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This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers

8 September 2017

From Fast Company:

Every time students take a writing exercise on Quill.org–a writing instruction platform for schools–their responses are logged by computers and analyzed for patterns. Algorithms take account of every false word they type, every misplaced comma, every inappropriate conjunction, deepening a sense of where the nation’s kids are succeeding in sentence-construction and where they need extra help.

The algorithms substitute for human intervention. Instead of teachers having to correct errors late at night with a red pen, the system does it automatically, suggesting corrections and concepts on its own. The goal, says Peter Gault, who founded Quill three years ago, is to reach more students than traditional teaching methods, including those who need support the most. About 400,000 students in 2,000 schools have used the (mostly free) writing-instruction platform so far.

. . . .

Kids today write all the time, perhaps more than previous generations. Whether it’s texts to their friends, or posting on Facebook, they’re constantly hitting the keys one way or another. But all this composition doesn’t necessarily make for better writing, at least not in the formal, academic sense. Just 24% of 8th- and 12th-grade students are “proficient” writers according to the Department of Education’s “The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011,” published in 2012. Teachers often complain they lack professional development to teach writing well. And, there’s a widespread acceptance in education circles that writing instruction is less developed and successful than, say, math or science teaching.

“Teachers just don’t have enough time in the day to offer feedback on everything students write, and that becomes a huge blocker to students moving forward,” Gault says in an interview. “Using machine learning to detect these patterns really unlocks a lot of options that allow us to bring this to thousands, or millions, of additional students in the coming years.”

The New York-based startup trains its algorithms with about 200 responses to each exercise, submitted by its programmers (it has about 300 exercises so far). As the students offer up thousands of their own responses, the code is then able to detect patterns without additional human intervention. When it prompts students to correct their sentences, it does so based on the collective trial-and-error of thousands of other users of the service.

Link to the rest at Fast Company and here’s a link to Quill.org.

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5 Comments to “This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers”

  1. So long as it doesn’t scare or turn them off to writing at all. (I know I’ve gotten tired of word whining ‘fragment – consider revising’ to what passes for perfectly normal speech. 😉 )

  2. “every false word they type, every misplaced comma, every inappropriate conjunction” – and a machine algorithm decides these things. It sent chills up my spine.

    How quickly do they want to impose Grammarly-like business English on everyone?

  3. I’d settle for imposing proper English conventions. Caveat: I’m a senior volunteer at my neighborhood elementary school. Because I’m bilingual, I’m allowed to work in the dual-language classrooms. My current assignment is correcting fifth graders’ journal entries, which are mandatory. They do a week in English, then a week in Spanish.

    Their English writing is all over the map. Some of it is quite good. But others do not know to insert a space after a comma or a period. They don’t capitalize the names of their X-Box games or the names of their friends. They’re not aware that the name of the city of Chicago must be capitalized. They use “loose” for “lose,” and, expectably, confuse to, too and two. And of course I sometimes get Spanglish, though not as often as one might think, with completely bilingual ten year olds.

    I do what I can. The teacher with whom I work isn’t allowed sufficient time to correct 24 entries per day, every day of the week, so I proof their journals with them and go over the changes I want made. Even then, sometimes the kids don’t understand how a sentence should read, so I must go over it again.

    Please, if your lifestyle allows it, consider going into your local school as a volunteer, and work to share your skills. I’d be ready to believe that very few teachers have the time to bring their students up to the excellence they’ll need, going into the future. We seniors can help, and if it’s in your heart to do so, my guess is that your local school will welcome you.

    • This is a very good idea. I much prefer a human helping the kids, and you’re doing a very good deed here 🙂 I think the teacher should reconsider assignments that she can’t grade or dive deep into, but I’m glad you’re able to pick up the slack.

      I’ll ponder doing the same; there’s actually a school in my own neighborhood. I’ve only go inside for voting purposes since it’s a precinct. Volunteering would be much more constructive 🙂

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