Initial Impressions of sCoolWork

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to talk with the co-founders of sCoolWork, Alex Dayan and Shachar Tal, about their service and how it might help students come better writers. Normally, I do not specifically write about websites or services because that type of situation has caused trouble for in the past. But, I must say that I’m compelled by their story — as well as sCoolWork’s potential as a digital writing tool — and I wanted to share some thoughts here. In interest of full disclosure, please know that they have offered me no special access to the website, and that I am only currently logged in under the free account while the service is still in beta.A few weeks ago, Alex sent me this introduction to sCoolWork by e-mail:

Since I started development of my school paper writing application, sCoolWork, the question I ask myself time after time was: “Does automation help or harm to the learning process?” The answer isn’t straight forward.

?In my opinion, automation can help a lot when used in a smart way. First of all, automation can cut many time-consuming repetitive tasks. Once you’ve done something, redoing it dozens of times has no learning benefit. The whole formatting standards (MLA/APA) issue is another positive aspect for automation. Is it really important for the history essay to keep in mind what exactly should be italicized in each bibliography entry? Isn’t it much more important to let the student focus on his/her ideas?

And maybe the most important benefit of automation is conducting a proper workflow. Even after being instructed many times, students still start their work with writing the introduction and, naturally, stop at the second sentence of an almost blank document. Imagine something that can guide them into researching their points first, outlining their paper second, and only then writing content accordingly – what can be better than this best practice??? However, there is no doubt that automation can be harmful if we forget what it shouldn’t do.? Any automation which tries to “think” instead of the student is an enemy of education. Reading and understanding the material, developing and formulation ideas, writing the self-conceived content – all of these tasks must be done solely by the student. As a parent, I can’t accept any kind of “cheating” which might let my child get good grades, without enriching and developing his knowledge.?? My conclusion is simple. I support any kind of automation which can help students to focus on proper researching and writing, and I vote against any kind of automation which turns our children into button pressing monkeys.

Based on these thoughts I developed sCoolWork.

From this initial exchange, we traded e-mails back and forth a few times talking about the benefits and opportunities of such a platform. As we continued to talk, Alex shared this video and a link to their IndieGoGo funding campaign (which I have not yet donated to, although I may very well do soon).

I signed up for a basic account and tried it out.. one of the unique features about this service is the fact that students can create their document, use an existing template (such as cause-and-effect, or problem solution, not just “five paragraphs”) engage in useful research, and eventually will be able to share their work with peers and a teacher. They still need to do the research and learn how to effectively identify information, copy and paste that information into their own paper, and cite their sources. One important note for those of you who tried out is the when you go through the initial example was Abraham Lincoln, sCoolWork will automatically populate a paper with text as a sample. This will not happen when you create your own paper.

I’ve been playing around with sCoolWork (not yet available on my iPad though) and it is not an automated bibliography generator quite like Zotero, nor is it exactly functional in the way that creating a template in Google docs might be. Instead, sCoolWork’s main benefit is the fact that it sets students up to be successful with their writing. As Alex and Shachar made that point clear today, the two most intimidating screens for students of the blank word processing document and an empty search engine box.

sCoolWork helps students move beyond those intimidating spaces and get started on the research and writing. Sachar just returned from educational technology conference here in the United States and talked about teachers concerns related to cheating, plagiarism, or students simply not been able to compose high-quality work within the sCoolWork interface. As of now, they are working on plagiarism detection, as well as ways to help guide students through the research process and thoughtful and critical ways. Alex stated that “Our integrated search is tied to Yahoo BOSS plus we use AlchemyAPI  for additional analysis and ranking.” Their goal is certainly not to do the work for students, but to help by enabling students so that they can do the writing for themselves. Based on what I have seen in the interface so far, I would agree.

Of course, none of this comes for free, and the two cofounders and the development team have been working diligently to bring sCoolWork out of beta in time for an October launch. As Shachar said in our conversation, it sounds as though they are going to work on a model where they will sell individual student or school licenses to those who can afford it, and you also make many of the services available for free to those who need it. The exact pricing structure isn’t set yet, but they estimate the individual licenses for a year would be around $80 with discounts for school-based subscriptions of many students.

Thus, my initial assessment of sCoolWork is that it could become a very useful digital writing tool, especially once the collaborative tools and peer response features are built in. This could be great for middle and high school students who are creating informational and argumentative texts. Thanks again to Alex and Shachar for sharing their work with me and best of luck.

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