In 1988, Robert Williams took up a teaching position at a private university college in Perth which provided the opportunity to undertake some important research.
Williams wanted a career-long project involving computing and that had worldwide applicability.
The idea of automatically grading essays appeared to meet these requirements, and potentially provided a solution to the time consuming task of marking student work.
At the same time, Heinz Dreher, who had been teaching for many years at a university in Perth, shared Williams’ concern regarding teachers’ burdensome – yet vital – task of grading thousands of pieces of student work.
Automated grading seemed to hold a promise that could not be ignored.
In 1999, Heinz and Williams teamed up to collaborate on what became a decade-long university research project, and which is now ready for commercialisation and ongoing product development.
Their work culminated in the founding of Blue Wren Software, a company that distinguishes itself from its opposition through its Automated Essay Grading Systems (AEGS) – which identifies not only phrases but actual concepts as well.
According to Dreher, the AEGS provides the specialty of “virtually instantaneous feedback” via its Normalised Word Vector algorithm (NWV), so that students, teachers, tutors and parents can discuss and interpret the software’s visual feedback to promote further learning.
“Educators realise this formative assessment as essential to learning and the students – indeed all stakeholders in the learning enterprise – are delighted with the empowerment achieved,” Dreher told The Educator.
“Obviously the learner, the student, is central to the education system, but without the organisation and management of such systems to promote affordable, effective, and efficient systems to support individual learning the goal of an ‘education for all’ remains unrealistic in achievement.”
Dreher said educational administrators, principals, school directors, and educational technologists now have a “wonderful set of empowering technology-based systems” to facilitate that goal.
He acknowledged that sceptics exist, but as AEG systems become embedded in the new wave of LMS, they too will experience the results of automated support for assessing essays and generating interactive visual and formative feedback for their students.
“In time, the sceptics will surely make the transition in assessment-thinking and help their students perform to maximize individual potential within reasonable resource constraints,” Dreher said.
Williams said the essay grading work load can be substantially reduced, because essays can be graded in a second.
The most powerful aspect of the software for principals, he says, is that feedback enables them to improve the writing skills of the student and – rather than simply recognising numbers and phrases in essays – identifies actual concepts.
“This also allows the teacher and principal to take remedial action in the delivery of the content of the course where deficiencies are identified,” Williams explained.
“All this information is provided automatically and the handling and storage of paper documents are eliminated.”
One form of automated grading that has been the topic of controversy is NAPLAN’s move online. Williams said that while there are likely to be benefits to students and staff, the changes are unlikely to come without complications.
“Online NAPLAN will substantially reduce the turnaround time of providing students’ results,” Williams said.
“Paper handling will also be reduced considerably. The possibility of providing interactive feedback also arises.”
However, he added that the recent cancellation of the online NAPLAN testing illustrates the technical problems that can be encountered with automated grading.
“The downsides of the online testing are that younger students may not be able to word process their essays, and technical issues will always arise in such a large IT implementation,” Williams said.
“Network outages, and access to the internet in remote locations, will be problematic.”