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As a high school English teacher, Jeff Scheur said he could spend more than 42 hours grading papers for his 170 students every time he gave an assignment. So, eventually, instead of marking up the papers with detailed explanations for each mistake, he created his own taxonomy for the different errors: “13.4c,” for example, meant the students was transitioning into a quote with a colon but the quote wasn’t a complete sentence; “14.6b” was code for confusing the present tense and the present progressive tense.
That painstaking technique (created over a few years) gave Scheur the extra bandwidth to focus on bigger picture concepts and broader lessons with his students, he said. It also led to a startup.
Launched last year, NoRedInk creates online grammar exercises for students based on their interests, as well as offers teachers a granular way to assess and track their students’ progress. In its first 18 months, it has organically attracted hundreds of thousands of users. And, on Thursday, the company said it had raised $2 million from Google Ventures, Social+Capital, Learn Capital, Charles River Ventures and others. With the new cash, Scheur said, he plans to double down on building out the product and adding new content.
Putting the spotlight on language skills
“We’re going through all the misconceptions that hold kids back in their writing… and we’re building interfaces that authentically measure what kids know and what they don’t know to help them learn [language] skills,” he said.
When it comes to education, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects tend to get the lion’s share of attention (especially in tech circles) these days. And that’s understandable given the quickly changing economy and the mismatch between the needs of business and the skills of graduating students. But students’ language and literacy skills are in need of a significant boost, as well.
This month, New York released the first round of results from tests connected to the more rigorous Common Core standards, revealing that just 31 percent of the state’s students in third through eighth grade met or exceeded the standard in language arts. And, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, studies have shown that teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than English test scores.
NoRedInk’s goal is to give students a way to learn writing skills that’s engaging and authentic. Instead of relying on reading material students can’t relate to, the software starts by asking students to identify their favorite topics, from sports teams to TV shows to pop icons, and then it generates questions based on that information. It also steers clear of multiple-choice questions, opting instead to let students type in their answers.
When a student makes a mistake, the software instantly identifies the problem and provides an appropriate tutorial and follow-up exercise. It also gives teachers a detailed breakdown of each student’s strengths and weaknesses so they know where to focus their attention.
For now, NoRedInk, which is a graduate of the Imagine K-12 ed tech accelerator, is entirely free to schools and students. But, Scheur said that while it will always offer a significant part of its service free of charge, it eventually plans to layer on premium services, as well.
Image by April Cat via Shutterstock.