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Issue related to file formats in essay contest

I have a question related to converting among different word-processor file formats (e.g., Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and others).  Actually, my question is a little more involved, so let me start at the beginning.

I'm a member of the Cornell alumni club here in Rochester, NY.  We sponsor an annual essay contest for high-school students.  Last year, we received over 400 submissions.

Historically, the contest has been operated in a very low-tech way.  Students submit their essays on paper.  Since each essay needs to be scored by at least three different judges, and since we often have a dozen or more judges, the logistics of this whole operation are daunting.  Using paper has become an increasing burden on the club.

This year, I've enlisted the help of "Nik" (a recent Cornell graduate).  He is making a database-backed website where students will submit their essays electronically, and judges will read (and score) the essays on-line.  Nik is using PHP / MySQL.

The site is coming along really well, and Nik is doing a great job, but there is one big snag:  how do we deal with the issue of all the different file formats that students are liable to use?  Also, how do we deal with the fact that different judges may be using different word-processing packages?

An obvious possibility is to have the students use copy-and-paste to submit their essays in plain-text format (and then the website would also display the essays in plain-text).

However, I know from past experience that some of the best essays make creative use of italics, bolding, bullet points, font sizes, etc.  It seems like such a shame to lose all that information.

Anybody have any thoughts about this?  Suggestions?

Thanks for considering my conundrum.

Alex Chernavsky
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Make everyone submit a Word 97 'standard' Word document, or maybe also/only allow submissions in .RTF format.  Everyone has Word or OpenOffice or WordPad, all of which save to Word's .DOC format and .RTF format, so this is reasonable.


I'd recommend you use .RTF format, but most of the students (probably every last one of them) will be using Word anyway, so .DOC is more convenient for them.  As for the rest of them...well, by now they're used to hassles like these.

pds
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Many file formats can be opened by other software, but there's bound to be something that can't.

You could limit them to PDF and RTF.  PDF is the better format, but you usually don't get it as an option in your word processor, so you have to get a 3rd party app.

I don't know of a good word processor that can't write to RTF.

Capn' Kirk
Thursday, August 12, 2004

RTF -- I hate it when someone clicks faster than me.

Capn' Kirk
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Continue to have the students provide paper copies and scan the paper and convert to something like TIFF or JPG and let each judge's browser handle the display.

j35u5
Thursday, August 12, 2004

My gut feeling if I were doing this project is to standardize on Word format; especially with a *.doc extention. Not *.rtf, since many won't even know what that is.

I believe that if a document is created electronically by students, it will be done using MS Word.

Yoey
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Simple. Have all your students download "pdf995" from http://www.pdf995.com/

This a free PDF print driver.  One can use it with any application by just printing the document to this PDF driver. It preserves formatting beautifully and the icing is that PDF is one of the most portable document formats. Can't get better than that.

Code Monkey
Thursday, August 12, 2004

What about making it a requirement that papers be saved as RTF or HTML, and then run a script if you want to clean them up?

Fred
Thursday, August 12, 2004

I believe OpenOffice also outputs to .pdf.

Derek
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Use RTF, PDF, HTML. Download PDF995, OpenOffice. Send us paper copies and we'll scan them to text and then clean them up.

It's too advanced. Everyone who has a computer and writes an essay does it in Word, and saves 'em in *.doc format. Most, if not all, know how to do this. Why make it harder for everyone.

This is why software sucks so much, because not enough programmers are thinking of the end user.

Jakob N.
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Accept any format the three judges can deal with, .doc, .rtf., .pdf, plain text, whatever. There's really no reason to restrict it further.

Tom H
Thursday, August 12, 2004

The main problem with that is there are SO MANY variants on '.doc' files.

We come across this all the time "what version of word are you using?".

hoser
Thursday, August 12, 2004

He's right: screw platform politics and opt for the most widely used format, i.e. MS-Word.

MediocreDev
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Provide a template in your chosen format (.doc '95, .doc '97, .rtf, whatever), and require that the template be used for submitting the essay.

Derek
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Tell students that you prefer PDFs, but allow them to upload Word DOC files.  Write a conversion tool that converts Word files to PDF.  I'm assuming the web site is on Linux or BSD, so have that server use Samba to drop the DOC file into a well-known directory on a Windows box, which will run a process to scan that directory periodically, and convert the DOC files that are there...

joev
Thursday, August 12, 2004

There's no need to restrict it to one format, is there? 

The problem with requiring Word is that while most non-MS WPs can export Word, people who don't have Office can't tell what the exported Word file will look like without jumping through hoops.  Mac and Linux users can write PDFs from anything, so by permitting PDFs too you make life easy for everyone.

