After more than a decade as a teacher, Dr. Jamey Heit came to a sobering realization about his ability to teach his students how to write.
“I wasn’t able to give my students the help they needed,” says Heit.
He realized that learning how to write requires a lot of personal attention from teachers — a luxury most educators simply don’t have. As a result, students would often receive incomplete and inconsistent feedback that hurt more than it helped. He ultimately concluded that the time needed to give writing instruction effectively required a more technical solution.
“Like all teachers, I was dedicated to my students, but like all teachers I only have so much time in the day,” says Heit. “If my students were going to get the attention they need, technology had to be part of the equation.”
That epiphany led to the founding of the Durham-based startup Ecree. The five-year-old company caters to schools and teachers, and addresses a longstanding problem in education: the fact that students often graduate without the essential writing skills they need to succeed in their careers.
“Good writing is the most commonly sought after skill in professional hires,” says Heit. “Good writing is also the most commonly cited skill lacking in the average job applicant.”
Ecree provides what Heit calls “a scalable learning resource that can mirror human expertise,” likening the use of Ecree to having the world’s best writing teacher peering over your shoulder. It applies a rules-based approach to assessing papers, with an algorithm that understands basic rules of good writing (such as organization, argumentation, and analysis) and uses those rules to determine overall quality of written materials.
Ecree uses a rubric that clarifies what constitutes good writing before papers get assessed. It also allows students and teachers to share the rubric, to know exactly how a paper’s quality is determined.
“Because Ecree uses a clearly defined set of rules to assess a student’s writing, feedback for any metric on the rubric is tied directly to the text. The result is that students get more granular and justifiable results,” says Heit.
To use Ecree, students log in and either click “Start My Essay” or open a previous draft. Once they type in the specific type of document they want to work on, it launches the Interactive Editor feature, which uses artificial intelligence to replicate teacher-level feedback on specific aspects of writing.
Launched last month, the tool does what many supplemental education services cannot: It provides on-demand writing help that students can access directly from any device and any location. “Too often, schools make decisions over the course of months,” says Heit. Students need help on their papers now, so we created a way for students to get that help with as few steps as possible.”
Ecree has demonstrated success in schools, according to Heit, who says it helps students improve grades by an average of 9.3 points (on a 0-100 point scale), and increases pass rates by 16.6 percent. Teachers then are typically able save more than 100 hours of grading time during the school year, allowing for more one-on-one student interaction.
“Ecree helps students by giving them immediate and focused feedback,” says Heit. “The immediacy of these feedback loops means students receive guidance while they are practicing, which is a proven way to enhance skill acquisition.”
Other companies in the educational space also have taken notice of Ecree’s success. In October, Ecree partnered with writing assessment platform Writable, and educational publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to make Ecree the sole AI source of automated revision recommendations for Writable’s RevisionAid tool.
The partnership caps an eventful year for Ecree, which, after closing a $500,000 seed round from SEI Ventures in 2018, is actively conversing with several large organizations about potential partnerships.