Skip to main content

What Computing Can and Could Do…

Computers have changed writing education, but many writing teachers wonder if technology is now turning into a threat. Too many politicians, administrators, and non-profit foundations are rushing to embrace technologies such as MOOCs and adaptive tutoring without skepticism. What is the balance between too little and too much faith in technology?

The question of what computing technology can and cannot do for writing students is something we need to consider — as well as whether or not some of these tasks should be done (by a computer or a human).

1) Formatting. I cannot remember the intricacies of APA or MLA, so I use Bookends with my writing tools. Even Word has improved its basic bibliography formatter to the point I catch few minor errors when I triple check the entries.

Yes, I do tell my students to double and triple check citations and bibliographies, but I also demonstrate Bookends, EndNote, RefWords, and Word's built-in tools. The time saved lets a writer focus on content. We claim ideas matter more than formatting, but we also know editors will reject a paper with sloppy formatting.

2) Grammar, spelling, and mechanics. The quality of automated writing tools has improved dramatically in the last 30 years. I use Grammarian Pro on the Mac and love it. Again, we know the tools are imperfect, but to assume they might never be better than I am would be presumptuous. How often do you receive a document that a basic spelling and grammar check would have improved?

Anyone else use dictation software? The software is getting great at determining "too, to, two" and even using "who" and "whom" properly. My software speaks up and says, "Grammar error." That's either annoying or impressive, but it certainly improves my writing.

3) Fact checking. Yes, there are research projects that demonstrate "fact checks" of papers. Imagine going line-by-line through papers and marking the contents as fact, disputed fact, incorrect fact, or opinion. The technology exists for software to do this very task. Already, law firms use computers to expedite discovery research.
The Truth Teller prototype was built and runs with a combination of several technologies - some new, some very familiar. We've combined video and audio extraction with a speech-to-text technology to search a database of facts and fact checks. The Post also worked with Dan Schultz, creator of Truth Goggles, as he helped consult and shared his knowledge of real-time fact checking. We are effectively taking in video, converting the audio to text, matching that text to our database, and then displaying, in real time, what's true and what's false. The key to the project's success is building an authoritative database - our goal is to identify falsehoods, not create more of them.


We are transcribing videos using Microsoft Audio Video indexing service (MAVIS) technology. MAVIS is a Windows Azure application which uses Deep Neural Net (DNN) based speech recognition technology to convert audio signals into words. Using this service, we are extracting audio from videos and saving the information in our Lucene search index as a transcript. We are then looking for the facts in the transcription. Finding distinct phrases to match is difficult. Instead, we are focusing on patterns.

We are using approximate string matching, or a fuzzy string searching algorithm. We are implemented a modified version Rabin-Karp using Levenshtein distance algorithm. This will be modified to recognize paraphrasing and negative connotations in the future.
4) Plagiarism detection. Several services already exist that compare submitted papers to a database of existing works. No human could compare every line of a document to other documents. If a paper is factually correct, it can still be a "borrowed" work that doesn't deserve a passing grade.

TurnItIn and other plagiarism detectors are imperfect, but the more data they receive the better they will be at detection. False positives are also a problem, because students stumble with citation formats. Ideally, the plagiarism detectors will improve enough to recognize when a student was trying to cite a source. Honest errors in formatting might also be reduced with formatting tools mentioned earlier.

5) Grading. Okay, robo-grading scares teachers. You can find a lot of articles and essays on this technology. Someday, the technology will work — at least well enough for a first-pass. The reality is, bad writing probably can be detected by software. A human should always verify the results of computer-based grading tools, yet the tools can save time.

I use basic grading tools to recognize common problems. The software is okay, and saves me several hours. As long as we recognize what software can and cannot do as a "robo-grader" we can refine our own processes.

Combine a "truth detector" with plagiarism software and e-grading applications… we start to approach an evaluator of at least acceptable competence.

Technology isn't going to replace the writing teacher, but it certainly will help us a lot.


Popular posts from this blog

Slowly Rebooting in 286 Mode

The lumbar radiculopathy, which sounds too much like "ridiculously" for me, hasn't faded completely. My left leg still cramps, tingles, and hurts with sharp pains. My mind remains cloudy, too, even as I stop taking painkillers for the back pain and a recent surgery.

Efforts to reboot and get back on track intellectually, physically, and emotionally are off to a slow, grinding start. It reminds me of an old 80286 PC, the infamously confused Intel CPU that wasn't sure what it was meant to be. And this was before the "SX" fiascos, which wedded 32-bit CPU cores with 16-bit connections. The 80286 was supposed to be able to multitask, but design flaws resulted in a first-generation that was useless to operating system vendors.

My back, my knees, my ankles are each making noises like those old computers.

If I haven't already lost you as a reader, the basic problem is that my mind cannot focus on one task for long without exhaustion and multitasking seems…

MarsEdit and Blogging

MarsEdit (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Mailing posts to blogs, a practice I adopted in 2005, allows a blogger like me to store copies of draft posts within email. If Blogger, WordPress, or the blogging platform of the moment crashes or for some other reason eats my posts, at least I have the original drafts of most entries. I find having such a nicely organized archive convenient — much easier than remembering to archive posts from Blogger or WordPress to my computer.

With this post, I am testing MarsEdit from Red Sweater Software based on recent reviews, including an overview on 9to5Mac.

Composing posts an email offers a fast way to prepare draft blogs, but the email does not always work well if you want to include basic formatting, images, and links to online resources. Submitting to Blogger via Apple Mail often produced complex HTML with unnecessary font and paragraph formatting styles. Problems with rich text led me to convert blog entries to plaintext in Apple Mail and then format th…

Let’s Make a Movie: Digital Filmmaking on a Budget

Film camera collection. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 5, 2015 Deadline
July 2015 Issue

Every weekend a small group of filmmakers I know make at least one three-minute movie and share the short film on their YouTube channel, 3X7 Films.

Inspired by the 48-Hour Film Project (, my colleagues started to joke about entering a 48-hour contest each month. Someone suggested that it might be possible to make a three-minute movie every week. Soon, 3X7 Films was launched as a Facebook group and members started to assemble teams to make movies.

The 48-Hour Film Project, also known as 48HFP, launched in 2001 by Mark Ruppert. He convinced some colleagues in Washington, D.C., that they could make a movie in 48 hours. The idea became a friendly competition. Fifteen years later, 48HFP is an international phenomenon, with competitions in cities around the world. Regional winners compete in national and international festivals.

On a Friday night, teams gathe…