A Contentious Web Tool?


I didn’t mean to spark a heated debate!

As head teacher, I compile a list of useful web tools, interesting articles, and other digital miscellanea for our teaching staff. So when I came across The Original Persuasive Essay Thesis Builder and On-line Outliner, I didn’t hesitate to add it to the list (despite the circus-y title). As the title suggests, you enter your main arguments into the online form, and it “writes” a thesis statement for your essay, and also generates an essay outline.

The genre of the persuasive essay is very present in our curriculum, and so I thought people could have some fun playing around with it in class: getting students to write thesis statements or making essay outlines and then comparing them to those generated by the site. I saw it as spurring a whole host of interesting discussions and activities: not only underlying that fundamental and basic connection between the main arguments, topic sentences and thesis in an essay, but allowing students to critique their own thesis statements, and then moving on to critiquing the inevitable formulaic-ness of the texts generated online.

My students and I have had a lot of fun in class using these on-line tools that automate different aspects of the reading/writing process–often with dubious levels of quality–like the thesis generator or text summarizing engines like this one. If the class has been regularly discussing “what makes a good summary” or “what makes a strong thesis statement”, the output from these tools is great fodder for this discussion and provides a real life example and practice. Here’s a great lesson plan that uses Google translate in a similar way.

But little did I know, my inclusion of this web tool on our list of links did not sit well with some of the instructors! They feared that showing this site to students would be akin to handing them a tool tailor-made for cheating; that it would allow them to take shortcuts without putting the thought required into making their own thesis statements and essay outlines. We got into a lit of a “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” argument about technology and agency and the use and abuse of tools, but in the end, the link stayed on our list.

Would you use this tool in class?


2 thoughts on “A Contentious Web Tool?

  1. Thanks for the trackback, Jennifer.

    I think you’ve got it right. It’s not exposure to the tool that promotes cheating; it’s the students’ choice to do so that does. Tools like these, are great used in ways you’ve suggested: fiddling around with them and showing students their pitfalls, a platform for discussion, even a platform for content generation. I’d argue that instructors who fear this exposure will lead to great issues are likely either not trying it with their students in these ways or aren’t recognising that those who choose to cheat will cheat with or without these tools. Besides, staying one step ahead, i.e. instructors showing students they know these tools exist and how students use them, is a lovely little maxim to live by.

    • Exactly–a tool is simply a tool. I believe we should show students who they can use these tools complement their own skills, as opposed to supplant them or permit them to cheat. There’s nothing to fear!

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