Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

This post originally appeared on the National Writing Project’s “Ahead of the Code” blog on Medium on August 22, 2020.


Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

You would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative.

Even from the founding of our major professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, we have been concerned with (or simply complaining about) the overwhelming amount of writing that we need to grade and provide feedback upon.

As Edwin M. Hopkins, an English professor and one of the founding members of NCTE asked on the first page in the first issue of English Journal way back in 1912, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?

His concise answer: “No.”

Screenshot of Edwin H. Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions” from 1912.
Screenshot of Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” with his response highlighted in yellow.

And, this just about sums it up.

Even then, we knew that the work for English teachers was immense. And, 100+ years later, it remains so. Reading and responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of student compositions on any given week remains a consistent challenge for educators at all levels, from kindergarten through college.

Fast forward from Hopkins’ blunt assessment of how well any one English teacher could actually keep up with the volume of writing he or she must manage, and we land in 1966. It is at this moment when Ellis B. Page proposed in the pages of The Phi Delta Kappan that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have astonishing impact on the educational world” (emphasis in original).

There is more history to unpack here, which I hope to do in future blog posts, yet the mid-century pivot in which one former English teacher turned educational psychologist, Page, set the stage for a debate that would still be under discussion fifty years later is clear. English people started taking sides in the computer scoring game. And, to be fair, it seems as though this was mission-driven work for Page, as he concluded that “[a]s for the classroom teacher, the computer grading of essays might considerably humanize his [sic] job.”

Tracing My Own History with Automated Essay Scoring

Over the decades, as Wikipedia describes it, “automated essay scoring” has moved in many directions, with both proponents and critics. These are a few angles I hope to explore in my posts this year for the “Ahead of the Code” project. As a middle school language arts educator, I never had opportunity to use systems for automated feedback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a college composition teacher in the mid-2000s, I eschewed plagiarism detection services and scoffed at the grammar-checkers built into word processing programs. This carries me to my more recent history, and I want to touch on the two ways in which I have, recently, been critiquing and connecting with automated essay scoring, with hopes that this year’s project will continue to move my thinking in new directions.

With that, there are two stories to tell.

Story 1: It was in early 2013 that I was approached to be part of the committee that ultimately produced NCTE’s “Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Released on April 20, 2013, and followed by a press release from NCTE itself and an article in Inside Higher Ed, the statement was more of an outright critique than a deep analysis of the research literature. Perhaps we could have done better work. And, to be honest, I am not quite clear on what the additional response to this statement was (as its Google Scholar page here in 2020 shows only four citations). Still, it planted NCTE’s flag in the battle on computer scoring (and, in addition to outright scoring, much of this stemmed from an NCTE constituent group’s major concern about plagiarism detection and retention of student writing).

Still, I know that I felt strongly at the time that our conclusion: “[f]or a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction.” And, in many ways, I still do. My experience with NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum (and the professional learning that surrounds it), as well as the work that I do with dozens of writers each year (from middle schoolers in a virtual summer camp last July to my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students I am teaching right now) suggests to me that talking with writers and engaging my colleagues in substantive dialogue about student writing still matters. Computers still cannot replace a thoughtful teacher.

Story 2: It was later in 2013, and I had recently met Heidi Perry through her work with Subtext (now part of Renaissance Learning). This was an annotation tool, and I was curious about it in the context of working on my research related to Connected Reading. She and I talked a bit here and there over the years. The conversation rekindled in 2016, when Heidi and her team had moved on from Subtext and were founding a new company, Writable. Soon after, I became their academic advisor and wrote a white paper about the power of peer feedback. While Heidi, the Writable team, and I have had robust conversations about if and how there should be automated feedback and other writing assistance technologies into their product, I ultimately do not make the decisions; I only advise. (For full disclosure: I do earn consulting fees from Writable, though I am not directly employed by the company, and Writable has been a sponsor of NWP-related events.)

One of my main contributions to the early development of Writable was the addition of “comment stems” for peer reviewers. While not automated feedback?—?in fact, somewhat the opposite of it?—?the goal for asking students to provide peer review responses with the scaffolded support of sentence stems was so they would, indeed, engage more intently with their classmates’ writing… with a little help. In the early stages of Writable, we actually focused quite intently on self-, peer-, and teacher-review.

