It was after their teacher friends started regularly dropping out of social commitments that entrepreneurs Rakesh Kamath and Carl Mascarenhas got the idea for their education technology company JoeZoo Inc. The pair, who aren’t teachers, didn’t understand just how challenging and time-consuming it was grading students’ work.
“When they had a chance to show us how they did it, we were stunned,” Mr. Mascarenhas, chief executive officer of the Toronto-based company, recalls of that time in 2014. “Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time each week and giving up weekends on grading activities ... [We thought] there must be a role for technology to play.”
In 2016, after two years of “deeply researching” the problem, they launched the JoeZoo artificial intelligence (AI) powered assessment app, which provides student feedback and grading as an add-on to Google applications such as Docs. For instance, AI is used to identify areas for improvement in a student’s writing, including grammar, structure and vocabulary. It speeds up the grading process for teachers and helps students get their results more quickly.
JoeZoo uses natural language processing and machine learning to analyze whether students are varying the structures of their sentences, which research has found is a mark of writing maturity. Its teacher dashboard shows where students excel and where they need help, while the student version provides quick feedback, even before students hand in their finished work, and badges for student progress. It can also detect plagiarism.
The models were built using the machine-learning development platform Amazon Sagemaker instead of a large team of developers, allowing the company to build its product quickly.
“At our core, what we are is an assessment solution,” says Mr. Kamath, JoeZoo’s chief technical officer, whose background is in software engineering. Mr. Mascarenhas’ background is in marketing and leadership in the tech world.
“We are really good at ... providing real-time intelligence and assessment feedback and allowing students to get auto-guided to build skills.”
The founders say the goal is to free teachers from parts of their job that a computer can do easily, and help them identify where their class needs help, so they can focus on teaching.
“Writing is a very complex set of skills,” says Mr. Mascarenhas, while emphasizing the software is not meant to replace teachers.
“A machine … could not replace an educator.”
Pivot to seamless service
The company’s free apps gave it access to vast amounts of written coursework, which it used to create and train new language models and eventually pivot toward serving learning platforms, which happened earlier this year.
JoeZoo is moving from a model that relies on teachers, students and schools as customers to focus on selling its technologies as a service to platforms, which can include them in the classroom experience more seamlessly.
Mr. Kamath says the old model provided “slightly broken experiences … The demand became for those platforms to pull in our intelligence and provide functionality for their features.”
This fall, it will launch inside the platform of its first customer postpivot, Chicago-based Otus, which bills itself as an “all-in-one K-12 learning management, assessment and data system.”
Otus co-founder Christopher Hull says he used JoeZoo’s software while a Grade 7 and 8 social-studies teacher and is looking forward to bringing the time savings it provides through his platform. He says it was easy for his mind to go “a bit numb” while grading dozens of papers on the same topic, so he believes the software’s ability to pull out trends from such assignments will help teachers guide their lessons better.
“The jobs educators have today are [filled with] pain points,” he says, noting faster and more frequent feedback for students goes a long way in improving writing performance.
“Educators have so many tasks on their plate.”
Mr. Mascarenhas says JoeZoo has eight more “leading learning platforms already in our funnel.”
Pandemic has driven interest in learning software
It’s a good time to be making online learning software, notes Stella Lee, director of Calgary-based Paradox Learning Inc., a consultancy that helps organizations set digital learning strategies, select platforms and create e-learning courses and programs. She says the pandemic has significantly increased interest in education software, creating a fragmented and rapidly evolving market.
Ms. Lee says many technologies offer assessments and progress tracking, such as Doctopus and Goobric, and others improve users’ writing, such as Grammarly. However, a selling point for JoeZoo is more nuanced capabilities and the ability for teachers to make modifications.
“I can see benefits because so many students complain to me that they don’t get enough feedback from instructors,” says Ms. Lee, who has a PhD in computer science with a focus on adaptive learning technology.
“I have students in a masters-level program who said one instructor would just return a grade without commenting or anything. JoeZoo could prompt instructors to ... think more deeply about the nature of feedback.”
Adds Ms. Lee: “I think helping students to write better is linked to the quality of feedback you can give them.”
She also cautions that marketing this type of software as time-saving (JoeZoo says it removes 50 to 80 per cent of the effort of grading) could lead to new challenges for teachers down the road.
“Sometimes we’re just giving a Band-Aid solution to schools and teachers,” Ms. Lee says. “The underlying problem is, what’s the workload like and what’s appropriate?
“I really love what tech can do for us, perhaps take the load off the teacher a little bit and make it easier to do repetitive actions. At the same time ... I am concerned schools would take advantage and add more students or give [teachers] more work.”
Ms. Lee also notes there’s not a lot of peer-reviewed research into the kinds of AI tools that help students learn, citing a research review published in June in the journal Applied Sciences.
“It is clear from the studies analyzed that, in most of them, the pedagogy underlying the educational action is not reflected,” states the paper, titled Artificial Intelligence for Student Assessment: A Systematic Review.
“It is necessary to increase the wealth of research which focuses on educational aspects more than technical development around AI.”
‘Hopefully, we’ll be a household name’
Mr. Mascarenhas says JoeZoo’s tools are based on a survey of thousands of teachers about their assessment process, tools and pain points, and they continue to evolve as the algorithms learn, and based on clients’ needs.
“Rakesh was actually able to show us that with those apps, we would gain a legion of testers,” he says, noting they found a vast diversity in assessment styles.
“We discovered there is absolutely no pattern.”
The company, which currently has six employees including Mr. Kamath and Mr. Mascarenhas, remains “pre-revenue.” After a pre-seed round that raised US$300,000, led by Chicago’s Motivate Venture Capital, it expects to complete its seed round in the coming months. That will be followed by a Series A, which will be used to expand its team and client base.
“Then, hopefully, we’ll be a household name in Canada,” Mr. Mascarenhas says.