An Interview with Ulrich Boser: Where are all the Great Writing Apps?

Oct 27, 2020 by

Biography - Ulrich Boser
Ulrich Boser

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) First of all, can you tell us about yourself- your education and experience?

I became interested in education because as a child I struggled with learning: I repeated kindergarten, I spent some time in special education. Eventually, I did acquire some effective study skills, and as a result, I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how exactly people learn, and how we can learn in more effective way

Today, I head an organization called the Learning Agency and its sister nonprofit the Learning Agency Lab. Our focus is the science of learning, and we work on everything from unpacking the research on metacognition and to better understanding the growing field of learning engineering.  

2) What got you interested in writing?

Reading. Without question. Have always loved to read, and over time, I thought: Maybe I can do this too! 

Since then, I have written and published a number of books, including one that turned into a bestseller and optioned for film. Over time, I become more interested in writing as a way to learn as well as ways in which we can better teach writing.

3) With COVID-19 teachers were thrown into a situation where they had to provide videos and Power Points and You Tubes and other things- but how much assistance is out there for writing?

Teaching writing is an intensive process, particularly online. But the amount of assistance available to teachers is limited, and teachers need more support with teaching writing to their students, particularly around critical thinking and other higher order skills. 

There are some tools like Revision Assistant out there, to be sure. But these writing tools are in their infancy, and while they can provide support to teachers and students, they are limited in their ability to really augment teacher instruction. 

4) Obviously there is spell check and Grammar Check- but what else is out there that is reasonable and rational and realistic?

Using natural language processing, some assisted writing feedback tools go past your standard grammar and spell checkers. Hemingway Editor, for example, provides feedback on writing style and provides writers with a readability score. Quill, provides students with interactive activities that help students with their writing. MI Write gives focused constructive feedback on structured writing prompts.  

These tools are free and easy to access via the web. The problem with many of the other tools that exist is they are expensive or require some sort of subscription. Developing these tools will be key as more teachers are teaching online, and there’s great demands for support. 

5) Writing is sometimes a very personal inter-personal endeavor- and kids text back and forth with minimal intimacy and emotional closeness. Is this a factor?

We’ve heard from some teachers that students are less familiar with 10-finger typing and more familiar with typing on their phones, however this does not seem to greatly affect students’ ability to produce an essay. 

In our conversations with students and teachers, there are other factors that play a larger role in writing outcomes, like the fact that students do not spend enough time practicing writing or that many teachers do not feel prepared to teach writing to their students, especially given the diversity of students needs from students with individual education programs to students who grew up in poverty. 

6) Let’s face it- reading, correcting and giving feedback is a very time consuming labor intensive chore. Any thoughts or reactions?

Yes. Teaching writing is difficult. After all, teachers have to teach the writing process, assign writing and provide effective feedback all while managing the classroom, from getting kids from their cell phones to simply paying attention.  

Here is where we think AI could be instrumental in helping students become better writers and supporting teachers in their writing instruction. Better writing feedback tools, that provide instant, actionable and useful feedback to students could cut down on the time it takes for teachers to grade while giving students more opportunities to practice their writing. 

7) If kids read a lot, they may well learn to write a lot- is this a plausible hypothesis?

Yes and no. Reading is certainly important for writing. Reading a lot can help students with their writing, especially if they are exposed to different kinds of text, however, writing is still a distinct and individual discipline. But while reading and writing are connected, the tasks are very different. With reading, students are required to interpret what someone has written. In writing, students are tasked with creating text that is comprehensible to other people. 

8) What have I neglected to ask?

Would flag that beyond communication, writing is a great tool for improving our thinking. It helps develop logic. It improves metacognition. This helps students engage in richer thinking, improving everything from emotional reasoning to identifying misinformation and fake news.

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