Public Support for Teaching Digital Skills

Here is an article that I got from the NCTE Inbox newsletter that you might be able to use as you plan for curriculum revisions. Although it relies on the globalization fear as its basis, the survey shows that 2/3 of voters want these skills taught now.

eSchool News online – Voters urge teaching of 21st-century skills

October 15, 2007—In yet another sign that momentum is building for the teaching of so-called “21st-century skills” in the nation’s classrooms, results of a new poll indicate that voters overwhelmingly agree: The skills students need to succeed in the workplace of today are notably different from what they needed 20 years ago.

Certainly, there is more than a “swing in the pendulum” from “back to basics” mode, as the survey’s author says. I would suggest that we are still seeing the need for “back to basics,” as represented in our continued focus on assessment in this country. However, I think that people are realizing that digital literacies are becoming more and more an essential part of these basics.

Just as we expect our students to know how and when to use a calculator to supplement their basic math skills, I think that we now can say, without a doubt, that a computer — and the word processor, internet access, and presentation tools that are a part of using a computer — are fundamental to our literacy processes, too.

Both my pre-service teachers and composition students have been reading and writing about multiliteracy types of issues in the past few weeks and they are starting to see the connections between being a writer and being a writer in a digital age. Statistics such as the ones reported in the survey are nice to have, as they can help me make the argument for why and how I am teaching, even if I would prefer to think about how we can use these tools to collaborate, not just compete.

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NWP Teachers Featured at K12 Online

Two sets of colleagues from the NWP will be featured this week in the K12 Online Conference.

Wednesday, Paul, Susan, Lee, and Chris are doing a session on “Building Online Communities for Youth.” You can catch the conversation that I moderated for their planning on the TTT website.

Tomorrow, Kevin and Bonnie will be presenting on their “Collaborative ABC Movie Project.”

So much to view and participate in; so little time this week. But, I hope to be on the TTT webcast this Wednesday and get caught up with the other happenings soon.

Also, when I get a chance, I will begin writing about RCWP’s new professional development initiative that we just kicked off, Project WRITE.

RCWP Wiki Featured in Wikispaces Blog

Have I mentioned before that I love Wikispaces? If not, you are hearing it now:

Wikispaces Blog » Blog Archive » Who Are You and What Are You Doing?

Who Are You and What Are You Doing? October 2nd, 2007 by sarah

In our recent mailing, we asked to hear from you – how you ended up using Wikispaces, and what motivated you to stick around and keep using it. And hear we did. In several future blog posts, we will be highlighting some of the responses we received, showing you the diverse ways that you are using Wikispaces.

Troy Hicks, a professor at Central Michigan University, is using wikis to plan and teach his courses. He has been involved with wikis for over a year. Before joining CMU’s faculty, he and other teachers at the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State University began their own project, a wiki “by writing teachers, for writing teachers.” A year later, their space is going strong. They have used it as a place to post workshop outlines, share notes from conferences, link to blogs they are following, and start book lists. It has become one of the primary spaces in which these teachers collaborate to plan workshops and events for the Red Cedar Writing Project.

Of his experience with Wikispaces, Troy says, “Wikispaces is a part of my everyday life as a teacher and teacher educator, and I thank you for the outstanding service that you have created.”

Check it out as a resource for writing or for getting ideas on how to expand your own collaboration.

Thanks to the entire Wikispaces Team for their support of free wikis for K-12 teachers and students.

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The Economist Debate Series

Along with the K12Online Conference, here is another unique opportunity for online participation in the month of October. It was sent to me by Jeff from Sparkpr on behalf of The Economist.  Get in there and vote, the check out the debate!

Hi Troy – Jeff here from Sparkpr for The Economist.

I saw your blog, Digital Writing Digital Teaching, and am delighted to invite you and your readers to be part of an extraordinary first for The Economist Debate Series officially kicks off October 15th and voting is underway now to determine the propositions that will be debated. The first subject being debated is education and we’d love to have you participate in the debate and link to the lively conversation.

