Interview with Nicholas Walker

Nicholas Walker By Sharyn Collins

Hello, Nicholas, could you tell me about your background and how you got into EFL?

I’m English, but I was born in Singapore. My father was in the Royal Airforce and my mother was a nurse. When my father was sent back to England at the end of his 5 years in Singapore, we returned with him. Rainy old England was a bit of a disappointment to my mother after living in the tropics, so my father took an early retirement from the RAF and we all moved to Montreal, Canada.

I grew up in Montreal. I loved reading and graduated with a B.A. in English Literature from Concordia University. Shortly after graduation, my twin brother called me with a job offer to teach English at a private language institute in South Korea. He had gone there to teach, directly after graduating from Bishop’s University. My prospects weren’t particularly interesting in Montreal at the time, so I took the job in 1997 and taught in Taejon, South Korea for two years.

What happened after you left South Korea?

After traveling around the world for a few months, I moved to Vancouver, went broke, and then moved back to Montreal. I took a job at an insurance agency, got fired, and realized that teaching was the only thing I really enjoyed and was reasonably good at. So, I went back to Concordia, took the one-year graduate TESL certificate program, and started teaching at various junior colleges in and around Montreal. During that time, I met my wife, Helen, who was finishing the TESL Certificate program herself. She wanted to teach and travel, so we moved to South Korea in 2002 to teach at Chunchon University and then Hallym University for a total of three years.

During our time in Korea, we had the opportunity to work on a textbook project and travel all over Korea and South East Asia. As fun as that was, we both wanted to start a family and get more training, so we moved back to Montreal in 2005. While we were both working on our Applied Linguistics Masters’ degrees, our daughter was born, and I went back to work teaching ESL at junior colleges in the Montreal area.

As an itinerant teacher, teaching partial loads at multiple colleges, often offering the same courses but with different textbooks, I started creating online lessons and quizzes to reduce my correction load. Meanwhile, for my Master’s thesis, I was designing and testing a pronunciation training system for nurses, which employed speech recognition and video clips of a diabetic man to simulate a medical history interview.

Once I finished my M.A., I began teaching at Ahuntsic College and started developing my own textbooks and websites, launching the VirtualWritingTutor.com in 2012. In 2017, I got tenure at my college, won the TESL Canada Innovation Award for my Actively Engaged Series, and the Minister of Heritage Canada, the Honorable Melanie Joly, presented me with a Sesquicentennial Pin Award for Leadership in Education. Currently, I serve on the ESL Coordination Subcommittee.

How would you describe VirtualWritingTutor.com?

The Virtual Writing Tutor is a 100% free grammar checker website that aims to help students with their writing assignments and oral presentations. I hope to support autonomous and lifelong learning by providing feedback 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in seconds. The Virtual Writing Tutor is still a work in progress in many ways, with new features coming along all the time, but its central pedagogical mission remains the same; always to maximize the repeated exchange of meaningful messages with a focus on form.

The Virtual Writing Tutor is primarily a grammar checker for English Second Language writers—but it does a lot more. When you submit a text, the system checks for 10 000 grammar, punctuation or word choice error patterns in addition to spelling errors. If it finds a match, it captures the sentence, underlines the location of the error and suggests a correction. It explains why it is considered an error and generates a link to a remedial practice activity. If the learner has an account on the system, the text, errors, feedback, and links are saved to the learner’s profile for review and error-correction practice.

It also has spell checkers, a word counter and a field-related vocabulary checker. This checks for field related vocabulary, to help the learner develop their command of vocabulary linked to their field of study. It identifies and categorizes the words it finds and lists them by order of frequency. We also have an academic vocabulary checker.

It is difficult for non-native users of English to know which words will strike their readers as conversational and which are more academic in tone. The lists of words in each category are quite extensive, and teachers may not be able to give much guidance except to say avoid contractions in academic writing and Latinate words in conversation. So, using corpus linguistics, I built an academic –conversational vocabulary checker to analyze word choice in a submitted text.

