There are many rewarding things about being a professor, but grading papers is not one of them. It’s time-consuming and monotonous and most professors would rather spend time teaching than grading. That was especially true for Jamey Heit
, who calculates that over his seven-year career as a professor, he graded more than 15,000 papers, many of which were on the same or similar topics.
This pain point sparked the question: “Why can’t grading papers be automated?”
And it was an important enough question that he decided to tackle it himself through a new Durham-based EdTech company called Essay Assay
Heit is a former Princeton University linguistics researcher and humanities professor at Mercer County Community College and West Chester University of Pennsylvania who has spent several recent years at a healthcare startup and as a content strategist for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. He partnered up with Robin Donaldson, who spent the last decade researching how to model mechanisms in biology at Cambridge and Stanford University. The two met while completing PhDs at The University of Glasgow from 2008 to 2011. Heit serves as CEO, while Donaldson handles the technical development as CTO.
While you might assume their target market to be professors, it is not. Instead, Essay Assay is aimed at students who struggle with writing, and subsequently, the professors assigning them the work.
Writing is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort—it is something that only practice can refine. But practicing the wrong techniques can be just as harmful as not practicing at all. A big pain point for students is the limited access to a teacher’s time, which is exactly what they need in order to become better writers.
Essay Assay hopes to change that with software that provides a constant, credible and scalable way to assess any document regardless of topic and offer substantive feedback to students.
The software mirrors human assessment with proven accuracy across a range of prompts or topics. It captures, algorithmically, the mechanistic properties of the assessment process. The software does not have to be trained with exemplar essays and it provides a score and feedback in less than a minute.
The result for students is access to a powerful learning tool that the founders believe will greatly improve writing skills.
On the other end of the spectrum, professors have a tool that can reduce the administrative burden of grading papers, thus equating to an overall improved educational environment for everyone.
By providing a virtual learning resource that mirrors the human process of evaluating essays and providing feedback, they can provide quality educational engagement to any student with access to the internet. And they've already proven interest with early pilots and 12,000 students signed on to pilot the technology at universities in the U.S. and abroad in the Fall.
It is the large market for education technology, the industry knowledge of the founders and the pilot that drew NC IDEA to award a grant, says Grant Program Manager Andrea Cook.
The founders plan to use grant funds to enhance the user experience and continue product development. They'll formalize a strategy for intellectual property and also work to expand the customer base.