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iMOAT - The MIT Online Assessment Tool

The MIT Online Assessment Tool

iMoat workflowiMoat online assessment

The basic format and venue of the college writing placement test has remained remarkably the same for over one hundred years: Matriculating freshmen are herded into lecture halls and asked to handwrite one or two timed-impromptu essays. Now a national online essay evaluation service, the iCampus/MIT Online Assessment Tool (iMOAT) has changed that experience. iMOAT allows students to write essays at home on a computer, to base their writing on the critical reading of substantial essays, and to engage in all stages of the writing process: invention, drafting, revision, and editing. Moreover, iMOAT allows universities to automate many of the best practices of holistic writing assessment, while maintaining complete autonomy over their own evaluations.


The timed impromptu has many inadequacies: It prevents significant planning and revision, the two factors most emphasized in contemporary composition classrooms. Its conscribed timeframe does not allow the critical reading of and reaction to substantial texts. Perhaps most important, its pen-and-paper methodology does not accurately test the writing skills of a population accustomed to the elasticity of computers. As these inadequacies became increasingly apparent, MIT faculty became committed to finding a solution. iMOAT is the result.


The obvious answer was for students to use their own computers; the question was how.

In 1998, Professor Hal Abelson, then Chair of MIT's Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, initiated the development of a home-grown online essay evaluation service that worked within the MIT computing environment. By 2001, Les Perelman, project director, had developed a consortium of diverse institutions—the California Institute of Technology, the University of Cincinnati, Louisiana State University, and DePaul University— revised and expanded that service. They were funded by MIT and Microsoft Corporation's iCampus Alliance. By 2002, their system, iMOAT was operational.


iMOAT has already changed the way thousands of entering students are assessed each year at a diverse group of universities across the United States.

More accurate placement: Many of the benefits are obvious. iMOAT measures the whole writing process, including critical reading, planning and editing. Significantly, it tests the way these students normally write: on the computer. As a consequence, student placements are more accurate.

Unanticipated benefits have also become apparent. Handicapped students are able to use their own systems, compensating for their disabilities far more effectively than on-campus facilities could. Because students have sufficient time to complete the assignment (generally 72 hours) and often receive detailed comments on their essays, the number of students contesting their scores has dropped significantly. Moreover, as advisors can access the essays and comments on line, the advising process is also strengthened.

Shared system: Despite all these advantages, few universities would be able to develop or maintain this system on their own. As a shared service, iMOAT eliminates that hurdle. Schools can obtain iMOAT either by joining the consortium or by running and administering the service on their own; the source code is freely available. Because the system is flexible, each institution is able to mold its use to fit its own educational philosophy and needs.

Innovative applications: Although iMOAT was designed to address a specific issue, it offers broad opportunities to change the way essays are administered and graded. Schools are able to adapt the service to cover any sort of evaluation situation in which students need time and resources unavailable in a standard classroom. iMOAT has also become a platform for the exchange of best practices and for new collaborations among schools. Perhaps most exciting, iMOAT is collecting student essays in digital form that will be available for research.


Les Perelman

Leslie C. Perelman is Director of Writing Across the Curriculum in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, where is also serves as an Associate Dean in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education. He was Project Director for a grant to MIT from the National Science Foundation to develop a model Communication-Intensive Undergraduate Program in Science and Engineering. Currently he is Principal Investigator for the MIT Online Assessment Tool (MOAT).Before coming to MIT, he directed writing programs at the University of Southern California and Tulane University.

Prof. Perelman has been a consultant on computers and writing for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education of the U. S. Department of Education and for the Modern Language Association. He also worked with other colleges and universities in developing model for integrating instruction in writing and speaking into technical and scientific undergraduate programs.

Prof. Perelman is primary author of the first hypertext technical writing handbook, The Mayfield Guide to Technical and Scientific Writing, and has published articles on technical communication, computers and writing, the history of rhetoric, sociolinguistic theory, and medieval literature. He has also written both end-user and technical computer documentation. Recently, Prof. Perelman has become a well-known critic of the new SAT Writing Test, being interviewed by both The New York Times and National Public Radio. He has also published an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times.


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Les Perelman

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