Avoiding Death By Discussion Forum

Note: This piece was originally published on moodleuserguides.org

Discussion forums are a mainstay of online and blended classes. Any learning technology that becomes ubiquitous is a fair target for critical interrogation (Death by PowerPoint comes to mind); discussion boards, too, have their fair share of detractors. A common criticism is that forums lead to rote, dull, perfunctory work from students and instructors. Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris of Hybrid Pedagogy write:

Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.

Even for those optimistic about the use of forums for real learning, the tools can be confusing to configure properly and are often an unwieldy chore for faculty to manage and assess. Indeed, the term “Death by Discussion Forum” would be an appropriate way to describe some online courses. Done well, however, online discussion forums can be an instrumental tool to build community, foster student engagement in the knowledge-building process and enrich learning via the reflective and socially rich exchange of written dialogue.

Therefore, while it is important that forward-thinking and innovative instructors experiment with new ways to supplement and build on established digital teaching and learning practices, it is also vital for instructors who are using discussion forums to work at their practice in the here and now. Instructional and pedagogical goals must be carefully aligned with the real-life use of forum activities in Moodle. Effectively facilitating a space for “brilliant and lively conversation” requires a deep understanding of the ways that adjusting various Moodle Forum activity settings impact the learner’s experience as they embark on writing and engaging with their peers.

Aligning Your Pedagogy with Forum Activities

Many critics of “bad PowerPoint” note that tools can be used well or poorly. An excellent slide deck isn’t the presentation; it supports the presentation. The most effective use of technology happens when our tools fade into the background. The irony, of course, is that creating the conditions in which technology disappears requires careful forethought and a relatively sophisticated understanding of said technology’s capabilities to support one’s work. So, before assigning a discussion forum for its own sake, or out of habit, take a step back and consider the instructional goals you wish to achieve. Do you want students to reflect on a specific aspect of coursework, to research and answer a specific question, or to share progress and critique their peers’ work? Is a forum the best tool to support this goal? If so, there are several different flavors of forums available that can help address your specific teaching needs, important settings that can be tweaked to expedite a suitable learning environment, and some best practices to consider as a facilitator.

Forum types in Moodle

The Standard Forum for General Use is the most versatile and is a good fit for most discussion activities. It allows students to start their own discussion threads and reply to others, which is appropriate for forum activity structures in which students are asked to add their post as well as reply to peers. It provides the greatest potential for learner agency; students have space to “own” the threads that they start. They can express themselves via the choices they make when titling their threads and structuring their prose.  Further, they can choose to participate in and reply to threads from others that they find the most interesting or stimulating. Instructors can also easily add topics or reply directly to student threads in this format.

For a conversation that is more tightly focused on a single topic, consider the Single Simple Discussion format. Here, students and faculty are all locked into one thread together, which narrows the scope of conversation and is best when the entire class needs to attend closely to each student’s post. This format emphasizes the communal and deemphasizes the individual.

Because it hides all other posts from students until they make their own initial post, the Q&A Forum is popular with instructors who want to ensure that students are uninfluenced by reading the work of peers who happen to post earlier in the discussion cycle. It can be effective, but it also tends to shut down conversation and inhibit elaboration or further exploration of a topic. If both originality and in-depth discussion are desired, it is recommended to collect original work via an Assignment Activity first, and then follow up with another type of forum for sharing and peer response.

Setting expectations

In any class, but particularly online, setting expectations and establishing clear lines of communication are important. Face-to-face, you might have an opportunity to set guidelines for your in-class discussions early on. In an online environment, you need to be proactive. You should clearly communicate details and expectations about writing voice, citation requirements, and timeliness expectations. Will you require an initial post to be submitted early in the week, or can all posts be made last minute? Write up (or record and post an audio or video message) detailing what you expect from students and “pin” it to the top of the first discussion forum.

Further, consider using the discussion board itself as a tool to streamline communication — set up a dedicated, ungraded forum for students to ask questions relating to the course information or content. Just like in a live class, shyer students may benefit from the questions that bolder students ask, and some may be able to answer each other’s questions.

How often should you jump in?

