Thursday, December 18, 2014

"If I Told You Once, I Told You a Thousand Times" - Turnitin Buys Automated Writing Feedback Company Lightside Labs

Sisyphus, detail of Tartarus [Tantalus],
Abraham Dircksz Santvoort, 1668
Etching.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Anyone who's had to grade student papers in any subject has had the experience, new each semester (or in the worst case, new each assignment) of repeating the same writing pointers and making the same corrections over and over.  It can make you feel like Sisyphus, the king of Greek mythology condemned to roll a boulder uphill over and over, forever.

Over (and over) the years I've tried various timesavers - group instruction given ahead of time, seeding writing pointers into the assignment instructions, videos, posting info on the web, going over paper drafts ex post facto with the whole class or individually.  I've constructed a word file of my greatest hits and checked the ones that applied to the paper at hand. I've sung, I've danced, I've threatened, I've assigned The Elements of Style, but the boulder keeps rolling back down.

The online grading and anti-plagiarism giant recognized the Sisyphean quality of grading papers when it introduced its Grademark tool, which provides a pre-loaded set of comments addressing the most common issues in student writing, and allowing instructors to add their own favorites.

But what about an ounce of prevention?  What if students could get feedback on that stuff and leave me free to edit for structure, concept, logic, flow, or, God help us, content?

Enter LightSide Labs,'s recent acquisition.  Lightside Labs' Revision Assistant, like other tools such as Pearson Writer, and Turnitin's own Writecheck for students, provides automated feedback on student writing.  According to, the recently-founded (2013) Lightside bears an impressive pedigree.
"The company has been supported by grants and contracts from major organizations in education, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. LightSide [is] based on machine learning and natural language processing research from Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute."
 How good is it? Can it really work? According to Turnitin, "This feedback is trained on the behavior of real instructors and provides personalized, positive, and constructive support for student writers." Of course this begs several questions, one of which is, which instructors? What behavior?
More to come as I investigate over the next week or so....