The Economist Debate Series is an ongoing community forum where propositions about topical issues will be rigorously debated in the Oxford style by compelling Speakers. The Economist is inviting you and your readers to take part by voting on propositions, sharing views and opinions, and challenging the Speakers.

Five propositions have now been short-listed to address the most far-reaching and divisive aspects of the education debate covering: the place of foreign students in higher education; the position of corporate donors; and the role of technology in today’s classrooms. The highest ranking propositions will be debated, with the first launching on Oct 15th.

Cast your vote now at:

Choose the most resonant propositions to be debated from the list below:

Education – The propositions:

1. This house believes that the continuing introduction of new technologies and new media adds little to the quality of most education.

2. This house proposes that governments and universities everywhere should be competing to attract and educate all suitably-qualified students regardless of nationality and residence.

3. This house believes that companies donate to education mainly to win public goodwill and there is nothing wrong with this.

4. This house believes that the “digital divide” is a secondary problem in the educational needs of developing countries.

5. This house believes that social networking technologies will bring large changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom

Join the Debate

The debate schedule is as follows:

  • Sep 17th-Oct 12th – Vote for your favorite proposition and join the open forum to discuss topics
  • Oct 15th – Winning proposition is revealed and the Debate begins
  • Oct 18th – Rebuttals. Share your comments on issues so far and vote for your winning side
  • Oct 23th – Closing arguments by the Speakers. Post any additional comments you would like to share and vote for your winner
  • Oct 26th – The debate winner is announced.

To receive debate updates sign up at We will then contact you to announce the winning proposition and details of the debate as it unfolds.

I look forward to you joining us and fellow Economist readers for this lively debate. In the meantime, check the site to track which proposition is winning, and to view guest participants and the announcement of key Speakers at

Bringing the Open Source Ethos to Test Prep Resources

Recently, I was contacted by Nick from [corrected link on 10/9/07] about their SAT preparation wiki and resources. While it is a for-profit enterprise, ProProfs invites teachers and professors to blog and compose wiki pages that offer free SAT help, help that is often unaffordable for many students. To that end, I found the site compelling. Yet, I was a bit discouraged by the Google ads that populate it, many sending users to essay writing sites.

Here is what Nick sent me in his introductory email:

Free SAT Test Training (nationwide)
E-learning Website Could Save Students Thousands of Dollars

Students & parents can potentially save thousands of dollars this year in preparation for the SAT’s – the nations most important pre-collegiate examination. Instead of buying books, materials or registering for pre-SAT courses, they now have access to ProProfs (, a free online training site for the SAT Test.

The site features a comprehensive collection of SAT preparation material (covering all three major areas of the exam) that includes study guides, flash cards, practice questions, and even simulated exams. Quizzes, videos, blogs, wiki and interactive forums are also provided

More than two million students take the SAT each year. With the launch of SAT Test School, ProProfs aims at providing students and educators the resources they need, free of charge, and in a convenient format.

The ProProfs SAT School also uses Web 2.0 technologies like Wikis to continually improve by being open to the e-learning community for editing and content contribution. Discussion forums, online file exchange, creation of quizzes/flashcards, student blogs and tagging of resources are
also supported.

For more information about ProProfs SAT School, please visit –

About ProProfs:, a leader in online learning, provides free resources to students and educators. ProProfs provides the tools necessary for students to succeed in diverse fields ranging from technical certification to college entrance examinations. ProProfs also delivers free e-learning content around the world to students from all backgrounds.

I then visited the site and checked out some of the services that they offer. I am not an expert on the SAT, per se, but have quite a bit of knowledge about the way that the MEAP is designed and scored. As I quickly viewed the site, especially the section on writing the essay, the advice seemed consistent with my experiences in test-based writing what many professionals are now calling for with their efforts to study “writing-on-demand” as a genre.

