Paperless Assessment in Early Years: apps and ideas to consider.

This time last year we discussed a move towards using an assessment app in our Foundation 2 Unit. Up until September 2013 I had always gathered my photographic evidence using a digital camera and organised them easily using iTag software. I wrote a post about this a few years back here. So much has changed with the way photographs and cameras are used in Foundation settings since that, so here is an update.

Using ICT has always reduced the time it takes me to organise my assessments and by having a note taking and photo gathering app, which creates a learning journey, the time it takes us to file has been reduced considerably. Our workflow has also been significantly streamlined as observations no longer need to be collected and then manually filed in date order. You cannot deny it is much easier to put your finger on ‘that piece of evidence’ when 30 learning journeys are on one iPad screen!

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My observations are becoming longer transcripts on the Orbit app but we still have a paper recorded long observation as Characteristics of Learning are not recorded on Orbit at the moment. We still have a long way to go in becoming paperless, and deciding whether or not this would work for us is a big question too.

When we discussed making this move last year, there were a few options available to use. If you’re talking about it this year, there’s a few more to consider now too!.

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Before making any decision on software, you need to consider your hardware and infrastructure first. This plays a huge part in how successful your use of an assessment app will be.

1) What mobile device will you use?
We use the 16gb iPad Air. The nursery at our school uses iPad mini. There is no difference other than personal preference. Each teacher in the unit has an iPad.

2) Why iPad?

The app is installed across the school owned iPads so if any other staff need to use the app, and the school iPads are available, we can have 1 iPad each. As our school already uses iPads, this increased the amount of iPads we have access to in the unit. If I can use our 2 teacher iPads in a teaching activity now. 

** Note ** I would not recommend this in the reverse (curriculum iPads being used for assessment). Assessment iPads can be used as curriculum iPads if they are not needed by the adults. Using curriculum iPads for assessments should not be an option though. You would not want to take resources away from children when that is what they have been purchased for. Would we take notebooks and pencils away from children for our paper-based assessments?

3) What are your wifi capabilities at school?

This is so important to check! There are assessment apps which require constant connection to the internet for use, there are other assessment apps which can be used offline. You need to be sure your wireless can handle devices being connected to the school internet!

Once you have your chosen devices and your wifi has been audited, you can start looking at the software. So what is available? This part of the post aims to point out the similarities and differences between the apps. The two greatest competitors out there are Orbit and 2BuildAProfile. There are a few other options though, and if you know of any more, please get in touch with me so I can add them.

1) Blogs – some schools have individual (private) blogs for each child. Adrian Hickman (@AMHickman15) uses this method and the blogs can be exported to PDF to print copies for parents too. You will need to create your own tags and categories for each area of learning. You are essentially using a blog platform and building your own assessment app within it. We blog as a whole unit and share our blog publicly, with permission to do so from each parent or carer.

Cost: Free (with options to buy more online storage)

2) Orbit Early Years – This is the software we use. It requires constant connection to the internet for it’s use. That is a huge consideration as to whether or not your school can use this software. Orbit allows you to take 1 photograph, tag all of your children in that photo, add an observation note to it (or transcript of what is happening) and then tag areas of learning and statements individually for each child. It generates a learning journey for you to print off or share electronically with parents. Parents can also contribute to the evidence gathering using the ‘postcard’ feature. The app allows you to view each child’s evidence from the app, as well as the website. You cannot continue using this app beyond the EYFS. Photographs are not stored on the device itself, they are uploaded immediately to the website. Characteristics of Learning are not featured in this app.

Cost: Free (with options to buy the evaluation and tracking features, these features are also free if 50% of your parents use Orbit Family and upload postcards to their child’s learning journey)

3)2BuildAProfile – This is a premium software, it has a yearly subscription attached to each device which uses it. It does not require an internet connection for it’s use in school, and only needs to connect to wifi to upload the evidence you have gathered that day. Still though, some users may need to take their iPad home to sync as the school wireless might not handle the uploads. Once synced, the evidence is then removed from the app and you cannot view evidence gathered for each child within the app, you must log in to the website. The app allows you to add up to 4 photographs to one observation, with a note or transcript attached to it. You tag each child in that observation and the area of learning/strand which has been evidence. Therefore, all children tagged get the same statements attached. You cannot tag separate statements for each child. Characteristics of Learning are featured on this app.

Cost: when writing this, prices start at £100 per device per year. £200 a year for the option to use with parents. Contact 2Simple for the yearly subscriptions and bundles for the devices you own. You can purchase assessment statements for curriculums beyond EYFS also.

4) Tapestry – This is another assessment app which works like Orbit. You photograph or film, tag children, tag the relevant EYFS statements and upload the observations to the learning journey. Parents can contribute to the learning journeys from home too. There is cohort tracking included in the price of this subscription. Characteristics of Effective Learning statements are included in this app also. Tapestry requires an internet connection throughout its use, just as Orbit does. This means your setting needs a wireless infrastructure which can handle this level of connectivity. Fellow Twitter Teacher Claire Lowery (@clairewiththere) uses Tapestry and explains “We have found that when uploading/publishing you need a strong upload speed, for videos in particular”. The trend of needing a good wireless infrastructure at school continues, but Claire advises that you download a wifi ‘speed test’ app to your device to find the best place in school when uploading your content. Tapestry explains that you can upload a photograph of a group of children and after the upload this can be ‘split’ so each child tagged in the evidence can have different statements associated with the evidence. You can read more about Tapestry here.

Cost: at the time of writing this, Tapestry offered a tiered subscription depending on the amount of children you have in your setting. Pricing for 12 children starts at £30.00, 40 children is the next band at £40.00, 60 children at £60.00 and so on until 240 children priced at £250.00. However. To use Tapestry you must also have a subscription to the Foundation Stage Forum. Some Local Authorities subscribe to this for schools, if not you pay another £20.00 per year.

