If there are exceptions to Malcolm Gladwell’s rule, writing is surely one of them. Even after 10,000 hours, the process can still feel tedious, frustrating and lonely.
Practice may not make perfect, but feedback and repetition can help students be more competent at writing. At least, that’s the hope and subject of a $3 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant awarded by the US Department of Education to New Visions for Public Schools, a New York-based nonprofit.
New Visions’ proposal, “Personalization at Scale: Technology Integration to Drive Common Core Writing,” is one of the 13 highest-rated applications in the annual federal grant competition. The project will test whether Google Apps for Education and supported extension tools can help teachers create, distribute and provide feedback on writing assignments more efficiently—and whether these workflow improvements have any measurable impact on students’ writing abilities.
Andrew Stillman, Director of Systems Development at New Visions, is already optimistic about the results. “We know that doing more writing is likely to lead to better writing outcomes,” he tells EdSurge. “Revision is something that’s been the canon of good writing instruction.”
Word processing technology has improved over the decades, but digital tools don’t always make teachers’ jobs easier. Maria Clausen, a ninth-grade teacher at New Design High School, was frustrated when her school adopted Google Apps for Education in 2010: “To distribute [a Google Doc], students needed to make their own copies, re-name and share them back with us. We didn’t have a structure,” she recalls. “It was too cumbersome, too disorganized.” After a year, Clausen “stopped using it because I couldn’t manage it.”
Stillman, a former math and science teacher, realized these issues early on. So he started tinkering with Google’s Apps Script. In 2012 his team at New Visions released Doctopus, a Google Drive extension that helps teachers manage class rosters in a Google Sheet and assign different files to different groups of students. Teachers can keep track of students’ work progress and manage editing privileges. A year later, Stillman released another extension, Goobric, that allows teachers to create rubrics, grade assignments and leave text and audio feedback; the grades automatically gets recorded in a Google Sheet.
These extensions won admirers among many teachers including Clausen, now an avid user. The ability to monitor students’ documents in real time, and track how they respond to her comments, “really organizes things in a way that makes kids more accountable,” she says. “I know that when I write a comment on a kid’s document, and they read it and respond, we have a dialogue. It’s another way to getting into their heads and understanding their misconceptions.”
Today, Doctopus and Goobric respectively have over 110,000 and 142,000 users. They’ve also caught the attention of Google, which in 2014 released Classroom, a tool that attempts to solve similar pain points around distributing and grading assignments. (Stillman is flattered, saying that “we certainly validated some of the use cases for Classroom.”) Both Doctopus and Goobric can work with assignments distributed via Classroom, helping teachers manage the workflow of assigning and grading work.
How teachers use these tools will be the focus of New Visions’ study, which will start with a six-month planning phase in 2016. From its network of 77 district and charter schools, New Visions will select ten high schools for the pilot and another ten as the control group. English and Global History teachers in the pilot will receive professional development and one-on-one coaching on using Google Drive alongside Goobric, Doctopus and Google Classroom. The emphasis of the training, says Stillman, is on processes and workflows just as much as technology.
Implementation will begin at the start of the 2016 school year. Throughout the following three years (until 2019), New Visions will provide ongoing coaching and support while MDRC, a research nonprofit, will examine if teachers’ use of the tools correlate to improvement in students’ writing grades and performance on state tests. The number of words written by students, along the frequency of revisions and teacher comments, will also be among the data collected and analyzed.
Stillman acknowledges there may be obstacles. “Bandwidth limitation can be a challenge, especially at some of the schools where Wi-Fi is not up to speed.” His colleague and New Visions’ Director of Instruction, Daniel Voloch, has concerns over possible interruption due to teacher turnover.
Results will not be published for another four years. Still, Stillman is betting that “shorter teacher turnaround in giving feedback and transparency of revisions will lead to better writing outcomes.”
What may be even more exciting is the potential scale of the findings. Today, over 50 million students, teachers and administrators across the globe as users of Google Apps for Education—a figure that will likely increase over the next few years. “What we learn from this [pilot] can be translatable to schools,” says Stillman.