Monday, January 30, 2023

ChatGPT and online writing environments

Like many of you, I've been inundated with information about ChatGPT. For some, the sky is falling. For others, these generative AI language modeling technologies represent opportunity.

For many of us in the writing instructional world, the response is kind of this: Told ya so.

ChatGPT is more powerful than other AI apps, stretching way back to that old chatterbot Eliza. It can wow and amaze--to a point. If you ask it canned school writing topics/prompts, you'll get back canned responses. What's been surprising to me is how many people will say, "This looks like what a student could have written." That depends on what you've asked those students to write.

If you put students in conversational, multi-audience writing environments in which they write to discuss a variety of texts, not to prove knowledge mastery (or even that they've simply read), even another human trying to help a student cheater would struggle.

Such environments are the foundation of many online writing courses (OWCs).

In online writing instruction (OWI) workshops I conduct for faculty, I have a slide for when people inevitable express concerns about about plagiarism in the type of asynchronous OWCs we focused on. The slide would initially be blank, and then using a Powerpoint animation, a big red heart appears. "Colleagues," I would say, "If someone else is doing all this work, it's gotta be love!"

My point was that the work being done in my asynchronous writing courses was so extensive and involved that anyone who tried to replicate it, week in and week out, for another student would basically have to take the whole course in that student's stead. They would really have to like that person! I guess I could have alternated my big heart with a dollar sign, because such substitute studenting could only be done for love or money.

We may be worried about ChatGPT's ability to respond to writing questions/prompts such as "Describe Hamlet's indecision" or "provide reasons why you are for/against gun control," but teachers should always be concerned about student responses to these kinds of prompts.

To paraphrase crudely: It's the assignment, stupid. (I wrote about this in lay terms on my other blog.)

If you have students writing in multi-audience, multi-text environments such as class message boards, you're going to provide them with very specific rhetorical situations that it would be difficult for someone to engage in without clearly appearing out of place.

I'm back almost to day one on this blog: Use discussions/message boards and other asynchronous environments. Here is a brief example of a prompt I used in my first-year argument writing course plugged into ChatGPT and the AI model's response; I include comments in the text:

Peer review challenges [*My prompt]

Dear class, 

DePeter’s chapter focuses on providing “meaningful” peer review (Reid mentions review too). What has your experience been like through your school years as a peer reviewer? In terms of being a reviewee, what sort of specific revision challenges do you tend to encounter during the drafting process? How do you work with those challenges? 

I asked you this week to read Mai. What peer review advice might you offer this author? 

Prof. Warnock 

ChatGPT response 

As a language model, I do not have personal experience as a peer reviewer or reviewee [*AI honesty]. However, I can provide information on best practices for peer review. 

DePeter and Reid [These are readings from Writing Spaces, a superb anthology series designed for student writers to help them think about and study writing as subject matter] emphasize the importance of providing meaningful feedback during the peer review process [*Peer review is only mentioned tangentially in Reid's chapter]. This includes focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript [*The word "manuscript" doesn't appear in Reid or DePeter--it's a jarring, out-of-context word] , providing specific and actionable suggestions for revision, and approaching the review with a constructive and supportive attitude [*This is nice,  highly general stuff about peer review but not specific to DePeter; in short, anyone could have written it, and it doesn't answer the prompt]

In terms of specific revision challenges, authors may struggle with organization, clarity, and coherence of their manuscript [*Again]. They may also have difficulty with grammar and punctuation. To work with these challenges, authors should review their manuscript for these issues and consider seeking feedback from beta readers or a writing group [*Both of these terms are also jarring and acontextual considering the readings. These comments are, bluntly, much less interesting that what actual students said, some of whom had visceral, emotional experiences with peer review].

As for offering advice to Mai [*Mai is an award-winning first-year student essay found in Drexel's in-house annual publication, The 33rd], I would recommend that they [*They AI smartly chooses "they"] focus on the organization and coherence of their manuscript [Again, "manuscript"; Mai's piece is clearly an essay or even paper]. They may also consider seeking feedback from beta readers or a writing group [*Again, both of these terms are jarring considering the readings] to help identify any areas that may be confusing or unclear. Additionally, It's important for them to be open to feedback and willing to make revisions based on the feedback they receive. [This advice is obviously not specific to Mai's essay. Students in my course provided advice about her use of personal reflection as well as the kinds of sources she used. Responses like this make it evident the respondent did not read Mai's essay].

ChatGPT is indeed amazing and teachers are finding great applications for it: I've already collected scores of links. Teachers, it won't ruin our lives--but it may sharpen our teaching, if we let it.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Tough debate in asynchronous environments

Here's nothing new: It can be tough finding common ground with people nowadays. (Hopefully Thanksgiving last week wasn't yet another proof of that for you.)

With bad models from Facebook to cable news to the holiday dinner table, where can our writing students refine the ability to have reasoned debate? A bloodless course paper with no real audience (i.e., writing for the teacher only) isn't the best platform. In-class, face-to-face discussions about sensitive topics can fall flat, even in the hands of skilled teacher-moderators; outrage is possible, but silence and hesitancy are more likely.

I was thinking about how students are skilled in digital communication, mainly through social media, but how seldom they have "curated" or moderated debates in such modalities. This thinking, coupled with my preparations for my winter asynchronous first-year argumentative writing course, led me back to a familiar place: Asynchronous discussion forums.

I wondered if those common, humble forums, in the context of a course, could be especially productive places to practice tough debate. 

I've said in the past that teachers are often intimidated by students' digital experience and fluency, and, yep, they are social media wizards. But they come to us often never having had an academically/pedagogically moderated argument in writing in which they had to articulate carefully points and perspectives. They seldom write in in-depth conversations.