To do so, I worked with them to build out comment stems, which still play a major role in the product. As shown in the screenshot below, when a student clicks on a “star rating” to offer his or her peer a rubric score, an additional link appears, offering the responder the opportunity to “Add Comment.” Once they there, as the Writable help desk article notes, “Students should click on a comment stem (or “No thanks, I’ll write my own”) and complete the comment.” This is where the instructional magic happens.

Instead of simply offering the star rating (the online equivalent of a face-to-face “good job,” or “I like it”), the responder needs to elaborate on his or her thoughts about the piece of writing. For instance, in the screenshot below, we see stems that prompt the responder to be more specific, with suggestions for adding comments about, in this case, the writer’s conclusion such as “You could reflect the content event more clearly if you say something about…” as well as “Your conclusion was insightful because you…” These stems prompt the kind of peer feedback as ethical practice, that I have described with my colleagues Derek Miller and Susan Golab.

A screenshot of the “comment stem” interface in Writable. (Image from Writable)
Screenshot of the “comment stems” that appear in Writable’s peer response interface (Image courtesy of Writable)

And, though in the past few years the Writable team has (for market-based reasons) moved in the direction of adding Revision Aid (and other writing assistance technologies), I can’t argue with them. It does make good business sense and?—?as they have convinced me more and more?—?writing assistance technologies can help teachers and students. My thoughts on all of this continue to evolve, as my recent podcast interview with the founder of Ecree, Jamey Heit, demonstrates. In short, looking at how I have changed since 2013, I am beginning to think that there is room for these technologies in writing instruction.

Back to the Future of Automated Essay Scoring

So, as I try to capture my thoughts related to writing assistance technologies, here at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, I use the oft-cited relationship status from our (least?) favorite social media company: “It’s complicated.”

Do I agree with Hopkins, who believes that teaching English and responding to writing is still unsustainable. Yes, and…

Do I agree with Page, who suggests that automated scoring can be humanizing (for the teacher, and perhaps the student)? Yes, and…

Do I still feel that writing assistance technologies can interrupt instruction and cause a rift in the teacher/student relationship? Yes, and…

Do I think that integrating peer response stems and automated revision aid into Writable are both valuable? Yes, and…

Do I think that all of this is problematic? Yes, and…

I am still learning. And, yes, you would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative of having tools that would alleviate the workload. So, why the resistance? I want to understand more about why, both by exploring the history of writing assistance technologies as well as what it looks like, what it feels like, for teachers and students.

As part of the work this year, I will be using Writable with my Chippewa River Writing Project colleagues and, later this semester, my own students at Central Michigan University. In that process, I hope to have more substantive answers to these questions, and to push myself to better articulate when, why, and how I will employ writing assistance technologies?—?and when I will not. Like any writer making an authorial decision, I want to make the best choice possible, given my audience, purpose, and context.

And, in the process, perhaps, I will give up on some of the previous concerns about writing assistance technologies. In doing so, I will learn to be just a little bit more appreciative as I keep moving forward, hoping to remain ahead of the code.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Pledge to Support #EducatorEquity

So much has been said in the past few weeks since the death of George Floyd that any additional words would be wasted. So, let me get to the point.

As we see protests in America and around the world, I feel the need to act.

To that end, I am personally committing to three items.

I am, as suggested by Cait Hutsell, going to begin doing this work in public. And, I am taking a stance similar to those offered by many professional organizations to which I belong including the National Council of Teachers of English, the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, the International Society for Technology in Education, and the International Literacy Association. I also just joined (for free) and made a donation to Teaching Tolerance through the Southern Poverty Law Center.

First, as a white educator who has enjoyed privileges brought from institutional racism, I will join this call to action from my colleagues Shawna Coppola and Kate Roberts to support #EducatorEquity. This echos a similar call from Shelbie Witte, and is imperative as we consider the voices of educators of color.

In all future PD contracts for events that include multiple speakers, such as literacy conferences or webinar series, I will ask the organizers to ensure that they have contracted with at least one other educator of color, and will recommend colleagues from this list, “#POCPD: People of Color in Education PD Directory,” curated by my Educator Collaborative colleague, Julia Torres.

Second, in addition to taking up this pledge, I will begin sessions — even virtual ones — with an indigenous land acknowledgement like this one from my employer, Central Michigan University, and read the introduction from this NCTE blog post, “Being an Anti-Racist Educator Is a Verb.” These two actions will take only moments, yet will continually reaffirm my commitment to social justice education and a stance of anti-racism.

