Saturday, March 28, 2009

Parsing out the Teaching from the Labor

At a recent conference, I ate lunch opposite an entrepreneur who invented a company that helps colleges grade student essays via the Internet. For example, as the classroom instructor, I could give feedback to students’ first drafts. They could do a peer review on the next revision, and then send that version to the online tool to be graded by live, qualified individuals who respond in fewer than 24 hours. Then I would grade their final draft. Besides lightening my grading load, this process also gives students up to three reading audiences for one essay. After some lively debate, I left the table with one point this entrepreneur made resonating in my head: “Teachers need to identify what they do better than technology. Then they need to cultivate that and let technology do the rest.”

He argued that historically across industries, technology has increased productivity and reduced costs. He pointed out that education mostly uses technology as an alternate delivery method. Again, he told us, “Teachers need to identify what they do better than technology. Then they need to cultivate that and let technology do the rest.”

My colleague and I discussed it on the car ride home. I talked to my husband…Bored my friends with it…Dreamt about it…A world in which a portion of the grading process could be subcontracted out...A world in which I am the Master Teacher, and my time is a valued commodity not to be spent grading fill-in-the-blank vocabulary tests. On some levels, it’s intoxicating. On other levels, I’m intimidated.

I already believe in mastery quizzing; if the answers on an assessment should be the same for every student, I already have it on my class web enhancement. It takes an investment of time up front to load a multiple choice quiz into software, but watching students practice repeatedly with the instant feedback has convinced me my time is well spent on the effort. What do I do better than technology in this instance? Well, sometimes, I like to write the content myself. Not all the time…some grammar practice is universal, and I use other sources liberally. Sometimes, however, I want to customize content to my students or our particular needs at that time, and I use my expertise to do so.

I’m more uncomfortable with the idea of using standardized technology tools to help with grading student essays. I argued that I “pay witness” to students’ incremental growth by responding to each stage of their drafts myself. Is that true or merely narcissistic? Do I believe it matters that I read everything myself just because that’s what I’ve told myself to get through pile after pile? Would it be so terrible to let students have a mix of authorities read their essays through the writing process even if some of those authorities are people neither I nor my students ever meet?

If technology truly grows into assessment over the next few years, what do I do “better than technology?” The question has buzzed around my head because I identify much of my teaching with my assessment of the writing process. To see a movement (not that anyone’s offering to buy my department this tool) on the horizon that takes over parts of the assessment process intimidates me a little. If someone else lightened the assessment load, what would I put in its place as a writing instructor? I can be heard clucking my tongue, saying things like, “There’s so much I never get to,” but am I ready to get to it? Would it be an opportunity or the end of personalized feedback and an intimate learning process?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Kimberly said...

I think that the main thing that you can do that technology can't do is know your student. While having someone else other than you read a draft, you are still reading the final because you know how much your student has improved, you know what has been covered in class, etc. So while this new technology of helping decrease the workload might be helpful, I think we as teachers still have control over the final grade

Debbie said...

I agree with your wondering and with Kimberly's comment about the value of knowing your student. You both identify philosophical and personal issues at war in the question. Additionally, I think there could be theoretical issues at stake: What does a computer score when it "grades" writing? It seems to me that it cannot respond as a person would to tone, content (beyond measuring the repetition of certain key words), or situation. That is, can a computer tell if the writing is appropriate for the rhetorical situation? Can it tell if the writing is being ironic or satirical? Only a person can do that. And I wonder, if we turn grading over to computers, what does that tell our students writing is? A game that a machine can score as well as a person? Does it reinforce an idea that writing doesn't ever really go anywhere important, do anything of value, mean anything more to some people in some situations than others in different situations? It just seems to me that, beyond the important issues you've both raised, evaluating my students' writing IS one of those things I do better than a computer because I am a person and I can respond as a person would.

Kate Kellen said...

Kimberly and Debbie, thanks for your comments. Kimberly, I agree with you that help with grading should remain "help." The description of using this online service throughout the draft process I gave is really one of the few ways I could see myself using it.

Debbie, I 100% agree with your points, too. There are online grading systems that "calibrate" using papers graded by humans, and they scare me. The tool I tried to describe here is more of a service; real people grade the essays according to a rubric. (I haven't seen the rubric, but I got the impression it was for standard practices: grammar, punctuation, consistent voice, transitions, clear thesis...)

I focus so much on audience when I teach students to write, Debbie, and I think you make such a great point. If we don't provide the audience for students' writing ourselves, what does that show for how we value it? There are many things to think about with this issue. In the meantime, class sizes are growing...

Thanks for helping me think about this stuff!


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