Google grant to enhance online writing tutor

7 December 2010

A grant from the world's most popular search engine will help University of Sydney researchers enhance an online tool that improves writing skills and offers more functions than those available on word processing software.

Associate Professor Rafael Calvo
Associate Professor Rafael Calvo

Associate Professor Rafael Calvo from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering has received a Google Research Award to refine its iWrite web application, designed to improve individual and collaborative writing skills and provide automated feedback on written work.

iWrite draws on cloud computing to provide feedback to users on their documents in real time. It ensures documents reflect their intent, are coherent and stick to the topic under discussion. The program keeps keywords in check, using concept mapping to visualise keywords and their inter-relationships, and isolating concepts not well integrated into the rest of the document.

iWrite uses web-based word processing services provided by Google. "In contrast to desktop applications, the files are stored on Google servers, saving millions in the infrastructure costs of running the tools, keeping backups and so on," says Associate Professor Calvo.

iWrite, through Google Docs, also allows the synchronous collaborative writing of documents, with authors able to interact in real time. "Unlike current word processing applications we are able to provide feedback, while you and the rest of your team write," says Associate Professor Calvo.

Associate Professor Calvo says the Google funding will allow his research team to look at Glosser's feedback tool, particularly the effective use of humour when providing feedback.

"Currently for instance, we might say 'You're plagiarising' when the tool detects replication of previously written material. It may be more effective to say 'Blimey, it seems that you copied a whole page from Wikipedia, how about putting it in your own words?'

This grant allows us to experiment with different types of feedback with a view to identifying the most effective way of interacting with users.

iWrite is currently being used by about 700 engineering students at the University, largely for essay writing, but Associate Professor Calvo says it offers benefits over word processors to anyone with a writing component in their day to day life.

iWrite is part of a wider 'Supporting Academic Writing' program developed by Associate Professor Calvo and colleagues for the last four years, with support from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.