Essay Kickstarter as a Stepping Stone

by Scott Stephen Smith on May 2, 2011

I have written in depth about how improving writing education can empower a generation and how peer to peer education can bring equality to academia around the world. I’ve also said that Essay Kickstarter is a simple tool to help students and bloggers overcome writer’s block. How does one lead to the other? It’s big picture strategy time.

What Essay Kickstarter Does Today

At the time of this post, Essay Kickstarter has not yet been released to the public. However, it does work and I’m at the point where I can tell you specifically what it does and what it does not do. First of all, it is completely free to use as long as you are willing to help somebody every time you get helped. The point of the application is to help users start writing quickly and effectively when they begin to experience writer’s block. This could mean they need to warm up their brain, stop procrastinating, or just start to get some ideas on paper. Either way, the most important element of this system is that it forces you to write and gives you peer support immediately. This gives you something to work with and puts you on the right track for an assignment or project.

What Essay Kickstarter Doesn’t Do

While we love this first product, it does not come close to filling our final aspirations. As it exists currently, the product will help you star your essay, but does not do much to help you finish. While that first paragraph is often the hardest, we don’t want to quit on you just yet! The current product also doesn’t allow for any true real-time collaboration. This is mostly by design, but when we are in every classroom around the world we will eventually enable some features to create greater levels of interaction.

Where essayCLOUD Goes Next

As you can tell by our MassChallenge profile (voting going on now!), we’re dreaming big on this one. Within two years Essay Kickstarter will be a small button in the bottom right hand corner of something much greater. The first priority is to make writing easier for all students. All of essayCLOUD’s products will be designed with a student-first mentality, and they’ll be guided by the power of peer to peer education. Products could range from a collaborative storytelling application that helps students recognize different styles and adapt their own in a creative process to students becoming masters of a specific skill and becoming the teacher of their own micro-lesson during the drafting process.

The plan is to go piece by piece, helping students a little bit at a time until we’re able to release something that can truly change education forever. The potential for peer powered education is incredible. It can be used with any subject and the benefits go so far beyond higher levels of learning that one could write a collection of books on just one of them. And while I hope that others join up with me and take on this same cause, my passion is writing and essayCLOUD will not stray from that any time soon. That being said, there is an incredible amount of work to do in this space and we look forward to that challenge.

The Importance of Writing in a Content Takeover

by Scott Stephen Smith on April 29, 2011

It is nothing new to say that content is king. We are experiencing an information revolution that will only continue to grow and spread to more and more people throughout the world. This revolution has made writing ability more crucial than ever before. The web is saturated with blogs, social feeds are inundated with nonsense, and the battle for search engine results has made the web a very messy place. In order to compete, you must simply out-write the competition.

Quality Will Lead to Quantity

The best pieces of writing will get read. In the rush for SEO excellence, it has been forgotten that those at the top have climbed there by producing quality articles. Two of the largest tech blogs, TechCrunch and Mashable, started around the same time as many other competitors but now reach an audience in the millions. This did not happen because of wonderfully optimized search engine strategies (I still struggle to find the Mashable article I want to re-read by going through Google), but because they have produced high level journalism from the start. They have been great writers from the start. In case you’re unaware, 75% of a website’s page rank is accredited to outside sources. The bulk of the score is dependent on an audience reading and referencing the site as a source. This means you need quality.

Impact is not Easy

Once a writer gains an audience, it is an even greater challenge to truly impact them. The art of persuasion is lost on many but is felt by all of us. In the current state of things, emotion seems to guide our decisions more than anything else. You can see this in government especially as the blame game has continued to produce political results. However, given an equally engaged audience reason will always shine through. This is not to say that emotion does not have a place. It is completely necessary as a motivating factor, but it cannot be the only factor. Thomas Paine famously used satire to engage his readers, but behind that was a very strong argument for freedom that resonated with an entire nation. Our world would be a far better place if more people were capable of building an emotional attachment with readers and evoking reason rather than fueling emotions alone. I contend that it is writing that will help us reach that goal.