This week, as we are concluding our course The Peer Reader in Context (a writing-intensive course taken primarily but not solely for potential Drexel Writing Center tutors), my students and I read "Interactional dynamics in on-line and face-to-face peer-tutoring sessions for second language writers" (1). In this Journal of Second Language Writing article, the authors reviewed transcripts of face-to-face and online tutoring sessions in second language contexts and discovered, surprisingly (especially in 2006), that it was the face-to-face sessions that seemed "to lend themselves to more hierarchal relationships in which tutors take control of the discourse" while "on-line interactions" appeared "to lead to more egalitarian relationships, with clients controlling the discourse more."

Why am I mentioning this article? Because in emphasizing that students may feel more at home on their own "turf" online, I thought that students' general digital familiarity coupled with a teacher-moderator creates a learning space in which students debate tough topics respectfully, thoughtfully, and in writing.

In previous first-year asynchronous argumentative writing courses, I would introduce at least one real hot-button topic thread during the term. It wasn't a mandatory thread, so students who didn't want to discuss that topic didn't have to. But now, when perhaps cultural temperatures are higher, I may use these forums more frequently as a renewed way to find our way into dialogue.


1) By Rodney H. Jones, Angela Garralda, David C.S. Li, and Graham Lock. Published in the volume 15 issue on pp. 1-23.

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Friday, September 30, 2022

Guidance for course modality change requests

Now that almost everyone has or can offer online and hybrid courses, institutions have been challenged to develop decision-making processes for when courses should be offered in modalities other than face-to-face.

At Drexel, we were making these decisions in a centralized way for the past two years, but having the process emanate from the office of the provost wasn't sustainable. Starting this winter (in our quarter-system school), decisions for modality change requests will happen at department and program levels, with some college-level oversight. The university will only get involved in a big-picture way, making sure, for instance, that departments/units aren't tilting beyond a certain percentage (which happens to be 5%) of online and hybrid course offerings.

Our process manifests itself in our scheduling system, in that schedulers will be able to add an annotation in the system when choosing one of three "instructional methods" in addition to face-to-face:

  • Remote synchronous
  • Remote asynchronous
  • Hybrid

A document guides everyone through the process, and key in that document is what we are calling "Justification Guidance"; the prime directive, if you will, is this: "Modality changes must be driven by the opportunity to improve the student experience." It's all overtly about the students; as the document says, "Faculty convenience is not a compelling rationale to request a modality change."

Justifications for change must address three primary questions:

  • Why is this delivery mode better for students?
  • What data has been collected or will be collected to support claims that the new modality is superior?
  • When offering remote and hybrid courses, are scheduling units ensuring that students have face-to-face choices?

Data, data, data--assembling data about student experience and success is emphasized throughout.

There is flexibility, though. Courses with a long history of running in certain modalities--for example, our first-year writing courses have long been hybrids--can continue to do so. "Prestigious" non-local faculty can teach classes remotely if such opportunities present themselves. And none of this involves human resources; faculty with disability and accessibility issues will bypass this guidance and work with human resources about accommodations.

Again, our scheduling system includes a field in which schedulers will add detailed notations describing the modality change, so the history behind decision-making will be codified.

Nothing's perfect, but this system provides a transparent, equitable, and more locally-grounded way for our programs to make decisions about modality change requests.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Modality as strategy

While of course online schools have long used distance learning to reach large and perhaps otherwise untapped student populations, we might consider how modality could help strategically build academic programs on a more granular level in traditional institutions.

The almost complete pandemic-induced shift to online and hybrid classes has meant that programs have a broader modality range when offering courses, and modality can certainly be a more prominent factor in strategic approaches to program development.

All venues that cover higher ed are discussing the impending enrollment "cliff," a significant drop in traditionally aged students that is projected to start in about 2025 (1). But I think many have submitted to a hyper-focused hand-wringing about these students while forgetting about the vast populations of other people who would be extremely well served by a college education. 

In developing courses of study, we consider what kinds of courses we offer, when we offer them, and who teaches them. Considering modality can be part of fine-tuning ways we grow and develop our programs. Of course, we also do consider where students are and many places offer distance courses for this reason, but online includes not just meeting needs of the distance learner who cannot come to campus.

Remember, while not all faculty may be in a hurry to return to online teaching, almost all faculty indeed are trained veterans in online and hybrid teaching, and we can adjust our scheduling to account for their talents as well as our students' needs. In conjunction with this, students are now experienced at studenting in different modalities. I know, some of it has been a real struggle, but students have online and hybrid experience we can build from--and non-traditional students have developed similar skills and experiences in their increasingly virtual work lives.

This kind of thinking has obvious implications when, for instance, trying to meet large populations like adult learners who may have full-time commitments but want to further their education.

But modality can shape more nuanced enrollment strategies. If you are growing a new program and hoping it can serve as a double or dual major, time flexibility may open that door for many students. The same goes for minors. In either case, scheduling issues can be an obstacle, especially on small campuses where course offering cycles can be tight and inflexible.

The flexibility of synchronous remote learning is one component. Course availability really opens up when we have asynchronous courses that remove time constraints.

Conversations about flexible scheduling often centers on students, but faculty can get the same benefits. Pushing classes into evening hours, at least on the campuses I have worked, is usually not popular. But offering courses that require no evening travel because they are remote synchronous or don't have evening hours at all because they're asynchronous can accommodate faculty.

We account for numerous factors when designing courses of study, but modality may not be prominent enough. We can use modality as part of strategic approaches to building curricula--and broaden our vision of the audiences we wish to serve.


1) For example, see the CHE's "Will Your College Survive the Demographic Cliff?" or Capture Higher Ed's "How to Climb Higher Ed's Impending Demographic Cliff."

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