Its a testing world. Having spent an anxious summer awaiting a son’s GCSE results (excellent, thank goodness) I can testify that it is not only the student who goes through the wringer, and I am certain that it is not only the anally fixated British examination system that produces these reactions. And the stupid thing is that we know the answers, we know they are attainable, but we know that we lack the people and spending climate and administrative cultures to apply them. The answers lie in the area of personalized learning, in the context of allowing students to learn at their own readiness pace, and grow in confidence with individual tuition which supports their successes, gives them a feeling for their progress, and corrects their mistakes in ways which help them learn from those mistakes. Since we will never be able to staff that system, machines must do the heavy work, under human supervision.

About ten years ago I first saw prototypes of automated essay marking systems, then produced as research projects by that wonderful combination of research and assessment development, the Educational Testing Service ( This research has now blossomed into written assignment marking tools which are as widespread in the US examination system as they are rare in Europe and the rest of the world. But, and perhaps more importantly, they are starting to go mainstream in learning processes themselves, and this was clearly signified this week by the announcement of Write Experience by Cengage ( In a world where teachers cannot set written assignments in the quantities that they would like because they do not have sufficient time to mark them, this seems to plug into needs in the system at several different levels.

So what is Write Experience and what does it do? Using technologies rather broadly described as “artificial intelligence” (in fact eWrite IntelimetricWithin) it gives a real time guidance system to the essay writing process. The system makes suggestions (if it works like autotext then it could be seriously trying as well) and provides pointers and support. So far it is available in the US in Basic Writing, whatever that may be, and in a range of higher education business education contexts -accountancy, organizational behaviour, small business studies, strategic business management etc. Cengage promise a widening range of coverage: if they get the next elements right then a significant part of the future is here.

The next elements are the next three tools out of the box. Students who are hooked into MyTutor then move on through MyEditor, which explains mistakes, suggests other strategies and helps develop strategies for learning from them. Then comes the Performance Report element, which will be the piece which gives constant feedback and helps the student to appreciate where she is in the learning process, and then the Revision Plan, which re-integrates the learning activity for the user. Bear in mind that this is a first commercial launch, and clearly there is a great deal of progress to be made. The partnership of Cengage with McCann Associates is an interesting one, since the latter’s long association with GMAT testing has included the development of automated writing assignment marking systems and it is clearly their technology which is doing the heavy lifting here.

Elsewhere in the world we are still desperately convinced that it is content which does the trick and works the magic in terms of what we still, for want of a better expression, call “educational publishing”. But Pearson, and, here, Cengage, are clearly concerned to take bigger strides into unknown territory which concerns strategies for the future of learning and not for the maintenance of publishing formats. And, no, I am not saying that eBooks, resources, reference etc have no future here. Plugged into these learning systems they become mighty again, but unless you are a systems/platform developer then you simply license content for use in the context of workflow. That is a different business from the business publishers have now, with different quality of returns and earnings. Cengage seem to be clearly concerned to hold onto their centrality in the learning process and this must be right. Whether you take the view that the future of education belongs in the infrastructure layer (in which case Pearson and Cengage will be bought by Oracle, or IBM, or new-look HP) or not, some of the current crop of former publishing players must move strategically into the learning systems developer layer. Cengage, with Write Experience, seem to have the right strategy in mind.


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