Interview | A Question of Academic Merit

He comes from a long line of teachers, and Ogden Morse is a teacher himself. Back in 2004, he co-founded AcademicMerit with other current and former teachers to develop web-based solutions specifically targeting English language arts in grades 7-12, “a segment of the school market for which there has long been a dearth of quality offerings,” says Ogden. They began with a concept called Literary Companion, which, as the name suggests, is a companion to literary texts. Over a number of years, in deliberately methodical fashion, they developed this program—with much of the ongoing testing occurring right in Ogden’s classroom.

Victor: What were your goals in testing it? 

Ogden: For students, we sought to turn reading of classic literature from a passive exercise into one requiring active intellectual engagement—a key step toward enhancing comprehension. Through the web-based format, and content aimed at building vocabulary, reading-comprehension, and written-analysis skills, we were able to do just that.

For teachers, we aimed to leverage online technology to remove many of the non-instructional tasks associated with literature units—creating, administering, and grading quizzes, for example—from teaches’ figurative plates, so as to give them more freedom with their use of class time.

In doing so, what we were also able to provide was real-time access to formative-assessment data that could be used on an ongoing basis to inform instruction; speaking as a teacher, I can say that it’s a subtly powerful change when I can walk into my classroom knowing in quantifiable fashion how each student is performing, rather than relying on my instincts or their statements.

I had great success using Literary Companion in my classroom, and the response from other test sites and paid subscribers was equally enthusiastic, so we continued to develop text-specific content for the literature most commonly taught in grades 7-12. Currently, our library is at 27 titles, with four more on the way in the next few weeks.

Victor: What other conclusions did you arrive at?

Ogden: As our work moved forward, we concluded—again, largely as a result of our experiences as educators—that schools would benefit from a program that enabled teachers to administer online assessments in reading comprehension and written analysis right in their classrooms, in order to provide them with ongoing “snapshots” of student performance throughout the school year. (Much of the impetus was grounded in my frustrations administering common assessments at school twice a year using pen and paper—only to have the resulting data go nowhere.) So, we built Assessments21 to do just that, using short stories, poetry, and non-fiction divided into four levels of difficulty.

About the time we completed Assessments21, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced, and we found that our tools aligned almost seamlessly with the standards—a nice bit of validation for us. At that point, I took a leave from teaching to focus full-time on building the business.

Victor: When did it really get underway? 

Ogden: The ’10-’11 school year was essentially our national debut, beginning with my presentation to attendees at the State Educational Technology Directors Association annual conference in D.C. and continuing right through our winning the CODiE™ award in the “Best Student Assessment Solution” category last May. Along the way, as schools slowly began to focus on the CCSS, the recurring feedback we received was that our tools were an early example of the sort of solutions envisioned by those championing the standards.

To confirm the merits of our tools, we worked with Dr. David Silvernail, a well-respected researcher at the University of Southern Maine, to conduct a large-scale pilot study during the second semester of last year using middle and high schools throughout Maine. (We’re based in Portland.) At the heart of this study was an exploration of the best means by which students’ essays in Assessments21 could be evaluated. Ultimately, we ended up developing an online module for helping participating teachers calibrate with our comprehensive writing rubric—and, almost immediately, it became clear that what we had actually created was an online professional-development tool that is the first of its kind. Enter FineTune™.

For me—again, speaking more as a teacher than an entrepreneur—that’s when the epiphany hit: In reverse order, we had created a sequence of online tools that begins with professional development (FineTune), moves to assessment (Assessments21), and then concludes with in-depth instruction and learning (Literary Companion) that is informed and strengthened by the preceding tools. That’s a powerful combination that doesn’t currently exist—and, given that all of them are aligned with the CCSS, it’s also well-timed.

Victor: What else can you tell us about what it does and what the benefits are?

Ogden: Beyond the details provided above, perhaps the most noteworthy benefit of our suite is how it fundamentally alters the traditional approach American schools take toward education. Almost invariably, we speak of “learning, instruction, and assessment” in that order, and then approach the educating of our students in the same order—with professional development too often an afterthought. As described above, our tools actually completely invert that approach by deliberately linking professional development to assessment, assessment to instruction, and (informed) instruction to learning. For generations, we teachers have often talked about that order as the “logical” approach, but rarely have we practiced it. Web-based technology, however, makes it much more possible, as our tools attest.

Victor: How is it unique? 

