Robo-Readers to the Rescue: Providing Instant Feedback

Yesterday, I posted about an article published in Inside Higher Ed titled “A Win for Robo-Readers.” The article covered the findings of a study from the University of Akron, which showed that automated grading software can be used to evaluate writing for grammar and syntax.

I was a bit concerned about some of the comments in the article, but I’m actually very excited about the potential of Robo-Readers for the writing classroom.  But I wouldn’t rely on them necessarily as a grading tool. I want my students to use them as a learning tool. My hope is that eventually, Robo-Readers might be able to evaluate students’ writing for them as they work.

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Robo-Readers to the Rescue

There’s been a lot of buzz lately on my RSS feed about automated essay-grading software, or “Robo-Readers.” Several weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed published an article announcing “A Win for the Robo-Readers.” The article very briefly presented and commented on the results of a study conducted by the University of Akron, which found that Robo-Readers can effectively evaluate student writing on a quantitative level. In other words, they can determine whether sentences follow proper grammar and mechanical rules.

The author of the Akron study and dean of the Akron college of Ed., Mark D. Shermis, admits that comp classes shouldn’t completely rely upon the software for grading. They should be used as a supplement to grading, to ease workloads.

I agreed with the article and with Sermis’ statements about the Robo-Reader tools until the very end of the piece. And then I saw something that I found rather troubling:

The Akron education dean acknowledges that AES software has not yet been able to replicate human intuition when it comes to identifying creativity. But while fostering original, nuanced expression is a good goal for a creative writing instructor, many instructors might settle for an easier way to make sure their students know how to write direct, effective sentences and paragraphs.

“If you go to a business school or an engineering school, they’re not looking for creative writers,” Shermis says. “They’re looking for people who can communicate ideas. And that’s what the technology is best at” evaluating.

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iPad for Planning Writing – Setton University

I’m becoming pretty dependent upon my iPad for taking notes, reading (lots and lots of reading), and managing my calendar/to-do list. But I’d like to start integrating it into my writing work-flow.

I came across Setton Hill University’s ipad initiative page this morning, and found this interesting video about how one professor is using the iPad to help her students plan their writing projects and discuss plot development.

As a part of their Griffin Technology Advantage program, Setton Hill gives iPads to all full-time students and faculty. And what’s really cool is they are encouraging students and faculty to submit videos of how they are using their iPads to change the way they “learn, teach, or live.”

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Can Hybrid Classrooms Increase Interaction?

Last week, I posted an infographic about a flipped classroom model that’s being used in high schools. By “flipped classroom,” I’m referring to a model of learning that puts the instruction part of a course (such as lectures) online, freeing up class-time for hands-on work. Essentially, what was once done in the classroom is done at home, and what was done at home is brought back into the classroom. This puts the instructor in the role of facilitator, rather than the sole keeper of knowledge. Students can work to understand the material on their own time and at their own speed, leaving class time open for discussion, questions, group work, or individual work.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I took one online course while I was an undergrad, and I hated it. It was a business writing class, and the instructor was non-responsive to emails, gave very little directed feedback, and left the class to basically figure things out for ourselves. I hated the feeling of being so disconnected from my professor–so much so that I sought out another instructor in the English department who also taught business writing. He was gracious enough to meet with me to discuss my work, and I’m not sure I would have faired very well in the course without his constructive feedback.

This one experience tainted my views of online courses, and I’ve avoided taking them ever since then. It’s also another reason I’ve been cautious about the idea of teaching an online course. I wouldn’t want a student to go through the same experience that I did. I, like many others, fear that teaching online becomes too impersonal, too distant, too disconnected.

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Alternative Textbooks

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz lately about universities

Temple University recently piloted an alternative textbook project, where faculty abandoned the traditional text books in favor of building their own. The experiment provided 11 faculty each with $1000 to create course texts using their own materials, primary archival sources, and free online sources. From reading the article, it seems like the project was considered a success by both the faculty involved and the students.

I thought one of the comments made in the article by a first year writing professor was particularly intriguing:

Last semester, the majority of students needed a lot of assistance with their first paper. . . This fall was exactly the opposite. They still did a lot of reading and researching but (the alternative textbook) created a facility with language and research that they didn’t have with the regular text. It’s added a dimension as well as being a substitute.

