A robot helped me write this…(and it can help your students, too)

The Uber for writing teachers

What if you had a personal writing teacher on call?  Someone to look at all of your emails, letters, proposals, articles and documents? Thanks to WriteLab, a new application developed by people at Stanford, this is closer than you think.

The idea is simple: plug your draft into WriteLab, and you have suggestions to improve your writing within seconds.

The suggestions fall under seven categories:


“Teach the writer, then teach the writing”

You’ll notice that spelling, grammar and usage are absent from the list above. This is why WriteLab is so fascinating. It doesn’t help to ensure that your writing is correct, it helps you to make your writing sound better and more clear.

The suggestions that WriteLab makes are helpful, but it’s not the isolated improvement that makes this application powerful. It’s the facilitation of mindfulness, the way that taking suggestions, considering their validity and deciding whether to take them or not can help writers grow.

When hearing about WriteLab, I was skeptical. Technology is advanced. Yes. But the subtleties in language that result in good writing are complex, and it seems unlikely that an algorithm will be able to actually give me suggestions about my word choice, clarity, fluency and even sound. Yet, after trying Writelab, I’m convinced that it’s a helpful resource.

It’s utility lies in the fact that it doesn’t do the work for you, but offers suggestions that require you to revisit your sentences, analyze your writing and decide whether or not you’d like to take the feedback or stick with your original choice.

And that sounds like the same thing that a good writing teacher does, now that I think of it.

How I think WriteLab could expand and improve:

  • Include a “reflect on your choices” pop-up that writers could use at the end of the process
  • Change the buttons. Some of the suggestions are helpful, but not worthy of addressing. Maybe something like: “Changed it” “left it” and “thanks for the tip” might resonate with students.
  • Make the writing guide more prominent. There’s a little book icon next to each suggestion that takes users to a writing guide, but a more prominent link might be useful.
  • If a writer makes a lot of the same choices, display a pop-up or even more prominent message with something like, “We’ve noticed seven places where you can be more concise. Would you like to watch a short video on how to do this?”
  • Have a teacher dashboard where writing teachers can view the most common types of suggestions made, taken and ignored. (They may actually have this, I’m not sure.)

How I’ll use WriteLab in my classroom:

Students learn best when I get out of the way of their learning. WriteLab is a tool that can help me facilitate independent learning without imposing too much of my own subjectivity and writing style on students.

When using this in class, I plan on demonstrating the tool to students, maybe having a student try it out in front of the class, then leaving it as an option for students who want to improve their writing style. This will be a great help to the students who enjoy it, but might become a chore to the students who would rather conference with me first or work on their writing entirely independently.

That said, all students may benefit from the process of putting their writing into WriteLab and then reflecting on the experience. Students could write a draft, enter it into WriteLab, then go through the process of accepting or rejecting the suggestions made. After that, the students could look back at the log of advice given, and write a reflection on why the students made their revision decisions.

That’s metacognitive thinking, mindfulness and independent learning facilitated by technology. That’s how I want to use technology in my classroom.

There are some broader implications here

Some teachers fear being replaced by technology. I know it. They may not admit it, and they might not even consciously think it, but when they see tools like WriteLab, which can do some of the work that a human does, it creates an uneasy feeling.  Dealing with this is exemplary of a larger shift in mindset that all educators must undergo in our world of emerging powerful technology.

Before, we had to deliver content. Now, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google can do that. Before, we had to manage all of our students’ work. Now, Google Classroom can do that. Before, we had to have the whole class working on the same thing at the same time, so that we could teach them all and know what everyone was doing. Now, students can teach themselves with sites like Khan Academy and EdPuzzle, so what is the teacher’s role?

The teacher now has to get out of the way of student learning by creating the conditions for learning and inspiration. Now, a teacher must be there to guide students towards independent and collaborative discovery, yet still be ready to jump in at the right moment when the student cannot do something on his or her own, or with the help of peers.

This is an incredible opportunity. Let’s go back to the example of WriteLab. If a writing teacher can teach students to thoughtfully run their drafts through this application and make decisions about writing style, then the teacher has just freed up some time to focus more on the depth of a student’s ideas, the persuasiveness of a student’s evidence, and hopefully, the value that the final product will deliver to a real-life reader.

So, education is moving the same way that our larger economy is going. More and more tasks are being automated and digitally outsourced. This is a threat to those who cling to an old way or an opportunity to invest time and attention towards new higher levels of thinking that students and teachers couldn’t get to as often before, because there simply wasn’t enough time.


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