(Not So) Rough Drafts

Finding a technology tool to remedy a writing iteration problem.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susan Van Doren

CREDIT Turnitin Revision AssistantI like to imagine an ideal world in which I would be able to sit side-by-side with each student in my class at the same time and make thoughtful, helpful comments to move their writing forward. I could compliment them on what works well in their essays and ask guiding questions whenever I see a lack of clarity. But even on those rare occasions when I can workshop a paper one-on-one in the real world, the scenario is never ideal. Distractions, time limits, and even the nuances of personal relationships can get in the way of effective feedback.

I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. 

Teachers know that feedback needs to be timely and specific; that saying a student did “a good job” or that a paper “needs work” is useless. And all too often, suggestions for improvement reach student writers too late, when the teachable moment has passed and they have already moved on to something new. But even when I sit at the kitchen table with my own eighth grade son, I question whether the feedback I am giving him is meaningful or within his zone of proximal development. As a veteran middle and high school English teacher for almost 20 years, I know what I need to do to move his writing forward, but I still struggle with the how. Multiply that struggle by another 80 to 100 students, and the problem becomes even more pronounced.

For a few years now, I have been experimenting with technology tools to try to remedy this problem. Google docs can enable collaboration between peers, and some programs can help students proofread, but truly giving feedback during the revision process demands much more than just fixing errors. So when I heard about a pilot test of a new writing technology that provides automated feedback to student writers, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Turnitin’s Revision Assistant gives immediate feedback on student essays at the exact moment they are engaged in the writing process. It provides the same kind of comments that I might make, such as, “This is a great example of descriptive language. Where else could you add more?” The game-changer is that this technology can provide individualized feedback to all my students simultaneously as they draft a paper. Until I learn to I clone myself, I will never be able to do that.

With the click of a button, students get feedback about what they are doing well, and how they can improve. Studies show that the number of revisions increases when students write with it. I can attest that once we started using the this tool, the number of revisions my students submitted skyrocketed. My students revised their papers an average of 5-7 times, and I often saw over 10 revisions.

The first time my son used this tool on his homework, I sat next to him and watched as he submitted a single paper over 25 times in order to meet his goal level of proficiency. He took suggestions from the computer that would have led to sullen looks and resistance if I had made them. The second time he used it, it took half as many revisions to meet the same goal. It wasn’t just helping him learn to revise one paper: it was teaching him the habits and strategies of good writing. Within a few weeks, he had set a new, higher goal.

The tool meets the need for timely, specific, and effective feedback while also empowering students to take control of their own learning. My students can move forward with their writing at their own pace, calling for a Signal Check whenever they want feedback. As the teacher, I can engage them in conversations about the comments. A student might get a comment like “Work on balancing your opinion with strong reasons. Evidence and reasoning is what elevates opinion to argument.” Imagine how this statement opens the door to a conversation about crafting an effective argument. Instead of lecturing, I become the “coach” or “guide” who supports the students’ own personal quests to hone their craft.

These conversations about writing had an additional side effect that I never imagined. From them, I am learning what kind of feedback works, and also—embarrassingly—where I have fallen short in the past. One 9th grader I had last year always struggled with writing, usually producing just a few sentences. He had his first breakthrough with the tool: “Look at this, Mrs. Van Doren!” he exclaimed, “The computer is actually telling me things I do well.” I cringed: Had I really forgotten to do that? With the help of the technology and my renewed efforts to encourage him with positive feedback, that student has grown into a solid writer this year.

Technology can’t replace good teaching, but it can help me reach more students than I could have dreamed of previously, and it can empower students to take ownership of their learning. Once students see the results they get from true revision, they don’t go back to submitting rough drafts.

Susan Van Doren graduated from Colby College and earned her MFA in Poetry at the University of Virginia. She currently teaches English 9-10, AP Language, and AP Computer Science at George Whittell High School in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She is also the computer club advisor, a district STEM leader, and a SpringBoard national trainer and writer. In 2012, the Nevada Association of School Boards named her “Innovative Educator of the Year.”

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Getting Past the Hype of 3D Printers

A closer look at managing an emerging technology in education.