I hear the common complaint that students don’t know how to work with various texts. They don’t know how to approach them, read them, analyze them, interact with them, or evaluate them. Well, how will they if the are only exposed to the standard course text and anthology that’s become to traditional “textbook?” If we take our reading day after day after day from a textbook, we shouldn’t be too surprised when first year composition students freak at the end of the semester when they have to write a final paper.

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Mobile Devices and Education: Consumption v. Production

Images of different mobile technologies--iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook.

Designing the Obvious (2010) author, Robert Hoekman adamantly encourages developers to design with mobile applications in mind. While mobile devices, such a the iPad and iPhone can be limiting to expert users who need more intensive tools, these devices do all the tasks that most people need from their technology:

And while many people in the tech industry still see some of these gadgets as luxury items—often even wondering what on Earth they would do with a tablet—these devices are designed for the other 99 percent. They’re designed for that large segment of the population that uses computers for paying bills, social networking, making plans, watching videos, checking the news, listening to music, digging up recipes, learning new skills, creating spreadsheets for work, writing memos, and of course, checking email. These people use computers primarily for media consumption, web browsing, and basic document-creation. And that’s exactly what the iPad and other tablets are designed to do best. (Kindle Location 156-1490).

The last part of that quote made me pause: “These people use computers primarily for media consumption.” What is the relationship between media/information consumption and production within the context of the college classroom–more specifically, a classroom within the Humanities?

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Udacity: Start-up Education

Udacity Logo

Came across this article on The Chronicle of Higher Edthis morning: “Stanford Professor Gives Up Teaching Position, Hopes to Reach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science prof., has given up his tenured track position at Stanford to teach programming courses online through his start-up venture Udacity. Thrun began offering online videos as a part of one of his face-to-face courses at the university and soon realized the online component was more popular than the in-person lectures. Of the 200 students enrolled in the course, only 30 continued coming to class. The Chronicle article notes that “the experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring.”

There are several things that really struck as I was reading the article and exploring Udacity.

  1. I find it kind of ironic that Thrun has found that a course mediated through technology provides a more “intimate,” one-on-one teaching and learning experience for him and his students. One of the critiques of online learning is that it doesn’t provide a personal experience that is conducive to learning. The feedback loops between the instructor and student that an in-person course provides are often missing from an online learning environment–especially one that attracts students by the hundreds or thousands.
  2. How did Thrun measure the effectiveness of his online learning component? Were the students viewing the course online performing as well or better than the 30 who kept coming to class? Did students perform better that semester than in previous semesters?
  3. Exactly what “interactive tools” is Thrun using in this online environment? Since the first course is at the intro-level, I’d be interested in enrolling in the course myself (with all my free time), just to see what it’s all about.
  4. It’s worth nothing that, again, this is a computer science course–which remains consistent with most of the other popular courses being taught online.
  5. Thrun hopes that the upcoming online programing course at Udacity will attract over 500,000 students. How do you maintain a number that high? How do you get feedback and measure progress from that many students?
  6. Students who complete the course will receive a signed certificate of completion from Thrun and his venture partner David Evans, professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia. What constitutes “completion?” Watching all the videos? Successfully completing all the work? And who is in charge of assessing all that work?

I’m really curious to see how all of this will pan out.

Social Academia and Collective Knowledge

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful group of English graduate students in a course about Social Media at Kennesaw State University. I shared with them some of the research interests I have in instructional technology, digital publishing, and usability. I’ve become particularly interested in all the different learning spaces that are developing online and the social characteristics at their core.

Since the course is about Social Media, I thought it would be fun to point out a few of the different “social media” websites or applications that I’ve recently been exploring, such as Kahn Academy, Udemy, Inkling, and Kno. I also suspected that these selections would be outside of the more popular platforms used for social networking, (such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn Delicious, StumbleUpon, or Pinterest) that they’d been discussing. If you’re interested in seeing my full list of resources, take a look at the handout I used during the talk.

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