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Centering Eli’s Ethic, a Critical Mission

Red Cedar River on the MSU Campus

by Bill Hart-Davidson, Co-Founder

As the 2019 Computers & Writing Conference approaches, I am contemplating the conference theme in light of our support – as a company – for this event. Mission Critical: Centering Ethical Challenges in Computers and Writing  is a theme meant to invite a stance toward our contributions as a field to the development and use of technology, especially as these are implicated in the teaching and learning of writing. Our company has learned a lot from the Computers & Writing community over the years. Personally, I consider it one of my professional “homes” – as it is where folks who share my interests in writing and technology, teaching and learning tend to gather. And as a company, we are super proud to be able to give back, even in a small way, by sponsoring the program.

This year, I’m a co-host of the conference and a member of the organizing team. The theme is one I had a hand in choosing, along with colleagues Dánielle DeVoss, Kristin Arola, and Shannon Kelly. So I wanted to talk a bit about my own commitments on mission, and on adopting and maintaining a critical stance toward technology even as we make and offer a technical service for sale.

This year, I’m wearing a few different hats: conference organizer, conference sponsor, researcher/teacher. And when that happens, it is also wise to reflect on where our interests lie – where there might be conflicts – and how we chart a path that allows us to live up to the values we espouse and believe in when faced with ethical choices.

The Eli Mission: A Critical Project

As Eli has become a more established service, gained more users around the world, and has become something of a “brand” – folks may see us differently than they did ten years ago when Mike McLeod & I first gave a halting demo of Eli at Computers & Writing. Then, it was clear that this “thing” was the work of three writing teachers, one of whom – Jeff Grabill – was off giving a different talk at the time. Today as a company, we are four writing teachers making Eli work for over 30,000 students this year alone! Melissa Graham Meeks joined us about five years ago, bringing her expertise in teaching, research, administration, and publishing to the team.

But what is different today is that folks sometimes don’t see us as all that different from other Ed Tech companies. And in a culture where folks are rightly concerned that their every move is being tracked, turned into data, and sold – sometimes without consent and nearly always without transparency – we get asked if we are any different.

We are different.

Our mission, as a company, is to be a teacher and researcher-led alternative – an example of the way we can put our discipline’s knowledge about teaching, learning, and technology into source code and into classrooms at scale. We think of our work, first and foremost, as helping our colleagues implement pedagogical practices – focused on teaching quality feedback and revision – by taking advantage of the affordances of networks and computers.

Our day-to-day interactions with folks who use Eli are unusual in the world of business, but would likely seem familiar to most of our friends in higher-education. We spend hours working on curricular planning, wrangling data for formative program assessments, and writing and publishing with the folks who are Eli customers. Is this any way to run a business? I guess it depends who you ask.

It is certainly a rewarding way to help people. And, to our constant amazement, the number of folks we can reach this way is substantially greater than any other collaborative approach we know. We’ve worked now with thousands of teachers across the world – something I never would have anticipated doing.

Centering our Ethical Challenges

We are now, as we were many years ago, an ethical project to be a different kind of software service for learning. We don’t always agree with the ethical choices other companies make. So we aim to do a few things that we see as explicitly different:

1. Be transparent with the data that can help teachers teach and learners learn. We see it as useful feedback and we aim to gather it and give it back in a form that is helpful.

2. Use the information users give us, and the texts that they entrust to us as part of their learning activities, as responsibly as possible. These texts aren’t ours. They are yours. And we thank you for the trust you place in us to create a learning space where you can share them.

3. Be, as a company, the kind of organization users feel good about working with: transparent, responsive, welcoming, and eager to listen so that we can get better at helping. We want to be a true collaborative partner if we can, whenever possible.

Eli Review is a project, for us, like any other bit of participatory research we’ve all done in our careers. We want to engage with our participants in the spirit of reciprocity so we can learn together.

Our ethical project also inspires us to draw some lines about what we do not and will not do. These are key boundaries for us that also help to establish how we are making quite deliberately different ethical choices than some others make.

1. We don’t sell our users’ data or their texts or their information. Not to advertisers. Not to data miners. Not to anyone. We don’t claim ownership rights to teachers’ work or students’ work. It belongs to users. Period. We do balance this strong stance on student and teacher ownership with a sense of responsibility that comes from holding a tremendous source of research knowledge: hundreds of thousands of student texts,  millions of comments, all with highly reliable indicators of quality. But even there, we have a simple guideline we follow for using these data: informed consent.

2. We focus our efforts in data analytics on learners’ practice routines and how they can be improved. Not on the grammatical conventions of the texts they write. Not on whether students are plagiarizing or not. Our approach is consistent with our belief in teacher and learner autonomy and in the important role teachers have in helping create rich feedback cultures for learning. We have thought very carefully (and published) about the downstream effects our product can have, including and especially how technology can contribute to “deskilling” or displacing workers. The fact that we won’t risk a design that replaces teachers or crowdsource student effort has become a key differentiator between us and other systems that offer “peer calibrated grading.” We don’t do that. And if we are being perfectly frank, we lose sales because of it. But it is important to us. We want to help teachers make their classes the best environments for learning to write and writing to learn that we can.

3. As a company, we charge for our service because, as Jeff Grabill noted in his C&W keynote from the Rochester conference, high quality software and high quality professional learning around that software requires predictable and reliable resources. Our sales allow us to keep the server lights on and run an organization of talented folks who contribute to marketing, technical support, professional development, and product maintenance and development. Jeff & I have strict conflict of interest agreements, though, that preclude our being compensated from the sales of Eli licenses. We also cannot (and would not think to) have our students working on Eli Review, paid or free, while they are studying at MSU. Our pricing and our business model allow us to hold the line on #1 and #2. Anyone offering services like Eli to 30,000 or more people a year for free is selling something to someone…and it’s likely the information their users create. We choose instead to ask for a fair price for the service we provide.

I welcome the chance to talk to folks about Eli and what it has meant for us. It has been both a journey and a joy. I am also thrilled to once again have Eli Review sponsor Computers & Writing. If you catch me in a free moment, do feel free to ask any questions you may have about how or why we do what we do. You can be assured, I love feedback!

Thank you for supporting Eli Review over the years!

Image: Red Cedar River on the MSU Campus, just outside Kellogg Center where the 2019 C&W conference will be held.

Centering Eli’s Ethic, a Critical Mission was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories #cwcon, Analytics, Editorial, Policy.

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