If for simplicity's sake you want to end up with just one format, it should be easy enough to automate the conversion of the DOCs you receive to PDFs.

Iago
Thursday, August 12, 2004

"...some of the best essays make creative use of italics, bolding, bullet points, font sizes, etc."

I tend to disagree. Essays are about joined up thinking, good use of words and well constructed arguments. Italics, bolding, bullet points and different font sizes are artistic bamboozlement and are nothing to do with writing. For instance, read essays by contributors in a quality newspaper like The Times (London) and you will see no such fancy formatting.

So I would say why not plain text? It is an essay contest, so have the writers focus on their words and let them not be distracted by frills.

You could have a submission web page like this JOS Forum message posting page (but with a bigger edit window), and ask the submitters to copy and paste their essay into it. Then you can save the result in a uniform format on the server, suitably tagged with submitter's name, address and other details all organised in a unform and  standard way.

Another advantage of this is that the judges won't be swayed by variations in visual style and presentation when reading the essays.

Ian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

But they should be swayed.  Visual style and presentation have everything to do with a good argument.  Magazines have known this for years.  The Times and its ilk are dated, decaying fossils and in a generation or two no one will have ever heard of them.

muppet
Thursday, August 12, 2004

When people are swayed by visual style and presentation, it allows them to be deceived. Have you never heard the idea of dressing up a lie to make it look good?

Ian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

> Have you never heard the idea of dressing up a lie to make it look good?

Yes, I have.  I call it the Kerry campaign.

Political Slam -- I'll stop now
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Ian is right. This is something we are warned about when teaching. Students can fool teachers by using good formatting, nice pictures etc, into thinking almost assuming that the work will be good.

ie the first impression says 'good essay' before even reading the content.

Their is a big difference between writing a good essay and being a good marketer (ie marketing your essay using good formatting). Is this an essay contest or a mark-up contest. I would imagine it was the former, else the website would also say 'you will be marked on your formatting style...'.

Aussie chick
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Composition is part of an essay, like it or not.  I know it's hard for old farts to accept that we're not limitted to typewriters anymore, but there it is.

"Yes, I have.  I call it the Kerry campaign."

as opposed to the squeaky clean Bush administration and their immaculate truth-dispensing machine.

Oh wait...

muppet
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Are you calling Aussie chick an old fart?

Ian
Thursday, August 12, 2004

There was that Calvin and Hobbes sequence where Calvin was sure he'd get a good mark without doing any work because his report was in a "clear, professional-looking plastic binder."

>>> Composition is part of an essay, like it or not.  I know it's hard for old farts to accept that we're not limitted to typewriters anymore, but there it is.

I've alreay identified myself as an old fart with the C&H reference, but the formatting available to you young farts isn't the point: if the focus of the contest is on content, then they should strip out "marketing."

Ward
Thursday, August 12, 2004

Content IS composition.  Regardless of the w3c zealot's cries to the contrary.  :)  C&H makes you an old fart?  I guess I'm ancient since I have the entire collection of books.

muppet
Thursday, August 12, 2004

muppet you should learn to be teachable.

What the guys are saying is correct. I can vouch for this as a teacher-to-be it is the sole of all the things we learn. You are talking about two very different things. The ability to write an essay, and the ability to format a document. Anyone involved in education, or statistics, will be able to tell you that their is no correlation between the two.

A contest is being conducted.
The people holding the contest need to decide what is being assessed. Are they wanting to assess the ability to write an essay about a particular topic, or the ability to format a document, or both.
Then they need to make this part of the assessment requirements.

Calling everyone old fart's because they see the definition is a bit silly.

Aussie Chick
Thursday, August 12, 2004

++Anyone involved in education, or statistics, will be able to tell you that their is no correlation between the two.++

Sticking to conventional definitions as gospel simply because they were espoused in a classroom during your obviously overpriced education is also silly.  How can anyone sane argue that the composition and content of a document are entirely unrelated?  What a ridiculous thing to say.  A document is a whole piece.  When you write an essay, you're selling your viewpoint.  Style counts.  It flat out does.  Conversely, all the flashy Figs and Pie Charts in the world won't sell your viewpoint if your writing flat out sucks.

You should learn the capacity to go against your programming.

muppet
Thursday, August 12, 2004

AND, in any case, the OP expressed a desire to preserve formatting, so all your old-fart snarling is moot to begin with.

muppet
Thursday, August 12, 2004

> Visual style and presentation have everything to do with a good argument.  Magazines have known this for years. 