I’ll offer a few examples of the kinds of things the vocabulary checker can pick up on. For example, words like everybody, everyone, everything, somebody, anybody, anyone, anything, and nobody are common in conversation but rare in academic writing. Verbs like try, buy, put, pay, bring, meet, play, and run are very rare in academic prose. We emphasize a reported message with expressions like “She was saying” in conversation, but we never do that in academic writing. The most common present perfect verb in English is have/has got, but it is 50 times more common in conversation than in academic prose.

Finally, we also have a cliché and power word checker to highlight worn-out expressions such as “cautiously optimistic” or “needless to say” etc. To help my students write more compelling blog posts, the system will also look for “power words” that evoke an emotional response, like thrill, ordeal, terror, or survival. The idea is to discourage clichés and encourage power words in students’ writing.

Finally, we have the paraphrase checker for the problem of plagiarism. Teachers often treat plagiarism as an academic crime, referring to it as word theft or academic fraud. With that mindset, teachers are quick to conclude that students who plagiarize are immoral academic criminals who deserve to be punished. I’ll admit, I used to feel the same way, until a couple of years ago when it suddenly struck me that students plagiarize because they don’t know how to paraphrase, and they don’t know how to paraphrase because teachers don’t have the time to sit down with students to teach them.

By thinking of plagiarism as a teaching problem instead of a moral problem, I began to think of how we could use a tireless machine to compare two texts and identify similarities for students. So, that’s what the Virtual Writing Tutor’s paraphrase checker does. The learner paraphrases a sentence, hits the Paraphrase Checker button, enters the original text, and clicks check. The system then compares the two sentences and underlines words that are the same in both, calculating a similarity score. In this way, the system guides the student toward a more complete paraphrase.

How hard was it got get the VirtualWritingTutor.com off the ground?

It was surprisingly easy to get started. I simply rented a dedicated server from a hosting company and hired a programmer on Freelancer.com to install an open source grammar checker. That was the easy part. Once that was in place, I realized how naively optimistic I was about getting the system to give useful corrective feedback on students’ often chaotic second language writing. What I perceived to be a few hundred common errors in my students’ writing requires many thousands of error detection rules to catch. The human mind is uniquely able to see patterns. Machines need everything to be spelled out for them.

How much work is involved in running the Virtual Writing Tutor?

Not as much as you might think. I have developed a productive routine for myself. On weekends, I work with my programmer in India on new features. During the week, I spend about 2 hours a day writing error detection rules. That’s about how much time college teachers normally spend circling and underling errors at their desk, but I think my method is vastly superior.

My approach snowballs. When I add an error detection rule to the system, it never forgets it and keeps applying that rule to every text submitted to it. Because the number of rules keeps growing, the system corrects more and more errors. Currently, the Virtual Writing Tutor corrects 100 000 learners’ texts each month—many more than I could ever correct by hand—but my workload has not increased. I keep plodding along with my routine.

Do you consider yourself to be a computer geek?

No, not at all. Many professionals use a computer in their work. You, I am sure, spend many hours on your laptop as you write and edit your magazine. I use my laptop just as much. You and I both turn to technology to help solve problems and to broaden our reach. Creating websites is the new literacy, and literacy takes effort, but our level of digital literacy is nothing special these days. It is the new kind of normal. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no programming whiz kid. I write some of the code for the website, but I hire experts to do the tough stuff that I don’t have the time to learn myself. I’m a teacher with a website. That’s all.

Did you plan it to be a business or was it just a way of assisting your students?

I have no business training and I’m not particularly business-minded. I just wanted to help my students get feedback faster. The fact that the Virtual Writing Tutor is catching on around the world has come as a bit of a surprise for me, and a relief for my wife.

The Virtual Writing Tutor is just one part of my publishing efforts. I have been writing and self-publishing textbooks for about 8 years now, and ESL materials require companion websites and online activities. The Virtual Writing Tutor is just one part of my strategy to make learning more efficient and interactive for my students.

Did you need to get investment, or did you finance everything yourself?

I finance everything myself. In 2010, I created my little ESL publishing company Bokomaru Publications because I couldn’t find cohesive textbooks that maximized the repeated exchange of meaningful messages with a focus on form—and because my grant application to create an ESL grammar checker was turned down.

