Note: The author of this article runs CyberCaesar, a chargeable online resource.
Technology in the classroom should only be used to improve the learning experience. In this article, I reflect on the ways in which I have developed and used CyberCaesar, an online course to assist teaching and learning Latin in the classroom.
Quizzes on Moodle
CyberCaesar is built upon the Moodle platform and takes full advantage of the Quiz module. This is an extremely flexible assessment tool, which is often overlooked in school implementations of VLEs (virtual learning environments), providing a host of options, such as multiple choice, matching type or short-answer questions, to vary the nature of an assessment exercise. All of these quizzes are marked automatically by the server, reducing the burden of assessment on the teacher considerably.
Another attractive feature of the Quiz module is the option to change question behaviour: immediate feedback will inform a student instantly whether the answer is correct or not; deferred feedback provides this information at the end of the quiz; while adaptive mode not only provides a yes/no response, but also allows the student to attempt the question again.
The Quiz module on Moodle has enormous scope for retrieval practice, which involves ‘recreating something you’ve learned in the past from your memory and thinking about it right now’ (Smith & Weinstein, 2016).
The exercises can be used summatively to assess how much has been learned, but more importantly, they help students strengthen the process of recalling information from the long-term memory, making them an effective ‘tool for learning ‘ (Brown, et al., 2014, p. 36).
CyberCaesar uses several options from the Moodle Quiz module to enhance practice. The ability to randomise questions means that students will never take exactly the same exercise again. The surface structure of content is fluid while the deep structure of the problem remains the same, allowing each student to complete each exercise several times if they so wish. This is important – as Willingham comments, ‘experience helps students to see deep structure, so provide that experience via lots of examples’ (Willingham, 2009, p. 78). By using the adaptive mode, students can reattempt a question if they get it wrong, rather than just being told that the answer is correct or incorrect.
Feedback and assessment for learning
Feedback was of paramount importance in the development of the exercises on CyberCaesar. Known as AfL for short, and also known as formative assessme... provided the guiding principles for each response:
Feedback been shown to improve learning when it gives each pupil specific guidance on strengths and weaknesses… [it] should give each pupil guidance on how to improve, and each pupil must be given help and an opportunity to work on the improvement. (Black & Wiliam, 1998, pp. 12-13)
The feedback generated by an incorrect answer has been crafted carefully using the RegExp Short Answer plugin on Moodle. RegExp (or regular expressions) provides search patterns for identifying specified characters or strings of characters within a text. This means that it can detect the presence or absence of elements that would be expected in a correct answer. It can generate feedback containing hyperlinks to reference materials or videos found elsewhere in the course to clarify any potential misunderstandings.
The RegExp quiz engine analyses the answer and explains the nature of the error to the student, suggesting how some aspects of the answer can be improved. The feedback is genuinely responsive to student needs because the quiz engine can identify separate constituent parts of a good answer. Moreover, there is scope for multiple correct answers; if a word or concept can be interpreted in more than one way, this can be built into the system.
The course has been popular and effective. In a recent survey, 100 per cent of students who had completed their studies in Latin using CyberCaesar agreed or strongly agreed that they had enjoyed the course. Both recruitment and examination results have improved considerably: the first year that CyberCaesar was introduced to the curriculum, numbers taking Latin at GCSE doubled, and GCSE results were 85 per cent A* and 97 per cent A–A* from 2013 to 2017. In 2018, 69 per cent of students achieved grade 9 and 85 per cent of students achieved grades 8–9.
Using this system, I have managed to cut the burden of assessment considerably. I rarely mark the work of students using CyberCaesar. Instead, I analyse the responses given to each question, helping me to identify areas for further development. In addition, students get a certain amount of autonomy; they can work through the exercises at their own pace, taking control of their learning. The teacher can coach each student far more attentively in the classroom, correcting misunderstanding and clarifying principles discovered in the exercises. The digital feedback is very much a starting point to help focus the expertise of the teacher towards the students’ learning.
There are some potential drawbacks in using Moodle. Firstly, although it’s open source, a school needs to host the framework itself. The Quiz module is quite memory-hungry, so a high specification server is required. Secondly, if anything goes wrong, the school needs to find a solution rather than referring the matter to a help desk. In practice, the Moodle community is extremely helpful and solutions can be found in a matter of minutes. Finally, it does take some time to set up all of these quizzes. This is an investment in time; once the exercises are created, there is far less work. It is simply a matter of reviewing and tweaking the exercises rather than creating them afresh.
The online exercises are just one aspect of CyberCaesar. They are, however, the most groundbreaking aspect of the course. I don’t tend to set these exercises as homework. I prefer to be in the classroom when students complete this work so that the digital feedback can act in concert with my subject expertise. Other activities, such as watching video lessons, learning specific material and exploring the subject further, are preferable homework activities. Nor are these the only lesson activities. We read Latin, explore history and discuss the civilisation of the Romans. The linguistic abilities of the students, however, have been boosted considerably because of the deployment of these digital exercises.
Black P and Wiliam D (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: GL Assessment.
Brown PC, Roediger III HL and McDaniel MA (2014) Make it Stick. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Rosenshine B (2012) Principles of instruction. American Educator 36(1): 12–19, 39.
Smith M and Weinstein Y (2016) Learn how to study using… retrieval practice. Available at: http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/6/23-1 (accessed 20 September 2018).
Willingham D (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.