Empower Entire Generations, Not Individuals

It’s clear that a single individual with the power to influence their world with words can make a huge impact.  With the expansion of social media, a powerful message can be reverberated through the world’s networks and rally individuals around a single, just cause. Take the satirical BP Global PR Twitter account, which created a parody PR effort following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Their messages of 140 characters or less were read by hundreds of thousands of people and helped garnish support around a temporary British Petroleum boycott. They brought scrutiny on actions and remarks by BP officials while addressing very crucial underlying issues in the oil industry. Now imagine it was not simply one person with this combination of passion and ability, but rather an entire generation. Voices would be heard, our youth could have their fair say in every issue, and traditional inequalities of power could be broken up. This is a big dream and there are many pieces to the puzzle, but essayCLOUD is working to be a part of it.

 

If you want to help support essayCLOUD, please visit our profile on MassChallenge and vote for us (link: http://masschallenge.org/profile/team/essaycloud). If you want to get involved, please email Scott at essayCLOUD dot com.

The Big Picture Paradox of Modern Education

by Scott Stephen Smith on March 31, 2011

The modern age of technology — specifically advancements in online media, games and social networks — has rewired the brains of young people around the world to expect near-instant gratification. An emphasis on future oriented behavior persists within elements of society, but in large part we are becoming present minded hedonists. We immerse ourselves in opportunities that allow us to manipulate the world around us and receive feedback rapidly. This shift works hand in hand with our ability to be creative and pursue new interests and curiosities in seconds thanks search engines. This is a product of the modern world we live in.  However, our educational system is a product of the industrial revolution. Academia has not made the leap in terms of technology or methodology, and it is robbing our children of their potential. In fact, there is nothing really modern about modern education besides the setting in which it resides. Education systems around the globe rely on delayed gratification to train students to be more forward thinking, but this runs directly contrary to the information experience that students receive externally where the gratification comes rapidly and from sources of greater perceived value: our peers. This fundamental gap is now excluding more and more students from opportunities and suppressing some of the most able minds on the planet.

How Students Have Changed

Kids and young adults have experienced a shift in the world like none other before it. There has been an exponential explosion of stimuli in the world that surrounds us. Google has made the answers to most questions only seconds away. Twitter’s affect on the news cycle has empowered entire nations to rally together for a cause in a number of hours rather than weeks, months, or years. A new company called Quiki promises to revolutionize an already astounding product, Wikipedia, and create a visual information experience that captivates and informs people around the world. MIT offers its classes for free online complete with video content and homework assignments. If you have an internet connection and curiosity, you can empower yourself with an education. The potential for a better life has never been so readily available at any time in our world’s history, and young people continue to be on the forefront of these technological revolutions.

College students today grew up into an internet explosion and have readily adapted to the pace at which the world changes. They consistently  and constantly seek instant knowledge, instant gratification, and instant recognition for their own unique being. Facebook and Twitter are a part of this mold. Although generic as a platform, the content of one’s wall is an expression of their life. That’s what makes that first “like” or “retweet” so special. The feedback is instantly rewarding, and it continues to reinforce the desire for instant gratfication. These massive changes have also created the potential for the most creative generation in history. As so much information is available, young people are now able to truly explore their interests and ambitions while their minds are still open. The thing about children is that they are never afraid to try. Their naivety is quite possibly their greatest asset.

Prior to the explosion of the internet and later the growth of social networks, this naivety was erased and creative ambitions were crushed. Students were not allowed to look outside of the traditional corporate careers because there would never be a way to make money out of it.  However, that ambition can no longer be crushed because the knowledge that students possess today is far more extensive than ever before. Students know about more possibilities, they have learned incredible amounts of very valuable information on their own using technology. When students have opened the door to learning under the pretense of instant gratification and creative direction, traditional methods are no longer adequate. This is not necessarily new to this decade, but rather a trend that started early in our history and has flowered in parallel the latest technological revolutions.