Third, I have signed on to our CMU Faculty Association’s call to commit to anti-racism, led by my English Department colleagues Carlin Borsheim-Black and April Burke. Both of these educators were schedule to deliver talks at a Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP) event this spring, which was cancelled due to COVID closures, and I will work to get them reconnected with our site’s work as soon as possible.

That’s all.

For now.

We all have work to do, and I need to get started. This morning is our first CRWP event now that I have taken this pledge, and I need to prepare my opening words before we begin writing into the day.


Photo by Joan Villalon on Unsplash

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Resources and Reflections from “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction Webinar”

4Cs Online Writing Instruction Webinar AdEarlier this afternoon, I was pleased to be on a webinar, “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction” (Archived Video) with Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University). Hosted by Brett Griffiths, Director of Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, we covered a good deal of ground.

For my segment, we discussed tools for conferring and responding to student writers. Building from my experience in writing centers, NWP, K-12 teaching, college composition, and mentoring graduate students, I consider conferring to be the single most important activity in writing instruction. In the context of online learning (and our current “remote learning” scenarios), I am referring to “conferring” as scheduled meetings with students, via phone or video conferencing. This involves planning the conference, interacting during the conference, and follow-up after the conference.

Again, building from my experiences, I contend that timely, specific, and goal-oriented response helps writer move forward. When conferring is not an option, responding in an efficient and effective manner is second best. I work from the writing center-influenced ideas of responding first to higher order concerns, yet I am also willing to break protocol and offer directed feedback on lower order concerns. Responding can take the form of text, image, audio, or video and can happen at any stage of the writing process. Here are links to the tools that I shared:

Updated on May 17, 2020, with a link back to program page on NCTE’s website and a link to the archived video recording.


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Reading the Organizational Newsletter

As noted in the first post in this series, I’m trying to unpack some of my daily digital reading habits. In addition to the (semi) automated daily newsletter that comes from social media updates, there are also a regular stream (sometimes a flood) of newsletters that come from various groups.

I generally categorize and read these types of newsletters in two ways: “headline” style updates from aggregation sites like EdSurge News (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy) and SmartBrief (agree to have them use/sell my data based on the privacy policy). Then, there are specific, often thematic issues from groups  the Connected Learning Alliance (donation), Common Sense Media (donation), NCTE’s Inbox (professional membership), ILA Daily Blog (professional membership), and Edutopia (donation). More recently, I have subscribed to Chalkbeat (donation), too.

With the daily headline-style of newsletter (EdSurge and SmartBrief, in particular), I generally skim and may pick one or two pieces to delve into more deeply. The good news for these types of newsletters is that, with my “normal” news consumption of NPR (donation) and the New York Times (subscription), many of the links go back to these sources and I have already read/heard them anyway. These aggregators do send me out to other sites, including their own, to see a bit more of the education-related news of the day. From these sources, I’ve also been pushed out to Slate’s education reporting a few times, and I am thinking about subscribing there, too.

One that I appreciate, generally focused on Michigan, but touches on national news, too, is Robert McClain’s Student&Educator newsletter. He used to request a subscription fee (which I paid for at least a year), but it appears as though it is now free (as I haven’t re-upped my subscription in quite some time). I am not even sure how I ever got signed up for this one (no easy way to do it on the site), and it is probably best to email McClain himself to get put on the Constant Contact list.

Then, there are the organizational newsletters. I do appreciate and read these in as much detail as I can, just to have a sense of what is going on in the organization (at a 30,000-foot view at least) and to better understand what other professionals with similar interests are reading and blogging about. Also, deadlines. Knowing when conference proposals are due is pretty essential. While some are little more than advertisements for upcoming conferences or online events, many of the organizational newsletters point me to interesting tidbits that I would have missed in my regular social media feed or, perhaps, echo what I’ve already seen in my feed.

None of this, of course, is perfect. Some days, like over the holidays here, I still have time to read and digest a good bit of news (general and work-related). Other days, my feet hit the floor in the morning, my head hits the pillow at night, and I barely remember what happened in between. Reading, on those days, is a bit tough. Yet, the newsletters — even just skimming the headlines — help me stay in touch. If nothing else, I can pop open a few tabs and save them for reading at a later time (which I will need to discuss in terms of using Zotero, but that is another post).

