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Robert Duffley, a writer for the Georgetown University Voice…

… doesn’t see much difference between a Georgetown University and a University of Phoenix education.

UD also wonders. I mean, of course, there’s the price….

… [T]he forced migration of academic endeavors to the Internet leaves me feeling cold and amateurish.

My loudest complaint is the impersonality of the online model. There’s something reassuring and intimate about a hand-corrected paper. To print a paper is to finalize it, making change all but impossible. Printing a paper brings the writer’s ideas and craft into the physical world. In a realm as tenuous and self-conscious as academia, tangibility provides a reassuring degree of legitimacy. A professor’s handwritten corrections are a sign that, even if the grade is poor, the student’s effort received individualized attention. Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt.

… [R]eplacing short essays turned in for feedback with essays copied-and-pasted into a three-inch Blackboard window actually weakens students’ grip on the fundamentals of structured writing. And if I wanted significant portions of my interaction with professors and classmates to take place online, I could have pursued admittance to the University of Phoenix.

[We are moving toward a way of being] I see as artificial and impersonal.

Duffley’s headline:


Margaret Soltan, February 28, 2010 9:25AM
Posted in: technolust

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12 Responses to “Robert Duffley, a writer for the Georgetown University Voice…”

  1. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I agree! For a year or two there I accepted (or even demanded) email submission of papers. I justified it to myself by thinking that a firm date stamp was worth it. But I am back to paper – and handwritten corrections.

  2. Michael Tinkler Says:

    I mean, for $50,000/annum, aren’t they paying for some individual attention?

  3. James Says:

    University of Phoenix doesn’t have snazzy t-shirts.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:


  5. Bill Gleason Says:


    Once again I seem to be in the minority.

    I require written papers – at least ten pages but they can be longer and usually are – from my undergraduate research students doing directed studies. They are to be turned in electronically using some mutant of MS Word or in rich text format.

    They are due a week from the end of the term. I given them a whack and return the butchered drafts. They make corrections and then turn in the final paper a day or two after their final written exam.

    I also ask students who want their thesis reviewed to do the same thing.

    I can easily make highlighted corrections/suggestions and it is easy to check in the final draft to see that problems have been attended to.

    This seems to work pretty well for me and in fact allows me to give their work more attention than I could if I did it all by hand. Also my handwriting has gotten so bad in old age that this saves me from trying to figure out what I’d scribbled on a student’s paper.

    Different strokes?

  6. John Murray Says:

    I teach “writing intensive” courses in economic history. I require paper copies of student papers, which I mark up in good old red ink and return. Unfortunately I have also found it useful to require submission of electronic copies, from which I can google phrases to check for plagiarism. It’s very effective.

    On the related issue of writing, students have reported that they like having both paper and electronic copies of books and articles, the one to read and the other to text-search for their essays.

  7. Tony Grafton Says:

    Like Bill, I ask my students in advanced courses to write research papers, and I build in a draft submission deadline. My handwriting, always cryptic, could now be used to defend Google against Chinese hackers, so I have texts submitted electronically and fill them with legible notes using Track Changes. Final texts are submitted as hard copies (a university rule anyhow) and I decorate them with handwritten notes and a word-processed summary evaluation and grade. This seems personal enough, really.

    More generally, I love the way BlackBoard posts can jump-start a seminar discussion, and require them every week. But I would never substitute them for real papers, really graded by a real pedant.

    That’s what we get the big bucks for, after all.

  8. Kerry Says:

    The electronically submitted paper is just as “real” as the printout. Like Bill, I also find that I can give each paper more attention when I notate electronically.

    While I agree with the author’s point that face to face interaction should not be replaced by online communication, this comparison seems to miss the point. Grading papers is traditionally a solo, private activity done by the instructor. In the Blackboard model, the red cursor replaces the red pen. It doesn’t necessarily replace all the conversation that comes after.

  9. Alan Allport Says:

    Add me to the defenders of electronic annotations.

    I switched over at the start of this academic year, and I find that I write many more individualized comments on my students’ papers now than I did when I was scratching away (with all the attendant wrist-ache) with a ball-point. Plus, I can revisit my comments before final submission and rewrite for clarity. Given all the genuine misuses of technology that are taking place in the classroom, the objection here seems silly.

  10. Timothy Burke Says:

    I’ve switched to electronic annotations most of the time unless I have a set of papers to grade and I can’t be at a computer. (I graded with handwriting on a plane recently because there wasn’t room to use my laptop.) I have no idea why anyone would think that was substantively different in terms of attentive feedback from scrawled, handwritten comments on a draft. The reason I’ve switched is that I type faster than I handwrite, I find it easier to direct attention to the precise passages I want to work with, and most importantly, I keep a record of the corrected paper in case the student wants to discuss it or I want to reference my comments later while deciding on a final grade or writing a reference for a student. This is a straightforward case where digital technology enhances a task without at all changing the essence of what is being delivered to a student.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    I agree with Tim. When I grade by “track changes” I tend to write more, more legibly, and am consequently able to be much more thorough.

  12. dance Says:

    Ditto to Tim, mostly, but I will admit, that yes, I have AutoTexts that say things like “History is written in the past tense,” and another that says “Essays should always have a title–that’s your first opportunity to introduce your ideas, don’t waste it.” It is true that me clicking some buttons is less personal than me scribbling “title?” or, as the paper progresses, “use past tense; past tense; PAST TENSE;” but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m also more willing to type tangential or funny comments, than I ever was to write them.

    Actually, I do have an old post about how paperless grading changes things:
    but in the comments, I’ve worked most of those issues out, and developed formatting cues to signify the things that I used to communicate through marks instead of words (I used to underline their thesis and topic sentences, now I bold them; I use a dotted underline instead of the small tick that used to signify “you’ve used this word too frequently”; and I have an AutoText that explains my code so that students always know).

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