In a book published by Robert Levine, it was found that one of the most disatisfying feelings one experiences today is waiting. The pace of life in the United States has increased lock-step with the advancements in connectivity and processor speeds, but so have our expectations. According to Philip Zimbardo, we are born as hedonists. In other words, we constantly desire to alleviate pain and seek pleasure at every waking moment. It used to be that this behavior was unlearned through childhood education. As a culture we gained patience and a perspective that would allow us to stand pain for a certain amount of time in anticipation of a better reward in the future. However, this now directly conflicts with our modern culture that revolves around the instant gratifications mentioned above. The constantly connected individual is no longer satisfied with delayed gratification and therefore shuts down inside frameworks that require such a perspective. In simple words, students are no longer eager to engage in school.

The Web 2.0 Solution to Education

Despite the fact that students have changed throughout history while education has not, it is still much easier to start to change education than to attempt to change our entire culture back to one of delayed gratification. The advent of social networks has actually made it very easy for education to catch up; it is simply a matter of taking steps in the right direction.

Classrooms around the country are already becoming more connected. There is more internet research, video driven lessons, and spontaneously generated problem sets online. These are all good at enabling the next step, but they haven’t gotten to the crux of the issue. Students want instant feedback and peer collaboration. Not only do they want this, but research actually shows that they need it. It has been shown that hearing the answers immediately following a quiz reinforces the material better than seeing the results a few days later. It has also been shown by the Kahn Academy and its users that students who are given the freedom to review material at their own pace outside of the classroom are more likely to ask useful questions in class and understand the lessons at a deeper level. When you can pair that with real-time collaboration tools, students will naturally learn more and improve the knowledge of the student base as a whole.

Enter, essayCLOUD. When I started on this journey it began with my desire to edit other people’s essays in order to make money, but also improve my own writing skill. The subjects that I tutored classmates in during high school were the ones I did best at. The initial assumption there is that I would only tutor students in subjects that I knew really well, but the fact of the matter was I didn’t do extraordinarily well in any of my classes until I started teaching other students the same material I was trying to learn. This is perhaps the most powerful phenomenon in learning, and one that every single essayCLOUD product will embrace. When students are able to approach as subject from another perspective in order to teach it to peers, they learn it on a much deeper level than otherwise feasible. A Google search for “peer collaboration in school” will demonstrate just how much research has been done, and how much action is still needed.

Essay Kickstarter is our very first product and its purpose is to combine the long term learning benefits of peer collaboration with the immediate advantages of instantly gratifying assignments. The application itself is simple. It helps students overcome writer’s block using two game dynamics: time limits and social pressure. Students will enter a “game” and be given a deadline between 3-10 minutes to write as much as they can. This is enough time to get through the first paragraph, put a thesis on paper, and start to mold the direction of your paper. When the time is up their paper gets sent to a partner at the same writing level who reviews the student’s work and offers feedback on their thesis, the direction of the paper, as well as suggestions. The student can then take their paper to Google Docs or Microsoft Word and use the momentum to continue to write. Essay Kickstarter does not provide enough time to write an entire assignment, and that is exactly the point. It’s called Essay Kickstarter because it gets you working quickly, and helps you get on the right track before you go too far.

This is not the solution to every problem in education, but it is a step in the right direction. It is our first attempt at helping students who exist in today’s world so they are actually prepared to take on tomorrow’s problems.

 

How Essay Kickstarter Works

by Scott Stephen Smith on February 23, 2011

Here’s the short and skinny on how Essay Kickstarter helps students overcome writer’s block.

  1. Enter a “game” through the application interface on Facebook
  2. Enter your working title and start the clock
  3. You write as much as you can in the time given
  4. Your essay is submitted
  5. You see a short list of recommended essays
  6. You read another writer’s essay
  7. You give feedback and suggestions
  8. You get your writing back with feedback and suggestions
  9. You rate your partner
  10. You export your work and seize the day!

The process allows you to get passed that tough first paragraph, get instant feedback on your thesis, and use the momentum to continue to work. The official release date will be announced next month.