Marketing “Junk Education” – to sell teaching software of dubious worth, don’t talk to faculty experts, talk to their bosses…

Want to know how the academy, the bastion of learning and thought, works these days? Read on:

A top administrator goes to a conference – often hosted by – and certainly feted by – companies in the business of selling “educational materials” – textbooks, computer software, etc. The administrator is shown a piece of educational software designed to “improve efficiency” in teaching one of his institution’s thorniest skills – lets say, writing instruction. The administrator, whose academic/professional training is in say, finance or accounting, is impressed with the vendor’s claims for the software – it will streamline writing instruction and save money.

So the top administrator returns to his/her university and the word goes down – from provost to vice-provost to dean – there’s technology to teach writing that will streamline instruction and save money.

Finally the word reaches the university’s faculty – and particularly writing program directors – experts in writing instruction whose academic/professional training is in – writing instruction.

And the struggle to save the university from itself begins anew….

Battles in the academy are usually fought with research. So the writing program director above turns to the writing program’s consultant – a professor and former writing program director with a long history in the field. The consultant posts a question on the field’s pre-eminent listserv. It might look something like this:

I hope the group will forgive me for such a question:

Our university’s president wants to know about “automated tools” to “enhance writing instruction” – we are a large state university with a vast on-line instruction program. We have a highly valued (by faculty) on-line writing center. I’m not sure what the president’s interest is in such automated tools, but the university has become increasingly fond of “self-service” solutions for value added student services. If you have suggestions about such services, please post them here – or you may contact us directly at the following addresses with info:

Professor, consultant to SUS writing program

Immediately, a representative of the company seeking to sell software who’s been “lurking” on the listserv jumps in with “helpful assistance”:

(Product) is a fully interactive and customizable writing practice and learning program, for remedial through advanced writing, training and/or placement. It’s great for Writing Labs, remedial courses and Writing Across The Curriculum. It saves instructor time and helps encourage students with instant feedback and unlimited practice. Using the (Product) Web-based application, students draft and submit essays, and within seconds, a holistic score, annotated diagnostic feedback and in-depth analysis of errors on the basic elements of writing grammar, usage, mechanics, style, and organization and development are provided to both students and instructors. The (Product) service not only gives you the detailed, documentable metrics you need to benchmark individual and group writing skills, but also the flexibility to easily configure that data to guide instruction, inform student placement, plan remediation, gauge progress and improve curricula. Faculty can create and assign their own writing tasks, or select a writing prompt from a library of more than 100 topics. Accessible any time and from any location with an Internet connection, the (Product) service motivates students with unlimited opportunities to practice, builds confidence and reinforces learning. I have samples or demo versions of the product which I can share with you (and any other interested colleagues) via e-mail or via a web seminar, to show you the full use & features of (Product). Let me know if you’d like to see a sample or set up a time to meet online, when I can present more information to you, and answer any specific questions.

This all sounds impressive. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, the writer identifies herself as a representative of the company promoting the software. And of course professional listervs are open to anyone who chooses to sign up. And of course the only interest any sales rep for a software company pushing writing instruction products could possibly have in monitoring the discussions of a professional listserv would be to provide helpful assistance – as in this case. Of course…

But the consultant, a grizzled veteran of the long struggle to improve writing instruction at several universities, is slightly skeptical. Rather than immediately contact the sales rep to set up a demo, he waits for colleagues – many of whom are distinguished experts in the field of writing instruction – to offer their views. The wait isn’t long – just after the message from the sales rep, a well known writing program director and author posts the following:

My primary concern about (Product) is that it is designed for classroom use, for “teaching help.” Here I echo comments made by Bob Broad in his fine chapter in Ericsson and Haswell. For me, (Product) would get in the way of working to help students develop the range of rhetorical skills I value, skills outlined well in the WPA Outcomes Statement. As Broad concludes, “The Outcomes Statement helps clarify that the overhwhelming uniformity inherent in mechanical assessment undermines our efforts to prepare students to compose, assess, and succeed in complex and varied rhetorical scenarios” (231). It focuses primarily on grammar and form, making it ill suited for feedback early on in the writing process where the focus should be more on developing ideas where questions and suggestions from peer or teacher respondents would be more appropriate. Further, the kind of feedback it provides is limited at any point in the process. It cannot give effective feedback on more rhetorical matters such as tone or style. If you look carefully at what it analyzes for “style,” you’ll find that it’s a primarily error-based, reductive view of style: e.g., Repetition of Words, Inappropriate Words or Phrases, Sentences Beginning with Coordinating Conjunctions, Too Many Short Sentences, Too Many Long Sentences, Passive Voice. For Grammar, it aims to identify such things as fragments, run-ons, and subject-verb agreement, although not infallibly. For an essay I wrote on (Product), it mis-identified two sentences as grammatical run-ons, that were not. (Note that it also erred in identifying a few grammatical errors in the essay Charlie Moran wrote.) While obviously, we humans are fallible also, (Product) with its number counts and graphs, invokes the error of infallibility. While the explanatory materials admit that (Product) cannot read, in other places a human reader is implicitly invoked. Note this trait that is listed for a 6 rating, the highest holistic rating: “Responds thoughtfully and insightfully to the issues in the topic.” I question whether (Product) can judge insight. WebCT and other platforms for online courses provide a number of supports for writing courses, including support for peer and teacher feedback and sharing of texts. The grammar and style checks on word processing programs do as well as (Product) in those regards. And, many writing centers have developed effective online tutorial services. As writing teachers, we are better to put our energy to using these platforms in creative ways that further the development of our students as writers.