GUEST COLUMN | by David Miklas

CREDIT be3DWhile it is easy to demonstrate 3D printing’s power in manufacturing or healthcare through faster time to market or lower costs, calculating the benefit in education is more difficult. Instructors have brought 3D printers into the classroom and incorporated them into their curriculum, often creating graded projects where a student’s hypothesis is proven with the aid of a 3D object.

When asked how 3D has helped in their instruction, they often cite student motivation and engagement with the project as a positive result. A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right? Or is it just a lot of hype that will pass?

A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right?

Let’s take a short walk through the past to see if history has some pointers from which we can learn.

The first laser printer came about in 1969 and started to make its way into offices and academic institutions in the ’70s. In education, the ability to print documents was transformative, enabling instructors to share information with students easily, usually getting boxes of documents from the head office. In the ’80s and ’90s, students were using the printers for their school assignments and access to printers became as natural as access to books. Today, each school district has a fleet of 2D paper printers, the use of which is managed carefully by IT and finance. Students simply send a document to print, go to the nearest printer, and pick it up. School districts and universities may even have a pay-for-print system so that costs can be recovered by the school.

It isn’t hard to imagine that if 3D printers are adopted in education as paper printers were and still are today, that fleets of 3D printers will be in demand. And with that comes some unique challenges that paper printers did not face.

For example, a paper project prints in a few minutes. If someone accidentally takes a page or an entire print job, it is not too difficult (albeit annoying) to just reprint it. Not the case with 3D printing. Until there are significant changes in 3D technology, even a simple 3D print can take hours. And, if someone ‘takes your print before you can get to it’, reprinting is more than just annoying, it is painful—not to mention costly. On top of this, waiting for the 3D printer to be available can be frustrating.

Let’s look at the pay-for-print system. It is fairly easy to calculate the cost of a paper print job. The school knows the cost per page, and price lists can be created. Students know exactly how much it will cost to print their report in black/white or color. How does the school present and recover costs on 3D projects?

Many schools and universities have tested 3D printers and want to make them available to instructors and students. Like their paper printer cousins, they also want to print an object on any available 3D printer. But today’s 3D printers are not networked and once a print job has started, anyone can stop it and the school has little way to manage its use and its materials.

Today’s 3D printer purchase decision rests highly on the quality and cost even though many of the printers on the market are meant for hobbyist use. (Eventually these two factors will decline in importance as the number of models on the market shrink due to right-sizing of the 3D printing industry through mergers and acquisitions.) There are other important considerations when bringing a 3D printer into the school environment.

Whether K-12 or university, instructors should also consider the safety of these devices and the integrity of the 3D print. Many do-it-yourself and big brand 3D printers have exposed mechanisms which inquisitive students will want to touch, exposing the school to liability for injury. Open-air printers also mean that the fumes from the printing materials are exposed, many of which are toxic; US researchers suggest well ventilated rooms or enclosed printers with a vent. For these reasons, a fully enclosed printer is a better option for education.

Ease of use is an important consideration. Students (and instructors) should not be hampered with learning a complex system that takes away from the classroom subject learning.

If you or your school is investigating 3D printers, you may have tested a few systems and are ready to purchase on a larger scale. In this case, you want to consider how these printers will be available to students and how the costs can be recovered. Does a 4-hour print job cost the same as a 10-hour print job?

Once the hype of 3D printing moves from the classroom to the campus, these are the kinds of issues that school administrators, IT and purchasing should be considering.

All the issues mentioned above are solved on paper printers – it’s called print management and the software is embedded in the world’s most popular brands of printers that print, copy and scan. The same system that manages paper printers in education can be leveraged to manage use, costs and workflows for 3D printers.

David Miklas is the General Manager of 3D printers in Y Soft. Y Soft is a leading provider of enterprise office solutions and 3D printers including YSoft be3D eDee, a 3D printer for Education that includes print management, workflow and an accounting system.