You should consider early on how often and how heavily you plan on participating in the forum discussions. To some extent, this is up to faculty preference. Some instructors like to give specific feedback early and often or prompt for additional thinking, while others prefer to observe, letting the conversation develop naturally, and jump in only if the conversation needs to be steered back on track. There is some research-based evidence that supports the latter approach. One study found that “the more the instructors posted, the less frequently students posted and the shorter were the discussion threads”(Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007). That said, more is not the same as better; the authors caution us not to conflate volume with quality. Students in courses in which instructors were more active on the forums rated those faculty as more enthusiastic and displaying higher levels of subject-matter expertise on subsequent course evaluations. A second qualitative study notes that “students place a high value on individual responses from the instructor and a summary at the conclusion of the discussion topic” and that student engagement in online courses dropped when instructors did not post enough. (Reonieri, 2006) Clearly, there is value in faculty participation in discussion boards.

A happy medium may to be to employ a “light touch” during the active forum period — interjecting only to answer particularly difficult questions, to address misconceptions that have not been otherwise challenged, or to steer a discussion back on topic, and then provide individual feedback or summarize discussions at the end of the active discussion period. (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007)

Keeping Up With Assessment

If forums are going to be an important part of your course and require a high degree of student engagement and work to be worthwhile, you probably agree that they should be graded. This raises both pedagogical and practical concerns. Are you going to treat forums as “participation” by giving full points for meeting basic requirements, or are you going to critically assess student work? Will students have a chance to revise and improve their work? Will you use a rubric? These are questions you should be comfortable answering. In any case, your feedback is critical for students to understand whether or not they are contributing to the course discussions satisfactorily.

However you decide to proceed, if you are going to assign grades, it is recommended that you use Forum Ratings to mark student posts. Ratings can drastically reduce the administrative overhead of assessing forum posts. They allow you to grade work directly in the context of the forum with a dropdown menu underneath each student post where a score can be recorded. This score automatically transfers to the Moodle gradebook, so you don’t need to track or transfer grades manually. Further, ratings support a variety of aggregation methods. For example, it’s easy to use ratings to automatically tally the point values of marks or the total number of posts a student makes. If you are going to be reading and assessing dozens or even hundreds of posts per week, it’s vital that your capacity goes towards meaningful feedback, rather than ledger-keeping or copy/pasting.

Consider discussion board size

What is too small or too large for a productive online discussion? Reonieri (2006) identifies a number of issues that can impede effective online discussion forums when class sizes are too small (too few perspectives, not enough interaction) or too big (too overwhelming, shallow and repeated comments, off-topic tangents, heavy instructor workload) and posits the optimum discussion group size to be a “medium” class of 10–15 students.

In situations with larger class sizes, splitting the board into smaller groups is highly recommended, and it is better to err on the side of smaller groups than larger groups. Moodle includes a robust Groups feature to accommodate this need. Students can be placed into randomized or instructor-defined groups. Additionally, forums can be configured with either Separate Groups (students can only see posts from and interact with their group forum) or Visible Groups (students can only interact with their group forum but may optionally visit and view, but not contribute to, the other group spaces).

Consider Notifications

Moodle forums can send email notifications to any forums or discussions you or your students subscribe to. If you take the time to understand and set up these notifications, they can be incredibly helpful. When ill-understood or untamed, however, email notifications can be equally burdensome. Fewer things are more irritating than realizing you missed out on an important conversation because you simply didn’t know it has happened. At the same time, a deluge of email notifications is entirely overwhelming for today’s over-stimulated students (and, let’s be honest, instructors).

You can view your default forum settings by clicking on your user profile picture in Moodle and choosing Preferences, then Forums. You can make critical choices that affect your day-to-day experience in interacting with your students. You may choose to receive an individual email for each new post or a daily digest summary, whether to automatically subscribe to threads when you make a comment, and enable tracking to flag unread posts. These seem like small decisions, but when you are involved in several courses with dozens of forum posts per day, they can make all the difference. Taking some time to review and understand these options can go a long way toward minimizing frustrations, missed information, and wasted time in your use of Moodle forums. Further, you can share your learnings and recommendations with students — it will be more appreciated than you might think!

Wrapping Up Part One

In Part One of this post, I detailed how  instructors can employ strategies to avoid issues that can derail successful forums:

  • Choosing the wrong type of forum for the job
  • Failing to communicate expectations
  • Posting too little, or too much
  • Difficulty in keeping up with assessments
  • Class sizes that are too large for meaningful discussions
  • Notification nightmares

See our Guide articles for help in understanding how to set up forums:

Look for Part Two of this post soon –  we’ll be taking a look at how the discussion forum can be used in an increasingly multimedia, multimodal world.

