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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Musings on Education: A different response to Brill's article on education reform

In my previous post I introduced Steven Brill's article about education reform and pointed out a minor flaw in Brill's argument. That post served as the jumping-off point for a great discussion in the post's comments. I feel like Jack and I made more progress in that discussion than I've heard in the education reform debate in the last five years! Check it out!

Here in part two we turn to an excellent piece by Shantanu Sinha, the President and COO of the amazing Khan Academy. I'm proud to say that Shantanu also happens to be a friend and a former roommate of mine!

Shantanu's response:

The first thing that jumped out at me from Shantanu's article was:
"I think the entire conversation has been hi-jacked by issues surrounding the adults and little has been done to address the needs of students.  If we spent more time thinking about what the students are actually experiencing, we would realize that we designed a very impersonal system that horribly misses their individual needs."
I think every teacher feels this tension. This lack of individualization is most obvious and apparent in the math and sciences, which is the area that Khan Academy is focusing on improving. And it isn't that teachers don't care enough to provide the individual-focused attention that's required, it's that it simply isn't possible given the complexity of the skills involved and the practical realities of the time and energy such organization and remediation would require.

Helping solve part of this problem is a big part of my motivation for creating EssayTagger.com.

English/Social Studies/Liberal Arts classes seem to have it easier than the math/science world; essays are a cornerstone of what we do and they already provide for direct 1-on-1 assessment and feedback. That's good. But in a classroom of 25-30 kids--or, in my case, FOUR sections of the same class turning in the same essay assignment all on the same day!--it quickly becomes impossible to remember which kids need to work on which weaknesses that were exposed in their papers.

Grades are usually too general to be diagnostic or track student progress in a meaningful way. One of the most intelligent and organized teachers I know has students keep their graded essay rubrics in a binder so that she can refer back to their previous performance, separated out by each rubric category. It's not, "Are Johnny's grades improving," it's "Is Johnny's use of evidence improving?" Being able to track each individual student's progress over time in specific skill areas is a huge step forward.

EssayTagger.com is still in hush-hush mode so I can't talk about the details yet, but we will take this individual skill-tracking notion to the next level--and with less work and organization required of the teacher!

Which brings me to the second excerpt I'd like to share from Shantanu's article:
"The key is not the technology itself; the key is the new learning experience that technology enables."
Absolutely! As a tech guy I cringe every time someone touts a new classroom technology. They're usually terrible. Or the tech is used in trivial ways (e.g. "I can draw on the overhead transparency projector" vs "I can draw on a piece of paper under the ELMO"--uh, same difference).

Technology is pointless unless it opens up new possibilities that were not previously possible or practical. Does it provide for those "new learning experiences" that Shantanu mentions? Technology can also provide utility by making a process more efficient or easier. But if a new technology accomplishes neither of these, it is just a sexy new toy.

My approach to technology is not about bells and whistles and being all fancy and high-tech and impressive (though I think this company is alraedy all of the above!), we're about leveraging technology in meaningful ways that have a direct positive impact on the classroom, on student learning, and on the quality of teachers' lives.

Bam. Stick around and see if we live up to that promise.