Quiz review has become a lot more useful now that

  • We review the questions immediately after writing the quiz
  • The students have their own completed papers in their hands
  • The papers have no grade or comments on them

I like that this allows students to assess their own work without having their judgement short-circuited by my evaluation.  Sometimes we do this just for practice, and that’s the end of it.  But if I’m going to update their skills list to say that they can do something independently, I need to have a record of their quiz from before the class review.  In the January semester, I got that by having all students complete two copies of their quizzes: one for them to assess right away, and one for me to evaluate later.  As you can imagine, this is tedious for the students.  When I wrote about this process in detail, I concluded that I needed a scanner that I could carry with me (I don’t have my own classroom).

I looked at lots of “ultraportable” scanners, and they were all too big to carry around, as well as ridiculously expensive.  Only one had on-board storage.  A few were autonomous, but most needed to be plugged into a computer, which would have to be booted, logged into, then wait for the drivers to download, etc.  I was imagining every student running their quiz through a scanner that would automatically email me the file, or store it somehow.  Then I stumbled across the most portable scanner there is: a smartphone.

There are a number of “document scanning” apps available, and they all do basically the same thing: take a picture of a document, try to figure out where the edges of the page are, then process it to correct parallax and improve contrast.  The result is probably a PDF, looking remarkably as though it had come from a scanner. Some of them will even do character recognition, so you end up with an editable Word document (for typed text only, of course).

In the May semester, I rolled it out.  I had grandiose ideas about electronic grading, so I bought a tablet computer (the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7″). At the end of the quiz, I walked around and took pictures of everyone’s paper, then tucked the tablet in my bag. We reviewed the quiz, the students wrote feedback to themselves.  Later, I reviewed the electronic files, marked them, and emailed them all to myself (or I could have uploaded them to Dropbox or Evernote or synced them to GoogelDocs).  The process worked fine.  Of course, the question isn’t, did it work.

The question is: Did it work better than paper?

It has its pros and cons.  Con: it is slower for me (I can collect 20 pieces of paper faster than I can take 20 pictures).  Pro: it is faster for the students.  They no longer have to copy out their entire paper a second time (wasting minutes that they could be using to check their work).

The context in which this makes sense is if you need a record of student work, you need to return the work to the student immediately (otherwise you could just walk to the photocopier), and you don’t want the students recopying their work.  In our case, problems are often so long that recopying them would mean cutting the assessed skills by half.  I’ve gotten around this by asking students to recopy only their final answers; obviously, this is not ideal.  I love the way this allows me to capture the whole story — what they’ve crossed out, doodles and mnemonics and scratch calculations, etc.

Final result: I’m sold.  I love having searchable electronic archives of each student’s work.  It allows me to cut down on paper without requiring a tablet computer for every student.  It’s a great record of progress.  I can email them back a file with my comments.  It works for flip charts and white boards too.  It saves trees.  Students can borrow it and do their own scanning (John Burk talks more about possible advantages here).

Once I was convinced I wanted to go this way, I had to choose hardware and software.  The document scanning apps I tried were Droid Scan, CamScanner, and Document Scanner.  I settled on CamScanner because it had the highest proportion of correct edge detections (it pretty much never failed to automatically recognize my page), and that is the slowest, fussiest part of the process if you have to do it by hand.  For hardware, I tried the Samsung Galaxy, the Acer Iconia, and the iPad 2.  The Galaxy and Iconia were pretty similar (I prefer the Galaxy for its small size and thorough integration of speech recognition).  The iPad was not suitable — its <1MPixel camera made documents illegible (see below).


The image quality has been degraded somewhat in these examples, possibly in the cutting and pasting and converting from PDF to an image format, but at least you can see the relative quality.  On screen, the Galaxy and the Iconia were quite legible — right down to the decimal point in 1.08A, although the Iconia was a bit washed out.

Overall, I’m happy with this and I’m looking forward to using it in September.  Next question: can a tablet computer be used as a document camera?  Stay tuned.