For more tips and thoughts on education technology, you can follow me on Twitter @thebenkahn.

References

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers and Education49(2), 193–213. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2005.06.011

Reonieri, D. (2006). Optimizing the number of students for an effective online discussion board learning experience (thesis). Retrieved from ERIC: Institute of Education Sciences

Morris, Sean Michael, and Jesse Stommel. “The Discussion Forum Is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 8 May 2013, hybridpedagogy.org/the-discussion-forum-is-dead-long-live-the-discussion-forum/.

The Master Becomes the Student

As an instructional technologist and graduate student, one of the most interesting things that happens to me is getting to experience tools or strategies that I work with professionally as a student. From the design and support side, you ask all the right questions and try to understand learners and instructional goals to design best-fit technology implementations and hopefully enhance learning. However, there is no substitute for the real-life experience of walking a mile in a student’s shoes by using ed tech tools as an actual enrolled, assessed, harried, busy learner.

Today I got that experience as an online class I am enrolled in at Western Oregon University’s MSEd-InfoTech program when we did an activity using VoiceThread. I have been using, recommending, and training instructors on use of this application for over two years —this was my first chance to engage with it as a “real” student.

VoiceThread

If you’re not familiar with VoiceThread, essentially it is a tool that allows the creation of “threads” of multimedia slides. Each slide might contain, for example, an image, text, a video, or a page of a Word document —really any multimedia that can be presented on the web. The hook is that people can then add audio or webcam comments to engage in a rich conversation about whatever the slide contents are. You can even record ink annotations that play back synchronously with your recording when others listen or watch.

In this particular instance, my assignment was to use VoiceThread to record comments and annotations critiquing design elements from a selection of about 30 slides showing different posters, magazines, flyers, etc. This could have easily taken place on a discussion forum, but VoiceThread afforded the opportunity for more personal and textured thinking and interaction.

I didn’t want to use VoiceThread in a “vanilla” way; that would be too easy. I wanted to push it a bit and see what I could do with VoiceThread. So instead of using the app through a web browser on my computer, I downloaded the VoiceThread app on my iPad Pro. I used BeatsX wireless headphones/mic to record audio comments and an Apple Pencil to make annotations.

Overall the experience was quite nice. Using the iPad app was intuitive for me as an experienced web user. I could swipe to navigate slides, and the multi-touch screen was nice to have so that I could zoom in on small images. The Pencil worked well enough for annotation. It’s better than using a mouse to draw (which is the only option in the web version). However you can tell that the app is not specifically optimized for the Apple Pencil, so it feels a little messy to draw with. One problem I had was with my headphones. For some reason after recording a comment via the headphone mic, I was not able to preview my recording at first. If I waited approximately 30-45 seconds on the preview screen, my audio suddenly began playing back. When I tested a recording without the headphones, I did not encounter this problem, and the recorded audio was on par or perhaps even a bit better from the built-in iPad mic.

Takeaways

Beyond the technical experience, I can say that as a student I got a lot of value out of being able to hear my peers voices and follow their thinking through simultaneous annotation. After spending a lot of time talking with the same people on a discussion forum all quarter, this was a nice change of pace, and one helped to enrich the sense of community in our class. At the graduate level, finding novel ways to facilitate peer interaction is a must. My courses are full of smart, insightful, funny people, and I appreciated the chance to get to know those of them that gravitated towards leaving audio or video comments a little better by listening and watching instead of just reading.

Four Approaches to Instructional Technology Integration

Although technology is ever more ubiquitous in schools, there is no single best way to integrate technology into teaching. Rather, it is advantageous for educators to become familiar with a cross-section of theoretical approaches and frameworks that can be applied contextually in the unique circumstances of their practice. This document highlights four approaches that are worth the consideration of teachers.

TPACK

What it is: Technology Pedagogy and Content Knowledge

Originators: P. MishraM.J. Koehler

TPACK emphasizes the need for three distinct knowledge domains for effective teaching: content (subject) knowledge, teaching (pedagogy) knowledge, and technology knowledge. Moreover, the interplay and overlap of these domains is essential and recognized as it’s own distinct form of knowledge (for example, content-technology knowledge means understanding the technology that is essential for learning in a specific discipline). TPACK is framework teachers can use to evaluate what they need to know to teach their curriculum well and to explore how different knowledge domains overlap and contribute to effectiveness in each area.

