14 July 2015

On a time-saver

My first computer was a "Joyce", in 1985. Joyce was apparently the name of Alan Sugar's secretary at the time, and became the colloquial label for the Amstrad PCW 8256. (256k of memory, one floppy drive —taking extortionately priced 3" discs which never caught on—with a formatted capacity of just under 180k, a green-screen monitor and an included dedicated 9-pin dot matrix printer...) It revolutionised my work, and made possible the production of a book and my doctoral thesis.

It came with a dedicated word-processing package called LocoScript. Among its many features (including an add-on mail-merge facility which was a simple programming language in its own right) were its ability to store phrases, which were each associated with a letter, and were relatively permanent features such as names and addresses and simple commands so that paragraphs could be numbered or laid out consistently; and blocks which were clipboards associated with numerals. So you had a capacity for 26 phrases and 10 blocks.

When I had to move on to a PC I was dismayed to lose all that functionality—just one clipboard for everything! I've played around with many substitutes over the years, including work-arounds incorporated in office suites, but so far encountered none with the simple elegance of phrases and blocks.

I'm happy to say it is back (although I'm a bit behind the curve—it's apparently been back for more than a decade) now in the form of applications called Breevy (highly intuitive—free 30-day trial, £24.20 to buy)  and PhraseExpress for Windows (free for personal use, but too bloated and cluttered with features I'll never use, for me) and another (compatible) package called TextExpander for Mac. There is/was another, simpler, variant called Texter for Windows, but although I have downloaded the installer, it won't play with Windows 8.1. Reviews here.

PhraseExpress also has a cut-down Android app. which I haven't looked at.

So why do I think this is worth drawing your attention to? Marking and feedback. We are continually being called upon to raise our game in this area (although the weak link is often getting students to pay attention...) We try to personalise comments, of course, but it is in the nature of the beast that many of the phrases we use are standard and repetitive; "Referencing!", "Evidence?", "Well-made point." ...And even when we can scrawl on scripts, our remarks are often less than helpful because of the sheer time they take to write—they become so cryptic that we think that they convey something useful, but to students unversed in our restricted code they may be meaningless.

Move to electronic submission and commenting via an office suite, and the process is even more cumbersome. Of course you can use codes to point students to standard points—but my experience  has been that they just find it too much hassle. Yes, that is indeed their loss...
Years ago, I attempted to grapple with this issue with a semi-automated marking shell, using a spreadsheet and a mailmerge to generate personalised but also standardised feedback. it was pretty clunky then, and it is only still on the site because I put so many hours into devising it—and who knows, someone may resurrect it. (I once did something similar with a simulation scenario in social care based on a spreadsheet. I realised I couldn't take it any further and wound it up by sending it to a newsletter/journal, [“Computer-aided Learning and Experiential Learning” New Technology in Human Services vol 9 No 1, 1996] Some years later it was picked up by some diligent scholar and led to several years of fascinating consultancy and learning at the Open University.
But if your feedback can be expanded to a full paragraph from typing only a half-a-dozen characters? You can't make your students read and act on it. but you can make it more likely, and save effort at the same time. I think it's called win-win.

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