Ogden: While the sequence described above is certainly a core distinguishing characteristic, we see our true value proposition as boiling down to two words: content and data. Our content reflects the methodical manner in which we’ve gone about developing it, and our data are anchored both in the realities of the classroom (immediate applicability to tasks at hand) and demands of the CCSS.


FineTune, as I mentioned, is the first program of its kind to our knowledge in the space.

Assessments21 distinguishes itself through the combining of reading-comprehension and writing assessments, its range of texts, and its use of FineTune-trained teachers to conduct the scoring of student essays.

Literary Companion is unique in its emphasis on text-specific content, its combination of vocabulary, reading-comprehension and writing in one tool, and the usefulness of its data.

Victor: Where can you get it now?

Ogden: We sell our tools directly to schools.

Victor: How is it sold, what are the options?

Ogden: The tools are sold using an annual-subscription model, and can be purchased separately or as a suite, with the price for FineTune averaging $75 per teacher, the price for Assessments21 averaging $8.00 per student, and the price for Literary Companion averaging $10.00 per student.

Victor: Got examples?

Ogden: We’re conducting case studies this school year at a number of our subscribing districts. Two of note are in New Jersey: Springfield and Pascack Valley. Springfield, as you may know, was named the most tech-savvy small district in the country; Pascack has been mentioned in a number of articles for its embracing of technology. In the case of Pascack, which has been using Literary Companion for six years, we’re studying how they transition to use of the full suite; Springfield, on the other hand, purchased the suite in its entirety for this school year, so we’re examining the path to successful implementation there.

Victor: Who is it for, specifically?

Ogden: We have intentionally designed our tools to be adaptable to a wide range of users—from honors-level students to struggling learners. We are working hard this year to build in as many common accommodations as possible for next year’s version. Obviously, for now, it is not for K-5 ELA, nor other areas of the curriculum.

Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?

Ogden: Because teaching is essentially the family business, I have spent much of my life both appreciating the underappreciated task of educating our vast population and frustrated by the resistance to change so endemic in an institution essentially in the “business” of preparing young people for an ever-changing world.

So, I see the paradigm shift currently underway in American education as a first-in-my-lifetime opportunity to usher in profound, positive changes relatively quickly; in this way, I’m an optimist. However, I also know there are many of my fellow educators who are resistant to any sort of substantive change—in part, because there is much still unknown about what form(s) the change will take. We’re hoping our tools the sort of known quantities that people will continue to point to and say, “Yes, that I get. That’s change I can embrace.”

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Academic Merit?

Ogden: The experiences most formative to my work at AcademicMerit occurred for me as a teacher, not a student. I taught a lot of high-school seniors, and even among my AP students, I found a high level of intellectual disengagement by the time I got them in class. So, much of our work at AcademicMerit is aimed at re-engaging students in their own education. Technology is a key piece of that effort, but by no means the only one; technology is not transformative on its own, but rather the vehicle for delivering the ideas that are.

Victor: Got some funny stories? 

Ogden: During the second year that I used Literary Companion as a teacher, I walked into my classroom one day and was greeted by one of my less-than-highly-motivated students staring at his laptop with no shortage of consternation on his face. Without looking up, he announced, “Mr. Morse, Literary Companion is the bane of my existence!” After pausing briefly to revel (internally) in the fact that he actually used the phrase ‘bane of my existence’ (and properly, I might add), I replied, “Because it requires you to do the work, right?” He nodded, enabling me to begin class feeling professional pride on multiple levels.

Victor: Thanks, Ogden. Anything else? 

Ogden: Last winter, I met with Angus King, former governor of Maine and champion of educational technology, to discuss AcademicMerit’s work. Only a few minutes into the meeting, he said emphatically, “Ogden, this is it! This is the next step!” He went on to explain that, while computers in the classroom were the first step, they were never going to be revolutionary in and of themselves; rather, the truly positive impact wouldn’t occur until the development of quality content designed specifically to leverage the capabilities of available technology—not just adapted from print-based materials. “This,” he finally said, with an emphasis on FineTune’s focus on professional development, “is the special sauce.”

As I talk to educators and education officials throughout the country about the Common Core, I am increasingly aware of a pervasive, palpable hunger for an existing example of “what works.” We’re proud of the fact that more and more people see AcademicMerit as just that.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. For an EdTech Digest Awards Program entry form, write to: 


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