U of T’s Crowdmark Pitches at LaunchEdu, Begins Accepting Sign Ups

Toronto-based educational startup Crowdmark pitched at Jason Calacanis’ LaunchEdu yesterday as one of about 20 companies selected to showcase solutions.

Crowdmark appeared on Techvibes two weeks ago when it was revealed that the company had secured $600,000 in seed funding through the University of Toronto Early-Stage Technology (UTEST) program, MaRS Innovation and U of T’s Connaught Fund, among others.

The startup is also announcing a limited-time sign up for its free public beta, expected to launch before the 2013-14 school year. Currently the company is in private alpha mode. “We’re essentially ready but we want to run some additional testing to make sure it’s airtight before we offer it to people,” said cofounder James Colliander. “I think we’ll explode with users come September”.

Crowdmark unlocks crowdsourcing potential for academic document markers in a space that has clung to a traditional paper-and-pen grading. Colliander and cofounder Martin Muñoz seek to streamline the complicated and time-consuming grading workflow for teachers that can often be massive scale. They’ll do it through a Saas subscription model.

“Collectively, teachers spend more than two billion hours per year grading student work, by hand. Administering EQAO costs the Ontario government $33 million every year,” said Colliander. “Crowdmark cuts the time teachers spend scoring and empowers them to spend more time actually responding to their students. We think this is time well spent.”

MaRS Education Innovation’s Joseph Wilson has worked with the startup extensively since it graduated from the UTEST incubator. The advisor feels that Crowdmark is going to save educational institutions millions of dollars.

“We often see startups in the education space that are ‘nice to have’ but not ‘need to have’. They look good or they’re fun but they don’t solve a real burning problem like Crowdmark does,” said Wilson.

Instructors from all over the world can simultaneously grade exams, speeding up the process. Eventually Colliander wants to provide metrics on qualified markers. Those with strengths in grading certain subjects can be rewarded via a badge-system, where strong markers will be referred to jobs at universities experiencing a shortage of qualified graders.

“Those universities can improve the quality of the accreditation that they offer by having access to a skilled labour pool,” said the mathematics professor at U of T. “In this way Crowdmark can become, in the long-term, a labour market that brings skilled human beings to the jobs that demand those skills.”

Both Colliander and Wilson have experienced pain points that come with teaching positions.

Wilson recalled his days as a teacher, grading EQAO tests for 3rd, 6th, and 9th grade students. The province of Ontario would pack the tests in boxes, ship them to a warehouse and fly in teachers from across the province for two or three days. “It’s such an inefficient use of money but the other thing was the assessment was terrible. You’re a teacher, you get bored reading the same thing 50 times, so you’re not giving it deep feedback,” he said.

For Colliander the tipping point came in 2011, charged with overseeing the grading of the Canadian Open Mathematics Challenge (COMC). That meant organizing 100 markers for 5,000 14-page exams, a “logistical nightmare.”

Later he presented his idea for Crowdmark to the University of Toronto and joined UTEST’s first cohort of companies soon after.

“We built a minimal viable product to run the 2012 version of that exam,” said Colliander. “A team of 150 markers used Crowdmark to assess just over 46,000 math problems and they did so in about half the time compared to the earlier year effort with pen and paper.”

Instructors simply scan the exams and drop them into Crowdmark’s software where they can mark with others in real time. With all the various problems associated with grading, Crowdmark is going to offer the education space something that should clearly improve efficiency.

Wilson said its value lies in the ability to combine human intuition with the speed that Internet technology will bring. “Platforms like Crowdmark allow for the best in human judgment in marking,” he said. “It’s only trying to replace the most inefficient pieces of our education system and not the pieces that work well, which is the kind of rich, human-to-human interaction.”