CCCC 2006 in Review
Lang explained key terms such as "data mining," as "the process of discovering and interpreting previously unknown patterns in data bases" and "organizational data mining" as "leveraging tools and technologies to enhance the decision-making process by transforming data into valuable and actionable knowledge." The began the Texas Tech panel in an intelligent way in contrast to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) article that seemed to misunderstand what the professors at Texas Tech are doing to innovate and improve composition instruction at their school.
Lang went on to explain that ICON (software designed to "house" writing from 2500-3000 students per term-ICON stands for Interactive Composition Online) has approximately a million documents with a number of embedded factors that enable researchers to do semantic interpretation, then store it and continue to look at the data, and then finally plug it back into the system. For example, she described using a data driven question about how students use feedback and explained how it can identify artifacts and help to correlate results that could then be plugged back into curricular decisions. Lang explained that first a commitment to collect data is need, then there is the need to understand, work with, and eventually develop data and text mining software to redefine research questions. To answer her own "So what?" question, Lang claimed that data mining will enable teachers to move from anecdotal to empirical ways of understanding what students really do.
Rickley began by explaining that she examined "the dark underbelly" of the ICON tool in her program and on her campus. She considered some of the points of resistance in the ICON system and some of the problems of teaching students with a large number of graduate student teachers and a common syllabus. Rickley explained that this is an open system where everything teachers and students do and write is viewed by "big brother" in "the panopticon of ICON" which adds to the resistance. She also explained the conflict between technology and humanities and referenced the recent CHE article that illustrates the ICON program as a giant text conveyor belt. For example, ICON requires graduate students to grade a few papers on a daily basis instead of amassing a large stack of papers and grading for hours and days. "Normal" grading routines and romantic images of inspiring teachers are not what ICON promotes so much as shared ownership of texts. Rickley asserted that moving away from "my class" or "my graduate student" toward a more equal distribution of power and used Mike Palmquist as support when he wrote about "embracing dissonances" as a key to finding teachable moments. Rickley sees the dissonance with ICON as positive but does note that some students are lost by the techno-dissonance. Rickley continued to use Palmquist to support the point that technology is integral to writing and ownership of texts, classes, and the entire program.
Kemp explained how the ICON system allows for more objective "anonymous, faceless readers" and also enables students to write more often and receive constant feedback. On average, teachers spend 47 minutes a day responding to student texts. "Is this a mechanical system?", Kemp asks, and says he sees it more as an organic system. He claims that pervasive adaptive feedback creates a learning system even if the Texas Tech graduate students may not feel that way. Kemp sees the data collection and feedback as "sensors." Each text gets two readers and notes "the second reader effect." He says that the experienced teachers are synthesized with a large number of inexperienced teachers because the second reader is not only reading and evaluating student texts but also the first reader's comments. Kemp calls this process "embedded training" because the graduate student readers learn differences in comments and see student ratings on the comment as well as peers' and supervisors' ratings on comments. All student work is handled through the database system though they do meet in classes once a week for 80 minutes. In the case of conflicting comments, the student becomes "a quality control inspector" and enables students to review assignment criteria and negotiate the difference for him or herself.
Rice began by expressing his desire to provoke questions such as which is more important, talking with a student or writing? ICON hybridizes classroom instructors and readers. If you are a program using only print media, Rice claimed you are graduating functionally illiterate students. He stresses the need for hybridized print and online literacy. He noted a subtle hybridization process with text books where teachers are working with book editors. Rice mentioned that Kemp, Rickley and Lang are expert programmers and that they were planning to enable hybridization of publisher's texts and tools with their own system. They have developed a hybrid program of readings and writing sources at Texas Tech called Topic, though it's possible this element of the ICON system will be replaced in the future. Lang, Rickley, Kemp and Rice made it clear that they believe that ICON is succeeding and creating more writing and commenting opportunities for their composition students and instructors.
In Q&A, John Waters made a passionate statement about how the program reflects already established pedagogies, but may not be necessary. Discussion was spirited and alive with issues of how to teach writing online. Regardless of where you place yourself in this issue, it was undeniable that discussions about effective writing and learning were heightened by ICON. Hopefully, the research from the data being collected will help us see some of the pedagogical tensions discussed more clearly.
— Will Hochman
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.