Can You Teach Writing Online?

August 5, 2013—Writing instruction has remained relatively untouched by the technology revolution in classrooms. English major and Baker scholar Andrew Morrison (C’15) is attempting to change that by creating a web application to help students become better writers.

Morrison developed the idea while working as a tutor in Georgetown’s Writing Center, and won a $5,000 Raines fellowship to fund his research. Margaret Debelius, the associate director of the Writing Program, supported his project, and Morrison was able to join Debelius’ grant from the university’s Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning.

As a writing tutor, Morrison reads and recommends books to students to help them learn basic writing rules. He realized that any of those books could become an online tool for students. “Why not turn this into something that [gives] real-time feedback?” he said.

Morrison envisions a web-based application in which students can type or upload a paper. The application would catch mistakes he sees frequently as a tutor, such as using long blocks of quotations. “That is often an indicator of not analyzing what you’re supposed to be analyzing,” he said. “The [application] would then pop up and say, for example, “Ninety-five percent of successful papers use quotations under X amount of words, reconsider this choice,” he continued.

Morrison is gathering data from over 60 humanities and writing papers. “I’m trying to find correlations between what [each paper] has or doesn’t have and make a statistically augmented peer-review tool,” he said. By asking five professors to grade each paper in objective categories, he hopes to glean data that show what makes a successful piece of writing.

As students learn and practice basic writing techniques with the application, professors can focus on skills that can’t be taught by a computer. “It’s using technology to give you real feedback, but it’s not eliminating personal contact,” he explained. “It’s about freeing up the professor’s time to give you personal feedback.”

Morrison believes that a review tool based on data will “help tweak [students’] writing, and over time internalize these rules of good writing, which students often never internalize,” he explained.

After finding patterns in successful and unsuccessful papers, Morrison will represent those data in an algorithm. He then plans to create a small-scale version of the application, which could be a supplement for first-year students in humanities and writing courses. “This would be a nice feedback tool to improve what we are already doing in class,” he said.

But he also hopes it will benefit those students who have not had strong writing instruction before Georgetown. According to Morrison, some high school teachers and professors assume that students have learned certain skills in previous years, creating knowledge gaps for some students. His application would help students who are trying to catch up in their first year of college. “Almost everything you do has writing in it, and if you don’t learn now, this is really the last time,” he said.

Morrison’s project is one of the many technology initiatives at Georgetown currently. “Part of the reason why this is exciting for me is because this is a moment when the university is reconsidering how they are doing things,” he said. “There’s money and resources where there hasn’t been before.”

While some educators are concerned how technology will affect the future of higher education, Morrison sees this time as an opportunity to contribute to how Georgetown will use technology as a university.

“Because of the university’s focus on empathy for others and care for the whole person, Georgetown seems more concerned with augmenting person-to-person learning instead of trying to make people obsolete,” Morrison said.

“I think the more we push initiatives like this and show their worth, the more we can help steer new educational technologies away from solely considering reduced cost and increases in profit and toward what is ultimately more important: increased learning for the student.”

—Elizabeth Wilson