Sorry, muppet, you're dead wrong on this one. Magazines actually create wallpaper, not argument or respectable comment. Magazines are designed to look interesting and valuable, rather than to have valuable commentary. Valuable commentary is the preserve of the "old fart" publications, which is why it is very hard to get published in one. You have to be good.

.
Friday, August 13, 2004

>Sticking to conventional definitions as gospel simply because they were espoused in a classroom during your obviously overpriced education is also silly.

So would ignoring conventions because of the unsupported opinions presented by you.

Aussie Chick
Friday, August 13, 2004

I think the decision that essays must be plain text would have to come from the judges or whoever. My personal opinion is that formatting, in great moderation, can add clarity; but this is irrelevent. I think you're going to find yourselves hamstrung if you can't accept standard file formats.

I propose designing it so it can store each essay by several different files. Then decide on a good format for distribution. (eg. Send to the judges as PDF. Accept in pdf or doc or rtf.)

Jack V.
Friday, August 13, 2004

Calvin:
Hello, Susie? This is Calvin. You know this report we're supposed to write for school? Yeah. My topic is bats. What's yours? Elephants? Hmm. Well, are you going to the library to look up elephants? You are? Great! While you're there, could you research bats too and make copies of all the information you find, and maybe underline the important parts for me and sort of outline it, so I wouldn't have to read it all?

Hobbes:
How'd it go?

Calvin:
I really loathe girls.

Calvin:
(writing) Bats are bugs

Calvin:
I think we've got enough information now, don't you?

Hobbes:
All we have is one "fact" you made up.

Calvin:
That's plenty. By the time we add an introduction, a few illustrations, and a conclusion, it will look like a graduate thesis. Besides, I've got a secret weapon that will guarantee a good grade! No teacher can resist this! A clear plastic binder! Pretty professional looking, eh?

Hobbes:
I don't want co-author credit on this, OK?

Tapiwa
Friday, August 13, 2004

The composition and content of a document *are* entirely unrelated. Magazines are designed to convey a particular feel so that readers get their jollies and advertisers will buy space.  People send work to a magazine as content - publishers provide the composition.

And I didn't get this idea from an old fart, or from an over-priced education. I got it from working in publishing for over a decade.

If you go to muppet's house, you'll probably see a sign outside saying: "For Sale: complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. No longer required as owner knows everything"

Dave Hallett
Friday, August 13, 2004

It realy depends.

My brain is wired in a way that content and presentation are intertwined. I have great difficulty writing papers that don't "look&feel" right. I'll prepare my document with selecting appropriate styles, and adapt formulations to optimize layouts in some cases.

I heard anecdotal evidence that this is the case for some professional writers as well, who right on their favorit bond using their personal pen, and can't get a word out on other canvases, or writes that still fail to write unless they have an old greenscreen, or a mechanical typewriter.

To me the whole process is very holistic. Things like LaTex, supposedly designed to keep you concentrated on "content" and not be "distracted by form", are horrible dead uncreative contraptions to people like me.

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, August 13, 2004

right -> write

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, August 13, 2004

I understand what you mean, but why can't the students do that whilst they compose the essay and then paste it into an HTML text area?

John Topley (www.johntopley.com)
Friday, August 13, 2004

Yes, the creative process has many vagaries. Often, people will write differently on paper from at a keyboard. But that doesn't mean that content and presentation are extricably entwined, in your brain or anywhere else. You just do what you need to. If you then sent to a commercial publisher, and they published it, they would strip out all the presentation stuff that *you* needed, and put in the stuff that *they* needed.

PS I quite agree with you about LaTeX. It's for people who need that walking-in-the-shoes-of-Donald-Knuth thing!

Dave Hallett
Friday, August 13, 2004

"Yes, I have.  I call it the Kerry campaign."

Could you write an essay on that for us?  Please submit in MacWrite format.

Thanks.

Jim Rankin
Friday, August 13, 2004

"And I didn't get this idea from an old fart, or from an over-priced education. I got it from working in publishing for over a decade."

But that's not relevant, 'cause you're an old fart.  And being designated an old fart automatically invalidates any opinion you might have.

Unfortunately.

looney-tune
Friday, August 13, 2004

Thanks for all the advice.  I'm sympathetic to the argument that plain text should be enough, but I'm not _that_ sympathetic (see?  I'd love to be able to use italics on this board).

I've decided to ask students to submit essays in .doc or .rtf format, if possible.  If they don't know how, or they can't, they can submit the essays in any format they like, and I'll convert them all to .doc.

Thanks again for all the input.

Alex Chernavsky
Saturday, August 14, 2004

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