Student paper management via online writing and grading

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My daughter Katie uses OpenOffice for her high school papers and saves her papers in ODF. She is one cool kid, if you ask me. I did not force this choice upon her. In August when I spoke at the United Nations, I was fortunate enough to get permission to bring her along, so she spent a full day listening to talks and debates by pro-open source people and Microsoft. She even sat next to Richard Stallman at lunch. That evening she decided unilaterally to start using OpenOffice because it was open source. She downloaded it, installed it, and hasn’t asked me one question about how to use it.

Anyway, this got me to thinking that it’s kind of silly for her to print out her papers, hand them in, and then get the marked up and graded physical papers back. It would make far more sense for her to use something like Google Docs, Zoho, Joyent, or one of the other online office suites to write her paper. Minimally, she could write it in an ODF-compliant word processor and then import it into the online system so that it could be shared.

On the other end, her teacher could manage all the papers from all the students in some nice organized way. There could be ways to both view all the papers by assignment as well as by student. The system could also deal with drafts of the same paper as they went through the writing and review process.

When a student decided it was time to submit a paper, only then could a teacher see it. When a teacher was finished with his or her markup, only then could the student see it. For group projects, multiple students could have read/write access to the same paper.

For papers such as I am envisioning for high school and college, only a small subset of word processing features would be necessary, though they would clearly have to handle footnotes or backnotes as well as comments and edits. ODF handles all this and more. No papers need to be ever printed out.

Since ODF is relatively small and is well designed, it wouldn’t be that hard to write applications. For example, you can imagine an application that extracted snippets from papers and compared them with content via web searches or something more elaborate. I’m sure you can think of other tools as well.

We now have the technology pieces to do this online and you could even have a cool AJAXy interface. What are we waiting for?


  1. Well, we have a fair bit of work to do, to challenge the status quo in schools in the UK. From a worksheet at my son’s school (he is 11):
    “Lower School ICT. Unit 1. Presentation. Objectives for Unit 1.
    In this first unit you will look at how to present information effectively. This means making the information clear to your audience and making the information appropriate to your audience, so that you keep their attention. We will use presentation software called Microsoft PowerPoint.”
    “Here are some buttons used in PowerPoint. Write down what they do.”
    and so on.

    How should I know what the buttons do ? They have changed over the years, and they are about to be cut to ribbons in the next version, so I hear.

    The worksheet looks as if it has been written by the school’s teachers, rather than bought in; so obviously they are aware of the possibility that groups of people can create ‘free’ assets which they can then replicate at will to achieve their goals; and I think they view that as what good schools do, compared with less-good schools who buy in externally-produced teaching material bearing a commercial copyright and needing payment per copy. But they end up teaching a lock-in; if the children’s presentations are prepared this way (to the exclusion of Impress, and ‘acetate and marker pen’) then the children come to believe that Microsoft PowerPoint is the only way of making presentations.

    Now, for sure, it is a way of making presentations; but if you choose to run Linux, or if your hardware is a Sony Playstation, or if you need the presentation to be pitchable in 20 years’ time (because maybe it has to do with the design of a power station, chemical plant, or air traffic control center that has an intended life at least that long), then it’s not a viable tool to choose; either it’s not available, or you cannot guarantee that it will do the job required. You want the ISO standard; acetate-and-marker would do in a pinch, too.

    Is there some kind of hold over the school that says ‘thou shalt install only Microsoft software to the exclusion of all others’, like we see with the Lenovos and Dells of this world ? Or (like the in-house-written teaching material) are they interested in software that they can create, improve, and share themselves ?

  2. Perhaps we need a UK campaign to stop “product placement” in teaching materials.

  3. Well, no; there’s absolutely no reason why the school shouldn’t use a commercial product in their teaching.

    However ‘software’ comes in 2 varieties; ‘commercial software’ and ‘free software’; just as books come in 2 varieties, ‘textbooks’ and ‘exercise books’; and there’s 2 ways of getting a photo of the Eiffel Tower, ‘buy a copy of Fodors with a professionally-photographed one’ or ‘visit Paris with a camera’.

    In all these cases, if you want extras of the first kind then you need to buy them; if you want extras of the second kind then you do it whichever way is convenient. Schools use textbooks and exercise books; use travel guides and organise school trips; software should be no different.

    So using the ‘commercial’ product to the exclusion of the ‘free’ one is not telling the whole story.

    School can download the ‘free’ kind any time they want from the UK Universities’ Mirror Service ; or they can tell me they want some help, I’ll go help them do it (after work hours) if they’re teaching my children.

    But they’re not doing either at the moment. What comes over is ‘we recommend Microsoft PowerPoint’, whereas what should come over is ‘we use Microsoft PowerPoint, Impress, and acetate-and-marker; we do not give warranties on any of them, and we do not endorse any of them’.

  4. Yes, I used the wrong phrase, perhaps I should have said product endorsement.

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