SJC Spanish Teacher Wins The Write Tools Challenge

-Ulrich Boser
The panel selected Dan Pier, a Spanish teacher at St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC, as winner of The Write Tools Challenge.
Providing high quality, individualized writing instruction is time-consuming and challenging when students bring a wide range of skills and abilities to a classroom. That’s why The Learning Agency Lab is increasingly interested in how technology and well-designed algorithms can help supplement teacher instruction by providing students with timely, useful feedback on their writing. 

More than a dozen companies now provide assisted writing feedback software to teachers, students, and everyday professionals. Among them: Revision Assistant, MI Write, and Criterion. But these tools are expensive, and there is room for improvement.  

Last spring, we launched The Write Tools Challenge to hear from teachers and better understand how these tools could maximize learning for students nationwide. The goal of The Write Tools Challenge was to gather innovative ideas and suggestions from teachers to help developers design and create better automated writing feedback apps and programs. 

We received more than 130 ideas and proposals from teachers around the country on what an ideal writing assistance program would look like for their students. Entrants described technology that would provide students with positive, timely, specific feedback on their writing. Teachers envisioned a program that would help students organize their thoughts and generate ideas. And they called for technology that would provide students with access to a variety of writing prompts from a diversity of cultures and writers. 

We convened a panel of educators to review the proposals, discuss their merits and to name one winner of the $3,000 Challenge Prize. The panel selected Dan Pier, a Spanish teacher at St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC, as winner of The Write Tools Challenge.

Pier has been a classroom teacher for seven years. He has taught Spanish, English language arts, and has worked with national and international groups to develop curriculum guides and professional development programs for teachers. His proposal called for a tool that is able to adjust its assessments based on the writing level of the student using it, and one that will provide positive feedback as well as critical responses.

“Too much feedback—especially nitpicking—can be overwhelming for students, especially those who struggle,” Pier wrote in his proposal. “The tool would be customizable at the class and individual student level … if a struggling writer is having trouble mastering a more basic concept, his or her feedback would address that concept and not overwhelm the writer with demands he or she is not ready for, while a high flyer might get feedback on something much more advanced.”

We want to encourage researchers, data scientists, and programmers to develop open-source algorithms that will make assisted writing feedback tools more useful to teachers and more cost-effective for school districts. So, in the coming weeks we will publish a report on what we learned from The Challenge participants and their submissions. By publishing this information freely, we hope developers will incorporate what we’ve learned into the creation or improvement of assisted writing feedback tools that are more beneficial to students, more useful to teachers, and more cost-effective for school districts.

​-Ulrich Boser

Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on The Learning Agency Lab.