa Bay Times were reluctant to publicly criticize Edsby.

Privately, they expressed frustration over frequent crashes and missing features, such as the inability to easily drop text into the system.

Each school has a teacher champion and superuser to provide teachers with on-site tech support. The district began training teacher champions and superusers in June.

Online training was made available to teachers two weeks before the start of the school year.

Some teachers have embraced the new system. Sonja Lutz, AVID coordinator and elective teacher at Leto High School in Tampa, said Edsby allows her to communicate more effectively with students. She can see when they last checked an assignment and is able to provide immediate access to missed assignments.

Uploading assignments for four classes takes about 10 minutes at the end of the day, she said.

"It's easy to provide feedback all in one place about the actual work they are doing, not just a grade," she said.

Parents concerned for teachers, apps

Parents received access Sept. 23 in what Pepe called a "layered approach" to give teachers four weeks to get used to the new system.

"Parents feel like it should have been rolled out in an organized manner ahead of time," said Betsy Textor, who has two children at Newsome High School in Lithia.

"Some teachers have learned to use it pretty effectively. Some are still frustrated," Textor said.

Lissette Godwin has a daughter at Sickles High School and a son at Hill Middle School. She said Edsby is less user-friendly and that its phone app has been an annoyance, too.

"I've never had to update an app so many times in my life," she said.

Textor said her kids' teachers update grades at different rates. She doesn't have access to as much feedback on grades and assignments as her kids do, she said.

Most of her kids' teachers are trying their best to learn the new system, she said, but many parents still aren't sold.

"Parents say, 'Don't use it, just use regular email,' " Textor said. "Did they sell us a bunch of features that nobody's going to use?"

But Edsby is not meant to replace email, phone calls or face-to-face meetings, Pepe said. It's another tool meant to enhance communication among teachers, parents and students.

Transition leads to bumpy glitches

Jeff Pelzer, technology specialist at Rodgers Middle School, said the transition to Edsby has been bumpy, but that Edline wasn't initially embraced either.

"Edsby has the potential to be a fantastic product," Pelzer said. "The difficulty comes into play when you don't have a complete product when the school year starts."

Never was that difficulty more evident than the transition from the first nine-week grading period to the second.

When the first quarter ended and the second began, Edsby calculated all the grades together, rather than showing new averages for the second quarter.

The Edsby team is based in Toronto and works with schools worldwide, many of which factor grades cumulatively, Pepe said. Edsby was responsive to the problem, he said. It took about two weeks for Edsby's tech team to write the code to fix it.

District calls Edsby a work in progress

Rolling out a new program to so many people comes with a learning curve, said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins.

Officials said the district will continue to work with Edsby on system improvements and updates to the app. Some recent enhancements make it easier for teachers to print multiclass progress reports, immediately view the most recent assessments and weight grades. Parents and students can now access dropped classes.

It's a work in progress, officials said, adding that a key component to that progress is users exploring the system and becoming more comfortable with it.

"We have to be patient. Everyone's at a different place with technology and with teaching," Eakins said. "We don't ever want them to take away the option of a phone call. But with 24/7 access, as teachers start to learn what they can do, they can build on it."

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