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Cool Tool | Dogs Discover

CREDIT Dogs DiscoverScience and social studies publisher Kids Discover today launched Dogs Discover, an interactive, digital library of literacy material for man’s best friend. The new unit, which will be available at no charge, includes seven topics tailored to canine readers, including Working Dogs, How Dogs Communicate, and Physical Characteristics of a Dog. With the national canine literacy rate at an abysmal 0%, the Dogs Discover team is committed to getting dogs excited about reading and learning. The beautifully crafted dogfiction will help canine readers understand signs such as ‘Please Keep Off the Grass’ and food labels such as ‘Chocolate’ or ‘For Cats Only.’ To celebrate today’s launch, Kids Discover will donate a full set of its 140 print titles and a percentage of its April 1 sales to the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, which was designed to help shelter dogs become more adoptable and to nurture empathy in children by having them sit outside of dogs’ kennels and read to them. To inspire a worldwide conversation about canine literacy, the company has launched #DogsDiscover to encourage people around the world to share photos and success stories of their dogs learning to read. Readers can participate on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For a limited time, the mobile version of Dogs Discover comes with a screen protector to prevent tablets and smartphones from getting scratched by eager canine learners. For more information, please visit DogsDiscover.com.

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Training Tomorrow’s Leaders

It’s not that they’re not interested in STEM jobs, it’s that they’re not educated in them.

GUEST COLUMN | by Holly Benson

CREDIT InfosysThe Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, from 2014 to 2024, computer and information technology jobs will grow 12 percent; faster than the average for all other occupations. By 2020, the agency predicts that of the projected 9.2 million jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields), roughly half will be dedicated to computing.

Yet, out of roughly 14,000 school districts, only a quarter of schools today offer computer science and programming courses. About three-quarters of all public schools don’t offer students the education they need to compete in tomorrow’s globalized job market. This is not for a lack of interest in computer sciences on the part of students. It’s for a lack of educational offerings at schools today.

Tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced. 

That needs to change. U.S. schools need to offer computer science as a part of their curriculum so today’s students can remain competitive in tomorrow’s workforce. They also need to start training students in “soft skills” where communications, relationship-building and problem-solving abilities help students to build the habits of learning throughout their careers.

While it’s never too late to learn computer sciences, studies show that the earlier a student is exposed to these skills, the greater the probability they will pursue a related college major. In fact, according to a Gallup study commissioned by Google, of the students who had the opportunity to take an advanced-placement computer sciences exam, 46 percent were more likely to be interested in a computer sciences major.

However, according to an Infosys-commissioned survey, 45 percent of young people in the U.S. considered their academic education to be either very or quite old-fashioned. They also felt that their education failed to support their career goals, especially when compared to students and educational systems in emerging economies.

There is some truth to these suspicions. Many developed economies created their education systems to funnel students into economy-driving industries (e.g., farming, manufacturing). This makes it difficult for developed school systems to rapidly adapt to new and evolving fields like computer sciences. Emerging economies don’t share this burden, and by contrast, are often pioneering new education strategies that funnel into the industry driving their economies – namely, technology.

These two approaches nurture two divergent mentalities. Students in emerging economies are typically more aggressive in their education and are more willing to find ways to fill gaps in training. By contrast, students in developed economies expect a steady diet of preparatory training and feel uncomfortable when their education has shortcomings. Both educational models have their advantages and disadvantages, but only one encourages a lifelong desire to learn – a key factor when it comes to preparing students for one of the biggest industrial revolutions in history.

The research also found that in both developed and developing nations, young men feel markedly more prepared in technology knowledge than young women do. This echoes the lament that girls are simply not pursuing STEM education in the same numbers as boys. Many researchers and social activists are looking at the causes of this disparity in STEM education between boys and girls – but any solution to better equipping our youth with technology skills must also address how to attract more young women into the technology classroom in the first place, and give them greater confidence that they can succeed there.

In a more general approach however, educators will need to develop curricula that instill a passion for learning in students. Today, U.S. schools focus on testing and grading, rather than teaching the habits of lifelong learning. This is a problem, because tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced. They will also need an intuitive sense of how to apply new assets. What they will need are liquid skills — the ability to flex and adapt skills as needed.

Fortunately, there are many after-school activities that can nurture liquid skills while sparking an interest in computer sciences. Code.org hosts a yearly “Hour of Code” event, where students spend an hour learning to code. It’s a great introduction to the basic elements of computer science. The “maker” movement, where hobbyists of all ages build new digital inventions, is also a great way to encourage students to learn both mechanics and programming. Finally, hackathons offer students access to professionals with real-world experience and knowledge — one of the best educational resources you could ask for.

