Co-written by the project team: Shaun Bell, Andrew McCowan, Lisa-Angelique Lim and Simon Buckingham Shum

Emergent Communication Practices is the second subject in a new UTS Online Master of Strategic Communication program. It engages students strategically with emerging forms of communication, with content created and shared via communication products such as avatars, VR/AR and wearable technologies.

Communications practitioners are increasingly required to use Generative AI and other adaptive and augmentative digital technologies, a trend that causes concern in the professional and scholarly space of this discipline. This gave Dr Andrew McCowan (FASS) and Dr Shaun Bell (Learning Design and Technology Unit) the opportunity to partner with UTS’ Connected Intelligence Centre (CIC) to provide students’ access to a bespoke instance of the academic writing software tool AcaWriter.

Integrating AcaWriter

AcaWriter is an AI-powered software tool that provides learners with fully automated, personalised feedback on forms of analytical and reflective writing. The tool looks for hallmarks or features in student writing samples. UTS community can explore the AcaWriter app, and the information portal is public.

The key component for our subject design was the opportunity to begin to scaffold a professional practice that makes full use of all available generative or augmentive intelligence tools, but does so in a judicious, critical and cautious way.  The integration of AcaWriter – and the supporting learning design – provides optional scaffolded automatic anytime feedback to support one of the key assessment tasks.­

Scaffolding page explaining how and why learners can engage with AcaWriter and GenAI tools as part of Assessment task 2, including a link to more AcaWriter information.
One of the scaffolding pages explaining how and why learners can engage with AcaWriter and GenAI tools as part of Assessment task 2.

To support this, we designed several activities that encourage learners to explore, document and critically reflect on a range of digital technologies. This was an intentionally designed ‘throughline’ as part of the student learning experience within this context. 

To help students get started with AcaWriter, a page in the Get Started module provided an overview that links the benefits of using the tool to the subject and its assessment, as connected to key standards in the PGLD Quality framework. The Get Started page also includes an introductory video by CIC’s Simon Buckingham Shum, and links to examples and further information.

How does AcaWriter work?

Once students have inputted their writing drafts, they click on a button to get instant feedback. AcaWriter then looks for hallmarks (rhetorical features or key phrases) of select writing genres and provides automated feedback to help students reflect on their writing and consider improvements. 

The AcaWriter interface showing student text on one side and feedback from AcaWriter on the other, which suggests more context and purpose in key parts of the writing.
The AcaWriter interface

We worked with CIC staff to create a bespoke instance of AcaWriter with targeted and customized feedback that supports students to draft and iterate their analysis. This was crafted by our subject matter expert Andrew with help from the CIC team. Part of the complexity here is that AcaWriter works best with authentic examples of writing; as a new subject, we did not yet have these. Part of our future work may be to iterate and refine based on the student outputs from this session. 

Feedback and further information

Students found the AcaWriter tool, and the learning design supporting it, a valuable and interesting learning experience.

Found it very useful, I like the hints/suggestions around formatting responses.

Student feedback example

73% of the cohort used AcaWriter at least once. On average, students clicked on the Feedback button 3 times during their use of AcaWriter, which indicates they were using the feedback from AcaWriter to refine their analytical writing. Of the people who responded to the feedback survey, 75% reported an overall positive experience with the tool.  

Dr Lisa-Angelique Lim, Centre of Connected Intelligence

The potential benefits in this and other subjects are enormous, especially around supporting large (and growing) cohorts to improve – in a largely self-directed way – in targeted areas of their academic writing.  

If you’re curious to know more about how AcaWriter is used at UTS, and the research underpinning it, check out the CIC research project. to learn how your teaching could benefit from activities using AcaWriter, please reach out to Shaun Bell or Lisa-Angelique Lim.

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