Ed Brent, professor of sociology at the Columbia, Mo., university, spent six years developing the program, which is called Qualrus, and has been testing it on his pupils for the past two. It works by scanning text for keywords, phrases and language patterns. Students load papers directly into the system via the Web and get nearly instant feedback.
How can a cold, mechanical computer comprehend the art and nuance of writing? The program is actually quite sophisticated, Brent said. It's not enough to just throw keywords into an essay willy-nilly. The program analyzes sentence and paragraph structure and can ascertain the flow of arguments and ideas. It gives each work a numeric score based on the weight instructors place on various elements of the assignment.
The computer-generated scores count for about a third to a quarter of students' final grade for Brent's class. Students have challenged the scores, but if they don't use the right lingo in their papers, they're out of luck. "In sociology, we want them to learn the terms," Brent said.
With up to 140 students enrolled in his writing-intensive, introductory sociology course, Brent estimates he's saved more than 200 hours of work per semester with Qualrus. The final papers, which he does read, are usually much better as a result of Qualrus, too.
"The quality of the drafts that come to me is much higher because students get so much help from the program," he said.
But so far, he's the only professor at the university who's using the program, even though it's been approved for school-wide use.
Qualrus is not the first such program. High schools across Indiana began using a similar program, called e-rater, to score essays in statewide English tests last year.
That program was designed by Education Testing Service, the nonprofit that administers the SAT and the Graduate Records Examinations or GRE. ETS expects at least 10 more states to adopt automated essay scoring within the next four years.
Meanwhile, Brent, who received a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop Qualrus, is now looking for distributors for the product. He's in talks with several textbook publishers, which he declined to name. Businesses can use the software, too, to sort through ever-mounting stores of digital text, he said.
The name Qualrus is a play on the term "qualitative analysis" and is supposed to evoke the friendly image of a walrus. Brent said he plans to donate 1 percent of profits generated through the sale of the program to the World Wildlife Fund.
The product costs $399 for schools and $699 for businesses per copy.