Press-Republican

January 13, 2013

Teaching is not so easy: Part 3

BY STEWART A. DENENBERG
Press-Republican

---- — Well, it’s the middle of January once again, and soon you will notice an influx of students eager to begin the spring semester at Plattsburgh State.

You may recall in my Sept. 9 column, “Teaching is not so easy as it looks,” I recounted my progress and lack thereof in preparing for and offering CSC 372 Ethics and the Information Age — the required ethics and writing course for computer-science majors at SUNY Plattsburgh.

I had great (albeit misplaced) confidence I could easily do this as I had developed this course for the department a couple of decades ago.

I described college teaching using the metaphor of The Acting Company where the professor plays all of the roles: starring actor, producer, director and the most difficult and frustrating — stage manager.

The part I totally underestimated was that of stage manager, who must attend to gazillions of unanticipated details (ranging from making sure the software actually works to getting the right keys for the right doors). You can go to: http://tec-soc.blogspot.com and then click on the CSC 372 link for the full syllabus to the course.

Now the most interesting part of the course — after the ethical theory, of course — was the slick way the writing part was handled. Professor Del Hart, a colleague, had developed an Online Peer Review System based on the SWORD System developed at the University of Pittsburgh (sword@pittedu) that could be used locally and tailored especially for our students.

On a schedule of Monday, Wednesday, Saturday (the computer never sleeps and apparently similarly for our students), they would submit a first draft, critique the essays of three other students and, using them to improve their papers, write the final draft (usually very close to 11:59 p.m. Saturday).

Although the SWORD project’s research has shown that students come remarkably close to issuing the same grades that an instructor would assign, I still read the papers and assign the final grades.

I can attest that the students’ criticism were very similar to my own, and so the system could have automatically assigned the students’ final grades on the papers based entirely on the other students’ evaluations.

The Online Peer Review System supplies a rubric the student uses to assign quantitative evaluations to their reviews of the writing. For example, the rubric uses the criteria of evidence, sufficiency, presentation, insight and overall quality on each paper, and for each of these categories, a drop-down menu allows the reviewer to assign a specific value.

For example, evidence could be measured as: none, weak, adequate,very good and exceptional, which could be assigned grades of E, D, C, B and A, respectively. The instructors can manage these settings as they see fit.

Another advantage to the computerized system is that it can enforce deadlines and deduct points for lateness, also determined by the instructor. I can be the good cop and the computer the bad cop.

But, I hear you asking, “What about easy graders? Or overly harsh ones?” — won’t they skew the results? Not really — the full-blown system can correct for that situation. As the semester progresses, each student’s reviews are compared to the class average, and the easy and harsh graders are thus identified. It is then just a small step to weight these students’ reviews so that they don’t count as much as the other reviewers. Certainly not a perfect solution but a good one, and, as our politicians are reminding us these days: “Don’t sacrifice the good for the perfect.”

A good followup is to have the instructor review the student reviewers occasionally to make sure he or she agrees with them and with the system’s weightings.

In the past, I had to use a full class meeting period for the reviewing process — now I could spend the class time supplementing and clarifying the ideas in the textbook.

I liked the Online Peer Review System and think other writing instructors will also.

We are in the process of reading the student evaluations of the system for their comments and criticism so that improvements can be made and the system can be offered to other writing courses on campus.

I had a great time.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. Before that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Send comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.