And, a final note. If it isn’t obvious already, I have tried to indicate above how I pay for these services. Good journalism, even in aggregate, isn’t free. I am either giving away my data (and some privacy rights), or paying for the service, or a bit of both.


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Slides from “The Circle is Ruining My Social Life”

As a parent, researcher, and teacher educator, I am constantly trying to figure out the ways in which we frame our conversations about screentime.

  • Are we trying to monitor (police, surveil) our children’s online activities?
  • Similarly, are we trying to manage (perhaps even micromanage) our children’s online activities?
  • Or, are we trying to mentor (model, coach, encourage, discuss, and inspire) our children as they create healthy choices, both IRL and online?

The stance that we take — in our classrooms and our homes — will largely define the ways in which our students determine their own relationship with screentime.

Here are the slides and links from my opening talk during our NCTE 2018 session, “Moving Beyond the ‘Screentime’ Debate: The Intersection of Teaching, Researching, and Parenting”

  • Date: Thursday, November 15, 2018
  • Time: 1:00-3:45 p.m.
  • Location: 320 AB

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Resources/Links


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The Next Decade of Digital Writing

Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.
Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.

With the support of Sara Kajder and Shelbie Witte, I am pleased to share that I recently published a “Leading the Call” article from  Voices From the Middle, “The next decade of digital writing.”

Through NCTE, they have made it available through open access, and here is the abstract:

The author, a leader in bringing digital tools into the writing workshop and writing classroom, discusses how the use of digital tools in the classroom has evolved in the first decade of this century, especially in the writing workshop. He examines ways several ELA teachers are using specific tools to assist with literacy learning in the classroom right now and makes some recommendations regarding the future of digital writing instruction.

Read more here: Hicks, T. (2018). The next decade of digital writing. Voices From the Middle, 25(4), 9–14.


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Creating MINDFUL Readers and Writers

MINDFUL Graphic
Image Courtesy of Heinemann

Based on the book that I wrote with Kristen Hawley Turner, Argument in the Real World, one of the tools/strategies that I have been sharing in workshops this past year is the “MINDFUL” heuristic for readers and writers as they engage in academic arguments with, through, and about social media.

When we were wrapping up the book in early 2016, even before “fake news” and “alternative facts” became a phenomenon, Kristen and I designed this heuristic to fill in the gaps that we felt existing website evaluation checklists were missing.

In short, those checklists and other tools were created in the early days of the web when we – as educators and information consumers – generally placed the onus of responsibility on the creator for being accurate. This, of course, was a holdover from our view of the printed word having gone through extensive review and editing in order to be published. The power of books, periodicals, encyclopedias and similar sources came from the fact that they were curated by experts.

Yet, with the abundance of material emerging on the information superhighway, educators, especially librarians, knew that careful editing and peer review weren’t happening all the time. We needed to create a way for students to understand that some creators were thoughtful and accurate, while others were misleading or creating an outright hoax. So, we  held those creators to task by engaging with such checklists as readers so we could bring a critical eye to what we were reading/viewing. We also encouraged students to never trust a blog, or Wikipedia, or other sources that were not well-vetted. (Of course, we have since changed our tune. A bit).

At any rate, website evaluation checklists worked okay, for a while at least.

However, this was before the vast majority of us became content creators in the Web 2.0 era. Blogs, wikis, and other forms of media were being created at a constant pace and, unfortunately, with different audiences, purposes, and degrees of veracity.

More recently, through social media,  we are all creators, curators and circulators. Our roles as writers have changed. The role of the reader – as someone with agency and perspective in the online reading and writing process – also needed to take responsibility for the types of arguments being created and perpetuated.

What Kristen and I wanted to do, then, was to rethink this instructional strategy of website evaluation. We came from the stance of helping students –as both readers and writers of social media – to recognize that (borrowing from  Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters’ book title) everything is, indeed, an argument.

Retweets and likes are, despite the disclaimers, endorsements. And, by extension, arguments. The way that we see evidence presented in social media matters because it will inform our own stance, as well as the perspectives of others with whom we engage. We create arguments through the act of liking, retweeting, reblogging, or otherwise endorsing, let alone when we create our own updates, tweets, or blog posts.

