An Interview with Erin Joyner, VP and General Manager, and Jason Fremder, Senior Product Manager, Cengage Learning.

It has long been recognized by educators and employers that good written communication skills play a critical role in academic and career success. Eleven years ago, the College Board founded the National Commission on Writing to focus national attention on the importance of good writing skills and to help increase funding for programs that help students and job-seekers build their skills. Several years ago, Erin Joyner realized that Cengage Learning needed to provide a technology-based solution to instructors who wanted to increase their students’ opportunities to practice and improve their writing skills. In 2010, she led the team that worked with Cengage Learning partner McCann Associates to create and launch Write Experience, an online essay assessment resource for the higher education market.

Erin and her team had spoken with other potential partners, but they determined that McCann Associates was the “best fit,” based upon a shared vision of the potential of essay assessment tools. Jason Fremder joined the team approximately a year later and is now responsible for the day-to-day management of the Write Experience product line, across disciplines. Jeanne Heston spoke with Erin and Jason Fremder to learn more.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was it that first inspired the team to develop the Write Experience? 

Erin Joyner (EJ): For the past fifteen to twenty years, instructors have been saying that students need to develop better writing and critical thinking skills. One remedy is for instructors to assign more writing-based coursework, but that increases the grading workload for instructors. Writing is a necessity in a course like Business Communication, but there are other discipline areas in which the quality of writing is very important. For example, accounting majors need to develop good written communication skills in order to prepare reports and recommendations. Accounting professors may want to add writing assignments to the course, but they may not feel as though they have the expertise to provide the right level of constructive feedback.

So, we recognized the need and desire for instructors to increase the opportunities for students to improve their written communication skills, as well as a need to do this in such a way that instructors’ workloads would not increase dramatically. We began looking for a solution to this set of market needs at least three years before we introduced the Write Experience in late 2010.

JH: What qualities were you looking for in technology partner when you chose McCann Associates?

EJ: We actually looked at several solutions that were available at the time. Some potential partners were interested in working at the institutional level versus the discipline level; others only checked grammar mechanics or provided an online format for scoring. We were looking for something more – a solution that included the artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms necessary to assess the paper holistically and to provide opportunities for students to learn from multiple revisions. Because writing is a skill, practice with immediate feedback has been shown to improve the quality of students’ writing. At the time, McCann Associates had already achieved widespread recognition for the quality of its AI-based essay assessment tools, which were embedded within the automatic grading components of several high-stakes standardized tests, including the GMAT and the MCAT exams.

JH: Why did you select Business Communications, Strategic Management, and Small Business Management as the first three disciplines?

EJ: We started with Business Communications because it seemed like the most obvious place to start; the course is focused on written and oral communication in a business setting. Also, Strategic Management and Small Business Management are course areas in which good communication skills are very important. We eventually expanded our list to include eleven disciplines, including English, Economics, Psychology, and several other business disciplines. Additional course areas – including Marketing, Business Law, Intro to Business, and History are currently in production.

JH: How do you determine which features should be part of each version of Write Experience?

EJ:  Before we released the first version of the Write Experience, we conducted many focus groups with both instructors and students, in addition to surveys and individual interviews. As soon as we launched the first few disciplines, our customers started reaching out to us directly with feedback on features that should be changed or added. As a result, we have been able to make both general and discipline-specific changes that have enabled more instructors to adopt the Write Experience. As an example, Developmental English instructors told us that they wanted to hide the automatically generated score from students, to instead allow the instructor to personally review each essay and assign the final score. This is now a software option that is available to all instructors who use the Write Experience, not just Developmental English instructors.

JH: Have there been any surprises along the way? 

EJ:  I would say that the biggest surprise has been the fact that the product has been widely adopted across courses that are not “writing focused.” We expected it to be more popular in writing-focused courses, so we did not anticipate a relatively even distribution across disciplines and courses.

Jason Fremder (JF):  For me, the biggest surprise has been what our instructors have been telling us about outcomes. They have reported improvements in oral communication skills, as a result of using the Write Experience, in addition to improvements in written communication skills.

JH: Where do you see this technology going over the next several years?

EJ:  In the future, we can expect to see technologies like the Write Experience more seamlessly integrated into a digital whole course solution, with seamless transitions between writing assignments and other types of assignments and activities associated with the course.

JF: I believe that we will see more instances in which AI is integrated into course materials. At first, the concept was intimidating to a lot of instructors, but many of us are now using AI as part of the tools that we use everyday – including word processors. It’s so seamless that we do not even realize that it is there.

At a recent conference, Cengage Learning author Jeff Butterfield discussed the importance of good written and oral communication skills when searching for a job.

Do you use essay assessment and scoring solutions in conjunction with your courses? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.