The Next Era of Essay Evaluation: In the Beginning….

Personal Snapshot: 1995

In 1995, I transitioned from English teacher to Web-based Educator.  At the time, I calculated that in nearly a decade of classroom teaching, I’d graded over 10,000 student essays.  A conservative estimate is that this equated to 145 eight-hour days of unpaid work – call it a labour of love – because I was dedicated to not merely giving students a grade, but providing detailed comments at the word, sentence and paragraph level.

Wiping away the misty-eyed idealism of a young teacher, I have to admit that the rushed average of seven minutes I put into each essay was probably more time than my loveable but other-focused students put into reading my comments. And probably than using my comments to improve their texts and develop as more expert writers.  It’s no wonder that I experience a visceral hair-raising akin to a horror movie when I think about grading stacks of essays…

Clearly it’s not sustainable or fair to ask some teachers to give up such unpaid time when colleagues in other subjects don’t evaluate of student writing. So is it any surprise that student performance in writing is a worry?

At the same time, in another part of the ….

Interestingly, at this same time, a new era was just dawning with a crazy thing called the World Wide Web, and in particular, a crazier upstart company was taking the marketplace by storm even as it lost money every quarter: Amazon.  We all know what’s happened with Amazon and its amazing success, but it’s important to highlight what’s powered this success.  It’s not lower prices or better advertising, the old-fashioned approaches to building a business, but algorithms.

Jeff Bezos and his team understood that understanding its customers – at a new, more granular level – was the path to their success.  Some readers might remember the early first fruits of this data profiling that, because you bought one book, the Web site offered some pretty lame suggestions based on, “others who’ve bought this book also bought…”

But the code has gotten better and we’ve become accustomed to gaining the benefit of algorithmic recommendations.  So we do look at what others did buy; we appreciate Google’s tailored search results and Facebook’s channelled news feeds; we consult TripAdvisor for hotels and restaurants; and we’ve come to rely on Apps, personalised maps, streamed music and videos to enhance our lives.  We’ve gone from the World Wide Web, social media and phone-based Internet to enter fully into The Age of the Assistants! (coming soon!)


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