The March 10, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education had a prominent headline: “The Grading Factory: Texas Tech has revolutionized how English-composition papers get marked, but is its approach too much like an assembly line?” The article, “A New Way to Grade,” is unfortunately only web-accessible to subscribers of The Chronicle. It raised some fundamental questions about teaching and learning in higher education, particularly at large research-focused institutions.

The Topic (Texas Tech Online-Print Integrated Curriculum) system is controversial because it is an automated system for standardizing freshman composition classes that arguably removes much of “the human element” of teaching and learning. For a quick overview of Topic, view this web tour by the system programmer and creator, Dr. Fred Kemp.

Some people view “the human element” as a “problem” in education, however, so for them this is a benefit rather than a disadvantage. One thing that sounded familiar from other online-based writing software tools, like MyAccess Writing, is the report that students are writing better because they are writing more. The following quotation from the article is in reference to changes made by the Topic system which cut classroom time for students “in half, from 160 to 80 minutes per week” and raised the class size cap from 25 to 35:

The changes were intended to give students more time to work on assignments, and graduate students more time to grade them. Students now turn in an average of 35 pieces of writing a semester, nearly three times as many as before. Although Mr. Kemp [sic – should be Dr. Kemp] acknowledges that he has no data showing that the program has improved students’ writing, there is also “no proof that what people were doing before ICON was any better,” he says.

ICON is the “Interactive Composition Online” program that uses Topic. It sounds to me like everyone needs more measurements of effectiveness. In our era of educational measurement of outcomes for K-12 contexts, it seems amazing this type of comparative data is not available for Topic.

I have not used Topic, but have heard about it a fair amount. It is definitely controversial. I think it would also fit in the category of “disruptive technology use,” but I wouldn’t put it there with a blanket blessing. Under the Topic system, the graduate students who are the actual instructors for students do not do any of the grading of student work. In fact, the graduate students who teach the class are divided into two groups, the CIs (classroom instructors) and the DIs (document instructors).

On the positive side, Dr. Kemp offered the following defense of Topic in the article:

No longer can a student earn good marks by buttering up the instructor. Teachers can’t inflate the grade of a student who turns in consistently poor work just because he or she is deemed to be trying hard…In the old days, if your students were all making A’s, that could mean that they were a great group of students, or it could mean that you’re a lousy teacher.

Dr. Kemp maintains that Topic provides standardized assignments, standardized evaluation criteria, and shared grading to provide uniformity needed to teach composition to 3000 freshman with a cadre of graduate students who have mostly never taught or even taken a basic composition class. According to the article, must of the graduate instructors tested out of that course for college.

Whether or not you think Topic is a good thing, it seems likely that systems like this are going to get more common in the months and years ahead. Online education can provide benefits that face to face instruction cannot, but there are also tradeoffs. It seems to me there may be a place for both approaches. Is it necessarily bad for students to go through a composition course with Topic as part of their college experience? I don’t think so. But we certainly should have some experimentally designed research as well as qualitative case-studies looking at the outcomes of both Topic-based writing instruction as well as more traditional instruction. Is Topic better than face to face instruction with a qualified and competent instructor? I doubt it, but that answer likely has everything to do with HOW LEARNING IS MEASURED. But this was not the question the system was intended to answer. It was designed to educate a large herd of folks: college freshman at a large research-based institution. Whether they like it or not, this is the freshman writing course option at TTU.

If students wanted a qualified freshman composition instructor who would both teach them and grade their work, I guess these students should have gone to a community college. They can’t pay for that pedagogical model (in freshman composition) at Texas Tech. At now and for the foreseeable future.

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