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The Skills Agenda

Can technology help advance writing skills instruction?

Universities must plan how and when to use AI for training.

BY LOLEEN BERDAHL | DEC 15 2021

One of the biggest skill concerns about university students and graduates today is the quality of student writing. This is somewhat ironic given the many everyday technologies that are available to help them improve. Algorithmic supports such as spellcheck and grammar check have been included in software for decades, and most of us take them as a given. Since 2009, students have had access to Grammarly software, which is intended to “help students with their writing, helping people learn the basic building blocks of the English language.” As I write this, my Google Docs software is automatically tagging my (many) typos (and if I had the option for my account, I could even use the “Smart Compose” tool to suggest text as I write).

Some will complain that technology is exactly the problem. Students, and maybe even faculty have become too reliant on tools that can fix basic errors, but can’t necessarily teach good writing. But the growing number of technological writing tools address an important need. Communication skills are a key career competency. Effective written communication is a career readiness asset for most students, whether their future job involves focused writing activities or simply requires the ability to write clear emails.

Regardless of how we view them, writing technologies will become increasingly prevalent in workplaces and in our personal lives. Universities need to plan how and when to use such technologies in teaching, as well as how to teach students to use these technologies ethically and effectively. Rather than lamenting them, let’s harness these technologies to enhance students’ writing skills, an issue where we can all agree there is room for improvement.

The potential for technology to help teach writing skills

Many students entering university would benefit from additional writing skills training. But whose job is it to teach this?

Teaching writing skills is labour-intensive, requiring individualized attention and iterative, formative feedback for students. Fitting this into the curriculum is a challenge. While some programs have required writing courses, not all do. And outside such courses, there can be a prevailing attitude amongst instructors that “it is not my job to teach writing.” In the face of other content and skill learning outcomes, large class sizes, and in many cases limited instructor knowledge of how to teach writing skills, this attitude is fair.

The solution for many instructors has been to recommend that students make use of university writing centres. Such student supports are highly valuable, but not all students have the time or willingness to use them, and for those who try to do so, demand often exceeds supply.

This is the challenge: we all want to improve students’ writing, but it can be a time-intensive task for instructors, writing tutors and students alike. Here is where technology can help.

Technology may make it easier for instructors to embed writing skills among their course learning outcomes by reducing the teaching workload in at least two areas:

  • Formative assessment. Technology can replace instructor feedback on student writing prior to submission. It is easy to imagine incorporating technology-assessed formative writing activities into a course. The result would be both student learning and improved assignment submissions for instructor grading.
  • Summative assessment. Technology can assist in grading writing assignments. Jamey Heit argues “Teachers can definitely spend their time correcting spelling and grammar. But the power of AI is that technology can do these time-consuming tasks consistently and objectively in a fraction of a second.” While there is growing research into automated grading of essays (AGE) for exam questions, there will always be a need for human instructors, and technology can make their jobs easier and more rewarding. To again quote Dr. Heit, “Teachers will always be needed for more complex and conceptual feedback.… [Software can] save teachers time on the things a computer can do, so teachers have more time to focus on the things a computer cannot do.”

Why universities need to adapt to new writing technologies

Writing technologies will become more common in university classrooms, be it by course design or simply student choice to make use of them. This means universities must sort out their appropriate use.

What is reasonable writing “assistance?” Where is the line between human and computer authorship? How would an article written by GPT-3, such as The Guardian’s provocatively titled “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?, be treated under academic misconduct rules? Michael Mindzak and Sarah Elaine Eaton write about the challenges of these questions, arguing that “AI-generated writing has raised the stakes of how universities and schools will gauge what constitutes academic misconduct, such as plagiarism.”

Universities also need to consider the potential underlying bias in writing technologies. As Allison Parish (as reported by Erik Ofgang) argues, “Your iPhone’s autocomplete keyboard is controlled by Apple right? The autocomplete in Google Docs is controlled by Google. And these are normative technologies, they aren’t just showing you how you could write, they’re showing you how you should write … these are not neutral technologies. They’re forcing a point of view when you’re writing, and they need to be viewed with skepticism.”

To meet these challenges, universities need to construct and communicate appropriate policies to both faculty and students, and provide clear training for instructors and writing-centre staff.

Universities may also consider opportunities to partner with the private sector to create student resources that meet academic needs. Textbook publishers are increasingly moving away from print content to provide technological content and services. These could include AI writing tools, complete with features that meet university-informed academic integrity expectations. Again, the technology is already, or almost already here. We need to harness it toward everyone’s shared goal: improving student learning and skill development.

In fact, writing with AI tools is in itself a writing skill. As Lucinda McKnight argues, “Learning to write with machines is an important aspect of the workplace ’writing’ students will be doing in the future.… Perhaps assessment should focus more on students’ capacities to use these tools skilfully instead of, or at least in addition to, pursuing ‘pure’ human writing.” Building from this, last month, I wrote about microcredentials and skills training. Universities might consider developing microcredentials specific to writing with AI.

Looking forward

Some instructors may be uncomfortable with new writing technologies, thinking “students should be required to write everything entirely on their own!” And there are clearly ethical and other dimensions to the growth of technology-supported writing. But technology-supported writing is already our reality. And AI-supported writing is our future.

Universities need to plan for this, and instructors need to reflect on how technology can help improve student writing skills.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What are your own thoughts about writing technologies and academia? Please let me know by commenting below. And if you have ideas for future Skills Agenda topics you would like to hear about, feel free to contact me at Loleen.Berdahl@usask.ca.

I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Note: thank you to my University of Saskatchewan colleague, computer scientist Kevin Stanley, for speaking with me as I prepared this article. Any errors are my own.

ABOUT LOLEEN BERDAHL
Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Dr. Berdahl’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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