Spin-off promises to make marking as easy as ABC

Manchester developers say software can handle complex essay questions. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 20, 2008

Computer software that is claimed to make marking students' work up to ten times faster will be offered to the university sector after its University of Manchester creators secured an investment of £250,000 from the private sector.

While software for marking multiple-choice questions is common at many universities, Manchester spin-off company Assessment21's product, ABC (Assess By Computer), is designed to handle the marking of more complex, open-ended questions testing higher-level skills.

It does this by leaving marking judgments to academics while the machine "takes away the drudgery" of the process, said the company's director, Gerard Lennox.

The software was developed by academics and is being used in many departments of the university, both for final-year exams and coursework. Students sit their exam at a computer and receive feedback electronically. The software can highlight key words in students' answers, allows easy comparison against a model answer, lets academics mark questions in their preferred order, and flags up answers that are similar.

It also helps to ensure marking consistency through automatic blind double marking, with several papers going to every marker for comparison, its developers say.

"The spark of genius behind this is that it looks at what can be taken away so that the marker can concentrate on what the marker is good at," Mr Lennox said.

The South Yorkshire Investment Fund and other investors have put in £250,000 to take the software to market.

Elizabeth Sheader, a teaching fellow in Manchester's faculty of life sciences, has used ABC for assessment of first-year practicals.

"It reduces the logistics of marking. Rather than having to carry around 500 scripts, you can have it all on a USB pen. It can also help detect plagiarism because it can order students' responses in similarity to each other so you can see if there is any collusion going on," she said.

"Having a paper-free system is, I think, much more beneficial. You don't have to store hundreds of scripts and you don't have to read student handwriting. The majority of students seem to prefer it to writing on paper. It has made life a little bit easier, especially with the large number of students that we deal with."

René Meijer from the Centre for Interactive Assessment Development at the University of Derby said that the software "represents a type of computer-aided assessment that I am very supportive of. Here the role of technology is to facilitate the assessment process and support the human judgment, not to replace it."

At Derby, software marks short-answer questions where the answer is relatively predictable, using keyword analysis, a process that is virtually moderated by the lecturer afterwards. The university is developing a system that "learns" from this process. "The main driver has been pedagogical, and not driven from scalability and efficiency drives," Mr Meijer said.

Meanwhile, the OpenMentor project at The Open University helps the development of marking and feedback skills in new lecturers by looking at the relation between assigned scores and the amount of positive and negative feedback given to the student.

But Mr Meijer added that he thought a future where all exams were electronic was "about as likely as the paperless office".

"I consider myself a digital native, but my desk is still cluttered with paper and my shelves cluttered with books. I don't expect this to change any time soon," he said.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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