SAMR

What it is: Substitute, Augment, Modify, Redefine

Originators: Reuben Puentedura

SAMR is a way of thinking about the impact that differing levels of technology integration can have on learning activities. Instructors may use SAMR to evaluate technology integration in their practice and explore deeper integrations to better realize the potential of technology and enrich learning and facilitate transformative outcomes.

Constructionism

Originators: Sidney Papert

Constructionism is a methodology that extends Piaget’s constructivist learning theory by suggesting that learners are best able to construct knowledge structures via purposeful, active engagement in the creation of a public entity. If learning is “constructive” in nature, it happens best by “construction.” Teachers can use Constructionism as a means to explore different types of discovery and project-based learning, as learners quite literally build understanding through making and project-based work.

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy

Originators: Andrew Churches

An update to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy that adds “Digital Verbs” to highlight the cognitive processes that are apparent in student learning that is mediated by digital technology. Instructors can use the Digital Taxonomy to investigate the different kinds of thinking they are asking of students and to align activities with lower and higher-order cognitive processes as appropriate.

References
Churches, A. (2008, April 1). Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from http://www.techlearning.com/news/0002/bloom39s-taxonomy-blooms-digitally/65603

Ackermann, E. (2001). Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?. In CONSTRUCTIVISM: USES AND PERSPECTIVES IN EDUCATION, VOLUMES 1 & 2). CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS, GENEVA: RESEARCH CENTER IN EDUCATION/CAHIER 8/SEPTEMBER 01. PP.  Retrieved December 05, 2017 from http://learning.media.mit.edu/content/publications/EA.Piaget%20_%20Papert.pdf

Gorman, M. (2015, June 10). Beyond the Shine: Supporting Technology with the SAMR Model plus Ten Great Resource Sites. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from https://21centuryedtech.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/part-1beyond-the-shine-supporting-technology-with-the-samr-model-plus-ten-great-resource-sites/

Keohler, M. (2012, September 24). TPACK Explained. Retrieved December 05, 2017, from http://matt-koehler.com/tpack2/tpack-explained/

Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (n.d.). What Is Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge? Retrieved December 05, 2017, from http://www.citejournal.org/volume-9/issue-1-09/general/what-is-technological-pedagogicalcontent-knowledge/

Papert, S. & Harel, I. (1991) Situated Constructionism. New York, Ablex Publishing Corp. Retrieved December 05, 2017 from http://www.papert.org/articles/SituatingConstructionism

Where Can Tech Take Your Students?

I provide professional development on technology to teachers who are at varying levels of comfort engaging with technology. For some, it can be a struggle to wrap their minds around new tools and processes. One trick I always find helpful is to frame a new technology in terms of its analog ancestor. A digital version of something that’s already well-understood.

 Most of an LMS is just some classroom activity abstracted into the digital realm. Handouts? PDFs can be posted online. Discussions? Those can happen in a forum. Writing essays? They can be created in a word processor and uploaded to a digital dropbox or shared through the cloud. Multiple choice tests? No need to change the formula. Just put them online, and the grading happens even more automatically than when using a Scantron! Today I helped a nursing instructor set-up a Quizlet so her students could practice with digital flashcards. A huge time-saver and money-saver and students are just as happy using their iPhones and laptops as they would be with index cards.

Using technology to create efficiencies is great. Teachers have more on their plates now than ever before and offloading some of that demand on time and concentration can be a huge help in allowing teachers to be more present, and to find some balance with work and home life. But I’ve had this feeling lately that we’re not doing enough to explore the new possibilities afforded by technology, rather than just finding quicker or easier ways to do what we’ve always done.

Lee Skallerup Bessette’s recent post on Hybrid Pedagogy, “Are Apps Becoming the New Worksheets?,” set my thoughts back into motion. In the post, Lee remembers making stuff in school; developing photographs, printing newspapers, learning to write HTML and CSS code; even making paper at one point. In the new age of drag and drop authoring tools that handhold or in some cases literally won’t let you make a mistake, she worries that students are missing out on the authentic experience of making.