And, what’s most interesting to me is that it’s a wiki. If it is inaccurate, I suppose that any teacher could sign up to become an editor. That feels empowering to me as a teacher of writing — the idea that we could have the power to offer genuine advice and think about how to situate SAT writing as one (and only one) of a variety of types of writing that students need to be able to do. To say it in our words, rather that through “official” test prep guides may be a unique opportunity that this site provides.

Still, I was a bit uncomfortable about the commercial nature of the the Google Ads directed at essay writing services. That said, Nick offered many reasons in a return email about why ProProfs. From his second email:

– We are primarily a community supported free site with revenue coming from onsite advertising. Users create content such as blogs, wiki articles, quizzes and flashcards. Content is then open to the community for use, rating and comments. This allows community filtering of best content. This is much along the lines of how community powered sites like wikipedia work (though we are not a non profit).

– I regret that you came across some advertisers through the google network that you would not consider reputable. Even though we source this through a reputed company like Google, we are constantly working to ensure that only reputable advertisers get access to our site and periodically update our ban list. You can read about out most recent update to ensure safe advertising at:

– Professors and teachers use our site in various ways. Some use our unique features to create and share resources for their own coursework such as quizzes, flashcards etc. Others use the resources already offered by the site such our very popular IT certification resources. An interesting case study on how a Virginia School was using ProProfs was published in THE Journal recently. For your reference it is located at:

Rest assured you would be pointing your readers to a reputable resource. To convince you further of our reputation, I am enclosing a coverage in (a leading website in education):

So, that is where I left the conversation. From what I can tell, ProProfs is offering a unique service and hoping to keep it free for many students by utilizing volunteer writers and Google ads. I would encourage all of you to check the site out, too, and let me know what you think. Nick’s final words offered more contact info:

If you need any further information from me or feel free to contact Sameer Bhatia, Founder & President, Sameer is reachable via email at

K12 Online 2007 Conference Launches

Kevin reminded me that the K12 Online Conference begins this week. I will be inviting my pre-service teachers to check it out this week and encourage others to pass along the news, too. From their website:

K12 Online Conference 2007

Welcome to the K-12 Online Conference!The K-12 Online Conference invites participation from educators around the world interested in innovative ways Web 2.0 tools and technologies can be used to improve learning. This FREE conference is run by volunteers and open to everyone. The 2007 conference theme is “Playing with Boundaries”. This year’s conference begins with a pre-conference keynote the week of October 8, 2007. The following two weeks, October 15-19 and October 22-26, forty presentations will be posted online to the conference blog (this website) for participants to download and view. Live Events in the form of three “Fireside Chats” and a culminating “When Night Falls” event will be announced. Everyone is encouraged to participate in both live events during the conference as well as asynchronous conversations.

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Notes from Kathy Yancey’s Keynote: 21st Century Literacies

Today, Kathy Yancey gave the keynote and the MCTE 2007 Fall Conference in Lansing, MI. Here are notes from the session.

Yancey began by asking us to think about what literacy is and a five minute discussion among the audience began the session.

  • An image of tectonic plates from the public domain with the idea of continental drift.
  • Themes:
    • Choice of technologies depending on rhetorical situation
    • Networked in a way that we have not been before
    • Intrapersonal Knowledge and Reflection in order to navigate this territory
  • Much of what we know today began over one hundred years ago
    • When my grandmother learned to write, she learned cursive first and that was a mark of personality
    • Learning to read was important, but writing would empower people in ways that would cause problems
    • Donald Graves didn’t know that there was writing, only handwriting
    • The testing industry was focused on scales for handwriting — testing students was a part of testing teachers
    • The form trumps the content, and this has continued throughout the 20th century
  • Now, we see literacy as an interaction of practices and technologies
    • We understand these practices better now because computers have shown us what is avaialable
    • There were also changes in literatur (Jane Austen — print to TV to film to DVD extended version)
    • We are able to understand Pride and Prejudice in completely different ways; hypertext allows us to find things easier
    • All the versions of Jane Austen are good, and we can understand her in many other ways, in print and on many screens