I was so annoyed when that grant application was turned down! The reason given was that the idea of an ESL grammar checker was not very original. Original? I wasn’t trying to be original.

I just wanted to create something pedagogically useful!

That’s when I decided I would fund the project myself. Here’s how. Instead of asking my students to buy a textbook from one of the big publishing houses as my colleagues do, I simply ask them to buy one of mine. It is cheaper for them, and it generates an income for me that allows me to fund my research projects—which is what the Virtual Writing Tutor is for me. If colleagues want to say that my students are getting a raw deal, I can point to the two awards on my shelf and say in all honesty that nobody is complaining.

I should mention that I recently added Google Adsense advertisements, and the extra $500 per month I get from Google means that I won’t have to lay off my programmer this summer as I did last summer. That makes him happy, and is it reassuring to my wife who does my bookkeeping for me.

Please understand. I don’t really need my business to make much money. Of course, I am required to show a small profit each year to the Canadian Revenue Agency because Bokomaru Publications is registered as a for-profit business, but I am a unionized, full-time, tenured college teacher with a decent salary. The fact that my business is self-sustaining means I don’t have to take on partners or investors, carry debt, or apply for grants. All I really care about is that the Virtual Writing Tutor allows me to pursue new pedagogical opportunities that I love.

What do you mean by new pedagogical opportunities? How has the VWT changed the way you teach?

I used to be swamped with corrections. I’ll illustrate my point with a simple calculation. Let’s say that in a 15-week semester, I give 12 writing assignments. If I spend 5 minutes on each student’s text each week for each of my 150 students, that’s 750 minutes or 12.5 hours per assignment, or 150 hours per semester of circling and underlining. That number does not include scoring or preparing, or tests and quizzes, and office hours and meetings and all the other duties a teacher must perform.

Teachers aren’t dummies. We have strategies to make our workload more manageable. I can limit the time I spend on each student’s text (I’ll give you 2 minutes of correction each) or limit the number of errors they correct (I’ll correct the first 10 errors in each text and stop) or limit the number of writing assignments (I’ll assign only two essays per semester). Each of these so-called solutions weakens the pedagogy of maximizing the repeated exchange of meaningful messages with a focus on form. By limiting the feedback, we reduce the focus on form, and by reducing the number of assignments, we minimize the exchange of meaningful messages. Fewer messages mean fewer repetitions of the target structures we are trying to teach.

However, by asking my students to give me texts that are error-free—and by that, I mean that students correct all of the errors detected by the VWT—they get to write as many texts as they can manage, and my error correction time falls from 150 hours per semester to zero. Don’t get me wrong. I still spend about 10 hours a week writing error detection rules to catch the errors that the system missed, but an unhurried two hours a day of coding is better than staying up until midnight slashing through a pile of paper with a red pen so that I can be ready for class the next morning.

Initially, when you first launched your site, how quickly did you get any users?

At first, there were only about 200 users per month during peak times in the semester. But that number kept doubling every six months. Now after 6 years, it’s up to about 100 000 users per month. The trend has been so good that I moved the Virtual Writing Tutor to a cloud server so that I can dial up resources as demand increases.
What are your future plans?

In February, I launched a hypertext narrative authoring tool. It’s pretty cool. If you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure Series of books, this system helps students create interactive stories like those to embed on their blogs. The idea is to give students an opportunity to write compelling stories related to their future careers and to develop some digital literacy at the same time.

Last week, I launched an essay-writing forum so that users can get human help with their writing assignments from the community when the grammar checker fails to provide useful advice. They have to say what they were trying to do, include their text, and detail what kind of feedback they want.

Now, I am working on a Pen Pal Exchange for teachers and their students. The idea is that teachers will be able to assign first-person writing tasks with automatic corrective feedback and get members of the same class or another class, or a class taught by another teacher to reply and hopefully sustain a meaningful conversation in English.

After that, I’m not sure. I’m thinking of adding a tutor-exchange in which students can contract tutors to help them with their speaking and writing online. We’ll see.