“We have students “make” PowerPoint presentations, websites, videos, GIFs, and other digital baubles, but are we really teaching them to make, or are we just teaching them to drag and drop or to effectively follow a set of rigid instructions in order to achieve a static goal? Are we providing too inflexible a template to have their “building” be anything more than the illusion of choice, the illusion of making?” – Lee Skallerup Bessette

I can certainly see Lee’s point. She goes on to suggest that teachers ask their students to get their hands a bit dirtier in creating the “stuff” of the internet age – make something out of a Raspberry Pi, learn to manipulate the HTML and CSS that hides behind every beautiful website. “How do we break from this?”, he asks, “teachers and students and parents and principals alike treating new ed tech like shinier, electronic versions of lectures and worksheets”?

Here’s my small idea: Let’s think about things that we could never have students make in the past, that were too expensive, too time-consuming; that just seemed plain impossible before and are trivially obtainable now. Here’s a short list of the top of my head:

Then: When I was in high school, I was one of the few who got to travel across town one period per day and participate in my districts radio program. We had a 10-watt transmitter (yup, you read that right) that broadcast our signal upwards of a ½ mile on a clear day.\

Now: There are many tools that can be used to start a podcast for a class or for individual students. You can publish online using an RSS feed, and even use popular platforms like SoundCloud and iTunes for free to reach anyone in the world. That would take a lot of gigawatts using terrestrial radio! Students can be creative and make a program relevant to class topics, or it can be a more open-ended opportunity for expression.

Then: I never knew how to make a video in school. Computers that could process video were expensive and video editing applications byzantine and complex.

Now: Video can be captured and edited entirely on mobile devices or Chromebooks. If you have the resources, you can step up the production value and use digital camcorders and Mac/PC based video editing tools, but it’s not necessary. Why focus on the tools used when so much of the making is in the production process? It’s all about students coming up with a message or narrative, storyboarding, scouting locations, directing actors, capturing and editing.

Then: I never left the U.S., other than a few trips across the Canadian border, until I was an adult.

Now: Any classroom teacher can sign-up for Mystery Skype and connect with others from anywhere else in the world with an internet connection.

Featured Image by Andrey Larin via Unsplash

 

Teachers & Digital Citizenship

Reference.com defines a good citizen as “ a person who obeys the laws of his country, contributes to society and participates in public affairs with wisdom.” In other words, a good citizen makes an effort to be informed, to act with consideration and care for others and for society, and to leave the world better than they found it.

While the lines between learning in the classroom and learning in digital spaces continue to blur, digital citizenship and digital literacy are becoming important topics for teachers to be aware of. This is a daunting problem given the complexity and rapid rate of change, and I understand why many teachers might feel overwhelmed if they try to tackle it all at once. It’s all about becoming informed and making good decisions, which is always a learning process. So, there are two things I want the reader of this post to keep in mind:

  • Understanding the digital world is a journey, not a destination
  • You aren’t alone! Your institution likely has someone whose job it is to support you in your integration of technology into the curriculum. If not, there are many folks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web who can provide information and support. These people may be knowledgeable or even subject matter experts, but please remember they are always learning too!

With that in mind, I’m going to focus in on just a few areas I personally find most relevant to the discussion on digital citizenship.

Accessibility

Just as the physical world can be made accessible to those with a disability, so to can the digital world. The good news is that it’s much easier and cheaper to make a webpage accessible than it is to retrofit an old building – it just means getting into a few good habits.

What Can You Do?

If you’re new to the idea of accessibility, the main idea is to make sure those who are relying on assistive technology can get the same information from your digital materials as everyone else does. In most cases, learning to use the formatting options such as Heading Styles in your authoring tool will get you most of the way towards creating accessible digital materials. For digital documents (PDFs, PowerPoints, etc.) and webpages, I like to use the acronym SPLAT to remind myself to use these tools.

SPLAT stands for Styles, Paragraphs, Lists, Alternative Text, & Tables, and you can find out more at the Teaching and Learning blog at my home institution, University of Portland.

Another important area to consider is the captioning of any video you want to use. If you have a deaf/hard-of-hearing student or just want to make your content accessible to a larger audience, you might want to learn how to curate accessible Youtube videos or even how to start captioning your own content.

As you start to get into the habit of thinking about accessibility, you’ll find that most steps you take towards accessibility add usability and value for all – for example, using headings is crucial for screen readers but also helps to visually and logically order long sections of text, and adding captions can help ESL students understand to read English in a new way. Accessible design is good Universal Design!

Remember, it’s OK and encouraged to ask for help! Your school most likely has accessibility and technology specialists who can provide guidance.

