Pearson technology speeds up grading

Adapting WriteToLearn™ for Singapore

Located on a tree-lined street near Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, the Crescent Girls School pulsates with the latest and fastest technological innovations.

Each of the 1,300 students has her own tablet personal computer, and teachers can simultaneously monitor the tablet screens of the 40 students in their class. At a science laboratory, students don 3-D glasses to “peer” underneath a river to see currents and rock formations below. Light boxes used for tracing in digital art classes convert in an instant to keyboards for digital music composition.

Yet when it comes to marking student essay scripts, teachers operate at human – not electronic – speed, and that’s frustrating for these high-tech learners.

Work stationsA light box used for tracing in digital art classes (at right), quickly converts to a keyboard for digital music composition (at left)

Long delays to feedback

“It takes me two weeks to mark the scripts in my class, and that delays the feedback to the girls,” says Usha Jeyarajah, who heads Crescent’s English Department. “What the girls need is more frequent feedback, and we’re short-changing them if we don’t provide that.”

So quicker and more frequent feedback is now on the way, through a project that taps into Pearson’s educational technology.

Pearson is involved in a Singapore government-sponsored pilot project at the Crescent Girls School, which aims to introduce essay marking through artificial intelligence in order to greatly speed up the marking process.

The initiative is part of the government’s FutureSchools@Singapore project, which seeks to harness innovative technology to boost student engagement in learning. FutureSchools is part of Singapore’s Masterplan 3 for education.

Pearson is a member of a consortium of eight companies, including the Hewlett-Packard Co., which are working with the school on different technology projects at Crescent – selected as one of five FutureSchools in a highly competitive process in which 26 proposals were submitted. The Pearson pilot runs through 2011.

“The government was very clear with regard to the expectations,” says Lee Boon Keng, Crescent’s chief technology architect for learning, and a mathematics teacher at the school. “The government wanted only those schools that were very well prepared, with extensive proposals.”

In addition, each consortium was expected to commit to the project for at least three or four years.

“Pearson has known Crescent Girls School for some time through an eBook project we began there four years ago, so we were asked if we wanted to link up” with the school, says Andrew Fong, who heads up multimedia sales for Pearson in Singapore. The eBook initiative began with books in geography, history and science, and has since expanded to many other subjects.

Pearson pilot project

The pilot project for Pearson involves applying electronic marking technology developed by Pearson in the U.S. to the scoring rubrics used in Singapore.

Pearson is customising WriteToLearn™, a product that helps develop reading comprehension and writing skills.

WriteToLearn was developed by the Knowledge Technologies group of Pearson, based in Boulder, Colorado, in order to provide immediate feedback to learners. WriteToLearn measures students’ writing through Pearson’s Knowledge Analysis Technologies™ (KAT) engine, which automatically evaluates the meaning of text, not just grammatical correctness or spelling.

The pilot in effect requires a “retraining” of WriteToLearn, which to date has only been schooled in U.S. procedures.

Crescent Girls brochureUnder the pilot, Pearson will customise WriteToLearn to provide immediate feedback on 30 essay questions for English classes, to be presented to 400 Crescent students aged 14 to 16. The project also calls for the addition of 70 localized reading passages used to evaluate reading comprehension, and training for teachers and students.

In the initial trial phase, responses to five different essay questions were collected from students in Singapore. The essays were then human-scored using Singapore’s O-level rubric. The essay scoring technology underlying WriteToLearn was then trained to provide feedback based on these papers and scores.

The latest results, reached in December 2009, found that on average the electronic marking system correlated with the human scorers as well as they correlated with each other.

Wide application in the future

“My wish is to use this technology not only for English-language learning, but also humanities and science as well,” says Marina Ooi, Pearson’s general manager for Singapore schools publishing. “Perhaps it also can be used in Commonwealth countries,” given their links to the British system.

But for now, efforts are focused on Crescent, which proudly proclaims in big letters above its main entrance: “Empowering Ladies and Leaders of Tomorrow”.

“When Pearson approached us, people were quite excited to get on board,” says Ms. Jeyarajah. “It means our girls get immediate feedback, and then they can work on improving their written skills more frequently. When I told the students that we’re developing software to mark the scripts faster, the girls said ‘faster than you’ and I said ‘exactly!’”