I don't think there is a "silver bullet" in educational practice, but I do believe that good formative assessment comes pretty close to being our most powerful tool as educators. I am operationalizing formative assessment here in a commonly accepted way. Paraphrasing Sadler (1989) among others, the formative assessment process involves 1) Making explicit the standard or goal for the learner (i.e. Where are we going to go?), 2) Finding out what the students' understandings are with respect to that goal or standard (i.e. Where are we starting from?), and 3) Taking some action to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be (i.e. How are we going to get there?). This process involves both the teacher and the learner working together through these various steps, and it makes transparent not only the goals and current understandings, but also the reasons for taking a particular course of action to achieve that goal. Further, this process can be nicely linked to learning theory, especially Vygotsky's theory of concept formation (e.g. the learner's everyday conceptions approaching the "scientific" conceptions that are the target understandings). I'll leave further explication of that point for a future post, perhaps getting one of my colleagues to guest author.
So how can we take advantage of communications technologies to help us practice formative assessment? Probably the most obvious tools are related to timely communication, which can be used to announce or remind students of target goals or standards, and which can also be used for quick feedback. Email works well for this, and I'm sure it's a tool many of us (especially in post-secondary education) already use to tell students what will happen in class tomorrow, or to give feedback on assignments, or perhaps even what to do next (i.e. How are you going to get there?). But email is asynchronous and a bit clunky for quick, timely communication.
Course websites are great for these communications as well, but how often do you students log into WebCT or Blackboard? Once a day at most? Checking these sites also requires a bit of commitment: start the browser, navigate to the page, log in, go to message forum, etc.
Think about how you provide goal statements and feedback or prompt a student to take some action while you are teaching: usually with a short sentence, question, or note on the board. These exchanges are often on the fly, completely synchronous, brief, and efficient (especially in the interactive classroom)- very different from most email messages and course management system interactions. But why should this type of interaction be limited to face-to-face time in class?
Enter the mobile phone. Concise, timely communication via text message or instant messaging client. Learning happens outside of the classroom walls and outside of class time. Imagine texting your class with the day's objective the morning of class, giving them feedback after class or any (reasonable) time via text message, and even prompting individuals or the whole class what to do next via text message. The real advantage here is that suddenly this process is not bounded by some artificial (though real) time constraint. Of course, many students would probably be hesitant to give your their mobile number, so that is where a messaging client comes into play. The same thing could be accomplished with IM, twitter, or a host of other instant messaging/microblogging types of services.
A recent EdWeek article on mobile devices in 21st century learning brought this idea of mine to the fore. This is all in the brainstorm stage (as are many of my ideas) but I really think that with the right kind of course environment and with a bit of cultural shift, educators could tap into the potential of mobile phone-based messaging explicitly in the service of facilitating the formative assessment process. Hopefully some are already exploring these potentials- I'll be the first to admit that I haven't done a lit review on this one. Do you know of any work related to instant messaging and formative assessment? What are your thoughts and ideas?