5) Learning Journey – This is a new contender for your custom this year and is a ‘freemium’ download from the Apple AppStore. This app puts itself at the forefront as it is developed by practitioners for practitioners. It includes EYFS statements, P Scales and references for new National Curriculum 2014. It sets itself apart from Orbit and 2BuildAProfile by allowing you to upload video. Again, be warned with this, your schools wifi needs to be able to handle video uploads! You can read more about this app here.

Cost: free to download, free to access the EYFS Framework, £24.99 to create 10,000 records.

6) Evernote – This is an app and website where journals can be created for each child and within each journal you can upload notes, photographs, videos, audio of work for that child. Similar to the blogs, you need to manage your own tagging and categorising in this app as it is not designed exclusively for early years. What’s great about this, is it can used throughout school and children can contribute to their own journals as they move through school. ADE John Jones uses this app with his Year 6 class, see his blog for more information or read his One Best Thing chapter available on the iBookStore for free.
This post on the Evernote website is very helpful for creating education journals too.

Cost: free to download and use, you may need to buy extra storage though.

When making your choice, be sure to know that all of these apps are easy to use. They are all designed with easy layouts, easy buttons, clear workflow and step-by-step instructions. You need to be confident in that fact across all of these softwares as each company puts this is a selling point. They are all equal to one another in ease of use. The same applies for the learning journeys that the EYFS specific apps generate. They are all strikingly appealing, neat, tidy and easy to download. Again, all companies do this equally and put it up there as a selling point for their business.

Also be aware that each software will have its niggles! They will all do a good job at reducing your workload and the time it takes to file observations neatly. What you need to decide is how much money should you take out of your budget to achieve that? We chose Orbit because for us, it is completely free. It has it’s niggles. When we have tagged each child to the observation, we have to then attach the EYFS statements to each child individually. Sometimes we say we want to be able to give all children the same statements.

That is how 2BuildAProfile works. Everyone tagged gets the same statement. So you only assess once.

But wait a minute. We only sometimes say we want to do that. Mostly the children we observe have different roles in their place, so they do need individual statements. In 2BuildAProfile we would need to photograph the play several times for each child in order to achieve separate assessments for those circumstances. Niggles. How much are those niggles worth to you?

My advice, try them all for free. Look at your budget very carefully too. But most importantly – check your school’s wifi capabilities! That is what really sets Orbit and 2BuildAProfile or Tapestry apart. If your school’s wireless is not capable of being connected to your mobile devices all day, then 2BuildAProfile is probably your answer.

One last point, you should consider your e-safety policy and the privacy policy of any company that you use. All of the data you collect and upload is stored on their servers, not the ones your school owns. Therefore, it is paramount that you ensure your school and parents approve of this.

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12 thoughts on “Paperless Assessment in Early Years: apps and ideas to consider.

  1. As a private nursery we use the Orbit app. For anyone out there considering using apps such as Orbit I would highly recommend them. At first staff were very apprehensive and thought they wouldn’t be able to use the app however after six months of using the app they are amazed at how simple it is to use and more so, how much time as been cut from our daily routine of writing observations and filing them. We have just generated our first learning journeys and all I can say is WOW. Parents have commented how much detail is put in them and they like them much better. We have designed a front sheet for the learning journey that contains a personal note about the child, a section for any parent comment and characteristics of effective learning as Marc say”s Orbit doesn’t have characteristics of effective learning featured in the app. Thanks Marc for the help and and advice on using the app. The Tiny Tots team are now smiling and happy in their work.

    • I also use Orbit and rate it highly, particularly as it’s free. HOWEVER, Orbit is closing down and will no longer exists after this academic year (7 weeks time). I would be interested to know which app you will be using from September. I am yet to decide.

      • A great question Sophie, and this post remains a useful signpost for others making their choice too. I have to stick to my word on your settings wifi capabilities. That must be your top priority in deciding which software to use. Second to that must be price.

        You might want to check out Seesaw which is free. Though it is not Eyfs specific it is for schools to use. It’s somewhere between orbit and the Evernote journals.

    • Now Orbit is closing down what will you use? I’ve been preparing to use Orbit t in the new academic year. Now I’m not sure what I’m going to do. This product came with so many recommendations.

      • We are probably going to use Tapestry. The app looks OK, and certainly easier than some others we have looked at, but so far it doesn’t match the ease of Orbit where we could simply take a photo and write a comment, select children and then later on add the assessment.

  2. ‘Teaching Made Easy – Child Observations’ is the most user-friendly app available worldwide for documenting children’s play and learning, with the added benefit no on-going subscription fees. That’s right, there is no hidden cost and we don’t make you pay subscription fees to sync to our own brand of software. Just over $1 per child for as long as that child is in your care!!

    Proud to be currently ranked No.8 Top Grossing App in the Education Category.
    https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/teaching-made-easy-child-observations/id627106726?mt=8

    Available for a range of Learning Frameworks in Australia, UK, Canada, US and NZ.

  3. Orbit – You can add characteristics of learning assessments to the observation if you go via the website. We have enjoyed using it although wish we had video upload opportunities. There are rumours that Orbit may not continue though so we are researching other potential e-learning journeys.

  4. Hi All,
    I am looking to go paperless asap. I am however apprehensive as we continually inspected and need to produce learning journeys. What if for some reason one day there is no internet connection? How would I access the journals to show the inspectors? Has anybody else ever come across this problem?

    • Hi Jo,
      We were advised by our school improvement advisors to print out a couple of learning journeys to show progress for OFSTED. We use Tapestry, can’t fault it. I have a life again- we’ve saved a fortune in pritt-stick!!!

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