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Posts Tagged ‘essay

Two weeks ago, I shared this announcement about Singapore’s ten-year plan for AI and focused on how it might affect schooling.

I left my reflection on AI for grading on slow burn for a while. I am enjoying a break, but I also enjoy wrestling with dubious change.

Yes, dubious. But first, two pretexts.

First, the vendors that the Ministry of Education, Singapore, works with are not going to be transparent with their technologies, so I cannot be absolutely certain of the AI development runway, timeline, and capabilities.

Next, the field of AI is not new and it is diverse. Parts of it evolve more quickly or slowly than we might expect. For example, handwriting recognition has been around since before Microsoft released its slate PCs. It was good enough to recognise some doctor scrawls even back then!

However, the Hollywood vision that AI will replace or even kill us off has not materialised. An expert might point out that AI is not good at making social predictions and ethical decisions. I simply point out that artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity.

Back to the issue — we need to consume claims made by policymakers and edtech vendors critically. And more critically if they are reported by the mainstream media that thrives on sensationalism.

Do not take my word for it. Take this expert’s view that some claims are “snake oil”. In his slides, he put these claims into three categories: Genuine and rapid progress; imperfect but improving; and fundamentally dubious.

An expert’s view that some AI claims are “snake oil”. In his slides, he put the claims into three categories: Genuine and rapid progress; imperfect but improving; and fundamentally dubious. Slide #10 at

I highlighted “automated essay grading” in the screenshot above because that coincides with our 2022 plan to “launch automated marking system for English in primary and secondary schools”.

The fundamental issue is AI’s ability to automate judgement. Some judgements are simple and objective, others are complex and subjective. Written language falls in the latter category particularly when the writers get older and are expected to write in more complex and subjective ways.

Anyone who has had to grade essays will know what rubrics and “standardisation” sessions are. Rubrics provide standards, guidelines, and point allocation. Standardisation meetings are when a group of assessors get a small and common set of essays, grade those essays, and compare the marks. Those same meetings set the standard for the definitions of subjectivity, disagreement, and frustration.

Might AI in three years be able to find the holy grail of objective and perfect grading of subjective and imperfect writing? Perhaps. If it does so, it might be less a result of rapid technological evolution and more one of social manipulation.

To facilitate AI processing of essays, students might be required to use proprietary tools and platforms. For example, they might have to use word processed forms instead of handwriting. They could be told to write in machine readable ways, e.g., only five paragraphs, structured paragraphs, model phrases, etc. In other words, force-fitting writers and writing.

This is already how some tuition and enrichment centres operate. They reduce essay writing to formulae and teach these strategies to kids. Students are not encouraged to make mistakes, learn from them, or develop creative and critical thought. They are taught to game the algorithms.

The algorithms are the teachers’ expectations and rubrics now. They could be the AI algorithms in future. But the same reductionist strategy applies because we foolishly prefer shortcuts.

The AI expert I highlighted earlier focused on how ill-equipped AI is to predict social outcomes. He concluded his talk with this slide.

Concluding slide (#21) from

We might also apply his last two points to automated essay grading: Resist commercial-only interest aimed to hide what AI cannot do, and focus on what is accurate and transparent.

This is not my way of stifling innovation as enable by educational technology. I wear my badge of edtech evangelist proudly. But I keep that badge polished with critical thought and informed practice.

Yesterday I offered graduate students some writing tips for response essays. That set of tips addressed the issue of ill-structured writing.

The other main problem I mentioned was writer mindsets, which is harder to address. My students tend to write for themselves, i.e., they do not consider the reader and/or they write with strategies that they prefer and regardless of need.

The structuring strategies I suggest might help their writing, but only if they realise that the reader is not in the same head space as they are.

One way to learn how others perceive your work is to get them to read it and provide feedback.

Better still, reciprocate the reading and feedback to learn how someone else writes. Doing this might teach you better strategies or give you the opportunity to teach someone else.