The best educational resource for computer sciences, however, will always be school itself. After-school clubs and alternative activities can only do so much, and can’t properly replace a dedicated curriculum.

Computer sciences are here to stay. The workers of the future, regardless of industry, will have to leverage computing skills to remain employable. Retail workers, farmers, construction workers and car mechanics — all will need to have an intimate knowledge of how computers work, how programs operate and how the two interact, to remain competitive.

Most youth today recognize that technology evolves faster than educational systems can keep up. This creates an unsettling predicament: students know they need to learn and apply new skills, but have little to no help in acquiring them. It’s time for today’s education system to step up and provide them with the support they need.

Holly Benson is a Partner in the Organizational Transformation practice of Infosys, where she helps clients find realistic solutions to their people and organizational challenges.

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Making Good Teachers Great

A Teach for America strategist designs a tech platform to improve new teacher training.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Adam GellerAs a first-year science teacher, Adam Geller wanted to be a great science teacher. “And yet,” recalls Adam, “not one single person with science coaching expertise ever walked through my classroom doors.” Turns out he wasn’t alone in feeling under-supported. In national surveys, nearly eight out of ten teachers say they believe more professional development could lead to better outcomes with their students. “And the reason they’re not getting the coaching and support they need is because today’s in-person coaching process is too expensive,” Adam says. He developed Edthena to help deliver what he believes to be the gold standard of professional development: classroom observation and coaching — in a way that makes it more scalable and sustainable for the organization. “We think it’s possible to change how teachers access professional development across the entire country,” he says. Hot off winning a coveted Cool Tool Award for best professional development learning solution in the 2016 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program, in this interview, Adam explains the how and why.

What’s something interesting about its development history?

Adam: Folks often ask about the “moment of inspiration” for the solution. For me it was clicking a link that said “Listen to this Justin Bieber Song Slowed Down 800%.”

While it sounds like I’m about to credit the Biebs for everything, in fact the article was the first time seeing the music player SoundCloud. They enable users to leave comments at specific moments in time on audio.

Just like athletes review game tape footage, we help teachers analyze their teaching practice. 

I remember hovering over one of the comments that said something like “It sounds like four violins coming in in harmony here.” That description, even without hearing the audio, created such a clear picture in my mind about what was happening. I thought, “What if we could do this time-stamped comment thing with video with the right tools to solve for needing to have a coach in the classroom to do an observation.” And the rest, they say, is history.

Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Adam: During my time as a classroom teacher, I ended up teaching in two dramatically different school settings. Different students, different culture, different staff, different leadership, and different resource management. Having these two data point helps me avoid the “I know because I was a teacher myself” blinders that happens in many education companies. We constantly ask our users for feedback on what we’re building, and we’re constantly planning our roadmap based on the actual needs we’re hearing.

The other thing that helped broaden my perspective was designing a technology system that would be used across the country as part of my time on the Teach For America strategy team. This opened me up to the complexity of serving the needs of the whole education organization and the person in charge of the software implementation. We have to make it easy and high-benefit for someone to be the Edthena administrator in addition to designing software that was easy and high benefit for teachers. Honestly, the experience of implementing most software within an organization is terrible. We’re trying to make it delightful.

Did you make some adjustments due to student or teacher feedback?

Adam: Our design process helps us get close to actual user needs, but it doesn’t account for all the ways that real users think or use the platform. As a result, we’re constantly adjusting our features based on feedback.

A great early example of this was how a teaching framework was picked for use as part of a video conversation. At first, we set it so that the teachers could pick because we thought, “Teachers probably know which framework is used by their coach, so they’ll select it correctly.” It turns out that teachers might pick “Teaching as Leadership” when they should be using “High Leverage Practices” because it sounded interesting. Allowing the coaches to adjust this easily reduced a lot of headache for users and our support team.

What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is?