Rethinking the traditional website evaluation tool meant that we need to consider the challenges that new media, new epistemologies, and new perspectives all bring. In other words, it was no longer enough to simply read the “about” page, do a WHOIS lookup, or even try to understand more about the language/discourse being used on the page/post.

We needed something different. Hence, MINDFUL.

We wanted to help teachers, in turn, help their students slow down just a bit – even a nano second before retweeting, or a few moments when crafting an entire post – and to think about how arguments in digital spaces are constructed, circulated, and perpetuated.

I think that MINDFUL is helpful in doing just that. Below, you will find slides that I have been using over the past few months as well as links to additional resources I discuss in the presentation.

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Additional Resources

  • Argument in the Real World Wiki
  • Our post on the Heinemann blog:  Seriously? Seriously. The Importance of Teaching Reading and Writing in Social Media
  • For the MINDFUL elements
    • Monitoring our own reading and writing means that we must be aware of and account for  Confirmation Bias. Of course, helping students (and ourselves) to do that requires a number of strategies, which are outlined in the rest of the heuristic.
    • Identifying the claim means that we must separate the opinions that someone offers from the facts that may (or may not) support the claim. A refresher on Fact vs Opinion from Cub Reporters is a useful place to begin, even for adults.
    • Noting the type of evidence and how it supports the claim is useful. As a way to think through different types of evidence – In the claims they can support – it is worth taking a look at the Mathematica Policy Research Report “Understanding Types of Evidence: A Guide for Educators
    • Determining the framework/mindset is perhaps one of the most difficult elements for anyone, especially children and teenagers, to fully understand and accomplish. Without taking a full course of study in critical discourse analysis, a few resources that are helpful include the idea of Sam Wineburg’s (of the Stanford History Education Group) idea of  “reading laterally,” explained here by Michael Caulfied. Also, using sites like AllsidesOpposing Viewpoints in Context, and Room for Debate can help. Finally, there is the Media Bias Fact Check plugin for Chrome and Firefox (which, of course, has some bias, and questionable authorship). But, it’s a start.
    • Focusing on the facts requires us to check and double check in the ways that researchers and journalists would. Despite claims to the contrary from those on the fringes, sites like SnopesPolitifact,  and FactCheck are generally considered to be neutral and present evidence in an objective manner. Also, there are lots of objective datasets and reports from Pew Research.
    • Understanding the counterargument is more than just seeing someone else’s perspective and empathizing/disagreeing. We need to help students understand that arguments may not even be constructed on the same concept of information/evidence and in fact some of it could be one of the 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation from First Draft News.
    • Finally, leveraging one’s own response is critical. Understanding the way that fake news and other propaganda is constructed  and circulated will help us make sure that we do not fall into the same traps as  writers WNYC’s On the Media provides a Breaking News Consumers Handbook for Fake News that is, of course, helpful for us as readers and viewers, but could also be a guide for what not to do as a writer.

My hope is that these websites/resources are helpful for teachers and students as they continue to be mindful readers and writers of social media.


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Conversation about Connected Reading on LitBit Podcast

Connected Reading Model
Connected Reading Model

Many thanks to Brooke Cunningham, creator of the LitBit podcast and a doctoral student in the University of Tennessee PhD in young adult literature program, for inviting Kristen Turner and me to share our thoughts on Connected Reading with her listeners. Please listen to and share the episode!

Conversation with NCTE Colleagues for Digital Learning Day

As we near Digital Learning Day 2016, coming up this Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to be invited by NCTE to speak with Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick and my colleagues Bill Bass, Franki Sibberson, and Kristen Turner.

Though I am grateful that we are turning our national attention to digital learning on this day, I still have some reservations about DLDay, first expressed in 2013. I remind my colleagues that digital learning is about more than just what Doug Belshaw calls “elegant consumption.” We need to be even more mindful of this fact now that the standardized assessments created by SBAC and PARCC are being used widely.

At any rate, please enjoy viewing this brief and timely conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it.


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Podcast for NCTE’s Language Arts

NCTE's Language Arts
NCTE’s Language Arts

Many thanks to Teri Holbrook for the invitation to talk with her and Franki Sibberson about teaching digital reading and writing in this podcast from NCTE’s Language Arts “Conversation Currents.” The transcript of the interview will appear in the January 2015 issue.