Technology: Time saver or chore?

Patrick McGrath, education technology strategist at Texthelp, discusses how using technology when marking writing can save time, track progression and improve results, all without adding to teacher workload

There is one question that I ask every group of educators I work with, and it’s this: “What are your biggest challenges?” There’s also one resounding answer: “Time.” As an educator, of course I already know this is a huge issue, but the reason I ask the question is to build a conversation which challenges our traditional view of technology in education. Often, new initiatives are viewed as yet another layer of work on top of a busy teaching day. Another ‘thing’ that needs to be planned for, integrated, used, developed and observed. The reality, of course, is that technology, if used well, is there to supplement and augment good practice, to enable new opportunities for learning and should be there to save time.

The recent TALIS1 report from the Department for Education (DfE) released this year highlights some startling statistics – a ‘standard’ working week for a teacher is over 51 hours. Even more frightening is that over 32 of those hours are taken up with non-teaching tasks, including admin, marking, planning, and the list goes on. It’s impacting wellbeing, homelife, recruitment and retention to the profession.

The 2019 DfE edtech strategy officially points to ‘workload’ being a huge issue and highlights the fact that technology should be able to help. This, of course, makes total sense – think about how we all use technology in our everyday lives. It’s there to make life easier, to help us do things faster and smarter than ever before. One of the challenges for educators is identifying key areas where technology can bring benefits to the classroom, and in understanding that only small changes can lead to big impact. Take something like Google Classroom. On the surface it’s a simple tool, but it’s helping to make resources more accessible, workflow much faster, and assessment more meaningful. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but ultimately technology pays real dividends for planning and marking.

The TALIS report also highlights that teachers spend an average of six to seven hours per week marking. Further anecdotal evidence suggests that at busy times of the year this can increase to 14 or 15 hours. That’s late nights and weekends outside of the classroom. With spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) being an integral part of the National Curriculum since 2014, each piece of assessed work has a focus on considering and marking across these three core areas. It’s slow, time-consuming work, but nevertheless important to help build literacy levels and understanding in our students.

One of the key challenges for educators is identifying key areas where technology can bring benefits to the classroom.

What if SPaG could be marked automatically? That within seconds of opening a digital piece of work, it’s marked, highlighted, labelled and graded? With WriQ from Texthelp, that’s now a reality – a simple Google extension that measures SPaG, accuracy, word count and time on task, in an instant. With literacy tools that are used by over 20 million users, our expertise has informed the design of WriQ, which also measures vocabulary age and helps teachers to build a clear picture of writing levels.

Taking things beyond the measure of literary accuracy, WriQ also enables teachers to assess contextual elements of written work, with subjectivity removed by providing standardised and custom rubrics or mark schemes. This empowers fair and consistent marking, and, paired with the automated functionality, WriQ offers the ability to fully mark a written piece in just a few clicks. Add the ability to type personal feedback, which the student receives instantly in their document, and the entire marking process is complete in just a couple of minutes. It’s fast, efficient and effective, and that’s how marking should be.

There’s been a lot of talk around technology buzzwords lately – ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’ in particular. For most educators they are just that. Buzzwords. Not meaningful and not relevant. With WriQ, we change this view. All of the marking, feedback and data is stored centrally and securely. It’s available to the teacher for every student in their class. WriQ makes it simple to understand the data, to chart writing progress, spot areas for improvement and draw comparisons not just within a class, but through a year band or an entire school. It’s something we’ve all been able to do for years with reading, but until WriQ, never for writing.

To do this, we’ve worked with academia and many educational institutions to mark over 120,000 documents, with over 20,000 users to create what we call the ‘WriQ score’. We look at pace, maturity, accuracy and productivity which collectively provides a meaningful number to help teachers know how well their students are writing. The advantage? WriQ builds an accurate picture of writing progress across schools, trusts, regions and even countries. All without causing educators any additional workload or time.

Marking should serve a single purpose – to advance student progress and outcomes – and it should help to motivate students to progress.

In their everyday lives, students use data, their data. The Fitbit is a great example. Users receive data in real time on various metrics, such as steps, heart rate, activity.

For many it provides motivation and challenge. It also provides the ability to set personal or competitive goals and targets, and leads to independent working to achieve those goals.

And that’s what we want to do with WriQ, where we deliver a similar experience for writing by giving them access to their teachers’ marking and feedback. We’ll be able to help them analyse their progress and set targets and provide rewards and motivation as they progress – right at the centre of their learning.

Yes it’s ‘big data’ and yes it’s ‘machine learning’, but the buzzwords now become meaningful and relevant by helping to deliver positive outcomes. It’s time now to harness technology like WriQ to save time, to show progression, to identify intervention, to improve results and to bring marking back to where it should be – to help every student achieve more.

It’s time to lean on technology, not to see it as adding to the already huge workload – and WriQ is a great place to start.