I often bring this writing mindset issue up in class to highlight how writing for the reader is like student-centred instruction. The focus is not you; it is them — the reader or the student. Since my leaners have to do both, doing one might help the other.

I spent much of the week providing feedback and grading assignments that included a response essay. That part of the assessment required students to read a statement, agree or disagree with it, and then defend their stance with published evidence.

With a few exceptions, the responses and level of writing worried me. I am recording some reflections while the experience is fresh so that I can take pre-emptive steps next semester. I address two categories: Structured writing and writer mindset.

The main problem seemed to be that students did not know how to structure their responses. So I am offering some writing tips for the next batch of students. (This will add to the ones I had already written for a previous version of the assignment — crafting a teaching philosophy.)

Start with a declarative statement. When asked to make a choice or a stand, state it clearly and concisely at the beginning of the essay. There is no need for personal stories or opinions, trend analyses, waxing lyrical, and grand-standing. Get to the point.

Consider a nuanced stance. A choice is not always binary. Depending on the circumstances, both options could be valid. An option could also lie somewhere in between two extremes.

Defend your position in paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain one main idea or claim. That claim should be backed up with evidence. In the context of the assignment, the evidence should come from published research. The research should be unpacked to highlight how it supports the claim.

Consider counter arguments. A mature point of view is one that recognises contrary findings and perspectives. These might provide nuance to the overall argument or be used to strengthen the original stance.

Write the introduction and conclusion first. These are like the open and close brackets that encapsulate one’s thoughts. When a writer does this, the middle is like beads on a string. Sometimes the flow is simple and moves logically from one end to another. In other instances, the path might branch or is more elaborate. But in all cases, the conclusion reinforces the declarative statement.

I continue with writer mindset in part 2 tomorrow.

“News” broke recently of software that helped to “grade” student essays in some schools in Singapore. Here is one source that you don’t have to pay for to read about the use of WriteToLearn and Criterion.

I call it “news” because the software has been at least 10 years in the making and because the headline (Hey, the computer gave me an A for my essay) is sensationalist.

It might be news to some, but technology that is ten-years-old cannot be described, as it was in the article, in its infancy.

The headline is designed to give the impression that computers are taking over. Why not, right? After all, Watson, IBM’s latest AI has beaten human champions over the last three days in the gameshow, Jeopardy.

While some might be wondering when we are going to bow to our technology overlords, at the moment technology like WriteToLearn and Criterion are still just tools. We use them, not the other way around.

Those writing tools are great at doing what people cannot do: Using tireless brute force to analyze an essay with rules and provide recommendations more quickly than a teacher can for the learner. They are not designed to replace the teacher. Not yet anyway.

Two unoriginal thoughts came to my mind:

  • Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer deserves to be. Depending on your search, that quote might be attributed to David Thornburg or Arthur C Clarke.
  • The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them. I think that quote came from John Seely Brown (at the end of this NYT article).

We may have a finite capacity to hold knowledge. But we have an infinite capacity to wonder and create.

Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) for the written assignment. These have been asked either in person or via email. If you have any more questions, please ask by clicking on the comment link.

Must the assignment be written in essay format?
Yes. You may include figures and tables (e.g. lesson plan template), but they must support the essay.

Do I have to use the scaffold in Appendix A of the instructions?
This is up to you. You may include the statements there to guide you. But note that this will not ensure that your assignment is complete.

Must I restrict myself to the examples of cyberwellness issues given in the instructions document?
No, the topics in the example might not be relevant to the content for the e-learning week in the scenario. You should select a cyberwellness topic that is relevant to the context that you define.

Why do I need to describe the context of my cyberwellness lessons?
A series of lessons can be extremely well-designed, but if the lessons do not meet the needs of the learners or complement the content, then it is not meaningful.

The context is the reason or justification for why you have selected a particular cyberwellness topic and why you have opted to teach it a particular way.

How exactly do I submit my assignment?
You will need to submit a coversheet and the assignment itself. I will collect hard copies (printouts) of the signed coversheet and soft copies (electronic versions) of the assignments. More details will be provided in class.

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