– Professor, former writing program director, author of several books on writing instruction, major state university….

The sales rep becomes flustered at the sharp analysis and critique and fires back thusly:

If you have actually used the product and do not like it, I would appreciate hearing your feedback. If you have not tried it and you simply are opposed to any automated writing supplement (no matter how it is used), that is certainly your prerogative.

These are brave words for a sales rep to use against highly skilled and experienced teachers and scholars. And they draw fire from one of the top experts in the field:

Sales Rep wrote, in part: “If you have actually used the product and do not like it, I would appreciate hearing your feedback. If you have not tried it and you simply are opposed to any automated writing supplement (no matter how it is used), that is certainly your prerogative.”

Sales rep, I’m in the latter camp and wanted to offer some reasons as to why. It would be wonderful if (Product) or even just the grammar/spell-check tools built into MS Word were the starting points for conversations between student writers and their instructors. Unfortunately, however, given the conditions under which many writing instructors work and given the pitching of products such as yours at administrators hungry for efficiencies, the student’s interaction with the product becomes the end point. This situation has been true for a whole range of technologies as applied to the teaching of writing for a very long time. I think the evidence for negative reaction is well contained in your company’s press release for the award you cite. The use of (Product) is combined with teaching to the state-mandated test. Given your company’s role in that testing-educational complex, many of us have ample reasons to be suspicious.

– Distinguished professor and scholar, major American research university

And just when one thinks these mean old professors are piling on this poor sales rep, more piling on – with scholarship:

Sales rep patches in a promo for (Product) that (Company) has been using for quite a while. Indeed, if you are interested you can read an analysis of some of its claims, for instance that students benefit from “instant” feedback and teachers “save time.” The analysis is by a writing teacher, Bob Broad, who concludes that a more “candid” sales pitch by (Company) for (Product) would have the motto “Teach your students to write like machines for a reader who is a machine.”His piece is “More Work for Teachers? Possible Futures of Teaching Writing in the Age of Computerized Assessment, pp. 221-233, Machine Scoring of Student Essays, ed. Patty Ericsson & Rich Haswell, 2006, Utah State University Press.- Professor, author, and writing program director, major state university

The consultant passes along these strong arguments against the writing instruction software to his colleague at the university. She in turn, approaches the dean with the concerns of the writing program about whether the focus of instruction should be technology and tests – or students.

And the struggle for “hearts and minds” in the academy continues….

Categories: Business/Finance, Education

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6 replies »

  1. Hemingway would cry. Over a machine reading his books. In the rain.

  2. So far as I can tell, the masses receive instruction in writing in much the same way the army teaches marksmanship. Both methods of instruction incorporate formula-based recipes rife with lowest common denominator expectations.

    Society really doesn’t want anyone truly able to write. Genuine writers pose too much of a threat to the status quo. Worse, they might actually cause the intentionally dumbed-down masses to think for themselves. The great fear is that the pen is indeed mightier that the sword. Hence, for their own protection, the public needs to be kept away from sharp objects and insightful pens. Someone might actually get ideas!

  3. Jim,

    If it will help, I can spare some pencils. As Clinton said, “I feel your pain.”


  4. Denny,

    Wait until they pitch something like “NewsWrite” (my own invention and I hope they don’t read this and get ideas), a program that teaches students to “write news stories by following a basic step by step formula based on ‘typical’ new story structure.’

    See that line above about “machines writing for machines” for an idea about what you’ll get….

    THEN, you’ll feel my pain more than I’d ever wish for you (or my worst enemy) to….

  5. There is an exciting “new” technology available for students to improve their writing skills. Its called a pen and paper. Add in one instructor willing to actually work with the students and their writing skills will improve quite quickly. Computer software programs simply cant replace that.