Copyright and Fair Use

This is a sticky issue but an important one to be brought up. I know of many teachers who hold their students to high standards regarding academic honesty, who might then turn around and grab an image from Google search without a second thought to copyright or attribution. In some cases, that may be acceptable under fair use, especially if the graphic is being taught to specifically. However, if the image is supplementary or decorative, fair use most likely doesn’t apply, and it’s also important to understand that fair use is a legal defense of copyright violation, not a law in and of itself.

What Can You Do?

Understand that just because you can find material on the internet, doesn’t mean it always fair game to use. There are lots of resources and ways to find free to use content if you know where to look. A digital rights check can also be an opportunity to ask “Do I really need this graphic in my instructional materials? Is there information I want students to learn here?”

 It can be frustrating to practice restraint in this area, and realistically you aren’t likely to ever be punished for re-using images or other resources without permission in the classroom. It’s not glamorous to take the extra time to attribute a photo, but this is an area where it’s important for teachers to be modeling behavior for their students!

Featured Image: David Teniers the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Grammarly

I’ll be the first to admit it: my spelling acumen leaves something to be desired. As part of the generation who began writing via word processing at an early age, I learned I could always count on red squiggly lines to catch my misspellings. Things haven’t improved much as I’ve gotten older. In the connected smartphone era, adaptive and intelligent auto-correct usually fixes my mistakes before I even notice them. What’s next? An app lets me off the hook if I fail to form a grammatically sound sentence? As it turns out, yes.

I’ve been using Grammarly to help catch mistakes in emails and to give my academic and professional writing a second pair of (electronic) eyes for about four months.
Grammarly is available and most useful as a free browser extension. It can also be installed as a standalone Mac app and as an add-in to Microsoft Office in Windows. The free version checks for spelling and basic grammar issues. You can also subscribe to the Premium version, which is frankly pretty expensive but does add some extra functionality to the free apps. Either way, as you write Grammarly adds comments and suggested corrections to the margins of your work. An explanation of the grammatical principles involved and what you might do to improve are always available via a pop-out “card” that can be expanded with a click.

To give you an idea of the types of differences you might see, I ran an early draft of this post through both the free and paid versions. The free app caught all spelling errors and obvious grammatical issues such as incorrect conjugations. The paid version detects additional potential problem areas. In this case, Grammarly scolded my use of the passive voice, accused a paragraph of “excessive wordiness,” and reprimanded me for writing a sentence fragment.

In my use, I’ve found Grammarly to offer the greatest utility in semi-formal writing scenarios such as composing an email at work or writing in a forum in an online class, probably because the browser extension works online in the tools I tend to use for these purposes. In Gmail, Office 365 mail, on forums, and even when writing in the WordPress text editor, Grammarly rides shotgun and offers a helping hand in real time.

Where I tend to do more serious writing – in the Mac version of Word or Google Docs – Grammarly is not natively supported. So, I tend to write as I always have, revising and correcting as I go and proofing the document myself. Then I send the finished piece to Grammarly as if I’m submitting it to an editor.

This dual-use system seems to be working reasonably well. At work, the number of trivial but embarrassing mistakes left in my emails seems to be on the decline. When you’re always pressed for time and trying to keep many responsibilities balanced, it’s easy to overlook a typo, a repeated word, or a forgotten apostrophe. Grammarly lets me focus on crafting a message and getting my point across without worrying too much about looking unprofessional.

In my more involved writing, using Grammarly as a review tool keeps it from distracting me from the writing process. At best, by helping me catch repeated mistakes, it does offer useful feedback and an idea of bad habits to work on or misconceptions to correct.

I do wonder, though, if those worrying about the gradual erosion of foundational but mechanical writing skills are missing a bigger idea. Perhaps the need to learn fussy punctuation and syntax to the point of automaticity is becoming antiquated. There will probably always be people who enjoy preoccupying themselves with correct grammar, but there are people that enjoy horseback riding and churning their own butter, too.

In an ideal world, can the delegation of spelling and grammar to artificial copy-editors leave us free to devote our attention to the art of writing and the craft of meaning-making? Or does the endless march of automation mean that our ability to form a coherent thought without help from a computer is next on the chopping block? I don’t know, but as a harried grad student and technologist who feels like I’m typing all day, I’m willing to take one for the team and find out.