2-edthena-V-RGB-1000x1000Adam: Edthena helps teachers get better at teaching through video self-reflection and online collaboration. The teachers upload videos of their teaching, and people on the other end provide feedback at specific moments in time. Just like athletes review game tape footage, we help teachers analyze their teaching practice. 

What other companies would you describe as direct or indirect competition?

Adam: There are certainly other who have entered the space since Edthena was launched in 2011. And if you were to describe us in one or two sentences, the platforms likely sound similar. I think the difference with Edthena is that we do a lot more than just put videos online and let people leave comments.

I think the first important difference is that we fully deliver on the promise of making it easy for any teacher to get video from any device uploaded successfully — this is an extremely hard technical feat. We also have a patented system related to the commenting process that helps surface meaning from within the comments to make it fast and easy for the teachers to interpret. And we offer a set of tools that help the organization design a video-learning process, and connect it to specific learning outcomes against which they can track progress.

Any highlights about test marketing it /starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it?

Adam: The most memorable demo I’ve ever done included a gasp of delight. The person truly couldn’t believe her eyes related to a particular feature set that we built to support edTPA readiness for teachers in training. This was particularly satisfying to know we’d “gotten it right” after investing nearly six months developing things.

What else can you say about the value and benefit of Edthena?

Adam: We’re fortunate to be building upon decades of research in three key areas: (1) teachers get better when they watch themselves on video, (2) teachers get better when they watch others on video, (3) teachers get better when they collaborate in online communities. The research basis for our work combined with our technology is part of why we count prominent researchers of video learning as users of our platform.

What makes Edthena special is that we’ve made the traditionally complex technology of video seem easy for all users. We’re constantly hearing from our users that they think Edthena is easy, helpful, and useful. One of our advisors, Deborah Ball, even said she had been waiting more than two decades for a technology platform to deliver on the full promise of how video could be used to drive teacher learning.

We try to understand the impact we’re having by listening carefully to what we hear from our partner organizations — they’re the ones working day-to-day with teachers who are, in turn, working with students.

What we hear is very encouraging and indicates that we’re on the right path to helping video be a useful tool for teacher development. One of our partners is George Mason University, and the researchers there even published a book chapter about their experience and success implementing Edthena.

Your thoughts on education sector in general these days?

Adam: Working in education has always been important, but, for a long time, the need to invest in the education system was not a national priority and not part of the national conversation. I think it’s an exciting time because this has changed and education is a now “real issue” worth talking about in the eyes of the media, politicians, and the average person I know. I think it’s a great sign that people now have an opinion about a pretty in-the-weeds topic such as which set of standards we should be using to guide instruction.

Your thoughts on technology’s role in education?

Adam: I think that the exciting thing about technology is that it can help scale-up innovations that are working.

The other thing that’s quite exciting when I think about developing technology for education is that there is the ability to have a positive impact on the global education system. We can develop something there that’s useful to teachers in other countries. That’s an amazing opportunity that wasn’t really possible fifteen years ago.

Any guidance or advice to educators these days?

Adam: As it relates generally to technology in the classroom, I think my only advice is the same that I learned from my time in the classroom: make sure the tech you’re using plays a meaningful role in student learning.

Any comments specifically on the usual gripes about poor professional development? Any thoughts on calling it “professional development” versus, say, “professional learning”? Or even a reason why on your site at least you refer to it as “teacher learning”? Any strong opinions behind this?

Adam: I think the flexible terminology I use reflects my belief about the work we are doing: (1) teachers want to keep developing themselves to increase outcomes with students, and (2) this is a career-long process. Everyone should be working to continually increase effectiveness.

I also believe that teachers should play an active role in their own development over time. Professional development is not something that should be “done” to teachers. This self-ownership plays out for us in many ways, including how we give teachers control over who sees their content inside our platform.

I think that, as educators, we’re ready to admit that planning another sit-and-get workshop is unlikely to help teachers change their practice. Combine this with the fact that, as we’re holding teachers more accountable in the way of evaluation, high-quality professional development will be more actively demanded by the teachers.

This leaves the education system with an urgent problem — districts need to provide better and more professional development with the same budget. In good news, I’d like to think we have an answer for that challenge by making coaching in the classroom, the gold-standard for impacting teacher practice, a more cost affordable option.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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