TERTIARY education largely involves writing essays, which may cause students to suffer from writer’s block. Even for seasoned writers, the act of writing itself may cause anxiety. Students, who find writing stressful, tend to procrastinate until the very last minute.
While students struggle to organise their thoughts, educators often lack the time to give one-on-one feedback and resources to support writing tasks.
However, writing is a skill that students must be equipped with for them to research and write papers to successfully complete their studies.
Realising these issues on essay writing, former academicians Professor Lindy Ledohowski and Professor Rueban Balasubramaniam, both of whom taught the subject, decided to look into how technology can help create a sustainable solution.
“Three years ago we asked ourselves how we could help students organise their thoughts and produce well-structured essays,” said Ledohowski who was a high school English teacher and debating coach before becoming an English professor.
“One of the problems with word processing and collaborating writing software is that they do not allow students to learn and practise writing. When using either, a teacher cannot fix a student’s essay,” she added.
Ledohowski and Rueban, a law professor who has also experienced similar problems with his students, have developed EssayJack, a web-based platform to help make writing easier for students and teaching easier for educators.
“With decades of experience as both students and academicians, we put together an online guided writing platform that can pre-structure essays and allow writing to be done quickly and painlessly in an accessible format.”
EssayJack provides an end-to-end writing solution that is pedagogically sound and helps students gain confidence in writing. It is more suitable for students in transition to tertiary institutions and those who in their early years at university.
The pedagogical elements make students learn to write and master writing skills which will be useful at the workplace.
Launched in Canada in 2015, today EssayJack has more than 5,000 users. It has been ranked as one of the top teaching digital innovations in the world by the British Council and Cambridge English, and was the Finalist for Best Higher Education Solution at the 2017 Tech Edvocate Awards.
At the early stage of EssayJack’s development, both Reuban and Ledohowski were only thinking about how to get students to write.
“The development of the earlier prototype did not have functions for educators until we did a focus group study and testing at the University of Toronto.
“Academicians came back with the feedback that they want to be able to customise it. They want to change and adapt it to their specific teaching context such as using a certain text selected for the class,” added Ledohowski.
So the co-founders built a more robust and enterprising model based on feedback and research on what makes good writing.
Today, the interactive web platform has rubric-based review functionality as well as individual commenting which can be used as either formative feedback during the writing process or final feedback upon completion of the essay.
EssayJack has three core functions: Essay drafts, templates, and feedback and review.
“To begin writing, one goes to the dashboard to build the scaffold draft of your writing. First, you choose the essay templates, for instance it can be an academic essay or a proposal. You can also put in the number of words required for your essay,” said Ledohowski.
“The information submitted for the essay draft will then build the scaffold draft of the entire essay including the introduction and body. The text box will probably suggest that you need five points if you submitted that you are writing a 1,500-word essay.”
Essayjack has three panels (Overview, Your Writing and Tips, Prompts & Preview) to allow students complete control and accessibility.
The text boxes carry interactive tips and prompts in interrogative forms with split screen composing and a live word count.
Keying in the information requirement on words in the text boxes will help build the essay though students still need to research into ideas. As the writer puts in the information, the system will build the points for the topic sentences and the body of the essay.
“EssayJack signals what you need in your essay and it gives tips and prompts you.
“Sentence starters, for instance, depend on the level of the essays. An academic writing should have 10 sentence starters with suitable phrases that won’t be overwhelming but at the same time not too limited. For basic 500-word essays, one needs only five sentence starters.
“While writing the introduction, EssayJack will give a foreground of what’s going to come and one can build the conclusion later.”
Ledowhowski added that this function is vital to write better essays and get the help students need.
“The writer always needs to think of the readers. All these questions will help you write for your readers. It can also minimise procrastination and plagiarism.”
The rubric-based grading and feedback also mean that teachers can give overall rating and add comments at specific parts of the essay for students.
“Teachers can signal to the students their strength and weaknesses based on content organisational style, for instance, language choice, spelling or grammar. You can also make specific comments for each section so each of these tags is associated with certain parts of the essay.”
So why “Jack”? Reuban said it means “to lift” or “raise” and EssayJack can elevate writing to a higher level.
Reuban, who is a Malaysian, went through a typical local education before reading law.
“It became very important for me to learn to think as I pursued my studies. The only way you learn to think is through reading and writing.
“And in my career as an educator and a professor, my focus is to help students to read, write and think critically.”
EssayJack, he added, is an extension of this and he would like to introduce it to the Malaysian education system.
“Malaysia is a springboard to bring EssayJack to Asia, a gateway to the region.
“As it is LTI Compliant (international standard for learning management systems), EssayJack can be imported and an educational institution can use it as its own platform.”
The patented EssayJack platform can be customised and allows for rubric-based feedback. One can also make one’s own tips and prompts tailored to meet specific requirements on EssayJack.