Ellis’s Essay (written by a person, not a computer)

In 1966, Ellis Page, often referred to as the father of computerized grading, published an essay (see right) in Phi Delta Kaplan where he argued that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have an astonishing impact on the educational world.”

The computers he was talking about? Mainframes that took up entire rooms, and according to him the “soon” was right around the corner.

It has been over 50 years since Page published his essay on “The Imminence of…Grading Essays by Computer” and yet his dream of a computer program that can take over grading or feedback duties remains out of reach. While some EdTechtrepreneurs try to state otherwise, no AI program currently exists that can reliably grade or providing feedback to writing at a high level.

While writing my book Flash Feedback, I dug as deeply as I could into the current “smart” digital aides and options for grading and assessment, but over and over I found disappointing results.

But in my search I did stumble across one tool that allowed me to assess, teach, and give feedback faster and better, and it had nothing to do with AI. It is also likely not what you will expect. The tool?

The seemingly boring Version/revision history tool buried within any modern word processing program.

This is what Google’s version history looks like.

I know, seemingly not that groundbreaking, but stay with me.

For those who are unfamiliar with version/revision history, for the last decade most word-processing programs have included some tab that can show us the history of every keystroke that went into the document. I am the most familiar with the Google Suite, so I’ll be speaking from that point of view (which calls it Version history).

This tool was primarily designed to help authors of papers revisit and use previous versions of a text, but with the invention of Google Docs, that version history suddenly was available to view for anyone who had access to the document.

As I researched digital writing instruction aides a few years ago, I was simultaneously using revision history to track down a case of plagiarism, and I was suddenly struck by a realization that version history–while not computerized grading–is actually sort of the ultimate (at least as of now) writing instruction tech tool. It gives us a trove of useful instant data (well beyond plagiarism) and numerous insights that would have been previously impossible. Jump forward to today and I use version history in some meaningful way almost every day, and it has allowed me to give far better instruction and feedback in significantly less time. Specifically, there are six major ways that I use version history to do this. They are the following:

I Use It to Require Students to Fully Use My Feedback

I talked in my last post about how feedback that doesn’t get attention generally doesn’t turn into learning, but in the past it was maddeningly hard to hold students accountable when it came to requiring them to seriously use my feedback. Version history is hugely helpful to me in this regard in two ways: First, with a click it reminds me what feedback I gave to my students (as you can pull up a history of comments given too), which is something that is nearly impossible to remember when one has 150+ students and numerous papers. Second, it allows me to quickly see the ways that the student did or didn’t use my feedback because I can highlight all new changes since I last looked at a piece by clicking the See new changes button (see below)

See the “See new changes” button on the right.

I Use It to Quickly Assess Final Drafts

If we want students to grow as much as possible, it is essential that we give them the vast majority of our feedback in earlier, formative stages of their work, which has been shown to at times double its effectiveness. The major downside of this is that if we spend time giving students lots of early feedback, we have to somehow assess the later drafts faster–that is unless we want more work (which most of us simply can’t do).

Version history has been a savior in this regard, because I can take my previous assessment of a piece, highlight the new changes, and using that information, assign an accurate score to whole essays in just a few minutes.

I Use It to Teach Revision

I have shared this quote from Kathleen Dudden Rowlands before, but it warrants repeating:

Published authors know that revision is the heart of producing effective writing…Developing writers don’t know this. They think of revising as a chore assigned because they aren’t good writers and can’t get their writing right the first time

-Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

I have indeed found this to be true and have written how I teach students to truly revise their work. My strongest tool in this work now? The student’s own revision history, as it allows me to move beyond vague statements about revision and get to into the actual specifics of the ways the student does or doesn’t revise.

I Use It as the Ultimate Guard Against Plagiarism

I share with my students in the first week that they are required to write papers in one document and share their version history of that document with me. It feels right to tell them this, as it can feel a bit Big Brother when they find out otherwise, and once I explain to them the value I get from seeing papers evolve, students are generally accepting of the idea. But one added happy side-benefit is that if students know that I will be able to see the block-by-block construction of a paper, it makes plagiarism far much more dangerous. In the two years that I have been having students share their version history, I haven’t had a single case of plagiarism–a statistic that would have seemed impossible even five years ago.

I Use It in Conferences and Meetings

Parents, special education coordinators, and administrators are often in need of data concerning how students approach school. Whether it is a parent/teacher conference or an IEP meeting, the line by data offered in version history is often the exact data they are looking for. When I have meetings with these parties, I now tend to start with version history of the students and go from there.

I Use It to Improve My Teaching

Even well over a decade into my career, It can be very hard to truly know if a lesson or approach yields educational fruit on the part of the students. I am a big fan of having students give me feedback, but that feedback can only show so much. In recent years I’ve gotten some of the best information about the effectiveness of my teaching from the version history, which shows exactly what the students did or didn’t do after each lesson.


While 2019 still didn’t bring us true computer grading, it did offer some pretty cool EdTech tools. The possibllities of EdPuzzle, which allows you to add questions and voiceovers to YouTube videos, are pretty exciting; Flipgrid took connecting with each other to a new level; and GeoGuessr, while dubiously educational, is admittedly a lot of fun. But it you are looking for a tech tool to really invest in this upcoming year, I might recommend putting aside the flashy program, opening up a Google or Microsoft Doc, and searching for version/revision history.

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

LET ME HELP YOU!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.



3 thoughts on “The Best EdTech Tool For Improving Writing Instruction

  1. Have you ever used the Google Chrome extension Draftback? It shows revision and the writing process in action at up to 6x the speed. I showed it to my students using my Instagram account, and they loved it! When I read this blog, it reminded me of the power of modeling the wring (and revision) process. Thanks for sharing your learning. I always look forward to reading your blogs, and I enjoyed attending your session “The Case for Curious Feedback” (or something like that 🙂 ) at NCTE!

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    1. I have not, but I just watched the video. What an amazing tool! I will definitely be using this to help show students the messy, non-linear sausage-making that is writing. It is so important for them to see that good writing doesn’t just flow out effortlessly from a select few. It is a struggle for all of us, even those who do it daily! Thanks for sharing this and reading, and a huge thank you for the kind words!!

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