Posted on January 10, 2009
“No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be …” – Isaac Asimov (5)
Although some realities of the classroom remain constant –they wouldn’t exist without the presence, whether actual or virtual, of students and teachers –the technology age is changing not only the way that we teach, but also how students learn. While the implications of this affect all disciplines, it is acutely evident in the teaching of writing. In the last twenty years, we have seen a rapid change in how we read, write, and process text. Compositionist Carl Whithaus maintains that “… writing is becoming an increasingly multimodal and multimedia activity” (xxvi). It is no surprise then, that there are currently 100 million blogs in existence worldwide and 171 billion email messages sent daily (Olson 23), and the trend toward digitally-based writing is also moving into the classroom. The typical student today writes “almost exclusively on a computer, typically one equipped with automated tools to help them spell, check grammar, and even choose the right words” (Cavanaugh 10). Furthermore, CCC notes that “[i]ncreasingly, classes and programs in writing require that students compose digitally” (785).
Given the effect of technology on writing and the current culture of high stakes testing ushered in by the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a seemingly natural product of the combination of the two is computer-based assessment of writing. An idea still in its infancy, the process of technological change in combination with federal testing mandates has resulted in several states incorporating “computer-based testing into their writing assessments, … not only because of students’ widespread familiarity with computers, but also because of the demands of college and the workplace, where word-processing skills are a must” (Cavanaugh 10). Although it makes sense to have students accustomed to composing on computer write in the same mode for high-stakes tests, does it make sense to score their writing by computer as well? This is a controversial question that has both supporters and detractors. Supporters like Stan Jones, Indiana’s Commissioner of Higher Education, believe that computerized essay grading is inevitable (Hurwitz n.p.), while detractors, primarily pedagogues, assert that such assessment defies what we know about writing and its assessment, because “[r]egardless of the medium … all writing is social; accordingly, response to and evaluation of writing are human activities” (CCC 786).
Even so, the reality is that the law requires testing nationwide, and in all probability that mandate is not going to change anytime soon. With NCLB up for revision this year, even politicians like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts agree that standards are a good idea and that testing is one way to ensure that they are met. At some point, we need to pull away from all-or-none polarization and create a new paradigm. The sooner we realize that “… computer technology will subsume assessment technology in some way” (Penrod 157), the sooner we will be able to address how we, as teachers of writing, can use technology effectively for assessment. In the past, Brian Huot notes that teachers’ responses have been reactionary, “cobbled together at the last minute in response to an outside call … ” (150). Teachers need to be proactive in addressing “… technological convergence in the composition classroom, [because if we don't], others can will impose certain technologies on our teaching” (Penrod 156). Instead of passively leaving the development of assessment software solely to programmers, teachers need to be actively involved with the process in order to ensure the application of sound pedagogy in its creation and application.
This essay will argue that automated...