    The history of literacy continues to change, and more and more work is available in digital forms

    • With new literacies today, we think in “new circulations” (print, email, text, etc.)
    • Be aware of Ed08
  • While computers have come in schools, we have been using technology to mimic old literacies practices
    • Conversation embedded within a word document, between student and teacher
    • Adaptability and assumptions are a part of how we begin to work with these literacies — we do not teach them in schools.
    • This is the difference between credentials and expertise; they have the expertise in newer literacies, and I have the credentials

    Texts and technologies work in different ways

    • Social technologies succeed when they fit in with the social lives of those who engage with the technology
    • Literacy practices continue to move online
      • Adobe now allows people to mark up what used to be solidified in a PDF file by marking it with post-it style notes and other tools
    • Characters on TV are now blogging, so in addition to watching the TV show you need to stay connected that way, too
  • Partnership for 21st Century Skills
    • Core subjects with 21st century themes
    • Creativity
    • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • Collaboration (how do we fit this into school in ways that really matter?)
  • Knowledge Frameworks
  • Ken Burns, The War
    • He went directly to those inthe war rather than relying on “experts”
    • Getting these personal experiences will become more of the norm
    • Museum of African American History Museum is starting a virtual mueseum, inspired by MySpace
  • It will not be all digital, we will also be in both/and (print/digital)
    • We will need new assessment practices to discuss what is working and what is not
    • How does the description of a traditional essay assessment compare to that of a digital portfolio?
    • Prensky’s digital natives — we are going to have to learn from one another
  • Production of knowledge as well as consumption of sources, too
    • Digital conversion class — allowing students to only find information from blogs that they could trust
      • By looking at blogs, students were relying on the association of older literacies to find credibility in a source, but in blogs that does not work all the same way
      • Because blogs are informal, that does not mean that “average joes and joann” are prodcuing stuff; they are authored by working professional
      • This is a challenge that we need to take up as we consider 21st century literacies
    • More and more information will be tailored to us and delivered in a personalized way; the incentive to discover things on your own is lessened
      • There are dangers and we need to bring this into the classroom in a critical and informed way
      • Pandora
        • Works to define language for music and selects other songs that are similar to what you are looking for
        • This is online and free, available to all our students and not just the ones who have an iPod
      • Mapping
      • Fundamental to literacies in the 21st century
        • You can see who is networked and figure out ways to help them get networked my creating maps
        • To the extent that we leave all of this outside our classrooms, we make our children more vulnerable than eve
        • We have got to start teaching some of this — evaluating information and people
    • How can we think about teaching and learning in networks?
      • Policy — what policy would we need to change at all levels so this work counts?
      • Professional Development — what can we provide so that the curriculum includes the technology in their learning?
      • Assessment — yesterday’s assessments will not support or reward the new types of learning
      • 21st century literacies are now

Bridging the Computerized Scoring Divide?

Last month, TechCruch featured a story on a new web-based tutoring service, PrepMe. I was contacted by Calvin Truong, PrepMe’s Operations Manager about writing a post on the service here in my blog. From the TechCrunch review, it sounds like a different take on the model of submitting a piece of writing only to have it graded by a computer, a model that many, including Nancy Patterson (in this month’s Language Arts Journal of Michigan) and  Maja Wilson, have been critical of:

Prepme is one online test prep company coming out of the University of Chicago’s business incubator. Founded in 2001, the company offers test preparation for the SAT, PSAT, and ACT, using an adaptive algorithm to customize the preparation course for each student.

Unlike Kaplan’s online offering, Prepme doesn’t calculate the best lesson plan once, but continuously as you work your way through the material. Their system keeps track of what questions you get right and wrong, working you harder on the types of questions you miss.

Additionally, customers can connect electronically, using real time chat, with high scoring college students who serve as tutors.

Source: TechCrunch, “Starts-Ups Change How Students Study for Tests,” 9/1/07

When Calvin wrote to me, he wondered if I would blog about PrepMe here. I replied with some initial concerns:

Prepme does seem like an innovative service that takes advantage of computerized scoring while still adding the element of human judgment. Most of the outright computerized scoring systems out there really worry me as a writing teacher (as well as, so this is a clear departure that blends technology and pedagogy…

… although I do think that your service is innovative, I am still concerned about writing items that seem to support computerize scoring, as many of the professional organizations that I belong to have statements that expressly condemn computerized scoring.

NOTE: After some closer reading, I should note that the writing itself appears to be scored by the tutors, while multiple choice items that are like those encountered on the ACT, SAT, and other tests are the ones being computer graded.

To continue the conversation, Calvin wrote back immediately, and with his permission, I share parts of that response here:

About your concerns, I completely understand, and I think we’re pretty in-sync on both points. We’re working on a few initiatives that would speak more generally to trends in education, and since we’re only grading multiple choice tests and hand grading essays to enable detailed feedback it seems we’re on the same page. I would expect there is much less resistance in using technology to automate grading multiple choice exams since this minimizes human error, but perhaps I’m mistaken on this.

As to the interesting trends that may be worth writing about, there are two that we’re working on that may be of interest. The first is our work with the State Dept of Education in Maine, and the second is more generally about what’s happening in online education.

Maine recently enacted legislation that required the SAT to graduate from high school. We’ve committed to a 3 year program with the Dept of Education where we provide free test prep to every public high school student in the state. Here’s a press release from the Maine DoE website: This initiative is interesting in and of itself, and may provide fodder for an interesting discussion. As far as we can tell they’re doing it to not have to invest tremendous resources to create their own state standardized test and to also drive students to consider applying to college. It’s an interesting social experiment and we’re proud to be a part of it.

Another approach might be to talk about the general trend in online education of trying to find the sweet spot between scalability, quality, and cost. We believe that using technology to give you scale while having high quality services with tutors from top universities, at a significant cost advantage is the way to go. In the pre-college market, having tutors at top universities is a quality win because these are exactly the sorts of students that our users want to be and exactly the sorts of students that our parents want their children to be, and this fosters great relationships online. There is some inherent cost in this approach but we believe it’s worth it.

Clearly there are others out there that disagree — some go for the no-compromise in quality, 1-on-1, in person is the only way to go but that has tremendous cost and little scalability. Other companies are trying the low cost online model with outsourced tutors and we believe this sacrifices too much quality in favor of cost.

It may be interesting to consider the implications of this because what is commercially viable may not actually be what is the most pedagogically pure.

All in all, it was an eye-opening discussion and gives me hope that hybrid models of online grading with humans sharing their insights could be a way to go. In my initial training as an online instructor for our state’s virtual high school, it seemed as though we relied more on the multiple choice items and writing that was highly scripted, almost not requiring a human response (even though I was grading it). As we ask students to write and share their writing online, this is not the best model of them composing digital texts per se, but it is a model that we could consider using in our own classrooms to foster peer response on traditional texts in digital environments.

Also, it points to the need in our field to more fully analyze this phenomenon and come up with alternatives that we feel are viable. I am not an expert in the topic of computerized writing assessment, yet am becoming more familiar with the field. A search in Google Scholar for “computer based writing assessment” didn’t yield anything since 2003 (in the first ten pages of hits). The most recent an comprehensive article that I saw was Goldberg, Russel, and Cook’s “The effect of computers on student writing: A meta-analysis of studies from 1992 to 2002,” originally published in the Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment. (An article in the current issue, found after I accessed the JTLA website, “Toward More Substantively Meaningful Automated Essay Scoring,” looks interesting, too).

So, I thank Calvin for beginning this conversation, and giving me something more to think about as I evaluate my students’ writing this week (all of it submitted digitally, incidentally) and consider what else might help them become better writers in the future. I also hope that you — as teachers of writing — share your thoughts both in comments here and by emailing Calvin as well.

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